Deja vu?


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THIS Seminar issue on the disciplinary practices of Indian sociology and social anthropology is not, strange to say, the first time that sociologists have come together in this particular forum to debate the present and future of their discipline. Of course, sociologists (or a select handful of them) have joined other social scientists in commenting professionally on a wide range of themes of current public interest, and there are some topics – predictably caste and the caste system, the Indian village, the family, and the tribal situation – which they have marked as peculiarly their ‘own’.

All the same, looking back over Seminar’s forty plus years of existence, it seems remarkable that sociologists have so often sought to air their disciplinary anxieties in forums other than their own professional associations and journals. Indeed, they appear to have taken the lead in debating the role of the social sciences in general. By contrast, at least insofar as Seminar’s modest record goes – economists have been plagued by no such disciplinary angst. Nor have the management-wallahs, political scientists, psychologists, demographers and others. And it is only relatively recently, in the context of the Ramjanambhumi dispute, that the historians have similarly engaged in such public self-introspection.

What can be the reason for this?

I put the question, in an informal sort of way, to a number of sociologists of my acquaintance. Surprisingly, only one of them gave me the obvious answer, namely, that my observation was spurious. The phenomenon I had commented on, he suggested, was simply ‘happenstance’, the serendipitous conjunction of the Seminar editors’ personal networks and particular moments in some individual sociologists’ life histories. But, of course, such circumstantial contextualisations do not explain why this happenstance should happen so often in the case of sociologists (say, at least once a decade for forty years), and not so much to other people!

‘It’s just a generational thing,’ another sociologist elaborated when pressed. ‘Each successive generation of sociologists feels compelled to revisit and pass judgment on the disciplinary practices of their predecessors before they can go ahead and do their own thing!’ Again, she did not explain why sociologists in particular should engage themselves so conspicuously in Oedipal struggles, while other social science disciplines, presumably, managed to mature without.



Other sociologists, including former participants in the Seminar debates, conceded the validity of my question, and sought answers to it in the peculiar circumstances of the practice of sociology in the Indian context; or, alternatively, in the specificity of sociology in relation to other social science disciplines.

‘The problem,’ one sociologist put it to me, ‘is that we sociologists have no "memory", no sense of history. We keep on reinventing the bicycle!’ By the examples he volunteered, he seemed to have two things in mind. One was what one might call the arrogance of youth, whereby sweeping judgements are passed on the work of earlier sociologists, more on the basis of second-hand knowledge and ideological predilection than on actual acquaintance with their writings and personal biographies. Thus, the venerable Louis Dumont could be dismissed as doing merely ‘Hindu sociology’, where in fact Dumont’s intellectual project was surely comparativist par excellence.

But, howsoever unreasonable, dismissal is at least a form of notice. Much worse is receiving no notice whatsoever. This was a point made by Andre Beteille in a recent article in the Sociological Bulletin in which he cautioned against the pursuit of ‘newness’ for its own sake and commended a gradualist or ‘journeyman’s’ approach to the building of sociological knowledge.

‘The problem with us,’ Beteille wrote, ‘is not that the small amount of good work done by preceding generations is unjustly criticized by succeeding ones, but that it is ignored and then quickly forgotten. In India, each generation of sociologists seems eager to start its work on a clean slate with little or no attention to the work done before. This amnesia about the work of their predecessors is no less distinctive of Indian sociologists than their failure to innovate.’1



Though Beteille saw amnesia as typical of contemporary Indian sociology, one wonders whether forgetfulness would not in fact characterise all disciplines which construe scientific knowledge as cumulative progress from ignorance towards truth. In this connection, I recall the look of horror and disbelief on the face of an economist friend when I tried to explain to her that I thought it important to seek a ‘genealogy’ for one’s work in the writings of earlier scholars. She clearly saw no good reason to glance backwards while marching resolutely ahead, and one suspects that a similar sentiment must have inspired the librarian of the D’School Ratan Tata Library (so far as I know without public discussion) to consign all books published before 1960 to a relatively inaccessible part of the library, often locked up, on the assumption that all the knowledge therein must be hopelessly outdated.

