Ethnic Stratification and the Chittagong Hill Tribes

Ethnic stratification is a phenomenon that has been part of civilized life for centuries. One of the better theories attempting to explain this reoccurrence was written by Donald L. Noel. In his theory, he explained how ethnocentrism, competition, and differential power must all be present for ethnic stratification to occur. Noel defines ethnic stratification as a “system of stratification” where membership of a particular group is the reason a group is assigned to a lower social position (Noel 1968: 157). For this to occur there must first be prolonged content between the two different groups. Each group has a particular culture and views their own as the “center of everything (Noel 1968: 158).” For ethnic stratification to occur there must then be some scarce resource that the groups compete for. Finally, one group must have the power to “impose its will upon the other (Noel 1962: 162).”

The Chittagong Hill Tribes

The Minorities at Risk Project conducted out of the University of Maryland monitors politically active minorities groups around the world. One of these groups is the people of the Chittangong Hill Tribes. They reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of southeast Bangladesh. Originally from Burma, the group has been residing in the area since the fifteenth century. For several hundred years, the Chittagong Tribes were able to resist control from the Mughal empire and then from the British. In 1860 the area was finally annexed to British territory. When India and Pakistan were created in 1964, the tribes hoped to gain independence, but they were incorporated into East Pakistan. During that time the Kaptai Hydroelectric Dam was built in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, ending the isolation of the tribes. Many of the tribal people were displaced, and much of their land was flooded. Bengali settlers also started exploiting the area. Once Bangladesh declared independence in 1971, the Chittagong Hill Tracts became a part of Bangladesh, and the government encouraged further settlement of the area. The tribal people rebelled, and many people lost their lives. The government signed a peace treaty in 1997 that put an end to hostilities and granted some autonomy for the tribal people. However, there has been a continued Bengali troop presence in the region, and relations with settlers remain tense (MAR 2006).

Chittagong, Bangladesh
Source: sarahstierch

A System of Stratification

Noel’s theory can be used to explain the ethnic stratification of the Chittagong Hill Tribes by the Bengali people. The tribal people were secluded until the 1960s when the dam was built in the region. Afterwards, the Bengali people began to settle the area which led to contact between the two groups. The social customs of the tribal people differed significantly from that of the Bengalis. The tribal people were primarily Buddhists and spoke multiple languages, whereas, most of the Bengali community was Muslim. Here is where Noel’s concept of ethnocentrism must be examined. Each group viewed its own culture as the correct culture and rejected the other’s. Despite differences in culture, the groups could have coexisted had it not been for a scarce resource each group valued. The main resource the Bengalis and Chittagong Tribes were in conflict over was land. This led to competition, the second part of Noel’s theory. Noel wrote that the only way two groups could coexist in the midst of competition was the introduction of regulative values that moderated the consumption of the resource. This did not occur in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. After the Kaptai Dam was built, many of the tribal people lost their land and were never compensated. The government also began giving the remaining tribal land to migrant settlers who would violently attack the tribal people if opposed. There is little underutilized land left, and Bengalis settlers continue to come. By utilizing greater adaptive capacity, something Noel sees as essential in becoming a dominant group, the Bengali were slowly able to overpower the tribal people. Power, the final part of Noel’s theory, is what led to the solidification of the ethnic stratification of the Chittagong Tribes. The Bengali people, with the backing of the government, were able to impose their will upon the Chittagong tribals. Despite efforts by the tribal people to fight back and the signing of a peace treaty, migrants continue to flood the region. Noel also wrote about barriers to upward mobility that further ethnic stratification. The Chittagong Hill Tribes suffer from limited public health facilities and environmental decline of their remaining land. They also lack representation in the government. These barriers to mobility will continue to contribute to the stratification of the Chittagong Tribes (Noel 1962).

Kaptai Lake
Kaptai Lake

Source: mijaved

Each piece of Noel’s theory of ethnic stratification is relevant to the Chittagong Hill Tribes. There was prolonged contact between the Bengalis and the tribal people. Ethnocentrism occurred due to differences in culture. They competed over land, a scarce resource. Finally, the Bengalis overpowered the tribal people. However, it seems that the Bengali people already had power over the Chittagong tribals before they had contact, because they were able to build a dam in the region and displace thousands of residents. This raises doubt as to whether ethnocentrism and competition are needed before power arises. Overall though, Noel’s theory is sound and applicable to the ethnic stratification of the Chittagong tribals.


Noel, Donald L. 1968. “A Theory of Origin of Ethnic Stratification.” Social Problems 16: 157-172.

Minorities at Risk Project (MAR). 2006. “Assessment for Chittagong Hill Tribes in Bangladesh.” Retrieved April 9, 2010.

MAR | Data | Assessment for Chittagong Hill Tribes in Bangladesh