Institute for Social and Economic Change


Change and Mobility in Contemporary India: Thinking M N Srinivas Today

Programme Schedule



29-30 August 2017
Institute for Social and Economic Change
Dr. VKRV Rao Road, Nagarabhavi Bangalore


Indian Sociology and Anthropology have produced several legendary scholars, with a wide spread academic following throughout the world. Among them, Professor M.N. Srinivas, the renowned Sociologist and Anthropologist, stands out for his critical contributions. Professor Srinivas’ areas of interest covered a wide range of subjects. He had studied and written on various subjects such as Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India (1952) which is considered as a classic in sociology. His other major areas of   study were on village society and culture, on caste, and social change.  For a considerable part of his scholarly writing, Professor Srinivas depended on field work, and in keeping with his roots in Anthropology, carried out ethnographic research, which in his view was the only way to produce authentic and reliable material for Anthropological studies.  He contrasted field studies with a “book view” of society, and always felt that the book view was of a less reliable nature than the field view. As a scholar and teacher, Srinivas has had an enormous influence on Sociology and Anthropology in India, and the study of Indian society.

His book Social Change in Modern India published in 1966 (a compilation of lectures), posed some of the fundamental questions related to social change, its direction, orientations and sources of orientations, which still inform us on the trajectories of social change in India. His conceptualization of social change through concepts such as westernisation in order to make sense of the process of modernisation begun by colonial rulers in India, and sanskritisation  to explain the   upward mobility of groups lower in the caste hierarchy through imitating rituals of higher castes,  which made it possible for a lower caste  to attain a higher level in the hierarchy, is the subject of these lectures, and have enlightened a vast number of people, scholars and others, about the manner in which groups seek to find a better if not a higher place for themselves. The studies on Rampura, the Karnataka village, where he had done fieldwork for several years, produced another important concept dominant caste, which helped to explain the process through which middle level caste groups become socially, economically and politically powerful.

Not all of Srinivas’ ideas and theorization received complete acceptance, but it to his credit that these were the foundations of serious scholarly thought and debate, which  were set in motion through his writings.  Even his inventing a term to describe politics, viz.  “vote bank”,  has not only expressed in a very pithy manner what covers more ground that one would expect from such a term, but it is now commonly used in any political discourse,  and most people do not know that it was Srinivas who had invented this term.

Indian society has undergone several changes in its traditional social structures, institutions, culture and belief systems in the recent past.  The social science academia in the country has contributed significantly to the understanding of the diverse processes of these changes, their dimensions, trajectories and policy imperatives. The contribution of Professor Srinivas to understand these multifaceted and complex social processes was immense. The concepts that he developed are still relevant and being widely used by scholars in India and outside to make sense of the processes of social mobility and change in caste, religious and ethnic communities. We have also seen meaningful critical engagements on these concepts developed by Srinivas by social scientists to explain several initiatives for change from the people who are at the lower end of the social hierarchy.

Recognising this continuing relevance of the conceptual and methodological approaches introduced by Srinivas to understand the processes of social change, the Institute for social and economic change (ISEC), Bangalore proposes to organise a three day international seminar to deliberate on various facets of social and economic change which are illuminated by the critical academic engagements of the concepts developed by him. The institute realises that organising this seminar, especially in his centenary year (2016-2017) at ISEC, where Professor Srinivas had worked  at  a significant  stage in the Institute’s life in different capacities as professor and chairman,  is an honour for the institute and for the entire Indian social science academia.

Understanding Change and Mobility in Multiple Spheres

The contemporary Indian society is changing at an unprecedented pace, mostly triggered by the developments in the real world, related to advancements in science and technology, emergence of new world systems and governance paradigms, regional integration, war and conflicts, new forms of dominance and resistance, ecological imbalances and above all the ways by which systems and life-worlds respond to such developments. The Indian social science academia has been engaging with several questions, which have emerged as part of larger processes of change.  For instance, sociological studies for a significant period of time had deeply engaged with the changes in the village economy and agrarian relations in India. While there are context specific understandings and explanations available from such studies, several questions still emanate from the contemporary processes of change. What are the new relationships that have come up in the rural village economy with the loosening of the caste system, and what is the nature of the emergent power relations?  Have such changes disintegrated the structures of suppression and humiliation?