This brings us to consider the second aspect of my interlocutor’s comment on the disciplinary amnesia of successive generations of Indian sociologists: namely, their penchant for reopening issues that have been debated over and over again, as though these debates had never taken place. An example of this temerity might be the continued flogging of the ‘dead horse’ of Indian village studies, using some of the same old whips. It would seem that no sooner had the modus operandi of village studies been established as normative sociological practice, linked to the statist project of community development, that the sociologists immediately broke rank to complain that village studies were a backward-looking enterprise in an emerging ‘industrial society’;2 that the structural functionalist assumptions that underlay them afforded inadequate theoretical guide for those who sought to engage with such problems as communalism and religious fundamentalism, radical social movements, class formation, the industrial working class, and so on;3 or that there seemed to be no way of traversing the yawning chasm between micro- and macro-sociological perspectives on Indian society, of ‘finding ways to come to terms with the enormous complexity of India.’4



Another sociologist to whom I put my question gave a rather different reply. ‘It’s not that other social scientists do not engage in self introspection,’ he asserted, ‘but the economists do it somewhere else.’ He was not suggesting that economists do their agonising in other Indian journals besides Seminar (as one might hypothesise in the case of historians, given Seminar’s profile as a journal of contemporary affairs), but that their disciplinary priorities and protocols are set offshore, as it were, in metropolitan centres of learning, and merely implemented without further debate in India. Sociologists, he seemed to say, make at least some feeble gestures of resistance, show some signs of doubt and introspection, perhaps because it is their job to pick up the pieces and explain sociocultural factors and constraints when the economists’ models prove wanting in practice.

In fact, the question of ‘academic colonialism’, as it came to be called, was one which sociologists (and others) debated at some length in a Seminar issue with that title in December 1968. The issue was altogether a feisty one.



Setting ‘the problem’ in the opening essay, Satish Saberwal described the several facets of the phenomenon of academic colonialism: (i) where foreign intellectuals contribute information for political domination and infiltration; (ii) where foreign intellectuals seek to use their status to influence local politics; and (iii) where Afro-Asian social scientists come into relations of financial, political and intellectual dependence on first world (particularly U.S.) academic institutions, moulding their research designs and priorities accordingly.5

As he saw it, the basic problem for academics in the non-West was: ‘[H]ow does the stimulus of communication with the international intellectual community balance against the hazards resulting from the flow of data concerning our societies into the U.S. war machine? What are our options for improving the balance sheet? How shall we relate our research to the needs of our society, and how shall we communicate its findings to our local constituents, so that we may shed our clientship to patrons abroad, a relationship of subservience always and everywhere?’6



A partial answer to his question was provided by Rajni Kothari in the succeeding article of that issue.7 The cure for the ‘intellectual incapacitation’ engendered by academic colonialism, Kothari wrote, was not defensiveness and righteousness but the development of ‘a firm base in personal and institutional capabilities from where a position of equal and efficacious relationship with the rest of the world would grow.’8 As standards of Indian social science research improved, and as Indian academics gained in self-confidence, ‘the relationship of comparative research [would] become one in which he establishes a dominant rather than a dependent position, for it is he who is the local expert, not they, and it is he who knows what research goals and methods are most appropriate in the study of his society.’9

The key to the transformation, Kothari asserted, was the strengthening of professional bodies to give them ‘a role and status in scholarly decision making.’10 Thereafter, ‘provided a positive approach is adopted and implemented, it should not be difficult to establish India as the base for a great deal of cross-discipline and cross-country data accumulation and analyses.’11

Partially overlapping, but not exactly coterminous, with the problem of academic colonialism, was the question of the ‘relevance’ of sociological teaching and research – indeed, of the social sciences in general. As Yogendra Singh put it: ‘Indian intellectuals (and the intellectuals in developing countries) find themselves dealing with categories and systems of thought, [...] methods and operations, which for historical reasons were developed in the West; they acquired [them], and continue to acquire [them], not as creative partners in the universal community of intellectuals but as the handymen of history. Their role thus tends to be more imitative than innovative.’12



The case for ‘relevance’ in Indian social science research was articulated most forcefully by sociologist P.C. Joshi in a Seminar issue on ‘The Social Sciences’ in September 1972.13 ‘Lack of relevance,’ Joshi claimed, was the ‘key problem’ of the social sciences in underdeveloped countries like India, where social science had completely failed to provide solutions to basic social problems.14 This he attributed to a variety of social factors, both institutional and intellectual/academic, among them the uncritical acceptance of western (Anglo-American) theory, the ‘ivory tower professionalism’ associated with the ambition of social scientific value-neutrality, and the emphasis on ‘technical sophistication without purpose.’

