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Canonical Traditions and Pedagogical Practices

Canonical Traditions and Pedagogical Practices

With the institutionalised separation of postgraduate and undergraduate departments of sociology, the latter have suffered from a mad rush for marketability, leading to formulaic content and an emphasis on common sense discourse. A constructivist understanding of learning should be emphasised that takes social location seriously, allows the possibility of critical engagement with social reality, and stimulates the learner's multiple intelligences. Going beyond standardised texts and experimenting with literature, fi lm and art will help learners learn to "do sociology" rather than merely "study" it.


Canonical Traditions and Pedagogical Practices

Sociology at the Undergraduate Level

Arun de Souza

workload (which has become even worse after the Sixth Pay Commission); seniority defines the status of an undergraduate teacher, not her publications (see, for instance, the difference between procedures at the undergraduate level and postgraduate level that sanction who can become the head of department);1 bodies like the board of studies which sanction

With the institutionalised separation of postgraduate and undergraduate departments of sociology, the latter have suffered from a mad rush for marketability, leading to formulaic content and an emphasis on common sense discourse. A constructivist understanding of learning should be emphasised that takes social location seriously, allows the possibility of critical engagement with social reality, and stimulates the learner’s multiple intelligences. Going beyond standardised texts and experimenting with literature, film and art will help learners learn to “do sociology” rather than merely “study” it.

This article originated as a presentation at the national seminar, “Sociology in India and the Bombay School: Retrospect and Prospects”, organised by the department of socio logy, University of Mumbai and the Indian Sociological Society on 23-24 September 2011 in Mumbai. I thank the organisers and participants for the stimulating comments that enabled me to rework the paper. Its shortcomings are entirely due to my own limitations.

Arun de Souza ( is with St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

ithin the different genealogies of sociology as a teachinglearning discipline, there have been two important trajectories. One can be traced to revolutionary France, as represented by Marx, and the other the more accommodating discipline of French Durkheimian sociology. Most Indian universities built on both genealogies: the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) stream stressed a radicalised sociology and the Delhi School of Economics (DSE) stream stressed a more rigorous apolitical and theoretical orientation. This has been the dual tradition, inherited in different degrees by most postgraduate sociology departments in India. Within Mumbai University, for instance, it was the conflict between the G S Ghurye school and the later A R Desai school of sociology that most characterised this split.

Unfortunately, most undergraduate departments seem to have followed neither genealogical tradition and were slowly converted into teaching shops that sought to cater to the largest number of students in the easiest way possible. Masters-level departments were considered research-oriented, while undergraduate courses were seen as glorifi ed high schools wherein students not as bright as the science stream students could be given some sort of education before they were thrown out into the big bad world of work.

This separation between the postgraduate and undergraduate departments is institutionalised through a variety of arrangements. Standardised tests that emphasise definitional style sociology like the National Eligibility Test (NET)/ State Eligibility Test for Lectureship (SET) act as gatekeeping mechanisms for the “right” kind of teacher; undergraduate teachers are given a heavier lecture

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standardised syllabi and so on. One can detail these out in greater measure but this is not the thrust of my article. Suffi ce it to point out that there is a large gulf between the masters-level and the undergaduate departments. This article is only concerned with the teaching of sociology at the undergraduate level.

These institutional arrangements, at the undergraduate level, bred their own consequences in Maharashtra as is well documented by researchers like Edward Rodrigues (2011), George Jose (2003) and Sharmila Rege (2011). Rodrigues (2011) has shown that in the mad rush to make sociology a marketable commo dity, the teaching-learning context has been reduced to catering to the lowest common denominator. Dictated notes, easy formulaic examination questions, and generous marking have ensured that many take to sociology. This has been facilitated, as Jose (2003) points out, with boards of studies that have acquiesced in making syllabi as easy as possible. Journalistic, common sense discourse that legitimises the unequal status quo has been enshrined in academic syllabi. Linguistic divisions, wherein students belonging to regional language groups are seen to have poor access to sociological texts, have been used as supporting arguments to downgrade syllabi and teaching-learning. There is a constant refrain, whenever syllabi are sought to be revised, that the revision should not be too drastic since very little material is available in the regional language.

