Sociology in a regional context


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THE idea of sociology (including social anthropology) in a regional context has several meanings: (i) ethnographic or sociological knowledge of the region, cultivated not only by scholars belonging to the region but also by those from other regions in India and/or other countries in the world, which may be available in English as well as in the regional language; (ii) sociological literature only in the regional language; (iii) sociology cultivated only by scholars belonging to the region, in English as well as in the regional language; and (iv) development of sociological institutions in the region, including research and teaching carried out there, whether regional in orientation or not. This article deals with the development of sociology in Gujarat primarily in the fourth sense.

The history of sociology in Gujarat may be divided into three phases. The first phase began roughly in the middle of the 19th century and ended in about 1920. During this phase, although there was no formal teaching and research under the name of sociology, considerable literature of a sociological nature was published both in Gujarati and in English. It saw the publication of the Gujarat volumes of The Bombay Gazetteer, based on a massive exercise by British officials to collect information about various aspects of society and culture.

Of these volumes, the one on Gujarat population, actually on castes, tribes, and so on, was translated into Gujarati. Similarly, A.K. Forbes, a British official turned scholar, wrote his monumental book, Rasmala, covering many aspects of history, myths, society and culture of Gujarat. He influenced a number of local scholars to write nibandhs (essays) in Gujarati on various aspects of life, such as caste, famines, ghosts, women’s manners, etc. All this literature can be read with profit even today.



The second phase in the development of sociology in Gujarat began with the establishment of the Department of Sociology in Bombay University in 1920 and ended around 1950. The first professor and head of the department was Patrick Geddes but he soon left and was succeeded by the legendary G.S. Ghurye. His junior colleague was N.A. Thooti, a Parsi, who wrote, The Vaishnavas of Gujarat. Coterminous with the establishment of the Bombay department, Alan Widgery, professor of philosophy in Baroda College, planned to start research in sociology, and as part of this effort he brought out The Indian Journal of Sociology in 1920, perhaps the first sociological journal to be published in India. Unfortunately the journal did not survive beyond the first volume.

However, a certain consciousness of sociology seems to have developed in Gujarat; a few students from Gujarat went to study sociology at Bombay University – the best known being K.M. Kapadia, I.P. Desai and A.R. Desai. This phase also saw the publication of literature based on censuses conducted in the British as well as the Baroda state territories and the literature on castes and tribes. This genre of literature for Baroda state, published under the editorship of G.H. Desai, is superior to that for the British territory. The Baroda state also published an excellent report on The Hindu Joint Family: Its Economic and Social Aspects by N.C. Desai in 1936. The teaching of sociology began for the first time towards the end of this phase – in 1946 – at the undergraduate level at Shamaldas College, Bhavnagar with the appointment of I.P. Desai as lecturer. He stayed there till 1951, when K.R. Unni succeeded him. They taught the subject according to the syllabus framed under Ghurye’s leadership, because all colleges in Gujarat were affiliated to Bombay University.

A new phase in the development of sociology began in Gujarat, as everywhere else in India, with Independence. The most important part of it was the establishment of new universities and of new departments of sociology. The first of these was the department in Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda established in 1951 and next, the department in Gujarat University, Ahmedabad established in 1954. Other departments followed gradually, namely, at the South Gujarat, North Gujarat, Saurashtra, Bhavnagar, and Sardar Patel universities. Six of these seven universities, plus the SNDT University for Women in Mumbai, have more than 100 affiliated colleges teaching sociology mainly at the undergraduate level. In addition, there is a small department of social anthropology in Gujarat Vidyapeeth, a deemed university.



The sociology department in Baroda University has been different for three main reasons. First, this university is unitary in its constitution and therefore the teaching for all the programmes – BA, MA and Ph.D – is done under the same roof; in other universities the teaching for BA is done in affiliated colleges and the teaching for MA and Ph.D is done in the university department, barring a few colleges recognised for MA teaching. Consequently, in Baroda there is greater integration between the teaching done at the three levels, and the undergraduate students have the advantage of being taught by junior as well as senior teachers.

