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Professor Gopala Sarana

Professor Gopala Sarana

(January 2nd,1935-7th November 2010)


Indian anthropology is often critiqued for not having made significant contributions to anthropological theory and methodology.  This is primarily due to the absence of concerted efforts to document and present contributions of eminent anthropologists in the public domain. Lack of access to open international academic spaces is one of the reasons for denying this legitimate acknowledgement to Indian academics. Internet open access academic platforms provide a resource to amend these aberrations. It is with the intent to fill that void that these profiles are being documented on the UIAF website.

One of the substantial contributions to the theory and methodology of Anthropology came from the pen of Professor Gopala Sarana. In 2007, in a summary review of Indian Social-cultural anthropology, commenting on his theoretical journey Sarana wrote (2007:317),

In 1959 Sarana pointed out several conceptual and terminological ambiguities and contradictions in Radcliffe Brown’s effort to distinguish social anthropology from ethnology. In 1950s his criticism, except by Murdock on Kinship, was uncommon. Through detailed arguments, with evidence dug put from the writings of Radcliffe-Brown and Firth, Sarana has demonstrated that their efforts to distinguish between social structure and social organisation has not borne fruit.

In one of his early publications titled The Methodology of Anthropological Comparison (1975), published under the imprimatur of the Wenner-Gren foundation, Sarana postulates exemplary explanations of the relevance of the Comparative method. He elucidates, what should one compare, why should one compare, and how should one compare?  He delineates three basic comparative methods (i) illustrative comparison (ii) complete universe comparison (iii) hologeistic sampled comparison (Sarana,2007: 318). Systematically elucidating these under the categories of terms of reference, units of comparison, purposes of comparison, and techniques and methods, he brings to the fore, inherent ambiguities in the use of these terms.

In an earlier publication (1965), he made a detailed analysis of the use of the comparative method in Anthropology as well as in Linguistics. He was of the firm opinion that the premise of structuralism in linguistics and functionalism in anthropology have similar genesis. His erudite scholarship focused on clearing opacities common in iteration of the established concepts. He dwelled in detail, meticulously explaining meaning of technique, method, and methodology and how focus and use of one is different from the other. He endorses Kroeber’s insightful remark that, “there are strictly speaking no proofs in this method” (1952:3).

His comprehensive and critical understanding of western thoughts again emerged in one of his last publications in 2008 in the book titled Explorations in method and theory in anthropology. In the first section of this volume, he reviews relationship between functionalism and causality and examines in detail contributions of Radcliffe-brown, Malinowski and Robert Merton. He argues for a case to make a distinction between functioning/functions and having a function. This fine distinction in his opinion has been ignored or glossed over by most anthropologists. In his words:

A machine operates; therefore, it functions. A functioning machine does some work; therefore, it performs some function. A structure is an arrangement of parts. It does not operate. Therefore, a structure cannot be said to function. If Radcliffe-Brown had kept this distinction in mind he would not be talking of the “functioning of structure” (2007:317).

In a similar vein, critiquing Merton’s much cited concepts of latent and manifest functions, Sarana (2008:70) writes; “the distinction which Merton has laboriously tried to make between ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ function is redundant” if one looks at the evidence that comes from the Hopi-dance ceremonial and other studies. In his 2007 “Brief review of Indian social-cultural anthropology” in the special number on ‘Anthropology in India’ of The Eastern Anthropologist, Sarana elaborates on his reservations on Merton’s concept:

Merton’s latent function is function in the proper sense. It is deciphered by the investigating social scientist. The manifest function of Merton’s is really the obvious consequence of the actions of the members of a social group or a society. It should not be confused by with function” (2007:317).

Sarana also questions Levi-Strauss’s construct of “social structure being a model built up after the reality official relations”. In his opinion, there are several models in science and social sciences and the models proposed by Lévi-Strauss’s do not conform to any one of these conceptions. In Sarana’s assessment, the anomaly in Lévi-Strauss’s construct emanates because:

It is common anthropological belief that social structure is rooted in material-environmental setting and cannot be divorced from social reality. An academic-conceptual model is built by the investigating scientist and not by the people themselves. Therefore, the notion of ‘home-made model is non-sequitur’.

