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Social Science: Concept, Area of Studies and Classifications

After reading this article you will learn about:- 1. The Idea of Social Science 2. The Role of Gate-Keeping Concepts 3. Area Studies Program: Shaping of South Asian Studies in the United States 4. Colonial Constructions in India 5. Enumeration and Classification: The Role of Numbers 6. Writing Under the Sign of the Nation and Other Details.

Contents:

  1. The Idea of Social Science
  2. The Role of Gate-Keeping Concepts
  3. Area Studies Program: Shaping of South Asian Studies in the United States
  4. Colonial Constructions in India
  5. Enumeration and Classification: The Role of Numbers
  6. Writing Under the Sign of the Nation
  7. Sanskritization and Vernacularization: Rethinking Culture and Power 
  8. The Search for Tradition in India

1. The Idea of Social Science:

A dominant view in the current literature on the history of social sciences sees the rise of social sciences and the formation of modernity as linked events.

The dual revolution of industrial and technological practices as also the political practices inherent in the French revolution (with the ensuing waves of democratic demands in European countries) in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, laid the foundations of the idea of society as both an object of study and of reform.

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The expression ‘moral and political science’ came into use in France during the 1760s while ‘social science’ was coined in the circle around Condorcet and subsequently spread to England and Scotland and the German-speaking countries.

The institutional changes which took place in the organization of knowledge included the shifting of intellectual work from academies, learned societies, and literary salons to reformed universities and newly created professional schools and research centres.

Unfortunately, disciplinary histories as they are taught in the social science faculties today (and not only in India), largely ignore the social and intellectual contexts of the emergence of these sciences.

Further, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber are considered classics both in sociological and anthropological theory while the work of their predecessors is treated as part of the prehistory and not the intellectual identity of these disciplines.

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A tunnel view of history shapes our understanding of the emergence of social science and modernity in which relatively little attention is paid to those ideas which were defeated or simply failed to be realized.

In this context, shifting the question from the ‘when’ of modernity to the ‘where’ may be of great value—it may help us examine to what extent we may treat modernity not only as a result of institutional changes but also as the functioning ideology of the social sciences which assigns to ‘tradition’ a place, a modality, and a temporality.

Thus the West comes to be seen as the ‘natural’ home of modernity, while other places are either in the process of being modernized or are waging a struggle against the shackles of tradition.

While this particular way of formulating the relation between tradition and modernity has been repeatedly questioned since the eighteenth century, the opposition seems to reinvent itself in new forms. Does this have something to do with the way in which modernity institutes itself in the social sciences and their location in the West?

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As part of the functioning ideology of the social sciences, modernity came to be described in classical sociological writings as having certain defining characteristics, namely the key roles of agency, freedom of choice, and moral responsibility as opposed to the shackles of tradition, convention, and authority.

However, several scholars have come to question these assumptions in recent years arguing that the specific modern form of polity that took shape during the French Revolution, the modern nation state, did not fulfill the Enlightenment project but rather curtailed it drastically, including its idea of free public spheres and its commitment to cosmopolitanism.

According to this view, the classical concerns of social science arose from the constraints to realize the ideals of the Enlightenment traditions rather than as a celebration of these.

As a corollary, the standard assumptions about the ‘natural’ tripartite division—economic activities of the market, political activities of the state, and aggregate social relations of society—had become problematic even as a description of the activities of the state in Europe in the nineteenth century.

It is against the background of these assumptions that the problematic of social sciences in ‘other’ societies becomes important as a means of comprehending the institutional transformations in European societies and their relation to the project of both understanding and governing the colonies.

It is clear that the new forms of knowledge were part of the colonial project of governance, but these were not mapped on an empty space—the existing systems of knowledge at various levels of society were twined into the colonial projects of rendering the society knowable.

In the case of India, there was a period of extensive projects of translation, mapping of legal and social systems, and collection of statistics and innovations in the sites and objects of knowledge in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

One may recall here that though society came to be defined as the object of expert knowledge with the rise of social sciences, professional understandings could not completely free themselves of the common sense of their times.

This was as true for the way that other societies were rendered intelligible as for the manner in which the common sense about ‘women’ or ‘Jews’ entered the classic texts of Emile Durkheim (1951) and Max Weber (1978).

Thus, it is interesting to see how the project of building social sciences in India, as in other ‘new’ nations, countered this ‘common sense’ of western societies presented to them as ‘expert knowledge’, but it would be a mistake to see the nationalist and other post-colonial projects as producing only reactive knowledge.

There were concerns rooted in the processes of social transformation within these countries which also informed the manner in which these subjects developed. Thus, one way to understand the development of sociology and social anthropology in India is to understand the different kinds of stakes that various social actors had in defining the processes through which knowledge was to be produced.

A good illustration of this is the role of certain gate-keeping concepts such as caste and communalism which functioned as sociological and anthropological categories for rendering Indian society knowable.


2. The Role of Gate-Keeping Concepts:

The difficulty that modern ideology has in providing a sufficient image of social life was the concern of classical sociological theory and provided a major challenge to the French thinker, Louis Dumont, who is perhaps the best known interlocutor of India to the West.

Dumont (1971) argued that Indian civilization presented a major contrast to western civilization because of its values of hierarchy and holism (each term implied the other in Dumont’s formulation). What was at stake for Dumont was the image of social life in India with its emphasis on holism as it stood in a contrastive relationship to the ideology of individualism in the West.

Dumont’s characterization of Indian society has been challenged on many grounds— the most important critiques have pointed out that what Dumont saw to be timeless ideology replicated at every level of Indian society and culture, was itself a result of certain practices of classification and enumeration instituted in the context of colonial administration, which gave a dominant place to Brahmanical texts as representative of Indian society.