Second, all teaching is in English in Baroda, while there has been a gradual shift from English to Gujarati in other universities. Consequently, the Baroda department has been more cosmopolitan in recruitment of teachers as well as students and in its general orientation to teaching and research. Third, the Baroda department grew under the leadership of two stalwarts, first M.N. Srinivas and then I.P. Desai. I was a student there since its inception and then a teacher for a few years, and therefore have intimate knowledge about its development.



At the time of its establishment, Baroda University decided, just as Poona University had decided two or three years earlier and several other universities were to do later, that it would adopt the syllabi of Bombay University till such time as it was able to frame its own. Bombay University was the only university teaching sociology in all of western India since 1920 – first under the leadership of Geddes and then Ghurye. It is well known that Ghurye combined in himself three intellectual traditions of his time on account of his training in these traditions: first, sanskrit and Indology; second, sociology under Hobhouse at London School of Economics; and third, anthropology under W.H.R. Rivers at Cambridge. Srinivas studied sociology under Ghurye and then anthropology under Radcliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard at Oxford. Both Ghurye and Srinivas subsumed anthropology under sociology.

Since Srinivas joined Baroda University at the beginning of the academic session 1951-52, he had to teach according to the syllabus of Bombay University. The subsidiary subject of anthropology, which the department started teaching first, consisted of two papers – social anthropology and material culture, both to be taught over a period of two years. Srinivas began with social anthropology. The syllabus required it to be taught with reference to three textbooks: Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1949), Goldenweiser’s Anthropology (1937), and R.H. Lowie’s Primitive Religion (1924).



However, Srinivas rejected all these textbooks, which in effect meant rejecting the textbooks chosen by Ghurye. In their place Srinivas prescribed Evans-Pritchard’s Social Anthropology (1952), Firth’s Human Types (1950), and Radcliffe-Brown’s unpublished manuscript, ‘Method in Social Anthropology’, a copy of which Radcliffe-Brown had given him in Oxford and which he edited and published in 1959. He also asked the students to review two small books: Evans-Pritchard’s Divine Kingship among the Shilluk (1949) and Verrier Elwin’s Indian Aboriginals (1949). His prescription of these textbooks was informal. No other teacher or head of department could have dared to so violate university statutes and ordinances, but Srinivas’ ability to do so arose out of the close support he enjoyed from Vice Chancellor, Hansa Mehta and Pro Vice Chancellor, A.R. Wadia.

Srinivas refused to yield to pressures to start the MA programme in the first year itself, but began to enrol students for the Ph.D programme. They all came from allied disciplines: three lecturers from the faculty of social work, one research assistant in the department of archaeology and ancient Indian culture, and one student with M.Sc in anthropology from Delhi University, Y.V.S. Nath. Nath was also appointed as research assistant and a little later as lecturer.

This as well as other appointments showed that Srinivas did not follow the distinction between sociology and anthropology in making appointments. Along with the recruitment of research students, Srinivas began to organise research seminars, a novelty in Baroda at that time. He also began to implement his preference for field research in the first year itself, asking all his research students to do fieldwork. He himself went on a field trip to Rampura for two months in May-June 1952, in continuation of his earlier long spell of fieldwork there.



The academic year 1952-53 was marked by two major events: the appointment of I.P. Desai as reader, and the launching of a new syllabus for BA (Hons.) in sociology. Desai had by this time moved from Bhavnagar to Deccan College, Poona. He was a classmate and friend of Srinivas in Bombay, but his orientation was different. He had done his Ph.D on ‘Crime and Society’ on the basis of library materials. However, he had carried out a study of high school students in Poona on the basis of a questionnaire. While Srinivas and Desai differed in techniques of research, they agreed on a strong empirical foundation for social studies. The new BA (Hons.) syllabus represented a fusion of sociology and social anthropology under the rubric of sociology, perhaps the first such undergraduate syllabus in India. It also represented a fusion of the approaches of Srinivas and Desai.

