Caste Relations over Time: Challenging Frank Conlon’s Reading of My Work on the Karava


In the academic circuit most books are sent to reviewers by journals in the field of study encompassed by the book. My work on Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karāva Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931 published by the Cambridge University Press in 1982 was sent to Frank Conlon, a historian at the University of Washington by the Journal of Asian Studies. His review appeared in 1985. It was, and remains, a serious reading that is not informed by any personal animus, while being obviously guided by his own work on caste interaction in India.


I immediately challenged his interpretation of key dimensions of my book and sent a rebuttal to Dr Barbara Metcalf, Editor of the JAS, on 15 May 1985. This was duly published.

Conlon’s review and my questioning of his readings are reproduced here in order to stimulate the wider audience that is sustained today by internet modalities and to present them with a picture of the manner in which research outcomes are debated.


Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karava Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931. By MICHAEL ROBERTS. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. xxviii, 293 pp. Tables, Appendixes, Select Bibliography, Index, Index of Names. $59.50.

Michael Roberts’s previous writings on social stratification, ethnic conflict, elite formation, and nationalism in Sri Lanka have established him as a recognized contributor to South Asian history. He appears to have shifted disciplinary genres, from history to anthropology, in this new exploration of the rise of a seemingly disproportionate number of elite families of the Karava caste in inneteenth- and early-twentieth-century British Ceylon. Roberts is concerned to identify the factors that were responsible for promoting—or permitting—the rise of these elites from their background of low status and economic disadvantage. He also hopes to “illuminate broader processes and reach beyond the Karava to their social field and the changes in this broader context” (p. 16). Roberts clearly documents paths of economic and social mobility of specific Karava families, moving from fishing and peddling into land investments, plantation ownership, and the beginnings of industrialization. With these details, he has produced a fascinating study of economic and social development which will be a useful addition to the literature of capitalism and entrepreneurship in the world of colonialism. One might wish for more attention to the expanding structures of opportunity in British Ceylon, which opened new horizons for Karavas and others. However, the author presents a great deal of data. The reader, at least one who is a nonspecialist, may nevertheless be unconvinced by some of the arguments concerning the factors of caste identity and caste sentiment that Roberts puts forth as crucial parts of the story.

Caste in Sri Lanka has been generally recognized to share some, but by no means all, of the elements postulated for Indian castes. Beginning in the Portuguese colonial epoch, Roberts assumes that there was an enduring Karava identity and solidarity (except in those sections of the book in which the Karava are lumped with two other castes in contrasts and comparisons with the dominant Goyigama caste). Sri Lanka specialists may best judge the accuracy of Roberts’s acceptance of this primordial identity— “Karava-ness” (p. 212)—but it appears less than self-evident to a nonspecialist reviewer. Roberts observes a continuity of “social competition and tension between various caste elites” (p. 177), but he does not demonstrate either that these elites generally acted as self-conscious members of their respective castes or that the same elements were constantly promoting these conflicts.

At the point where the reader might have expected a closely documented survey of specific cases, Roberts digresses instead into a puzzling chapter given over to comparisons with studies of South Indian castes. Here there is a blunt attack upon the work of David Washbrook. Washbrook appears to have been exceedingly naughty in his methodology, particularly because of his alleged inability to “conceive of corporate consciousness and communal solidarity without some concrete organizational foundation” (p. 201). Perhaps this is the point, for Roberts’s own exposition of Karava-ness appears never to doubt the reality of caste. Roberts does concede that Washbrook rendered a service by questioning whether the mere mobilization of a caste name warrants the assumption of caste consciousness,” reminding us “to look behind the political rhetoric and examine the maternal interests and linkages of the caste spokesman” (p. 193). Ironically Roberts’s study offers very little insight into the problem. The Karavas are Karavas to the core.

This reviewer is left with a troubled sense of having encountered something that is less than history. Perhaps this is a reflection of the blurring of genres. There is a strong emphasis on comparative citation of social anthropological research and theory. Roberts touches bases very thoroughly, but he fails to link his insights to documented historical reality. Indeed he states that his conclusions are reached on a “basis of an essentially intuitive and qualitative assessment” (p. 17) and that “some of [his] reasoning is constructed upon speculative foundations” (p. 283). However, this does not permit an historical analysis that relies upon undocumented statements about what “must have happened” (for example, page 66, on Karava consciousness of other’s attitudes, or pages 248—49, on how fishing “must have” generated a capitalist ethos). Religion seems to have mattered for the Karavas—Christianizing under the Portuguese, and promoting Buddhism under the British, but this is nowhere sorted out. Nonspecialists will also regret the abbreviated glossary, which omits terms used in the text and appendixes. Finally, although no one “tells a book by its cover” these days, one does wonder about a jacket illustration that portrays members of the Orient Club, Colombo, c. 1906, mentioned nowhere in the book. It’s a nice picture though……. Frank E. Conlon,  University of Washington

MICHAEL ROBERTS in REBUTTAL with emphasis in blue added in this presentation

Department of Anthropology, Adelaide University 15 May 1985

Dr. Barbara Metcalf,

The Editor, Journal of Asian Studies, Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, 260 Stephens Hall,

University of California, Berkeley, CALIFORNIA, 94720 U.S.A.

