March 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 3

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International Perspectives

Lineages, Trajectories and Challenges to Sociology in India

Sujata Patel, University of Hyderabad, India


Beyond the debates of methodological nationalism*—regarding whether the nation-state should be the organizing principle of modernity—it is commonly understood that conceptions of the nation, nationality, and nationalism have shaped the framing of social sciences (both in the way theories were organized and how methods were implemented) across different parts of the world. Such is also the history of the discipline of sociology in India. In ex-colonial countries such as India, sociology is framed in ways that distinguish it from that of colonizing and imperial countries such as France and Germany where the founders of sociology elaborated the discipline's canons.

This difference is related to two processes: first is the history of colonialism and the use of anthropological theories and methodologies by the colonial state to structure a discourse on “Indian” society as a non-modern society. As a result, when sociology as a discipline emerged in India (the teaching of sociology started at the University of Bombay in 1919), it did so in dialogue with anthropological theories and methodologies that had evolved in context with discourses of rule. The growth of nationalist ideologies, in the pre-independence phase, allowed for a (limited) interrogation of this received dominant and partial assessment of "Indian society."

Nationalist Social Sciences

However, with the formation of the independent state in 1947 and the initiation of a nationalist modernist project, which used higher education for creating opportunities for mobility, social sciences were called upon to play a critical role in conceptualizing development and identifying pathways for change. In this way, nationalist social sciences were fostered that not only interrogated colonial theories and methodologies, but also created a language for organizing new perspectives and methodologies in context of a new nationalist discourse. Thus, in the case of India, methodological nationalism was a self-conscious embrace of a set of guidelines to confront colonial discourses within the social sciences. This genealogy needs to be highlighted and valued in juxtaposition of the negativities outlined in the debate of methodological nationalism.*

Henceforth this sociological knowledge (using a combination of anthropological or sociological perspectives) was organized to discuss, debate, and represent social changes occurring within one nation and territory—India. Sociologists defined their project as the analysis of one’s own society (India) in one’s "own terms," (indigenous) without colonial and now neo-colonial tutelage. This allowed for the institutionalization of a particularistic problematique, which is defined as an assessment of how modernity and modernization were changing India’s characteristic institutions—caste, kinship, family, and religion. The study of poverty, inequalities and exclusions as well as of state and the economy, rarely found a place in its discourse.

As in many other countries, the 1970s and 1980s (the period of social movements) and even the 1990s (the globalization period), inaugurated new moments of self-reflection regarding the received colonial and nationalist nature of the discipline and the lack of its interface with inequalities and exclusions fashioned by the project of modernity of the post-independent state and its elite. This is particularly noticeable within elite English teaching departments (if not across all departments and universities), allowing for the reframing of the discipline to a critical assessment of sociology of India. International intellectual trends have fuelled these debates: the impact of structuralist and post-structuralist perspectives, the reflexivisation of anthropology, and the globalization of the discipline. However, critical to these interrogations has been endogenous national experiences; a reflection of the contradictions of the institutional structures of the modernist nationalist project of the post-independent state; and a realization that nationalism was a limited expression of the diversities that structured the subcontinent (now no longer perceived as the nation-state). There was also an attempt to standardize and homogenize a class, caste, and patriarchal orientation of modernity.

Questions for Indian Sociologists in the 21st Century

These reflections have posed questions and challenges to sociologists in India and its leadership. These can be comprehended at five levels: The first relates to the development of critical language to study the history of the discipline. How and through what theories and methods can sociologists in India reflect on the way dominant colonial and post-independent discourses have framed the discipline’s organization? What tools should they use and why? More specifically, how can writing the discipline’s history in India help reconstruct its future?

Second, what position should the sociology of India take regarding the theories constructed during colonial and nationalist phases? These promoted a combination of anthropological and sociological theories and methods and propounded a partial and biased understanding of social characteristics within the subcontinent. They not only rarefied social processes and misrepresented the documentation and assessments of the intersubjective entanglements of the worlds of class, caste, and gendered communities of the subcontinent, but altered ways of understanding and thinking about them.

Third, in what ways should sociologists dialogue with other branches of knowledge, from natural sciences to social science, to reorient the discipline’s epistemic agenda and reframe it to assess themes of survival, poverty, and exclusions facing the majority in India? As a consequence of class, caste, and the gendered nature of the country’s modernist project, most women and men belonging to lower castes, ethnic, tribal, and minority religious groups work and labor in the informal economy. These exclusions and insecurities sit at the core of their individual and collective life worlds. What kinds of interdisciplinary languages does one formulate to reflect the sociability emerging in and through this modernist experience?

Fourth, what is the object and scope of sociological investigations? Today, social scientists in the region agree that India is a nation-state with many nations, whereas earlier nationalist sociology misrecognized it as one nation, one state. This leads to a number of questions about what should be studied. For instance, should sociologists study the varied nations and the excluded populations within the territory defined as the Indian nation-state? Or should sociologists assess the subcontinent's communities spread across the territory? Or both? If the former, can it retain a particularistic orientation (practicing a sociology of India) without subsuming it within an indigenous culturist frame? If the second, how can it create a language that can assess the forced and voluntary mobilities of the many out-migrants from the region, now placed in varied class-positions across the world, and relate these with those within the territory?

Fifth, what relationship should sociology in India establish with the new internationalism of sociology? Does internationalism provide new pathways for those practicing sociology in India or does it merely repeat in new ways colonial practices of rule? Or, to put it differently, should sociologists in India use an extended version of theories and methodologies being practiced in the global North and participate in the practices being organized by the problematique of "cosmopolitan" and "global" sociology? Or should sociologists retain nationalist moorings, now re-framed and being endogenously reconstituted in the subcontinent and the global South? Or is there a third way to relate with these questions?

The way the profession engages with these concerns will define the discipline’s identity within India in the 21st century.

* "The all-pervasive assumption that the nation-state is the natural and necessary form of society in modernity; the nation-state is taken as the organizing principle of modernity" from Daniel Chernilo in "Social Theory’s Methodological Nationalism: Myth and Reality," European Journal of Social Theory 9(1): 5–6, 2006.

Submit Ideas for the International Perspectives Column


Footnotes invites contributions from knowledgeable non-North American sociologists on the state of the discipline and profession of sociology in countries outside North America for publication in the new occasional column, “International Perspectives.” Sociological analyses of significant national events in these countries that would be of interest to North American sociologists are welcome for publication. Original contributions must be in English and no more than 1,100 words. To discuss possible contributions or send material, contact Johanna Olexy (

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