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The state of Indian 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. In the last twenty years economic inequality has dramatically increased in virtually every country in the world, and a new global economic system premised on neo-liberalism is being constructed in front of our eyes. In the Indian subcontinent, neo-liberal policies have become the norm in the last decade, and poverty rates have barely changed in that period. Given the pressing economic and material issues of the day, it is incongruous that historians of India have come to be nonchalant about these issues in their study of the past. As a consequence, historians of the subcontinent have little to contribute to the deeply troubled, and at the same time hotly contested, economic issues of the present.

Indian social history owes a great deal to the writings of E. P. Thompson, and this debt has been explored on several occasions. (2) Thompson himself had close ties to the Indian subcontinent, where his father served as a Methodist missionary in the early twentieth century. Despite this family history, Thompson first visited India only in 1976, when he was elected president of the Indian Historical Congress. The address he delivered on that occasion, "Folklore, Anthropology and Social History," was subsequently published in the Indian Historical Review.

Like many of his works, the Thompsonian project was large and sprawling, but two of his goals in the writing of history are of particular interest to us here. The first is the well-known goal of recovering the experiences of working people, what is now almost commonplace, a history from below. Indian social history in the Thompsonian vein certainly took this up in its research agenda. The second is equally well known, and is exemplified in The Making of the English Working Class: to produce a historical account that escaped the economic net; for instance, Thompson argued: "We should not assume any automatic, or over-direct, correspondence between the dynamic of economic growth and the dynamic of social or cultural life." And, "The making of the working class is a fact of political and cultural, as much as of economic, history." (3)

The critique of the economic determinism of crude Marxism did not lead Thompson to neglect economic or material questions, however. The Making rests upon a deep understanding of the economic transformations wrought by industrialization. Although free-born Englishmen and the liberty tree may be some of the most enduring images of the book, we should not forget that in Thompson's judgment, "For most working people the crucial experience of the Industrial Revolution was felt in terms of changes in the nature and intensity of exploitation." "Nor," Thompson adds, "is this some anachronistic notion, imposed upon the evidence." (4) Therefore, in Thompson's view, the economic transformations that England experienced between 1780 and 1830 were central in the making of the English working class.

The finest social history of the Indian subcontinent is keenly aware of the importance of the economic and material context. In his study of Bombay workers, for instance, Rajnarayan Chandavarkar sensitively brings together the workplace, the neighborhood, and the labour market to deliver a brilliant statement on the nature of Indian capitalism. Samita Sen ranges from marriage and motherhood to work in the rural economy and shop floor to produce a finely grained study of gender and the Calcutta working class. (5)

Economic issues are also central in early contributions to Subaltern Studies, undoubtedly the most celebrated series of writings on colonial Indian history in the last twenty years. In Subaltern Studies I, for instance, Shahid Amin examined small peasant cultivation of sugar cane, Gyan Pandey told the story of the north Indian peasant movement between 1919 and 1922, whose origins he traced to a "pattern of agrarian relations that had evolved over a long period," and Partha Chattterjee deployed the notion of modes of power, which he defined as particular patterns of "allocation of rights or entitlements over material objects." Similar material issues continued to animate subsequent volumes.

From the mid-1980s, however, economic and material conditions became less central to the Subaltern Studies project. Beginning from a more or less straightforward emphasis on "history from below," as Gyan Prakash has put it, Subaltern Studies, under the influence of Edward Said, Michel Foucault and others, shifted its attention to the ways in which colonial power represented Indian society and constructed our knowledge of it. This shift in Subaltern Studies parallels a shift that has taken place in history writing more widely, both within the study of South Asia and beyond. In the last twenty years there has been far greater attention to language, culture and issues of representation. And as has been the case within the historical profession as a whole, in Indian history as well these methodological and theoretical shifts have been met with hostility from some quarters.

In South Asianist circles, perhaps the most vocal critic has been Sumit Sarkar of the University of Delhi who on several occasions has criticized what he calls the Saidian turn in Indian social history. Sarkar, a former member of the Subaltern Studies collective, is also critical of the shift in Subaltern Studies to the study of the middle class, which the cultural and textual turn forces. After all, the texts, which are the objects of sophisticated linguistic and discursive analysis, were produced by middle class literati, not by members of subaltern groups. Sarkar implies that South Asian social history writing must return to an earlier, purer form, before its contamination by discourse, representations, and the linguistic turn. (6)

Such a return is neither possible nor desirable, however. The focus on language and discourse has produced some superb historical writings. Notable works include Lata Mani's analysis of the early nineteenth century discourse on sati, which showed that Indian women became the site or markers of a new colonial form of Indian tradition. Her efforts have forced a very significant rethinking of colonialism and gender in India. Gyan Prakash's Bonded Histories beautifully dismantled the universalist discourse of freedom, so central to nineteenth-century European thinking, and pointed to alternative frameworks for understanding relationships of dependence that prevailed in northern India. We would be poorer if we did not possess these studies of colonial discourse. (7)

Nevertheless, the turn to the study of discourse, language, and representation has problematic features as well. Just as vulgar Marxism produced its own one-sided accounts that reduced human experience to the economy, the study of language, discourse, and representation has increasingly come to be seen as an end in itself, in the process reducing human experience to the realm of culture. Complex historical transformations or phenomena, as a result, are attributed to simple formulas such as the development of colonial discourses or the deep-seated values of Indian, often taken to be Hindu, civilization. As a consequence, economic questions have disappeared from much Indian social history. Indeed, some might consider this to mean the disappearance of social history itself. In part, the one-sided focus on culture and discourse is an outcome of the fear of being an economic determinist. A facile way of avoiding such determinism is to ignore the economy altogether, which may then be justified with a philosophical appeal to the danger of foundations. Yet we must be careful not to fall into the trap of believing that all that matters is discourse, language and representations.

