Caste Systems in Worldbuilding: Crafting Compelling Social Structures in Imaginaerium | World Anvil

Caste Systems in Worldbuilding: Crafting Compelling Social Structures

The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.  
  Caste systems are a form of hereditary social stratification, where birth determines one's supposed worthiness. They're deeply ingrained in the fabric of a culture, enmeshed in religious, social, and economic way of life. It determines who can do what, marry who, and rule. This article aims to look at the nuances of creating caste systems for your worlds, exploring what exists in our own world and how the elements of a fictional world can contribute to the creation of one. It'll be about why you would want to and what it can bring to your story. In worlds where magic, dragons, interstellar travel, elves, and demons all exist, there are many reasons why a Caste system might exist, and through them, you can tell readers about your world.   It is a subject that touches on many areas of discrimination, abuse, and generally some of the worst things that humanity has to offer each other throughout history. Including these in your setting requires a deft touch and care   Last of all, I'll include some resources to learn more about the complexities and tragedies of the Caste system.  
This is the first article in a series about worldbuilding. If you want to see more, follow the Imaginaerium.
 

What Is A Caste System?

Above all else, a Caste system is just that - a system. It isn't just a matter of individual prejudice or morality but - as Isabel Wilkerson points out - about power, resources, and control. The reasons can be ethnic, religious, social, or economic, and are enforced through social mores, legal frameworks, and religious persecution. For those on top, it makes sure they remain there... At the expense of those at the bottom. It is made by those in power, for those in power, and will always bend towards serving their needs and whims.   It is important to recognize that a caste system doesn't have to be officially recognized as such to be one. It can be a system of norms, laws, assumptions, and long-held prejudiced beliefs.   With that in mind, what defines a caste system?  

Hereditary

The most defining characteristic of a caste system is that it is hereditary. Individuals are born into a caste, and this status typically remains with them throughout life. Those born to parents of a Caste are automatically included in it, and it is considered immutable. A sort of intrinsic trait that no amount of effort or achievement can overcome.  
Example: The Eta/Hinin
In feudal Japan, the Eta and Hinin were considered the lowest strata of society, occupying an essentially hereditary position.
Example: The Skaa, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
In Mistborn, the Skaa are born into their caste and stay here.
 

Endogamy

Caste systems typically have strict rules about marriage. Individuals are only allowed to marry within their caste, and even romantic feelings are forbidden and punishable by law. This is another way to separate people from one another, and for upper caste typically has implications about 'purity' - often to the point of obsession. In fantasy settings and the like, this often takes the expression of magical power or supernatural ability, something only they can do because of the blood they carry... Or so they believe.  
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling   In the wizarding world, there's a hidden caste system based on blood purity. 'Purebloods' are at the top, 'Half-bloods' in the middle, and 'Muggle-borns' at the bottom.
  Resources
"Discrimination Against the Burakumin Community in Japan" by Ian Neary
"The Invisible Race: Social Marginalization and Legal Discrimination of Burakumin" by Saito Hiro
 

Occupational Limitation

Who can do what is often limited in a caste system and function as a key mechanism in reinforcing the social hierarchy and caste identity. Many cultures have the concept of an 'unclean' caste that involves trades like butchery, leatherworking, or handling dead bodies. The other castes are forbidden from doing those sort of tasks, distancing themselves and the impure work of those beneath them; a constant, day to day reminder of the divide between them. By only allowing a caste to serve certain jobs, such as domestic service or helpers, the idea of them as servants and the upper castes as rulers is ever-present.   Worse, these kind of occupation often serve as justification for the limitations they impose. If a caste only handles unclean work (because it is the only one permitted), the upper caste claims this obviously makes them unclean. Because they are unclean, they can only do the work that makes them unclean.   It should come as no surprise that the work done by the lowest caste is often poorly paid (if it is even paid at all), which keeps them at the bottom with no possibility of trying to better their lives.  
Example: Brahmins
In the traditional Indian caste system, Brahmins were primarily engaged in teaching and priestly duties.
Example: Baekjeong
In Korea, Baekjeong is historically limited to occupations considered lowly or impure.
 