Thus, ‘[w]ithin economics, for instance, political economy or institutional economics are devalued in favour of abstract model-building or econometrics. Within sociology, micro-level social anthropology is valued more than macro-sociology. And, within social sciences as a whole, economics is overrated, leading to underdevelopment or neglect of vital disciplines like sociology, political science, social psychology, [and] economic and social history.’15



Few contributors conceded Joshi’s argument in its entirety. Who was to decide the criteria of relevance? Were professional bodies yet in a position to do so with credibility and integrity? Was the relevance of social science research to be measured purely by its usefulness for governance? Surely, not all important sociological questions relate to problems of state policy and planning? What of the role of the sociologist as an interpreter of social processes in the broader sense, independent of the task of social engineering?16 What of the role of the sociologist as social critic, often contra the state?17 Can the social scientist manage to negotiate a distance from the state which is neither too close nor too distant?18 Should the sociologist seek to address primarily government and policy-makers, or fellow professionals, or the general public? Ideally, all three, was one answer.19

Swimming against the tide of political correctness, Ashis Nandy pooh-poohed the whole idea of ‘relevant research’ as nothing but a ‘conspiracy’ to suspend the pursuit of international standards of social science research in India and to promote ‘incompetence’!20 ‘[W]here quality is as yet scarce, such relevance-peddling will merely promote incompetence, which is in plenty.’21 In fact, in the two decades since Independence, he asserted, there had been nothing but research on relevant topics: ‘Prima facie, all of them are relevant. Prima facie, very few of them can be used by anyone, let alone the policy-makers (if that happens to be, by any chance, your concept of relevance).’22



Indeed, Nandy was not alone in wondering whether sociological research on current social problems had ever ‘yielded any results of substantial practical value.’23 Besides, as Andre Beteille could not forebear to point out, albeit a quarter of a century later, Joshi’s questioning of the relevance of the entire western intellectual heritage to the understanding of Indian society was fortified with quotations from Gunnar Myrdal, Wassily Leontief, J.K. Galbraith and Simon Kuznets, with merely a ‘passing show of deference to Gandhi and Mao’ and ‘no discussion of any Indian or other Asian social scientist.’24

Just a dozen years on from the 1968 Seminar issue on ‘Academic Colonialism’, the whole question was declared infructuous. An issue on ‘Studying our Society: a symposium on the current questions facing sociologists’ (October 1980), kicked off with the following provocative statement of ‘The problem’: In the late 1960s, the social sciences were astir in search of a direction and an identity. Phrases like ‘science and swaraj’25 were in the air. Expressing this mood, Seminar ran an issue on ‘Academic Colonialism’ (December 1968), responding to a growing and variously threatening foreign presence.



Over the past decade the scene in international politics and in academia has changed in some ways; and even though the social sciences in India have begun to be financed relatively well, the Young Turks of yesteryear discovered that greater insulation was not synonymous with better growth; that autonomy, personal and collective, could be stagnative as easily as creative.

The editorial went on to remark (with veiled allusion to the experience of the Emergency) that Indian sociologists had completely failed to comprehend the enormous changes taking place in their society, which, ‘if gone out of control, could silence them indefinitely.’26

Something seemed to have gone wrong somewhere, and it was neither absolute shortage of funds, nor lack of professional institutions.27 Though teaching and research in sociology had expanded enormously, sociology seemed to have lost (or never managed to find) its identity as a discipline,28 lost confidence in its tools and techniques,29 and failed to address the real issues of current concern in Indian society.30 Somewhat cynically one might note that references in the footnotes of some of the essays in this issue suggest that the sense of ‘crisis’ was not entirely a contribution from ‘the margins’ (as one would say today) to the rethinking of what the subject of sociology is all about, but more a delayed reaction to the turbulence within the western sociological establishment through the 1970s.31 Though essays pleaded for a new beginning, and certain issues were tabled and commended for study, it was by no means clear where the new beginning would be made, and what the future might hold.



