Emergence and Development of Sociology in India

Unearthing the Emergence and Journey Sociology in India:  From a Biased, Prejudiced Opinion to a Flourishing Academic Discipline

Sociology came about as an academic discipline post World War 1, however, it was initially faced by neglect and prejudices. It gained prominence post-independence when new bouts of nationalist and anti-colonial thoughts ensued, as a result of which practices of untouchability were abolished and other measures for the protection of the marginalized societies were being taken up. These measures influenced sociological thought and further the advancement of the discipline. Works such as ‘Orientalist-Eurocentric framing of Sociology in India: A Discussion on Three Twentieth-Century Sociologists’ by Sujata Patel and ‘Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge’ by Bernard S. Cohn, help assess the anticolonial sentiments and the emergence and development of sociology as an academic discipline in the Indian Society.

Development of Sociology in India


The advent of sociological studies and research in the Indian subcontinent was a consequence of the nationalist spirit and the need to erode the narrative cast upon the Indian society through the condemnatory eyes of the West. In the West, India was studied under anthropology, the study of rural societies; and later on, when sociology emerged within India, it took the form of a mix of sociology and anthropology; or social anthropology. “The pressures for rethinking sociology came from two directions. The educated segments of the middle class who had come to occupy the enlarging ranks of the welfare state demanded new information for their programmes and new theories for their justification” (Lele, 1981, p. 42).  “The greatest of all the evils that the British did to India, according to Bhaskar Pandurang Tarkhadkar (1816-1847), an uncompromising rationalist at the time; was to falsify her history in order to brighten their own record in the eyes of contemporaries” (Naik, 2002, p. 590). The provocative works of the colonial historians and anthropologists, condemning and castigating everything Indian with a motive to promote and defend the ‘civilizing mission’ of the colonial rule, provoked the enlightened angered Indians to take a stand to defend the history and culture of their country. In this essay, I will be examining the works of Sujata Patel, ‘Orientalist-Eurocentric framing of Sociology in India: A Discussion on Three Twentieth-Century Sociologists’ and Bernard S. Cohn, ‘Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge’.

Also Read: 10 Famous Sociologists in India and Their Contributions

Orientalist-Eurocentric framing of Sociology in India: A Discussion on Three Twentieth-Century Sociologists

Orientalism is innately a direct by-product of colonialism and imperialism. Patel, in her work explains how through Orientalism, the West essentializes and demeans societies different from them as static and unchanging, barbaric and undeveloped therefore tainting the view of the Orient (The East) to glorify the name and status of the Occident (TheWest). She traces the growth and development of disciplines like sociology and anthropology in India, and how they were a consequence of colonial processes and derivative nationalist ideas. She goes on to say how “all knowledge was structured in terms of the master binary of the West (which had history, culture, reason, and science) and the East (which was enclosed in space, nature, religion, and spirituality). This binary linked the division and subsequent hierarchization of groups within geo-spatial territories in the world in terms of a theory of temporal linearity: The West was modern because it had evolved to articulate the key features of modernity as against the East which was traditional” (Patel, 2013, p. 109). G.S Ghurye’s and D.P Mukherji’s contribution to Indian sociology is also highlighted in the work. She examines how Ghurye understood the concept of ‘civilization’, a more traditionalist approach that emerged from a reconstructed understanding of the past and the influence it had on the sociological study of India, as opposed to D.P Mukherji’s more modern-traditionalist views who argued the need for sociology to be learned and understood in a holistic manner giving importance to the interdisciplinarity of the discipline. Through the latter part of the chapter, she also analyzes the contributions of historians like D.D Kosambi who believed in using a large number of sources like numismatics, literary sources and archaeological sources to trace the long history of India. The chapter ends with analyzing and criticizing T. N. Madan’s ideologies who believed that religion had immense importance in the lives of people in South Asia.

Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge

Cohn’s work traces the British colonialism in India and the methods that they used to take control such as, by defining and classifying space, creating separations between the private and the public spheres and recording transactions and financial flows. He goes on to explain investigative modalities that the British made use of to collect facts about the Indian society to aid its colonizing mission. “An investigative modality includes the definition of a body of information that is needed, the procedures by which appropriate knowledge is gathered, its ordering and classification, and then how it is transformed into usable forms such as published reports, statistical returns, histories, gazettes, legal codes, and encyclopedias” (Cohn, 1996, p. 5).