What was at stake for Dumont was the representation of India as the ‘other’ of modern West, so he was much less interested in either the concrete historical processes through which institutions were formed or the contemporary changes in the caste system.

The hierarchical relations within an organic whole embodied in the caste system belonged to the order of moral fact for him and provided an image of social life that was embedded in moral relations.

Other relations such as those which cut across religious divisions, for example Hindu-Muslim relations, were, at best, relations forged in the market place and at worst were sites for conflict brought about by the emergence of nationalism and the creation of new moralities such as those of nation and citizenship.

It is instructive to compare this with the way that caste and communal relations have been studied as part of both the civilizational design in India and contemporary reality not only by Indian anthropologists but also by those scholars who were interested in the implications of these institutions for the development of a democratic polity in independent India.

In order to locate this point in the emerging concerns at the end of the Second World War, it would be useful to see how Area Studies Programs developed in the United States on the one hand, and to examine the aspirations of the social sciences in the context of Indian polity on the other.


3. Area Studies Program: Shaping of South Asian Studies in the United States:

The end of the Second World War and the decolonization movements in Asia led to the development of strategic interests in the problems of contemporary South Asia in the United States. Dirks (1998) has argued that it was the conjuncture between Sanskrit scholarship and the strategic concerns of the Second World War which shaped South Asian Area Studies in the US.

Despite the long history of Sanskrit studies as part of orientalist scholarship in the departments of a small number of universities in the United States, a new kind of assemblage might be detected after the War in the coming together of Sanskrit scholarship and contemporary concerns.

Quoting from a draft document prepared by Norman Brown who held the chair for Sanskrit Studies in the University of Pennsylvania from 1926 to 1966, Dirks shows that a greater investment of resources in contemporary languages, and other contemporary issues, was advocated on the grounds that the War years had demonstrated the inadequacies in information about the ‘Orient’ and the lack of trained personnel who could handle ‘the increased political, business, and cultural relations’ between the United States and the emergent post-War regions of influence.

Major centres of Area Studies were subsequently established at the universities of Pennsylvania, Berkeley, Chicago, Wisconsin-Madison, and Michigan, among others.

It would be a mistake, though, to imagine that the scholarly concerns developed in these departments were dictated primarily by strategic interests—the language of interests provided a powerful impetus for universities, government, and foundations to get involved in funding area studies, but the relation between intellectual projects and the articulating of interests was, as in other cases, a complicated one.

Edward Said’s (1978) critique of Orientalism as an intellectual project and its close affiliation to colonial forms of governance provided a much needed impetus for the emergence of what came to be known as post-colonial theory.

However what Said failed to address in his critique was the manner in which profound transformations of the colonies took place due to the exercise of colonial power that radically altered not only institutions but also desires and subjectivities.

Nevertheless, it opened a pathway for new readings of the authoritative texts of colonial encounters and created conditions for new alliances between critical literary studies and cultural anthropology.

Parallel developments in Indian historiography, anthropology, and sociology showed how Said’s arguments needed to be refined for an understanding of the Indian case and also how question, of agency may be addressed in the understanding of India’s pasts. Some of the most innovative work in this area has emerged in the area of study that conjoins history and anthropology.


4. Colonial Constructions in India:

The colonial categories in terms of which Indian society became knowable for governance emerged in the interaction between different kinds of local knowledge’s, imaginary landscapes of other societies held in the West, and new ideas of governability.

While earlier accounts in the form of travelogues and missionary reports were available for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and may be seen as providing the prehistory of such disciplines – Indology and ethnology, these did not carry the stamp of official authority. 

The categories deployed in these accounts did not thus constitute what Asad (1986) calls strong languages’ which were consolidated with the penetration of colonial rule.

In the context of Indian studies, Bernard Cohn (1987, 1996) tried to show the close nexus between categories of colonial knowledge and colonial rule since the late 1960s and also how social science disciplines in the West had maintained these basic colonial assumptions in the categories they deployed.

Although the relation between history and anthropology was foreground in many important studies by Indian sociologists and historians, especially in the Bombay school, there was a somewhat uncritical acceptance of the colonial texts as providing historical sources for the nature of Indian society and culture.

There were important exceptions, for example in the challenge posed by Ghurye (1932) to Risley’s application of the category of race to caste in early census reports.

However, the appeal of history was limited in the writings of Indian sociologists and anthropologists till the 1960s, to showing the continuities of the civilizational categories, especially Hindu categories, in the social life of Indians.

Subsequent scholarship both in the fields of history and anthropology became much more critical of the nature of texts that had been used as evidence of an unchanging India. Such concerns consolidated themselves under the rubric of the subaltern school and the whole field of post-colonial theory.

While the search for the so-called enduring principles of Indian civilization had given the impression of a society which had yet to enter history, the collaboration between history and anthropology led to a shift of focus to a historically grounded understanding of the experience of colonialism and how that had shaped such institutions as caste and communal relationships.

The colonial archive thus also became a source for understanding the nature of colonial rule rather than a kind of documentary practice alone.

It was used in showing the ruptures in modes of governance and especially the nexus between knowledge and power the emergence of caste as the trope for Indian civilization, and its use to both legitimize colonial rule and delegitimize indigenous forms of politics as ‘pre-political’.

The deployment of such categories as ‘communal riots’ or ‘peasant uprisings’ served to naturalize these conflicts as based on primordial loyalties and thus convert them into problems of public order rather than as belonging to the realm of politics.

The inflection of social science categories by administrative categories is used almost as a matter of habit in South Asian scholarship and shows the intimate connection between social sciences and forms of governance.


5. Enumeration and Classification: The Role of Numbers:

Although the predecessor states of the British in India did have apparatuses for counting, classifying, and controlling populations, these were tied to specific needs of the state such as revenue collection or the raising of temporary armies.

