65 (2), May - August 2016, pp. 253- 271
© Indian Sociological Society
Doing Sociology: Some Persistent Questions
I return here to some long standing questions regarding sociology. What
is sociology? How does sociology study the ‘social’? And why do
sociology? Any effort to explore these questions is not a novel task and
has been attempted many times before, prompting Uberoi to remark that,
“it seems that Indian sociologists and social anthropologists are
unusually afflicted by disciplinary angst” (Uberoi et al. 2000: 2). This
self-reflexive propensity within sociology is central to its reflexive and
A central contention of this note is that it is this reflexive and
critical identity of the discipline that tends to get lost in the everyday
doing of sociology. This is somehow paradoxical because there appears
to be a preoccupation with the discipline’s identity within sociology.
This however is not confined to India alone. There have been repeated
debates on the identity and scope of sociology in the west at different
points of time.
Institutional and intellectual contexts within which these debates
were conducted are however different. But they are rarely brought into
focus in the standard textbook rendition of sociology. Early attempts by
classical theorists to carve out the discipline of sociology, the tensions
between its encyclopaedic scope and the need for limiting it; or that of
mid 20th century American sociology’s fetish of quantitative techniques
cannot be conflated to our more local or national concerns. This is not to
suggest that these trends do not travel and impinge upon the local in
complex and mediated fashions. Indeed they do, and sometimes very
directly as our discussion on measurement in Part II will show. But this
should in no way render the specificities of contexts and debates that
emerged within India invisible. For instance, our own very specific
relationship between sociology and social anthropology or of
disagreements between the field view and book view that forms part of
the disciplinary history in India; or more contemporary concerns of what
the discipline provides as skills for jobs; or of the gaps between doing
sociology in the metropolitan centres and mufassil colleges; or the
Sociological Bulletin, 65 (2), May – August, 2016
relentless pressure of making sociology ‘easier’, a misplaced attempt
towards equality sans quality.
The vantage point from where I seek to make some of the
observations here stem therefore not so much from a scholarly review of
debates on sociology as much as from the everyday experiences teaching
sociology for three decades and my larger interest in matters of curricula
and pedagogy. I do invoke the scholarly debates on the nature of the
discipline but my primary focus remains on the curious ways that ideas
from high academia find selective appropriation in academic syllabi,
popular textbooks and guidebooks that form the bedrock of our
This note is divided into two broad sections. In both, I flag off
matters that I think most of us have faced both as students and teachers
doing sociology. In Part I, I first look at that persistent question about
identity and some of the common ways that this is addressed in the
everyday doing of sociology; and two at the some of the major ways that
contending intellectual legacies have looked at the discipline. In Part II,
I revisit the question of relevance and its changing meanings over the
decades with a special focus on the contemporary context. I also wish to
add the caveat that Indian sociology has moved beyond expressions of
collective anguish. I think there has been commendable work that have
both analysed the challenges of our diverse and unequal classrooms and
offered road maps. I do not have enough space to elaborate this point
here. But I do wish to flag off Rege’s pioneering and enduring work in
teaching practices that we as sociologists, while often speaking of
‘falling standards’2 have not fully learnt from.3
The Quest for Identity
There are three common ways that the identity of sociology is
understood in the everyday world of doing sociology: (i) by the object of
inquiry: sociological topics are thus often understood as the study of the
village, community, religion, caste, family - often ‘residual’ topics, those
deemed left out from the ambit of other social sciences; (ii) by the
method of investigation and deployment of techniques; and (iii) by its
close link to social work and policy deemed appropriate to solve social
problems. These ideas do bear similarities, albeit in an inaccurate fashion
to varying conceptualisation of sociology within the intellectual history
Were one to go back to the early years of western sociology, one
clear trend emerges. Evident in Durkheim and Weber we see a concern
to promote ‘a sociological approach within existing disciplines; in
history, law, economics, politics, comparative religion’ (Bottomore
1975:23). The emphasis is on sociology as an approach. It seeks to look
at ‘the whole social of social life’ and ‘human history’ but what is
actually to be investigated has to be limited, but informed by an
understanding of the whole. (ibid.: 18). It is instructive to note that
Durkheim who was especially concerned with the autonomy of sociology
did not suggest that it should be pursued in isolation from other social
sciences. Indeed his contention was that ‘Sociologists have….a pressing
need to be regularly informed of the researches’ made in the other
disciplines. 4 Sociology in this sense had to be interdisciplinary.
