Tracing the trajectory of sociology of education

The discipline and practice of education has largely been circumscribed within discussions privileging its role and importance in the growth and development of a country’s social and economic status. Few studies have sought to examine its evolution and inter-disciplinary nature that finds its theoretical underpinnings in philosophy, sociology, economics, history and psychology. This book is a novel attempt to trace the trajectory of the sociology of education in post-independent India.

The initial chapters focus on the ambiguous contours of the discipline as it sought to separate itself from the mother discipline of sociology and consciously made attempts to develop and maintain theoretical integrity. Where early on the study of the processes and effects of education lay embedded within sociology, Suma Chitnis locates the first steps towards the establishment of the field to the appointment of the Education Commission in 1964. She reminisces on her engagement with noted scholars M.S. Gore and I.P. Desai in the nationwide project set by the Commission to advise the Government of India on how education could be used as an instrument of national development.

It is interesting to read this chapter alongside Geetha B. Nambissan’s chapter on transitions in the sociological study of schooling in India. Where Chitnis combines her personal and professional trajectory with the growth and development of the discipline, Nambissan foregrounds her observations in a larger historical context noting theoretical movements within the discipline from the structural functionalist perspective to symbolic interactionism and phenomenology.


The themes that were the most researched in the 1960s and 1970s revolved around equality of educational opportunity, stratification and mobility, the role of education in democracy and the influence of education on modernisation. Nambissan provides snippets of several scholars’ works during the post-independence period and elaborates on why theoretical shifts did not take place as smoothly as one hoped in the sociology of education due to the dominance of the structural functionalist and the Marxist paradigms in mainstream sociology.

In the U.K., on the other hand, where there was a more successful integration of sociology of education with teacher education and a new acceptance of its disciplinary boundaries, symbolic interactionist and phenomenological perspectives flourished. This led to numerous ethnographic studies which focussed on how school realities were socially constructed, a significant movement from structural functionalist and Marxist paradigms. This paradigm makes its appearance in Indian research circles much later in the 1990s leading to studies that throw new light on the much researched Indian classroom.

Padma M. Sarangapani discusses the epistemological foundations of education as a discipline and locates its position vis-a-vis a hierarchy of disciplines to explain its applied and non-paradigmatic nature. Due to the extensively borrowed nature of its theoretical concepts and general perception as a ‘soft’ and applied discipline, she notes the difficulties scholars face in building legitimacy for the field of study. Where Sarangapani provides the meta-narrative of the discourse and points to the importance of the discipline in the future scheme of knowledge production, Karuna Chanana highlights certain crucial internal disciplinary dynamics. She draws attention to the persisting divide between sociologists working on education and teacher educators. ‘Education’ as a subject is largely instituted in departments of education across the country and is often taught in a perfunctory manner without reflecting on critical sociological concepts. Chanana cautions against the fragmenting of the discipline in the process and calls for greater interdisciplinary theoretical engagement.

Padma Velaskar and Amman Madan reflect on the present juncture of sociology of education and offer valid critiques of the discipline. On the one hand Velaskar warns about the perils of studying educational structures and processes in close collaboration with the State for mere policy directives and on the other hand Madan seeks to understand the intricate nuances through which education induces change in existing structures. He draws from his ethnographic field work in villages in Haryana to substantiate this delicate observation.

Contemporary studies

The first half of the book sets the tone of the discussion on the discipline while the second half provides a collection of contemporary studies, some ethnographic, that examine themes of gender, caste and identity in education.

Nandini Manjrekar studies intersecting concepts of gender, class, caste and nation through her field study on urban working class children in the city of Baroda and G.G.Wankhede emphasises the continuing relevance of caste and the interlinked processes of discrimination in the higher education sphere.

S.Srinivasa Rao takes Wankhede’s argument further through his study that focusses on how disadvantaged groups such as the Scheduled Castes experience discrimination and exclusion at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology campus. He draws on Goffman’s work on stigma to show how disadvantaged groups imbibe attitudes of failure and incompetence as they work through the educational system.

Drawing from the works of Foucault and Bourdieu, Arshad Alam provides a fascinating account of the processes of education within a madrasa. He explores how the madrasa ‘inscribes a certain habitus upon its students’ though the processes of ‘control’ and ‘discipline’ of the students’ bodies. The concluding chapter by Leena Abraham examines the place of Ayurveda as an indigenous system of education alongside biomedicine or Western medicine. Both are instituted in the educational space in India and Abraham contextualises their complex intertwined histories.

Of all the chapters in the book, Abraham’s study is in some ways the odd one out. The choice to include a discussion on Ayurveda education, while informative, is a little misplaced in the collection. Her chapter grapples with issues within the broader domain of the sociology of knowledge and hierarchies between knowledge systems rather than the more contemporary discipline of sociology of education.

Wankhede’s chapter on caste and discrimination in higher education comes across as a little too general and peppered with personal anecdotes. It would have also helped to edit certain themes in the initial chapters of the book as they ended up repeating common points in the trajectory of the history of the discipline of sociology of education in India.

(Vidya is a research scholar at the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, JNU)

Sociology of Education in India

Changing Contours and Emerging Concerns: Edited by Geetha B. Nambissan, S. Srinivasa Rao; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 750.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 8:17:31 AM |

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