October 7, 2014

Roland Lardinois: Scholars and prophets: Sociology of India from France 19th–20th centuries (trans. from the French by Renuka George). New Delhi: Social Science Press, 2013, xi + 564 pp., Price not mentioned (hb). ISBN 978-88358-70-1

In this book, Roland Lardinois provides a detailed sociological expo- sition of the genesis of a sociology of India in France. Seen as being marked by a structural tension between the two disciplinary approaches of philology and the social sciences that were synthesised in the work of Louis Dumont, the study attempts to bring to light the implicit assumptions of this intellectual activity. To do this, it employs a novel sociology of knowledge framework of Bourdieusian inspiration, within which the concepts of fields, habitus, and forms of capital, among others, draw into their fold practices that have defined the social reality of India in French discourses.

Importantly, the study delineates, with painstaking documentary and other historical evidence, the porous borders between the social sciences and other discursive fields, such as those of art and literature (particularly in the form of the surrealist movement), as well as with the worlds of orientalist  scholarship  and  journalism.  This,  besides  enriching  the account, underlines the value of moving beyond the narrow confines of institutional analysis, in order to catch the dynamism and fluidity that characterise social and intellectual phenomena everywhere.
The  book  consists  of  three  parts,  the  first  being  a  history  of orientalist institutions from just after the French Revolution till the years following World War II. The second part is a structural analysis of the field in which discourses about India were produced in France during the interwar period. The third part focuses on Louis Dumonts contribution, identifying the influences it was shaped by and the ones it avoided, such as that of Weber, and relating it to Dumonts biographical trajectory, to uncover its underlying principles. Significantly, in this part of his book, the author also traces the parallel trajectory of McKim Marriott at the University of Chicago, since Marriotts work seemed to encounter challenges akin to Dumonts, and also initiated the move towards an indigenisation of social sciences, evident among researchers of the Subaltern Studies Group in North American academia today.
The book begins with a dense and scholarly description of the emer- gence of orientalist studies, amid tensions and struggles for legitimacy that inevitably unfolded upon a complex canvas reflecting the chequered history of France after the Revolution, the impact of French colonial expansion, and transformations affected by internal institutional innovations.  Part  of  this  analysis  engages  in  minute  detail  with  the centrality assumed by the learning of languages, such as Sanskrit, which, to begin with, was considered essential for studying India, and which, significantly, found a place in the College de France. The discussion of Sanskrit is one example among others of how the analytical framing of processes of institutionalisation within wider social and historical contexts, as has been done in this work, makes for a precious contribu- tion to the development of a sophisticated historical sociology.
In the next part of the book, along with an account of various other important aspects of French scholarship on India in the interwar period, the dominant position of the scholar Sylvain Levi is extensively and skilfully reconstructed in terms of his habitus, constituted in part by the volume of the Orientalist capital he had acquired very early on, as well as the internal structure of this capital. This mode of analysis, while focus- sing on an individual, bridges the divide between psychological and sociological explanations, transforming what may seem like redundant biographical details into a rich resource for analytical insights.
Another significant feature of the study is a remarkably erudite discussion of the varied contexts and numerous forms in which  the notion that Hinduism in general and Brahminism in particular are the defining characteristics of society in India, permeates scholarly writings. While the authors own critique of this dominant perspective does find expression in this study, it is a low-key articulation, and the dominant trends are presented in a consistently scholarly fashion: nuanced, histori- cally specific, meticulously referenced, and nowhere marred by dogmatic refutations and shrill polemics.
Striking, too,  is the analysis of Dumonts comparative sociology which is premised on the binary of hierarchy and equality. The author argues that it is a product of Dumonts situation in a contradictory position `where an internal conflict was played out: it was as if his class habitus led him to deny his condition as a modern man who was the basis of  his  scientific  position,  while  his  scholarly  habitus  incited  him  to defend (universal) science while objecting to its modern principles (p. 375). This unusual and original way of understanding Dumonts work is a thought provoking contribution to debates and discussions about how to read scholarly writing.
A notable feature of this book, which makes its contribution to the world of scholarship substantive in more ways than one, is the wide range of material used, including, besides books and journals in French and English, sources such as public and private archives, and oral interviews. Bourdieus influence is evident, too, in the sophisticated use of  statistical  data,  including  the  method  of  Multi  Correspondence Analysis, exemplifying the complementarity of quantitative and qualitative techniques of research, and the rich results produced by  their fusion in relation to the subject being studied.
The only feature of the book that appears a bit out of place within its otherwise tightly structured framework is the fairly elaborate discussion of post-colonial scholarship on India in North American universities, even as a critique of the orientalist framework, an important constituent of this study, is the starting point of the discussion. The strain to incorporate the contemporary that this inclusion seems to carry results in a certain blurring of vision, especially as it falls short of being comprehensive by neglecting other lineages and trajectories of the influence of French studies of India on scholarship around the world.
The above, however, is a minor flaw, subject to being qualified by other readings and interpretations. What is undoubted is that the book is exceptionally valuable on many counts: in its ability to reveal a terrain of intellectual life with methodological and conceptual rigour and sophisti- cation; in its rich blend of disciplinary perspectives such as the historical and the sociological; and in its keen and original insights into a complex and multidimensional social reality, bringing together the world of ideas, of the everyday, and of institutional structures, within an exemplary framework of sociological research. For all this, the author needs to be congratulated, and his future works keenly awaited.

Sheena Jain

Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi