The beginning of all colonial situations did generate a number of myths. So does their end.
– Remi Clignet
THE idea that political emancipation from colonial rule ipso facto liberates ‘the captive mind’1 fostered by colonialism is a myth. It did not take long for critical social thinkers in independent India to recognise this. Articulating his poser for the Seminar issue on ‘Academic Colonialism’ in December 1968, my friend, phil-osopher and guide, the late Satish Saberwal, had cautioned against the dangers of the persistence of the captive mind syndrome as a new form of colonialism. Other scholars too have elucidated this phenomenon in the Global South generally.2
Attempts at addressing the problem identified by Saberwal and others have yielded little by way of rectification even after half a century. This essay discusses the resulting persistent imitative proclivity of sociology in India. Taking off from a presentation that I had made on the question of indigenisation of Indian sociology at a seminar at the Ibn Khaldon Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences, Qatar University, Doha on 26 December 2019, I examine here the shadow cast by intellectual imperialism over sociology in India and the proposals and attempts by some of its practitioners to overcome its adverse consequences.
I use the term ‘intellectual imperialism’ in its limited second sense as identified by Syed Farid Alatas, following Alatas Sr in the poser to this Seminar. That is, it refers to the ‘domination of one people by another in their world of thinking’; it is analogous to political and economic imperialism in that there are parallels between sociology (and other social sciences) as an academic discipline and the international political economy. In contemporary times, the intellectual imperialism vis-ą-vis Indian sociology is most discernible with reference to the American, British, and French sociological traditions.
During the colonial period, the intellectual hegemony of Britain was direct. Not only the higher education policy in the country, but also the academic institutions and the knowledge they transacted were determined and controlled by British rulers. In independent India, there is no such direct imposition by any foreign country. Both higher education institutions and the academicians working there are heavily influenced by the flow of sociological and social scientific knowledge produced in America, Britain, and France. Sociologists and social scientists, naively or otherwise, are willing partners in this indirect imperialism.
Attempts at obtaining ‘sociological’ knowledge about India goes back to the late 18th century, deriving from the scholarly interest of the Orientalists to understand Indian civilisation, the evangelical enthusiasm of the Christian missionaries, and the administrative needs of the British officials. However, as a formal academic discipline, sociology was transplanted in the country in the early 19th century, with the setting up of the first full department of sociology (and civics) at the University of Bombay in 1919.
Those who took up sociology as a vocation in the early decades were indelibly influenced either by the Indologists’ textual perspective of society and culture in India, or the theoretical propositions and methodological strategies of field-based empirical studies then in vogue in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Their mind became captive by the fact that they were either trained in the West or strongly influenced by the writings of western sociologists and social anthropologists.
After independence, the point of reference for sociology in India gradually shifted from Britain to the United States of America. This was because of the post-War changes in the world view of sociology in the West and the shifting of the centre of gravity in sociology from Europe to America. Just as American sociologists and cultural anthropologists began taking a keen interest in the study of India, many Indian sociologists started visiting America for doctoral or post-doctoral training.
Gradually, sociology and sociologists in the country came under the shadow of the intellectual imperialism of the West, mainly that of America and Britain, but supplementarily that of France. This had many aspects. With the expansion of the subject since the early 1960s and the persistence of English as the medium of higher education, there was a great demand for sociology textbooks in English. Both America (under the PL 480-funded Indo-American Textbook Program) and Britain (under the subsidised book-production programme of the English Language Book Society) contributed to the production of hundreds of inexpensive editions of social science books in the country.
Naturally, these inexpensive though America- or Britain-focused books came to determine the sociology curriculum taught to students in the country. Saberwal views the American interest in the development of sociology and social sciences in general, as ‘the cognitive edge to post-war American political expansion in the wake of Europe’s colonial withdrawals.’3 Generations of students have continued to be taught this curriculum as the subject expanded with the rapid growth of universities and colleges.
Influenced by their training in the West and the academic material produced there, the work of sociologists in India, no doubt, acquired rigour and sophistication since the 1960s. But their study of ‘indigenous’ social reality was invariably guided by ‘alien’ theoretical frameworks and methodological strategies. The theoretical concerns and methodological orientations of western sociology are incorporated into the sociological agenda sooner rather than later. But the ontological and epistemological assumptions underlying these theories and methodologies, and their relevance in the Indian context are seldom questioned.
A casual perusal of sociological publications in India would reveal that their citations and references are excessively drawn from the literature generated in the West. This is facilitated by the revolution in information and communication technology, which has made surfing for ideas on the Internet an easier option than serious cogitation and discussion. One also finds proportionately more of western sociology than Indian sociology on the Internet.
