Indian Sociology

The reviewers of Indian sociology generally trace its origin to the works of several British civil servants, missionaries, and Western scholars during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Dhanagere 1985; Mukherjee 1979; Rao 1978; Singh 1986; Srinivas and Panini 1973). British administrators wanted to understand the customs, manners and institutions of the people of India to ensure the smooth running of their administration. Christian missionaries were interested in learning local languages, folklore, and culture to carry out their activities. The origin, development, and functioning of the various customs and traditions, the Hindu systems of caste and joint family, and the economy and polity of the village/tribal community were some of the prominent themes of study by the British administrators and missionaries as well as other British, European, and Indian intellectuals. The first all-India census was conducted in 1871. Several ethnographic surveys, monographs, census documents, and gazetteers produced during this period constitute a wealth of information that is of interest to sociologists even today. Mukherjee (1979) observes that the works of the civil servants, missionaries, and others during the colonial rule in India ‘‘provided the elements from which the British policy for ruling the subcontinent crystallized and also in turn helped to produce the pioneers in Indian sociology’’ (p. 24). Further, the available studies of Indian society and culture became an important source for testing various theories by scholars such as Marx and Engles, Maine, and Weber.

Although the first universities in India were established in 1857 in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, formal teaching of sociology began only in the second decade of the twentieth century—at the University of Bombay in 1914, at Calcutta University in 1917 and at Lucknow University in 1921. By this time the observations and impressions of the census commissioners and civil service officials about the caste system, family structure and functions, age at marriage and widowhood, and so forth. had already begun to be published, along with statistical tables based on the population counts. Prior to India’s independence in 1947, only three other universities (Mysore, Osmania, and Poona) were teaching sociology. There was no separate department of sociology; it was joined with the department of economics (Bombay and Lucknow), economics and political science (Calcutta), anthropology (Poona), or philosophy (Mysore). Almost all the pioneers in sociology in the first half of the twentieth century were trained in disciplines other than sociology. Only a limited number of courses in sociology, as fashioned by teachers according to their interest, were taught. Sociology courses included such topics as social biology, social problems (such as crime, prostitution, and beggary), social psychology, civilization, and prehistory.‘‘In the case of teaching of Indian social institutions the orientation showed more Indological and philosophical emphasis on the one hand and a concern for the social pathological problems and ethnological description on the other. Strong scientific empirical traditions had not emerged before Independence’’ (Rao 1978, pp. 2–3).

Although many of the pioneers in sociology were educated at Calcutta, substantial impact on Indian sociology during the first half of the twentieth century was made at Bombay University and Lucknow University. Patrick Geddes, the first chairperson of the department of sociology and civics at Bombay University, was a city planner and human geographer. His reports on the city planning of Calcutta, Indore, and the temple cities of south India contain much useful information and demonstrate his keen awareness of the problems of urban disorganization and renewal (Srinivas and Panini 1973, p. 187). G. S. Ghurye succeeded Geddes in 1924. During his thirty-five year teaching career at Bombay University, he guided about eighty research students. Several of his students (e.g., M. N. Srinivas, K. M. Kapadia, I. P. Desai, Y. B. Damle, A. R. Desai, and M. S. A. Rao) later on had a great impact on the development of sociology in India. Trained as a social anthropologist at Cambridge University, he addressed a wide range of themes in his research work and writings: from castes, races, and tribes in India to cities and civilization, from Shakespeare on conscience and justice to Rajput architecture, and from Indian Sadhus to sex habits of a sample of middle-class people of Bombay. He drew attention to several unexplored dimensions of Indian society, culture, and social institutions.