This downplaying of regional language access is neatly finessed by the national centres for the teaching of social sciences that use English as their sole teaching language. Rege (2011) is sharply critical of “centres” of sociology that tended to downplay the kind of sociology being taught at the “provincial” regional levels.

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National, generously-funded central institutions represented themselves as creative enclaves for the production of sociological knowledge, while the regional departments of sociology came to be characterised as the consumers of secondrate textbook sociology.

Where does one go from here? Is there a way out of this impasse that undergraduate Indian sociology finds itself in? What I seek to do in the following sections builds on the work of Alito Siqueira and Manish Thakur (2011) and Rege (2011) even as I branch out into tentative exploration of newer possibilities. The next four sections seek to explore my own tentative ideas: (a) a constructivist/ constructionist understanding of learning, (b) the need to take social location seriously, (c) reinstating the possibility of a critical engagement with social reality, and (d) incorporating methods that stimulate multiple intelligences.

Constructionist Paradigms of Learning

Socialising into any set of disciplinary practices, as most education seeks to do, is not a bad thing in itself. After all, one cannot reinvent the wheel at every stage. Thus the study of social theory and research methods has always had an important role to play in the transmission of sociology as a discipline. However in so doing, the educationist, may easily fall into the positivist trap that Comte fell into. We may unwittingly lead the student to presume that there is only one correct meaning of a text and that a specifi c definition of a concept is the only right way of understanding it. Constructivist paradigms of learning however question this presumption.

In the 1960s, Piaget and his co-workers began to espouse a constructivist paradigm of learning. According to this learning paradigm, students should be encouraged to engage actively with classroom materials by drawing on their own personal experiences, in order to construct their own sense of the world. Within the sociology of knowledge, Thomas Kuhn (1970), followed by scholars like Paul Feyerabend (1993), have tried to show how knowledge is based on certain assumptions that go to make up a seemingly coherent paradigm of knowledge and its related practices. Postmodernism has furthered this understanding with its own explorations into the fractured and contradictory genealogies that make up a seemingly coherent body of knowledge (e g, Foucault 1969). If knowledge is based on assumptions, and contains inherent contradictions, should we not allow the student greater leeway in understanding sociological texts? Who is to gainsay that the learner’s assumptions could not lead to a newer understanding, or at the least curiosity to delve deeper into the social sciences?

Edward Said (1994: 65-85), in a refl ective piece on the role of the intellectual in society, points to two dangers of “specialisation” within any discipline. One, it restricts the horizon within which we think (much like the old image of a blinkered horse); two, it tends to put one in the field of the discipline’s power effects, i e, as we begin to rise in the academic hierarchy through this successful socialisation, we are less likely to radically critique it. (How academia reacted to early feminism is a case in point.) Said thus recommends that we put on the stance of the “amateur”, not in order to trivialise an issue, but to allow us to look at it from a fresh perspective. Feyerabend advocates a similar stance, when he calls on us to look at reality counterfactually (1993: 25, 61). Any social theory arises from a counterfactual attempt (i e, a critique of past theory) to construct an analytical framework to understand society. Reading against the grain should be encouraged for learner not yet fully indoctrinated into the ways of institutionalised sociology, and may lead to new critical ways of perceiving and articulating social reality.