True to the logic of intellectual imperialism, seldom do we come across western sociologists citing the publications of Indian sociologists. A review of the sociological literature leaves us with the feeling that the western sociologists do not think it is worth citing. The literature of even the few who find citations in western sociology are of those Indian-origin sociologists who are working in the West. A latent consequence of intellectual imperialism is that we Indians seem to have developed an inferiority complex and are unable to appreciate the contributions of our own fellow sociologists.
An important factor facilitating intellectual imperialism vis-ą-vis sociology (as other social sciences) in India is the use of English as the medium of teaching and research in the subject. India is the world’s second-largest English-speaking country in the world; for the West this means a good market for the sociological books and journals published in English. But hardly 10 per cent of the country’s population can speak it and the percentage of those with proficiency for doing sociology in that language is still less.
No doubt, in most regional universities, there is a gradual shift to the vernacular as the medium of instruction in higher education, but the availability of good quality reading materials in the vernacular languages remains a problem. This highlights the chasm between what is transacted as sociology in the English-medium universities and colleges and their vernacular-medium counterparts in mofussil areas.
Thus, even as the academic sociology celebrated its centenary in India in 2019, it has not been able to overcome the tendency to mimic sociology in the West; the subject has largely remained a mirror image (distorted though, as all mirror images are) of its primary counterparts in America and Europe. Indeed, the habits of the captive mind do die hard.
There is, however, a notable difference between the academic colonialism of the past and intellectual imperialism of the present. In preindependence times, both higher education and sociology as a subject were controlled by the colonial regime. In the post-independence period, sociologists in India seem to be willingly acquiescing to academic neocolonialism or intellectual imperialism. That is, if the founding fathers of the discipline in India were naive victims of academic colonialism generally, we are willing partners in intellectual imperialism today.
As T.K. Oommen notes, ‘the knowledge industry operates in a free-market situation. The academic entrepreneur of the West … would want to sell his products wherever he can. However, the transaction can take place only if there are willing buyers.’4 These ‘willing buyers’ also seek endorsement of their work from their western counterparts. In recruitment to faculty positions, our universities and institutes place a premium on the academic credentials of foreign universities; in career advancement of their faculty members, the publications in international journals carry greater weight.
No wonder that there is a growing sense of cynicism about sociology in the country. Those pursuing it seldom see in it any purpose beyond career advancement. This is matched by misgivings among both the policy-makers and the general public about the practical use of sociology. Not a little of this is due to the persistence of the captive mind syndrome in the era of intellectual imperialism.
As the child of European Enlightenment, sociology is imbued with an inherent critical spirit. Paradoxical as it may sound, this transplanted academic discipline not only fostered a captive mind among those who took up its study and practice in India, but also provoked a criticism of its transplantation among some of them. This criticism has mainly to do with the lack of an ontological and epis-temological fit between a uni-versalising (read, westernising) social science and a historically conditioned socio-cultural reality of diverse India.
In the very first presidential address to the newly born Indian Sociological Society in 1955, D.P. Mukerji castigated the sociological endeavours of his times: ‘As an Indian,’ he said, ‘I find it impossible to discover any life-meaning in the jungle of the so-called empirical social research monographs.’ He frankly admitted that, ‘I am not a sociologist as sociologists would like me to be.’ He declared, ‘it is not enough for the Indian sociologist to be a sociologist. He must be an Indian first.’5
D.P. Mukerji influenced a few young scholars at Lucknow (e.g., A.K. Saran and R.N. Saksena) to question the positivist approach to sociology and to work out an indigenous sociology based on India’s traditional social thought. Although his views on western sociology in the Indian context attracted the attention of some scholars (e.g., P.C. Joshi and S.C. Dube), given the captive mind syndrome, they hardly found many takers. In fact, Ramkrishna Mukherjee blindly dismissed the view that the approach of the Indian sociologist towards the appraisal of social reality was imitative in any way.6
A prerequisite for a discipline to fight intellectual imperialism is the recognition by its practitioners of its existence and pervasive influence. A review of the presidential addresses delivered at the successive sessions of the All India Sociological Conference since 1970 reveal the deep concern with the issue of the relevance of sociology in the context of a changing India and an acute sense of national self-consciousness. Although this sensitivity has been mainly reactive in nature, there have been some proactive initiatives.