This changed over time. Sociologists over years began to define
the discipline in terms of ‘residual’ subjects which did not fall clearly
within the sphere of other social sciences, and which could be regarded,
therefore, as strictly sociological in rather a narrow sense. These
tendencies were encouraged, to some extent, by a desire to establish the
autonomy, the ‘professional’ standing, and the scientific character of
sociology as an academic discipline. This view also gained ready
acceptance because it fitted in with the common sense view of reality as
clearly defined observable entities such as family, religion or caste.
In the 1930s and 1940s, American sociology saw a
preoccupation with the construction of elaborate conceptual schemes
most evident in Parsons whose influence need no emphasis. Many
departments in India were inspired by his approach. Evidences remain
but often in a bowdlerised fashion. For long therefore, through the 1960s
and 1970s it was the learnt Parsonian jargon that defined the doing of
sociology. (Chaudhuri 2003: 16) This obsession with jargons has
persisted though the jargons themselves have changed over time and tend
to differ from one institutional context to another. If ‘functional
necessity’ and ‘contradictions’ were once common, we see abundance of
terms such as ‘excluded’, ‘marginalised’, ‘racialised’, ‘classed’,
‘sexualised’ now. What is worrying is that there is no serious historical
or theoretical engagement with the terms. Instead there is a mandatory
invocation of terms. It is often thought that a mechanical use of concepts,
in a purely ornamental way occurs only with students with poor grasp of
English.5 This is not true if one looks at works emerging from what one
may describe as privileged centres.
The other trend in American sociology that seemed to have left
an abiding influence is a fascination with the techniques of sociological
enquiry, usually though not necessarily applied to small-scale problems,
which is understood as the discipline’s defining identity. Finally, the idea
Sociological Bulletin, 65 (2), May – August, 2016
that sociology is the study of social problems as commonly understood in
everyday life. Syllabi across the country often have full papers on social
problems. I shall return to both these in the discussion on relevance in
As a student one was quick to learn the naming of the different
ways but was unable to locate different perspectives in distinct contexts
and then link them with contesting ideas of the nature, scope and method
of sociology. In hindsight I feel that we rarely communicate the sense of
the world that thinkers lived in and sought to intellectually grapple with.
Cursory mention of biographical details of various dates: birth, years of
publication of major texts, and death do not bring alive the world that
produced the word. We need to emphasise the importance of learning to
practice ‘reading a text about society backwards to discover and unveil
the processes of its making’ (Talib and Savyasaachi 2003: 77-78).
Cursory details however fit in well with the trend towards ‘objective’
questions as a test for knowledge. The process of intellectual history in
such a scheme is seen as either extraneous6 or ‘outside the syllabus’ or
‘above the level’. It was the learning of the ‘five’ ways that were seen
important. Five marks for five ways for patterned answers are easy to
evaluate.7 The evaluation system seems to have increasingly become the
final arbiter. There can be only one right answer is the demand of the
objective questions. There simply is no space for sociology’s plural and
Indeed this plurality of views on the identity of sociology, instead
of being seen as its strength is often seen as a sign of weakness, a mark
that sociology is yet to acquire the precision of natural sciences. These
many ‘diverse ways’ have been rightly understood by Patel as attempts to
clarify, evaluate and reconcile ‘the contradictory claims concerning its
identity as it has historically developed in India’ (Patel 2010: 281).
Unfortunately history is rarely addressed - a point that is of equal
importance when one discusses the matter of relevance.
Matters of Relevance and Irrelevance
There are distinct intellectual legacies of the discipline’s identity that
bear upon our contemporary practice of sociology. Rege (2003) in her
study of syllabi of colleges in Maharashtra noticed a pattern in the mix of
theoretical legacies, namely the theoretical legacy of the classical
thinkers; the methodological legacy of quantitative techniques; and the
civic legacy of substantive topics. For the most part the three are
understood and dealt with as discrete entities. This compartmentalisation
fits in with the dominant mode of evaluation. And this bears upon the
way textbooks are written and classroom transactions are conducted. A
small example from my experience with senior school textbook writing
at NCERT (National Council of Education Research and Teaching) may
make clarify the matter further. The books were written with an
understanding that gender should inform the treatment of all topics,
whether agriculture or family or globalisation. The pressing query from
teachers was that if gender keeps popping up in different chapters, how
would one know which chapter has to be used for a question on gender.
Separation in terms of topics makes it conducive to teach and learn in
terms of expected question on specific topics. Integration, which is the
key of sociological approach, works against the logic of the given
teaching and evaluation system. Dialectical materialism is a topic just as
much as sampling or ethnicity or violence against women is. They
belong to three distinct theoretical legacies of sociology, namely classical
theory, techniques of research and substantive topics respectively, the
point that Rege makes. Unfortunately, this is usually deemed irrelevant
in the making of syllabi, often seen as a list of topics.