The British colonial state instituted a new way of collecting information in the form of maps, settlement reports, revenue records, statistical information, censuses, enquiry commission reports, compendiums of laws and custom and folklore, to name a few.

This new form of governance, or ‘rule-by records’ and ‘rule-by-reports’ in the felicitous phrasing of Richard S. Smith (1985) had a decisive influence on the shaping of caste and communal identities in the twentieth century.

At the first instance, it may appear odd to suggest that acts of recording that which were seen to be the essential features of Indian society on the ground would lead to major changes in the objects recorded.

Much recent research has, however, shown the complex relation between representation in the moral, aesthetic, and political senses—the influence of representation as a linguistic activity on the legal and political processes of representing is now widely acknowledged.

It may be useful at this stage to see how statistical thinking emerged in this period as a new discipline—the impact of administrative concerns on the shaping of social sciences could be seen both in the metropolitan centres and in the colonies.

Following the work of Ian Hacking (1992) and Theodore Porter (1986), it is widely acknowledged now that a distinctive way of thinking through numbers emerged in a period of crucial change between 1820 and 1850 in Europe.

As Donnelley (1998) puts it, ‘In contrast to the eighteenth century, there was decidedly something new in the use of social or public numbers in the early nineteenth century, so much so that one can think of statistical thinking itself as an innovation of this period.’

Hacking (1989) has characterized the early-nineteenth- century period as one of statistical enthusiasm. The collection of statistics moved from a private, amateurish, and ad hoc activity to one that was public, professional, and bureaucratic in orientation.

Underlying this move was the conceptual shift from political arithmetic to social statistics: information obtained from numbers was not about the body politic but about the social body Donnelley (1998) identifies three important changes in this transformation.

First, the scale of statistics gathering increased manifold—Hacking (1989) estimates a 300,000- fold increase in the availability of printed numbers in the course of the nineteenth century in Europe. Second, the conceptual framework underlying the collection of statistics underwent a radical change.

As techniques of governance were transformed, there was a change in what was counted and what signs, symptoms, and indicators numbers were said to reveal (Asad 1994). Finally there was a change in how numbers could be interpreted since continuous time series replaced sporadic collections of numbers and allowed patterns to be discerned.

These patterns revealed a new order of reality which was different from that of individual events. Durkheim (1951), for example, used this method to show how suicide rates belonged to a different order of facts from the individual acts of suicide in any society.

While it is clear that the shift from body politic to the social body led to the novel and fertile idea of ‘population’ as a system which could be studied as a whole through frequencies of its collective phenomena, this shift owed less to a change in mathematical principles and more to the political innovation in governance seen as the regulation of populations rather than of individuals.

Foucault’s seminal work (1973) in this area shows how technologies of power, especially the shift from sovereign power to disciplinary power, were central in normalizing the idea of population as an object of study and reform.

The questions of what is counted and what numbers stand for, owed much to the shifting emphasis on the social body. While this is not the place to examine this issue in great detail, it is instructive to see how this theme plays out in the construction of populations in the colonies.

In the processes of classifying and enumerating the population, the British did not start with caste as if it were a natural category. In the early phases of colonial rule the emphasis was on cadastral control.

Statistics on landownership, tenancy, crop production, and instruments of agricultural production were geared towards standardizing the methods of revenue collection and it was by no means obvious that the caste rather than the village would be the natural unit for the organizing of data.

According to Smith (1985) it was only around 1850 that the census in the case of Punjab was transformed from an instrument of tax to an instrument of knowledge. Caste categories which came to be finally used in the census were arrived at after considerable experimentation.

Earlier census reports were more pragmatic and localistic in orientation—it was by no means easy to find the principles through which caste names could be standardized on an all India basis.

There was considerable tension between the concerns of centrist census officials collating data in an encyclopedic manner, and the local officials who were concerned in recording the nature of social groups and categories for more practical purposes such as the collection for revenue or the settlement of disputes.

In order to understand why caste came to occupy such a central place in colonial imagination it is necessary to understand the scientist notions of race during this period. In shifting to caste as the most natural group around which information regarding Indian society was to be organized, British officials relied on their notions of race and physical types.

Risley (1892, 1908) was the most vocal proponent of using anthropometric measures in conducting the ethnographic survey of India because, according to him, anthropometry yielded particularly good results in India by reason of the caste system which prevailed among the Hindus.

Marriage, he observed, took place only within a limited circle. He also noted that the differences of physical types which measurement is intended to establish were more marked and more persistent than anywhere else in the world.

Relying on such symbolism as that of dark versus light skin colour and the shape of nose and jaw, the category of caste was thus collapsed with that of race. Ghurye (1932) was perhaps the first Indian sociologist to criticize this view of caste and to challenge its political implications.

As he noted, the theory of the racial origins of caste provided the basis for the idea of Brahmins as the descendants of Aryan invaders and fed the political processes of the non-Brahmin movements in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

It is not anyone’s case that the process of recording caste created this institution ex nihilo. In fact, as Cohn (1984) has argued, what it did was to objectify a particular definition and to freeze the ongoing processes by which caste came to be solidified in the official imagination.

It also generated the conception of community as an enumerative community which had a strong influence on processes of political representation. It is important to emphasize the fact that the census, gazetteers, reports, and other such forms of knowledge came to represent the power of official discourse to name and fix the status of caste groups in local mindsets.

As an embodiment of official authority, the census became a source for claiming higher status for a particular caste and census commissioners were besieged with petitions challenging a particular status ascribed to a caste.

In becoming a source of power at the local level, the census also had to respond to the processes of local politics and, as Smith and others have shown, the collaboration of local-level officials meant that the categories of official discourse could not be seen as completely cut off from the local discourses.

