Sociology is a loosely defined field of study and research in India as in other parts of the world. There are many different approaches to it, and even different conceptions of its scope. If we add social anthropology to it or include it in an extended definition of the subject, the scope is broadened even further.
In India, there has been a closer relationship between the two than in many other countries, and this may prove to be a source of their strength. But even here, there is no universal agreement about the relationship.
Some regard the two as practically synonymous; others maintain that they stand in a special relationship to each other; and yet others believe that anthropology is no more closely related to sociology than are other cognate disciplines such as history, political science, and economics.
It takes into account the work of social (and also cultural) anthropologists in a way in which it does not take account of the work of historians, economists, and political scientists. While emphasizing the study of Indian society and culture by Indian scholars, it also pays attention to the important contributions of scholars from other countries.
To say that the relationship between sociology and anthropology is a close one is not to suggest that it is free from tension. My own view of it has changed somewhat, partly as a result of changes in the orientations of the disciplines. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to avoid ambiguity of expression in an article of such wide scope.
In what follows, I have tried to cover sociology and social anthropology together, hoping that the context will make it clear when I use the term ‘sociology’ to include both and when I use it to cover the one as against the other. Needless to say, the ambiguity of expression is heightened by the fact that ‘anthropology’ has several faces of which ‘social anthropology’ is only one.
Since I have adopted the more inclusive conception of the subject, I would like to stress at the outset the variety of issues and problems that have received attention within it. In one obvious sense, sociology is what sociologists do, although it is not easy to describe succinctly and accurately the results of what they do.
More than in most other disciplines, sociologists have to respond to a fluid and changing reality. The sociologist (or social anthropologist) may find that not only have his concepts and methods become out of date, but that the very subject of his investigation has changed its shape within the span of his own professional career.
In a discipline the subject matter of which is itself in a continuous state of flux, it is an advantage to maintain open frontiers. Sociology is not a very old discipline in India, and those who occupied prominent positions in it in the years immediately before and after Independence came to it from a variety of other, older disciplines such as Sanskrit, economics, and political science.
They brought with them a variety of different concerns and approaches, and this variety is still reflected in the conceptions of the discipline held by its current practitioners.
While adopting an open and flexible approach to a relatively new and growing subject, it is essential to maintain some sense of the distinctive features of the discipline if a coherent and meaningful account of it is to be attempted.
In the broadest sense, sociology and social anthropology deal with social relations, social processes, social structures, social institutions, and social change in all societies comparatively in order to deepen the understanding of each society Some would say that sociology is at best a subject and not quite—or not yet—a discipline.
Nevertheless, it has in the course of time accumulated a body of concepts, methods, and data that, no matter how loosely integrated, gives it a distinctive shape and character.
The main work of interpretation and explanation in sociology is to place human actions and events in the context of the social processes, structures, and institutions within which they occur. Its concern is as much with actions and events as with their social context. Understanding this context requires the formulation of concepts and methods which have to be systematically applied.
These concepts and methods are of little value in themselves; their value lies in their use in the collection, arrangement, and interpretation of empirical material. We have today, as a result of sociological enquiry and investigation, a much larger body of reliable data than we had fifty years ago on virtually every aspect of Indian society and culture: village, caste, kinship, religion, economics, politics, and stratification.
This abundance of empirical material creates its own embarrassment: it has to be continually sifted through the application of concepts and methods to yield meaningful sociological accounts.
Sociological reasoning is informed by two distinctive tendencies: the search for interconnections among elements in a given social context, and the comparison and contrast of different social contexts. Sociology is at the same time general and particular in its concerns.
Its theoretical aim is general, for it seeks to understand how societies are constituted, how they function, and how they change; at the same time, it must address itself to the facts of each particular society or a section of it. A sociological account, no matter how consistent logically, cannot be adequate unless it is informed by a detailed knowledge of the available and relevant facts.
To describe the data of sociology as particular, and its concepts and methods as general is of course misleading because in any scientific work, the latter have to match the former. In every branch of scholarship, matching concepts and methods with the data is a difficult art in which complete or sustained success is rarely achieved.
Anxiety over their mismatch is a perennial feature of Indian sociology, and it gives rise to disagreements that are not always made explicit.
The anxiety referred to above is deepened by the awareness of a disjunction that is in some respects specific to the Indian situation. In the last hundred years or so, a large reservoir of theories, concepts, terms, methods, and procedures has been built on which sociologists in every part of the world draw upon for their work.
The tools of sociological enquiry and investigation were initially created by sociologists in England, France, and Germany, and many of the basic ones among them were already in place when the subject began its career in the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century in India. In this regard, India-like other countries in Asia and Africa-had the advantage of the latecomer, as well as its disadvantage.
The advantage lay in the fact that when Indian sociologists began their work in the 1920s and 1930s, they did not have to create anew all the tools of their trade, but found a ready-made stock at their disposal that could be put to use in their work. But this meant two things.
One, it stifled, at least to some extent, the creativity and innovation of Indian sociologists on the theoretical and methodological planes, encouraging the lazy habit of applying whatever was readily available to every kind of problem: why, some of them must have asked, try to reinvent the bicycle?
Two, it also established a gap on the plane of concepts, methods, and theories between western sociologists and their Indian counterparts. This gap still remains very wide and some would say that Indian sociologists have failed to be innovative both theoretically and methodologically because of their passive dependence on the work of western scholars.
More serious than the charge of passivity is the argument that concepts and methods in the human sciences, for all their claims to universal validity, are always coloured to a greater or lesser extent by the cultural matrix of their origin and provenance.
An uncritical application of these concepts and methods to other and different contexts entails the risk of distorting not only analysis and interpretation, but also the collection and arrangement of empirical material.