Critiquing one of the most popular and commonly used constructs of the 20th century, particularly in the context of study of civilizations, the notion of ‘Great tradition’ and ‘Little Traditions’ given by Redfield (1962), Sarana writes (2007:315),

Tradition is a continuum in which additions, deletions or alterations go on continuously. It preserves what is of lasting value to the people. I have reservations about splitting it in Great traditions and Little traditions.

These snippets of his ability to go beyond the dominant discourse of his time reflect astute mindset and courage to question and take independent decisions from a very early age. Many of his contemporaries trained in the British tradition often disagreed with his contentions. But they all had immense regard for his intellectual honesty and ability to hold on to his extrapolations.


This extraordinary, visionary scholar of the twentieth century was recognised for his simple lifestyle and critical thinking”. Gandhian in lifestyle, always clad in simple khadi Kurta pyjamas and a matching jhola (sling bags), he typified persona of a typical rooted rural Indian. Born in a village in district Balia, Uttar Pradesh on January 2, 1935, he did his early schooling in a Village school under the colonial regime. He joined Lucknow University in the year 1950 to do his BA degree and after completing his graduation in 1953, he went on to do his masters from the same University in the year 1955. It was no surprise that his brilliance shone in his early academic career, and he qualified all his examinations in the first position. He received his early training under the tutelage of academic stalwart D.N. Majumdar. Majumdar’s passion for anthropology, its philosophy and grounded research engulfed his ward and his pursuit of excellence in the discipline.

After completing his masters, he started teaching in the same department for some time and then moved to newly opened department of Anthropology at Panjab University, Chandigarh in 1961on a permanent position to teach social anthropology. Shortly after joining the department, he received fellowship from prestigious Harvard University to do his Ph.D. under the supervision of doyen of World anthropology Cora-du-Bois. Inability to get study leave to pursue his passion for higher learning due to university study leave rules, he resigned from his permanent position and left for Harvard. He was awarded his Doctoral Degree titled, Comparative Methods (Approaches) in Social-Cultural Anthropology: A Methodological Analysis, in 1966 from Harvard University. While pursuing his doctoral degree, he also taught for a year from 1965 to 1966 at Santa Barbra, California.

After his return from Harvard, he joined Department of Anthropology, Karnataka university Dharwad in 1970, as reader in anthropology and later became professor and head of the department. He remained there till 1979. In 1979, he returned to Lucknow university as professor of Anthropology and remained there till the time of his superannuation.  Life had come full circle. His home coming back to Lucknow and his journey thereon marks one of the most vibrant chapters of his illustrious life. He retired from Lucknow University in the year 1995.

In his distinguished career, he received several awards. One of these was prestigious R.P.Chanda award that he received from The Asiatic Society in the year 1986. Another was Shikshak Sri Samman conferred upon him by the Government of Uttar Pradesh. Sarana was appointed editor of the journal The Eastern Anthropologist published by Ethnographic and folk Culture Society, Lucknow in April 1993. During his tenure as editor of one of India’s premier journals in anthropology, the journal received additional rigour and greater academic prominence.

Professor Sarana was not a teacher by profession only but practised his vocation by passion. He spent long hours teaching and supervising students.  His work Anthropology and Sociology (2005), caters to the common curiosity of the students’ seeking answers to their quests pertaining to the ‘human being’. This book brings out in the simplest way the quintessential characteristics of Anthropology as a discipline. A section of the book is devoted to the discussion on the relationship between Anthropology and Sociology. Here, Sarana goes deeper to unravel, layer after layer the complexities in the relationship between Sociology and anthropology (particularly social anthropology), and how, despite the ubiquitously agreed similarities between the two, the terms Social Anthropology and Sociology cannot be treated as interchangeable. His close interactions with his students, sensitized him to evolve innovative methods of explaining in simple terms the journey of humans from the past to the present. He was one of those few anthropologists who believed in keeping holistic perspective of anthropology alive, irrespective of the fact that different branches of the discipline were acquiring pervasive dimensions of their own.

