caste [Port., casta=basket], ranked groups based on heredity within rigid systems of social stratification, especially those that constitute Hindu India. Some scholars, in fact, deny that true caste systems are found outside India. The caste is a closed group whose members are severely restricted in their choice of occupation and degree of social participation. Marriage outside the caste is prohibited. Social status is determined by the caste of one's birth and may only rarely be transcended. Certain religious minorities may voluntarily constitute a quasi-caste within a society, but they are less apt to be characterized by cultural distinctiveness than by their self-imposed social segregation. A specialized labor group may operate as a caste within a society otherwise free of such distinctions (e.g., the ironsmiths in parts of Africa). In general, caste functions to maintain the status quo in a society.
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