Nor could they be seen as neutral records of groups and categories on the ground. In fact the census has continued through this whole century as a political record of the national and regional politics of caste, especially in the context of the policy of caste-based reservations.

There were other contexts in which the generation of public numbers became crucial for such activities of the state as the control of epidemics.

The detailed statistics on the districts affected by cholera and the districts not affected in Bengal in the nineteenth century, for instance, were to prove crucial for selecting the sites for field testing in 1891 of the first laboratory-produced vaccine in human history, the vaccine against cholera.

Thus numbers were not only important as part of the technologies of power but were also seminal in generating ideas about the legitimacy of bio-medical research and forging relations between science and the state.

The transformation of moral and political sciences into what became partially institutional­ized at the end of the nineteenth century as the social sciences thus cannot be understood without taking into account the remarkable conceptual innovations made in response to other areas of expertise such as administration, law, and the needs of the emerging science of bio- medicine.

Equally important was the wider configuration of other disciplines, especially orientalist learning and its relation to philology and ethnology Trautmann (1997) has recently argued for a complex understanding of orientalist scholarship and the distinctive history of the discovery of Sanskrit by Europe.

What emerges clearly from his study is that the idea of a common family of languages under the rubric of Indo-European languages created the notion of a kinship between widely dispersed nations and brought into play the relation between language and physical types in defining notions of race.

He shows how the influential work of William Jones and the new scholarship gathered under the aegis of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta founded in 1784 was geared towards a Mosaic ethnology—the project being to form a natural defence of the Bible out of materials collected through oriental scholarship.

The method of finding etymological connections and reinterpreting Puranic myths in support of Biblical notions of the creation of the world and the dispersal of nations shows that the con­cern with mapping diversities came to be articulated within certain traditions of thought which are parallel to, but not strictly identical with the colonial articulation of interests.

One other aspect of colonial rule deserves mention. Because of the place that India came to occupy in European imagination, especially with the discovery of Sanskrit and the authority of the orientalists, the Pandits emerged as important interpreters of India to the West.

Not only did they act as teachers of language and scholarly interlocutors but many were also employed by the East India Company as experts on Hindu law. Derrett and Duncan (1968) showed that at least fifty Sanskrit treatises of law were known to have been produced under the patronage of the British or with their encouragement.

As with administrative categories that evolved at the conjunction of conceptual innovations in Europe and local knowledge and strategies, the notions of ‘law’, ‘custom’, and ‘religion’ also took distinctive shape in this period.

Although the discovery of Sanskrit came through the route of Persian, the collaboration between the Pandits and their European interlocutors created an image of India as a Hindu country with caste as its basic unit of social organization and cultural distinctiveness. Other strands which went to make up the civilizational fabric, especially the role of Islam and the period of Muslim rule, were not seen as an integral part of India.

Thus Hindus and Muslims came to be seen as distinct communities whose interactions were limited to the market place. The distinctive forms of politics came to be defined as communal conflicts and the relations between communities were not seen as made by history but by primordial loyalties and conflicts, subject to endless repetition.

Thus the vision of India as stabilized in the writing of British historiography and ethnology was that of a country which was pre-political, not yet capable of becoming a nation, and without the resources necessary to be able to enjoy the fruits of liberty and equality. It is not surprising then that the social sciences in India were preoccupied with the nationalist movement and the building of the nation.


6. Writing Under the Sign of the Nation:

The role played by nationalist historiography in challenging the colonial categories with regard to the unchanging nature of Indian society is well known.

The earlier generation of economic historians writing in the 1880s had challenged colonial theories purporting to explain India’s poverty as lying in the character of social institutions in India, by showing the dram of wealth from the colonies to the metropolitan centres and holding colonialism primarily responsible for the tardy industrialization and economic development of the country.

The new generation of social scientists who came into academic adulthood, so to say, at the time of Independent also saw an intimate relation between the social sciences and the task of nation building. Thus phrases such as ‘unity and indivisibility’ of India became part of the vocabulary of social sciences.

Amin (1999) has recently analyzed the importance of this vision in the articulation of the historian’s task through close attention to various presidential speeches to the Indian History Congress.

The following is a quotation from the first speech made to the Indian History Congress in 1947:

It is absolutely unnecessary to state that, so far as the historian of India is concerned the country has always been one and indivisible, and will always continue to be so. The unity of India is one of the fundamental postulates of Indian moral consciousness, and the longing for centralized administration has been one of the most visible and persistent demands of the political spirits of the Indians throughout the ages.

In the context of history, such a nationalist paradigm meant that not only was there a centrality accorded to political and economic history at the expense of social history, but also that many of the debates regarding the periodization of Indian history as well as the interpretations of the past were guided by the needs of the present.

As historians became actively involved in such nationalist projects as writing history books for schoolchildren, the emphasis was on the creation of a secular, harmonious vision of India’s past. Many of the current debates following the demolition of the Babri mosque, for example, continue to be informed by the needs of the nation.

In itself, this is not unique to India—witness the struggles over the representation of the fascist period in history books for schoolchildren in Germany. Further, the intellectual ambience of this period was one in which the new nation states emerging out of nationalist struggles and decolonization movements represented moments of hope.

Thus historians, as scholars who could correct the distortions of history introduced by the dominance of colonial historiography, and economists as those who could direct the rebuilding of the nation’s economy, had important roles to play.

It was not till the 1970s that the dominance of the nation as the proper subject of history came to be questioned, especially through the work of historians who defined their project as that of subaltern history Before I discuss that development, let me recount the parallel developments in the disciplines of sociology and social anthropology with regard to questions of nation.

I have already pointed out that Risley’s race-based theory of caste came under severe questioning in the work of Ghurye who thought that the theories of Aryan origin of Brahmins fed into the political processes of non-Brahmin movements in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

Thus the engagement of sociology and social anthropology in the questioning of colonial representations of Indian polity and society was evident: moreover, social anthropologists such as N.K. Bose, and historians like Kosambi and Rahul Sankrtayayan had worked in close collaboration with Gandhi and the nationalist movement.