The department could not frame its own syllabus for MA for four years and the students had therefore to study according to the Bombay University syllabus. Not only that, the department offered to teach only four out of eight papers in sociology and the students had thus to choose four papers in some other subject. The four papers in sociology were general sociology, Indian sociology, social psychology, and social biology. Social biology included mainly the study of race, racism and eugenics. This was Ghurye’s way of co-opting physical anthropology into sociology. For the paper on general sociology the students had to read the books prescribed in the Bombay syllabus, namely, Society by McIver and Page, and Sociology by Ginsberg. To these was added Structure and Function in Primitive Society by Radcliffe-Brown at Srinivas’ suggestion. For Indian sociology the students were asked to read Caste and Class in India by Ghurye, Marriage and Family in India by Kapadia, and Hindu Social Organisation by Prabhu.



The MA examination was held at the end of two years. Both because of this and because of a shortage of teachers, the students of the first and the second year were taught together. The entire examination was covered in just a few days. Usually the questions required essay type answers. The candidates were asked to answer not more than three questions and the paper was evaluated as a whole, so that one could answer less than three questions and yet get full marks. This method of examination encouraged selective reading.

Like the BA syllabus the new MA syllabus reflected fusion of sociology and social anthropology. Once these syllabi were in place, the department was poised for growth. The number of students in the BA, MA and Ph.D courses increased steadily and the department earned a reputation for attracting bright students. During the eight years that Srinivas worked in the department, there were 14 active Ph.D students, eight under his supervision and six under I.P. Desai’s. They worked on varied themes: castes and tribes, factories, different levels of education, journalism, sociology of development, social reforms, historical sociology, and so on. They published high quality papers in reputed journals. Most of the dissertations were published, and all well received. These students came from several different parts of India and fanned out later to occupy important academic positions all over the country.



Within a short period of time the department attracted national and international attention. A number of scholars from India and abroad visited the department and gave seminars and lectures. Its publications received worldwide acclaim. Around 1958 the University Grants Commission, impressed by its work, sanctioned generous grants for faculty positions, fellowships, scholarships, fieldwork, and a separate building.

Throughout the period of Srinivas’ and Desai’s headship of the department, a policy of subsuming anthropology under sociology was followed in every sphere of activity. Clearly, this was in continuation of Ghurye’s policy which was visible all over western India where his students occupied leadership positions. The only exception was Poona. Anthropology was given a separate status at the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute. Irawati Karve, a one-time student of Ghurye’s, who headed the anthropology department, subsumed sociology under it, although sociology eventually became a separate department. Otherwise none of the many universities that were established in Gujarat and Maharashtra after Independence set up a separate department of anthropology.

Srinivas left Baroda to join Delhi University in early 1959. I.P. Desai’s elevation as professor and head of the department was merely a formality. The department worked on an even keel for some time under his leadership. But the period of decline began around 1961 and there was a large scale exodus of teachers and students from the department. Finally I.P Desai too left in 1966. For nearly 25 years the department remained in poor shape. It is only recently that it has once again started looking up.

I regret I do not have intimate knowledge about sociology departments in the other six universities and the social anthropology department in Gujarat Vidyapeeth. A more knowledgeable person than myself should write about them so that full justice is done to their strengths and weaknesses at different phases of their history. I shall make only a few general observations. For some of them I shall depend on the results of a useful survey of all the university departments carried out by B.V. Shah in 1989-90.



There has been a phenomenal growth in the numbers of sociology students and teachers in the undergraduate colleges after Independence. There were about 13,000 students and 140 teachers in about 60 colleges at this level in 1988-89, according to B.V. Shah’s survey. Since the number of colleges has now gone up to about 100, the number of teachers and students must have gone up proportionately. Sociology here is taught almost entirely in Gujarati. The college teachers, forming the largest segment of the community of sociology teachers, have contributed very little to creation of sociological knowledge even in Gujarati, leave alone in English. Their transmission of sociological knowledge too is not impressive. Their teaching has suffered due to the vicious circle of non-challenging syllabi, heavy teaching loads, absence of original textbooks and dominance of guide books, lack of library resources, widespread resort to coaching classes, and the politics of boards of studies and examinations. The syllabi are not revised for years to accommodate fresh knowledge available even in Gujarati.