Investigative Modalities

The investigative modalities that he has explored in his book are the Historiographic Modality – which included collection of facts in the form of enquiries, the ideological construction of the nature of Indian civilizations and study of representations of specific events; Observational Modality- as the name suggests is characterized by the observations and study of the structure of practices and underlying theories of classifications and their implications for the governing of India; Survey Modality- which encompassed the mapping of India, collection of botanical specimens, recording of architectural and archaeological sites of historical significance etc.;  Enumerative Modality- which consisted of compilations of lists of products, price, customs and duties, weights and measures, the values of various coins and even enumeration of the population in various localities etc.; Museological Modality- which comprised the mapping of various archaeological sites, and excavations and the consequent collection of specimens, manuscripts, oral histories etc.;  and lastly Surveillance Modality- characterized by the need to have a constant surveillance of India from a distance, like on a horse to keep tabs on any irregular or deviant behaviors and constantly keep check (Cohn, 1996, pp. 5-10). In the colonial periods, anthropologists played a major role in bridging the gap between the ‘metropoles’ and the colonial ‘natives’. Anthropologists of the post-colonial era mainly focused on the investigative modality of ethnographic fieldwork. While examining the investigative modalities of the post-colonial world he shines light on the HRAF’s creation as a significant development for anthropology. The HRAF set criteria for ‘delineating cultural units’. “The underlying logic of the HRAF was the need to define universals, to “discriminate between superficial and fundamental differences in ways of life. It was then necessary to define and classify that which is comparable from one society to another” (Cohn, 1996, p. 13). Furthermore, he states that the clearly evolutionary model for social change had a hidden or shadow side which was the threat of a loss or disruption of equilibrium in the evolving system- a Durkheim notion of ‘social anomie’.

“Eurocentrism, is defined as a thought style in which the assessment and evaluation of non- European societies is couched in terms of the cultural assumptions and biases of Europeans and, by extension, the West. Eurocentrism is a modern phenomenon and cannot be dissociated from the political, economic, and cultural domination of Europe and, later, the United States. Eurocentrism is a wider concept that includes Orientalism which in itself caused the othering of societies that were different from the Orient (The West)” (iresearchnet, 2017). “Contemporary analysis of Eurocentrism continues to remain enclosed within the circuits of knowledge defined by received colonial geopolitical enclaves with very little assessments of the way production, distribution, and consumption of Orientalist-Eurocentric perspectives have organized sociological traditions across the world including the Global South” (Patel, 2013, p. 107). Although the gaps and weaknesses in Eurocentrism outweigh the strengths, one of the main strengths of Western sociological and anthropological studies of the Indian societies is the fact that it created the spark of aggressive nationalist ideas and gave rise to several educated middle-class sections of the society to rewrite the regressive dehumanizing accounts written by western scholars and replace it with accounts that would defend the rich culture and history of their country. One of the demerits of the Eurocentric beginning of Indian sociology is the fact that, many of the young Indian scholars who wished to pursue the discipline lacked the access to many original Indian artifacts, manuscripts and accounts of the real condition of the society that were ruined during the colonial rule, and were left with only the British reinterpretations of the same which was mostly in favour of themselves. The Eurocentric origin of Indian sociology creates issues when a lot of the othering created by the Eurocentric view pushes new sociologists and researches to view the country through the same lens. Whether or not they choose to do it, this Orientalist-Eurocentric pair of eyes and perception almost become ingrained in our systems. This Eurocentric past creates gaps in research as well where some sociologists feel the need to combine modern European ideas with Indian ones like Mukerji trying to ‘Indianize’ socialism and some others like Ghurye wanting to purely focus on the country’s past and cultures in a more traditionalist perspective.


It is important for us as a society to be able to possess a highly critical of the various academic and non-academic sources of knowledge that we come across. One must be cautious enough to identify the orientalist lens through which multiple societies are viewed and written on paper. Although there is a lot of scope for new learning and understandings through various researches, and we must encourage ourselves to explore multiple outlooks on the same society, issue etc. eventually forming an understanding of our own, without our knowledge being tainted by one viewpoint alone.


Alvares, C. (2011, May 28). A critique of eurocentric social science and the question of alternatives: https://www.epw.in/journal/2011/22/special-articles/critique-eurocentric-social-science-and-question-alternatives.html.

Anonymous, o. (2017, January 17). Eurocentrism – sociology of race – iresearchnet. http://sociology.iresearchnet.com/sociology-of-race/eurocentrism/.

Cohn, B. S., Dirks, N. B., & Eley, G. (1996). Introduction. In S. B. Ortner (Ed.), Colonialism And Its Forms (pp. 1–15). Princeton University Press.

Patel, S. (2013). Political Power and Social Theory. In Orientalist-Eurocentric Framing of Sociology in India: A Discussion on Three Twentieth-Century Sociologists (pp. 105–128). essay, Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

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Angela Roy is currently pursuing her majors in Sociology and minors in International Relations and History, as a part of her BA Liberal Arts Honors degree in SSLA, Pune. She has always been driven to play a part in changing and correcting the social evils that exist in society. With a driving passion for breaking down harmful societal norms and social injustices, she seeks to learn and understand the different social institutions that exist in society like family, marriage, religion and kinship, and how they influence the workings and functioning of various concepts like gender, sexuality and various types of socializations in an individual’s life. She envisions herself to play a vital role in building safe places for today’s marginalized communities and creating a world that is characterized by equity and inclusiveness, free of discrimination and exploitative behaviors.