What distinguished the stance of sociology and social anthropology towards issues of nationalism was first, the preoccupation with the conception of civilization and the resources it provided for building the nation and second, their attempts to add a dose of realism to the Utopian constructions of Indian democratic processes by illustrating how grassroots institutions functioned in the new political arenas such as of electoral politics.

Let us first consider the theme of civilization and nation. The discovery of Sanskrit, as mentioned earlier, and the prominent role played by the Pandits in the mediation between Sanskritic traditions and the colonial rulers had nurtured the idea of India as a place where ancient traditions coexisted with contemporary changes.

Hancock (1998) has recently documented the important role played by Sanskrit scholars, especially V. Raghavan who was Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Madras, in promoting Sanskrit in independent India as a medium of popular discourse and state ceremony.

It was felt that the introduction of Sanskrit as a language in school curricula, and its use in public ceremonies, would promote emotional integration and help to overcome the divisive influence of linguistic and religious diversity Hancock characterizes this as an attempt to create a new kind of cultural subject as an appropriate citizen of modern India, one who was a ‘tradition-infused modern citizen’.

This vision of the nation as made out of the resources of the indigenous civilization of course privileged the Hindu traditions and within that assumed the integrating role of Sanskrit as embodying the Great Tradition of Hindu society.

According to Hancock, the collaboration between Raghavan and MiIton Singer who was a participant in Robert Redfield’s ambitious project on civilization was an important moment in defining this particular vision of nation as a new collective formation based upon the civilizational principles of Hindu society.

The position of Brahmins within the civil services and their understanding of themselves as mediators between tradition and modernity gave salience to this project.

The distinction between Great Tradition and Little Tradition, then, recognized the diversity of religious traditions even within Hinduism but assumed that these could be blended into a harmonious whole by the assimilationist work which was presumed to have been historically performed by the Pandit traditions of Sanskrit writing.

There is little doubt that this was an elitist construction but Hancock’s own assumptions about the long association of Brahmanical traditions with Sanskritic Great Tradition mimics the colonial construction of these objects. In fact Sanskrit was not the exclusive language of Brahmins as is witnessed by its use, for instance, in the medieval period by the Jains.

However, Sanskrit had been associated before the first millennium with a certain kind of cosmopolitanism and, as Pollock (1996, 1998) has persuasively argued, it had spread from Afghanistan to (the present) Sri Lanka much before the emergence of the nation state.

Thus the new collectivity of the nation seems to have drawn from earlier traditions of Sanskrit as the language capable of transcending local and parochial interests. As it turned out, Sanskrit was not able to play this role and India managed to create and preserve its identity by the management of linguistic pluralism by other means, including the recognition of English.

The relation between civilizational values and the project of nation building was articulated very differently in Louis Dumont’s writing. In his inaugural lecture on assuming the chair of the sociology of India in Paris in 1955, he initiated the project of establishing a (new) sociology of India which lay at the ‘confluence of sociology and Indology’.

As I have explained earlier, this was hardly a new vision but it was presented as one which would provide the grounds for treating India as having a unity. Further, this unity was not conceived as deriving from its newly emergent status as a nation but from its values of hierarchy embodied in the caste system.

Dumont was not unaware of the fact that his assertion that the unity of India lay in the caste system could be construed both as a sociological proposition and a political statement; but he maintained a stance of complete separation between these two positions, creating in the process a curious division between his Indian readers and the modern European reader.

Have not some of our Indian readers found in the affirmation of the basic unity of Indian caste society more than a sociological proposition, something of a kind of political affirmation, not to say a weapon? To clear up all mis-apprehension it should suffice to recall that the unity to which we have referred not only is not a political unity [sic] but is a religious unity.

… And the course of Indian history as a whole confirms this. Seen from this angle the task of modern Indian statesmen is precisely to replace one sort of unity by the other. From a caste society to the nation the way is long, and the political task will look more arduous the more the nature of the existing unity will be understood.

The epistemological trap in Dumont’s writing here and one which can be detected in a wide range of writing is the assumption of a teleological necessity to the nation’s form by some scholars and an essentialist description of what constitutes a nation in others.

After all, the nation state is one way among others, along which collective identities have been historically organized and there is no reason to assume that the European experience represents a yardstick by which successes or failures of other experiments are to be decided.

Dumont’s (1966) formulation on the ‘whole course of Indian history’ confirming that India had opted for a religious unity as against political unity and hence the modern Indian collective identities were against the course of this history, manages to give a seamless unity to the course of Indian history.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the processes of colonialism which produced the present by the deep transformations it brought about in the political, economic, and social processes, also projected the results of these transformations as constituting timeless structural principles of Indian society.

In the impressive work of Pollock (1998), documenting the changes over a long period of time in the linguistic and literary practices in India, we get an indication of the methods required to overcome these formidable obstacles.

As he states it, ‘We must attempt to re-conceptualize the key terms of the problematic, culture and power, from within our empirical materials, resisting at once the pre-concepts of nationalized, colonized, and Orientalized thinking, and even perhaps of normal social science.’ Let us briefly review the conceptual innovations suggested by Pollock.


7. Sanskritization and Vernacularization: Rethinking Culture and Power:

Much of social science literature has been written under the sign of the nation one way or another. Although the critiques of colonial historiography generated by the subaltern school have questioned both colonial and nationalist historiography, they have been relatively less successful in explaining to us how we may overcome the obstacles created by the colonial in the creation of epistemological objects.

The idea that has gained the maximum currency in recent years of gathering together theory originating from the previous colonies under the general title of post-colonial theory does not address this issue adequately.

