Sociology in JNU

Indian Sociological Conference Diamond Jubilee – Lazy Sunday on JNU Lawns.

by Susmita Dasgupta on Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 6:13am ·


The Indian Sociological Society was at last convened in JNU, New Delhi on the occasion of its Diamond Jubilee. The theme, true to the spirit of a Diamond Jubilee was the Subject In and the Subject Of Sociology. It was recognition in a much needed inquiry of the subjectivity the sociologist brings into the subject of sociology. The subject of sociology has changed over the years and has been different with every scholar purporting to do sociology. Interestingly, despite its claim to a scientific discipline, sociology has never been fixed in its scope precisely because it has rarely been able to define what its subject matter really is.

Durkheim thinks that it has something to do with social facts, the objective results of individual action calculated to confirm and enhance her position in the society and which is why suicide is important to his thesis as the grand exception to his rules. Max Weber imagines that sociology studies the meaning and intent of individual actions that produce one form of society rather than others. What is Durkheim’s concern with society is clearly not Max Weber’s. Durkheim is interested in the internal coherence and discipline of society, seeking answers to his problematic of why do societies sometimes become disintegrated. This is understandable given the fact that Durkheim was a Jew and married into the Dreyfus family of the famous Dreyfus scandal and faced the rising tide of anti-Zionism against him. Weber, on the other hand was a well entrenched Huguenot with deep roots in the Church and an unquestionable Christian. These parameters shielded him from being persecuted and left him with questions that pertained to the superiority of Christian societies of Western Europe as they held sway over colonies elsewhere in the world which had been initially civilizations of greater superiority. The subject matter differed with the subject in sociology and we are left with confusion over the scope of the subject matter, what of society does sociology study? Typing in the google search about sociology, one gets interesting results. Sociology is supposed to study both the integrity of the society as well as its change, it studies how one society is different from the other and what social contents like art, crime, sports, governance do to maintain or violate the internal coherence of our society. Societies like those of the US and Canada and of created new societies of post colonial India and other countries have goals, the goals that attempt to establish the best principles of the western civilization within their specific contexts of historical “givenness”. The greatest challenge of sociology is therefore often to identify the major concern of the society, a concern that attaches itself with the aspirations of the very people who make that society up. This brings us to the role of the sociologist, whose voice does she represent, what her own social class is, what her own aspirations are for all of these will eventually colour what sociology transpires into as an academic discipline.

Popular art is central to sociology; in fact one can think of locating sociology almost entirely into popular art, its discourses, its ideology, its narrative, its premises, its circulation, and reception and inter textuality. The sociologist is not unlike a popular artist; for she has to imagine herself as touching the nerves of “society” as a universalized space which in reality is constituted into several strata, often in competition, if not in conflict with one another. Surprisingly, scholars (especially like me) have never been able to extend this simple lemma of popular art into the theoretical concerns of sociology. Since my area of specialization is popular art I am somewhat bitter at the subject never been taken seriously by sociologists. This seems to have coloured my relationship with the community of sociologists in general and hence my visit to JNU Campus on the warm sunny Sunday was purely to meet friends and not to expect anything much from the discussions.

It is always great meeting old friends and making young acquaintances. I met my teachers who welcomed me like a daughter returning home after her stay in a faraway place. I met young students of the contemporary batch who under the aegis of my teachers extracted a promise from me that I would return to the centre periodically to ‘coach” PhD students to write insightful thesis. Teachers are now saddled with ever growing numbers of students, reflecting the population growth of the country and of course an ever expanding middle class. Sociology, in my time was a residual subject, one studied it because one could not qualify for other courses and only a handful came into the centre in search of a higher meaning of life, especially it’s pursuit could land one up in the civil services. Sociology as the basic discipline for the non government development sector or the media was not as yet very well formed opportunities. Today, the situation is changing and truly enough, sociology is growing as a discipline that would help jobs in development, banks, media, entertainment, tourism, hotels, human resources development and the hospitality industry. It is a subject that is still to be recognized as a veritable profession in the more serious businesses like corporate strategy, natural resource management, peace studies and conflict management. It is a subject that is still centred on a popular culture like role, reflecting concerns that are transcendental and intellectual and discursive and not as those constitutive of basic opportunities and outcomes in society. The conference therefore was populated with sociologists only from the academia and none from development, media, HR or administration and social policy.

An old friend and I sat discussing her published work, the maid servants and the care givers. While men within the family might treat such workers with contempt and in some cases lust, these workers are indispensable to the liberation of middle class women. Were these women not around, would the middle class women have been able to leave home for work? These paid care givers subsidize enormously for the “liberation” of the high middle class often paying heavily in terms of neglecting their own families. Children of maid servants often grow up into drug and alcohol addiction suffering from the want of motherly care during infancy. Television advertisements boom out images of “health food” in terms of Maggis and Knorrs and maids who are too tired to cook after a twelve hour working shift usually feed their children on such fast food and towards the end of the month on street food. The rising rates of anaemia, food deprivation and malnutrition that infest the Indian population may often be traced to the drudgery of such women work force.

