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Bringing Sociology Down to Earth

Down to Earth interesting autobiographical piece about Anti-Utopia: Essential Writings of B

Bringing SociologyDown to Earth

Anti-Utopia: Essential Writings of André Béteille

edited by Dipankar Gupta; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005; pp viii + 494, Rs 595.


“Ifind any kind of Utopianism unattrac

tive. I believe that Utopia would be a very dull place, certainly a dull place intellectually, for it is by definition a place where all problems have been solved, where all conflicts have been resolved and where there are no ambiguities and no tensions left” (p 477). This pithy passage sums up André Béteille’s stance on “isms” of various kinds; it is a stance, which has briefed his sociological analysis for nearly four decades now, and it is what makes his writings both topical and stimulating.

Whether we find “isms” attractive or not, it can hardly be denied that sociology and other social sciences have evolved through an intensive dialogue with various ideologies. The proclamation, in the 1970s, of the “end of ideology”, was after all a false call. We continue to live with ideologies, and often with ghosts of ideologies. How as social scientists can we negotiate ideologies and yet stay clear of their blinkers and traps? The “essential writings” of Béteille, put together by Dipankar Gupta in the volume under review, show us the way.

The volume has 19 of Béteille’s essays written for different occasions and audiences and published over the last four decades. These essays are organised under five thematic heads, reflecting Béteille’s sociological interests. There is an interesting autobiographical piece about Béteille’s “two grandmothers”. Gupta’s introduction to Béteille’s works, and his interview with Béteille focusing on the substance and orientation of the latter’s works complete this 494-page volume.

Gupta’s 19-page editorial introduction is hagiographical in nature; he does not attempt a critical appraisal of Béteille’s works. This is surprising considering that Gupta’s own work shares several thematic concerns with that of Béteille. All the same, being closely associated with Béteille and his works for over three decades, Gupta delineates the nuances of the scholar’s context and his ideas. Gupta’s candid interview with Béteille brings out the latter’s position with regard to his location in the intellectual realm, the factors influencing his sociological perspective and making him an “anti-utopian liberal”, and his commitment to the comparative method.

Gupta opens his introduction by highlighting the fact that it was Béteille who brought Max Weber to India; he used Weber’s analytical categories in his doctoral thesis on a south Indian village. Béteille regards Weber as “the greatest of all sociologists” (p 29). This is noteworthy considering the heavy influence of British social anthropology and its categories of structure and function at the Delhi University’s department of sociology, under the stewardship of M N Srinivas, when Béteille began his career. Incidentally, this vindicates the criticism levelled against Srinivas by some critics that he imposed his brand of sociological analysis on his students.

Weber’s appeal, for Béteille, lies in the “measured cadence about his style” as well as the “enormous breadth of [Weber’s] vision”. In Weber, Béteille found “a scholar who could hold a candle to Marx” (p 3)

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 – the inspiration for Béteille’s “anti-utopia” was, in fact, Weber. I should hasten to add that Béteille was not averse to taking cues from Karl Marx, as his study of the agrarian social structure reveals. It is the certitude and utopian overtones in Marx, and more so in Marxist scholarship, that Béteille finds difficult to accept intellectually.

Although Béteille draws upon universal theories and concepts, he tries to place them in the context of empirical ground realities. “In Béteille’s hands”, Gupta notes, “terms like caste, class, and equality have been given empirical content and moorings” (p 2). This does not mean that Béteille is committed to indigenising sociology; Béteille’s intent was not to nativise universal categories, but to make them richer “by bringing them down to earth” (p 2).

Béteille regarded comparative method as the essence of sociological research: “our deepest insights into society and culture are reached in and through comparison” (p 92). Durable sociological knowledge, Béteille firmly believes, can only come from comparison over space and time. “Comparative sociology is a great help in acquiring and maintaining a sense of proportion” (p 49). He asserts that “A sociologist who confines his attention entirely to his own society is only half a sociologist, and one who excludes it from his consideration is hardly a sociologist” (p 28).