It is argued that such categories as family, class, and nation do not mean the same things in all places, and when they are turned directly into sociological concepts, they do not fit the reality equally well everywhere.
Beginning with the work of Evans-Pritchard (1962), social anthropologists have become increasingly sensitive to the problem of translating the categories developed in one cultural context for use in a different context.
In some ways, the problem of translation has a ways bedeviled sociologists since they have been unable to devise technical terms that are clearly distinct from the words used in everyday language.
It is well known that there is no exact English equivalent for the French term ‘sacre’ used extensively in the sociology of Durkheim, or the German term ‘politik’ used similarly in that of Weber. For all that, Anglophone sociologists have more or less successfully adapted these concepts to the requirements of their work.
The problem assumes a different magnitude, and some would say that it becomes qualitatively different, when we move from the western to the Indian context. Here the problem of translation is of a different order, and not merely in the literal sense of the word ‘translation. This may be illustrated by referring to the recent discussion of the concepts ‘secular, ‘secularization’, and ‘secularism’.
Some have argued that these terms as they are generally used in sociology are the products of the Enlightenment in Europe, and as such they are limited not only in their origin but also in their reach.
It is therefore maintained that even though there might be some indication of ‘secularization’ in India, the very method of studying the relationship between religion, society, and politics in India is flawed by the application of a perspective that is limited and distorting.
Of course, even those who are troubled most by the distortion caused by the application of western concepts and terms do not themselves wholly desist from drawing upon the common stock of sociological tools for their own work.
The question is not simply whether it would be desirable but whether it would be at all possible to do otherwise.
Much ground has already been covered by sociologists in India in the last seventy to eighty years; three or four generations of them have built up a cumulative body of information and knowledge; and some of them at least have shown considerable skill in drawing from the common reservoir of concepts and methods, adapting them to their own requirements, and even devising new tools of enquiry and analysis.
It would be too much to expect them now to turn their backs on this entire body of work in the hope of creating a whole new approach and discipline.It is to the credit of sociologists and anthropologists working in India that they have not allowed their genuine concern for alternatives to existing approaches, to seriously interfere with the continuous pursuit of their craft.
Three quarters of a century after its inception, sociology in India is now more than merely an individual intellectual pursuit. It is a discipline with a recognized place in universities and institutes of research; it has its own professional associations, national and regional, and its own scholarly journals.
The institutionalization of sociology, particularly since Independence, has contributed substantially to the growth and consolidation of the discipline.
Sociology and social anthropology are now taught in many of the post-graduate departments in Indian universities throughout the length and breadth of the country; they are also taught in numerous undergraduate colleges.
The two subjects were taught in only a few universities in the pre-Independence period when the size of post-graduate departments was generally small. Given the size and diversity of the country, the quality of teaching and research in the universities is highly uneven.
This is aggravated by the rapid and sometimes ill-judged expansion of universities and colleges. Here a certain aspect of the differentiation between the two disciplines may be noted.
The first department of anthropology was started in the University of Calcutta in 1922, and initially universities in the eastern region developed departments of anthropology rather than sociology. The first department of sociology was started at about the same time in the University of Bombay; and universities in the western region began in their turn with departments of sociology rather than anthropology.
This changed after Independence, but a noteworthy feature of developments thereafter is that attempts to establish departments jointly of sociology and social anthropology have been largely unsuccessful.
Apart from the universities, sociological research is actively conducted in several of the institutes of research set up mainly after Independence and now supported by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), such as those in Delhi, Bangalore, and Surat. The Council has been an active promoter of sociological research, although here again the quality of the research has been highly uneven.
Shortly after it was set up, the ICSSR commissioned surveys of the research being done in the country in sociology and social anthropology, as well as in other social science disciplines. Even a casual glance at the three volumes that were the outcome of this survey will suffice to give an idea of the range and depth of the research in these fields already in progress by the 1970s.
The growth of centres of study and research has been accompanied by a steady increase in the number and variety of publications by professional sociologists and social anthropologists. Apart from the steady and widening stream of scholarly books, there are professional journals.
Reflecting to some extent their differences in origin, background and professional organisation, there are different scholarly journals associated with sociology and social anthropology, although individual scholars publish their articles in some or all of these according to their intellectual interests.
The oldest surviving professional journal is Man in India, which was started in 1922 and caters to prehistoric archaeologists, physical and cultural anthropologists as well as sociologists. Sociological Bulletin began its career just after Independence, in 1951—it owes its special significance to the fact that it is the journal of the Indian Sociological Society, also established in 1951.
The other important journal, which has offered its pages to both sociologists and anthropologists, is Contributions to Indian Sociology which began publishing in 1957.
In addition, there are periodicals, not devoted solely to sociology or social anthropology, in which scholars in these disciplines publish their works regularly, the most notable being Economic and Political publication of Sociological Bulletin is one of the two principal activities of the Indian Sociological Society.
Its other principal activity is the sociological conference, now held annually every winter. The Society has well over a thousand life members, including more than a hundred foreign life members.
Although not every member attends each conference, there is nevertheless a large attendance. Working papers are presented and discussed in small groups, and there are plenary sessions addressed by both individual speakers and panels of speakers.
The Society chooses a particular theme for special attention at each annual conference. Some of the themes chosen for the annual conference in recent years have been: Identity, Equality, and Social Transformation; Cultural Dimensions of Social Change; Challenge of Change and Indian Sociology; and Ecology, Society, and Culture.
It may be noted that the choice of themes reflects a broad concern with problems and issues that are not merely sociological in a narrow academic sense, but also social in the wider sense: the thrust is to convert social issues into sociological problems.