So much said, I would like to return to another of the responses to my original question: Why should Indian sociologists, among all social scientists, introspect so much, so publicly and so regularly on the nature of their discipline?

Throughout my discussions, and through the successive issues of Seminar that I reviewed, sociologists volunteered the opinion that sociology was in some key sense different from the other social sciences. They were not in agreement as to where exactly this difference might lie, but some connected it with the methodology of intensive participant observation fieldwork, having themselves experienced situations in which informants ‘talk back’ to the anthropologist/sociologist and demand to know what the sociologist’s researches will do for them! Typically, most sociologists took economics as their reference point, with history perhaps on sociology’s other side (if they looked in that direction at all). Between the two, sociology occupied a liminal position, neither the one nor the other: Hence, its identity problem.



So, why are the economists not troubled by self-doubt the way sociologists are? ‘Neoclassical economics won out against alternatives long ago, but sociology and history, for instance, have always been deeply polarised between left and right,’ was one suggestion. ‘Economics is more precise and mathematical. It deals only with the quantifiable. But sociology has to grapple with non-quantifiable aspects of social life as well,’ was another. Linked to this was the idea that economics is primarily a ‘policy science’, especially useful to planners,32 while sociologists have always been divided as to whether their discipline should aspire to assist processes of social engineering or whether, like history, politics or philosophy, it should aim simply to arrive at ‘a more critical understanding’ of human society.33



The formulation was Andre Beteille’s in 1972. Twenty-five years on, he once again placed sociology in a matrix along with economics on the one side and history of the other. Economics is a ‘generalising’ discipline, concerned with universals, he now suggested. Historians, on the other hand, tend to be ‘particularistic’ – there are histories of this or that series of events, this or that person, this or that region. But sociology is a ‘comparative’ discipline.34 Regardless of the fact that most Indian sociologists in practice work only on India, they must do so within a disciplinary framework that is essentially comparative. Beteille seemed to be suggesting that it was this in-between status of the discipline of sociology – neither the one thing nor the other – that had given rise to the sociologists’ penchant for narcissistic self-examination. Sociology is a discipline ever in search of its ‘self’.

Adding to this tension is the recognition that the sociologist’s object of study is amorphous and ill-defined: anything and everything can merit the sociologist’s attention!35 Or, put another way, sociology acquired had no independent identity of its own but remains a ‘residual category’, invariably tagged on to a ‘big brother’ partner – whether economics, anthropology, politics or social work. As D.N. Dhanagare put it, ‘the image of sociology in India could rarely outgrow [its] initial rickety constitution, despite sumptuous nourishment since the early 1950s.’36



In other words, many sociologists believe that there is a tension built into the practice of sociology (and not only Indian sociology), an identity crisis that is not shared by other social science disciplines, and it is this tension that compels sociologists to perennially engage in reinventing their bicycles.

So, what’s new? In the early 1970s, sociologists and other social scientists appeared confident that adequate funding for social science teaching and research, along with the strengthening of professional organisations, would enable Indian sociology to declare independence from foreign sources of funding and dependent attitudes of mind, and to promote research and teaching more relevant to the needs of a developing country. By the 1980s it was clear that reasonable funding and institutionalised procedures for monitoring standards and legislating priority areas of research had merely created new bureaucracies and vested interests. It had not made sociology conspicuously policy-relevant; nor had it satisfied many sociologists that their discipline provided the conceptual resources and methodological techniques for handling the social issues they found most challenging.

At the turn of the century, to go by presentations made at a recent symposium on the history of sociology and social anthropology in India,37 Indian sociologists continue to express concern that the institutions set up to promote their discipline appear to have lost their vision and sense of direction, to have prematurely aged even before they had fully matured. At the same time, there has been stagnation, or even cutback, in government support for social science teaching and research, impelling universities and research institutes to diversify their sources of funding by means of project grants of one kind or another. Ironically, this withering of financial support has taken place even as government at various levels and through various mechanisms seeks to exert tighter controls over appointments, syllabi and dissident opinion.



