Association pour l’anthropologie du changement social et du développement
Association for the anthropology of social change and development

Moral games, between deontology and social justice: the anthropologists of the Indian bureaucracy

Moral games, between deontology and social justice: the anthropologists of the Indian bureaucracy

Auteur(s) : Egas Jose ;

In India the verticality of intercommunal relations that the caste structure provides to social life is staggering. Attempts by the state to alleviate this verticality have been constant since the official abolition of the system in the 1947 constitution. The inclusion of affirmative action policies towards the lower populations of the social pyramid, the Dalits and the tribes, has meant the structuring of exceptional bureaucratic machinery. In order to establish adequate mechanisms for the implementation of these policies, the state has required the establishment of defining criteria on the limits of each social group. Those limits determine who belongs and who does not belong to this or that group. This has been necessary due to the constant attempt of various groups or individuals to adapt their identity in order to claim themselves as members of a lower caste and so access the benefits that positive discrimination grants to those groups.

The monitoring of the fulfillment of these criteria of eligibility to be or not to be part of a social group is the main role of the anthropological research institutes that exist in most of the states of the union. What is curious about this structure is that some of the anthropologists who participate in this monitoring belong to the lower castes and have obtained their position through the eligibility quotas. Such intermediaries act as a hinge between a seemingly rigid state structure and the fractures, cleavages, and ambiguities that state idea, in terms of Abrhams (1988), implies. In the endeavor of these anthropologists, the deontological requirements of their professional expertise are brought into play on the one hand, and on the other, the feelings and afflictions of a moral economy that their own social condition entails. It is a position in which the anthropologist is able to affect and be affected, borrowing Spinoza’s connotation. It is when the character is in the vertex between the deontological questioning that enters in conflict with the political performance where social justice plays, from a historical point of view. It is when the character is in the vertex between the deontological questioning at odds with the political performance where social justice is at stake, from a historical point of view where the low castes have been excluded and marginalized. That political performance is an intervention that breaks the social structure that the state expects. An action-intervention as Lordon (2016) would say, that makes emerge the passionate substance.

Based on ethnographic work in the southern Indian state of Kerala, this presentation seeks to shed light on the work of bureaucratic anthropologists confronting the monitoring procedures of caste belonging. These anthropologists are part of a specific vigilance cell working in research activities to clear the bogus claims of the benefits of the reservation policy.


Abrams, Philip. 1988. “Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State (1977).” Journal of Historical Sociology 1 (1): 58–89.

Lordon, Frédéric. 2016. Les Affects de la politique. seuil.

Mot-clé : affects, Anthropology, bureacuracy, India, morality, politics, et State
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