Hierarchy

Most Caste systems are rigid and hierarchical, and those within it have little to no social mobility - and when it happens, it's usually down rather than up. Like many things with caste systems, its logic becomes circular - someone deserves to be in a lower caste because they're in a lower caste and therefore inferior.   Once more, such systems can be obsessed with the purity of different castes. In India, an Untouchable (or Dalit) isn't allowed to let their unclean shadow fall on the holy caste and somehow taint them. The so-called "One-Drop Rule" in the US was a legal standard that defined someone as a colored if they had 'one drop of African blood' in their veins. Many caste systems go to extreme lengths to preserve perceived purity and use it as a tool of repression. By creating a looming fear and a competition to be near the dominant caste, the system pits those who would otherwise work together against each other. After all, as long as you aren't at the very bottom, it could always get worse.  

Caste Markers

Each Caste in a system often has limitations that set them apart and mark them as lower or higher status. They may be restricted to only wearing certain clothes or of a certain color, forced to live in separate areas or have dietary restrictions. In religion and ceremony, castes might be cast into certain roles - priest or sacrifice - that no one else is allowed to hold.   Beyond visible markers like clothing and living areas, caste systems often impose strict behavioral restrictions. These rules dictate not only how individuals in different castes interact with each other, but also how they conduct themselves in daily life, reinforcing the caste hierarchy at every turn. In the Jim Crow south, african-american landlords were restricted to entering their own buildings through the back door, while dominant cast residents could enter freely. Living under such restrictions sometimes leads to internalized oppression, where the system imposed upon them affect peoples self-esteem and aspirations.   Society does not treat those who defy these conventions, spoken or otherwise, kindly. Upper caste people seen even speaking with a lower caste person might face scorn, ridicule, or other social consequences. For the lower caste, the consequences are much more brutal and even fatal.  
Example: Brave New World
In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, each caste wears a specific color: Alphas wear grey, Betas wear mulberry, etc.
Example: Purple

In the Byzantine Empire, the use of purple dye, particularly Tyrian purple, was strictly regulated and reserved for imperial use.
 

Legal Distinction

Caste systems are upheld by formal law, and people who break with them don't just face ostracism but the full fury of the legal system, from cops to courts to city guards. Examples like Apartheid or the Jim Crow create separations that cut into every part of society. Nobility, in every case both fictional and real, are allowed privileges denied their peasant counterparts by law, and acts that would land anyone else in prison or worse are simply waved off.   In Europe, many serfs were not allowed to leave the land they were born on or were subject to the whim of their noble rulers with little recourse. The killing of a peasant by a noble was often treated more as property broken than murder. In feudal Japan's Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate's legal system strictly defined social classes and regulated interactions between them, with laws dictating everything from clothing to residence.   In any system, some people are more equal then others.   Resources
"Tokugawa Japan: An Introductory Essay" by Marcia Yonemoto, University of Colorado at Boulder
"Early Modern Japan" by Conrad Totman  

Justification

No one likes to feel like the bad guy, so every caste system has a justification that proves to them that the caste system isn't just okay, but righteous. It can be mythological (when a ruling caste is supposed descendants of an ancient hero or deity), religious (the gods created them to serve), or very ugly ethnic or racial prejudice, like what defined the excuses for colonization and its crimes. Even pseudo-science nonsense has been used to try and justify prejudice and caste, like phrenology and all the bastards like it. Such ideas served to justify the atrocities that kept (and kept) the caste system in place.   The scars of such ideas remain with us today in the form of stereotypes, biased stories, or deeply rooted societal "everybody knows". It isn't at all uncommon even today for people of a lower caste to not be given pain-relief, because of a still-lingering belief that they're somehow more tolerant of pain.   For as rigid as they are, caste systems can be fantastically flexible when it comes to adapting its justification to new circumstances, if it doesn't just deny the new circumstances. Each era of repression has its own set of justification, reflected through the lens of whatever is most prevalent then, be it religious, cultural, or scientific. When societies turn secular, and religion isn't enough to justify the system of oppression, they turn to science or cultural grievences. When these are discredited, something else will come along.  
Dalit names are generally “contemptible” in meaning, referring to the humble or dirty work they were relegated to, while the Brahmins carry the names of the gods.  
— Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
 