Nevertheless, it influences the nature of sociological discourse in the long run. More generally, the annual sociological conference serves to provide unity and continuity to the profession by bringing together sociologists of different generations and from different parts of the country.
Before entering into a fuller consideration of the work being done by sociologists and social anthropologists in India, I will briefly discuss some of the basic issues and problems in the light of which this work has to be considered.
Here we have to keep in mind the fact that the discipline has grown in India as much through teaching at the postgraduate and undergraduate levels as through research in the restricted sense of the term with the notable exception of Patrick Geddes who lectured briefly on the subject in Calcutta and Bombay around the end of World War I.
The teaching of sociology has been conducted from the very beginning by Indians: L A K. Iyer and K.P. Chattopadhyay in Calcutta, C.S. Ghurye and K.M. Kapadia in Bombay; and Radhakamal Mukherjee and D.P. Mukerji in Lucknow.
Some of the early teachers, though by no means all, were trained in the West, but all of them brought to their teaching and research, the perceptions and concerns formed by their experience as members of Indian society.
Teaching is shaped not only by the perceptions and concerns derived from the teacher s social environment, but also by the books that are used by him. In the early phase most of the books used by teachers and students were written by European and American scholars who had very little direct experience of the Indian reality Soon Indian scholars began to write their own books, which they also used in their teaching.
The stream of publications by Indian sociologists in the decades since Independence has not driven out books produced in the West; indeed, there are many Indian scholars who now not only publish their books and papers in Europe and America but also write them there in part or in full.
The choice of books, in terms of both quality and provenance, remains an important issue in the teaching of sociology in India and there is considerable variation between universities in what gets chosen. The diversity’ contributes to the strength and vitality of the subject in India, and also to some of its confusions.
An important concern of students of Indian society and culture is the understanding of the Indian tradition, its unity, integrity, stability, resilience, vulnerability, and capacity for change. Sociologists address this problem in a particular way through the examination of the present as well as the past.
Understanding the past in the present is an important problem for sociologists everywhere, whether of a conservative or a radical persuasion, but the problem is particularly compelling in India because of the richness and depth of its tradition and its continued strength in contemporary life.
Sociologists and anthropologists, whether Indian or western, have sought to integrate the findings of classical studies with their work on contemporary India much more widely and actively than has been the case with sociological studies of contemporary western societies.
Among the outstanding names are G.S. Ghurye, N.K. Bose, Irawati Karve, Louis Dumont, and McKim Marriott. Several prominent members of the first and second generations of Indian sociologists—Benoy Sarkar, G.S. Ghurye, K.P. Chattopadhyay, K.M. Kapadia, and Irawati Karve—were either trained as Sanskritists or well versed in classical literature.
They tried to use their familiarity with that literature in their investigation of contemporary forms of family, marriage, kinship, clan, caste, sect, and religion. In European and, even more in American sociology, tradition is a specialized topic of enquiry: in the sociology of India, it features as a general concern in the study of many different topics.
The real disagreement among sociologists of India is not over the importance of tradition as a subject of study; it is over the possibility—and also the need—of drawing upon tradition to develop a distinctive method for the study of society and culture.
This is not the place for examining the merits of the different arguments. Suffice it to say that some would argue that the mismatch between methods and data in Indian sociology arises precisely because Indian tradition is ignored in formulating the appropriate approach to the problems under study.
Others would say that tradition can be adequately taken into account by applying to its study, concepts and methods drawn from the common pool of sociological knowledge.
The Indological approach, which has been advocated by such diverse scholars as Louis Dumont (1966) and A.K. Saran (1962), has to be distinguished from the historical approach which seeks to relate contemporary social institutions and processes to their immediate historical settings, especially in the colonial period.
Here there are obvious parallels with the historical sociology of such western scholars as T.H. Marshall (1977) and Charles Tilly (1981), although the themes addressed are naturally different. In India, as elsewhere, not all sociological enquiry is equally informed by a historical perspective.
Some enquiries pursue an institution (such as the university), an ideology (such as nationalism), or a movement (such as the peasant movement) across a particular stretch of time, and here the work of the historically informed sociologist differs little from that of the sociologically informed historian.
Other enquiries focus more specifically on present social arrangements, with only passing attention to the historical context of those arrangements.
While the historical approach in one form or the other has been used by many sociologists, it has been favored particularly by Marxist sociologists or those under the influence of Marxism. Some of the most influential historians of India have been Marxists, and it cannot be denied that there is some affinity between the materialist interpretation of history and certain influential sociological approaches.
A good example of the use of the historical approach from this point of view is the work of A.R. Desai (1959) on the social background of Indian nationalism which has received considerable attention from students of sociology, history, and politics in India. The historical approach has also been widely used by sociologists engaged in the study of agrarian relations.
Sociology in India has benefited above all from the contributions of descriptive and analytical ethnography as exemplified by the work of a long succession of scholars beginning with S.C. Roy and L.A.K. Iyer.
As compared to Indology and even history, ethnography was something of a new departure for Indian scholars, and it has remained central to sociological studies s of India. Ethnographic enquiry began as a very different kind of intellectual pursuit from Indological or even historical scholarship.
Its requirement of field investigation was based on the model of the natural sciences rather than of humanistic scholarship.
Whereas Ideologists and historians devoted themselves to noble, lofty and elevated subjects ethnographers seemed to go out of their way to observe and describe the habits and customs of poor, humble, and illiterate people; before Independence, social anthropologists devoted themselves to a very large extent to the study of tribal communities.
Fei Hsiao-Tung (1939), the pioneer of Chinese ethnography, has reported how the whole approach of this work appeared unprofitable, unattractive, and even perverse to the traditional Chinese intelligentsia immersed in the learning of books. Ethnographic enquiry was, if anything, even more alien to the Brahminical than to the Mandarin intellectual tradition.
