Sociological views of the village in India

A review of a new volume on the Indian village provides some insights into how the village is viewed:

AT a time when the general disenchantment with village life appears to be the spirit of new India, the editing of a volume on village society is definitely an act of intellectual courage and professional commitment. We keep hearing scholarly pronouncements on the declining sociological significance of the village and village studies. We are told that the Indian village is no longer a site where future can be planned. Rather, it is an area of darkness – full of despair, indignation, filth and squalor, and mindless violence…

Interestingly, for the urban Indian, the village has always been more than a simple social morphological other to a town or a city. The village has not merely been despised for its lack of electricity and other modern amenities; it has also been perceived as a burden on the national conscience because of its abstract moralised qualities of backwardness, bigotry, illiteracy, superstition, and a general lack of civilisation and culture. For the children and grandchildren of “Midnight’s Children”, the village continues to be emblematic of the rustic world of thumb-impression (angutha-chaap) country bumpkins. At any rate, unparh gavar (illiterate yokel) can hardly be a worthy role model for a nation as aspiring as ours. In a way, the decline of the village in the creative imagination of Indians in recent decades is almost complete…

Put differently, it is time we treated the village as an explanandum in sociological research. We cannot go on assuming the village as the container par excellence of the larger processes of rural-agrarian social change. It never was. The introduction brings out in lucid prose the historicity of the study of rural society. It demonstrates that, for long, the study of the village has been an abiding preoccupation of sociologists/social anthropologists in India. So much so that “village studies” came to stand for Indian sociology in the initial decades of its growth and development as an academic discipline.

In course of time, the village attained paradigmatic status as a template of indigenous society and economy, and village studies very often came to be projected as a shorthand for knowing and understanding Indian society by both professional sociologists and the intelligentsia. The efflorescence of village studies, as a distinctive disciplinary tradition of inquiry, is testimony to the considerable analytical and theoretical significance that the village and the studies of the village enjoyed for more than a century and a half.

Three thoughts:

1. It would be interesting to know how the view of the village in India compares to how villages are viewed in other developing cultures. In places where mass urbanization is currently taking place, are there countries where the village is viewed more positively?

2. I was asked a while back about rural sociology. This subfield has really declined and only a few schools still specialize in it. I assume this is partly because the United States has become an urban nation (80% of Americans live in urban areas). Yet, rural places are still important, particularly in other countries (like India) where rapid changes are taking place.

3. This is a reminder that big city life (living in places with more than a million people) is a relatively recent development in human history. Even in developed countries, this has only become common in the last 120 years or so. We may like our cities but most humans have lived in smaller settings. This change was so remarkable during the Industrial Revolution that it helped give rise to the discipline of sociology.

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