Village Anthropology in India:
Some Critical Remarks

This ciritcal paper was written after the 14th International Conference of the Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Williamsburg (July/August 1998) and published in the Commission Newsletter of December 1998 (Number 4) by the IUAES Commission on Anthropological Dimensions of Global Change (IUAES = International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences). It can be found at the following URL in the Internet:




by Nold Egenter,
DOFSBT, Zurich,

Village Anthropology in India: Some Critical Remarks

At the 14th International Conference of the Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Williamsburg (July/August 1998) there was a section on "Changing village India" organized by Triloki N. Pandey and Annapurna Devi Pandey (UC Santa Cruz). Under the title "Change and Development in Rural Eastern Uttar Pradesh, India" the first named speaker introduced the session by outlining the present calamity of village research in India. After some valuable studies (Marriott and others) the style of research had changed in India, he said, nobody was interested in village studies anymore. Therefore if we want to know about the Indian village, we can not speak about change today, because we do not know what there has been! Pandey then used this questionable statment to postulate "freedom". Anthropology has lost its value, he claimed, "there is nothing scientific about it". We have the "freedom to do what we want". Putting it politely, I was fairly surprised about these bold statements! Does Pandey know the anthropology of India? Where do such 'tabula rasa' ideas come from? Furthermore, what he suggests is a very shaky springboard for village research in India. Very likely, it was put together under the heavy influence of post-Reagan U.S. anthropology. For India, this 'sweep it all away' mentality is doubtless the wrong scientific import. It a priori deprives Indian anthropology of its chances to find solutions for absorbing imminent clashes between global and local, industrialized production and traditional craft, and science and age old worldviews.

Note: definitely not a 'quantité négligeable' on the Indian subcontinent! More than 615 million people - 14% of all the world's population - live in India's villages (S.P. Huyler 1981). Anthropology is a 'responsible' discipline!

Beyond these important aspects, I myself, personally, would just maintain the opposite of what Pandey said. I think India has an excellent, even a potentially leading status in village studies, highly scientific in regard to anthropology. To mention only one source, and maybe by far the best as an example here is Lalita Prasad Vidyarthi and Binay Kumar Rai' s book "The Tribal Culture of India" (in the following referred to as 'Vidyarthi/Rai' or'Vidyarthi'). Though more than 20 years old (1976) this book is still a monument, a very brilliant and deeply serious survey of Indian village anthropology which demasks statements like the above as a fairly superficial attitude, adhering to currently fashionable trends. In the following there is a short review of Vidyarthi/Rai. Eight points make this book tremendously important and suggestive for intensified village studies in India.

1) In a very competent survey of the "History of Indian Anthropology" it acknowledges the impacts of Western anthropology (British, American), but at the same time critically recognizes its handicaps and consequently suggests to complement the foreign methods by "what may be termed the 'Indianness' of science."

2) This "synthetic approach" is outlined under the title "Tribal India: A Dimension of Indian Civilization". Based on a very competent ethno-(pre-) history of the Indian tribes, Vidyarthi manages convincingly to show "that the tribes are an integral part of the Indian civilization." In the framework of cultural anthropology this signifies something important and fairly unique, quantitatively and in a qualitative view.

3) On the scale of a subcontinent, an historically deep-rooted high culture scientifically integrates its ethnologically described population into its own ethno-(pre-) historical past. Merely the fact that this happens on the scale of a subcontinent is remarkable. Rigidly based on an enormous range of literature, Vidyarthi/Rai is very likely now still the most refined and brilliant ethnological survey of 'subcontinental' dimensions. It presupposes a tremendous competence to cover such a huge geographical stretch and its traditional population. The authors demonstrate this competence clearly.

4) The tremendous amount of facts available on this large scale produces strong impacts on methods and theories in various domains. The authors deal with economy, social organization, political life, religious life, courses of life and personality structure, folklore, art and craft.

5) Materials and theories are rigidly checked and compared with the intention of avoiding misinterpretations, to refine the system. The whole book is characterized by the attempt to learn from the shortcomings of what has been done, to revise and adapt approaches, modernize methods and theories in different domains. Probably influenced by Gandhi, there is also a deep humanistic respect for the culture of the tribal villages and for the problems that arise with the integration of their populations into the industrialized society of India.

