SOAS University of London

Innovative 'Restudy' of Indian Village Life Wins Major Grant

6 May 2011
A bride is purified with turmeric Jamgod Village Madhya Pradesh 1950s

A SOAS-led research project on Indian village life has been awarded a £774,000 grant by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Dr Edward Simpson, a senior lecturer in social anthropology at SOAS, will be the principal investigator for the project, which will begin on 1 September and run for 36 months. His co-investigator will be Professor Patricia Jeffery, a sociology professor at the University of Edinburgh.

The researchers will 'restudy' three villages in the Indian states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa that were the subject of now-classic 'village ethnographies' in the 1950s. They aim to survey living conditions in the villages as well as villagers' attitudes towards social change, and then compare their results with data from the 1950s to see how the post-colonial Indian village has changed socially, economically and politically.

"Despite a number of excellent individual studies, surprisingly little is known about the change in India's half-a-million villages since independence even though, perhaps for the first time in history, solid data is available," Dr Simpson said.

Questions the researchers hope to answer include: What are the new sociological realities of life in an Indian village? What has happened to caste, patron-client and religious systems, segregated gender roles, and popular religion? What will new fieldwork in places studied more than half a century ago tell us about the changing role and form of the village? What new ways of looking at India sociologically might be suggested by research conducted in the footsteps of the pioneers of the modern discipline? What methodological innovation will emerge from the comparative use of anthropological material as historical data?

In 1950, the children of newly-independent India were born into a world where there was no refrigeration, television or internet; there was no electricity for most. They could expect to live for an average of forty years. Metalled roads, combustion engines and plastics were rare. India had yet to go to war with Pakistan, and the IR8 rice seed of the so-called Green Revolution was over a decade away.

The villages selected for this restudy display the legacies of post-colonial development and political policies, consequences of economic and land reform or consolidation and effects of technological and media expansion. They are also sites in which novel sociological processes are being played out today.

In each location, there has been a growth of grassroots Hindu politics. In Orissa, land rights and tribal identities have become burning issues, as people have been brought into conflict with transnational corporations and extractive industries. Rapid industrialisation in Madhya Pradesh has brought villagers into wage relations with India's industrial houses. In Gujarat, the village has become part of the transnational networks and nostalgic and nationalist politics of migrants in East Africa and UK. Life in these villages is clearly not the same as it was in the 1950s.

The original village studies were undertaken independently by F.G. Bailey, Adrian C. Mayer and David F. Pocock (deceased) in the first half of the 1950s. The three went on to have distinguished careers as exponents of the post-colonial sociology of India. In planning the new study, the researchers contacted Bailey and Mayer, now in their late 80s, who agreed to share their original fieldnotes, discuss their lives and works and to act as honorary consultants to the project.

Such an approach is unusual, and is itself something of an experiment within the larger project.

"As far as we know, no comparative restudy has been undertaken in anthropology of the work of other anthropologists," Dr Simpson said. "It'll be fascinating to see what we discover. If this works, it could open up a whole new approach to the sociology of South Asia."

For further information, contact:

Bill Friar, Communications Officer
Tel.: +44 (0)20 7898 4135
Email: w.friar@soas.ac.uk