3260 South Street, Rm. 345
How does the democratic ideal of meritocracy reproduce inequality? My larger project pursues this question through a study of engineering education in India. It looks at the operations of caste, the social institution most emblematic of ascriptive hierarchy, within the modern field of engineering. At the heart of the study are the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), a set of highly coveted engineering colleges that are equally representative of Indian meritocracy and, until recently, of caste exclusivity. Using historical and anthropological methods, I track the emergence of a politics of meritocracy at the IITs and situate it within the broader context of low caste rights politics, economic liberalization, and diasporic mobility. This talk illuminates the interplay between ascription and achievement, or caste marking and unmarking, through which high caste IIT students lay claim to merit. High caste claims to merit have been strengthened by diasporic mobility and the resurgence within the late 20th century “knowledge economy” of ascriptive understandings of skill and intelligence. Rather than just subaltern identitarianism, then, caste must also be seen an elite politics that attempts to secure new arenas of expertise and accumulation against low caste advancement and derives its legitimacy from a larger global politics of ascription.