6) The large scale and the many different populations described in this book favor an important and highly objective paradigm: geography. It is used comparatively in the larger scale as well as on the microcosmic level of settlements. Religion is described as "sacred geography".

7) The most striking thing in Vidyarthi/Rai's book is its strongly phenomenological element, that is to say, the density of empirical information, its inclusive description of material culture and the importance of the factual. This is not only felt in the abovementioned chapters, but also in a separate chapter on 'the tribal village.'

8) This latter part speaks of settlement patterns, of the layout of villages and homesteads, and also describes other objective 'features of a tribal village' throughout four important areas of India (Northern, Middle, Southern and Western India). In view of these points, Vidyarthi clearly steers towards something which, according to Pandey, is non-existent in present India: village research. The book clearly designs something that Pandey considers non-scientific: village anthropology in India. And, further, again contrasting paradoxically to Pandey, Vidyarthi/Rai's book is very likely one of the most advanced scientific deeds of Indology. It opens a truly anthropological view on India, namely it shows its ethno(pre-)historical potentials.

Vidyarthi also indicates a very important step towards comparative settlement research, including the morphology and structure of villages. In the scale of the Indian subcontinent this could be a very promising new field. Is it possible to leave the immanent complexity of an existing settlement structurally intact by describing it phenomenologically and comparatively, thus gaining new insights into the development of cultural complexity within the evolution of the human settlement?

In view of such striking divergences in judging the same subject, two basic questions have to be raised. First, what is the validity of an anthropology that has become temporally so 'short-sighted' that competent scientific studies often produced with tremendous efforts and expenditures after a short period are simply declared out of "style"? And second, are there negative impacts of globalisation on anthropology? In the case of anthropology, does globalisation of knowledge increasingly dilute its empirical basis by shifting it theoretically close to modern 'industrialised' speculations on humanity?

It has to be noted here that in many respects, American Anthropology can be considered as a kind of 'art for art's sake'. The enormous pressure of the educational system on personal profile has led to an extreme differentiation of subjects, methods and views often structured fairly arbitrarily. This is, maybe, best reflected by the annual publication of abstracts for the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Anthropologists with its several thousand proposals. Many subjects have lost the great views on the overall human conditions and are content with small niches theorizing on some irrelevant details. On the level of these endlessly differentiated and often contradicting schools and attitudes it is easy to say that Indian village studies are non-scientific, and therefore 'anything goes' (Feyerabend).

There is another reason why Indian anthropology should not easily be blinded by foreign 'current theories'. Highly abstracted and basically taylored for an extremely rationalised 'life', they might be tremendously non-adapted to the Indian subcontinent with its own rich and deeprooted culture(s). Western anthropology has its origins in European history. Its disciplinary facetted views developed in this particular cultural medium (e.g. medieval scholasticism). They are forming an integral part of its particular cultural outlooks. Naturally, these historically formative processes are not fundamentally questioned. Consequently, their outcome is - often fairly naively - projected on other cultures. If, for example, we assume, with Vidyarthi, that a traditional Indian village presents itself as a highly complex relational and fairly autonomous unit, then projecting Western disciplines onto it means a priori chopping the vital socio-spatio-temporal relational system into disciplinary fragmented pieces. The result is a primary 'Euro-disciplinary distortion'. In addition relational concepts are 'defined' (isolated) an ''analytically' described. The result is a secondary 'analytical distortion'. We can guess that the final overall distortion factor is considerably higher. Since these distortions correspond to the Eurocentric value system, they imply devaluations (low economy, low religion) on one hand, and changes and adaptions (high economy, high religion) on the other. Anthropological studies should therefore focus objectively on the immanent value system of a human settlement, not measure (and devalue) it with an imported one!

Vidyarthi was aware of such problems and therefore decisively lent his ears to 'scientific Indianness.' Maybe the book comes close to what one might call a non-Western alternative to anthropology. It can lead us to 'understand' what is important in the Indian village and thus, eventually, to control the impacts of the new. As such the survey must be taken as a pioneering work - even today. The Indian continent has preserved a very ancient corpus of cultural traditions and humane wisdom, which should not be sacrificed to the questionable promises of a socially isolating mechanistic rationalism.