Professor M. N. Srinivas
(16th November 1916- 30th November 1999)
Padma Bhushan awardee renowned social anthropologist and sociologist late Prof. M.N. Srinivas has inspired an entire generation of Social Scientists to shift from Book view of the Societies to its Field View.
Mysore Narsimhacharya Srinivas was born in a traditional Brahmin family in Mysore on 16th November 1916. He came from a family that valued education; thus, his father, a government servant, had shifted from Arakere, their native village, to Mysore to provide education to his children. He was the youngest of four siblings, and his eldest brother was a lecturer of English literature at the University of Mysore. His brother encouraged him to develop writing skills in English. Srinivas graduated in Social Philosophy from Mysore University in 1936. He then joined Bombay University to pursue his master's in Sociology under the supervision of eminent sociologist G S Ghurye, then Head of the Department of Sociology. Srinivas obtained his LLB and Ph.D. from Bombay University in 1940 and 1945, respectively. In 1945 he went to Oxford, where he received his DPhil in Social Anthropology in 1947.
Under the supervision of Ghurye, Srinivas did short fieldwork and submitted a dissertation on marriage and family on the Kannada caste in Mysore. Later, this work was published as Marriage and Family in Mysore, which received much appreciation. He was awarded a fellowship in 1940 to study the Coorgs of South India. Srinivas submitted a 900 paged dissertation titled The Coorgs: A Socio-Ethnic Study in 1944 in two volumes. The external examiner for his voluminous work was renowned anthropologist Raymond Firth, who appreciated this work for the richness of the data and accuracy of citations. After completing his doctorate, Srinivas left for Oxford in 1945 to undertake D. Phil under the supervision of well-known social anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe Brown. Under his supervision, Srinivas re-analysed the data on the religion of Coorgs in a functional framework. This was later published as Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India in 1952. It is a classic work, a must read for the students of Anthropology and Sociology.
In 1951, Srinivas joined Baroda University, where he founded the Department of Sociology. Later, after eight years, in 1959, he shifted to the Delhi School of Economics at Delhi University to join the newly formed Sociology Department. Srinivas’s reputation attracted students from all over the country to Sociology Department. He was instrumental in setting up the department and framed the syllabus that focussed on extensive readings of ethnographies. He had engrained tradition of anthropological field work while working under the supervision of A. R. Radcliffe Brown and carried forward the same legacy. Throughout his professional career, he insisted on training students in intensive fieldwork.
First generation of students getting M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology from this newly founded department of sociology were trained in anthropological fieldwork tradition. He firmly believed that the fieldwork method was essential to know the ground realities of a society. He was primarily responsible for blurring any boundaries that may have existed between training in anthropology and sociology. His reflection on his experiences of fieldwork resulted in a well-known book, The Fieldworker and the Field (1979). He also pioneered research in social transformations that rural and peasant societies experienced in just a decade after independence. Focus of these studies was to understand the interrelations among different parts of society. He insisted that students of society must do empirical studies.
Famously, he insisted on Field view of the society instead of Book view. According to him, the book view from the sacred texts can help us gain knowledge on religion, caste, varna, family and geographical structure of a society. But knowledge about different regions of a society, especially Indian society can be attained through fieldwork, and small regional empirical studies would help understand the nativity of the rural Indian society.
Prof. Srinivas became the President of the Indian Sociological Society between 1966-1969. He was instrumental in bringing together the ISS and the All-India Sociological Conference as a single professional body and reorganized the society’s journal, the Sociological Bulletin. In 1972, he returned to his home state of Karnataka and joined Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC) as Joint Director. After retiring from ISEC, he joined the National Institute for Advanced Studies in Bangalore as J.R.D Tata visiting professor, where he worked till, he passed away on 30th November 1999.
He has received several awards, such as the Rivers Memorial Medal (1955), the S C Roy Memorial Medal (1958), and the Honorary Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain and Ireland (since 1964). He also received Dadabhai Naoroji Memorial Prize for social sciences other than economics (1971) and Padma Bhushan, third highest award given by the Government of India (1977) as a recognition of his extraordinary achievements.
Srinivas is acclaimed in India and across the world as a sociologist and social anthropologist who has immensely contributed to the discipline through his teaching, research, and institution building. Srinivas has written on many aspects of Indian society and culture and is known for his work on caste, religion, village community, social change, and research methodology. His field experience has been long, varied, and widespread. Most of his writings are based on his intensive fieldwork, particularly in Coorg and Rampura (pseudonym). His texts are a synthesis of his field observation and knowledge of the existing literature on different regions of the country.