Given this, is it still possible to hold on to any one canonical interpretation of sociological texts? Are students to be treated as empty receptacles for the teacher’s monolithic version of what goes for sociological knowledge, or are they to be treated as ongoing creators of varieties of sociological understandings? If we have a variety of Marxian readings by different scholars, should students not also be allowed to articulate their own interpretations? I have experimented with giving students original texts from the classical tradition and have been surprised that quite a few of them show originality in the way they respond to these texts. While these may not yet be worked out analytical readings, they may in some senses be as insightful as a Horkheimer’s or an Adorno’s reading of Marx. Unfortunately we still espouse a canonical understanding of sociology and its interpretative practices. This is unconsciously taken to such ridiculous lengths that students are expected to even know the arcane origins of Marx’s titles!2

Socially Located Learning

This problem of knowledge construction also has to take into account the social location of its subjects of learning. A predigested, formulaic sociology wherein one-size-fits-all should seem problematic by all of sociology’s modern epistemological understanding. Human beings do not “know” in the abstract, they know from, in and through their social location. While this is well accepted in the sociology of knowledge, we seem to find it difficult to apply to our classroom contexts. Syllabi and teaching, if they are to be seen as meaningful and relevant, must begin from the experiences and questions thrown up by the learner’s own context. Paulo Freire (2000) raised this issue long ago, but we seem to be condemned like Sisyphus to continually rediscovering this seminal insight.

This is not to reinstate a retrograde and outmoded indigenisation of knowledge that critics like Claude Alvares (2011) espouse. Alvares criticises Indian social science syllabi as being overly dependent on western sources. He calls for the indigenisation of reading material. While his suggestion to include more Indian authors and perspectives is well taken, I would disagree with his suggestion that we liberate ourselves (what this means is not too clear) from western authors. Subjectivities today are multiple, shifting and transnational. This would mean that the study of Marx, Weber and Durkheim is no longer foreign to the learner in whatever context she/he inhabits. Globalisation has allowed access to a variety of sources and subjectivities.

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As Appadurai (1997) has noted, markets, media and migration have opened up the possibility of experimenting and living out multiple subjectivities. This is as true of a Maharashtrian language speaker in a village as it is of an English language user in an urban context. We are all transnational subjects today. Therefore the question of fi nding some sort of authentic Indian or Maharashtrian texts for the study of sociology to the exclusion of “western” others does a disservice to the learner whose world is larger than the geographical location she/he is sought to be tied down to.3 The geographical location from which we experience cultural reality must not be confused with the outmoded idea of cultural essences that older anthropology espoused. Local concerns must be brought into the syllabi, and should be the starting point for any pedagogical practice, but without the baggage of being tied to some sort of cultural authenticity or essentialism.

Academic bureaucracies enjoy the game of standardisation, but could we experiment with at least some parts of our syllabi that respond to locally situated concerns, capabilities and resources? For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, taking up issues of reservations, corruption, caste conflicts or farmer problems may give rise to an interest in sociology based on local problematics. This should also take care of the growing stigma being attributed to the provincialisation of Indian academia. Literature produced at the local level can be taken as a starting point for discussion and theorising, for instance, the vibrant dalit literature in Maharashtra. Rege’s (2011) narration of Kumud Pawade/Somkuwar’s story would be a wonderful starting point for a class discussion on caste within society and academia. Laxman Gaikwad’s Uchlya and many other such biographies are sociological texts as much as they are good works of literature. One could easily move from here to B R Ambedkar’s own idea on caste, Kancha Ilaiah’s work critiquing Hinduism and then fi nally segue into the theoretical aspects of stratifi cation systems.

My own students come from a middleclass background and I once began an entire discussion on caste and reservations via Shashi Tharoor’s (2007) account of his visits home and the fraught caste relationships that had changed over time in his home village. Tharoor’s is clearly an upper middle-class liberal perspective that is not too far from my student’s own sensibilities, and yet the article does hint at our own need to question stereotypes around caste and reservation. It is from this vantage point that I was then able to introduce Satish Deshpande’s (2006) article on reservations in higher education. Again, higher education is the social location from which my students own angst over reservation is best articulated. Perhaps if I had to try it the other way around (i e, begin with Deshpande’s article), I would have faced a barrage of resistance given my own students comfortable middle-class location that fails to perceive their own privileged position within academia and social life in general.

