Teaching and research


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MY professional experience (and to a considerable extent also my personal life) has been shaped by my work as a sociologist in the Delhi School of Economics in the last forty years. The DSE has been noted for its open, liberal and cosmopolitan atmosphere, and several of the persons there with whom I have worked have achieved great renown, both nationally and internationally. At Delhi, I have had students from every corner of India and from overseas. I have also spent time in academic institutions in other countries, in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, France and the United States. But while I value greatly my association, in some cases long and continued, with individuals and institutions in other parts of the world, my view of my discipline and my profession has been marked indelibly by my location in the DSE. Intellectually, I view myself as being cosmopolitan but not footloose.

As an institution, the DSE has responsibilities for both teaching and research, and it has been noted not only for outstanding scholars but also for outstanding teachers. Although I have published my modest quota of research papers and monographs, I have in my career always put teaching ahead of research. I cannot tell how it might have been if I had been a professor at Cambridge or Amsterdam or Chicago, but feel that my priorities accord well with the demands of the Indian university system. I find nothing more tedious than the sympathies showered on me by expatriate colleagues for the heavy burden of teaching that I am presumed to carry.

I always believed, even before I became acquainted with the ideas of Wilhelm von Humboldt, that a university should stand for the unity of teaching and research. In the modern world, no university can afford to neglect research; at the same time, universities in a poor country such as India cannot afford to promote research at the expense of teaching. The American idea of the ‘research university’ would, in my judgement, be something of an anachronism in India.

Any professor of sociology in an Indian university who takes the demands of both teaching and research seriously is bound to be struck by a certain tension between the two. In one’s teaching one has to take account of theories, methods and data relating to all human societies everywhere; the study of Indian society occupies but a small place in the province of what may be called ‘general sociology’. On the other hand, the empirical research that Indian sociologists undertake is confined largely to India. The reasons for this confinement are many and diverse, but the fact of it can hardly be denied. To add to this, the empirical research done by Indian sociologists in India has found very little place in teaching and research in sociology outside India. In general it may be said that, while Indian studies have benefited greatly from sociology, sociology has benefited very little from Indian studies.

Professionally, I have thought of myself as a sociologist first and an Indianist next, and my self-image is no doubt related to the great importance I assign to teaching. The uneasy relationship between sociology and area studies makes it extremely difficult for the Indian to sustain his image of himself as a sociologist, particularly outside India.



I have written at length about the relationship between sociology and area studies elsewhere (Beteille n.d.). Here it should suffice to say that it not only colours the relationship between teaching and research in the Indian university but also casts its shadow on the teaching of sociology itself. Despite the great variation in the manner in which the subject is taught at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels in Indian universities, most programmes of teaching have core courses in sociological theory on the one hand and on Indian society on the other. Students invariably complain that there is very little fit between the two sets of courses. Teachers try to bridge the gap as best they can, but few of them are wholly satisfied with the result.

The anxieties that arise from the uneasy relationship between sociological theory and empirical research are rarely articulated in print by Indian sociologists. Yet they are deeply felt, and result in occasional outbursts. At a well-attended conference in Delhi recently, I was berated by a young colleague who asked if it did not diminish my self-respect to refer repeatedly to the writings of western sociologists when I know perfectly well that the students of those sociologists never referred to my writings or even to the writings of more eminent Indian sociologists such as M.N. Srinivas or G.S. Ghurye. My view is that one should always be prepared to learn from others even when those others are not inclined, for good reasons or bad, to learn from oneself. In the world of scholarship there is something to be said for the scavenger who is able to retrieve serviceable ideas from other people’s dustbins.

The question my interlocutor raised touches more than individual self-respect; it also touches national pride. National pride has on the whole a corrosive effect on scholarship, but it cannot be wished out of existence. In India, wherever it assumes ascendancy, it tends to make sociology parochial. I have already said that empirical research in India is for various reasons confined largely to Indian subjects. National pride, among other factors, tends to exert pressure on teaching to be similarly confined. This undermines the general and comparative aims of sociology as a discipline.



I have been fortunate in having colleagues at the Delhi School of Economics who have provided abundant support in presenting sociology as a general and comparative discipline. I have taught courses on sociological theories, political sociology, sociology of kinship, sociology of religion and social stratification. In these courses, particularly the last four, I have sought to cover material relating to the entire range of human societies from every part of the world, using without discrimination the works of sociologists and social anthropologists irrespective of nationality.

