The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The modern world is marked by the overlap of traditions

Sociology, as the empirical and systematic study of society and its institutions, is now widely practised in our universities and independent centres of research. It entered the university system in India in the Twenties, barely two or three decades after its adoption by universities in the West. Its spread in India was at first slow. The real growth began after independence, and India now has more sociologists than most countries. At the same time, the growth has been uneven, partly because of the pressures of ideology.

As a result of the work of several generations of sociologists, both Indian and foreign, we now have a fairly detailed knowledge of the social organization of village, caste and family, although our understanding of modern institutions remains sketchy and superficial. Most sociologists would agree in principle that theirs is a comparative science devoted to the understanding of all societies, but in practice Indian sociologists have concentrated almost entirely on the study of their own society.

There are both practical and ideological reasons for the concentration of attention on Indian society to the exclusion of other societies. As I said, sociology began to expand in India around the time of independence, and Indian sociologists felt a special responsibility to contribute to the understanding of their society at a turning point in its history. But the neglect of the study of other societies is detrimental to the long-term growth of sociology as an intellectual discipline. It tends to make its practitioners short-sighted and narrow-minded. Our understanding of our own society gains in richness and depth when we compare and contrast it with other societies. It is a cause for worry when virtually every Indian sociologist chooses to be an Indianist rather than a sociologist.

It is natural to expect that the contributions made by sociology will serve a wider public purpose. Some believe that a more informed understanding of how a society works is itself of long-term benefit to its members. Others would like to take the matter further and argue for a more direct role for the sociologist in social and political intervention. Sociologists in India and other recently independent countries seek a more activist and interventionist role for themselves than their counterparts do in countries where the discipline has been established longer.

Sociology has to be distinguished from ideology. Its main aim is the pursuit of systematic knowledge whereas the main aim of ideology is the transformation of society through the pursuit and exercise of power. Of course, no ideologue would like to act blindly, in ignorance of the operation of social and political processes. But in the end, the pursuit of systematic knowledge becomes subordinated to the pursuit of power. Ideologies make large promises to their adherents, but they also demand great sacrifices from them. The most important sacrifice from the intellectual point of view is the sacrifice of individual judgment for a larger political cause in the name of a class, a nation or some other collective entity.

Marxism was the pre-eminent ideology of the 20th century. Its founder was a man of immense knowledge and analytical skill who set out to discover the laws governing the economic, political and spiritual processes of life. If orthodoxy is a key element in any ideology, then Marx’s ideas began to crystallize into an ideology soon after his death. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution turned the ideology into an official doctrine with enormous authority both within and outside the Soviet Union. Individual judgment yielded to political conformity, and Marxist ideology acted as a drug on some of the ablest and most acute minds even when they were outside the reach of the Soviet state.

Sociology has had an uneasy relationship with Marxism since the end of the 19th century. This is seen most clearly in Russia where Plekhanov, widely regarded as the father of Russian Marxism, took a hostile attitude to the work of Mikhailovsky with whom sociology made a beginning in Russia; later, Lenin made short work of the young Sorokin who migrated to the United States of America, where he acquired renown as a sociologist at Harvard. After Marxism became established as the official doctrine, little room was left for sociology in the Soviet Union and in countries under its hegemony. Many persons there felt, perhaps sincerely, that there was no need for a separate science of society since all useful knowledge about its nature and operation had been incorporated in dialectical materialism known to millions of schoolchildren as Diamat.

Marxism is not the only ideology with which sociology as an empirical and comparative science has to contend. In many parts of the world, including India, nationalism has emerged as a more powerful ideological force than Marxism. In some places and times, Marxism has combined very effectively with nationalism; in others, it has taken over some of the ideological spaces vacated by Marxism. As an ideology, nationalism seeks to develop and promote a unified and idealized image of the nation, and to direct inquiries into the past, present and future conditions of its people in the light of that image. National tradition assumes increasing importance as a standard of evaluation, and any kind of social inquiry that questions or disregards it becomes suspect.

Directing sociological inquiry by the light of national tradition is not a simple matter. There are several national traditions, each casting its light in a particular direction. Not only are different societies heirs to different national traditions, but it is a mistake to believe that each of them is heir to only one single or unitary tradition. What is distinctive of the modern world is not the insulation of different traditions but their interpenetration. It is this that presents to the comparative study of societies its most difficult challenge as well as its most fruitful opportunity.

The nationalist who is consistent in his ideological commitment sets little store by a science of society that seeks to treat all societies or all social traditions alike without bias or prejudice. Treating all societies alike is only an ideal of comparative sociology which, to be sure, is nowhere fully realized in practice. It is well known that the discipline has an Eurocentric bias which goes back to its origins in the 19th century when most, if not all, sociologists were Europeans. That bias is less marked today if only because there are now many non-Western sociologists who study societies throughout the world in broadly the same sort of way. The Western bias in contemporary sociology cannot be wished out of existence, but it is bound to become diluted as more sociologists from outside the West contribute to the general stock of sociological concepts, methods and theories.

There is by now a large accumulation of work on Indian society by both Indian and foreign scholars. It will be futile to turn one’s back on this work in the hope of creating a new and distinct sociology for India out of ingredients embedded in Indian traditions of thought. Many Indian sociologists have recommended such a venture for several decades, but few have worked at it with much purpose or determination. The nationalist alternative to sociology has produced very little of substance in any country, far less by any reasonable standard than the Marxist alternative to it.

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