Notwithstanding his focus on social-cultural anthropology, Professor Sarana, like his mentor Professor Dhirendra Nath Majumdar, persevered religiously to learn about the other branches of Anthropology as well, for he firmly believed in the integrated nature of the discipline. In his book Anthropology and Sociology, he brings out the element of ‘unity and diversity of Anthropology’ (2005:19) suggesting:

Human beings share ideas, experiences, and biological endowments. The task of Anthropology is to understand human similarities and differences from biological and cultural angles and the way in which biology and culture interact. In this sense the diversity of Anthropology is not at all a hindrance but paves the way for integration. Anthropology has a loose structure in which there is a lot of opportunity for the development of various fields. I want to state in no uncertain terms that when we talk of integration of anthropology, we do not at all mean that it should come in the way of specialised development of its sub-fields like biological (physical) anthropology, linguistics, etc. Please remember that the rationale for the integration of Anthropology lies at a deeper level than the level at which a particular subdivision deals with its specialised subject matter. It can be experienced in terms of the need to understand different kinds of human beings and the diversities as well as similarities of the patterns of human living. This is necessary to know what man has been, what he is today and what he may become tomorrow so that efforts may be made to make human life better than what it has been up to date (cf. Sarana and Srivastava 2005: 22).

His book Studies in Social and Physical Anthropology (2012), co-edited with eminent physical anthropologist R.P. Srivastava exemplifies keeping this integrative spirit alive for the benefit of young students. From a discussion on looking at the stages in human evolution from the paleoanthropological dimension, to bringing out the pertinence of addressing diseases through the human genome, the volume sails through significant areas of knowledge.

He was conversant with the changing landscape of knowledge domains. He cautioned fraternity of anthropologists to re-strategize their research priorities and prepare to confront challenges that are bound to emanate. Discussing this, he said:

The strategy of anthropological fieldwork has to be changed. ‘Self-study’ should get precedence over ‘other culture’ study without abandoning the latter altogether. When the anthropologist turns more and more homeward, the problems, the nature and focus of anthropological investigations will have to undergo change. The anthropologist will now be pitted more and more against other social scientist and humanist who have always been ‘home’. He will have to make herculean efforts to retain his identity (Gopala Sarana,2007:323).


Apart from delving deep into the facts and nuances of methods and concepts, Professor Gopala Sarana gave equal focus to empirical research. He undertook detailed study in various parts of South Asia like Israel, Japan, and Iran. He went to Israel as Blaustein Fellow at the Social studies centre of the Jacob Blaustein institute for Desert Research, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in 1992.  In 1993, he published a two-part article in The Eastern Anthropologist titled “reflection on Israel and India” comparing various aspects in both the countries. An American village, Groveport, in Ohio was also studied by him. In India he carried out fieldwork among the Khasa and the Oraon tribes. Ethnographic research in Anthropology has time and again come under critical scrutiny, with doubts being raised over its efficacy. Sarana goes on to clear the doubts raised on traditional fieldwork procedures. In his opinion,

The main complaints have been about the lack of quantification, objectivity, and replicability. Some of these critics have said that to the extent that anthropology does not conform to the social-science methodological norm, its procedure falls short of being scientific (1976:255).

As a contributor to the important volume The Personal Approach in Cultural Anthropological Research, Sarana cites contributions of Honnigman, Kroeber, Kluckhohn, to put these criticisms to rest and reinforce the strengths of ethnographic research while clearly emphasising on Honnigman’s view that there is zero probability of testing the reliability of an ethnographic monograph.

Professor Sarana’s seminal work towards the last years of his life, Explorations in Method and Theory in Anthropology (2008) is a rare and valuable contribution to the field of Anthropological theories and concepts. Professor Nita Mathur befittingly captures the essence of the book as she writes,

What makes the book useful is not only a critical appraisal of the contribution of classical theorists to specific themes, but also the way in which the author churns each of them to surface core ideas and weave them together to develop fully fledged theoretical premises. The strength of the book, as I see, lies in highlighting the nuanced connection between ideas, and, in doing so, providing a critique of each theoretical premise. This is certainly not a text for beginners in the discipline of anthropology but one for the matured, well-grounded students and academics engaged in the pursuit of anthropological knowledge in a particular sense and social sciences in a general sense (2010: 430-432).

In his book, Studies in Indian Anthropology: Festschrift to Professor Gopala Sarana (2004), Professor P.K.Misra gives a detailed account of Prof. Sarana’s contribution to Anthropology which made him a  renowned scholar, nationally and internationally. He published more than eighty papers and several books in English as also in Hindi and regional languages in National and International Journals. Some of the books published by him include Introducing Anthropology; Structuralism; Sociology and Anthropology and other essays and Pragithas (in Hindi in collaboration with his mentor D. N. Majumdar).

