Sociology in India has been exemplary in identifying and understanding the vast variety of people who reside within the nation and also acknowledge the diversity that comes along with it. Sociology as a subject deals with the study of society and in the case of India, it becomes more nuanced. Most of the origins of sociology deal with Western concepts and perceptions of society. Theories on class, race, and religion are more prevalent in their narratives but to study India as a subcontinent and nation, institutions such as marriage, caste, and kinship become important to fully understand the dynamic which exists within the people. Moreover, Indian sociologists also attempted to visualize the nation, not through the western lens of orientalism but put forth their very own understanding of how social bonds and society as a whole function.
Orientalism and Indology
India has a colonial past. This period of colonisation has shaped Indian history and society but also given ample insight to the western thinkers to interpret the Indian society from their lens. Sociology was never a formal school of study in India and only through the British influence did scholars begin to study India through a different lens. Orientalism, as a term was coined by Edward Said and is used to describe how the western thinkers viewed the ‘East’ and undertake the effort to understand the ways of life by analysing it closely in contrast to the western standards and notions of understanding. While this did lead to several scholars viewing the country through those lenses, many begin to question this methodology. Indology as a discipline also developed simultaneously. The effort to understand a civilization through the ancient texts, culture, and theories closely related to the Indian civilization. This led to a newer understanding of the country through a fresh perspective.
Indian sociologists have contributed significantly to the field by making most of their work centered around the Indian context and analyzing the customs and rituals specific to the region.
10 Indian Sociologists and Their Major Contributions
MN Srinivas- He is a renowned scholar who was a student of GS Ghurye and pioneered the process of macro-sociological generalization and micro anthropological insights for small-scale communities mainly in his research work. He worked with the Coorgs by conducting a field study and attempted to understand the caste dynamic within the groups residing there and carried out similar work in Rampura. His most notable works are the concepts of ‘sanskritisation’, ‘westernization’, ‘secularisation’ and ‘westernization’ which were key to understanding behaviours exhibited by people in their social and personal spheres having direct implication on caste. The idea of ‘dominant caste’ emerges from his work Rampura where he talks about the economic and localized implications of caste.
Andre Betellie- He was a Professor Emeritus at Delhi School of Economics and a renowned sociology scholar who received the honour of being the first Nehru Fellow. His significant contributions come from understanding caste and class within the Indian context, He worked a lot with empirical ground realities and drew inspiration from Weber’s works. He spoke about the caste class dichotomy and implemented concepts of universalisation while talking about Indian society. He also mentioned the active role civil societies play in the strengthening of democracy within the nation.
Radhakamal Mukherjee- Radhakamal Mukherjee was a sociologist who drew heavily from the works of Comte and Spencer. Through his works he was specifically very interested in the ideas of ‘adult education’’ and it remained as an exploratory work for him till the very end and he even started several adult education centres. He emphasised the notions of human institutions and how they act as a binding factor and a base for rituals and norms and posited a possibility of having an imperial and normative way of looking into the society. He was a structural-functional sociologist who suggested that a ‘transdisciplinary approach’ is very important to study the historical and social institutions of India. He also dealt extensively with social values and how they affect society as a whole.
Irawati Karve– Irawati Karve is the first female anthropologist of India and pioneered research in cultural and social anthropology. She was an Indologist and was the founder of the Anthropology Department at Pune University and spearheaded several feminist works. She extensively worked with the Marathi language but her sociological acclaim lies in the book, ‘Kinship Organization of India’ (1953). Through her work Yuganta, she paints the epic of Mahabharata through a very different lens and which helped her gain several accolades. Her two primary fields of studies that are significant to the field of sociology are- Group Relations within a Village Community and The Social Dynamics of a Growing Town and Its Surrounding Area. The former was to understand the interpersonal and intergroup relations between people considering the actors such as caste, kinship and loyalty by gaining both qualitative and quantitative data and the latter was to determine the changing dynamics between a village and a town due to several social processes in place.