As an illustration of how my teaching and my writing have grown together, I would like to make a brief reference to my work on social in-equality. My first monograph, Caste, Class and Power, was published in 1965. I had been a student in the department of anthropology in Calcutta and had moved a few years previously to Delhi to teach in a department of sociology. Very early in my transition from Calcutta to Delhi, I realised that class and stratification were central subjects in sociology which they were not in anthropology as it was then taught in Calcutta or in any other university in the world. I applied myself to the literature and taught myself many new things in the course of teaching my students.



In Caste, Class and Power, which was a lightly revised version of a Delhi University Ph.D thesis written under the supervision of M.N. Srinivas, I followed the established convention of the anthropological monograph based on intensive fieldwork, long stay in a community and detailed observation of its everyday life. But, instead of focusing on problems that were then central to anthropology such as kinship, marriage, religion and ritual, I chose class and stratification which were central to the concerns of sociology. That book was written with the conviction that the convergence of sociology and social anthropology was a distinct and exciting possibility, and that Indian sociologists could contribute something to its realisation. The book had a mixed response. I was sharply criticised by some anthropologists in Europe for trying to introduce class and stratification into a domain where they did not fit. On that point I believe I have prevailed over my critics.

Soon after the publication of my first book I was invited to edit a selection of readings on social stratification for publication in the Penguin Modern Sociology series. I found the invitation attractive not only because Penguin Books had a wide readership but also because the editorial advisory board for the series included both distinguished sociologists such as Tom Burns, Ralf Dahrendorf and David Lockwood, and distinguished anthropologists such as Edmund Leach and Frederik Barth. My single-most important objective for the selection was to ensure representation of societies of every kind from the most ‘primitive’ to the most ‘advanced’ as well as the writings of social anthropologists and sociologists of diverse theoretical persuasions (Beteille 1969).



Both my Penguin Reader and a short work on inequality and social change published in India (Beteille 1972) were adopted as course books by Open University in the United Kingdom, and they seem to have been widely read by sociologists in that country in addition to being used by students and colleagues in India. I have also had steady requests from editors of encyclopaedias in Britain to contribute articles on inequality; so I may presume that I have been of some service not only to my own students in Delhi but also to other students elsewhere (Beteille 1985, 1994, 1996). However, a general and comparative work I wrote on inequality for Basil Blackwell (Beteille 1977) received little attention; it was published in an Italian translation by a reputed publisher, Il Mulino, but I doubt that many people have read it.

In my career as teacher and author, I have been continuously preoccupied with the relationship between sociology and social anthropology (Beteille 1975, 1993). That relationship raises questions not only about my own professional identity, but, more importantly, about the professional identity of all students of Indian society and culture. An interview for the Swedish periodical Antropologiska Studier began with the following question: You are a professor of sociology, but in Scandinavia most people would probably think of you as a social anthropologist. There seems to be some confusion here. What is the relationship between sociology and anthropology in India? (Molund 1991: 31)

I answered that question with as much dignity as I could muster, but I doubt that my answer will have done much to alter the views – or the prejudices – of Scandinavian sociologists. For my part, I try to present myself as a sociologist wherever I am, for I feel that since I am a sociologist at home, I should also be one abroad.



I have always maintained that the study of Indian society has been greatly enriched by the work of foreign scholars in India and by the collaboration of Indian scholars with them. In the two decades following India’s independence, a large number of western, mainly American, scholars undertook village studies in different parts of the country and their work, together with similar work by Indian scholars, significantly advanced our understanding of Indian society. But while the anthropologists who came to study India from overseas were joined by geographers, historians and political scientists, there were hardly any sociologists among them (Beteille 1996a: 231-51). Edward Shils is the exception that proves the rule, for after publishing a monograph on the Indian intellectual (Shils 1961), he effectively discontinued his work on India.

Empirical research on India was greatly aided by the growth of area studies programmes in the United States from the fifties onwards. These programmes provided a basis for collaboration between western and Indian scholars belonging to a variety of disciplines. But here again, area studies programmes in the United States and other western countries, or at least those concerned with Asia and Africa, have been notorious for the absence of sociologists. I was once told by a talented young sociologist at Chicago who had begun his career by publishing a book on Indian bureaucrats, that he had since shifted his interest to American society for he feared that he might fail to secure tenure in his own department of sociology if he persisted with his work on India.

Anyone who works in a university, and especially if he takes the responsibilities of teaching seriously, must give thought to the division of labour between disciplines. He may be greatly dissatisfied with the prevailing division of labour, but he cannot wish it out of existence. The division of labour within the social sciences in the great metropolitan centres of learning in the United States and Europe has not been conducive to my personal project of working towards the unity of sociology and social anthropology. For in those centres there is not only a marked separation between the two disciplines, but the study of Indian society and culture is placed within the province of anthropology and outside that of sociology.



