Categories of Self: Louis Dumont's Theory of the Individual

Categories of Self: Louis Dumont's Theory of the Individual

Categories of Self: Louis Dumont's Theory of the Individual

Categories of Self: Louis Dumont's Theory of the Individual

Synopsis

The work of Louis Dumont, who died in 1998, on India and modern individualism represented certain theoretical advances on the earlier structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss. One such advance is Dumont's idea of hierarchical opposition, which he proposed as a truer representation of indigenous ideologies than Lévi-Strauss's binary opposition. In this book the author argues that, although structuralism is often thought to have gone out of fashion, Dumont's greater concern with praxis and agency makes his own version of structuralism more contemporary. The work of his followers and fellow travelers, as well as his own, indicates that hierarchical opposition is capable of taking structuralism in new and more realistic directions, reminding us that it has never been the preserve of Lévi-Strauss alone.

Robert Parkin is a social anthropologist who took his doctorate at the University of Oxford in 1984 for a thesis on kinship in South and Southeast Asia. His main theoretical interests are in kinship, religion and identity, and he has conducted research and field enquiries in Orissa (India), Poland, Italy and Brussels.

Excerpt

Commenting in the 1960s on Bouglé's Essais sur le régime des castes (1908), Louis Dumont (1911–1998) suggests that one of the reasons why this work had not made the mark it deserved was because it ‘was written in French, while few Indians read French; English is of necessity the main language of these studies’ (Dumont 1980: 43). For this reason, many of Dumont's own publications on India – Hierarchy and Marriage Alliance in South Indian Kinship (1957), for example, as well as many of his essays in the journal Contributions to Indian Sociology – were originally written in English. As for his magum opus, Homo Hierarchicus (1980), Dumont oversaw and assisted in the translation himself. It took almost thirty years for an English version of his extensive monograph, a South Indian Subcaste (1986), to appear due to ‘Dumont's insistence on the absolute accuracy of translation’ (Madan 1999: 476). Even then, he made the final revisions. As Madan (ibid.: 486) describes the process: ‘It took long – Dumont was not easily satisfied – but the work was done.’ in fact, the majority of Dumont's publications in English were either written originally in this language or translated by Dumont himself (usually with a named collaborator). Apart from the titles mentioned above, this is true of almost all the essays included in Religion, Politics and History in India (1970), Essays on Individualism (1986), and German Ideology (1994). English translations, moreover, are not always straight renditions of the original but are quite often revisions, modifications, or elucidations of the earlier text.

Clearly, then, Dumont's standards were exacting with regard to accuracy of translation and the presentation of his ideas in English. His ardent desire to reach an Anglophone audience is evident in the admission that, ‘I generally took care to make available in English whatever I produced’ (Galey 1982: 15). Nevertheless, in the preface to . . .

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