If sociological enquiry in India is concerned with tradition, it is no less concerned with modernity and modernization. Indeed, the two concerns are closely related, as is evident the titles of such influential works as When a Great Tradition Modernizes by Milton Singer (1972) and Modernization of Indian Tradition by Yogendra Singh (1973).
These twin concerns with tradition and modernity present important challenges, both empirically and normatively, to sociologists of India, many of whom show a marked ambivalence towards each.
Indian intellectuals were made conscious by their colonial rulers of the fact that theirs was a static, not to say stagnant, society with very little inherent capacity for change: the idea of the Asiatic Mode of Production was, after all, adapted from the writing of James Mill on India.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century, under the impact of the colonial encounter, they turned their thoughts to the regeneration and transformation o their society.
Some sought to base this regeneration on a modified concept of Indian value while others called for a more radical break with the past. This debate about adapting traditional values to present needs and making a break with the past is an important aspect of the Indian intellectual climate to this day, and it naturally colours the work of contemporary sociologists.
India independence in 1947 marks a kind of watershed not only politically but also intellectually. As I have noted, there was a marked expansion in the work of sociologists, accompanying the growth of universities and other centres of advanced study and research. Part of this institutional growth was a response to the perceived need for coping more adequately with the demands of modernization.
It will be fair to say that among Indian social scientists in general, the revival of tradition took a back seat in the first two decades of Independence their sights being set more firmly on the challenges and possibilities of development and modernization.
But before long, a kind of disenchantment set in, and just as tradition had been questioned and criticized in the earlier phase, there emerged in the course of time a more sceptical and critical attitude towards modernity.
No matter which institution the sociologist studies in contemporary India-village caste, temple, factory, laboratory, or hospital-he cannot help observing and recording the changes taking place in it. To some extent this is so irrespective of his attachment to tradition or to modernity as a value.
All studies of change are of course made within some kind of framework, explicit or implicit, of description and analysis. There has been much debate in India, as elsewhere, between Marxists and non-Marxists over the adequacy for the understanding of change o the ‘structural-functional’ framework used extensively by social anthropologists, particularly in their case studies.
The study of social change has often been driven by the urge to give direction to it by analyzing its causes and conditions. In the early years of Independence, much hope was placed on the transformation of society through conscious and planned effort.
The country had fashioned a new Constitution that set its back on the old hierarchical order.
Planners, policy makers, and educators applied themselves to the removal of poverty, illiteracy, superstition, inequality, oppression, and exploitation, and to the creation of a new social order based on equality, justice, freedom, and material prosperity. Naturally enough, Indian social scientists did not wish to fall behind in this exciting venture.
In all this, the lead was taken among social scientists by economists, for it was widely believed then that social change would be driven in the desired direction by economic development.
But economic development itself had to be broadly conceived, and in any case it could not be understood or managed without taking into account its social causes and consequences. Hence sociologists and social anthropologists were associated from the beginning, though not as major players, with research on development and change.
Such research is conducted at many places, in the universities of course, by agencies of the government, and in autonomous research institutes. The latter were often set up with the specific objective of providing the intellectual tools for analyzing and recommending change.
This is often evident from their very names: Institute of Economic Growth, named at first Institute for the Study of Social and Economic Growth (Delhi); Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (Delhi); Institute for the Study of Social and Economic Change (Bangalore); Centre for Development Studies (Trivandrum); and Madras Institute of Development Studies (Madras), to name only the prominent ones supported by the Indian Council for Social Science Research.
Before closing this section, I would like to point out two important dilemmas that are an inescapable part of the predicament of the sociologist as an intellectual in contemporary Indian society The first, to which I have already alluded, relates to the tension between tradition and modernity that is pervasive not only in what the sociologist studies, but also in his own intellectual make-up.
Sociological enquiry as we know it, whether in the West or in India, makes some kind of break with traditional forms of knowledge. At the same time, it has to address itself in India not only to traditional social arrangements but also to traditional norms and values. Is the orientation characteristic of modern systems of knowledge adequate for a sympathetic understanding of these norms and values?
This question leads to the second and deeper issue of the relationship between value judgements and judgements of reality in sociological enquiry. This has always been a vexed issue, and nowhere and at no time have sociologists achieved complete consensus on it.
There are those who believe that a separation can and should be maintained between the two; there are others who argue that this separation is unnecessary and undesirable, and that it impoverishes both thought and action; and there are still others who say that, although the separation is in principle desirable, it is extremely difficult to maintain in practice.
Although debates over approach and method continue to be very important, the real progress of sociology and social anthropology has been through the steady flow of substantive studies in a variety of different fields. I will dwell mainly on the work done since Independence, that is during the last 50 years although that work would amount to little without the groundwork prepared during the earlier phase.
Even then, the field is vast, and I will deal especially on those areas that have received continuing attention during this period in both research and teaching. I will take account of work done by Indian and foreign scholars in as I believe that their collaboration is a major source of vitality of the discipline.
In entering into empirical social enquiry, Indian sociologists and social anthropologists were moving against the grain of the Indian intellectual tradition whose strength lay in formal disciplines such as mathematics, grammar, logic, and metaphysics rather than empirical disciplines such as history and geography.
A major development that began immediately after Independence was the entry by professional sociologists and social anthropologists into village studies. In their earlier empirical work, Indian anthropologists, like anthropologists everywhere, had concentrated on ‘tribal’ or ‘primitive’ communities.
Village studies today are a continuing source of the deeper and wider understanding of society, economy, and polity in contemporary India. They are significant at more than one level.
They are important not only for their substantive findings but also for the grounding they provide to scholars in the craft of their discipline. It is in and through the village that the Indian social scientist began to grasp the significance of what Srinivas has called the ‘field-view’ as against the ‘book-view’ of Indian society.