Forced to go where the funding is, the sociologists’ research priorities and criteria of relevance are determined by the sponsoring agencies, whether government or, increasingly, the big, extra- and multinational funding agencies. Each has its attendant hazards, but in either case the role of sociology as social engineering is likely to prevail, for every project – if it is not to be deemed infructuous – is expected to yield a clear set of policy implications and recommendations. Moreover, cross-country comparative projects, though often lushly funded, tend to be devised without consultation with the Indian partners who are merely expected to execute the Indian ‘country study’ according to a predetermined protocol. Not altogether unjustly, sociologists of the ‘old guard’ who decry the project culture are accused of trying – Canute like – to stem an invincible tide, of ‘sour grapes’, or of having no reasonable alternative to offer in a grim situation of ‘project or perish’!



Apart from their shared concern over the fate of institutions, sociologists now voice two main anxieties. One, on which they are mostly agreed, is the decline in ‘standards’: in fact, this was a refrain from the 1960 Seminar issue on ‘Our Universities’. This is partially linked, as it was earlier, to routinisation and bureaucratisation in the academy and to the expansion of vernacular language teaching without adequate infrastructural backup, but also to ‘political interference’, whether through caste-based reservations or other extra-academic pressures.

Another is the relationship between sociology and its twin, social anthropology, and between these and other social science disciplines and new intellectual trends and movements. For some, renewal can only come about by bringing inputs from the disciplinary ‘margins’ into the mainstream of sociology teaching and research – feminism, for instance,38 while for others, indiscriminate flirtation would spell doom for a discipline which continues to struggle to find its own self.39

In any case, what one does not hear, nowadays, is a renewed call for intellectual self-reliance, or protests against the academic neo-colonialism of the project culture. Such an antediluvian protectionism would surely be completely misplaced in a globalised culture of social scientific knowledge.

Or would it?


* I owe thanks for help in the preparation of this note to Andre Beteille, Satish Deshpande, T.N. Madan, Satish Saberwal, A.M. Shah, D.L. Sheth, Nandini Sundar and J.P.S. Uberoi.



1. Andre Beteille, ‘Newness in sociological enquiry’, Sociological Bulletin 46(1), 1997, pp. 97-110.

2. See I.P. Desai, R.F. Kothari and I.S. Gulati, ‘The problem’, Seminar issue no. 7 on ‘Our universities’, March 1960, pp. 10-13.

3. See e.g., Satish Saberwal, ‘For renewal’, Seminar issue 254 on ‘Studying our society’, October 1980, pp. 12-18; N. Jayaram, ‘The social reality’, Seminar 254, October 1980, pp. 18-22; D.N. Dhanagare, ‘Search for identity’, Seminar 254, October 1980, pp. 23-26; Dipankar Gupta, ‘The sociological imagination’, Seminar 254, October 1980, pp. 27-32; Anjan Ghosh, ‘The working class’, Seminar 254, October 1980, pp. 33-37; A.M. Shah, ‘History and sociology’, Seminar 338, October 1987, pp. 19-21.

4. Satish Saberwal, ‘For renewal’, p. 18; see also D.N. Dhanagare, ‘Search for identity’, p. 26.

5. Satish Saberwal, ‘The problem’, Seminar issue 112 on ‘Academic colonialism’ , December 1968, pp. 10-13. See also in the same vein, Yogendra Singh, ‘Sociological issues’, Seminar 112, December 1968, pp. 25-29.

6. Satish Saberwal, ‘The problem’, Seminar 112, December 1968, p. 13.

7. Rajni Kothari, ‘The tasks within’, Seminar 112, December 1968, pp. 14-19.

8. Ibid., p. 17.

9. Ibid., p. 17.

10. Ibid., p. 18.

11. Ibid., p. 19.

12. Yogendra Singh, ‘Sociological issues’, p. 27. See similarly, J.P. Naik, ‘Status and potential’, Seminar157, September 1972, p. 15.