R. K. Mukherjee and D. P. Mukherji, both trained in economics at Calcutta University, taught sociology at Lucknow University. R. K. Mukherjee made a series of micro-level analyses of problems concerning rural economy, land, population, and the working class in India as well as the deteriorating agrarian relations and conditions of the peasantry, intercaste tensions, and urbanization. D.P.Mukherji’s interest was diverse; they ranged from music and fine arts as peculiar creations of the Indian culture to the Indian tradition in relation to modernity. A professed Marxist, he attempted a dialectical interpretation of the encounter between the Indian tradition and modernity, which unleashed many forces of cultural contradiction during the colonial era (Dhanagare 1985).

B. N. Seal and B.K. Sarkar were two of the leading sociologists of that time at Calcutta University. Seal was a philosopher, interested in comparative sociology. He wrote on the origin of race, positive sciences, and the physicochemical theories of the ancient Hindus, as well as made a comparative analysis of Vishnavism and Christianity. He stressed the need for a statistical approach, inductive logic, and methodology to appraise the contextual reality comprehensively. Sarkar, a historian and economist by training, opposed the persistent general belief that Hinduism is ‘‘other worldly.’’ He was also one of the few who discussed Marx, Weber, and Pareto at a time when they were not fashionable with sociologists either in India or abroad (Mukherjee 1979). S. V. Ketkar and B. N. Dutt, both of whom specialized in Indological studies in United States, and K.P. Chattopadhyay, a social anthropologist trained in the United Kingdom, are some of the other noteworthy pioneers of Indian sociology.

Mukherjee (1979) points out that the goals set by the pioneers ranged from an idealized version of Oriental culture to the materialist view of social development. They were involved in bibliographical research to establish the historical database and strongly advocated empirical research. But in the days of the pioneers, the interaction between theoretical formulations and the database remained at a preliminary stage.

Some of the outstanding trends in the development of Indian sociology since India’s independence have been the organization of professional bodies of sociologists, a lack of rigid distinction between sociology and social anthropology, debates regarding the need for indigenization of sociology and the relevance of Indian sociology, diversification and specialization into various subfields, and participation of sociologists in interdisciplinary research.

There has been a tremendous increase in the number of universities, colleges, and institutes teaching sociology. In most universities, the teaching of sociology started first at the graduate level and then at the undergraduate level. Universities and institutions offering degrees in interdisciplinary areas—such as management, rural development, planning, communication, and nursing— include some sociology courses in their training program. In the 1990s, some states have also introduced sociology courses at the higher secondary level. There was no professional body of sociologists during the colonial period. Ghurye was instrumental in establishing the Indian Sociological Society in 1951, and R. N. Saksena was instrumental in organizing the first All-India Sociological Conference in 1956. These organizations merged in 1967 as a single all-India professional body of sociologists. The Indian Sociological Society has more than a thousand life members. Several regional associations of sociologists was also formed during the 1980s and 1990s.

The development of sociology in India, from the viewpoint of theory, methodology, and research interests, has been significantly influenced by sociology in Western countries. Several Western scholars, a majority of them initially from the United Kingdom and Europe, and later on also from the United States, have carried out studies in India. Similarly, many of the leading sociologists in India have been trained in the United Kingdom and the United States. However, with a rise in the cost of higher education and a fall in the availability of financial assistance in the Western universities, there has been of late a decline in the number of Indian students going to the United Kingdom and the United States for advanced study in sociology. There has, however, been a steady increase in the participation of Indian sociologists in various international seminars, workshops, and conferences. The holding of the eleventh World Congress of Sociology in New Delhi in 1986 is indicative of the recognition of the development of Indian sociology and its contribution.

Two journals of sociology—The Indian Journal of Sociology, started in 1921 by Alban G. Widgery (a British professor at Baroda College), and The Indian Sociological Review, started in 1934 with R. K. Mukherjee as its editor—were short-lived. There are now only a few all-India journals of sociology: Sociological Bulletin (a biannual journal of the Indian Sociological Society since 1952), Contributions to Indian Sociology (edited by two French scholars, Louis Dumont and D. F. Pocock, from its inception in 1957 to 1963, when its editorship was passed on to Indian sociologists), and Social Change (published by the Council for Social Development since 1971). Occasionally, articles with sociological content and relevance are published in other journals, such as Economic and Political Weekly and the journals published by some universities and regional associations. Several sociological articles are published in the journals of some institutions and university departments with a focus on interdisciplinary training and research. For example, since the beginning of the 1980s, the National Institute of Rural Development in Hyderabad has published a quarterly (Journal of Rural Development), and the National Institute of Urban Affairs in New Delhi has published a biannual journal (Urban India). Also, the Center for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi publishes a biannual journal called Indian Journal of Gender Studies.

