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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Taking a look at Indian sociology

Roland Lardinois

Texte intégral

1June 2009

2In the second half of the 20th century, Indian sociology was dominated by the paradigm of Homo hierarchicus according to the title of Louis Dumont’s long-standing popular book published in 1966. The aim of this approach towards the caste society is to combine field studies with the reading of classical texts of ancient India. While pre-colonial India does not have the tradition of conducting studies on society (unlike China, for example), its texts written in Sanskrit or other Indian languages on human relations are presented in a more theoretical than practical way, inherent of the socio-religious world of castes (Lardinois, 2007), and which nevertheless reflect Brahmanic trends of thought.

3Indian sociology, however, did not begin with Louis Dumont and the steps that he advocated were not really anything new in the Indian academic world. While the emergence of the social science is undoubtedly a result of colonisation and their development has become something of a national trait. On the one hand, the British government conducted vast quantitative and qualitative surveys (censuses, inventories of castes and tribes) to become acquainted with, lead and control its colonial empire, leaving room for more academic research, such as that conducted by the British anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers on the Todas, a tribe from the south of India. On the other hand, from the first half of the 19th century, the new elites, which were at the time mostly Hindu and educated in British colleges, developed critical thinking on religious, cultural, social and finally political matters. In India, as in Europe, around the same period, the first pieces of research on sociology lead by demands for societal reforms proved to be useful. In India, however, these demands were accompanied by a project to liberate the country from colonial rule, as expressed by the wishes of the National Congress Party, led by Gandhi.

4It was under this context that the first sociology departments were set up in the 1910s, in the universities of Bombay, Lucknow and Calcutta where the likes of Benoy Kumar Sarkar (1887-1949), Sarat Chandra Roy (1871-1942) or D. P. Mukherji (1894-1961) taught (Uberoi et al., 2007). Most of these first generations of teachers and researchers, coming from well-educated high caste backgrounds, from the same elitist universities in the English culture and most of them well-versed in Sanskrit, sharing the same colonial experiences, were individually or collectively confronted with the same types of questions: how could the Indian social world be considered as categories freed from the Western colonial culture? How could research and social action, knowledge and reforms be connected? How could sociological knowledge be applied to the economic development of a young independent nation? Certain sociologists such as Nirmal Kumar Bose (1901-1972) in Calcutta or G. S. Ghurye (1893-1983) in Mumbai have thus put forward cultural analyses of the caste system that combined concepts of Western sociology with concepts borrowed from the Brahmanic culture of ancient India. In these two cases, Indian sociology presented itself as a form of national Indian sociology, although very Hindu-like in its principles.

5To understand the situation of sociology in contemporary India, it must be traced back to the university disciplines including anthropology, history and economics with which it competes. Often taught in science departments, anthropology is reduced to its physical dimension and subjected to the material study of India’s tribal populations, made up of other castes from different areas in the world. Going by their segment-type social morphology, their pastoral economy and their animist beliefs, the tribes are opposed to Hindu and Muslim populations with which they maintain various kinds of relationships since ancient times.

6After independence, anthropology was redefined, in terms of its discipline, prompted by M. N. Srinivas (1916-1999), the most prominent Indian sociologist of the second half of the 20th century who founded the Department of Sociology at the University of Delhi in 1959. Srinivas intended to professionalise the discipline by distinguishing it from colonial practices on the one hand, which had discredited it among the Indian elite, and from a quantitative conception of American sociology on the other hand, which he considered inadequate for India. Finally, he wished to distinguish anthropology from an applied characteristic that characterised the beginnings of the discipline. Under the name of sociology, Srinivas developed social anthropology, which he had first learnt about at the universities of Mysore and Mumbai, then at Oxford, where he finished his studies from 1944 to 1950. Advocating participative observation as part of village monography, Srinivas favoured the study of castes, family and religion by appearing to confine sociology to rural and traditional aspects of the Indian society (Srinivas, 2002). The analysis of the forces of change was then carried out by history and economics, the two oldest professionalised university disciplines dating back to 1910. On the one hand, historians worked hard at analysing the creation of the young Indian nation and supporting the way in which it was forming itself. On the other hand, economists participated in drawing economic and social development plans for modern India.

7Indian sociology has always displayed a rare sense of thought compared to other disciplines (Chaudhuri, 2003). The model developed by Louis Dumont and David Pocock is a reference discussed by Indian anthropologists (Khare, 2006), but it is too centred on traditional Hindu India to maintain a heuristic power in the face of contemporary societal problems. Today, the discipline’s approaches and its paradigms are redefined by opening itself widely to the social science on an international scale. One does not realise the work spread out across several university departments and major research centres. In this perspective, however, the language of instruction and publication is an important matter. On the one hand, English remains the only common language of the Indian elite, which also gives them access to the world’s research market, yet on the other hand, new generations of students from culturally disadvantaged classes do not have a good command over English and demand that education be taught in the national languages, thus making research in India more provincial.

8Indian sociology is distinguished by its multidisciplinary aspect and the great diversity in its scope of research (Lardinois, 1988). The vast panorama edited under Veena Das, who now teaches at the Johns Hopkins University in the United States, has made its mark through its diversity and is the best introduction to social anthropology of contemporary India (Das 2003). This collection, void of conflict between schools of thought and interpretation, helps to make India emerge as a specific hub for theory and discourse in the international field of the social science.

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