Decolonising the social sciences

An invitation to think, and to be part of a project to enrich life and culture

Published - November 27, 2012 02:36 am IST

RECONCEPTUALIZING INDIA STUDIES: S. N. Balagangadhara; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001.Rs. 750

RECONCEPTUALIZING INDIA STUDIES: S. N. Balagangadhara; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001.Rs. 750

The social sciences and humanities today present the world to us the way the West has been experiencing it. The problem with this way of understanding the world is not that it is a western product but rather that it is not science. Today we think that the western story about human beings constitutes knowledge, because there are no serious alternatives to this. This is the story that S.N. Balagangadhara (aka Balu) has been telling for over three decades now. The immediate question that one is tempted to ask, then, is how do we go about building alternative stories? Balagangadhara, in this magnificent book under review, tries to make sense of this task.

About 20 years ago, introducing his first book The Heathen in his Blindness , Balagangadhara had called it “part of a broader project that seeks to provide a partial description of the West against the background of an Asian culture.” He had, at that point, hoped to return soon “to the work-site, with a larger crew if possible, alone otherwise”. In the intervening 20 years, he has built two research centers in two continents, is in the process of building two more and a mammoth and unprecedented consortium of European and Indian universities and institutions.

Yet, in the introduction to his new book he repeats himself: “before a beautiful mansion is built, someone has to prepare the ground. This is my allocated job…” Notwithstanding the shift from the image of a yet to be cleaned work-site to a blueprint of a mansion, many questions follow from this: Why repeat what he has already said? How does his other work of building research centers and consortia fit in his dream of building the ‘beautiful mansion’? This book answers these questions, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly.


The task of building alternative social sciences that will challenge the western story of the world, is not a task that one book or even one generation of scholars can accomplish. This book dwells on various aspects of this task. From this perspective, the book can be divided into three parts. The first chapter, which constitutes the first part, reflects on two confusions that are characteristic of research on the notion of culture: one that points at a lack of good research in the social sciences, and the other refers to the inability of the social sciences to deal with cultures and cultural differences.

One of the ways scholars try to work around or respond to these two confusions is by offering to give up the very notion of culture or by proposing such nebulous ideas as cultural hybridity. We should rather, says Balagangadhara, focus on “develop[ing] interesting theories and hypotheses about the world.” The rest of the book, in one sense, is an elaboration on this suggestion.

The second part, which consists of chapters 2 and 3, thus goes beyond “criticisms of Orientalist discourse and turn attention towards a critical examination of the nature of the social sciences”. Chapter two, as the title suggests, rethinks the Post-Colonial Project. Though much has been written about Said’s Orientalism , it has remained at the level of a criticism or defence of his ideas or their historical elaboration, which come in various shapes and colours.

Without spilling much ink on assessing or criticising such work, which has abounded in scholarly publications of the last four decades, Balagangadhara goes on to outline the nature of orientalism and its relationship to the social sciences and to western culture. It is believed today that the social sciences are alternatives to orientalism. In this chapter and throughout the book, Balagangadhara argues that both orientalism and the social sciences are constituted by western cultural experience, and consequently, the latter cannot be an alternative to the former. The need of the day, then, is to ‘decolonise’ the social sciences.

The next chapter is about the methodological problems confronting such new ways of developing alternative social sciences, a research programme that he calls ‘comparative science of cultures’. This ambitious chapter dwells on many aspects of the task that one cannot do justice to it in a short review of the book. It talks about the challenges one has to meet, the reason why this research needs to be a research programme and why this programme is new and interesting.

Colonial consciousness

Chapters 4 to 8, as I see them, make a separate and final section. Together they ‘focus on the Indian experience’ and elaborate on one aspect of the task of the ‘decolonisation of the social sciences’. Colonialism generates a consciousness (“colonial consciousness”) that, he shows, has survived colonialism itself. Much of our current scholarly bid to understand colonialism focuses on the latter and consequently we fail to notice how the colonial consciousness “pervades both colonial and modern theoretical and empirical social-scientific descriptions of India.”

Colonial consciousness denies the experience of the colonised, as chapter 4 shows, and this gets expressed in various ways and has resulted in yet to be fathomed violent consequences. For example, “Colonial consciousness denies the presence of morality in the Indian traditions [and] … takes the superiority of the western culture both as its presupposition and its conclusion.” The way we speak about corruption or the caste system today is the best example.

Today, “Anyone who formulates moral criticisms of caste and corruption is logically compelled to deny the presence of ‘morality’ in the Indian traditions. This is what the British said about India. This is what the Indians believe to be true. This is how Indians experience themselves and their culture.”

Chapters 5 and 6 explain how colonial consciousness “modifies the Indian experience and replaces it with frameworks which are rationally unjustified and unjustifiable and must therefore be violently imposed.” The remaining chapters, in some senses, grapple with this phenomenon of colonial consciousness. They speak about Jeffrey Kripal’s unjustified and violent attack on Ramakrishna; the way inter-cultural dialogues create rather than resolve violence, and how the ‘secular’ liberal state generates religious violence, rather than, as expected, containing religious violence.

This book is not written as the fruit of the genius of one important intellectual but rather as an invitation to think, to be part of a research programme, a project of enriching our life and culture. That this research programme is intended as a challenge to the current social scientific theories and practice is a way of saying that they (the current social sciences) are the major impediments in living a meaningful and dignified life as Indians.

That it is a research programme means that ‘the beautiful mansion’ is not envisaged as the work of one individual but of many generations to come. You can be part of his project, either by agreeing with him or by disagreeing with him. After all, science is built not only on agreements but also by disagreements.

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