Middle-class learners’ experience of cell phone and eating cultures could also become starting points to discuss symbolism, status symbols and the taken for granted inequality of social life. One could thus experiment with a variety of starting points depending on the social location of the learner. Starting points may differ for students coming from different social locations, but critical thought can be fostered any which way.

Reinstating Critical Engagement with Social Reality

This brings me to the next section of my paper – the need to reinstate a critical component. Bringing into the classroom locally problematised issues and engaging in serious reflection along these lines would already inscribe a critical component into education. But, we also need to question the canonically accepted texts that we have brought into the syllabus. Why is it that W E B DuBois remains an unknown entity to our students while Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer are necessary to all introductory courses? Introducing DuBois would allow us to contrast this with Parson’s theoretical formulations and the social context within which they were formulated. How much did Talcott Parson’s own

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White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) background of privilege influence his way of writing? How much of DuBois’ racial background and his espousal of the black cause lead to his being marginalised from mainstream sociology? Tracing the personal, social and intellectual contexts of theoreticians could make for more interesting classroom discussion than merely an introduction to dry theoretically abstract concepts divorced from their social origins. Through this, the politics of knowledge production could easily begin to be understood and discussed even at a beginner student/undergraduate level.

If one is willing to engage in another challenge, looking at the Ghurye-Desai difference could easily be another entry point into the politics of knowledge production and institutional power. Texts could then be seen as living entities with their own politics of production, interpretation and institutional reproduction. In teaching first-year students, I have found that this could lead to vibrant discussions around issues of power and the social locatedness of knowledge production, canonical appropriation and circulation of texts (without necessarily using all these technical words, of course!).

Most introductory courses at the junior college and fi rst year BA levels take definitions straight out of a functionalist reading of society. Reading DuBois together with Ambedkar could lead to questions about taken for granted social theory that fails to problematise its political origins. Why have we arrived at a definitional style of sociology that masquerades the everydayness of social reality as the one that we study in a classroom? Even worse, “sociological uses of common sense in the classroom are in fact practices aimed at legitimising dominant caste and class perceptions of Indian society within the classroom” (Rodrigues 2011: 251). The common sense of middle-class India is blended with functionalist thought to create a tame and boring sociology. The subject of sociology as the science which problematises the obvious, takes a backseat to classroom practice that deals with inanities. No wonder sociology is seen as a

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discipline for those who have better things to do in life and need only cram up for the finals a few days before the exams!

Engaging the Learner’s Multiple Intelligences

Part of the reason for the boring nature of sociology is that we get stuck with the canonical texts that we have accepted as sociological. What would happen if we allowed art, literature and film into our classrooms? Imagination as a way of learning needs to be explored. After all, C Wright Mills did speak of the sociological imagination as the ability to imagine one’s personal problematics as linked to the social. Regional language art forms like powadas and tamashas could become creative and stimulating entry points to discuss social inequality and gender stereotyping. Rege’s (2002) work on lavani and powada make us aware of the complex ways in which bahujan art forms were marginalised by bourgeois practitioners of theatre. The jalsa of the late 19th century used the tamasha form to critique inequality while the bourgeoisie sterilised the erotic lavani into an art form that could be watched in comfortable parlours of the rich.

A critical examination of these art forms could lead a regional language learner to the multiple ways in which art, caste, inequality and nation get constructed and enacted. These ideas may seem farfetched to us urban intellectuals, but as a (Jesuit) schoolteacher in rural Ambatha, I am aware of the intense pleasure and interest that these art forms evoke and how they can be utilised to stimulate classroom discussions. There are many popular literary texts in Maharashtra that could be used to introduce basic sociological ideas. Take, for instance, Godavari Parulekar’s (1970) Jevha Manus Jaga Hoto. This text that speaks of her own life and work among the Warlis of Thane district could easily be used as a starting point for a Marxist analysis of social inequality. Lakshmibai Tilak’s (1973) Smruti Chitre could be utilised to stimulate discussion on gender and family issues.