Professor Sarana was a prolific scholar in the true sense of the word. Going deep into the area of concepts and methodology, his writings explain, challenge, and invite discourse to almost ubiquitously accepted and seldom challenged core concepts and methods of Anthropology. These are rare attributes and are most aptly summarised by several luminaries of the discipline. Professor Subba Reddy’s comments:

 Among the anthropologists in India and abroad, Dr. Sarana stands out as one among the rare few whose reach extends to the terse areas of methodological issues, philosophical problems, epistemological queries, logical procedures, and scientific frames of analysis, applicable to social sciences in general and social anthropology in particular (Sarana 2010: p xi).

In the same vein, Professor Vinay Srivastava remarks:

Gopala Sarana is perhaps one of the few Indian anthropologists who has written on topics such as social structure and social organization, functionalism, structuralism, definition of marriage, comparative method. (

Professor Gopala Sarana’s demise on 7th November 2010, created a deep void in the field of Anthropology. His colossal contribution towards enriching the discipline is well etched in the history of the development of the subject. As a researcher, he not only gave a fresh perspective to the established and ubiquitously accepted explanations of social structure, social organization, and other concepts, but also challenged these. For me and many like me who were taught by him, he personified all the virtues that one looks in a teacher – scholarship, sincerity, and dedication.


1975. The Methodology of Anthropological Comparisons: An Analysis of Comparative Methods in Social and Cultural Anthropology. Arizona: The University of Arizona Press.

1977. Introducing Anthropology. Indian Anthropological Society. Calcutta.

1993. Some reflections on Israel and India, Part-1. In The Eastern Anthropologist. Vol; 46. No.1 pp171-197.

1999. Ethnicity and Social structure. In T. B. Subba edited Wonder That is Culture, New Delhi: Mittal Publications, pp.279-302.

2003. Status of Social Cultural anthropology in India. In Annual Review of Anthropology, 5: 209-225. (With Dharani P. Sinha)

2005. Anthropology and Sociology. Lucknow: New Royal Book Co. (With R. P. Srivastava).

2008.  Explorations in Method and Theory in Anthropology. Jaipur: Rawat Publications.

2012. Studies in Social and Physical Anthropology (Eds.) New Delhi: Rawat Publications. (With R. P. Srivastava).



Beteille, Andre.1974. Six Essays. In Comparative Sociology. Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Honigmann, John J 1976. The Personal Approach in Cultural Anthropological Research [and Comments and Reply]. In Current Anthropology,17(2): 243-261.

Kroeber, A.L. 1952. The Nature of Culture. Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press.

Mathur, Nita.2010. “Review of Explorations in Method and Theory in Anthropology” by Gopala Sarana. In Sociological Bulletin, 59 (3): 430-432.

Misra, P.K. 2004. Studies in Indian Anthropology: Festschrift to Professor Gopala Sarana. New Delhi: Rawat Publications.

Sarana, Gopala.  1965. “On Comparative Methods in Social-Cultural Anthropology and in Linguistics”. In The Eastern Anthropologist 60(3 & 4):307- 25.

Sarana, Gopala.1975. The Methodology of Anthropological Comparisons: An Analysis of Comparative Methods in Social and Cultural Anthropology. Arizona: The University of Arizona Press.

Sarana, Gopala and R.P. Srivastava. 2005. Anthropology and Sociology. Lucknow: New Royal Book Co.

Sarana, Gopala. 2007. “Indian Social-Cultural Anthropology: A Brief Review. In The Eastern Anthropologist. Vol. 60. Number 3-4, Special number Anthropology in India.

Sarana, Gopala. 2008.  Explorations in Method and Theory in Anthropology. Jaipur: Rawat Publications.

Sarana, Gopala and R.P. Srivastava.2012. Studies in Social and Physical Anthropology (Eds.). New Delhi: Rawat Publications.

Srivastava, Vinay. 2000. Teaching Anthropology.



Department of Anthropology,

North-Eastern Hill University,





Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology (retd)

Department of Anthropology

Panjab University


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