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The many aspects of the social

Sudarsan Padmanabhan
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Sudarsan Padmanabhan

Sociology and Beyond is a collection of essays of Professor Ananta Kumar Giri over a period of several years on a wide range of issues in the disciplines of sociology, social and political theory, philosophy, anthropology and history. The title of book clearly indicates the endeavour of the author throughout the book to emphasise the need for transdisciplinarity via a critique of existing empirical — normative dichotomisation, methodological nationalism, ontology, and an all-pervasive purposive-instrumental orientation of social science disciplines, especially, sociology. This aspect is beautifully captured in the preface by Piet Strydom, a sociologist of repute.

Giri’s multidisciplinary training in sociology, anthropology and philosophy is clearly discernible with the ease with which variegated topics, ranging from a critique of the methodology of sociology, an evaluation of Indian sociological tradition, challenges in understanding Indian society, engagement with social movements such as Chipko movement, social development and global justice, and a passionate plea for transdisciplinarity in social sciences, are discussed.

Unlike many Western sociologists and their Indian followers, Giri does not refrain from discussing spirituality and religion in their transformative roles as a part of multi-valued logic and life experiences. Giri's evocative appeal for transdisciplinarity has very strong counter-arguments in the form of recent upsurge in interest among social scientists in cosmopolitanism, which Giri also criticises as inadequate response.

He mentions, for example, Ulrich Beck’s writings on cosmopolitanism. Since Giri’s book is a collection of essays and not a structured response to more recent writings on cosmopolitanism it does not engage with Gerard Delanty’s edited volume Routledge Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies where many interesting articles on cosmopolitanism from philosophy, sociology, political science, international relations and other fields attempt to address the necessarily multi-disciplinary nature of the contemporary globalised societies. While not completely abandoning disciplinary boundaries, a more reflexive, non-Eurocentric, diverse and critical cosmopolitan approach is sought in Delanty’s volume. But Giri wants to go much further, which makes the book all the more interesting.

The first part titled “Invitation and cultivation” contains 14 chapters. Giri argues for a new ontology, different from the classical and modern that had strongly influenced sociology hitherto, and a corresponding epistemology where participation is paramount. A fresh attempt to conceptualise society outside the private-public, immanent-transcendental, and capitalist-communist binary categories is analysed in this chapter. In many ways, this section is an attempt to humanise and reclaim the life world.

Social self

One of the chapters discusses G.H. Mead’s evolution of the social self, which is defined by the relationship between I, Me and You. In the fourth chapter, Giri advocates a need to rethink the conception of the human and the social. This is done through a critique of socio-centrism and humanism, which are the fundamental assumptions of human security and social quality, two approaches that dominate discourses on development in the European continent. Giri deals with important Indian philosophical ideas in this chapter such as ‘Purusharthas’, ‘atman’, and ‘ananda’.

The next chapter is a continuation of the self-development, inclusion of the other and planetary realisations. Dialogue between traditions is emphasised. New global humanity in contrast to modern individualism is the new theme of the discourse that attempts to redefine the relationship between self and society. In the article on “Moral consciousness and communicative action” which is the ad verbatim reproduction of the title of Jurgen Habermas’ 1990 book, Giri utilises Habermas’ analysis of stages of moral development and discourse ethics to explain spiritual transformation.

The next article deals with Giri’s conversation with Robert Bellah and dwells on good society, quest for the whole and the evolution of religion. In the next, Giri explores the concept of the social in Indian tradition. Giri deals with G.C. Pande’s writings on classical and modern conception of Indian society.In the article on “Social science research in India”, Giri joins issue with Ramachandra Guha’s characterisation of the Indian diaspora as self-absorbed and not interested in other cultures and his claims that poststructuralism and cultural studies are of questionable intellectual worth.

In the article on loyalty in social science research, Giri examines the attachment of various Indian social scientists to one’s own culture as field of research. He also disabuses the false dichotomy between theoretical engagement and fieldwork. In the last article in this section, Giri critically examines the debates surrounding M.N. Srinivas’ research by T.K. Oommen, especially the label of methodological Hinduism and participant observation when Srinivas himself becomes the object of study.

Part II is about social movements in India, for example, the Chipko movement, and social and political movements in other parts of the world. Giri traces the trajectory of various social movements and their relationship with developmental discourse. The setting for this analysis is the post-industrial societies. Giri also discusses transnational, urban, global and new social movement and their socio-political environs that shaped and nurtured them. The next article in this section argues how deconstruction should be accompanied by an attempt to “confront the practical and theoretical demands of the contemporary world”.

The last article in this section is about the Chipko Movement a mass movement that was a spontaneous response to protect forests and ecology in Uttar Pradesh in the 1970s where Giri did his fieldwork. He critically evaluates various currents in the Chipko movement and the imperative need of the movement to become a more broad-based socio-political movement. This article was written in 1987 and Chipko is no longer a force it was.

In Part III, titled the “New Horizons of Quality of Life and Societal Co-realizations, the first article deals with the impact of science and technology on quality of life and problematises the relationship between the method of science and social progress. Giri points out the problems associated with the scientisation of quality of life and well being.

The next essay is on social development as a global challenge. Giri argues that social development is a challenge to both advanced and developing societies. The post-industrial transformation in the advanced capitalist societies in turn leads to deindustrialisation due to the growth of a global assembly line. Questions pertaining to freedom in a high technology society arise in a radically transformed social, political and economic organisation and relations.

Modernity

Part IV deals with the cultivation of transdisciplinarity and mutual blossoming. Giri utilises postmodernism to illustrate the structural and discursive challenges posed by the remnants of modernity. The need to transcend the centered modernist framework and encourage blurring genres is discussed in the first article. In the second, various encumbrances on the conception of self in advanced societies, the challenges to social institutions such as family, marriage, identity, parenthood, and sexuality are analysed. The third discusses the tussle between memory and forgetting in Milan Kundera’s novel A Book of Laughter and Forgetting. This is variously interpreted as struggle between life and death, freedom and bondage, and resistance and submission. The politics of private and public spheres is also analysed.

In the next chapter, Giri discusses the epistemological crisis in anthropology in the context of the debate between Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman on the ethnography of Samoa. Even after several exhaustive ethnographic accounts, the real Samoa does not seem to emerge. So, Giri disavows the natural authoritativeness of speaking in the name of the real. Next chapter is about the language of religion and explores different genres of religious language connected with sermons, hymns, rituals, folk preaching, and various modes of religious expressions.

The book ends with three interesting articles, which discuss in detail theology and spirituality, literature and creative public spheres, and plurality of standpoints in a society of multi-valued logic. Giri also problematises the notion of pluralism that is static vis-a-vis a dynamic idea of pluralisation.

The structure of the book also in many ways epitomises Giri’s avowed interest in transdisciplinarity, a mirror that he holds to contemporary social science research. One can read the book as a collection of articles with overlapping themes or as an endeavour to reorient sociology to look afresh at enduring questions such as what is social, the nature of social movements, social development or human development, and the human condition.

It is the author’s persuasive argument that a study of the aforementioned aspects of the social is necessarily transdisciplinary in nature.




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