The enthusiasm for village studies in the 1960s and 1970s created something like a community of scholars, Indian as well as foreign, who interacted or at least communicated actively with each other over their work.
At least among Indian scholars, the distinction between sociology and social anthropology, which remained an obdurate feature of western social science, was largely set aside in the pursuit of this common venture.
From the 1950s into the 1970s, sociology and social anthropology in India were virtually dominated by village studies, having largely displaced the study of tribes amongst whom anthropologists in the pre-Independence period carried out fieldwork.
Village studies are still extensively conducted in every region in the country, and they raise a number of important questions regarding the nature of Indian society is the Indian village a ‘little republic’ as was widely believed up until the 1950s? Was it ever a little republic? One study after another showed that the Indian village is not and probably never was an isolated and self-sufficient community of equals.
Through their detailed analyses of inequality and of the conflict of interests in the Indian village, sociologists began to question the very idea of community as it applied to the village as a whole.
Part of the impetus for village studies came from the ideas of Gandhi, Tagore, and many others who saw India as a land of villages. Many anthropologists took the position that the village was a kind of microcosm in which the macrocosm of the wider world was reflected in miniature.
Few, however, confined their attention exclusively to the village. They examined the networks based on the ties of marriage, kinship, economics, politics, and religion that stretch outward from the village. Not only are new villages being taken up for investigation, some of the old ones too are being restudied.
In the wake of Independence, the Indian village occupied the minds of many, and not merely professional social scientists. There were those interested in village studies and the ones interested in village reconstruction; and there was a convergence of interest and collaboration between them.
Jayaprakash Narayan presented a document entitled A Plea for the Reconstitution of Indian Polity in which the village was given pride of place.
The Community Development Programme generated a variety of investigations to which sociologists made contributions; notable among these was India’s Changing Villages by S.C. Dube (1960). After the social anthropologists had opened up the village as a field of study, scholars from other disciplines followed.
It will not be unreasonable to claim that village studies, more than any other enquiry, brought the work of social anthropologists to the attention of scholars in such diverse fields as political science, economics, demography, history, and geography in the first two decades after Independence.
Closely associated with village studies were studies of caste. Discussions of caste had figured in the writings of Ideologists and historians long before the era of village studies. But the 1950s and 1960s witnessed the beginning and consolidation of a somewhat different approach to the study of caste.
This new approach lay in the move away from the ‘book-view’ to the ‘field-view’ of the subject. Here, the brief essay by Srinivas (1962), ‘Varna and Caste’ was a turning point. The essay was a trenchant attack on the book-view of caste based on the Varna model which, according to Srinivas, gave a distorted and misleading picture of the Indian social reality.
Srinivas argued that the real operative units of the system were not varnas but jatis and that these had to be understood in their local and regional contexts, and not in terms of a general and purely formal scheme.
Srinivas’s work opened the way for an examination of the dynamics of caste in contemporary India. Caste could no longer be viewed as a harmonious system in which each part maintained itself in its appointed place in an unchanging order.
There were fierce conflicts of interest between castes at the village, district, and regional levels. By drawing attention to the enhanced role of caste in democratic politics, Srinivas brought the work of sociologists and social anthropologists to the attention of a wider audience.
If it is commonplace among journalists today to speak of Indian politics in terms of caste, they owe something to the work begun by sociologists and social anthropologists in the 1960s. Close examination of the operation of the system on the ground also showed that the hierarchy of caste was not as rigid and inflexible as it had been assumed to be.
The analysis of caste mobility through the process described by Srinivas (1962) as ‘Sanskritization’ altered the perception of Indian society not only among sociologists and political scientists who study the present but also among historians who study the past.
In India, the best empirical material has come out of qualitative research based on intensive fieldwork, although survey research and quantitative analyses have also made some contribution.
This research examines in detail, structure and change in a variety of specific institutional domains—kinship, religion, economics, and politics. We have as a result a much fuller knowledge not only of Indian society and culture in general, but also of the variety of institutions that are their constituent parts.
We may begin with family, marriage, and kinship. Detailed empirical research has altered, and to some extent corrected, some common misconceptions about the contemporary as well as the traditional forms of these important aspects of Indian society A.M. Shah (1973, 1998) has shown that the Hindu family was often small in size and simple in morphological form even where it was joint in its legal form. LP. Desai (1964) demonstrated that the ‘sentiment of jointness’ retains much of its strength even after families have been legally partitioned.
Shah has demonstrated through careful analysis of demographic material that the size of the Indian household was on average always relatively small, and that there is little hard evidence to support the view that there has been significant change in the balance of nuclear and joint households from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century Ramkrishna Mukherjee (1983) has used surveys to analyze the composition of different types of families in contemporary India.
The ties of kinship and marriage extend beyond the family and household, and have been examined through case studies by a number of anthropologists, notably A.C. Mayer (1960) and T.N. Madan (1965).
Madan’s work examines the ties of the individual not only with his patrilineage but, through bilateral filiation, with a variety of other relatives, near and distant Not only is the family embedded in the wider kinship structure, but that structure is itself embedded in caste.
Irawati Karve (1968) presented the challenging argument that, given sufficient patience and care, it could be shown that each jati was a single genealogical system. Adrian Mayer demonstrated the linkages between caste, sub-caste, kindred of recognition, and kindred of cooperation through his field investigation in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh.
The work of Srinivas (1952) on the Coorgs was a watershed in the sociological study of religion. It examined in detail the operation of religious belief and practice in the setting of a small and relatively compact community.