Initially, no rigid distinction was made between social anthropology and sociology, but they separated as teaching disciplines in the 1950s. In the field of research, however, the distinction between social anthropology and sociology continues to be blurred. Ghurye, Srinivas, S. C. Dube, and Andre Beteille, among others, have argued that sociologists in the Indian context cannot afford to make any artificial distinction between the study of tribal and folk society on the one hand and advanced sections of the population on the other; nor can they confine themselves to any single set of techniques. Yogesh Atal (1985) points out that this is true of several countries in Asia and the Pacific; social anthropologists have extended the scope of their investigation to micro communities in rural as well as urban settings in their own country, and sociologists have found the anthropological method of fieldwork and participant observation useful in their research. Even the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) treats both these disciplines together in its two surveys of research, the first covering the period upto 1969 (ICSSR 1972–1974) and the other from 1969 to 1979 (ICSSR 1985–1986); the same approach continues for the third survey, now under way, for the period 1979 to 1987.

There have been continuous debates regarding the need for indigenization of sociology, or ‘‘sociology for India’’ and the relevance of Indian sociology (Sharma 1985; Unnithan et al. 1967). One side of the debate started with the suggestion of Dumont and Pocock (1957) that ‘‘in principle, . . . a sociology of India lies at the point of confluence of Sociology and Indology’’ (p. 7). The proponents of an Indological approach in sociology emphasize that the contextual specificity of Indian social realities could be grasped better from the scriptural writings. Gupta (1974) points out the need for separating normative and actual behavior. Oommen (1983) pleads that ‘‘if sociology is to be relevant for India as a discipline it should endorse and its practitioners should internalize the value-package contained in the Indian Constitution’’ (p. 130), that is, socialism, secularism, and democracy rather than hierarchy, holism, pluralism, and so forth as pointed out by the Indologists. Another side of the debate is identified with a paradigm of Indian sociology free from academic colonialism—that is, borrowed packages of concepts and methods from other cultures, particularly the West, that supposedly do not have relevance for the Indian social, historical, and cultural situation (Singh 1986). However, although most sociologists are not hostile to using Western concepts, models, and analytical categories, they want their adaptations to suit the Indian sociocultural setting. Singh (1986) analyzes the contents and salient orientations of the presidential addresses delivered by M. N. Srinivas, R. N. Saksena, Ramkrishna Mukherjee, S. C. Dube, A. R. Desai, and M. S. Gore at the conferences of the Indian Sociological Society. He observes that there is a deep concern with the issue of relevance in the contexts of social policies, normative analysis of these policies, and the role of sociologists in understanding, critical appraisal, and/or promotion of these normative objectives of development and change in India.

In the 1950s and 1960s, several micro-level studies of caste, joint families, and village communities, mostly from the viewpoint of structuralfunctional aspects and change, were carried out. Srinivas introduced the concepts of dominant caste, Sanskritization, Westernization, and secularization to understand the realities of intercaste relations and their dynamics (Dhanagare 1985). Change in the structural and functional aspects of family in different parts of India was the focal point of most studies in the area of marriage, family, and kinship. The village studies focused on stratification and mobility, factionalism and leadership, the jajmani (patron–client) relationship, contrasting characteristics of rural and urban communities, and linkages with the outside world.

