Tuesday, June 7, 2011


DOING SOCIOLOGY IN INDIA - Genealogies, Locations, and Practices: Edited by Sujata Patel; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 775.

This is the outcome of two workshops (held in 2005 and 2007) devoted to research and pedagogic traditions of sociology in India. Of particular concern in both conclaves were the challenges and threats sociology was facing as a consequence of the fast transformation of global society, which has had a tremendous impact on the society in India. Whether, as a discipline, sociology was equipped to cope with the change or, in the face of a strife-ridden and conflict-riven world, it had become anachronistic — an ‘outmoded artefact' — was the intriguing question before the participants. To take an overall view of the book, instead of going into merits/demerits of every article in it — there are 12 articles, besides an introduction by the editor, Sujata Patel — what is impressive about the volume is its wide-ranging coverage. The themes discussed include: growth of Indian sociology in general; intellectual histories of some select university departments of sociology; teaching at undergraduate levels; sociological contribution to the issues of identity, struggle, science, and politics; and the future of the discipline.
Social physics
Sociology is a gift of the French Revolution. It began with the premise that human society could be studied scientifically, using the methodology Physics had championed. It is no surprise, therefore, that sociology was first called ‘social physics'. From France, it spread gradually to other parts of the world. In 1917, the Senate of the University of Bombay resolved to introduce sociology, and the Calcutta, Madras, and Mysore Universities set up chairs.
Right from its inception, sociology was overwhelmingly concerned with “social reconstruction”, the amelioration of society. Theories that hailed the role of revolution and conflict (for instance, Marxism) in social transformation were denounced since they exacerbated the disorder in society; the French Revolution had caused enough harm to social institutions. The need of the hour was a return to order, and sociology was the panacea to disarray, disequilibrium, and disorder.
Against this backdrop, one could appreciate why sociology was introduced in Bombay in the place of the Government of India-mandated discipline ‘Economic Research'. Manorama Savur, in her paper, calls this change effected during the wartime a “panic reaction.” The nationalist/freedom movement was steadily gaining momentum and strength. Along with religious revivalism, patriotism was becoming robust. More and more communities, including tribal, were joining the struggle for liberation from the colonial masters.
As the Chancellor of Bombay University, Lord Willingdon thought of steering the youth, the future leaders, away from the “new tide of nationalism,” and the subject he hit upon to do the trick was sociology. That would explain why sociology, in the beginning, was concerned more with the issues of solidarity and harmony than with change and transformation. Gradually several departments came to be set up within sociology, each dedicated to the study of one local issue or another. As a result, it became almost an ‘area-studies' programme in India, with sociologists working primarily on their own societies and often ignoring the comparative aspect of the discipline. Likewise, departments in regional universities explored their “immediate communities and concerns.” Again, with the proliferation of universities came a plethora of sociology departments with wide divergences in quality. Today, some are promising, while some others are “moribund”, as N. Jayaram would say about the situation in Karnataka.
The dynamism of any discipline is conditioned by the type of linkage that exists between “knowledge production” and “knowledge transmission”. Whatever knowledge flows out of research must find its due place in the syllabi for the undergraduate and postgraduate courses. And the teaching should be such as to demonstrate that sociology is keeping up with the times, extending its frontiers of knowledge, and addressing contemporary issues.
But, in fact, the ideas and propositions that evolved and dominated the discourse in colonial times and during the period when nationalism was at its peak are purveyed uncritically. Since many of the students are first-time learners, the teachers are constrained to dilute the content, simplify the concepts beyond recognition, provide notes and ‘guides', and be lenient in evaluation so that the sociology stream in colleges does not go dry. This “trivialisation of the discipline”, to use Edward Rodrigues' words, has not only made it “soft” but also woefully lowered the standards of research.
For sociology to be enlivened, it is imperative to break away from the “legacy of colonialism and nationalism.” Secondly, a comparative approach — that is, the practice of juxtaposing Indian experience with those of other societies/countries — is a must. Although the volume's principal target groups are sociologists and social anthropologists, other categories of social scientists will have a lot to gain from it because the issues raised and discussed are of equal concern to them.