Following Radcliffe-Brown (1933), Srinivas adopted a structural-functional framework and showed how ritual and belief contribute to the unity and identity of groups at different levels: the household, the village, and the region. But unlike most anthropologists of his time, Srinivas also examined the relationship between local religious belief and practice and the wider universe of a world religion.
This study opened the way for examining the interplay between local and wider religious systems. The wider study of Hinduism has led back to the examination of religious texts, now in a perspective enriched by empirical investigations in the field.
The wider study of Hinduism has drawn attention to two important aspects of the relations between religion, society, and politics in contemporary India. These are secularism and communalism, each of which may be viewed in terms of both ideology and practice.
Communalism is not an easy subject to study by means of the conventional methods of sociological enquiry, whether through survey research or participant observation. For a long time, it was studied more widely by historians than by sociologists, but the latter have now begun to enter the field where they find much scope for collaboration with the former.
Sociologists have been more at ease with secularism, or at least secularization, in the study of which they can have recourse to a much wider body of comparative material in their own discipline. In the village studies they undertook, some social anthropologists turned their attention to local-level politics, and an empirically grounded political sociology made its beginnings in India during the 1960s.
This acquired added impetus from the enthusiasm for the institutions of Panchayati Raj in the country Political scientists who had till then concerned themselves mainly with national and state politics, also turned their attention to local-level politics, and the convergence of their interests with those of social anthropologists led to some very fruitful collaboration.
An outcome of that collaboration was the book Caste in Indian Politics edited by Rajni Kothari (1971). Sociologists, social anthropologists, and political scientists have also collaborated for the study of elections.
Sociologists and social anthropologists have studied economic structures and processes, particularly in the rural areas. The traditional village economy of land and grain with its associated crafts and services has been undergoing many changes.
Jajmani relations are breaking down, and the old relations between patrons and clients are being altered by the cash nexus and the demands of the market. Economists and anthropologists now discuss and debate with each other the choice of methods best suited to the investigation of these and other problems.
A central problem in Indian society as well as the sociology of India is that of inequality One of the early village studies addressed itself to class and stratification in an effort to bring together some of the central conceptual and theoretical concerns of classical sociology with the method of intensive fieldwork distinctive of social anthropology.
It examined the changing relations between caste, class, and power in a single village, although it also drew attention to the action of external forces in initiating or hastening the change. Similar studies have been and are being conducted in many parts of the country and outside.
The more general problem of inequality has been examined in a variety of sociological perspectives of which two are of particular significance. The first of these is best exemplified in the work of Louis Dumont (1966) which has had a far-reaching influence on sociologists in India.
In this work, the defining feature of Indian society is seen as hierarchy, itself an aspect of holism; and hierarchy is sharply distinguished from both stratification and class.
Hierarchy is conceived by Dumont and his followers in terms of values, and in this conception, status is given primacy over power. Caste is the most striking institutional form taken by hierarchy, although in a more general way, both religion and kinship are also permeated by it.
This distinctive approach to Indian society and culture found its fullest expression in the influential journal. Contributions to Indian Sociology, particularly in its earlier phase.
A very different, though no less influential, approach to inequality derives its inspiration from Marxian theory, and its exponents have published extensively in Economic and Political Weekly. Here the emphasis is on class and material interests rather than caste or hierarchical status. In the study of contemporary India, sociologists continue to disagree on the importance to be assigned to caste and class.
The study of class brings together the work of sociologists, economists, political scientists, and historians. The subject can and has been studied at different levels, and sociologists and anthropologists have probably made their best contributions to it by studying it in the context of agrarian relations at the local level.
Not all sociologists who study class adopt the Marxian framework, and of course class and caste are often studied together. A number of sociologists have also addressed themselves to the problems of stratification and mobility in relation to the modern occupational structure.
Caste and class are brought together in the study of not only stratification but also politics. I have already alluded to studies of caste politics at various levels by sociologists; these studies tend to be descriptive and analytical and do not generally have any clear or distinctive normative orientation.
For Marxists, however, the politics of class is a matter not only of theory but also of practice. Partly as a result of the evidence brought to light by sociologists in the last two or three decades, Marxists are now inclined to pay more attention to caste in their political analysis than before.
The role sociologists assign to caste in politics depends to some extent on their assessment of the significance of collective as against individual identities in Indian society This is a subject of continuing interest which was sharply posed by Dumont’s contrast between India and the West in which India is characterized, on the plane of values, by holism and hierarchy, and the West by individualism and equality.
Dumont’s categorical assertion that the individual has no place in Indian society has of course been questioned. At the same time, both sociological investigation and political experience illustrate the continuing importance of collective identities of every kind.
When we examine Indian politics sociologically, we find that caste does not operate alone, but together with a whole family of collective identities based on language, religion, sect, tribe, and so on.
The terms ‘ethnic group’, ‘ethnic identity’, and ‘ethnicity’ have been used for referring to their operation, and it is interesting that the word jati or jat is now widely used in more than one Indian language to refer to the identities not only of caste in the narrow sense but also of language, religion, sect, and tribe. Their constitution and operation are now being increasingly studied by both sociologists and political scientists.
I have described selectively rather than exhaustively some of the areas through whose investigation sociological study and research have grown continuously in the last fifty years.
Village, caste, kinship, religion, politics, economics, and stratification may be described as established or core areas because of the length of time over which they have received attention and the number of scholars who attend to them in their teaching as well as research.
While work continues to be produced in each of these areas, a number of new areas have come into prominence in the last couple of decades, and some of the most interesting and original work is now being done there.
Among the new developments, pride of place must be assigned to gender studies of which there has been a veritable explosion worldwide and in India since the 1980s. A good idea of the work being carried out by sociologists in this field may be formed by seeing the interdisciplinary Indian Journal of Gender Studies of which the founding editor is a sociologist.