GS Ghurye- GS Ghurye was considered the father of Indian sociology and was a very important name in spearheading research in the fields of sociology. He was well known for embracing and practicing disciplined eclecticism in theory and methodology and did not adhere to the strict functional- structuralist approach. Caste and Kinship as a subject was dealt with by Ghurye who talked about the prevalence along similar lines in other societies and the presence of integrative frameworks. He also laid down the salient features along which caste is practiced namely- segmental division, hierarchy, pollution and purity, civil and religious disabilities and privileges, choice of occupation, restriction on marriage. He also closely examined the relationship between kinship and caste. He was also a staunch believer of the fact that no civilization is completely evolved and evolution is a continuous process.
TK Oommen- TK Oommen is a sociologist who has actively contributed to Indian sociology and his doctoral thesis was the first to deal with social movements and his book Doctors and Nurses is widely acclaimed. While focusing on Indian sociology he categorised the trends to be dominated from three perspectives- institutionist, nationalist and cosmopolitan. While he doesn’t subscribe to any of them in particular he calls himself a pluralist. Through his work, he has also attempted to understand the phenomenon of communalism and how each one of them affect the parties involved. A very well-known article by him titled ‘Insiders and Outsiders in India: Primordial Collectivism and Cultural Pluralism in Nation Building’ also gives keen insights into nation-building in the contemporary world.
Yogendra Singh- Yogendra Singh’s pioneering work called ‘Modernization of Indian Tradition’ gives very insightful remarks about the Hindu, Muslim and tribal communities within the nation. He posits that the primary traditions of Indian society are framed by these three communities. All Indian social changes and real factors get their indications in these three types of customs. Yogendra Singh has distinguished the critical powers of modernization and investigates their effect on Indian culture and custom. He has attempted to draw out the changes which have come because of modernization. The outcomes of modernization are either internal or from outside society. These two wellsprings of modernization should be dissected both at the degrees of social structures and customs, which is the idea he spoke extensively through his work.
BR Ambedkar- BR Ambedkar along with being a politician and the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly of India during the Indian independence also actively contributed to the field of Indian sociology. He was a pioneer of the subaltern perspective and very vocal about the oppressed castes in India which manifest clearly through his works. He was of the opinion that social reforms need to be enforced constitutionally and legally to enhance the living standards of the people who have been neglected due to the oppression of the caste system. He was highly influenced by the works of Jyotiba Phule and Periyar who acted as a guiding light for him. He also emphasised the need for a castless society and complete annihilation of caste for India and an important aspect of nation-building. His writings on Bahujans provide keen insights into how historically the people have been oppressed and prevented from being a part of the mainstream society. He claims in his speech, Annihilation of Caste that the only way castism in India can be dealt with when people of different castes begin to inter dine and inter-caste marriages are encouraged.
Also read: 10 famous inter caste marriages in India
AR Desai – AR Desai was a sociologist who implemented the ‘dialectical historical model’ in his works and was highly influenced by Marx, Engles, and Trotsky. He emphasised the role of class to take precedence over caste and viewed the disparities in India through an economic lens providing the explanation that the dichotomy between the Urban Bourgeoise and rural petty bourgeoise is the main root of the conflict. He even viewed the Indian national movement through a conflict perspective where he spoke of how the alteration in the economy was introduced by the Britishers by introducing modernisation and industrialisation. He also documented peasant struggles and social movements which provide an in-depth understanding of how class struggles were an integral aspect of the same.
Ashis Nandy– Ashis Nandy is a psychologist and a sociologist who has contributed immensely to the field of political psychology, violence, and culture. The most prevalent themes in his work have been concerned with the issues of marginalised communities and systems of knowledge. He has also conducted extensive work on the Hindutva ideology which is prevailing in India and analysed it through a psycho-social lens.
Indian sociologists have a diverse range of work. They have studied kinship, caste, class, rules, norms, magic, and movements, and India being a melting pot of cultures has provided ground for several studies to be conducted and understood. Several researchers have delved into past phenomenons while the recent ones are more into contemporary movements. These are all essential and key to understanding the subcontinent and its practices as sociology as a subject has no objective truth.