Dear Dr. Metcalf,

I wish to comment on Frank Conlon’s review of Caste Conflict and Elite Formation in your Journal Vol. XLIV: l, November 1984: 238-39. The review is genial in style and as such provides all the more reason for the sense of disquiet which it generates in my mind. The positivistic empiricism which underlines the commentary is especially disconcerting and of general import for the state of the social sciences.

Frank Conlon’s review is distinguished by its failure to either refer to, or indicate a grasp of, the concept of “structural marginality” which was an important analytical tool in my work. The structural relations within the Karāva lived, as their (the relations) altered over time, were central to the entrepreneurial successes of some Karāva and are equally critical to our understanding of the forces that would have supported Karāva identity and solidarity. Despite considerable attention to the subject and convenient summaries on the latter point on pages 12-13 and 219-20, I have evidently failed to persuade both Conlon and Susan Bayly[1] on the strength, as continually reproduced over time, or the Karāva’s sense of Karāva-ness. The question at issue, then, is whether this failure is mine or something which reposes in their mode of evaluation. That a non-anthropologist such as Robert Kearney has understood my style of analysis[2] suggests the latter.

The point is that Conlon demands documented facts which connect the Karāva caste elites of the early nineteenth century with those of the late nineteenth century and further connections to the early twentieth century elites before he can accept the argument that there was even an enduring Karāva identity at the elite level. The analyst’s (i.e. my) delineation of structured oppositions between the castes at various points of time (constituted in part by the various colonial governments’ policies), together with the several illustrations of caste-conscious political activity by Karāva spokesmen, or Goyigama and Salāgama spokesmen, at various points of time, have not been deemed adequate ground for my argument. In brief, the structural framework, as it was constituted and transformed by the interaction between polity, caste and economic changes, has been put out of mind by Conlon.

Behind this, then, is a quantitative empiricism and a positivistic epistemology. This interpretation is confirmed in Conlon’s concluding note: my book on the Karāva “is something” less than history” and my insights are not linked to “documented historical reality”; I have, goodness gracious, even gone so far as to allow myself such disquieting phrases as “must have happened”.

It is the naivety of this approach that is a ground for general concern. Except when it refers to a number of uncontested (because documented by unimpeachable and mutually confirming sources) facts, the craft of history is essentially an inferential and speculative science, a “soft science” distinguished from the “hard sciences”. In linking events in a causal relationship, or in attributing specific motives to a person or a group, a historian is usually inferring what must have happened. The assertive style of presentation should not be allowed to obscure this. Let me select an example from the work of a recognised historian in the British empiricist tradition, Professor K.M. de Silva’s A History of Ceylon (Delhi: 1981). When Kingsley de Silva states that the quickening of political activity in Sri Lanka in the 1900’s “owed much to events outside the island” such as Japan’s victory over Tzarist Russia (1981: 373), he has selected one factor as a significant contributory force; his is a must-have, would-have type of inference insofar as it is limited by the extant historical sources on the thinking of political activists of the period and insofar as he, like all of us mortals, cannot mind-read with definitive certainty.

It would not be difficult to go through Conlon’s A Caste in a Changing World (Berkeley: 1977) and extract numerous interpretive assertions of a like-order.[3] My book, too, is replete with such assertive interpretations. Where the documentation is thinner, and where my interpretation is derived from an understanding of the structured world of the actors as viewed from the distance (including that of hindsight) achieved by an analyst, I have deliberately used such phrases as ”it seems”, “is indicated by” and “must have happened”. Indeed, Conlon’s description of the diaspora of Gaud Saraswat Brahmans from Goa in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries is replete with such phrases as “it is likely”, “it seems likely”, “it appears that” and “presumably”. He even notes that his reconstruction is a view that “reveals dimly the workings of migration, fission, and fusion in corporate identity and activity”.[4] This is as it should be. It is instructive that these cautious expressions are enforced upon Conlon despite the benefits of extensive genealogical records (some even published) reaching back beyond the eighteenth century, a type of resource which historians of the Karava do not have, or which, even for the nineteenth century, are fragmentary at best.