It would be fair to say that until only a couple of decades ago, men and women were given unequal attention in all fields of sociological enquiry with the possible exception of family, marriage and kinship.
This has now changed substantially, and women receive far more attention, although still rather less than their due share of it, in every field of sociological enquiry, including economic sociology, political sociology, and social stratification. More important than that, the concern with gender has brought a new perspective into sociology that has enriched not only its data but also its concepts, methods, and theories.
The impetus to the development of women’s studies has come from a variety of sources. First, it is a worldwide phenomenon, and the cross-fertilization of ideas across countries and continents has been remarkably quick and effective. But in India, institutional support has also played a part.
A turning point in this development was the publication of the influential report. Towards Equality of the Committee on the Status of Women in India.
Today, women’s studies receive active support from both the Indian Council of Social Science Research and the University Grants Commission. The former supports the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, and the latter provides special assistance for programmes of women’s studies in several universities.
A second relatively new interest that has already made its mark and is likely to extend its influence among sociologists is the study of the environment. This is an area in which research and policy are closely combined. Sociological research on the environment does not arise from academic interest alone, but is also driven by the active concerns of governments and non-governmental organizations.
Health and medicine are also attracting increasing attention from students of human society and culture. There are innumerable issues in this area, and even to list them would be impossible here. We now understand more clearly, partly through the work of anthropologists that the very conceptions of health and disease are themselves cultural constructions, at least to a large extent.
There are large variations across cultures and within them in real and perceived illnesses, and sociologists and anthropologists play a crucial part in mapping these variations. They also play a part in analyzing alternative systems of knowledge and practice in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.
There are alternative systems not only of medicine but also of science itself. It is a truism that scientific research is conducted in different ways in different social settings. There are differences in the resources available, in institutional facilities, and in the material and symbolic rewards of scientific work.
Beyond these is the question of the hegemony and authority exercised by science and scientists in the metropolitan centres over their counterparts in the less developed areas; part of the impulse for the sociology of science in India, as for other branches of sociology, comes from the urge for national self-reliance.
We must note that sociology and social anthropology have been criticized everywhere by radicals of various persuasions for their conservatism, and for the bias inherent in their theoretical orientation towards order and stability as against conflict and change.
It is undeniable that sociology has had very little success in developing an adequate theory, whereby change and conflict can be explained.
Not only that, its conventional methods, whether based on intensive fieldwork on a single site or on survey research on dispersed populations, cannot be adapted easily to every type of enquiry Inevitably, certain issues and problems, not easily amenable to description and analysis by conventional methods, receive little or no attention from academic sociologists, and becomes a source of disquiet among the consumers of sociology.
Those who observe and experience life in contemporary India are struck by the pervasive violence, both private and public, by which it is marked. Sociologists of the family and political sociologists are beginning to take note of it in their respective studies.
But the subject of violence needs to be addressed on its own terms, for it provides challenges and opportunities for sociological enquiry across its entire range. Some interesting work has already emerged as a result of this concern.
Today, the sheer volume and diversity of sociological output would justify the observation that the subject has come of age in India. Has the work of sociology in India acquired a distinctive identity? If such an identity exists underneath the sheer variety of the work being done, it is unlikely that it can be represented by any simple formula.
Nor can its development within the country be explained in intellectual terms alone as the unfolding of a few elementary principles applied successively to the various segments of an external reality.
On the plane of ideas, there is the general stock of sociological knowledge on which as I have repeatedly indicated sociologists working in India, both Indian and foreign, have drawn freely and continuously Beyond this there is a rich and active, though often confusing, intellectual life in India which never ceases to provide stimulus to sociological enquiry.
Finally, there is the distinctive experience of a complex and changing society that gives something of its own colour to the studies, no matter how general or abstract, which are based on it.
The Indian experience offers significant material for examining the relationship between facts and values in the study of human society Sociologists and social anthropologists in India have been influenced, one and all, though in varying degrees, by concepts and methods that are largely of external provenance.
These concepts and methods have themselves been shaped, to a greater or lesser extent, by values that are too freely assumed to be universal; to the extent that these assumptions are subjected to critical scrutiny in the course of enquiry and investigation, the scope of sociology is itself enlarged.
New concepts and methods do not emerge unless the existing ones are tested through actual enquiry, found wanting, discarded, modified, and replaced.
New insights do not emerge in an empirical science solely from the internal critique of the intellectual apparatus of the discipline. Their emergence also depends on the extent to which new experiences are purposefully and methodically addressed.
Every Indian sociologist has a larger life outside the classroom and the study which forces him not only to observe and experience reality but also to judge it. The judgements that are formed by everyday experience and that give shape to it seep into the formulation of his sociological problems.
This is true everywhere, and it would be remarkable if the dependence on ‘alien’ concepts and methods were to insulate the Indian sociologist completely from the concerns and judgements based on everyday experience.
Sociology has developed in different ways in different climes, and it is not uncommon for the discipline to acquire something of the colour of the environment in which it grows.
As far back as in the 1930s, Karl Mannheim (1953) wrote two essays in which he contrasted the orientations of German and of American sociology: one of his arguments was that the Americans sought to be more ‘scientific’ and value-neutral in their sociology than did the Germans.
Sociology has often had a close association with social policy At the same time, its autonomy as an intellectual discipline may be compromised if it is too narrowly defined as a ‘policy science’.
Raymond Aron is reported to have observed, somewhat disparagingly, that the trouble with British sociology in the post-War years was that it was too closely concerned with trying to make intellectual sense of the political problems of the Labour Party.
Sociology will be greatly impoverished if it chooses as its sole or even its main concern the task of making intellectual sense of the political problems of any party or, indeed, any institution of society, including the state and the church.
