What are Modalities and How are they related to the British influence present in Indian Sociology?

Bernard S. Cohn was an American anthropologist who pioneered in writing about British colonialism in India. He recognised the heavy British Oriental influence that continues to affect Indian sociology today and, in-depth, traced its trajectory. This article focuses on his understanding and explanations of the use of investigative modalities implemented by the British to do so and what they entailed. 

B.S. Cohn

Nicholas Dirks, in his Foreword to “Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India” by Bernard S. Cohn, prefaces what Cohn goes on to talk about in detail and lay out how the formation of what we understand as the contemporary Indian society comes to be as a product of colonialism and British reconstruction of India. Cohn talks about the ‘objectification’ of India, which had different understandings but always involved structuring India in such a way that made sense to the colonisers and was a reflection of their comprehension of Indian culture, traditions and society. As they codified India to their understanding, they documented the same, and these documents became integral to the formation of many academic disciplines that were starting to take form during that period.

Formation of India

Cohn begins to trace the rise of sociology in India with its linkage to the rise of the modern state. Purposeful theatrical displays were performances to stabilize the power of the ruler in the pre-modern state; they appeared in the form of parades, royal entries, funerals, coronations and other rituals that made the position of the rulers over their subjects very clear. Europe slowly extended this to ‘officialising’ such procedures that increased their capacity and control over larger areas by defining and classifying space. They defined what was public and private, what was acceptable and not, as well as standardized information for their use. They collected data about transactions, language, and education and formed ledgers to put it to use for easier governance. He aptly said – “Nation-states came to be seen as the natural embodiments of history, territory, and society”. Through documentation, the British created their own version of India’s past that would help them control and mould the masses, by keeping records, reports, commissions, crime, demography, health, etc.

India was a land area under the British that was home to an even larger variety of identities and communities, as such it became the major cultural project for Britain where they would apply their governing techniques to see if they were fruitful and vice versa, they would experiment with new governing techniques in India which if worked would be implemented back in Britain. Cohn’s ideas lead to the identification that not only did the people in charge of such classification has imperialist goals but they also formed divisions that had not been present in the minds of the native population in the first place and changed how they viewed themselves. One example would be the way religion became something of geographic importance. Geography became important to how the British saw religion, certain areas became a majority and others a minority – places with a dense population of Hindus would be a region that largely found Hindu culture, traditions, language, and ideas being used by the British to be able to govern the area and the same would apply for a Muslim majority area. It also essentially pushed any tribal communities to the fringes of social existence.

Investigative Modalities

Such ideas of data allocation lay down the foundation of investigative modalities. A modality is a body of required information, or process by which appropriate data is gathered, and the ordering and classification of it. Investigative modalities convert them into usable forms like encyclopaedias, statistical records, published reports, etc.

  1. Historiographic Modality

The most complex and powerful modality used by the British, it acts as a base for other more specific ones. Historiographic modality continues the classification of Indian administration regarding its geography and re-application of pre-existing practices.

Three major strands –

One way of doing this was by asking specific questions about revenue collection. Which slowly developed into the land-settlement process and production of settlement reports.

A second one centred around the typification of Indian civilizations and discourse about Britain’s civilising mission in India

The third involved the re-construction of ‘popular history’ of events present and significant to the memory of the local people and then providing a physical re-creation of those chronicles in form of illustrations, statues, poetry, etc.

  • Observational / Travel Modality

This modality talks of the itineraries created and used by the British to understand and navigate travelling through India. It began with the inclusion of landmarks and their descriptions, of paths followed by trades that covered a large stretch of India and became a narrative account of all that was visible to the eye. It created images of what was important to the British and Europeans, including things like forts, descriptions of people and their encounters with them. Slowly it also grew to involve historical sites and the changing history of the regions and the socio-political context as well as prevailing principles of the time.

