PLACE AND CASTE IDENTIFICATION: DISTANCIATION AND SPATIAL IMAGINARIES ON A CASTE-BASED SOCIAL NETWORK
Sam, Jillet Sarah
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This thesis studies the potency of place in mobilizing social categories, and its implications for both social categories and places. I use the theory of distanciation to study associations between caste identity and place. I conducted an ethnographic study of a caste-based digital group, the Cyber Thiyyars of Malabar, to understand the connections and disconnections between the Thiyya caste and Malabar from the perspectives of different sets of actors involved in the identification of caste, namely the nation-state and members of this caste-based network. The nation-state knows the Thiyya caste in a manner that is disconnected from Malabar, while the Cyber Thiyyars of Malabar seek to re-emphasize the identification of this caste through the region. Participant observation and in-depth interviews indicate that through references to Malabar, the group seeks to establish a Thiyya caste identity that is distinct from the Ezhavas, a caste group within which the nation-state subsumes them. I demonstrate that references to Malabar serve to counter the stigma that the Cyber Thiyyars of Malabar experience when the spatially abstract categorization of the Thiyyas interacts with notions of caste inferiority/superiority. Further, it serves as a mobilizational tool through which they hope to negotiate with the nation-state for greater access to affirmative action. I also demonstrate that caste identification continues to be relevant to the production of place. Place-based identification of the Thiyyas influences the manner in which the group envisions the physical boundaries of Malabar and how other social groups can belong to this region. Based on this analysis, I argue that framework of distanciation should incorporate not only the experience of place and social relations, but also how they are known and represented. This dissertation establishes that even though social categories such as caste and place are not conventionally understood to be connected to each other, it is important to study the associations between them. Although the new media and globalization may prompt to us to think that place does not matter anymore, I establish that this caste group uses the language of place to organize and mobilize itself on a stronger basis in precisely this context.