Shifting frontiers in knowledge

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KNOWLEDGE AND SOCIETY Situating Sociology and Social Anthropology: T. K. Oommen; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 495.
KNOWLEDGE AND SOCIETY Situating Sociology and Social Anthropology: T. K. Oommen; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 495.


Collection of essays on the challenges in apprehending social reality in India

The essays in this collection have all been published before, except for the last. They span the professional career of the author and bring his critical acumen and clarity to address his concerns with regard to the production and dissemination of sociological knowledge. The distinction still remains somewhat ambiguous even today.


In a lengthy introduction T.K. Oommen spells out the "persisting tensions" between sociology and social anthropology. He attempts to sort out the differences in terms of their origins: the subject matter studied, the themes taken up, the methodologies used. This exercise is of interest to academics, who might want to define departmental boundaries, but with the inter-disciplinary approach gaining acceptance, these differences and boundaries become less relevant. Social anthropology originated with the colonial enterprise as a means to understand and hence govern colonised people more effectively. Sociology emerged as a response to the rapid industrial-urbanisation in the West and the crises this precipitated. But today there is an increasing overlap with regard to their subject matter, methodologies and concerns. More pertinently, the ICSSR Report in 1993 found that "much of the current research effort has no relevance to contemporary social and national problems." However, remedying this will require innovativeness. Oommen does not situate the discipline of sociology in the study of Indology and its preoccupations with the Sanskritic civilisation of the twice born, as Louis Dumont and D.P. Mukherjee have urged. He refuses to identify the complexities of the composite society that has evolved on the subcontinent, with "Hindu civilisation" over the centuries. Nor does he sanction an "academic nationalism", which would be parochial, or an academic feudalism, which would depend on state patronage. He situates sociology, not in the tradition of the past, but within the constitutional framework of the Indian Republic, the discourse that derives from it and the concerns for the kind of society we have envisioned for India. "As a discipline, sociology should endorse, and its practitioners should internalise the value package contained in the Indian Constitution, the differing interpretation of these values notwithstanding." This is the inspiration that underlies the other essays in this volume, as spelt out in different contexts.

Social reality

Thus Oommen elaborates a convincing "rationale for a perspective from below" showing how important this is to "apprehending social reality in a hierarchical society". Hence he finds the Dalit vision more promising than the idealised one of the classical texts on Hindu society in our present context; which he sees as slowly but surely changing: from cumulative to dispersed dominance; in the decline of collectivism and the emergence of individualism; the simultaneous demands for individual equality and the assertion of collective identities. In the two chapters (three and four) on social movements, which are somewhat autobiographical, he concludes that "mobilisation is not displaced by institutionalisation but both go hand in hand, and that "to be an outsider or an insider to the field is a mixed blessing." Hence data collection techniques should not be bound by the traditional constraints of the discipline. They should be determined by the purpose the data is meant to serve. From a South Asian perspective Oommen is sceptical in regard to the "internationalisation of sociology." If the production and distribution of knowledge is not more multi-directional in their flows, this can only lead to westernisation. Thus we still have a long way to go for "a sociology for one world." For Oommen an authentic global society still remains an abstraction. He proposes "civilisational society as the unit of sociological investigation," listing some of the advantages of this, rather than the national societies of the politically constructed nation-state or the `global' world system of Emmanuel Wallerstein. The first is an artificial construction in much of the third world and the second far too general.


The volume concludes with four implications of interlocking frontiers disciplinary, political, geographic and symbolic between these two disciplines. However, the value of this volume is not so much in the way sociology is located vis-à-vis social anthropology but rather how it is situated in the contemporary context in India.



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