  • Survey Modality

Quite self-explanatory in its name, to the English rulers it was a form of exploration of the landscape of India, both physical and social. Beginning around 1765, in the colonial Indian context, this survey method was a systematic survey of India that contained in itself a range of practices – from taking botanical samples to the minute measuring of agricultural fields. It became an official documentation process that led to the formation of an imaginary grid that covered all of India on which the government could locate and find out each mapped point’s topography, history, sociology, geology, flora and fauna, ethnography and even economy.

  • Enumerative Modality

The enumerative modality came to be due to the numerification of data by traders and merchants at the very early stages of the British occupation of India. When this attempt turned to the numerification of population, each attempt faced the problem of classification of the people. The government wanted a cross-sectional picture of the ‘progress’ made during their mission of civilising India, and these came with practices that could provide them with basic information about each individual – name, age, occupation, caste, religion, place of birth, literacy, residence. By this, it also formed how Indians themselves also looked at these statistics and the social institutions mentioned. Such a census was a model for the Victorian quest for knowledge and the attitude that was soon adopted by early Indian sociologists as well.

  • Museological Modality

It is no doubt that India was a vast storehouse of attractions and oddities to the British and Europeans, there was a big market for illustrations or prints of Indian monuments, architecture, customs, people and scenes of social and private daily life. The use of some previously mentioned modalities like travel and survey, meant that many sites of interest were already mapped and easy to explore, it established the “hegemonic history and evaluation of Indian art and architecture.” (Cohn, ‘96). This approach also led to the foundation of the Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.), an organisation who concerns itself with recording and preserving historical sites as well as the formation of museums for the same.

  • Surveillance Modality

Towards the nineteenth (19th) century, the British felt more comfortable keeping an eye on India from a distance, they did not want to mingle with the people and created a very distinct idea of the ‘ruler vs ruled’ by visible differences – in clothes especially. They tried to categorise all kinds of people into groups, and those who did not fit the required mould of society were pushed to the fringes and punished, such as sadhus, fakirs, herders, daicots, etc. While there was no concrete way of finding out who belonged to which community, the British tried to come up with their own understanding of characteristics that would set the people apart. This kind of approach has continued to this day and can be clearly seen in the attitudes of the common persons and academics towards these subjects.

Rise of Sociology

Cohn gives examples of the abovementioned modalities that the British employed and over time how they have become a basis for the formation of sociology in India. These were the first methods used to understand the country at such a large scale, and given that similar methods were being used at a global scale as well, and so they continue to be in use, even after the fact that there is an acknowledgement that such procedures came with underlying motives. Taking observational modality as an example, it was related to the creation of images or typification of India depending on what was deemed important to Europe. They wanted to familiarize themselves with the locations to be able to navigate them in predictable ways and to provide a structure for travellers. By the nineteenth century particular courses to follow had been set if people wanted to reach specific destinations; one would first have to reach Calcutta, then traverse the Ganges, then further up to arrive at Delhi. For this it included monuments and other landmarks when making travel accounts, it also had descriptions of encounters with the people and culture of India. All these came as a part of the formation of the East as “The Other”, an impression of it being a ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilized’ country while being monitored and mediated by socio-political context.

Moving forward, when anthropologists developed practices by which they tried to erase colonial influence and describe authentic indigenous cultures, they still used the theories that had originated in Europe. Those ways had become steeped in India’s socio-racial hierarchy. Cohn put forward the oriental gaze and imperial aim involved in the way the first methods of social evaluation were formed.   


Cohn, B. S. (1996). Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton University Press

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Hello! It’s Alex, I am a student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, pursuing English, Sociology and Film Studies. I currently head the college’s poetry club as well as a volunteer at the NGO Yasham which provides educational and vocational services to underprivileged children and mothers. For me, it is interesting to explore the formation of gender identities in different cultures through out history and the queer culture that has survived. In general I like to discover differences and communalities in cultures as well as how they come to be. I enjoy a variety of films and film analysis as well as fictional books, especially queer ones with diverse representation, and run a bookstagram, @booksandmorewithraj, come and say hi!