M. N. Srinivas
Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas (1916–1999) was an Indian sociologist. He is mostly known for his work on caste and caste systems, social stratification, Sanskritisation and Westernisation in southern India and the concept of 'Dominant Caste'.
Srinivas was a Brahmin by birth and earned his doctorate in sociology from the University of Bombay and went on to the University of Oxford for further studies. Although he had already written a book on family and marriage in Mysore and completed his PhD at University of Bombay before he went to the University of Oxford in the late forties for further studies, his training there was to play a significant role in the development of his ideas. Srinivas served in various institutions of repute like University of Delhi, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Institute for Social and Economic Change Bangalore and National Institute of Advanced Studies Bangalore.
In the Frontline obituary he was described as India's most distinguished sociologist and social anthropologist. His contribution to the disciplines of sociology and social anthropology and to public life in India was unique. It was his capacity to break out of the strong mould in which (the mostly North American university oriented) area studies had been shaped after the end of the Second World War on the one hand, and to experiment with the disciplinary grounding of social anthropology and sociology on the other, which marked his originality as a social scientist.
It was the conjuncture between Sanskritic scholarship and the strategic concerns of the Western Bloc in the aftermath of the Second World War which largely shaped South Asian area studies in the United States. During the colonial era, the Brahmins or Pandits were acknowledged as important interlocutors of Hindu laws and customs to the British colonial administration. The colonial assumptions about an unchanging Indian society led to the curious assemblage of Sanskrit studies with contemporary issues in most South Asian departments in the US and elsewhere. It was strongly believed that an Indian sociology must lie at the conjunction of Indology and sociology.
Srinivas' scholarship was to challenge that dominant paradigm for understanding Indian society and would in the process, usher newer intellectual frameworks for understanding Hindu society. His views on the importance of caste in the electoral processes in India are well known. While some have interpreted this to attest to the enduring structural principles of social stratification of Indian society, for Srinivas these symbolised the dynamic changes that were taking place as democracy spread and electoral politics became a resource in the local world of village society.
By inclination, he was not given to utopian constructions: his ideas about justice, equality and eradication of poverty were rooted in his experiences on the ground. His integrity in the face of demands that his sociology should take into account the new and radical aspirations was one of the most moving aspects of his writing. By the use of terms such as Sanskritisation, "dominant caste", "vertical (inter-caste) and horizontal (intra-caste) solidarities", Srinivas sought to capture the fluid and dynamic essence of caste as a social institution.
As part of his methodological practice, Srinivas strongly advocated ethnographic research based on Participant observation, but his concept of fieldwork was tied to the notion of locally bounded sites. Thus some of his best papers, such as the paper on dominant caste and one on a joint family dispute, were largely inspired from his direct participation (and as a participant observer) in rural life in south India. He wrote several papers on the themes of national integration, issues of gender, new technologies, etc. It is really surprising as to why he did not theorise on the methodological implications of writing on these issues which go beyond the village and its institutions. His methodology and findings have been used and emulated by successive researchers who have studied caste in India.
His The Remembered Village (1976) is considered a classic in this field. It is a study based on the 11 months he spent in the village in 1948 and on subsequent visits until 1964.
He received many honours from the University of Bombay, the Royal Anthropological Institute, and the Government of France; he has received the Padma Bhushan from the President of India; and he was the honorary foreign member of two prestigious academies: the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Attributional approaches to caste
The scholars using the attributional approach stress the attributes of a caste. However each of them lays emphasis on one or other of these attributes and how they affect interaction. In the case of Srinivas writing in the 50's we find that he chooses to study the structure of relations arising between castes on the basis of these attributes. Thus he introduces a dynamic aspect of caste identity very forcefully.
This aspect becomes clearer in Srinivas's work on positional mobility known as 'Sanskritization'. Sanskritization is a process whereby a caste attempts to raise its rank within the caste hierarchy by adopting the practice, the attributes of the caste or castes above them, in the rank order. This is to say the 'low' attributes are gradually dropped and the 'high' attributes of the castes above them are imitated. This involves adoption of vegetarianism, clean occupations and so on. Closely connected is the concept of dominant caste. The dominant caste in a village is conspicuous by its:
- Sizeable numerical presence
- Ownership of land
- Political power
- Marriage and Family in Mysore (1942)
- Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India (1952)
- Caste in Modern India and other essays (1962), Asia Publishing House
- The Remembered Village (1976, reissued by OUP in 2013)
- Indian Society through Personal Writings (1998)
- Village, Caste, Gender and Method (1998)
- Social Change in Modern India
- The Dominant Caste and Other Essays (ed.)
- Dimensions of Social Change in India
- Barry Bearak, M. N. Srinivas Is Dead at 83; Studied India's Caste System, The New York Times, 3 December 1999.
- M.N. Srinivas: Obituary in the Hindu Frontline.
- Menon, Parvathi. "A scholar remembered". Frontline. The Hindu. Retrieved 17 January 2013.
- Social Change in Modern India, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2000.
- Jamie Cross "Book Review: The Remembered Village", London School of Economics blog, 5 September 2013
- Govt of India — List of Padma Bhushan Awardees.