Marking 100 years of sociology teaching and research in India

Dr Kamei Aphun *

Sociology Department : GP Women's College, Imphal
Sociology Department : GP Women's College, Imphal :: Pix - Deepak Oinam

Sociology as an independent course for teaching and research has completed 100 years in India. As a subject that studies man and society, it was first introduced in 1914 at the Bombay University under a grant from the Government of India, though discussing social issues/ questions started much earlier in India. Mention can be made particularly of Patrick Geddes, the first Chairperson of the Department of Sociology and Civics at Bombay University, who was a city planner and human geographer. G. S. Ghurye succeeded Geddes in 1924, who in his thirty-five year of teaching career at Bombay University produces scholars such as M. N. Srinivas, K. M. Kapadia, I. P. Desai, Y. B. Damle, A. R. Desai, and M. S. A. Rao who were instrumental in shaping Indian Sociology.

The seeds of sociological thought can be traced from a very long tradition of social thoughts that India had experienced from various aspects of society such as family, marriage, varna ashram, gotra, morality and religion. Though one could not easily separate religion, philosophy and empirical knowledge in the ancient times, today one can see a clearer boundary of what constitutes 'social thought' and 'sociology' in particular. It can be argued that the tradition of sociological thinking in India began only after the First Word war and scholars such as V.K. Sarkar (1937), H.E.Barns (1948), P.N. Prabhu (1954), Max Weber (1960), and H.C. Malik (1977) were instrumental in grasping the Indian social thought.

On the sociological thought, mention can be made of Radhakamal Mukerjee and Haridas Majumdar (1952), Loius Dumont (1957), D.P.Mukerji (1958), T.K.Unnithan (1967), B.D. Gupta (1972), Ramakrishna Mukerjee (1979) and Yogendra Singh (1979). Today the list goes on and on one cannot ignore the contributions made by Andre Beteille, T.N. Madan, A.M. Shah, JPS Uberoi, Dipankar Gupta, Satish Deshpande etc. It was during the Vedic period that the four pillars of the Indian social structure were erected:
1. Caste system
2. Rural communities (village)
3. Agrarian economy
4. Joint family system

Today, tribe is added to the list.

However due to the western influence of social thought, a new trend of thinking emerged especially in the pre-independence India. Broadly speaking, one can divide the study of Indian society in four areas in this period:
1. Indian Philosophy
2. Orientology and Indology
3. Ethnic and Social Survey
4. History

Scholars such as Ghurye and Yogendra Singh who studied Indian culture and caste have contributed remarkably in this field.

The post-independent India saw increase in the openings of departments and universities of sociology. During this period, many scholars went to American universities for study and research. The period is also marked by the influenced of the British Anthropologists in the country. Owing to this mixed influence during the period 1950-60 emphasis was laid on factual, empirical and surveying field studies in place of theoretical and traditional issues. This led to series of rural and urban studies in India.

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. Even the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) treats both these disciplines together in its surveys of research, the first covering the period upto 1969 ; the second from 1969 to 1979 and the third, for the period 1979 to 1987.

All the more there have been continuous debates regarding the need for indigenization of sociology, or "sociology for India" and the relevance of Indian sociology. However, although most sociologists are not hostile to using Western concepts, models, and analytical categories, they want their adaptations to suit the Indian socio-cultural setting. This was clearly reflected when the Five Year Plan initiated by the Government of India in 1952 challenges social scientists, particularly economists, sociologists, and demographers, to involved in conducting diagnostic, monitoring, and evaluative studies concerning a variety of developmental programs at micro as well as macro levels.

During the 1970s and 1980s, several social research institutes were established in different parts of India. This has added the very scope of Sociology in India. Today, the growth of Sociology is felt in almost all Indian central universities. New fields of enquiry as a part of Sociology have emerged. Besides crucial issues on caste system, questions on Nation-building, regionalism, communalism, environment and health issues, ethnicity and identity, development and gender, new social theories, we have new fields on science, medicine, food, sports or sociology of colours etc.

The origin of Sociology in Europe has a different story. Today the discipline is 175 years old (since Auguste Comte independently developed the subject in 1839, though the term Sociology was coined in 1780 by Emmanual-Joseph Sieyes). This discipline laid its foundation on the European socio-economical, political and the intellectual background of the 18th century. As someone who is fascinated by the rapid expansion of the discipline, I would like to lay stress on how this new science had emerged to analyze the change in the social structure that were brought about by many external forces like scientific inventions, industrial revolution and political upheavals that Saint Simon and Auguste Comte developed and to me it was typically a continuity of human thought that the subject is fast realizing.

Likewise, the growth of sociology as a profession in England is thought to be the result of the three factors- political economy, ameliorism, and social evolution according to Philip Abrams in his "The Origins of British Sociology", published in 1968.

However, one of the basic problems of Indian Sociology is related with the aspect of theory and methodology. Beteille noted that Indian sociologists have not been able to be 'innovative both theoretically and methodologically because of their passive dependence on the work of western scholars'. This is one of the reasons Indian sociology has not been able to develop a theory and methodology of its own. Most of such works do not provide sufficient data which could lead to generalization or the basis of theoretical formulation.

The case of the North East is that the discipline of Sociology in the region started ?rst in Assam at Dibrugarh University in the mid- 1960s. This is the ?rst University that taught post-graduate level course in Sociology in the region. The second department of Sociology started at the North-Eastern Hill University in 1976 at Shillong.

Subsequently, with creation of universities in Nagaland, Silchar (Assam) and Tezpur (Assam), the number of post-graduate departments in Sociology offering PG courses and research programmes has increased to ?ve. Today, Manipur University is proud to have a department of Sociology, though several colleges such as D.M. College and Imphal College had been offering Sociology in its undergraduate for many years.

Today, Indian Sociology occupies an important position in analyzing social structures and systems but in the production of new social theories and concepts in the contemporary world it still lacks far behind. The changes that occurs in family and many social institutions, not only challenges the traditional ones but rapidly poses a complex whole to address.

The live-in relationships, surrogacy, new reproduction technologies, the third sex, gay rights, politics of culture, minority rights and majority hegemony, global markets and globalization intertwine taking different shapes and size consistently. However, the strength lies in the production of greater knowledge and this accentuates bridging of diverse culture and practices.

Again, in this process of production of knowledge what is generally seen and witnessed is the presence of regionalism and area based learning which does not allow scholars to arrive at generalization so easily. Those scholars who have experienced caste and its power tends to focus on the issue and those from the North east tends to define their works on the region as it allows to master their judgments of ideas and field on inquiry.

What ultimately transpires the contemporary sociologists is the orientation of focusing social realities and diversities. Today, the greater task for India or Indian Sociologists, for that matter is the challenge that faces country on 'Nation building'. Is Pluralism in India, a boon or bane? How does one define 'Indianess'? Who is a real Indian?

These questions though appear simple but the answers may be difficult to address as it requires some common theorizations or foundations to hold and that is, the development model that India adopts must include social fabrics from all region, culture, history and identity.

The political inquisition and vision should be based on the foundation of democracy and social equality. The cultural representation of the country should include the most segregated ones. Religion should be allowed to function as 'mere private affairs' and not assert on political grounds. Racism should not be tolerated and so do casteism. This realization will make a difference.

* Dr Kamei Aphun wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a recipient of Tokyo Foundation Young Leaders Fellowship, Japan; Visiting Fellow of Peking University, China and currently teaches Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics in Delhi University.
This article was posted on October 30, 2014.

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