(Sample Material) IAS Mains Sociology (Optional) Study Kit "Rural And Agrarian Social Structure"

Sample Material of Our IAS Mains Sociology Study Kit

Subject: Sociology (Optional)

Topic: Rural And Agrarian Social Structure

(a) The Idea of Indian Village and Village Studies
(b) Agrarian Socicl Structure - Evolution of Land Tenure System; Land Reforms

Village occupies an important place in the social and cultural landscape of contemporary India. Notwithstanding India’s significant industrialisation over the last five or six decades, and a considerable increase in its urban population, a large majority of Indians continue to live in its more than five lakh villages and remain dependent on agriculture, directly or indirectly. According to the 2001 Census, rural India accounted for nearly 72 per cent of India’s total population. Similarly, though the share of agriculture has come down to around one-fourth of the total national income, nearly half of India’s working population is directly employed in the agricultural sector.

Apart from it being an important demographic and structural reality characterising contemporary India, village has also been an important ideological category, a category through which India has often been imagined and imaged in modern times. The village has been seen as the ultimate signifier of the “authentic native life”, a place where one could see or observe the “real” India and develop an understanding of the way local people organise their social relationships and belief systems. As Andre Beteille writes, ‘The village was not merely a place where people lived; it had a design in which were reflected the basic values of Indian civilisation’ (Beteille 1980:108). Institutional patterns of the Indian “village communities” and its cultural values were supposed to be an example of what in the twentieth century came to be known as the “traditional society”.


Daring the British colonial rule, an image of the Indian village was constructed by the colonial administrators that was to have far reaching implications - ideological as well as political-for the way Indian society was to be imagined in the times to come. Along with the earlier writings of James Mill, Charles Metcalfe’s notion of the Indian village community set the tone for much of the later writings on rural India, Metcalfe, in his celebrated remark stated that ‘the Indian village communities were little republics, having nearly everything they wanted within themselves, and almost independent of foreign relations. They seemed to last where nothing else lasted. Dynasty after dynasty tumbled down; revolution succeeded revolution but the village community remained the same, Though not all colonial administrators shared Metcalfe’s assessment of the Indian village, it nevertheless became the must popular and influential representation of India. The Indian village, in the colonial discourse, was a self-sufficient community with communal ownership of land and was marked by a functional integration of various occupational groups. Things as diverse as stagnation, simplicity and social harmony were attributed to the village which was taken to be the basic unit of Indian civilisation. Each village was an inner world, a traditional community, self-sufficient in its economy, patriarchal in its governance, surrounded by an outer one of other hostile villages and despotic governments.

Even in the nationalist discourse, the idea of village as a representative of authentic native life was derived from the same kind of imagination. Though Gandhi was careful enough not to glorify the decaying village of British India, he nevertheless celebrated the so-called simplicity and authentic* of village life, an image largely derived from colonial representations of the Indian village. The decadence of the village was seen as a result of colonial rule and therefore village reconstruction was, along with political independence, an important process for recovery of the lost self. In the post Independence India also ‘village’ has continued to be treated as the basic unit of Indian society. Among the academic traditions, the study of village has perhaps been the most popular among the sociologists and social anthropologists working on India. They carried out a large number of studies focusing on the social and cultural life of the village in India. Most of these studies were published during the decades 1950s and 1960s. These “village studies” played an important role in giving respectability to the disciplines of sociology and social anthropology in India. Generally basing their accounts on first-hand fieldwork, carried out mostly in a single village, social anthropologists focused on the structures of social relationships, institutional patterns, beliefs and value systems of the rural people. The publication of these studies also marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of Indian social sciences. They showed, for the first time, the relevance of a fieldwork based understanding of Indian society, or what came to be known as “field-view” of the India, different from the then dominant “book-view” of India, which was developed by the Indologists and orientalists from classical Hindu scriptures. The “field-view” presented in the village monographs not only contested the assumptions of Indology but also convincingly showed with the help of empirical data as to how the idealised model of the Varna system as theorised in Hindu scriptures did not match with the concrete realities of village life. While caste was an important institution in the Indian village and most studies foregrounded caste differences over other differences, empirical studies showed that it was not a completely closed and rigidly defined system. Caste statuses were also not exclusively determined by one’s position in the ritual hierarchy and that there were many grey and contestable areas within the system. It was from the village studies that the concepts like sanskritisation, dominant caste, segmental structures, harmonic and disharmonic systems emerged.

Emergence of the so-called “new states” following decolonisation during the post war period had an important influence on research priorities in the social sciences.Understanding the prevailing structures of agrarian relations and working out ways and means of transforming them were recognised as the most important priorities within development studies. The `village community’ was identified as the social foundation of the peasant economy in Asia. It is quite easy to see this connection between the Redfieldian notion of `peasant studies’ (Redfield 1965) and the Indian `village studies’. The single most popular concept used by the anthropologists studying the Indian village was Robert Redfield’s notion of `Little Community’. Among the first works on the subject, Village India: Studies in the Little Community was brought out under the direct supervision of Redfield. During October 1951 and May 1954 the Economic Weekly (which later became Economic and Political Weekly) published a number of short essays providing brief accounts of individual villages that were being studied by different anthropologists.

These essays were later put together by M.N. Srinivas in the form of a book with the title India’s Villages in 1955. As mentioned above Mackim Marriot’s book Village India also appeared in the same year. Interestingly, the first volume of Rural Profiles by D.N. Majumdar also appeared in 1955. S.C. Dube also published his full length study of a village near Hyderabad, Indian Village in the same year. Many of the village monographs emerged directly from the projects carried-out by sociologists and social anthropologists for development agencies. These included studies by Dube (1955), Majumdar (1958), and Lewis (1958). Lewis was appointed by the Ford Foundation in India to work with, the Programme Evaluation Organisation of the Planning Commission to help in developing a scheme for the objective evaluation of the rural reconstruction programme. Carrying-out village studies during the fifties and the sixties was also important because the Indian society was changing very fast and the anthropologist needed to record details of the traditional social order before it was too late.


However, village studies were also constrained by a number of factors. The method of participant observation that was the main strength of these studies also imposed certain limitations on the fieldworkers, which eventually proved critical in shaping the image they produced of the Indian village. Doing participant observation required a measure of acceptability of the field worker in the village that he/she chose to study. In a differentiated social context, it was obviously easy to approach the village through the dominant sections. However, this choice proved to be of more than just a strategic value. The anxiety of the anthropologist to get accepted in the village as a member of the “community” made their accounts of the village life conservative in orientation.

It also limited their access to the dominant groups in the local society. They chose to avoid asking all those questions or approaching those subordinate groups, which they thought, could offend the dominant interests in the village. The choices made by individual anthropologists as regard to how they were going to negotiate their own relationship with the village significantly influenced the kind of data they could gather about village life. Unlike the “tribal communities”, the conventional subject matter of social anthropology, Indian villages were not only internally differentiated much more than the tribes, they also had well articulated world views. Different sections of the village society had different perspectives on what the village was. Though most of the anthropologists vre aware of this, they did not do much to resolve this problem. On the contrary, most of them consciously chose to identify themselves with the dominant caste groups in the village, which apart from making their stay in the village relatively easy, limited their access to the world-view of the upper castes and made them suspect among the lower castes.

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