The problem

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WHEN it comes to choosing one’s undergraduate degree in India, sociology and anthropology stand comparatively low in the pecking order. Medicine, engineering, accounting, computers – or other courses that can claim a ‘professional’ tag – are usually the first priority. If somehow, one has to do a BA, economics or history beckon brighter. When students do choose sociology or anthropology, it is rarely for love of the disciplines, but because these are seen as easy or scoring subjects, especially when it comes to sitting the IAS examinations. Yet, elsewhere in the world, sociology and anthropology are seen as ‘happening’ subjects, the number of students is increasing and despite the job crunch in universities, new fields are opening up. Even large US corporations seem to think that anthropologists and sociologists are useful creatures to have around as employees. Why then, does Indian sociology and anthropology suffer from this uncool image?

This difference of image between the disciplines in India and in the western world no doubt has several causes, including sheer size, resources and the ability to cover a large number of fields. However, surely the last two decades, when the hottest issues in the public sphere have been social and cultural ones, should have made some difference to our disciplinary status.

The eighties and nineties were the decades in which ethnic separatism spilled out of its ‘traditional’ location in the North East to Punjab and Kashmir; Hindu communalism experienced a major resurgence; caste conflicts acquired an unprecedented scale and centrality; various tribal movements questioned the hitherto sacrosanct logic of ‘big’ development; and the nation began to feel the massive cultural impact of globalisation.

Sociologists and anthropologists have begun to grapple with these questions, but we are still waiting for our voices to be taken seriously, for students to flock to our courses, and for employers to queue up to hire our students. The eighties and nineties should have belonged to sociology and anthropology. They should have, but we know that they did not, not really.

And why not? One might offer several partial answers: for one, the myth that the disciplines only study ‘traditional’ subjects like caste, tribe, village, ethnicity, or religion; second, dull teaching and old syllabi (not such a myth) which ensure that, even though these topics are clearly classroom dynamite, students of sociology are only exposed to damp squibs. Third, exciting new avenues of research are grabbed by competing institutions – for example, market research organisations seem to be better than sociologists at gathering large scale survey data to track, for instance, the impact of globalisation and the IT revolution on rural India; NGOs seem better at highlighting the problems of adivasis and the dangers of biodiversity theft; and TV journalists seem to have a better pulse on current social issues, even if the medium demands that complex problems be summarised in ninety seconds and solutions offered in ten.

Such competition has meant that sociology and anthropology are fast losing their producers and consumers. When journalism or NGOs can offer much higher pay and far superior working conditions than the UGC or ICSSR, who needs to become an academic, and a sociologist or anthropologist at that?

However, this is a situation we can do little about unless the public and the government give intellectual activity its proper place. Contrary to fast developing public opinion, the ‘social sciences’ are not a luxury in a developing country, but an absolute necessity. Without the sociologists and the anthropologists, the political scientists and the historians to maintain a critical perspective, the dangers of homogenisation would loom large. For example, given that (rightly or wrongly), sociologists tend to study those relatively disadvantaged, without them, an important section of society would go unreported.

Consumers of research like the educated public, interest groups or even government agencies might prefer NGO publications or media reports because they are much more readable, more efficiently produced, and seem more interesting or relevant, but at the same time they often lack a critical perspective and long-term, in-depth research. Moreover, the criterion of ‘relevance’ can never simply be its usefulness for state policy.

One positive or negative consequence, depending on which way you look at it, of the marginal status of Indian sociology/anthropology is that while we seem unable to do much good, we also seem unable to do much harm. If sociologists or anthropologists were accused of communalising the nation (or peddling pseudo-secularism) as historians have been; if they were charged with selling the country to multinational capital (or stifling it with state socialism) as economists often are, then this might incite passionate people to join the discipline in order to ‘liberate’ it from the clutches of the enemy. The worst crime anthropologists in India are accused of is ‘wanting to keep adivasis as museum pieces’, and they haven’t been too successful even at this.

By contrast, anthropology and sociology in the West have had a sufficiently sinister past, though this owes as much to US superpower ambitions as to features of the disciplines themselves. Sociology has had its share of controversies, ranging, for example, from the sensational revelations of involvement in COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Programme) activities against leftwing governments and movements in Latin America, through the active interventions of Talcott Parsons to secure the rehabilitation of German Nazi academics in the United States, to the widespread opposition sparked by the Moynihan Report blaming the ‘dysfunctional’ black family (rather than racial discrimination) for the crisis in black America.

And anthropology has, of course, been comprehensively condemned for its lifelong complicity in initiating and perpetuating western domination of non-western peoples, as well as its culpability during the Cold War when some anthropologists fed their work to the CIA. Indeed, the latest scandal to hit American anthropology revives all these charges yet again. Darkness in El Dorado, a book written by an investigative journalist named Patrick Tierney (to be published in November 2000), paints a grim picture of the activities of geneticist, James Neel, and anthropologists, Napoleon Chagnon, Timothy Asch and others among the Yanomami of Venezuela. According to Tierney, Chagnon’s well-known and controversial portrayal of the Yanomami as inherently aggressive may have relied on concocted evidence, including specially staged fights between villages arranged for the ethnographic film he made with Asch, fights which incited genuine conflicts and inter-tribal wars.

However, before practitioners of other disciplines crow self-righteously (and quite undeservedly) about their own virtues, one might note that it is other anthropologists who have been the most concerned about their colonial past and such recent incidents. American anthropology in particular has come a long way since Vietnam, having set up committees to deal with and pre-empt such contingencies involving human rights and ethics. The system may be far from foolproof (as the Tierney book shows), but it is also true that comparable efforts are yet to be made in Indian social science disciplines where generations of surveying students have been inflicted on uncomplaining villagers with hardly a thought given to questions of ethics.

Where do Indian sociologists and anthropologists stand on their own misdeeds, minor as they may seem in comparison? Failing to make the disciplines relevant to the large numbers of dalit or women students who take them, failing to make them accessible by providing textbooks in the vernacular, or failing to package the disciplines well to prospective employers, may all seem like acts of omission rather than commission.

Yet, the next time we complain about the ideological takeover of social science institutions, particularly those organisations responsible for funding and guiding research in the field, like the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR), the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and the National Council of Education, Research and Training (NCERT), we need to remember the institutional context in which such coups are possible. Though it is the final act which attracts attention, the groundwork for such coups is usually prepared well in advance, in the form of a generalised atmosphere of mediocrity, patronage and apathy.

Of course, many of these complaints are not specific to sociology or anthropology, but part of the more general malaise that afflicts academic institutions in India. However, if sociology and anthropology are to come into their own in the national imagination, if they are to become the fighting force in social science that we believe they should be, we will have to do much more than we have done in the past. Reforming the larger institutions we inhabit is one step. What next?