Broadly defined as the science of society, sociology originated in the West during the industrial revolution. It concerned itself with understanding the institutions and structures which characterise modern societies. Sociologists attempt to study everything, from religious values and ideologies to occupational and class structures, from family and kinship systems to ethnic and group identities and from social movements to individual deviance.
Quite apart from its vast subject matter, sociology promises to provide a very strong critical edge to one’s engagement with oneself and one’s surroundings.
A well-known aphorism about sociology is that it makes what is familiar seem strange and what is strange seem familiar. The true worth of this discipline thus lies in its opening our eyes to all that we have seen but never observed!
In India, sociology as a subject is offered only at the higher stages of education. Though it is now available as an option at the senior secondary level in many schools, it is not necessary to have an early exposure to it to study it at higher levels. Courses at the undergraduate level and even at the postgraduate level are usually designed to cater to students who have no prior introduction to it.
Sociology as taught in Indian universities draws upon the western legacy of the discipline in large measure, but with a caveat – there is a lot of reliance on social anthropology, which is again western in origin but which in its inception was primarily concerned with ‘other cultures’ and ‘pre-modern’ societies.
Being non-western, Indian society has obviously interested anthropologists. Thus, sociology and anthropology have been closely intertwined in the Indian context. Anthropology’s special research innovation has been intensive field-based ethnographic accounts. Thus the project of Indian sociology/ social anthropology has produced detailed studies of the caste system, tribal communities, rural and urban society, family and kinship structures and religious practices.
It is useful to remember that unlike sociology courses in India, western academia maintains a somewhat clear distinction between sociology and anthropology.
Many Indian students of sociology go on to pursue studies in anthropology in the United States and the United Kingdom. Anthropology and sociology courses at London School of Economics, School of Oriental and African Studies, Cambridge, Oxford and Warwick are much sought-after by Indians in pursuit of higher degrees as are Ivy League universities and the universities of Chicago, California and Johns Hopkins in the US.
Delhi University has one of the best UG programmes in sociology in India, offered in eight colleges – all of which have a small but competent faculty.
Kolkata’s Presidency College, Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, and several colleges in Chennai also offer UG programmes in this discipline.
MA programmes in sociology are available at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University as well as at Jamia Millia Islamia and Indira Gandhi National Open University. While Mumbai University and Lucknow University have some of the oldest departments of sociology, the University of Calcutta, North-Eastern Hill University, Jadavpur University, Panjab University, Central University of Hyderabad, University of Pune and University of Madras, too, offer MA degrees. The newly-opened South Asian University in Delhi is going to start an MA in sociology in July 2011.
The way sociology is taught in most universities is primarily directed at preparing students for long-term commitment to research and teaching. A number of students pursue MPhil and PhD degrees, offered in most universities conducting the MA programmes.
After BA and/or MA in sociology, many students branch out into allied disciplines such as law and social work. Institutions such as Ambedkar University, Delhi, and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, offer interdisciplinary courses such as MA in development studies and MA in gender studies for which sociology provides a basic foundation.
Sociology has been a popular choice among students preparing for competitive exams such as for the civil services. A number of sociology graduates are absorbed in marketing and policy research organisations, MNCs, banks and the voluntary sector. A career in print and electronic media is an option for sociology graduates who have good communication skills.
The author is associate professor, Department of Sociology, University of Delhi