Indian sociology in the last quarter of the twentieth century shows both continuity and change in research. Caste and stratification, village communities, and social change have continued to be themes of research, but the approach has shifted from the functional to the conflict viewpoint. Descriptive studies of a single village community or other unit in a single social setting have been replaced by analytical comparative studies of social structure across time and space. Interest in the area of marriage, family, and kinship has declined. Women’s studies have increased greatly. Several studies have been conducted in the fields of education, urban sociology, social movements, voting behavior, communication, and industrial relations. Sociologies of medicine, law, science, and other professions have also begun to develop. Now the thrust is on studying various processes. For example, with a concern for equality and distributive justice, there is an increasing emphasis on examining the process of education as a vehicle of social change as it affects the existing system of stratification, women, and less favored segments of the population.

A steady trend of out-migration of entrepreneurial and educated Indians, particularly to Western countries, has led to a modest beginning of sociological studies of the Indian diaspora (Motwani et al. 1993). Such studies attempt to understand the sociocultural dynamics of the Indian diaspora. Some of these studies are influenced primarily by the phenomenological and the symbolic interactionist perspectives (Jayaram, 1998). Interest in the study of changing patterns of marriage and family relations due to international migration, both among the out-migrants and among the aged and others who continue to reside in India, is slowly increasing. A genealogical study of an Asian Indian, covering nineteen generations, is a notable illustration of efforts to trace roots and study intergenerational socioeconomic changes (Desai 1997).

India started its first Five-Year Plan in 1952. Since then social scientists, particularly economists, sociologists, and demographers, have been involved in conducting diagnostic, monitoring, and evaluative studies concerning a variety of developmental programs at micro as well as macro levels. For example, the interest and financial support of the Indian government and international agencies have been instrumental, since the early 1950s, in encouraging and sponsoring research in the field of population and family planning (Visaria and Visaria 1995, 1996). Policies and programs concerning urban and rural community development, Panchayati Raj, education, abolition of untouchability, uplift of weaker sections (scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and other backward castes), and rehabilitation of people affected by large-scale projects (constructions of large dams, industrial estates, capital cities, etc.) have been some of the other important areas of research by sociologists. At times, the various ministries of the central and the state governments, the ICSSR, and other funding agencies have sponsored all-India studies that have tended, albeit in a small way, to strengthen interdisciplinary approaches in social research. For example, in 1975–1976 the Indian Space Research Organization conducted a one-year satellite instructional television experiment in 2,330 villages spread over twenty districts of six states (Agrawal et al. 1977); the ICSSR sponsored a nationwide study of the educational problems of students from scheduled castes and tribes (Shah 1982).

During the 1970s and 1980s, several social research institutes were established in different parts of India. Also, many universities established interdisciplinary women’s studies. Most prominent sociology departments and/or social research institutes are located in Delhi, Bombay, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Poona, Banglore, Hyderabad, and Trivandrum.

Several universities have gradually switched over to the use of the regional language as a medium of instruction at the undergraduate level, and some at the graduate level also; however, inadequate availability of textbooks in regional languages has been a major handicap in the teaching– learning process. Statistics has as yet not become an integral component of sociology curricula in a large number of colleges and universities. Although the survey approach is widely used in sociological research, most research publications hardly go beyond the use of descriptive statistics. There has been a strong plea for developing concepts and measurements that fit the Indian situation, but concerted efforts in this matter are still lacking. At the end of the twentieth-century, there is a frequently mentioned concern about an emergent paradoxical trend in sociological teaching and research in India. On the one hand, sociology has been accepted as one of the core subjects in almost all colleges and universities and several interdisciplinary institutions; on the other hand, a severe problem obstructing the growth and development of sociology in India due to a dearth of qualified teachers and falling standards, which may be due to a lack of teaching material in the regional languages and the inability of a large number of students to read textbooks and reference material in English. With a democratic polity, a developing economy, and a socioculturally diversified population, questions of applying even fairly good social science research findings get shrouded in the complex processes of the state policy and administration.

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