The degree of opportunity available to the working woman is directly proportional to the salaries of the maids they can afford to employ. Interestingly, the maid servant no longer remains only an employee on the rolls of the household, she develops her own bonds of affection and wants to be regarded and respected for the same. It is on such expectations that there enters yet another dimension in the domestic power struggles, those which are often themes explored in television serials through power struggles among women albeit not always in an employer-employee relationship. My friend wants to write of these but she hesitates precisely because there are no schemata for holding such observations. Institutions, curricula, professional cronyism creates such rigidities in theories that the world out there can barely hope to have any relevance in the cocooned isolation of the academia. Sociology in its quest for being a perfect science has often failed persons like my friend in addressing the ever evolving social reality changing every moment defying established concepts and abstractions.

A young faculty from a reputed institution specialising on the tribals in India greeted me warmly. I asked him about the concerns of his institutions and he said that he really had no idea about the direction and ideology of his institution but he was working on rehabilitation and resettlement issues of the tribals displaced on account of mining projects. I asked him whether he knew anything about the tribal aspirations, how the children imagined their futures and how they envisioned development; the young man insisted that the tribals were only illiterate fools incapable of having any aspirations. This is generally how intellectuals stereotype and construct as the “other” persons who they exclude from participating actively in the public space. Contrary to this intellectual’s belief, during my own visits to Gumla, Ranchi and Latehar, the hinterland of his employer institution I found that the young children of the Jharkhandi tribes all wanted to be scientists and women were so keen on science of agriculture that they wanted superior organic techniques to combat the monopoly of multinational seed and fertilizer companies! Indeed, in Orissa when an activist fighting for tribal rights was informed of how tribals really used simple techniques and principles for seed preservation because they wanted to stall the onward march of Cargill and Monsanto, the activist was immediately suspicious that Maobadis must have been mentoring the tribals otherwise how else would such ignorant people know of Monsanto. I had no heart to tell the activist in Orissa that deep inside the forests of Sukinda I noticed the dish antennae of channel television. The Indian intellectual uses his knowledge to consolidate the boundaries of his own social class and this is why in the entire exercise of knowledge the world around him must be stereotyped, controlled and administered and never engaged with in its own terms. It is sad that day in and day out we dole out curricula for teaching that so ceaselessly sustains the class conflict between the intellectual and the rest of the society; the intellectual drawing out generalizations, broad sweeps, snap shots and often theorizing commonsensical ideas without any attempt to participate in the field of her observation.

Sociology emanated from the same social class of middle income professional Indians who were the vanguard of the Indian society all through the Freedom Movement. This class has always wanted to be in control of the society at large. As an intellectual it has extended its control via stereotyping and constructing as the “other” the actors from the wider society and attacked the State, politicians, film makers and popular writers any of who this class imagines is making an impact on the wider society. No wonder sociology keeps the study of popular arts at such an arm’s length.

A young faculty from the host institution lamented that he felt rather orphaned because our senior professors seemed to have retired almost all at the same time. Why this lament I asked to which he replied that he wanted to grow under someone’s shadow. The organization of professions is just this; you must have a shade to grow under. If everyone grows under the shade who will grow into a shade giver? This is a question that my discipline is not really prepared to answer and as private funds come into education and as getting a Western degree that relies so heavily upon recommendations and referees become indispensable for a decent employment in India, there is a rush to catch shades. Academic independence is compromised as the political independence of the middle class is compromised in the rise of the corporate domination over our lives. The result of globalization, my retired teacher of Economy and Society looks towards the horizon, Globalization he sighs, how to theorize it, he goes off into a depression. It is right under our noses actually working through the corporate domination. Globalization is not a coherent, constrained social fact that has a causal relationship over other well rounded externally constrained social facts; it is a process stealing its way to constitute the very reason that affect our entire lives. You are so right, exclaims my teacher. Then why, I ask, did you spoil my PhD on popular cinema, does not popular art also provide a reason that purports to offer us better principles to found our entire lives upon? In sociology we look for principles that constitute our lives as members of the society, integrate us culturally, and resolve our conflicts ideologically. This is exactly what popular culture intends to do, then why should I be considered as an outsider to my discipline?

Yet, I could see that sociology in India was making a desperate attempt to become more relevant by including themes such as development, governance and extremism as its concerns. These themes are bound to make sociology into a dynamic and interactive discipline because these themes are mounted upon the essential strain of social conflict. Social conflict is a more vital model as compared to social problems; the latter is the Durkheimian anomie that can be bounded, hounded and rounded into an administrative solution. The social problem is static, “othered” and stereotyped. Social conflict is struggle, acting, participating, bargaining, negotiating and fighting, here the parties are equal and superior control of any one class is difficult. It is in these themes of social negotiations that the future of sociology will eventually emerge. The conference organizers showed a remarkable foresight.

The food was excellent, crowd managed with empathy, book stalls were tempting. Again, I spent beyond my budget and left the place quickly to avoid another avalanche on my credit card. Another old friend has published his fourth book on Development. I glanced through on what appears to be a promising volume. Will read it through in the course of time but not before I have finished my paper on Habermas and the Indian Popular Culture.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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