Béteille’s views on the comparative method were strongly influenced by Emile Durkheim, for whom it was “not a particular branch of sociology, it was sociology itself” (p 479). Béteille’s advocacy of comparative method, however, goes beyond Durkheim’s; Béteille finds in it not just an “intellectual value”, but also a “great moral value”: it teaches us that our “system of values is only one among possible systems of values” (p 479). Thus, for Béteille, as Gupta notes, comparative method is also “an exercise in hermeneutics” in that it “not only brings out the biases in others, but also makes one aware of one’s own prejudices” (p 8). The task of a comparativist is difficult; Béteille cautions against the “hazards of reckless comparison”.

The importance of comparative method in sociology as a substitute for the experimental method of natural sciences can hardly be exaggerated. Nevertheless, one wonders why Béteille stops with comparing Indian society with that of its western counterpart – ‘homo hierarchics’ with ‘homo equalis’. Comparisons across south Asian societies should yield valuable insights. Similarly, one could expect a rich fare comparing Hindu and Muslim societies within India itself.

Béteille’s contributions to the analysis of caste could be seen as a product of his comparative method. He recognises the persistence of caste, but does not essentialise it as a timeless and changeless phenomenon. Nor does he see brahmanical ideology as neatly pervasive – binding all Hindus in its unequivocal grip – as it is often made out to be. This is elucidated in his critique of Louis Dumont’s theory of caste.

Béteille underscores the role of caste in the dynamics of Indian society and politics. However, he refuses to look upon it as the basic level of Indian social reality. He notes how factors such as economic betterment through education, especially among the non-brahman castes above the “pollution” level, have changed the face of social order in India. He delineates this as the change of a social order characterised by “cumulative inequality” to one characterised by “dispersed inequalities”. By focusing on inequality per se, Béteille has made a difference to the study of social stratification in India. The volume has four of his seminal selections on this subject, including the classic ‘The Idea of Natural Inequality’.

Not surprisingly, Béteille is opposed to caste-based reservations. While he appreciates the need for ameliorating the conditions of hitherto disprivileged castes, he opines that it should not be at the cost of institutional well-being: institutions such as courts, hospitals, and universities “cannot run if their ends are lost sight of in the process of favouring one community over another” (p 14). Béteille argues that “group representation cannot be seen in terms of rights, but rather as a matter of policy” (p 14).

It is true that institutional well-being could suffer if “equality of opportunity”, a key policy measure for achieving distributive justice, is conflated with “equality of results” or with “equality of income”. Furthermore, Béteille argues that groups by themselves do not have rights, but individuals do. At the same time, individual beneficiaries of any affirmative action testify to the fact that competent people exist among disprivileged communities. Béteille, therefore, calls for periodical calibration of the reservation policy to ensure that the objective of equality of opportunity is realised without endangering institutional well-being. Being an anti-utopian, Béteille is realistic that it is not possible to remove inequality altogether, but he is optimistic that efforts at reducing social disabilities will be fruitful. Four selections in the volume deal with the tension between fact and value concerning equality.

Given his anti-utopian stance, Béteille has turned his sociological attention to the possibility of establishing a viable civil society. He has been an active participant in the debate on civil society in India; four of his essays on this subject are included in this volume. His understanding of “civil society” derives from the European tradition, particularly from the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville’s notion of “mediating institutions”. Béteille views civil society institutions as mediators between the state and its citizens. Gupta wants us to note that “it is the citizen and not the individual that Béteille is referring to” (p 17). That is, civil society institutions are those that “enhance the status of citizens” and thereby confer “greater democratic legitimacy to the state” (p 17). Logically, civil society institutions are open and secular in nature, and Béteille excludes primordial institutions such as caste and traditional community from his definition of civil society.

Whether one agrees with Béteille or not, his writings can hardly be ignored – as a sociologist, Béteille has a compelling presence. I marvelled at the lucidity of his writings when I first read them as a student in the early 1970s. Consulting them since then and re-reading some of them for the present review, I feel their everlasting freshness. Thanks to Gupta, anyone interested in understanding the sociology of Béteille need only read Anti-Utopia.



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Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

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