In Pollock’s excellent formulation, Vernacularization, it seems, most universally signals the protohistory of the nation. The second difficulty is whether we can even get to that history to query it, given the impact—or at least the estimation of the impact—of colonialism.

As a generation of brilliant South Asian historians has sought to demonstrate, colonialism effected changes in the economic, social, political, and cultural spheres that produced the present while making it appear to be the past.

The development of underdevelopment; the congelation of religious identities and their political mobilization (‘communalism’); the rigidification, and for some even the invention of caste; the establishment of a centralized state; the production of the nation, and of ‘India’ itself—these are all colonial and new but have been presented under the guise of ‘pre-colonial and traditional’.

This guise, for its part, is the artifice of the Western knowledge formation called Orientalism, and in view of the scholarship currently available it would appear that the claim often made—that epistemically, Orientalism is un-transcend able—is true.

Pollock’s own research strategy is to take a close look at the literary cultural textual materials in the period roughly between AD 1000 and AD 1500.

He finds that in the different parts of South Asia a process of vernacularization of literary texts began to take place so that people began to write in languages that in his words ‘did not travel’, as relative to Sanskrit that had monopolized the sphere of literary production in the preceding thousand years. Thus he detects an important difference between the literary culture embodied in Sanskrit and the vernacular.

He describes Sanskrit as cosmopolitan, because Sanskrit texts circulated from Central Asia to Sri Lanka and from Afghanistan to Annan and thus created a vast cultural ecumene.

The vernacular literature produced a regional alternative and a new ideology of language demonstrating that literary texts could be produced in vernacular languages. Pollock sees this development as directly related to the changed definition of sociality.

Vernacularization in South Asia was not related so much to religious change in this period as to new conceptions of kingship and the formation of new collective identities. The impetus towards the production of these texts came from the royal courts, especially in the south.

Thus we can see in this process of vernacularization (what some others have called early modernity) the formidable challenges to the unexamined beliefs that inform both our public culture and the social sciences on the nexus of power between Sanskrit and Brahmanism.

Further, theories of nation and language which propose that vernacular languages were popularized only after the formation of the nation state or the emergence of print capitalism seem to generalize from very limited historical material.

I am sure that such an enquiry which tries to see the relation between categories of culture and power without a pre-commitment to forms of collective identity considered appropriate under modernity is one way of opening access to India’s pasts without becoming mired in colonial categories.

In fact, the relation between Sanskritization and vernacularization may prove to be even more complex once the social historian’s attention shifts to the transformative period between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries in the different regions in India.

In Gujarat, for instance, the production of caste Puranas in this period was an attempt to produce and fix local histories of Brahmin and Bania castes who were losing their pre-eminence in royal courts with the rise of Jain and later Muslim kings or chieftains.

Yet this production of locality with which such castes were seen to have primordial connections used Sanskrit and was even parasitical on well-known Sanskrit Puranas, taking the same names and anchoring them to a completely different set of local events.

Pollock’s (1998) point that regions were produced through particular acts of political will is worth keeping in mind: it serves as an important corrective to the idea of changeless structural principles driving the whole course of Indian history in one direction.

If the historian and the literary scholar’s craft promise one route to creating new epistemic objects in the study of India, the social anthropologist’s and sociologist’s craft suggests another strategy.

By analyzing how grassroots institutions might alter the character of the very institutions that were created in the course of colon al rule, this strategy suggests that although even violent pasts have to be inherited the institutions that one inherits are made one’s own by taking responsibility for them This was signaled most prominently in the various studies on the role of caste in modern democratic processes.

The decade of the 1950s saw the emergence of full-length monographic studies of caste as well as collected essays on village studies, both within the of the notions of great tradition and Little Traditions and Srinivas’s  concern with foregrounding the ‘field view’ as against the book view of Indian society.

While the literary histories of Sanskrit and of the vernacular movement assumed the frame of cosmopolitan and regional levels, as we saw, the anthropological focus of village- level processes yielded the concept of a dominant caste.

Srinivas who coined the latter term (perhaps influenced by the concept of dominant tribe in African studies) argued that the Lai hierarchy of caste notwithstanding, the dominant role in village was played by the landowning peasant proprietor castes who were rarely Brahmins.

The relation between these rich peasant castes and the other castes in the village had the characteristic of patron-client relations. Thus Srinivas argued that the horizontal solidarity of caste expressed by endogamy and commensality was counterbalanced by the vertical solidarity observable at the village level through patron-client relations.

However, this very process also created fissions within the village so that factional politics came to be characterized as the typical form of politics in village society. What was interesting was the recognition during this period that the processes of democratic politics and especially electoral politics anchored party politics at regional and national levels to caste and factional politics at the village level.

In his presidential address to the Indian Sociological Society in 1957 entitled Caste in Modern India’, Srinivas had drawn attention to the continuing importance of caste in public life. The Times of India of 21 January 1957 reflected the opinion of many progressive intellectuals when it commented in an editorial that the role of caste had been greatly exaggerated by Srinivas.

Yet the newspapers also expressed the anxiety of many that caste loyalties played a significant role in electoral politics.

Over the years it has become a routine matter to calculate electoral alliances on the basis of the very processes of politics have also generated new categories such as Dalit-Bahujan or Other Backward Castes’ which bear the imprint of their political and judicial origins.

Indeed nothing demonstrates better the political plenitude of social scientific categories as the manner in which categories reflecting new alliances between castes or communities have found a way into the vocabulary of the social sciences. An interesting example is the history of the concept of untouchability and its transformations in political and social scientific discourse.

While it could conceivably be argued that some form of caste-based discrimination is to be found in all the legal Sanskrit texts, recent examination of the genealogy of the terms through which untouchability makes an appearance in discourse shows the importance of political and social processes in the negotiation of group identities in democratic societies.