His book Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India (1952) is recognized as a classic in the study of Indian society and culture, where he applied the ideas of structure and function to understand people's ritual and social life. His training at Oxford prompted him to examine social interactions and social relations with a structural and functional approach. He did intensive fieldwork using participant observation, which helped him see different parts of society in their interrelatedness. This book made a discernible paradigm shift in viewing continuities in societies from theoretical underpinnings of evolutionism and diffusionism to structure-functionalism. It marked a beginning of a new approach in ethnographic writings in Indian anthropology. This book provided a theoretical framework to study the complex interrelationships between ritual and social order in the Coorg society. Discussion on the notions of purity and pollution at length is another significant contribution of this text. Inspired by this concept of purity and pollution, Mary Douglas furthered this idea and published Purity and Pollution in 1966. In an interview with A M Shah, Srinivas said:
Using Radcliffe Brown’s idea of ‘ritual idiom’, I analysed the complex and pervasive ideas of pollution and purity underlying Coorg and, indeed, all Hindu religious and social life. I also analysed the Coorg ritual complex of mangala, which was crucial component of all auspicious rituals of the Coorgs. My analysis of the pollution-purity ideas of the Coorgs stimulated Mary Douglas to do a more far-reaching analysis of them in Purity and Pollution. (cf. Shah 2000: 631)
Though Srinivas adopted a functionalist paradigm to explain the inter-relatedness of different aspects of the Coorg society, T N Madan in Pathways says that religion in the Coorg book is understood and reduced to ritual and is pursued to understand in terms of its function in the maintenance of the social order. So, the functionalist paradigm that is the strength of the Coorg book, its weakness also stems from the same source (Madan, 1995;39). Srinivas himself has drawn attention to some of the limitations of the book:
As I looked at my material from the functionalist viewpoint, I found it falling into a pattern. The data was no longer unrelated and disorderly. The different levels of reality were discernible as were the links between them. In retrospect, one of the troubles with my analysis was that everything was too neatly tied up leaving no loose ends. I must also add that the data was too thin for my analysis. (Srinivas, 1973:141)
With all its strengths and limitations this book is an anthropological classic. Its strength emanates from the richness of data painstakingly collected over a period of four years from 1940-43. The text illustrated a functionalist approach in understanding ritual practises and influential ideas like the concept of ‘Sanskritization’. The concept of Sanskritization showed how imitating the ways of life of the higher castes- dwija (twice-born castes) by the lower caste may felicitate their rise to a higher social status. The process involves some lower castes emulating lifeways and the ritual practices of the Brahmins. The concept was initially understood as imitation of the culture of the upper castes by lower castes for upward mobility in the caste hierarchy.
Over the years, there was a perceptive change in his comprehensive understanding of the process of social mobility. Srinivas, then viewed it as the incorporation of certain values that are not directly connected to the caste system. This concept was used as an illustrative device to study process of social change in India. It is important to note that Srinivas always maintained that Sanskritization is not proselytization. He analysed the concept and argued that Sanskritization is not just confined to and limited by the caste order and has much wider application. In a chapter on the ‘Cohesive Role of Sanskritization’ in Collected Essays Srinivas says:
Sanskritization is not confined to any single part of the country, but is wide-spread in the subcontinent, including remote and forested regions. It affected a wide variety of groups, both within the Hindu fold and others outside it. It was even carried to neighbouring countries such as Ceylon, Indonesia and Tibet (Srinivas, 2002:221)
The concept of Sanskritization has found a place in the Oxford English Dictionary (1971). Sanskritization has become a word of common parlance in Indianist studies and has generated cognate words such as Islamization and de-Sanskritization (Madan,1995: 41).
Besides his interest in religion and caste, Srinivas also contributed significantly to village studies. Encouraged by his mentor Radcliffe-brown in 1945-46, Srinivas conducted a study of Rampur-a Mysore village on his return from Oxford. Radcliffe Brown believed that although Srinivas’s study on Coorgs is a critical contribution to the discipline, it focused only on one caste and a comprehensive understanding of the Indian society would require a study on the interaction of multiple castes, especially in the context of the village. Thus, Srinivas conducted a village study in Rampura (pseudonym) and wrote numerous essays on the Indian village. The study also resulted in a well-known work, The Remembered Village (1976), where he discussed social and economic changes that have taken place in the Rampura.
