Friday, January 8 2016
15:30 - 16:30

Alladi Ramakrishnan Hall

Caste-distance, Affinities, and Anxieties in Indian Anthropometry, 1920-1960

Abha Sur

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The June 1958 volume of Sankhya: The Indian Journal of Statistics is devoted to the analysis of the Bengal anthropometric survey of 1945. Coauthored jointly by the social anthropologist, D. N. Majumdar, who carried out the measurements on various castes, tribes, and religious groups, and C. R. Rao, who provided statistical analysis of the measurements, the study offers a glimpse into the science of race and caste in mid-twentieth century India. Although, by this time the use of anthropometry in taxonomy had been largely discredited, the authors remained strong proponents of it despite their misgivings about “suspicious” readings and discrepancies in caste assignments.

Anthropometric studies in India were revitalized by P. C. Mahalanobis who developed the concept of caste-distance, which measured the degree of resemblance between castes by using multivariate statistics. In this paper, I examine critically the collaborative work of anthropologists and statisticians fostered by Mahalanobis to posit that perhaps more that caste resemblance, caste-distance seemed to measure caste anxieties of the authors of the study.

[1] D. N. Majumdar, C.R. Rao and P. C. Mahalanobis, “Bengal Anthropometric Survey, 1945: A Statistical Study,” Sankhya: The Indian Journal of Statistics, 19(3, 4), 1958, pp. 201-408.

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