Translation of canonical sociological texts as one source of knowledge is necessary, but we should not privilege these to the extent that other ways of knowing and representing reality are ignored or downplayed. The incessant bemoaning of the lack of canonical texts translated into the regional languages leads to a false impasse. Along with canonical texts, the teaching of sociology has privileged mental activity as the only way of learning. Teaching as it is traditionally practised in India emphasises at best, learning from books, or at worst, what the teacher dictates.

If we are to take Howard Gardner’s (1993) thesis of multiple intelligences seriously, we must engage the learner through a multiplicity of media. In Gardner’s terms, we utilise and test two intelligences: linguistic and the logicalmathematical. Gardner (1993), for instance, lists out the musical, spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic and personal as other intelligences that we could develop. We need to engage with other ways of embodied learning, e g, visual and kinaesthetic. The body as a site for learning, memory and cultural enactment is well accepted anthropologically. We need to explore these alternative ways of knowing.

I once had a student who began to question gender stereotypes because of the experiences she had as a bodybuilding enthusiast! Theatre, song and dance, which engage the body through multiple sites, have been well documented by performance studies. Susan Reed (1998) reviews this genre of performance as an academic discipline and its political implications, with “dance as an expression and practice of relations of power and protest, resistance and complicity” (p 505). Andree Grau’s (2007) study of Mallika Sarabhai’s academic and political challenges to Hindutva and feminism show how dance can become a poli tical and academic critique of mainstream totalising discourses on the nation.

The possibilities are endless, but we need to move out from our one-size-fi tsall model. In order to reclaim other ways of knowing, we must begin to reprovincialise our so-called higher centres of learning which have dictated one way of knowing. The tired clichés that stand in for Marxian sociology, and gender critiques need to be reinvigorated with the examination of literary, visual and audio media that allow the reader/ viewer/listener/embodied actor to be thrown up against questions that have no easy answers.

A Challenge to Teachers

As sociology teachers, we have all been used to teaching from a fi xed repertoire of texts, usually those that begin with the classical founders, the trinity of Marx, Weber and Durkheim and then go on to more contemporary authors dealing with themes like inequality, religion, and social institutions. All these topics and authors have been drawn from within the field of sociology as it has been understood and practised by departments and universities of repute. Usually all these ideas are further distilled out and presented through textbooks or teacher-dictated notes. If one accepts this pedagogical process as the only way to teach the social sciences, then two standard, oft-heard observations are surely in order. One, regional language learners are disadvantaged since such material is not easily available to them; two, sociology as a discipline will require standardised easy formulaic tests that can determine competence in the discipline. But if one looks at the teaching of sociology as a way to inculcate critical social analysis leading to transformative action, then this pedagogy needs to be questioned.

What I have been advocating is going beyond our standardised texts in order to experiment with literature, film and art in general. This will allow the learner to engage with material she/he is familiar with in order to examine it critically and thus learn to “do sociology” rather than merely “study” it. Further, to go beyond our present linguistically oriented teaching practices, we need to engage the learner at multiple levels of his/her being. Varied intelligences have to be stimulated and challenged in order to make for a lived experience rather than dry intellectual exercises done for the sake of ensuring a minimum certifi cation for the job market. This does not mean we throw out all our recognised texts, nor does it mean that we stop using linguistic techniques, just that we broaden our horizons. This will also help regional

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language teachers discover a wealth of resources that could enable students to think sociologically.