Ironically, the neglect of economic or material conditions is not justified from a reading of either Edward Said or Michel Foucault, two theorists who are invoked in support of the discursive turn. Let us recall the words of Edward Said: "What we must respect and try to grasp is the sheer knitted-together strength of Orientalist discourse, its very close ties to the enabling socio-economic and political institutions ... Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment." (8) Said is perhaps even more explicit in his famous essay "Jane Austen and Empire," where he observes, "According to Austen we are to conclude that no matter how isolated and insulated the English place (e.g. Mansfield Park), it requires overseas sustenance." (9)

For Said, the discourse of Orientalism, therefore, was not a disinterested or disconnected intellectual undertaking, but rather a part of a larger colonial project, which, of course, was deeply rooted in economic and political imperatives. To study the discourse of Orientalism, therefore, was to study only a single facet of the much larger phenomenon of colonialism. And by no means did Said believe that the study of discourse was sufficient to understand colonialism and its operation. In fact, he very pointedly rejected such a notion: "There were--and are--cultures and nations whose location is in the East, and their lives, histories, and customs have a brute reality obviously greater than anything that could be said about them in the West." (10) Rather, discourses must be placed within the larger configuration of economic and political power. Said, as a literary critic, gravitated to, and was perhaps best suited for, the study of language and representations. Historians of colonial India, however, cannot restrict themselves in this way, but must be open the full set of issues that was colonialism.

Similarly, it is incorrect to treat Foucault as simply a theorist of discourse. Let me quote from Paul Rabinow:
 In both The Order of Things and in The Archaeology of Knowledge
 (Foucault's only attempt at a systematic theoretical analysis
 abstracted from the historical dissection that constitutes the
 subject matter of his other books), discourse is bracketed off
 from the social practices and institutions in which it is embedded.
 This bracketing has also caused some confusion. Although Foucault
 was temporarily caught up in some of the structuralist vocabulary
 of the moment, he never intended to isolate discourse from the
 social practices that surround it. Rather, he was experimenting to
 see how much autonomy could legitimately be claimed for discursive
 formations. His aim, then as now, was to avoid analyses of discourse
 (or ideology) as reflections, no matter how sophisticatedly mediated,
 of something supposedly "deeper" and more "real." In this sense,
 Foucault has been consistently materialist. (11)

It was these methodological aims that led Foucault in The History of Sexuality, for instance, to reject the "hypothesis of a power of repression exerted by our society on sex for economic reasons." (12) Although Foucault dismissed this crude reductionism, economic factors played an important role in his account of the history of sexuality. For example, economic demands were given much weight in the eighteenth-century proliferation of discourses on sex, which Foucault called, "A policing of sex: that is, not the rigor of a taboo, but the necessity of regulating sex through useful and public discourses." One of the forces propelling this regulation was the "emergence of 'population' as an economic and political problem" and "at the heart of this economic and political problem of population was sex." (13)

Similarly, it is difficult to conceive of Discipline and Punish without the many economic institutions and material practices that served to produce "docile bodies." Nor should we overlook Foucault's insistence that the prison emerged along with an array of other disciplinary institutions, including the factory, the school, and the army. (14) Foucault also noted that the rise of generalized punishment in the eighteenth century "forms part of a whole complex mechanism, embracing the development of production, the increase of wealth, a higher juridical and moral value placed on property relations, stricter methods of surveillance, a tighter partitioning of the population, more efficient techniques of locating and obtaining information." (15)

For Foucault, therefore, material conditions were not irrelevant, but absolutely central for his analysis of modern forms of power. Of course, Foucault ranged far beyond the economy in his analysis of the material, but, as we have seen, an understanding of economic life was essential to his inquiries. At the same time, Foucault has profoundly expanded the terrain of historical scholarship with novel conceptual tools such as normalization and micro-techniques of power, and the application of these ideas to historical inquiry has certainly produced new and exciting works. Nonetheless, it must not be lost that a central agenda of Michel Foucault's intellectual project was that of E. P. Thompson's: How do we take into account both material conditions and cultural understandings to produce more finely balanced historical accounts? It is not surprising that both Thompson and Foucault were preoccupied with this question, given that it was one of the major theoretical problems of the twentieth century.

