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2004 Annual Meeting . . . Public Sociologies

Public Sociology Meets Public Intellectual, Activist, and Novelist Arundhati Roy

The third article in a series highlighting prominent public intellectuals presenting at ASA’s 2004 Annual Meeting in San Francisco

by Ben Crow, University of California-Santa Cruz

The 2004 Annual Meeting conference committee has selected Indian novelist Arundhati Roy to give a keynote speech on the “public sociologies” conference theme. At first glance this might seem an odd match. What would an Indian novelist know about public sociologies, particularly in the United States?

A little reflection reveals Arundhati Roy to be an excellent fit in public sociology. Sociology is the most open of academic disciplines. Its boundaries and community are not as rigid as, say, the boundaries of economics or physics. This openness is advantageous because sociology is in frequent, but imperfect, conversation with society. Sociology has important things to say to society. Not least, today’s social theory may shape tomorrow’s common sense. In return, all manner of people contribute to sociology. The conversation may be stifled. When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as ‘society,’” she was making a direct attempt to stifle the conversation. The conversation may also be encouraged. When the conference committee of the ASA reaches out to new parts of the global community, such as an Indian novelist, it may be adding new channels of communication.

Where could a novelist fit into this conversation between sociology and society? Novelists make influential contributions to common discourse about human communities. They generate stories about society, how people relate to one another across and within various social divisions.

Light Through Social Divisions

But Arundhati Roy? What could she have to say about public sociologies? You’ll have to attend the talk in San Francisco to get the complete answer. But, I have some ideas that provide a hint. Arundhati Roy gained prominence by writing a Booker Prize-winning tragedy about the persistence of long-standing social divisions in the small, South Indian state of Kerala. The state has become famous in the social sciences because its inhabitants live longer than most Indians, and longer than most people in poor countries. Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things, touches upon the social movements and historical conditions that contributed to longevity in Kerala. It sheds its main light, however, on the desperate repercussions for one family of hatred across caste lines.

Since writing The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy has transformed herself into a public intellectual, and brought her critical sociological eye to bear on several issues. She has taken up questions of poverty, fundamentalism, warmongering and dispossession and given these issues a global prominence that, given their large scale, is embarrassing to the Indian middle class. As Salil Tripathi writes in the New Statesman, “Roy…tells most middle-class Indians things they don’t want to hear: that the country’s nuclear policy is foolish; that millions are left behind by the new economy; that 50 million people are being displaced by dams and irrigation projects; that India can’t afford to pay for privatization.” Most recently, she has begun to write about American power: “[T]in-pot dictators (like Iraqi President Saddam Hussein) are not the greatest threat to the world. The real and pressing danger, the greatest threat of all is the locomotive force that drives the political and economic engine of the American government, currently piloted by George Bush.”

Her sustained support for the movement against a network of dams in the Narmada Valley of Western India provides an excellent example of Arundhati Roy’s work. What Roy has done, in this case, is to give voice to the unrepresented, those who have been displaced by the reservoirs behind big dams. This is not a popular cause. Why should people in India, or elsewhere, care about those dispossessed by Indian irrigation and power projects? In a long, influential essay (1999), Roy showed that there are an extraordinary number of people displaced (at least 33 million, probably more than 50 million). She provides a vivid description of how some of these people, most of them Adivasi, or aboriginal people, have been dispossessed of their land, livelihood and community. They have joined the ranks of the impoverished in the urban slums and villages of India. Government “resettlement” is shown to be insubstantial at best. After writing the essay, this novelist, who has a swelling global following, repeatedly visited the growing lakes and submerging villages. She stood with the movement against the big dams. Then, she took the cause on global tour and fought a legal case in the Indian Supreme Court.

Roy’s writing on public issues has provoked controversy. Environmental historian Ramachandra Guha accused her of overlooking an innovative compromise on the Narmada dam schemes suggested by Indian scientists, self-absorption, and an over-simplification of politics. Nonetheless, Guha wrote, “One must grant that Arundhati Roy is a courageous woman…. She followed her printed blasts with long, tiring journeys in inhospitable terrain, to show her solidarity with the anti-nuclear and anti-dam protesters. Most writers have been individualists and careerists. An all-too-small minority has shown an awareness of public issues. Where do we place Ms. Roy in this line of honourable dissenters?” Guha locates Roy in the tradition of George Orwell. She equals Orwell in bravery, he argues, but she lacks his “intellectual probity and judgment,” he says.

Public Sociology?

Is Roy’s outspoken and controversial activism public sociology? Novelists do not set out to write public sociology. But Roy’s The God of Small Things has re-illuminated caste in post-colonial India. Her resonant writing, determined activism, and global following have begun to give voice to dispossessed adivasis, a desperate, unheard section of the global community. When Roy speaks in her clear, critical voice, she can be heard across many divides, of caste, gender, and underdevelopment. When Arundhati Roy talks to the 2004 ASA conference, I hope she will help us think about what it takes to make sociologies public and global.


Guha, Ramachandra. 2000. “The Arun Shourie of the left.” The Hindu November 26.

Roy, A. 1999. “The greater common good.” In The Cost of Living. New York: Modern Library.

Tripathi, S. 2001. “The goddess against big things.” New Statesman 130 (4535, April 30):22.

Ben Crow is Associate Professor of Sociology and the author of Sharing the Ganges (1995) and Markets, Class and Social Change (2001).