Indeed theory itself is irrelevant in both the larger public and
policy discourse of ‘use’ and within the smaller world of syllabi,
examinations and markings. Not surprisingly understanding about
sociology as the study of residual topics is more popular than the
classical thinker’s emphasis on sociology as an approach, or of ‘social
relations’ or of the key category ‘social action’.
The buzzword of 21st century India is about skill enhancement.
The focus therefore has to be on the skills that sociology can impart. This
trend, however, has a longer history going back to the very intellectual
legacies that went into the making of sociology. For a moment if we
return to Bottomore’s textbook on sociology, we find mention of a
fourfold origin in political philosophy, the philosophy of history,
biological theories of evolution and the movements for social and
political conditions ‘which found it necessary to undertake surveys of
social conditions’ (Bottomore 1975:16 emphasis mine). This emphasis
on social surveys did not only emerge from the intent of applying natural
science methods, important as that was. It emerged also from a new
conception of social evils that something can be done to mitigate it. This
legacy of sociology as linked to the study of social problems and for the
making of social policy ought therefore not to be dismissed as ‘applied
sociology’ a poor and distant cousin of ‘pure’ sociology.
This is tricky terrain and one has to navigate the thin path
carefully. This is particularly true at a time where the legitimacy and
Sociological Bulletin, 65 (2), May – August, 2016
“use” of not just sociology but of all academic social sciences is being
challenged. The rhetoric is of skills, deliverables and solutions. In such a
context the tangible skills of the techniques of sociological research
appear most useful and relevant. Apart from universities and older
primarily state funded research institutions, corporations and
developmental sectors are active producers of sociological knowledge,
primarily responding to a certain formulation of research problem,
seeking data for specified purposes whether of developmental
organisations or corporations. Sociology graduates are more employable
today than history graduates. While techniques of quantitative research
are still privileged, qualitative techniques are also gaining ground in the
competing sites of knowledge production.8
I do not think there is any necessary problem either with the
focus on techniques of research or with concerns for social ‘problems’ or
with the fact that sociology graduates may be more employable today.
The problem lies in the way techniques are abstracted from an informed
understanding of the history and structure, the institutions and ideas of
the society that has to be studied. The buzzword is ‘operationalism’. It is
instructive in the current context to recall Marcuse’s discussion on the
concept of length and how the guiding logic was that of measurement in
the physical sciences. He quotes from Bridgman:
We evidently know what we mean by length if we can tell what the
length of any and every object is, and for the physicist nothing more
is required. …. the concept of length involves as much and nothing
more than the set of operations by which length is determined. In
general, we mean by any concept nothing more than a set of
operations… (Marcuse 2002:15 emphasis mine)
In the 1950s and 1960s America, the valorisation of techniques to the
neglect of the sociological approach often meant technically
sophisticated studies on topics such as on dating practices of college
students. In 21st century India, it is often on topics such as measuring
empowerment of women. While topics such as dating practices can be
condemned as trivial, topics on ‘social problems’ such as women’s
empowerment appears both weighty and relevant. But like the concept
‘length’, the concept ‘empowerment’ is assumed as a given. It is the
operationalisation of indicators and measurement that matters.
Returning to the question whether the weightiness of a topic can
define matters of relevance, Krishnaraj’s observations are instructive.
‘Topics’, she found, are chosen because (a) they are currently
fashionable; (b) fall in line with the government’s or policy-makers’
interest; (c) funding agencies’ preferences; (d) issues that find publicity
in current literature – media, journals, conferences; and (e) individual
choice which is itself often influenced by current fashion. (Krishnaraj
2005: 3008). Here, too, techniques take precedence over the formulation
of research. Research product then becomes a commodity. Sociology is
not just for locating immediate problems or seeking immediate solutions.
While immediate problems need to addressed, broader engagements with
history, theory, other disciplines and empirical studies alone form the
basis for understanding issues and formulating action. (Krishnaraj ibid.)
Perhaps it would make sense to conclude with Bauman who
turns the question of identity around. He asks not what counts as
sociology. But what use is sociology? He argues that for sociology to be
useful it is not suffice to study society from a safe disciplinary distance,
or to follow academic fashion. One has to engage with society that
makes people’s concern its mission. In a world where sociology is
‘another product in the marketplace’- keeping sociology relevant,
according to Bauman, means maintaining the unending dialectical back
and forth in the construction of ‘commonsense’ by focusing on ‘everyday
practitioners’ not the spokespeople of different professions.9
The challenge is that in an increasingly mass mediatised world,
sociological findings continuously circulate in and out of common sense.
