The death of Bernard S. Cohn on November 25 will not surprise those who knew his condition over the last few years. It was a long illness that took away one of the finest minds to have analysed Indian history and society. Cohn’s was an original mind which refused to be confined by any label or to be disciplined under the rubric of a school. He held joint appointments in the departments of anthropology and history and his intellectual activity enriched both subjects immeasurably.
Barney — as Bernard Cohn was fondly known by his colleagues, friends and students — was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 13, 1928. He took a PhD from Cornell in 1954. From 1960 to 1964 he held the chair in anthropology in the University of Rochester. He moved to the Universitiy of Chicago with a joint appointment in the departments of anthropology and history. It was in Chicago that Barney Cohn’s name became practically synonymous with the study of south Asian history and anthropology. His teaching, his research, his ideas and his guidance of graduate students left their indelible mark on generations of students and researchers who learnt to question and to think from him and with him. Anthropology was his original discipline. But even in the Fifties, Cohn refused to be drawn into the mainstream of anthropology. Cohn, contrary to the then prevalent fashion, decided to take a more historicist approach to anthropology. He recognized a joint frontier where history and anthropology converged. Yet, there was a frontier, a dividing line: “research in history is based on finding data; research in anthropology is based on creating data”. The awareness of this frontier — the shadow line denoting separation and convergence — allowed Cohn to think differently about both the disciplines that he straddled.
The local and regional
The anthropologist in Cohn made him look into the local and the historian in him provided his work with a thrust to understand secular change. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in his essay, “Structural Change in Indian Rural Society, 1596-1895”, published in 1969. This essay was based on the compilation of detailed data from the Uttar Pradesh State Archives in Allahabad. Cohn looked — perhaps he was the first to do this — at the district-level records for eastern UP. This essay remains a landmark in the study of agrarian and societal change especially because it moved from revenue history to an analysis of the internal dynamics of agrarian change in a given region of UP.
In another essay, written in 1962, Cohn looked at the Benaras region which he placed in the context of the emergence of political systems in 18th century India. He delineated four different kinds of political systems: the local, the regional, the secondary and the imperial. This helped in understanding 18th century politics when the Mughal Empire existed but did not rule over large parts of India.
Cohn left his mark on two other themes. One was colonial law and the way it interacted with indigenous local practices of dispute settlement. Cohn looked at the fallout of this interaction: a clash of cultures. Involved in this clash was the colonizer’s knowledge of the colonized and the systematization of this knowledge. This was the second theme.
The essays of Bernard Cohn were brought together in two volumes: An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays (1987) and Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (1997).
Cohn’s ideas and essays influenced the work of those engaged in the Subaltern Studies project and the eclectic field of cultural studies. Scholars of the 18th century and of colonial law continue to draw from his work. Cohn’s essays were informed by a degree of sophisticated theorization but his prose was never prey to jargon and opacity. He communicated with clarity and questioned with an insatiable doubt and curiosity. His command over language and materials never became the language of command and closure.