1° You began your academic career as a demographer, spent the major portion of your career developing a sociology of Indian studies, then you turned to initiating important research on engineers in India. Despite the apparent diversity of your work, what has been the guiding line of your intellectual career?
Rather than a “guiding line”, I would rather speak in terms of internal and external tensions between the possibilities that came to me at a certain point in time, and the probables that I had to fight for because they were not given. Biographical “accidents”, geographic and social changes, contraried desires, but also encounters and opportunities have contributed to my intellectual path.
When I enrolled at university in Rouen in 1967, I wanted to study history, but for some practical reasons I switched to geography. First I did a BA opting for a major in “tropical geography” as we said then (it was the legacy of Pierre Gourou’s book, Les pays tropicaux [Tropical countries]), and had a minor in history, and later on I wrote an MPhil. Yet, I was intellectually unsatisfied with the discipline (at the time, I would say that tropical geography was the poor man’s ethnography, socially speaking, as in Richard Hoggart’s La Culture du Pauvre [literally “The Culture of the Poor”, in English the original title is different, The Uses of Literacy], and the idea of becoming a professor was not appealing to me. But I had been working since the age of 19 and had to find a profession. In 1974, I obtained my diploma as Expert Demographer from the Institut de Démographie de Paris [Paris Demographic Institute] (two years post-graduation) specializing in Sub-Saharan Africa. At that time, it was a diploma that had a potential for getting professional employment.
Then I did my military service as a demographer in the Central African Republic, working in Bangui with a team which was preparing the first national census of the country. Some years later, I worked for the United Nations in Haute-Volta (present-day Burkina Faso) for nine months where I published the census results in two volumes. I became very interested in anthropology at that time. I read the works of the leading French anthropologists of African Studies who were at the time Eric de Dampierre (who I met at Bangui in 1975), Denise Paulme, Germaine Dieterlin, Geneviève Calmane-Griaule (who is related to Jean-Luc Chambard who I met later, the anthropologist who published this fascinating atlas of Pirpasod, a village in Central India), and Marxist anthropologists such as Claude Meillassoux (who I encountered in India at the beginning of the 1980s), Pierre-Philippe Rey, Emmanuel Terray, and Maurice Godelier who I attended his seminars at the EHESS in the early 1970s. When I moved from Rouen to Paris in order to study demography, I was eager to attend seminars at the EHESS whenever I was free.
In 1973 I had the opportunity to go to India with a group of geography students from the University of Rouen who were doing their fieldwork for their MPhil in the Guntur district of the state of Andhra Pradesh. I was completely drawn to the Indian world and this first visit triggered my strong desire to study this social and cultural universe. After this first contact with village India, I read Louis Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus which I had heard about during my BA courses (at least geography did allow me to read a few good books!).
In the mid 1970s, back from my military service, I wanted to conduct an ethno-demographic study in Central African Republic under the supervision of Eric de Dampierre (who was the director of the Laboratory for Comparative Ethnology and Sociology at Nanterre University). But it did not materialise. This is the reason why, considering my interest in India, Dampierre introduced me to the anthropologist Olivier Herrenschmidt (who was teaching at Nanterre) and who invited me to the CEIAS seminar. At that time the seminar, which was held on Saturday mornings at the EHESS, was not “open” and we needed to be introduced by a senior scholar to attend it.
Yet, earning a living as a scholar on India seemed difficult for me, for all sorts of reasons. Nonetheless, even though I couldn’t do fieldwork (for which I had neither the means nor the time then), I wrote a PhD in demography taking as subject the 1876-1878 famine in South India. I used secondary sources available mainly in Paris (notably the Indian collection of the Hôtel de Ville Library). With the support of the geographer François Durand-Dastès and the anthropologist Marie-Louise Reiniche I was recruited, while still a doctoral student, as member of the CEIAS. Then, after my PhD, I had the opportunity to obtain a position as contractual researcher at the French Institute of Pondichéry, thanks to the Tamil scholar François Gros who supported my project to study the historical demography of the Tamil population. For four years I lived in Madras (that was not yet called Chennai) and spent all my time in the Tamilnadu State Archives, a rich depository of archives but a really difficult place to work in.
In the 1970s the works of historians, demographers, anthropologists, and sociologists on the family were very influential at the EHESS (Paris). The studies done by Peter Laslett, who co-founded the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure
, were inspiring for me, as were the works of Jack Goody on the cycles of family development and dowry in Africa, and those of Pierre Bourdieu on family strategies among Bearnais peasants. My articles on the Indian family were influenced by all these scholars.
Then, as I had explained in the postface of L’Invention de l’Inde, my research took another direction that was unexpected. And after having spent twenty-some years in archives in India, in France, and in England, I wanted to return to studies which would open new fields of research on the sociology of contemporary India. The milieu of engineers rapidly struck me as a good entrance point to understand the social changes at hand in India since Independence and even more so for the past fifteen years or so. There is not even one single academic work about these modern professions even though they have been active almost for two centuries in India.