There has been an on-going debate, though intermittent, on a ‘sociology for India’, originally initiated, ironically by Indophile sociologists like Louis Dumont and David Pocock, in the very first issue of the renowned journal Contributions to Indian Sociology in 1957. This debate has been continued, though intermittently, in the New Series of the journal published since 1967. The preposition ‘for’ in the debate’s caption reveals the perceived need for postulating a set of concepts, theories, and methods suitable to study social reality in India.
advanced for addressing the quest for the fit between sociology and its
existential subject matter in the Indian context was the Marxian approach. This
approach was chiefly associated
with A.R. Desai and Ramkrishna Mukherjee. But the Marxian materialist conception of history is also an alien theoretical/methodological framework. India, no doubt, had its own brand of materialism in Lokayata or Charvaka philosophy. Curiously, D.P. Mukerji, himself a critic of colonial implantation of sociology, invoked Marxian dialectics and called his approach ‘Marxology’.
Desai’s case rests on an important observation made by Don Martindale about the origin and function of sociology as a discipline:
‘Sociology was born as a conservative answer to socialism … Only conservative ideology was able to establish the discipline. The linkage between science and reformist social attitudes … was served. In renouncing political activism, sociology became respectable in the ivy-covered halls of universities. It was received as a scientific justification of existing social order … as an area of study for stable young men (rather than as a breeding ground for wild-eyed radicals).’7
Desai’s analysis of Indian nationalism and Mukherjee’s analysis of the rise and fall of the East India Company, both from a Marxist perspective, were contributions that were quite contrary to the sociology in the heyday of its pioneers. Their analysis yielded rich insights, but their methodology did not take roots in Indian sociology, as one may have expected it to. Mukherjee himself later shifted to survey analysis and quantitative approach to social reality and became a strident critic of qualitative anthropological research.
Inspired by the
Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, Ranajit Guha set in motion in the University
of Sussex in 1979-80 what has come to be known as ‘Subaltern Studies’.8 These postcolonial studies approach
history from below, focusing more on what happens among the masses than among
the elite. Although some Indian scholars have contributed to this genre of
studies, it has not taken root in
Indian academia. Other important developments have been ‘Feminist Sociology’ and ‘Dalit Sociology’, two alternative approaches to sociology from the standpoint of women and of the downtrodden caste groups in Indian society respectively.
Perhaps the most radical proposal to
liberate sociology from intellectual imperialism has come from sociologists
advocating indigenisation of the discipline. The prominent among these
sociologists are Yogesh Atal, Partha Mukherji, and Yogendra Singh. To Singh the
main issues in this regard are that of ‘integrating the conceptual
and methodological structure with
the Indian worldview … and existential conditions’ and of ‘operational adaptation of tools and techniques of social research, which cannot be simply borrowed from other cultures.’9
In the call for
indigenisation of sociology, however, there is the real danger of what Oommen
calls ‘academic nationalism’, and worse still
of ‘academic communalism’ or ‘academic parochialism’ and ‘academic feudalism’.10 He, therefore, recommends contextualisation of sociology wherever it is practised.
This involves (a) ‘recognition of the fact that tradition/past contains both assets and liabilities viewed in terms of the present needs and aspirations’; (b) ‘adopting appropriate values and institutions from other societies and cultures’ and ‘judiciously craft[ing] them on to our own society’; (c) taking into consideration ‘gradual adaptation and reconciliation’ as the central tendency in our society; and (d) ‘social engineering’ in India – involving ‘the selective retention of our tradition, informed borrowing from other cultures and the judicious mutation of the two’ – will have to be ‘a process peculiar to India’.11
Oommen rightly emphasises that, ‘if sociology is to be relevant for India … it should endorse and its practitioners should internalise the value-package contained in the Indian constitution, the differing interpretations of these values notwithstanding’.12
that we need to go beyond contextualisation. He, in principle, does not see a
contradiction between ‘indigeneity’ and ‘universality’, and argues that ‘when
concepts and theories originating elsewhere pass the
indigeneity-generalisability test, that is,
if the general explained the particular, efficiently’, the ‘indigenisation of concepts and theories developed elsewhere’ will have ‘a universal import.’13
sociologists have been aware of their discipline being under the sway of
intellectual imperialism, their efforts at indigenisation have not been
successful. Their awareness of this predicament is attributable to the
self-reflexivity inherently warranted by sociology.
They are unable to do anything significant about it because it is a systemic ailment. The colonial legacy in higher education in India is superimposed by intellectual imperialism. We cannot wish away the bearing of intellectual imperialism on sociology. But being cognizant of its existence and implications is in itself a liberating experience; it would put us on guard.14
Given the great diversity of India, it would be extremely difficult even to minimally define the Indianness of sociology in India. So, sociology will have to undergo gradual adaptive indigenisation. This would entail many questions. How to ensure indigenisation does not result in parochialism or dominance of the majoritarian view, marginalising the different minority views? How to ensure that the academic agenda of indigenisation is not hijacked by the politics of cultural nationalism? From whose point of view is the relevance of sociology to be judged? There are no easy and categorical answers to these questions.