Access to Resources

In a society with a caste system, economic opportunity is dependent on caste. Lower castes might not have the same access to education, employment, banking, or government aid as others. Investment, both private and from the ruling caste, into regions where lower castes live can be limited or absent altogether. The best sources knowledge are segregated, and only available to those of the higher caste. Even today, job markets often reflect caste biases, where individuals from supposedly 'lower' castes or backgrounds face discrimination, subtly perpetuated through hiring practices and workplace cultures, limiting them to lower economic station. With much less generational wealth available, chances of social mobility are limited, and it becomes a vicious if well-designed circle.  
A 2016 study found that, if disparities in wealth were to continue at the current pace, it would take black families 228 years to amass the wealth that white families now have, and Latino families another 84 years to reach parity.  
— Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
 

Discrimination

Every part of a caste system serves to discriminate against the lower castes. It is pervasive and insidious, more often than not monstrously brutal, and leaves marks that remain in a society well beyond when any caste system is officially put to an end. Discrimination becomes an ingrained reflex, the assumed norm. All other aspects of the caste system serve to enforce the role of the inferior and the superior. Whatever ills befall a society, it's usually a safe bet that the lowest caste will be blamed for it. In a sense, it is the horrible glue that keeps the monster together.   Discrimination is without doubt the most important part to consider when creating one for any kind of world. It's not only the result of caste systems but affects everyone born within it and every part of their societies; from media depictions to language to simple, human interaction. The ruling caste will gladly deprive themself of the talent and genius of the lower class if it means keeping the structure and the assumptions of superiority intact. Entire fields of scientific thinking have been relegated to "lesser", based on caste.  
But he discovered that he was a captive of his own conditioning, which he called a certain madness.  
— Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (p. 130). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  For those in the lower castes, this is often a matter of life and death. Every encounter with an upper caste person is a delicate dance with dire consequences for any step out of the role assigned to them. Living with this daily terror, for generations, is traumatizing.   Last of all, it is a mistake to think that the lower caste in any society is simply content with their lot as ordained by the gods/culture/ancient myth. The Dalits in India have fought long for their rights, and everyone in any low caste just wants to be free and allowed to prosper.  

Resources

"Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents", by Isabel Wilkerson
"Annihilation of Caste", by B.R. Ambedkar
"The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables?", by B.R. Ambedkar
"The Buraku Issue and Modern Japan: The Career of Matsumoto Jiichiro", by Ian Neary
"Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class", by Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, Mary R. Gardner
 

Why Have One?

Caste systems have been described as either a disease or a form of madness by those who live within one, so it should hopefully be clear that they are abominable things. Even in their mildest form, they strip freedom and equality from the castes, forcing them to live their lives in a pre-ordained manner. They are complex and sensitive subject, often part of the ugliest parts of humanity (or your fictional stand-in). So why include one in your setting?   The same reason that make it so difficult make them valuable for worldbuilding. It is a lens with which one can explore oppression, inequality, discrimination, privilege and abuse, the failures of law and justice, and society itself as a flawed antagonistic entity. In many works of fiction that include them, Caste is one of the main source of conflict in the story. It's not difficult to see why. Such irrational and unjust systems make for compelling enemies that we want to see shattered.  
Example: Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
The powerful ruling class of humans has installed a rigid, color-based social hierarchy where the physically superior Golds at the top rule with an iron fist.
Example: Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson
Social class and caste are determined by eye color, with light-eyed people occupying higher statuses and dark-eyed people lower statuses.
 

Conflict

A Caste system is built upon social division, and there'll always be friction where those divisions meet. The struggle for equality, rebellions against the system, or the brutality of its masters trying to keep it in place are all potential sources of conflict within the setting and story - and more. It is always going to be a David versus Goliath situation, where those in the upper castes hold every advantage. In some settings, the difference between caste might even be superhuman, such as when it is divided by magical ability or scientific mastery unavailable to the lower caste... Although, 'filthy rich' is always a pretty useful superpower, too.   Aside from the large-scale conflict, there are a thousand encounters every day, where rich and poor or Upper and Lower caste individuals interact, where the expected protocol breaks after, or accidents happen. Any one of them can be a spark that starts a conflagration. On an individual level, what effect does it have on a person to be part of this kind of power structure? How does it influence someone's identity and self-perception, and how might they struggle with that? Not everyone in the lower caste will seek rebellion, and not everyone in the upper caste will be a monster or oppressor, creating shades of grey for the setting.   Any character you create within a caste system will be driven by it, in some part. They might seek to break free of it, forsake it entirely, be entwined in a forbidden romance, or want climb the ladder to make sure they're closer to the top than the bottom. It creates motivation and goals, and through goals and conflict - story.  