Urbanisation is another area that received enormous academic attention in the recent time. The patterns of urban growth, migration, city planning, service sector growth and expansion of cities brought out new questions on employment, livelihood, identities and new spaces.  Research studies have looked at these from the background of the processes of economic liberalisation, which in fact invigorated the pace of urbanisation. To promote private investments further the State has created new institutions, new policies and legitimised them through its own ideological and repressive apparatuses. Processes like commodification of natural resources and capturing of commons in the cities for private investments have also posed new questions of exclusion and right to city. Another equally important analytical category, which is part of the larger processes of urbanisation and rural transformation, is the new layers of Indian middle class. The middle classes have been a subject of social science research in the context of their role to catalyse social movements, their influence in state apparatus and policy making and becoming the consumer base of capitalist economy.

Discrimination based on social, ethnic, religious and gender identities, has been a characteristic of Indian society, as numerous studies affirm. Exclusion of groups on such markers is another important area, which has received considerable academic attention in the recent years. Which are the social, religious and ethnic groups who have been suffering from development deficit due to exclusion? What are the forms of discrimination? What are their consequences and impact? How do they articulate their rights and entitlements? What are its gender dimensions? The recent discourses on the mobility of social groups, a theme that was very close to Prof. Srinivas, are around economic liberalisation and the new opportunities.

Increasing fragmentation of organised sector, expansion of service sector, breakdown of the traditional rural village economy and growing informalisation have resulted in new forms of employment and labour relations mostly in the informal sectors. It is also accompanied by workforce moving to informal sectors and informal work arrangements. Studies have highlighted that poverty showed an increasing trend in the households of casual workers in the urban India and households of agriculture workers in rural. It raises several questions. How working in the informal sector and being poor are associated? What are the consumption patterns of people who are in the informal sector jobs? What are the dimensions of gender differentials of informal employment and poverty? How do people perceive their relative position of poverty and what are the copying mechanisms to come out of it?

Other important forces of change, which are relevant in the discussions of social transformation, are the new social and political movements and their increasing role in catalysing the processes of change. The recent movements such as dalit movements, backward class movements for reservation, movements of minorities for group specific policies, anti corporate movements, movements for autonomy and self determination, movements for land, anti corruption movements etc. are important examples. They evoke questions such as what is the nature of such movements and how have they been evolved? What are the issues that such movements address?  Can such movements act as effective pressure groups to influence policy making? What are their roles in the political processes of the respective regions? How do the people who are represented by these movements perceive the role of such movements in improving their material conditions? The changing role of the state, governance and political participation of people are another set of relevant questions in the studies of the directions of social change.  Is democratic decentralisation an inclusive process? Whether programme implementations at the field level are with the active participation of the beneficiaries. Whether the existing structures of power relations limit the participation of certain groups of people in such programmes? How do beneficiaries see such programmes?

The resurgence of the questions of religion, especially through the lens of development and citizenship also pointed to the direction of social and economic change. Among others, the questions of cultural nationalism and minoratisation assume paramount importance. Sachar Committee report and reports of minority commissions on the differences within minority religious groups, especially Islam and Christianity also brought about new dimensions of citizenship rights to the development deficits of minorities. 

While   society advances to complex structures and forms as part of the larger change processes, the biggest challenge of our time is to comprehend the effects of such rapid changes on nation states, economy, polity, ecology, culture and social relations. The dynamic interplay of these phenomena necessitate systematic and methodologically sound research to unveil its complexities, understand the emerging issues and suggest remedial measures. The seminar would deliberate some of these questions further.


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