Obviously, sociology in India cannot shut its door to advancements in western sociology. It is neither possible nor desirable. What we need to develop, as Oommen points out, is ‘a critical capacity to discern what is good and relevant for us.’15 In fact, ‘to produce knowledge that is rooted in the indigenous’, Mukherji observes, ‘it is important that we engage seriously with knowledge emanating from the West and elsewhere in a comparative frame.’16
Saberwal puts this pithily: ‘The sociologist in India has to approach [the] Western tradition seriously – not with apprehension, for it is more than merely a source of our historic difficulties, but as a foil, a particular historical experience, which we may hold to ourselves as a mirror much as Max Weber, Louis Dumont, and others have tried to recognise the West for themselves in the Indian mirror.’17
A.R. Desai, ‘Relevance of the Marxist Approach to the Study of Indian Society’, Sociological Bulletin 30(1), 1981, pp. 1-20.
Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind (translated from the Polish by Jane Zielonko). Penguin Books, London, 2001 .
C.W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, New York, 1959.
D. Ludden, ‘Introduction: A Brief History of Subalternity’, in D. Ludden (ed.), Reading Subaltern Studies: Critical History, Contested Meaning and the Globalization of South Asia. Anthem Press, London, 2002, pp. 1-33.
D.P. Mukerji, ‘Indian Tradition and Social Change’, in T.K. Oommen and P.N. Mukherji (eds.), Indian Sociology: Reflections and Introspections, pp. 1-15. Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1986.
N. Jayaram, ‘Towards Indigenization of an Uncertain Transplant: Hundred Years of Sociology in India’, Tajseer 1, 2020, pp. 99-122, doi.org/10.29117/tis.2020.0026 (accessed on 1 May 2021).
P.N. Mukherji, ‘Sociology in South Asia: Indigenisation as Universalising Social Science’, Sociological Bulletin 54(3), 2005, pp. 311-24.
R. Mukherjee, Sociology of Indian Sociology. Allied Publishers, Bombay, 1979.
S. Saberwal, ‘The Problem’, Seminar 112, December 1968, pp. 10-13.
–– ‘Uncertain Transplants: Anthropology and Sociology in India’, in T.K. Oommen and Partha N. Mukherji (eds.), Indian Sociology: Reflections and Introspections, pp. 214-32. Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1986.
S.H. Alatas, ‘The Captive Mind and Creative Development’, International Social Science Journal 26(4), 1974, pp. 691-700.
–– ‘Intellectual Imperialism: Definition, Traits, and Problems’, Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 28(1), 2000, pp. 23-45.
T.K. Oommen, ‘Sociology in India: A Plea for Contextualization’, Sociological Bulletin 32(2), 1983, pp. 111-36.
T.B. Bottomore, Sociology as Social Criticism. George Allen and Unwin, London, 1975.
Y. Singh, Image of Man: Ideology and Theory in Indian Sociology. Chanakya Publications, Delhi, 1984.
1. The idea of ‘the captive mind’ was first articulated by the Nobel Prize winning poet and author of Polish-Lithuanian heritage, Czeslaw Milosz in 1953 (2001). The captive mind syndrome in the social sciences was elucidated by Syed Hussein Alatas in 1974.
2. In his poser to this issue of ‘Seminar’, Syed Farid Alatas draws our attention to the writings of Johan Galtung on ‘scientific colonialism’, Abdur Rahaman on ‘intellectual colonialism’, and Syed Hussein Alatas on ‘academic imperialism’, and ‘intellectual imperialism’.
3. Saberwal 1986, p. 217.
4. Oommen 1983, p. 119.
5. Mukerji 1986, p. 4.
6. Mukherjee 1979, p. 29.
7. Quoted in Desai 1981, p. 19. Contrary to this view, T.B. Bottomore (1975) in England and C.W. Mills (1959) in USA have viewed sociology as ‘social criticism’ and assigned ‘sociological imagination’ a radical function.
8. Ludden 2002.
9. Singh 1984, p. 19.
10. Oommen 1983, p. 123.
11. Ibid., pp. 130-31.
12. Ibid., p. 130.
13. Mukherji 2005, pp. 319-20.
14. It may sound ironical that my critique of intellectual imperialism vis-ą-vis is written in English, a language medium in which I have had my higher education. The fact that I am conscious of this irony is itself empowering.
15. Oommen 1983, p. 119.
16. Mukherji 2005, p. 320.
17. Saberwal 1986, p. 228.