The term ‘untouchability’ is ascribed to Sir Herbert H. Risley and was part of his effort to classify and rank castes in the subcontinent as a whole. While the category sudra occurs in the Sanskrit texts, its referents are varied, ranging from kings and powerful landowning castes to castes with extreme disabilities.

Prior to Risley, compilers of District Gazetteers and State Census Reports had experimented with other terms such as depressed classes, depressed castes, panchamas, and pariahs. The use of the term ‘untouchable’ in public life owed much to the reformist politics of the early twentieth century.

As is well known, Gandhi’s politics of reform and the nationalist movement made the abolition of untouchability, not only in law but also in social practice, an important part of his revolutionary message. In 1931, Gandhi adopted the term Harijan (people of god) and substituted it increasingly for other terms in his writings.

While the prototypical Harijan was for Gandhi a member of the Bhangi caste who cleaned lavatories and was thus rendered ‘unclean’, his major political opponent, Ambedkar, of the Mahar caste of Bombay Presidency, was much more interested in forging political alliances between the major agricultural dependent castes, whose low status came from their dependency rather than their ‘polluting’ occupations.

Nevertheless, Ambedkar retained the label ‘untouchable’ in his politics. A major part of this politics was the attempt of Gandhi to retain untouchables within the fold of Hinduism and Ambedkar’s movement to forge a separate identity for them.

The term ‘untouchable’ was like a Varna category in that it masked local heterogeneity Yet its importance lay in the binary division between untouchable and non-untouchable castes, for this division carried the signature of the governmental policy of reservations for untouchable castes.

The policy of reservations based on a quota system for broad categories by caste was part of the colonial policy to create allegiances to the state. By 1931, official measures to assist the depressed classes were much under way and lists of castes to be included into the category of untouchables were being compiled and tabulated.

Under the Government of India Act of 1935, the term ‘depressed classes’ was replaced by the apparently technical ‘Scheduled Castes’. The history of this concept provides a fascinating glimpse into the imperatives of reservations.

Initially untouchability was to be the criterion for the inclusion of castes into the list of Scheduled Castes. Galanter (1972, 1984) has described the difficulties of arriving at a list, given the differences in the south and north of India. The names of the castes that were finally included in the state lists formed a kind of unity only through a ‘common relationship their members have with government’.

In 1990 the term Dalit originated among the Buddhists and Scheduled Castes in Maharashtra and has since become the most commonly accepted term in the social science literature and in political discourse.

The most interesting feature of this phase of the movement of Dalit’s is the emphasis not only on political action but also on representation of the experiences of untouchable castes as a critique of caste society.

To show the intricate manner in which social science concepts come to have political plenitude is not to delegitimize such a commerce between the processes of politics and the making of social science but rather to show that the very heterogeneity of the actors who come to have voice in the making of social sciences accounts for the direction in which research moves.

To analyze these moves purely in terms of a history of ideas misses the important link between institutions and ideas as also the productivity of crisis in moving social science research in new directions.

Thus instead of taking a priori decisions on what does or does not constitute collective identities in modern democracies or who are the various publics that mediate between the official culture and the domain of the private, we can see how these institutions may themselves bend to the pressures of aligning culture and power in new ways.

Fidelity to the present or a self-conscious watchfulness over the traditions within which one writes, offers an opportunity for the sociologist to see the colonial transformation of categories in both public life and social science, and to make attempts to overcome the epistemic obstacles offered by these.

A host of other examples may be found in the provocation offered to sociology and social anthropology by scholars who pointed to the dominance of concepts taken from Hindu society and culture and then assumed to have universal application for all sections of Indian society, including Muslims and Christians.

The case for generating an understanding of Muslim communities as located simultaneously within Islam and in the political and cultural context of India was made strongly for instance, by Ahmad. Ahmad argued that Indian sociology had been equated with Hindu sociology and proceeded to edit a series of volumes which examined the impact of social space on the cultural practices of Indian Muslims.

It is interesting that this generated a debate as to whether Ahmad was compelled to present a view of Muslims compatible with the demands of the Indian state. One could detect an unconscious inscription of notions of good Muslims versus Muslims who had to compromise their allegiance to Islam because of the demands of a secular state, as if these notions could function as sociological categories.

Ahmad’s intervention was extremely significant, not because sociological and historical works on Islam and on Muslim communities were not available before this but because the implications of using concepts such as Sanskritization and Hinduization for representing an Indian sociology had not been so provocatively theorized before.

The emergence of social movements around issues of environment, gender inequalities, and health (to name a few) have similarly offered important critiques of the disciplines by interrogating notions of normality and pathology around which conceptual distinctions have been organized.

For instance, the role of the women’s movement in bringing the issue of sexual violence into public discourse has also provided an impetus for rethinking ideas about heterosexuality, reproduction, and sexual geographies in the classic field of kinship and marriage.

Similarly, careful demonstrations regarding the widespread misuse of antibiotics and injections have made a simple allegiance to ‘people’s beliefs’ or ‘native points of view’ in the studies on health and sickness extremely difficult to maintain.

These raise important and even fundamental questions about what kind of sociology may be pursued within universities and what relation this is to bear with knowledge produced in other areas such as the women’s movement or the environmental movement. This brings me to the final question of this essay: what is it to speak within or outside particular traditions of scholarship?


8. The Search for Tradition in India:

Modernity functions in ninny contexts as the ideology of the social sciences. This is not to suggest that there was not, indeed, a profound rethinking on human sociality in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe but rather, as Wittrock (2000) has argued, it was a different kind of rupture than has been assumed in the representations of modernity in the social sciences.

In short, modernity did not institute a complete break with the past, with the fantasy of making the world completely anew by instituting a new relation with the past (contained for Wittrock in the idea of promissory notes of modernity).