Many years ago, I was visiting a village in Thane district. In one home, a middleaged tribal woman regaled me with an analysis of the feudal system (speaking a mix of Warli and Marathi, she called this sanrajamshahi) prevalent in the district. She had not been to any school and was technically illiterate. When I asked her where she had learnt all this, she said from the Kashtakari Sanghatana’s shibirs. The shibirs are the left-leaning organisation’s teaching camps that involve lectures, skits, songs, games and fellowship meals. If activists had enabled this unlettered woman to develop her analytical and articulation skills, what stops us teachers from helping our own literate

students develop a transformative and critical social science?


1 At the undergraduate level, the head of department is a permanent functionary and is appointed purely on the basis of seniority, i e, the seniormost teacher in the department becomes the head and remains so till he/she retires. At the postgraduate level, only professors (presumably with some publication) become head, and the post usually rotates every three years between the recognised professors in the con

cerned department.

2 Chaudhuri (2003: 5-7) gives the example of a professor who disdainfully spoke of a student who did not understand the word “Brumaire” in Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis

Bonaparte. Chaudhuri rightly suspects that the meaning of this word was not absolutely necessary for a student to claim a legitimate interpretation of Marx’s thought inthis work.

3 At the end of this article, I give an example of a rural illiterate woman who could articulate one version of Marxian historical materialism!


Alvares, Claude (2011): “A Critique of Eurocentric Social Science and the Question of Alter natives”, Economic & Political Weekly, 46(22): 72-81.

Appadurai, Arjun (1997): Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Chaudhuri, Maitreyee (2003): “Introduction” in Maitrayee Chaudhuri (ed.), The Practice of Sociology (Hyderabad: Orient Longman), pp 1-37.

Deshpande, Satish (2006): “Exclusive Inequalities: Merit, Caste, and Discrimination in Indian Higher Education Today”, Economic & Political Weekly, 41(24): 2438-44.

Feyerabend, Paul (1993): Against Method (London: Verso).

Freire, Paulo (2000): Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary edition (Original Portuguese edition 1968) (London: Continuum).

Foucault, Michel (1969): The Archaeology of Knowledge (London: Routledge).

Gardner, Howard (1993): Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, 10th anniversary edition (New York: Basic Books).

Grau, Andrée (2007): “Political Activism and South Asian Dance: The Case of Mallika Sarabhai”, South Asia Research, 27(1): 43-55.

Jose, George (2003): “Make It Soft and Easy: The Undergraduate Syllabi” inMaitrayee Chaudhuri (ed.), The Practice of Sociology (Hyderabad: Orient Longman), pp 97-128.

Kuhn, Thomas (1970): The Structure of Scientifi c Revolutions, second edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Parulekar, Godavari (1970): Jevha Manus Jaga Hoto (Mumbai: Mouj Prakashan).

Reed, Susan A (1998): “The Politics and Poetics of Dance”, Annual Review of Anthropology,27: 503-32.

Rege, Sharmila (2002): “Conceptualising Popular Culture: Lavani and Powada in Maharashtra”, Economic & Political Weekly, 37 (11): 1038-47.

– (2011): “Exorcising the Fear of Identity: Interrogating the ‘Language Question’ in Sociology and Sociological Language” inSujata Patel (ed.), Doing Sociology in India: Genealogies, Locations and Practices (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 213-40.

Rodrigues, Edward A (2011): “Knowledge Production and Transmission: Learning Sociology at the Undergraduate Level” inSujata Patel (ed.), Doing Sociology in India: Genealogies, Locations and Practices (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 241-65.

Said, Edward (1996): Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (New York: Vintage Books).

Siqueira, Alito and Manish Thakur (2011): “Of Centres and Peripheries: Sociology in Goa” in Sujata Patel (ed.), Doing Sociology in India: Genealogies, Locations and Practices (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 103-26.

Tharoor, Shashi (2007): “Scheduled Castes, Unscheduled Change” in Shashi Tharoor, India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond (New Delhi: Penguin Books), pp 80-112.

Tilak, Lakshmibai (1973): Smruti Chitre (Nasik: A D Tilak).

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