Srinivas considered the village as the microcosm of Indian society and civilization and maintained that the village retains the traditional composition of India’s tradition. In chapter one of The Remembered Village on ‘How it all began’ he describes how the choice of the village was made more on sentimental grounds (Srinivas, 1988:6). The book is a comprehensive account of the village of Rampura in south Karnataka, covering several aspects of the village life, social structure, economy, culture, religion, and social change. It also discusses his experience of fieldwork. The Remembered Village invited diverse opinions on the theoretical framework, method, and lack of hard data. Many scholars feel that Srinivas succeeded in presenting the totality of village life and captured the human element by reviewing his stay in the village and his memories of real people and events. T. N. Madan feels that though the book is about the village, it is pre-eminently about caste or more specifically about upper castes and the rural elite (Madan, 1995:46). But Srinivas pointed,
I spent ten months in Rampura in 1948 and it proved to be a great learning experience…it gave me valuable insights into the real nature of caste and its dynamics over time. I saw the local jati system as a dynamic one in contrast to the fossilized view inherent in varna. The importance of dominant landed castes became clear to me, and I saw Indian history very differently from popular views about it (Shah, 2000:632)
The concept of dominant caste in The Remembered village according to Srinivas resulted from the ‘field view’. This work increased recognition of the ‘field view’ in the studies of the Indian society. According to Srinivas, a caste may be said to be ‘dominant’ when it preponderates numerically over the other castes, has more economic and political power and ownership of land. There are four factors related to dominant caste, i.e., numerical strength, control of resources like land, possession of political power and socio-religious status. Apart from these, western education, jobs in administration and urban sources of income are also significant in contributing to the prestige and power of a particular caste group in the village. The concept of dominant caste first defined by Srinivas came to be widely used not only by anthropologists and sociologists but also by political scientists, journalists, and politicians.
Srinivas’s interest in caste led him to other emergent issues of the social situation in India like caste and politics, administration, education etc. But the publication of Homo Hierarchicus by Louis Dumont in 1970 brought back the book view and many regarded ‘field’ as only a reflection of the ‘book’. Critiquing Dumont’s ideas of caste, Srinivas maintained that the traditional caste system, characterized by interdependence between caste groups and practicing their specialized occupations, is practically not seen in modern times. Various caste groups are seen in conflict and competition.
Srinivas’s interest in caste and politics during the 1950s led him to write influential essays on themes like politics and caste, future of the caste system, Sanskritization, westernization, industrialisation etc, that were published together in 1962 as Caste in Modern India and other essays (1962). It became one of the most reprinted books. Srinivas said that sociologists would define caste as:
‘a hereditary, endogamous, usually localized group, having a traditional association with an occupation, and a particular position in the local hierarchy of castes. Relation between castes are governed, among other things, by the concepts of pollution and purity, and generally, maximum commensality occurs within the caste’ (Srinivas, 1962, 1998:3).
However, the caste is usually segmented into several sub-castes, and each sub-caste is endogamous. As a result of a long process of development, several cognate groups have come into existence, usually found scattered over a limited geographical region. Here he opined that the varna model has produced a distorted image of caste and the structural basis of Hindu society is caste. He gave the concept of ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ solidarity of the Indian caste system. He observed that in a region, certain common elements of local culture are shared by all castes living in that region, i.e., they speak a common local language, observe some common festivals, and share some common deities and beliefs. He called this as ‘Vertical solidarity’. Whereas in ‘Horizontal solidarity’, members of a single caste share common rituals, beliefs, traditions etc., irrespective of their regions and languages. He also emphasised that for sociological analysis, a distinction must be made between caste at the political level and the social and ritual level. There is a wide gulf between caste as an endogamous and ritual unit and the caste-like units which are so active in politics and administration in modern India (Srinivas, 1962, 1998:6). And castes compete with each other for acquiring political and economic power and high ritual position (ibid;7). He maintained that the caste system was far from a rigid system and movement was always possible, leading to social mobility.