Some would date a serious grappling with the problem from Karl Marx himself. But certainly since Max Weber, the question has occupied many. Weber himself was famously meticulous in his attempts to bring together material and cultural factors in the interpretation of history. We may recall the concluding lines of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: "But it is, of course, not my aim to substitute for a one-sided materialistic an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation of culture and history. Each is equally possible, but each, if it does not serve as the preparation, but as the conclusion of an investigation, accomplishes equally little in the interest of historical truth." (16) The failure to place Foucault in this tradition impoverishes both his and our historical inquiries.

This essay has argued that both Thompsonian social history and Foucauldian social theory rested upon a deep understanding of material life and economic institutions and practices. Of course, they differed enormously in their conceptual apparatus and philosophical grounding, but both Thompson and Foucault struggled with the problem of how to bring together economic issues and cultural life in our accounts of the past and present. For Thompson, it was couched in terms of economy and culture; for Foucault, discourses and practices. Nevertheless, at the heart of both approaches is a serious study of material life and economic institutions.

Given the present state of historical knowledge of the Indian subcontinent, it is difficult to produce accounts in either the Thompsonian or Foucauldian veins. These theoretically and methodologically sophisticated works rest upon generations of scholarship. In the Indian case, there is no corresponding bedrock of historical investigations, especially in the sometimes tedious and often elusive questions of material life. For instance, in the Indian case, labor history is severely underdeveloped, especially in the case of laborers in the countryside, and in the period before the twentieth century. There are few studies of women and work, and there are no Indian counterparts to classic studies such as Alice Clark's Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century or Ivy Pinchbeck's Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution. There has been too little investigation of key institutions such as the army in pre-colonial or colonial India or of questions of military organization or discipline. And demographic history in the Indian subcontinent is sorely underdeveloped. Lacking a rich understanding of the material context, Indian historical works inspired by Michel Foucault are often one-dimensional and flat, and profoundly un-Foucauldian. Most strikingly, in these works there is often little sense of the multivalent nature of modern power, which is a hallmark of Foucault's works. Rather, the operation of power is reduced to the utterances of colonial officialdom or Orientalist versions of Indian culture.

The task at hand, therefore, is to bring back the exploration of the economy and material life to the study of the Indian past. This will reinvigorate both social history and history inspired by post-structuralism. This will also place historians of South Asia squarely at the center of major debates and political conflicts that are taking place today around economic globalization and the diffusion of neo-liberal economic prescriptions. Dipesh Chakrabaarty has distinguished between two approaches to the writing of subaltern histories: "One is that of historicizing the Santal in the interest of a history of social justice and democracy; and the other, that of refusing to historicize and of seeing the Santal as a figure illuminating a life possibility for the present." (17) In his discussion of the Santal Chakrabarty focuses on religion and the supernatural, but the subaltern perspective is no less relevant when it comes to economic possibilities for the present. If we fail to make this connection we are doomed to be complicit in the "End of History" and unwittingly leave unchallenged the triumph of liberal capitalism.

Department of History

Chestnut Hill, MA 02467-3806


I am very grateful to Paul Breines, Raj Chandavarkar, Jim Cronin, Robin Fleming, Kevin Kenny, and Peter Weiler for extremely helpful comments on earlier drafts.

(1.) Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London, 1992), pp. 93-4.

(2.) Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, "'The Making of the Working Class': E. P. Thompson and Indian History," History Workshop Journal, no. 42 (1997); Sumit Sarkar, "The Relevance of E. P. Thompson," in his Writing Social History (Delhi, 1997). The figure of Thompson looms over Dipesh Chakrabarty's Rethinking Working Class History (Princeton, 1989).

(3.) E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1964), pp. 192, 194.

(4.) Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, p. 199.

(5.) Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900-1940 (Cambridge, 1994); Samita Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India: The Bengal Jute Industry (Cambridge, 1999).

(6.) See his "The Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies," in his Writing Social History and "Orientalism Revisited: Saidian Frameworks in the Writing of Modern History," Oxford Literary Review, 16 (1994), 205-24. Also see D. A. Washbrook, "Orients and Occidents: Colonial Discourse Theory and the Historiography of the British Empire," in Robin W. Winks and Alaine Low (eds.), The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 5, Historiography (Oxford, 1999).

(7.) Lata Mani, "Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India," in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History (New Brunswick, N.J., 1990); Gyan Prakash, Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labor Servitude in Colonial India (Cambridge, 1990).

(8.) Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York, 1978), p. 6.

(9.) Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York, 1993), p. 89.

(10.) Said, Orientalism, p. 5.

(11.) Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader (New York, 1984), pp. 9-10.

(12.) Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, 1978), p. 72.

(13.) Foucault, History of Sexuality, p. 25.

(14.) "The work-shop, the school, the army were subject to a whole micro-penality of time, of factivity, of behaviour, of speech, of the body, of sexuality." Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1978), p. 178.

(15.) Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 77.

(16.) Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York, 1958), p. 183.

(17.) Dipesh Chakrabarty, "Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts," in his Provincializing Europe (Princeton, 2000), p. 108.

By Prasannan Parthasarathi

Boston College
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Title Annotation:The Cultural Turn And Beyond
Author:Parthasarathi, Prasannan
Publication:Journal of Social History
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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