The condition of teaching at the MA level, which is usually done in the university departments, is somewhat better. At least the syllabi are impressive. But a large part of the syllabus does not get taught because most students are unable to read books prescribed in English. An increasing number of postgraduate teachers seem ill-equipped to transmit the vast storehouse of sociological knowledge available in English.

The medium of teaching at M.Phil and Ph.D has also gradually shifted from English to Gujarati. Of about 60 M.Phil dissertations done so far at Gujarat, South Gujarat, and Saurashtra universities, eight have been in English and the rest in Gujarati. Similarly, of about 64 Ph.D dissertations done at Gujarat, South Gujarat, Saurashtra, and Sardar Patel universities, 11 are in English and the rest in Gujarati. I do not have figures of M.Phil and Ph.D dissertations done at Gujarat Vidyapeeth, but I believe they are all in Gujarati.

I am not sure how many of these dissertations have resulted in publication of books and papers. The number appears to be very small. Since the market for research books in Gujarati is small, commercial publishers are not interested in publishing Ph.D dissertations. Institutional subsidies are also few. Moreover, little effort is made to make the results of good dissertations available in the form of papers in Gujarati journals, let alone in English. Consequently, a great deal of new knowledge remains unknown to the scholarly public.

To what extent the teachers in postgraduate departments are involved in creative research is also questionable. There was a strong tradition among the first generation of teachers like Taraben Patel, B.V. Shah and Vimal P. Shah that a university teacher should teach as well do research. This tradition has gradually weakened.



While the role of universities in pursuing qualitatively significant sociological research has been declining, a few autonomous research institutions have been playing an increasingly important role in this respect. The leading institution is the Centre for Social Studies in Surat, founded by the late I.P. Desai in 1966 and supported by grants from the Indian Council of Social Science Research and the Government of Gujarat. Successive bands of dedicated scholars there have contributed a large number of studies on a variety of themes connected mainly with Gujarat. The centre has published books and papers, produced project reports both in Gujarati and English, organised seminars, and performed several other academic functions with distinction. It also publishes a Gujarati journal, Arthat. A few other institutions have also played a small though significant role.

A Gujarat Sociological Association has been in existence since 1988, and it organizes conferences from time to time. Most of the papers and discussions there have been in Gujarati.

In the main, sociological studies in Gujarat have increasingly tended to be oriented towards Gujarat and are in the Gujarati medium. This orientation is perfectly legitimate and should be respected, but its quality remains a matter of concern. There have been some excellent studies in Gujarati, but they are exceptions. Most studies suffer from some serious limitations. First, the studies are non-incremental. That is to say, they do not follow the goal of establishing even all-Gujarat propositions, let alone all-India ones. Usually each study stands isolated on its own. The authors make no attempt to compare their work with available works even in Gujarati and to carry forward an argument or an observation critically. Second, there is a lack of understanding of diversities within Gujarati society and culture and, therefore, lack of concern for building up a systematic comparative sociology of Gujarat. Third, there is an absence of terminological, conceptual, methodological and theoretical rigour. This limitation arises mainly out of the inability to use English as a library language.



Soon after Srinivas came to Baroda he reviewed the sociological literature on Gujarat and wrote a significant paper, ‘Prospects of Sociological Research in Gujarat’ (1953). It is high time another serious, critical retrospective is attempted and new prospects envisioned. This will require a genuinely integrated view of sociology and social anthropology which Srinivas had adopted and which unfortunately has weakened after he left Baroda University.

Regionalisation of sociology and social anthropology in all the linguistic regions of India seems to be an inevitable process. It needs to be accepted as a fact. Serious discussions are necessary to examine its consequences in every region and to establish an appropriate relationship between it and pan-Indian as well as world sociology and social anthropology.