Jacob Copeman


This research project analyzes the hitherto under-explored significance of naming practices in respect of caste and religion in India, with a particular focus on the names given to persons. Though frequently stigmatizing, caste names can be treated inventively: hidden, changed, or subject to revaluation. The project aims to explore historical strategies of naming and renaming whilst also bringing the study squarely into the present: what can naming strategies tell us about Indian society in a time of expedited social change? Combining the methodological strengths of social anthropology and linguistics, this project seeks to synthesize and reinterpret existing insubstantial approaches to the naming of persons in India whilst also developing original and innovative case-studies focusing on low-caste strategies of name-changing for the purpose of obscuring caste-identities, Sikh reformist attempts to reinvigorate the religion’s anti-caste sentiments through novel naming policies, and secularist, anti-caste activists’ provision of ‘secular names’ such as the given name ‘Sanketh’ (Information) and surname ‘No-caste’. The primary output will be a book entitled The politics of names and naming in India. The book’s main ethnographic chapters will deploy local-level data to address wider academic and policy debates. An initial integrative historical phase of library-based research will be followed by 5 months of intensive qualitative field research for collection of oral data, to be indexed in Atlas.Ti and analysed via an original synthesis of linguistic and anthropological theory. Such a disciplinary combination falls between the remits of the major UK funding bodies. The aim is to refocus attention on the agency of real people in lived contexts in order to highlight the role of linguistic innovations in the creation of a new fluidity and flux in the domain of caste. By examining the nature and extent of such practices in a variety of different settings and bringing them to the attention of a wider audience including agencies with the power to effect change, it has the potential to bring forward the possibility of a more progressive and socially mobile Indian future.

The Research Idea

This project will focus on the extraordinarily diverse social import of naming practices in India with a particular focus on caste. The significance of naming practices in respect of caste has hitherto not been fully explored. This project seeks to change this with an innovative and comprehensive in-depth study of the social implications of the naming of persons in India. It will provide a novel and missing angle on a ubiquitous and diverse phenomenon: how people employ names to negotiate and subvert power and religious identity and assist social mobility in the world’s largest democracy.

Particularly innovative will be the interdisciplinary, collaborative use of methods from both anthropology and linguistics. This project will combine and synergise the disciplinary and methodological strengths of social anthropology and linguistics. The PI proposes to travel to India to undertake intensive fieldwork and to collaborate with leading Indian linguist Dr Prasannanshu, Associate Professor at Delhi’s National Law University.

The Focus

The real-life social problem motivating this investigation is the enduring phenomenon of caste. Caste names can act as stark signifiers of one’s position in a relational caste hierarchy. But different social groups, historically speaking, have pursued strikingly inventive naming strategies designed to circumvent or negate such stigma. For example, at their baptism, Sikhs have, since 1699, taken the name ‘Singh’ or ‘Kaur’, thereby obliterating (at least in theory) their caste identity. This study proposes to examine such historical instances of renaming, paying particular attention to the linguistic properties of these naming innovations. But it also seeks to move decisively into the present-day through a set of revealing anthropological case studies. This project will examine: (1) the ways in which low caste people who aspire to middle-class identities frequently change their names in order to ‘pass’ as higher caste; (2) Sikh reform movements which critique the ‘creeping casteism’ of Sikhism and seek to supplement ‘Singh’ with new caste-annihilating common-denominator names such as ‘Insaan’ (Human); and (3) the naming strategies of anti-caste and secularist campaigners who if, for example, are from Hindu backgrounds, frequently give their children Muslim or other caste- obfuscating surnames. These case studies are indicative of the ambitious explanatory scope of this project: it aims to develop a new analytical angle on contemporary Indian society, seeking nothing less than to gauge its rapidly changing nature through its novel and inventive naming practices.


There have been a number of excellent studies of caste in recent years (see in particular C.J. Fuller’s Caste Today (1996); Susan Bayly’s Caste, Society and Politics in India (1999); Christophe Jaffrelot’s India’s Silent Revolution (2003)). Each of these studies contains references to caste-based naming practices but none deals with the subject in a systematic way. This is not a criticism for the priorities of the respective books lie elsewhere, but such a situation nevertheless leaves unexplored the dynamic and complex role of naming practices in reference to the rapidly changing nature of caste in the Indian subcontinent. A key reference point in the anthropology of naming practices is the recent comparative edited book The Anthropology of Names and Naming (Vom Bruck & Bodenhorn 2006). This project takes inspiration from the way in which the book calls attention to how names can act as instruments of power and play an intimate role in diverse cosmologies. Specifically in respect of India, Thomas Hansen (2001) has conducted important work on the implications of the 1995 renaming of Bombay (now ‘Mumbai’) for political identities. This project will be informed by these key studies but will focus on the names given to persons rather than places, for which there exist no present substantial reference points – hence the urgency and novelty of this project.

