This is the second edition of a collection of essays, which were first published by T.K. Oommen in 2007. This collection has three new essays on three distinguished sociologists/social anthropologists in India—Y.B. Damle, M.N Srinivas and G.S Ghurye. These essays were written over the span of T.K. Oommen’s professional career and address issues and concerns with regard to the production and circulation of sociological knowledge in South Asia at large and India in particular.
In the introduction to the book, Oommen identifies three ‘persisting tensions’ in sociology—first is the convoluted relationship between sociology and social anthropology in postcolonial countries. He locates the source of the problem in the origin of both these disciplines in the West and their journey to the colonies. In the West, anthropology was a product of colonialism and studied ‘other cultures’ and small-scale societies while sociology was a product of modernity and studied the modern formations in the society.
The end of colonialism however acted as a death knell to practising anthropology in the above ways. Regressive labelling like ‘savage’, ‘primitive’, ‘black’, ‘oriental’ were rejected by non-western social anthropologists. No longer were these categories distinct in the postcolonial world but coexisted in the state territory. Hence, the agreement reached between sociology and social anthropology in the New World Order was that the first would focus on society while the latter on culture, facilitating a peaceful coexistence. Oommen argues that in the postcolonial countries the originary distinction of sociology and social anthropology collapse in their practice and are irrelevant.
The second tension in the practice of sociology is the claim made by sociology of scientificity. Oommen argues that ‘if matter is the object of study of material sciences and life is the focus of life sciences, culture is the central theme of social sciences’. By culture he means the capacity to create meaning which can be deciphered only with the help of those who create it. Hence as opposed to life sciences in social sciences the method of verification will have to be different. This also implies that ‘objectivity’ with its capacity to be universal and generalizing will not be possible in social sciences. Oommen argues that this does not mean social sciences are not objective; what they have is ‘particularised objectivity’ which is specific to the context. He further argues that contextualization should happen both in spatial and temporal terms (Chapter 1 and 8).
The third tension in the practice of sociology is identifying the appropriate unit of analysis. Oommen argues that in the present global age it is important to transcend the conventional macro unit that is the national state and make sociology society centric. He proposes civilization as a macro unit, national societies as meso units and intrasocietal institutions and organizations as micro units of analysis. After briefly charting out the history and usage of the term ‘civilisation’, Oommen argues that civilization should not be conceptualized in the singular; neither should it be anchored in religion or economy but in the specificities of the region. He also clarifies that using ‘civilization’ as a unit does not mean that a bottom-up perspective is not to be considered, on the contrary he sees the macro-meso-micro units working in a continuum.
The value of this collection of essays apart from spelling out the persisting conflict and contradictions in the disciplinary practices of sociology and social anthropology is also in the manner in which sociology has been contextualized in the Indian context. Oommen does not situate sociology in the Indological tradition with its preoccupation with Hindu texts and values. Neither does he favour an ‘academic nationalism’ or ‘academic communalism’ which means that perceiving all issues through the interests of the nation state as he argues it would be parochial and depend heavily on the state’s tutelage. He also does not situate sociology in the tradition of the past, but argues that the relevance of sociology lies in the internalization of the ‘value package contained in the Indian Constitution’. He says that the manner in which this process of internalization occurs has to be one’s own and this is where sociology can be of help. Oommen draws on his own research experience (Chapter 3 and 4) to show how theories, data, themes of research, society structure are all linked. These chapters also show how sociology in India is done in a ‘sociological’ way and not through an anthropological style.
Oommen takes his time to conceptualize the ‘perspective from below’ (Chapter 5). The need for such a perspective he says is linked to the hierarchical nature of Indian societies. If the ‘white’ anthropologists had constructed the ‘primitive society’, the ‘twice-born’ sociologist in India had emphasized Hindu society based on classical texts as the ideal. After discounting perspectives like the subaltern, feminist and classical texts on Hindu society, he argues that the dalit vision qualifies as the perspective from below.
Focussing on the location of sociology and social anthropology in the global world at large and in the South Asian context in specific, Oommen is sceptical about the ‘internationalization of sociology’ as he argues that if the production and distribution of knowledge is not more multi-directional in its flow, then it could lead to westernization. He says that it is not possible to have one sociology as the world is not one yet. For an ‘authentic sociology’ to be conceptualized and practised he argues that there are certain binaries like that between sociology and anthropology, modern and primitive, industrial and agrarian that need to be collapsed. Oommen argues that genuine human diversity should be recognized. Further, he says that authentic sociology should be devoid of xenophobia and jingoism.
Oommen locates through the works of Y.B. Damle, G.S. Ghurye and M.N Srinivas the themes discussed in the rest of the book. He applauds Damle for his efforts at ‘de-anthropologising’ sociology in India at a time when there was a heavy influence of British social anthropologists. He was trained under G.S. Ghurye and an advocate of American sociology with a particular interest in the works of Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton. Oommen argues that though Damle was perceived as a theoretician he was perhaps more of an empiricist. His contributions in understanding social reality in Maharashtra were valuable, but at times his insistence on the American and Parsonian frameworks came in the way of comprehending social reality in the Indian context in all its complexities. Oommen argues that if Damle abandoned the influence of anthropology in the way sociology was practised in India, M.N. Srinivas did the reverse due to his academic associations with A.R. Radcliff-Brown and E.E. Evans Pritchard, esteemed British anthropologists who were also his teachers. He developed the methodology of participant observation, an anthropological approach to collecting data; however he used it to study one’s own culture and not a ‘primitive’ other. Oommen argues that Srinivas helped abandon the obsession with studying Indian social reality through Hindu texts but he brought the ‘field’ as a counter. This created another polarity within the practice of the discipline—the field and book. Referring to the process of sanskritization, a concept Srinivas came to be known for, Oommen argues that his field and method were micro, but it was claimed that his concepts were not only applicable to the macro but to the whole civilization. Oommen goes against the grain of Srinivas’s work to question the divide between book view, field view and macro-micro in apprehending social reality.
In discussing the work of G.S. Ghurye , Oommen is critical of the invisibilization, ‘cognitive blackout’ and ‘conceptual mutilation’ that the ‘bottom-rung’ of the society suffer despite Ghurye devoting much of his work on the study of Scheduled castes. He even refers to the Scheduled tribes as ‘backward Hindus’. Oommen asserts the need to study and research the hierarchical nature of Indian society keeping a focus on those who are the lowest on the rung.
This collection of essays as seen from the brief summary above is rich in debates that mould and frame the way the discipline of sociology and social anthropology is practised in different parts of the world at large and in the context of India in particular. Oommen questions and collapses many easy polarities and categories that have been constructed from the origin of the discipline to reflect on the complexities of the debate and the ambiguous nature of strait jackets and boundaries.
Ujithra Ponniah is currently pursuing PhD in Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her areas of interests broadly include feminist theory and philosophy.