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Remembering a sociologist and Indologist of repute

The French anthropologist Louis Dumont.   | Photo Credit: HANDOUT_E_MAIL

The French anthropologist Louis Dumont would have been 100 years of age on August 1, 2011. Although criticised, his interpretation of Indian society cannot be ignored.

After World War II, Louis Dumont's anthropological oeuvre marked a new area for the sociology of India, and his work, although internationally acclaimed, is still open to debate.

Dumont was born in Thessaloniki (Greece) in 1911 and died in Paris in 1998. He was first a student of the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) at the Institute of Ethnology of the Museum of Man (Musée de l'Homme) in Paris, from 1936 to 1939, and later joined the Museum for Arts and Popular Traditions where he became assistant, then associate researcher from 1937 to 1951. His first book, La Tarasque (1951) is an ethnographic study of a popular religious festival in southern France. Yet, later he was to receive international fame and recognition for his work on India.

Dumont was a prisoner of war in Germany (1940-1945), where he started learning Sanskrit with the German Indologist and Jain scholar Walther Schubring. After the war, he went to South India and did fieldwork among the Kallar in Tamil Nadu. In 1957, he published a monograph on A South Indian Subcaste: Social Organization and Religion of the Pramalai Kallar (1986 for the English edition, translated from the French by M. Moffatt, L. and A. Morton, edited with an introduction by Michael Moffat), which marked a profound change in the paradigm of the sociology of India. In order to understand the so-called Indian traditional society, Dumont rejected the framework of the village, which was then favoured by most scholars, and focused on the caste (or the subcaste), emphasising the hierarchical social organisation which encompassed a territory wider than a village.

Return from India

On his return from India, Dumont became lecturer at the University of Oxford where he succeeded M.N. Srinivas who was going back to India. In 1955, Dumont was elected professor at the then sixth section of the Ecole pratique des hautes études at Paris (today EHESS — School for Higher Studies on Social Sciences) where he taught the sociology of India, then comparative sociology. In 1957, in collaboration with the British anthropologist David Pocock, Dumont started a new academic journal, Contributions to Indian Sociology, published at Oxford and Paris, which continues to remain the main reference journal for the discipline today, after T.N. Madan edited it at the Institute of Economic Growth (Delhi) from 1966.

Impressive work

Nevertheless, Dumont's magnum opus remains his Homo hierarchicus published in French in 1967 (1970 and 1972 for the English translations). It is an impressive synthetic work with a strong theoretical background, in which the author presented his understanding of the Indian caste society as a whole. According to Dumont, people were ascribed an unequal status from birth and ranked from the Untouchables (who did not then call themselves Dalits) at the bottom to the Brahmins at the top according to the degree of purity attached to each caste collectively as well as to each individual.

After this publication, Dumont distanced himself from the sociology of India, feeling that he had achieved what he wanted to say on the caste system. He started a new field of research that dealt with the genesis of the modern individualism grounded on an egalitarian basis, which he contrasted with the inegalitarian caste system. It was the subject of his Homo aequalis (1977), followed by Essays on individualism (1983), and German Ideology: From France to Germany and Back (1991). However, these works belonged to the traditional history of political and philosophical ideas and have no empirical grounding.

Dumont's oeuvre has been discussed and debated by anthropologists in Europe as well as in India. His sociological interpretation of the caste system is both widely acclaimed and highly criticised. The most radical criticism emphasised that Dumont's brilliant analysis of the caste system is taken from a dominant internal viewpoint, whether from its priests (Brahmins) or its princes (Kshatriya), which is well expressed in and legitimised by the classical Sanskrit texts that Dumont widely used. From a sociological point of view, however, scholars need to question, first, the social conditions of the production of these representations that cannot be taken for granted, and, second, their social usages. The relations of power and domination that structure the Hindu caste system, which are partly denied from a textual viewpoint (and this, of course, cannot be ignored), have to be clearly recognised and analysed. Furthermore, the comparative sociology that Dumont developed was quite often reduced to a binary opposition between individualism and holism, or to a radical confrontation between the equalitarian West and the hierarchical traditional pre-modern societies, like India, towards which the anthropologist publicly confessed to having a nostalgic inclination.

Nevertheless, the Indian part of his oeuvre stands for a rare coherent sociological enterprise that cannot be ignored or brushed away if one wants to understand the social making of contemporary India.

(Roland Lardinois is Sociologist, Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris; Centre de sciences humaines, New Delhi).


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