13. P.C. Joshi, ‘The question of relevance’, Seminar 157, September 1972, pp. 24-29. See also Joshi’s later essay, ‘Perspectives in social science research: The problem of relevance or of value orientation’, in Institute of Economic Growth, Relevance in Social Science Research: A Colloquium, New Delhi, Vikas Publishing House, 1982, pp. 69-93.

14. Ibid., p. 24.

15. Ibid., p. 26.

16. Andre Beteille, ‘The problem’, Seminar issue 157 on ‘The social sciences’, September 1972, pp. 11-12.

17. Andre Beteille, ‘The problem’, p. 12; also, D.N. Dhanagare, ‘Search for identity’.

18. Rajni Kothari, ‘The tasks within’, Seminar 112, December 1968, p. 19.

19. S. Saberwal and M. Khubchandani, ‘The audiences’, Seminar 157, September 1972, pp. 33-36.

20. Ashis Nandy, ‘Conspiracy of incompetence’, Seminar 157, September 1972, pp. 30-32.

21. Ibid., p. 30.

22. Ibid., p. 31.

23. Andre Beteille, ‘The problem’, p. 12.

24. Andre Beteille, ‘Newness in sociological enquiry’, p. 109. He similarly castigated economist Sukhamoy Chakravarty’s critique of economics teaching and research in India. Chakravarty had complained, among other things, that most of the textbooks used in economics courses are non-Indian, but his learned critique of current practice completely ignored the work of all Indian economists. See Sukhamoy Chakravarty, ‘The teaching of economics in India’, Economic and Political Weekly 21(27), 1986, pp. 1165-68.

25. The title of a paper by J.P.S. Uberoi; see Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.), vol.2, pp. 119-23.

26. ‘The problem’, Seminar issue 254 on ‘Studying our society’, October 1980, pp. 10-11.

27. The Indian Council of Social Science Research had been established in 1969.

28. See Dhanagare, ‘Search for identity’; Satish Saberwal, ‘For renewal’.

29. N. Jayaram, ‘The social reality’.

30. Partha N. Mukherji, ‘Disciplined eclecticism’, Seminar 254, October 1980, pp. 38-43.

31. For instance, Tom Bottomore, Sociology as Social Criticism, New York, Pantheon, 1974, and (ed.), Crisis and Contention in Sociology, London, Sage, 1975; A.W. Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, New York, Basic Books, 1970 ; and Martin Shaw, Marxism and Social Science, London, Pluto Press, 1975. Equally cynically one might point out that the earlier protest against academic colonialism also drew heavily on contemporary debates in the western academy on the Cold War role of anthropology.

32. Ashis Nandy, as usual, expressed a different view here. Economics, he claimed, is useful to policy-makers precisely because, like statistics, it is so abstract that it is above or impervious to demands for ‘relevance’: sociologists, he seems to say, fail to be relevant basically because they try too hard! See Ashis Nandy, ‘Conspiracy of incompetence’, p. 31.

33. Andre Beteille, ‘The problem’, Seminar 157, September 1972, p. 12.

34. Andre Beteille, personal communication. Beteille compares economics and sociology (though not in this case history) in these same terms in his recent paper, ‘Economics and sociology: An essay on approach and method’, Economic and Political Weekly 35(18), 29 April 2000, esp. pp. 1535-37.

35. N. Jayaram, ‘The social reality’, p. 19; Satish Saberwal, ‘For renewal’, p. 12; D.N. Dhanagare, ‘Search for identity’.

36. D.N. Dhanagare, ‘Search for identity’, p. 24.

37. Symposium on ‘Knowledge, Institutions, Practices: The Formation of Indian Anthropology and Sociology’, Institute of Economic Growth (Delhi), 19-21 April 2000. See the report of this symposium, ‘Indian Anthropology and Sociology: Towards a History’, Economic and Political Weekly, 10 June 2000, pp. 1998-2000.

38. A productive debate on this theme took place at a seminar, ‘Recasting sociology’, held at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in March 1997. In respect to the impact of feminism on mainstream Indian sociology, see Sharmila Rege’s essay in this issue.

39. Andre Beteille, ‘Newness in sociological enquiry’.