His other major book Social Change in Modern India discussed the macro levels of historical processes where apart from talking about Sanskritization and Westernization, Srinivas added chapters on Caste Mobility and Secularization and concluded it with some views on the study of one’s own society. Srinivas echoed that:
The ideas of Sanskritization and Westernization adumbrated in the Coorg book received further attention in my Social Change in Modern India (1966) and are now widely used in the study of South Asian culture and society. (cf. Shah,2000:631)
In Social Change in Modern India, Srinivas returned to the themes of Sanskritization, Westernization, caste mobility to see cultural and social processes and social transformations in an all-India perspective. Through the concept of Westernization, he depicts the fundamental changes that are taking place in the traditional society because of the British rule and the introduction of new technology, institutions, ideologies and values, there are visible changes that are occurring in the traditional society. The Westernization set in motion a process of Secularization that became more pronounced after Independence with the declaration of India as a secular state (D’Souza, 2001:150).
Srinivas's work has provided a solid foundation for us to discuss the problematic aspects of the Indian society. Through his significant contributions, M. N. Srinivas has contributed immensely to the body of social science repository and has left rich legacies. He constantly revised his ideas and enriched these with empirical inputs from field data. His writings on caste, village and Hinduism have influenced many branches of social sciences and extended beyond academia's confines. His concepts and ideas have gained currency in politics and journalism.
With a vast corpus of writings, Prof M N Srinivas is rightfully one of the founders of contemporary sociology and social anthropology. He exchanged views with social scientists in India and constantly endeavoured to provide an enlightened and holistic perspective. He had critical insights from the two disciplines and his writing was informed by the content of the two disciplines. He was also well informed of the socio-political and economic situation in the country and the subcontinent and thus wrote extensively on these issues.
Books and other publications by Prof M N Srinivas
Marriage and Family in Mysore, New Book Company (1942)
Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, Oxford Clarendon Press (1952)
India’s Villages, Asia Publishing House (1955)
Caste in Modern India and Other Essays, Asia Publishing House (1962)
India: Social Structure (1969)
The Remembered Village, Oxford University Press (1976)
The Dominant Caste and Other Essays (1987)
Social Change in Modern India, University of California Press (1966)
Village, Caste, Gender and Method: Essays in Indian Social Anthropology (1996. 1998, 2001)
The Fieldworker and the Field: Problems and Challenges in Sociological Investigation, co-edited with A M Shah and E A Ramaswamy, Oxford University Press (1979)
Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar (1996)
Collected Essays (Oxford University Press, 2002)
The Oxford India Srinivas (Oxford University Press, 2009)
Mathur, Nita. (2020). The Remembered Anthropologist: Engaging with the Insights of M N Srinivas. Journal of the Anthropological Survey of India, 69(@) 224-240.
Madan, T N. (1995). Pathways: Approaches to the Study of Society in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Shah, A. M. (1996). M.N. Srinivas: The man and his work. In A. M. Shah, B. S. Baviskar, & E. A. Ramaswamy (eds.), Social structure and change, Vol. 1. Theory and method—An evaluation of the work of M.N. Srinivas. SAGE Publications.
Shah, A. M. (2000). An interview with M. N. Srinivas. Current Anthropology, 41(4), 629–636.
Shah, A. M. (2020). The legacy of M N Srinivas. Routledge.
Srinivas, M. N. (1942). Marriage and family in Mysore. New York Co.
Srinivas, M. N. (1952). Religion and society among the Coorgs of South India. Clarendon Press
Srinivas, M. N. (1956). A note on Sanskritization and Westernization. Far Eastern Quarterly, XV (4), 481–496.
Srinivas, M. N. (1962). Caste in modern India and other essays. Asia Publishing House.
Srinivas, M.N. (1973) Itineraries of an Indian Social Anthropologist. International Social Science Journal 25,1-2;129-48.
Srinivas, M. N. (1984). Some reflections on the nature of caste hierarchy. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 18(2), 161–167.
Srinivas, M. N. (1987). The dominant caste and other essays. Oxford University Press.
Srinivas, M. N. (1994). Sociology in India and its future. Sociological Bulletin, 43, 9–19.
Srinivas, M. N. (2002). Collected essays. Oxford University Press.
Victor S. D’Souza, 2001. "M. N. Srinivas: Ace Interpreter of Indian Society," Journal of Social and Economic Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, vol. 3(1), pages 144-151,
Dr Gunjan Arora
Post Doc Fellow, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health
Jawaharlal Nehru University
 Anecdotal evidence suggests that Srinivas called his book Remembered village as he wrote it with the help of recall method because the original data was destroyed in a fire. The fire at the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford on 24th April 1940, had destroyed the processed fieldwork notes. (Srinivas mentions in Preface, xxvii in The Remembered Village)