The reflexivity of both sociology and modern life implies that social
practices are constantly reformulated in the light of new information.
Women’s empowerment, for instance, has entered into the lexicon of
everyday life. The pressing challenge is to retrieve women’s
empowerment as a loaded, complex, contested and historically evolved
concept from its present avatar as one more topic in the paper on social
problems. The task ahead is to reclaim the critical and reflexive edge of
sociology; for once it is reduced to the technique of studying social
problems as defined by others; and once sociology severs itself from
history; sociology will fail to discern the ideological in the
I would like to thank my students Niharika Jaiswal and Gayatri Nair for their helpful
1. Peter Berger’s concept of sociological debunking, the act of going beyond the
surface understanding to dig into the deeper meaning and give room to alternative
2. See Chaudhuri 2003: 5-6.
3. Through an array of programmes beginning at the undergraduate level Sharmila
Sociological Bulletin, 65 (2), May – August, 2016
Rege and her team of colleagues and students carefully crafted a bilingual system of
teaching and training. Students, some of them first- generation learners, are not only
taught to overcome their disadvantage through English language classes, but are
treated as creative producers of knowledge in their own right in a bilingual mode.
Building Bridges: On Becoming a Welder (Rege 2010) is the remarkable title of the
first Bridge Course Manual produced under Sharmila’s leadership
Annee Sociologique, I, 1898 cited in Bottomore 1975:22.
This does not appear to be quite correct. Bourdieu’s own account of experiences in
French universities is worth invoking. ‘Through a kind of incantatory or sacrificial
rite, they try to call up and reinstate the tropes, schema or words which to them
distinguish professorial language’ (Bourdieu 1994:4).
In quite another world of competent sociological doing, the question of intellectual
history would be deemed extraneous for quite another reason. It would be deemed
irrelevant because sociology was defined essentially as an empirical and
See Singh 2012
Ethnography of how a food processer would be used in an Indian kitchen is one such
example. (Sharan 2011)
http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2014/05/26/book-review-what-use-issociology-zygmunt-bauman/accessed 3rd June 2016.
Berger, Peter. 2016. An invitation to sociology: A humanistic perspective.
http://www.sociosite.net/topics/texts/berger.pdf. Accessed 9th June 2016.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. Sociology in question. London: Sage.
Bottomore, Tom. 1975. Sociology: A guide to problems and literature. Bombay: Blackie
and Son (India) Limited.
Chaudhuri Maitrayee (ed.). 2003. The practice of sociology. Delhi: Orient Blackswan.
Chaudhuri Maitrayee (ed.). 2011. Sociology in India: Intellectual and institutional
practices. Jaipur: Rawat.
Krishnaraj, Maithreyi. 2005. ‘Research in Women Studies’. http://www.epw.in/
journal/2005/28/perspectives/research-women-studies.html accessed 8th June
Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One-dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced
industrial society. Boston: Beacon.
Patel, Sujata. 2010. ‘At Crossroads: Sociology in India’, in Sujata Patel (ed.): The ISA
handbook of diverse sociological traditions. London: Sage Publications
Rege Sharmila. 2003. Sociology of gender: The challenge of feminist sociological
knowledge. New Delhi: Sage.
Rege Sharmila. 2010. Building bridges: On becoming a welder: Bridge Course Manual I.
Pune: Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, supported by
Higher Education Initiative, Navajbai Ratan Tata Trust
Singh, Santosh. 2012. ‘Practising sociology on the outside edge’, in Maitrayee Chaudhuri
(ed.): Sociology in India: Intellectual and institutional practices (105- 118).
Sharan, Madhu. 2011. ‘Why choose sociology? Tamil Nadu in global times’, in
Chaudhuri (ed.) ibid. Pp. 273-298.
Tahlib, M. and Savyasachi. 2003. ‘What skills can students acquire from social
sciences?’, in Maitrayee Chaudhuri(ed.): The practice of sociology (72-96).
Delhi, Orient Blackswan.
Uberoi Patricia. 2000. Déjà vu/ seminar 495 November 14-19. Book review: What use is
Sociology? Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman,. Michael H. Jacobson and
Keith Tester. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2014/05/26/book-reviewwhat-use-is-sociology-zygmunt-bauman/accessed 3rd June 2016 (Incomplete
Maitriyee Chaudhary, Professor, Centre for the Study of Social System, Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi
Email: [email protected]