Social Themes

Caste systems in fiction allow you to explore themes like social injustice, privilege, discrimination, and resistance against oppressive systems. You can show the reader all the flaws and ugly foibles of that society through the interaction of their different castes. It binds to religion and spirituality, especially if you are writing a setting where the gods exist and interact with the mortal world. In many mythologies, divine beings aren't any less fallible than us mortals, but they have a lot more power to go along with any temper tantrum or petty revenge.  
Remember, just because the divine exists doesn't mean they're right. Death to Divine Tyrants!
  There's a rich tradition in fiction of using something supernatural or scientific as a stand-in for a more grounded problem in the real world. No reason to stop now.  

Show, Don't Tell

Caste systems are a way to show reader how your world operates and how the people within it live there, both day to day and broad strokes. Through it, you can show the reader what a society values and what they abhor. It is a way to convey the societal impacts of magic systems or super-science, by whose on top and who is at the very bottom. If the extracting magical crystal, black-hole radiation, or other plot resource is dangerous or unpleasant, you can talk about that through the unfortunates who are forced into doing the dirty work.   In futuristic settings, it allows you to explore and show how the relentless advance of Science (tm) leaves some behind and crushes other underfoot. Cybernetics, genetic manipulation, wonder drugs might turn some into superhumans, but what about those who can't or won't use them? We're seeing the cracks in our own systems with the recent advances in AI, and the warnings on the wall for that. Now make that AI the government, and figure out who it leaves behind.  
Example: Corper
Corper
Ethnicity | Jun 6, 2020

Bloodlines made out of franchise management.

Born and bred in corporate colors, Corpers are an exploration of what it might mean when entire families for generations well and truly belong to a corporate structure. They're no less expendable if push comes to financial quarter shove, but that doesn't make them less loyal. The corporation is, after all, family.
  Super-powers and futuristic science doesn't just offer new ways to discriminate, but entirely new dimensions of surveillance and control.

Comments

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Feb 25, 2024 20:57 by Racussa

I use a rather rigid caste system in my world with distinct titles for family heads, their partners, heirs and other children:

Ehegesetz
Tradition / Ritual | Apr 4, 2024

The world is not enough.
Feb 26, 2024 20:50 by Angantyr

I wonder what happens when the caste system "gets close to the edge"?   What happens when for some reason only the highest caste remains? Will the restoration force make the survivors fill the missing castes with newcomers or make them fracture the once highest caste into a new system with the most noble on top and the least noble at the bottom?   What happens if a middle caste vanishes, e.g., everyone dies of a mysterious disease? Will lower caste members be promoted, higher ones demoted or both?   There's some good food for thought. Looking forward to "Part II"!

Playing around with words and worlds
Feb 28, 2024 07:20

If its something us humans are good at, it is subdividing further. If one caste disappeared, we'd probably blame it on everyone who is left-handed and make them the new low caste.   Thank you :)


Creator of Araea, Megacorpolis, and many others.
Feb 28, 2024 03:20 by Dimitris Havlidis

Absolutely incredible work Q - I would love to discuss for ... hours!

World Anvil Founder & Chief Grease Monkey
Twitter | World Anvil Changelog
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” - Aesop

Feb 28, 2024 07:50

Thanks! I hope it helps the WA community :)


Creator of Araea, Megacorpolis, and many others.
Feb 29, 2024 01:10 by Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull

Fascinating and well-researched, Q! :) Looking forward to the next part (and to reading Wilkerson's book).

Emy x   Etrea | Vazdimet
Feb 29, 2024 07:36

I very highly recommend it :)   Thank you <3


Creator of Araea, Megacorpolis, and many others.