No doubt it is in principle possible to ignore the division of labour in the great world outside and to carry on one’s work in India on one’s own in association only with Indian students and colleagues without concern for professional linkages with scholars in Europe and America. I have chosen not to do so, despite the obvious asymmetry in the relations. The only established American sociologist with whom I maintained a long personal association to my immense benefit was Edward Shils, but he is no more. I have been more fortunate in my association with British sociologists with several of whom I maintain active professional and personal links.

The definition of the study of Indian society as anthropology rather than sociology in the United States and Europe harms the teaching of sociology in India. It also has an unsettling effect on the identity of the Indian sociologist abroad for, whether he likes it or not, there he is presented as an anthropologist. His interactions with professional colleagues are inevitably directed along prescribed channels. The Indian scholar who wishes to maintain close connections with western universities must learn to be a quick-change artist, appearing as a sociologist in India and an anthropologist in America.



The Indian scholar of proven ability – and there are now many – is especially welcome as an anthropologist in the United States. He brings with him not only technical competence but also the authentic experience of a society and culture which is of common interest to him and his American students and colleagues.

There are, moreover, practical considerations that lead anthropologists in north America and western Europe to seek out professional associates in India and elsewhere. Anthropology is a field science, and it has become increasingly difficult for an unattached foreign scholar to do field research in Asia and Africa. Foreign scholars must have institutional affiliation for themselves and their students in the countries where they do fieldwork. Student visas require a local supervisor in India, and I have myself offered service to many students from Europe and the United States. But I have found that with the exception of a few institutions, most notably Cambridge and the London School of Economics, the students come to me for the visa rather than the supervision.

The organisation of research has changed much in the last fifty years. There is now more project research, including contract research, and here the social sciences have followed the lead given by the natural sciences. Project research is not always centred in the university, and the unity of teaching and research is not integral to its design. Foreign institutions, including foreign foundations located in India, are among the most munificent sources of funding for such research. Project research is characteristically interdisciplinary, but here again, where foreign funding is involved, the initiative for the project comes from the anthropologist rather than the sociologist even though his Indian collaborators may be chosen from a variety of disciplines depending on academic, administrative and financial considerations.



Indian scholars in metropolitan centres such as Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay have become outward looking to a remarkable extent. Fifty years ago the best Indian scholars went overseas for advanced study mainly with a view to returning to make their careers in India. Now increasing numbers of them seek full-time or part-time employment in institutions abroad.

As I indicated earlier, the absorption of Indian scholars in departments of anthropology abroad has been facilitated by a change in the orientation of the discipline in western countries, particularly in the United States. Authenticity of experience and the voice of the insider are now valued as much as detached observation and objective analysis. This creates a space for able and articulate Indians in American departments of anthropology which have an interest in Indian studies. Historians, political scientists and, of course sociologists are accommodated in them presumably on the understanding that, as observant and reflective Indians, they add some value to the work being done there. Recently I received a letter from a premier American university requesting me to recommend names for a professorship in anthropology. The letter helpfully pointed out, ‘we especially seek applications from women and minority scholars’. I had a fleeting temptation to put my own name forward, but, then, although I am of the right colour, I belong, unfortunately, to the wrong sex.



Beteille, Andre. (ed). 1969. Social Inequality: Selected Readings. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Beteille, Andre. 1972. Inequality and Social Change. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Beteille, Andre. 1975. Six Essays in Comparative Sociology. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Beteille, Andre. 1977. Inequality Among Men. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Beteille, Andre. 1985. ‘Stratification’, in Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper (eds), The Social Science Encyclopaedia. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Beteille, Andre. 1993. ‘Sociology and Anthropology: Their Relationship in One Person’s Career’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, n.s. 27 (2): 291-304.

Beteille, Andre. 1994. ‘Inequality and Equality’, in Tim Ingold (ed), Companion Encyclopaedia of Anthropology. London: Routledge.

Beteille, Andre. 1996a. Caste, Class and Power: Changing Patterns of Stratification in a Tanjore Village. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.

Beteille, Andre. 1996b. ‘Inequality’, in Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer (eds), Encyclopaedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. London: Routledge.

Beteille, Andre. 1999. ‘Sociology and Area Study’, Journal of the Japanese Association for South Asian Studies: 124-137.

Beteille, Andre. Sociology: Essays on Approach & Method. Delhi: OUP (forthcoming).

Molund, Stefan. 1961. ‘Sociology as Critical Understanding: an Interview with Andre Beteille, Anthropologic Studies. 48: 31-47.

Shils, Edward. 1961. The Intellectual Between Tradition and Modernity: The Indian Case. The Hague: Mouton.