The State of Indian Social History

By Parthasarathi, Prasannan | Journal of Social History, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The State of Indian Social History


Parthasarathi, Prasannan, Journal of Social History


Indian social history appears to be in decline. Although fine work in the field has been published in recent years, the cutting edge of scholarship on the Indian past has moved elsewhere, particularly into the domains of cultural and intellectual life. The signs of decline are particularly acute in North America, where social historical questions have been largely given up for investigations of colonial discourse, representations of colonialism or nationalism, and even philosophy and social theory. This shift in historical inquiry is reflected in the priorities of academic publishing. Princeton University Press is the only publisher in the United States that maintains a commitment to South Asian history, and many of these works appear in its Culture/Power/History series. Recent Princeton volumes include Nicholas Dirks' Castes of Mind, Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe, and Gyan Prakash's Another Reason. All three of these works, by historians of South Asia in leading North American universities, depart very radically from social historical methods and concerns.

The decline in Indian social history may be more marked in the United States than in Europe and South Asia. The decline, however, coincides with an explosion of interest in South Asia in the North American academy. In the last several years, a number of new positions for South Asianists have been created in colleges and universities that had not previously considered the region worthy of attention. Therefore, at the moment in which interest in the region has intensified, scholarly trends in the United States have moved away from social history. The job opportunities in the United States for specialists on South Asia, in fact, stand in stark contrast to the situation in Europe and the Indian subcontinent itself. In the latter, university resources have been shifted to technical subjects, most prominently to information technology.

This decline in Indian social history is not a recent development, and others have explored the reasons for it. Aijaz Ahmad, in a polemically charged exercise, attributed the decline to the more general appeal of colonial discourse in the United States, where, he argued, it was compatible with the growing interest in multi-culturalism. In this atmosphere, he suggested, scholars of South Asian descent played up their minority, colonized culture. ("To the extent that both 'Third World Literature' and 'Colonial Discourse Analysis' privilege coloniality as the framing term of epochal experience, national identity is logically privileged as the main locus of meaning ... ['Third World intellectuals'] can now materially represent the undifferentiated colonized Other--more recently and more fashionably, the post-colonial Other--without much examining of their own presence in that institution." (1)) For Aijaz Ahmad, to put it very bluntly, it is a case of upper class and middle class Indians reinventing themselves in North America as oppressed people. This type of sociology of knowledge has long been deployed to interpret shifts in history writing, and there may certainly be something to it in the case of the discursive turn. (In fact, Ahmad's observations might have received a more sympathetic hearing had they not been stated so harshly.)

The focus of this essay, however, is not the sociology of knowledge. Rather, the purpose of this piece is to explore very schematically some of the theoretical bases for the abandonment of social history. It will argue that the shift from social history has produced one-sided accounts that artificially separate cultural and intellectual developments from economic and material ones. As a result, economic and material questions have come to be neglected altogether. Such a separation, however, misinterprets the efforts of some of the major theoreticians who are cited as inspirations for the methodological shift.

It is also alarming that economic questions, which were so central to social history, have come to be neglected in the last two decades, a period in which economic relations throughout the world have been radically restructured. …

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