He asks for a rethinking on modernity in terms of a deeper understanding of its relation to the historical processes—the notion of promise assumes both a binding to the past and the openness of the future for subjects who are endowed with agency. 

Wittrock’s reformulation raises, then, the question of how we are to understand the relation between modernity as it functions as the ideology of the social sciences and the promissory notes of modernity The positioning of social sciences in India provides an interesting case for examining this question.

Modernization theory as it was formulated in the 1950s ended up presenting the western, especially American, case as providing the yardstick against which all other societies were to be measured.

This is not a question of authorial intentionality but of the consequences of the conceptual framework of pattern variables and the acceptance of the threefold classification of human activities into the activities of the state, the market, and the domain of the personal.

Given this formulation, it is not surprising that many Indian sociologists and anthropologists thought of modernity either in terms of its failures or in terms of the losses it entailed.

Sometimes formulated as a loss of roots or loss of authenticity, there was a certain longing for tradition and a feeling of fierce regret at its loss. In many of these formulations there was an acceptance of the claims made on behalf of modernity by the social sciences as a complete break with the past which, as we have seen, is a problematic assumption even for Europe.

How far the longing for tradition was a radical fear of the new promissory notes and how much the fear of confronting the pain of a tradition recognizing itself in change, in the possibility of exile, of there being an ‘elsewhere’, remains to be investigated.

The relation between tradition and the production of truth is most clearly formulated in the work of Gadamer (1981). It has been an abiding concern of the philosopher Stanley Cavell (1982, 1994) who considers the works of Emerson and Thoreau as the founding texts for the claims to philosophy within an American tradition.

The inheritance of a tradition, however, has to face many obstacles: one cannot inherit a tradition by birthright as it were. In this context too the assimilation of Indian traditions of philosophy and history as mere mythologies within European traditions of philosophizing has obscured the dense methodological issues on how to make Indian traditions into those which live and breathe in the contemporary context.

For the social sciences, these difficulties are compounded by the fact that Indian thinkers, at least according to one contemporary philosopher, had much less interest in theorizing the social than engaging with epistemological issues of the ultimate conditions under which knowledge may be possible.

Second, as some contemporary philosophers writing in both Sanskrit and English have argued, the asymmetry between modern (read contemporary) philosophy and the Indian schools is a result of the fact that traditional philosophy has not had the opportunity of interrogating contemporary western philosophy although the conclusions they draw from this may be quite different.

In the social sciences the call for indigenizing sociology, for building authentic traditions, and for rejecting imported models, is repeatedly made and indeed mirrors some of the anxious discourse in the public culture of India.

Occasionally this has led to acrimonious debate as between Saran and Dumont. At other times the appeal for swarajya in the field of science or experiments with translations between living Pandit traditions and contemporary forms of philosophy have made scholars realize the great difficulties of recovering one’s traditions, especially as living traditions rather than as museum pieces salvaged from extinction.

The question of what is one’s tradition is itself not easy to define. For example, Madan has reflected on this set of questions directly by asking how Indian sociology and anthropology might recover the capacity to write from within its own tradition.

But, as his work demonstrates, what defines ‘one’s own tradition’ may not be easy to decipher from a set of textual practices alone. For the generation of social scientists who built sociology and social anthropology after Independence, India is not only the land of karma, caste, and renunciation but also of moral responsibility to the present. Here again the social logic of space is interesting to reflect upon.

In much of the contemporary writing on anthropology in the West, the decolonizing movements are said to have created a crisis for anthropology In view of the fact that increasingly long periods of fieldwork in other societies are becoming difficult for graduate students of anthropology in American universities at least, there is a ‘reflexive turn’ and the emergence of anthropology as cultural critique.

Yet so fragmented are the intellectual communities that the major works in this area have never cared to relate these developments to the earlier traditions in countries like India and Brazil.

Conversely, although Indian sociologists and social anthropologists have engaged in serious social and cultural critique, they have rarely theorized these practices continuing to hold on to an ideology of fieldwork in locally bounded societies as providing the best strategy.

It is perhaps the necessary distance from home societies that diasporic communities achieved which gave them the impetus to theorize the notions of circulations, traffic, and flows between local and global domains, and above all the importance of an ‘elsewhere’ in defining tradition.

I am certain that the first decade of the new millennium will be an important decade of experimentation. Already scholars such as Marcus (1998) have suggested that the traditional emphasis on locally bounded fields be replaced by multi-sited ethnography.

Palsson and Rabinow (1999) similarly suggest that new forms of sociality (especially around biology) will create new communities of interest and that human nature as we have known it may itself be in a process of transformation.

While social sciences cannot be neatly divided into bounded national traditions, the experience of place and the micro processes of institutions where knowledge is produced and disseminated will surely orient the discipline in different ways.

Madan’s (1975) famous formulation on ethnographic work within one’s own society as making the familiar strange, marks a palpable tension between tradition as a discipline formulated across different countries and different historical contexts and as located within India.

With its long and complex history of movement between a cosmopolitan ecumen and a closure of regions, the traditions of social sciences in India and of India are poised to enter into new conversations at local, national, and global levels as not just matters of scale but also perspective.

It is hoped that by showing how communities of conversation are defining the disciplines of sociology and social anthropology across national boundaries and across disciplines, this Companion will also show the close relation between political processes and social theory.

For the student of Indian society and culture, whether located in India or elsewhere, I hope that the contributions are adequate testimony to the fact that though Indian scholars have consistently lamented the loss of their own traditions, they have in fact been engaged in the exciting task of establishing, inventing, and molding these traditions while also learning how to inherit them.

Perhaps the search for a ground on which ‘authentic traditions of sociology and social anthropology may be built needs to take into account the simple proposition that the ground is there—right beneath our feet.


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