Indeed, sociology cannot achieve its proper purpose without maintaining some distance from the Church and the state, and from the day-to-day political concerns in general. Commitment to one’s own values in the pursuit of sociological research has to be clearly distinguished from partisanship in the cause of the established institutions of society. The former fertilizes it, the latter sterilizes it.
In India, the State has not dictated or interfered directly with sociological research, although the Indian Council of Social Science Research, funded by the government, has made weak and, on the whole, ineffectual attempts to establish the priorities of research.
State funding has led to research that has been more often critical than approving of the work of governments. Sociologists employed by agencies of the government have made little impact on either teaching or research in their discipline, although an exception may be made of the Anthropological Survey of India.
In India, political parties and sociologists have made very little direct use of each other, and this on the whole has been to the advantage of both. The influence of religious organizations has been equally weak, and sociologists have rarely received financial support from corporate capital or felt inhibited from attacking its interests.
For all its many sins, it has to be admitted that Indian society has allowed sociologists to do their work in freedom without any organized interference.
Despite maintaining a distance from the state and party, or perhaps because of it, sociology in India has been marked by a strong moral and even political impulse. Here there is a striking difference between Indian and non-Indian students of Indian society and culture.
The former are engaged to a far greater extent, politically and morally, not only in their selection of problems but also in their style of argument than western scholars, whether the latter are anthropologists writing about India or sociologists writing about their own society At the same time, what is noteworthy about this engagement is more often its vehemence than its focus.
In reviewing the work of Indian sociologists. One is struck by a much greater sense of urgency to make their work socially relevant than in the work of European or American sociologists; some prefer to speak of cultural authenticity in place of social relevance.
This is combined with the persistent criticism from within and outside the discipline that it is enslaved by imported methods, concepts, and theories and is as such remote from the Indian reality All of this is valid to some extent, for it is true that sociologists in India lean a little too heavily on methods and concepts that were developed in other contexts.
It is also true that they are concerned almost single-mindedly with making intellectual sense of the Indian experience; Indian sociologists have paid very little attention in their research, though not in their teaching, to other societies and cultures. However, posing the problem in extreme terms does little to bridge the gap between what ought to be addressed and how it ought to be addressed.
It is necessary to understand and appreciate the impulse to make sociology and social anthropology socially relevant. This impulse can serve to stimulate the most fruitful intellectual work; it can also lead to slipshod, superficial, and unfocused research of no lasting value.
To adapt a phrase from Max Weber, research is a slow boring of hard boards, whereas urgent problems call for immediate solutions. Indian sociologists are often impelled to undertake research that is ill-conceived and unproductive, not so much under directives of government or party as from the pressure of public opinion.
The questions that come up for discussion in seminars, conferences, and congresses of sociologists and anthropologists are more likely to be poverty, inequality, and untouchability rather than rates of mobility, forms of rituals or types of marriages.
The former are perceived as socially relevant and the latter as merely academic and the contrast expresses not merely a distinction but also a judgement. Not everybody believes that a choice has to be made between the two, but where such a choice must be made, the bias is in favour of the socially relevant.
Turning a social problem into a sociological one calls for a delicate combination of skills that cannot be conjured into existence by well-meaning sociologists, still less by committees of well-meaning sociologists.
And yet, the expansion of the profession and its continuing concern for urgent problems has spawned a large number of such committees to deliberate upon the priorities of research. In the deliberations and recommendations of these committees, the line between sociology and current affairs is easily crossed.
Where sociology merges with current affairs, the craft of sociology suffers. With the phenomenal increase in the size of the profession during the last two or three decades, the problem of maintaining quality in research has become worrisome. After all, sociological research must be not only relevant and meaningful, it must also be technically adequate.
In India today, the dilution of technical skills appears to be a larger threat to the identity and character of sociology than its disengagement from socially relevant and meaningful problems.
The Indian Council of Social Science Research sponsors programmes of training for research workers, but these have so far been rather narrowly focused on research methodology The Council is now actively considering proposals to reorganize its training programme to give it a broader base.
Technical skills not only take time and effort to acquire, they cannot be easily applied to a problem simply because it demands urgent social attention. The tendency is to apply common sense to the solution of sociological problems.
Many people, including some sociologists, believe that sociology is in any case a form of common sense, embellished more or less by the use of technical vocabulary. But sociology cannot grow as a serious intellectual pursuit unless it disengages itself, at least to some extent, from common sense.
This does not mean that it should turn its back on common sense and seek refuge in technical virtuosity. It must, on the other hand, place the categories of common sense themselves under critical scrutiny; only then will it be able to contribute to the renewal of common sense, which is perhaps the most significant among its uses.
Is there a sociological mode of reasoning, and has it made any impact on the thinking of persons outside the discipline and the profession? Both of these are questions difficult to answer, the second perhaps even more difficult than the first. But even if no ready answers are available, the questions themselves cannot be set aside as trivial or sterile.
If there is a sociological mode of reasoning, it consists in a patient, methodical, and unremitting effort to relate the actions and ideas of men and women in mutual interaction to the structures and institutions of a complex, amorphous, and changing social reality.
The task appears more promising but it is also more challenging when those engaged in it are located within the society whose many faces they seek to understand, interpret, and explain.
This task cannot be accomplished by any individual scholar, or even by any single generation of scholars. Indian sociologists have benefited greatly from the work of scholars in other countries, but they must also be mindful of the work of their predecessors, both within and outside the country, for it is only by building on what has already been accomplished that a discipline and a profession can move forward.
A major problem in India has been that each new generation of sociologists, while eager to benefit from the work of the best and the most advanced scholars outside the country, seems to work as if it is the first generation of sociologists within the country.