Most readers would, I suspect, understand the inferential nature of historians’ assertively-phrased interpretations. It would appear that some historians get so embroiled in their practice of history that they lose sight of this. This suggests that there is much value in the recent anthropological interest in the world of practice.[5] Be that as it may, Conlon’s comments would appear to represent a powerful trend within the discipline of history. In a seminar at Adelaide in 1984, Lawrence Stone expressed his dismay at the manner in which empirical fact-gathering was being rigorously and self-consciously pursued in the major ‘schools’ Of history in the West (the contemporary Annales is one example).

If this naive empiricism sweeps all before it within’ the corridors of history departments, the prospect for interdisciplinary studies, as well as the potential for history and sociology to meet as a single disciplinary space focussed upon the problem of “eventuation” (which denies the ‘orthodox’ sociologist’s stress on synchrony by erasing such a concept altogether), as argued for by Philip Abrams,[6] will fade away. In such an event, likewise, a historian such as Robert Brenner[7] would be left whistling in a wee corner of his department.

All is not lost however. The [journal] Comparative Studies in Society and History continues to thrive. Such historians as Rodney Hilton and the editors of the Past and Present have recognised Brenner’s work. And when I bumped into Gyanendra Pandey in Canberra in 1984, he, in quite unprompted fashion, pounced upon the hollowness of Susan Bayly’s conviction that her interpretation represented “objective analysis”;[8] and it would not be going too far to say that Gyan’s reaction is representative of the epistemological premises of Ranajit Guha’s subalterns.[9]

A final note. My letter has introduced personal and verbal communications into its discourse through a, so to speak, presence of mind. A comic feature of some (but not all) forms of mindless historical empiricism is its disposition to raise the written word to a privileged position in the starry skies and to cast oral testimony into the waste-paper basket. A. P. Kannangara’s review of my book[10] is a case in point. The organisation of knowledge within historiography, however, proceeds as much through the dialectics of oral discourse as through the world of books, book reviews and articles.

           Yours sincerely,  Michael Roberts


[1] Bayly “Caste in South Asia”, Modern Asian Studies, 1983, Vol. 17, pp. 519-28. See my reply; “From Empiricist Conflation to Distortion: Caste in South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies, April 1985, vol.19/2.

[2]  Journal of Asian History, 1983, Vol. 17, pp. 191-92.

[3] For instance: (i) When Conlon concludes that the Gaud Saraswat Brahmans (GSB’s) who migrated from Goa during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries found it difficult to maintain social ties with those who remained (1977:31), he is presenting a plausible inference. As an interpretation it must confront the fact that Indian coastal shipping may have enabled communities along the coast to maintain kin networks as well as the instance of an apparently effective diaspora of Chettiyar merchants in the era before steam technology…….. [and] (ii) When Conlon states that the GSB families who migrated to Kanara “took over from earlier landed classes” (1977: 33), he is speculating that their advancement involved a process of displacement. Without evidence on the pattern of landholding in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and without a history of the other powerful castes, this is an undocumented inference — albeit a reasonable one.

[4] Conlon, A Caste in a Changing World, The Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmans 1700-1935, New Delhi: 1977, Chapter 2, the last quotation being from p. 46.

[5] For a review, see Sherry Ortner “Anthropological Theory since the Sixties” in Comparative Studies in Society and History, January 1984, vol. 26, pp. 126-166.

[6] Abrams, Historical Sociology, England: Open Books, 1982, pp. x-xviii, 6-8 and passim. See, too, his critique of the burgeoning tribe of people’s historians (pp. 327-29). While I disagree fundamentally with one of his points here, his comments are a refreshing caution.

[7] Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre—Industrial Europe”, Past and Present, February 1976, NO. 70, pp. 30—75 and “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism”, New Left Review, July 1977, Number 104, pp. 25-91.

[8] Bayly, op.cit, p. 522. See my counter-critique on this point: Modern Asian Studies, 1985, April 1985, vol.19/2…..

[9] See Guha (ed), Subaltern Studies, Vol. 1, 2, 3, Delhi: O.U.P., 1982, 1983 and 1984 respectively and Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, Delhi: O.U.P., 1983.

[10] Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, 1983, Vol. 45, pp. 190-91.


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One response to “Caste Relations over Time: Challenging Frank Conlon’s Reading of My Work on the Karava

  1. Rohan de Soysa

    Dear Michael,

    Will try and meet next week after calling you. This week is rather hectic. I read your correspondence with Frank Conlon with interest, quite by chance. For what it’s worth I am attaching an admittedly ‘naive and simplistic’ talk I gave for the Colombo Art Biennale 2014 on “Making History”!

    Best wishes

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