Theory & Evidence Base

Linguistic anthropology is an established sub-discipline within anthropology and yet actual collaboration between anthropologists and linguists is still relatively rare. In combining the theoretical and methodological strengths of the two disciplines, this project aims to provide new understandings on the changing nature of caste. The political implications of renaming places in India have been subjected to scholarly scrutiny, but far less so in the case of actual persons. This study will correct this omission. Practices of renaming are a site of great social creativity in the region. This project will be the first to take account of the breadth of this creativity, with diverse case studies on anti-caste activism, ritual renaming, and the struggle for social mobility in everyday lived contexts. Both anti-caste campaigners and certain religious reform movements realise the significance of caste names as ‘rigid designators’ (Kripke 1972) capable of entrenching oppression – hence their emphasis on ‘wiping out’ such names in special renaming ceremonies. This study promises to provide exciting case studies of diverse and innovative naming practices in order to reveal the ‘grounded’ realities of caste. Scholars from Cohn (1987) to Kaviraj (1992) to Dirks (2001) have been concerned to show the ways in which colonial rule in the subcontinent helped to ‘fix’ or concretise ‘fuzzy communities’ through census procedures and other schemes of governmental categorisation. This project promises something very different. It aims to document and interpret ways in which current practice in India, through a kind of de-rigidifying indigenous linguistics, subverts these supposedly fixed classifications. This project will thus re-focus attention on the agency of real people in lived contexts in order to highlight the role of linguistic innovations in the creation of a new fluidity and flux in the domain of caste.



Phase 1. August 2012-October 2012: library-based historical research

Phase 2. November 2012-March 2013: anthropological and sociolinguistic field research

Phase 3. April-July 2013: intensive data analysis

The initial historical research (phase 1) will primarily contextualise and support the qualitative field data to be obtained in phase 2. The project will therefore collect two different bodies of data. The library phase will survey extant data on naming practices in India for purposes of integration and synthesis. Not only works of history and anthropology, but memoirs, stories and poems will be important for cultural contextualisation. The other source will consist of oral data gathered during in-depth semi-structured interviews with key informants relevant to the three case studies (phase 2 – intensive field research). During phase 3, the data will be indexed in Atlas.Ti thematically according to the priorities of the project, with the differing usages of naming strategies employed by different class, caste, and religious communities highlighted throughout. Qualitative anthropological methods – habituated social investigation – are well-suited to gauging lived reality. The data collected will be analysed not only according to the latest linguistic anthropology (Vom Bruck and Bodenhorn 2006), but also using key linguistic and philosophical theory on names (Putnam 1973, Kripke 1972, Searle 1983, Perry 1979) – an area in which my colleague Dr Prasannanshu specialises.


This project aims to provide three major forms of output:

(1) A co-authored book.

(2) Seminar and conference presentations.

(3) An edited book on naming practices in the Indian subcontinent as a whole.

(1) This project will develop into a major co-authored book. It will be offered to an international publisher in order that it can be widely available in South Asia as well as Euro-America. We seek to address several audiences: an academic audience spread across several disciplines (South Asian Studies, Linguistics, Anthropology), but also a general audience. It will therefore be accessibly written and jargon-free.

(2) Both authors will disseminate the research’s progress in terms of seminar and conference presentations of draft article and book chapters (e.g. British Association for South Asian Studies, Association of Asian Studies, European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies), and through participation in policy debates and other public venues (e.g. Caste Watch).

(3) At the culmination of the project we will seek to broaden the project in 2 key ways: (i) We will take the collaborative aspect of this project further by convening an edited book on naming practices. 7-8 scholars from anthropology, linguistics, sociology and other relevant disciplines will be invited to contribute chapters drawing on their field data on names and naming. (ii) A further means of broadening the project will be to seek contributions on other South Asian countries in addition to India, thereby developing a novel comparative approach to names and naming in the Indian subcontinent.


Bringing together a linguistic and an anthropological approach to naming in India, this project seeks to challenge some previous research on the stratification of caste and illuminate current naming practices which seek to subvert this rigid stratification. Such a disciplinary combination falls between the remits of the major UK funding bodies. By examining the nature and extent of such practices in a variety of different settings and bringing them to the attention of a wider audience including agencies with the power to effect change, it has the potential to bring forward the possibility of a more progressive and socially mobile Indian future.

In my application I outlined 3 main phases of the fellowship:

Phase 1: 3 months of library-based historical research.

Phase 2: 5 months of anthropological and sociolinguistic field research.

Phase 3: 4 months of intensive data analysis.

The intended timetable proceeded in much the same way as envisaged. I have written a field report detailing a few of the ways in which fieldwork took me in unexpected directions (see my article in ISRF Bulletin Issue 3 ‘On Assignment: Fieldwork and the Fieldwork Experience’), however the main themes/case-studies outlined in the application (changing Sikh naming practices, atheist/secular naming practices, low-caste names changing in order to ‘pass’ as high-caste and boost prospects of socio-economic mobility) remain at the centre of the project.

In addition to the monograph which will follow as my primary output, I am also co-organising a double panel with Professor Veena Das (John Hopkins University, Baltimore) at the forthcoming annual South Asia Conference at Madison, University of Wisconsin called ‘Names and Naming Practices: Singularity, Identity, and Temporality’. It is our express intention that the papers gathered for this panel later form an edited book.

The application also outlined the importance of my interdisciplinary collaboration with Dr Prasannanshu, a socio-linguist at Delhi’s National Law University. This collaboration continues to be productive – both separately and together we have collected a large body of interesting and varied data – and we continue to share data.

Future plans for the project include:

  1. Radio report for the BBC Asian Network on Indian secular name changes in a non-academic style that will be of interest to listeners.
  2. Reach out to different publics with articles and blogs in different sorts of outlets such as The Huffington Post, The New York Times and The Times of India.
  3. Actively solicit PhD students on names and naming practices in South Asia and beyond in order to become a research leader on this topic.

British Academy Mid Career Fellowship | 2017

Names and (dis)identity: A new approach to Indian secularism

Jacob has been awarded a British Academy Mid Career Fellowship for a 12-month project – commencing January 2017 – that follows on from and develops his former ISRF project.

More Information to Follow