2° Within Indian studies in France, sociology is the poor cousin. Do you feel that this discipline’s place has evolved during your career?
In France, the disciple has an ambivalent history as it was not completely distinct from anthropology. The sociology of caste is divided at least between those two trends: on the one hand anthropologists study kinship or religion while on the other hand sociologists are more interested in issues related to working classes or social mobility. Louis Dumont, who was a student of Marcel Mauss, developed the first line, but proposed a sociological understanding of the caste system in Homo hierarchicus. Yet, I find Dumont at pains when he comes to deal with changes in contemporary India, which was not really his subject. It is true that the sociology of India is underdeveloped in France, and the consequence is that this vacuum has been filled by political scientists and geographers.
French sociologists focus mainly on France, or at most on Europe. The models are rarely set to social and cultural worlds outside Europe. The situation is slowly changing, but I have the feeling that French sociologists are more interested in contemporary China than in India. We must also take into account the high costs of the intellectual investment needed in order to study the sociology of these literate and complex societies, whose social structures and value systems differ entirely from ours (Western).
3° In your book, you demonstrate that Indian studies are structured according to a tension between two poles, on the one hand a scholarly pole (universities, researchers), and on the other, a mundane pole, that you call the prophetic pole or something we could also call worldly (journalists, writers, essayists, clerks). Do you feel that this opposition continues to structure contemporary Indian studies?
Very deliberately, in my book L’Invention de l’Inde, I didn’t want to investigate researchers who were still alive at the time when I was preparing the work, and who were for the most part my colleagues. I contented myself with conducting interviews about the post-year wars, in particular among researchers who were close to Dumont, notably Madeleine Biardeau.
From time to time, I read essays on India written by academics that I would place on the prophetic pole. I am thinking of a little book recently published that once more takes stereotypes on Indian spirituality and misery, cast in a pseudo-lyric Malraux type language, and that aims to confront Gandhian thought with Judaism; needless to say that the result is of staggering intellectual poverty. I fear that this type of literature is an inherent part of the interest that many Westerns have in India. But to answer more precisely your question, investigations should be carried out.
4° In applying the tools of sociology of science and cognition as developed by Pierre Bourdieu, your work has manifested an exhaustive criticism of Dumont’s work. How has this angle of your work been received by your French and foreign colleagues, notably those of the CEIAS, a research center founded by Louis Dumont?
This question would need quite a long elaboration. I never attended even one of Louis Dumont’s seminars. It happens that in the 1970s Dumont’s seminars at the EHESS were held in a room next to that of Pierre Bourdieu’s seminars that I did attend (the seminars took place in a town house located at the rue de Varenne in the 7th arrondissement).
I would say that I encountered both an understanding, a sort of gentle indifference towards the substance, and a violent rejection on the part of certain intellectual heirs of Louis Dumont. Reflexivity and historicisation are terms often uttered, but these principles are rarely put into practice. The social history of scholarship on India in France was largely ignored. On the one hand there was the criticism of Orientalism led by Edward Saïd, a work that has never had an influence on my reflections, and on the other hand a vague history of ideas, for example on the reception of Buddhism in France. No one had really studied the inter-war period (although just brushed upon by Raymond Schwab), a period where Louis Dumont’s work took root. In addition, the university milieu tends to produce a very official, quite institutional, and streamlined history of Orientalist studies.
The question of the denominational factor, in France, is and remains taboo because we are prisoners of the categories of thought stemming from the separation of the State and the Church, a law that aims to relegate religion to the private sphere. And we take this separation for granted (it is closely associated with a strong and old,
quite outdated republicanism). Yet, this has never really occurred in this way: the obituaries, the conflicts and controversies (in book reviews for example) display how the denominational factor is cleaving, not always in the way one could expect. No one pointed out the controversial aspect of the little book written by the English anthropologist Arthur Hocart, Les Castes, prefaced by Marcel Mauss, in which Hocart strongly attacked Bouglé for his anticlericalism but without mentioning his name; you have to know the ideological debate going on in the 1920s-1930s in France in order to understand Hocart and Mauss stands. There is a strong yet widely unconscious censorship that made thinking about these questions historically and sociologically difficult.
5° Some of your colleagues have noticed that you have published and taught relatively little — your major publication L’invention de l’Inde was published late in your career. Why such parsimony in your writing? What are your plans for the beginning of your retirement?
|In 1985, after spending four years at the French Institute of Pondicherry I had the opportunity to join the CNRS, which suited me perfectly. If I had wanted to teach, I would have tried to compete for a university position. It is true that so far I have only published one monograph, but that required ten years of research. I have a manuscript in progress on the beginning of Oriental studies in India, and I have also collected a lot of materials on the genesis of sociology in India — I referred to this work in the postface of the English translation of my book Scholars and Prophets. I am certainly quite demanding when it comes to writing. But I often read books or articles that I have been written too hastefully, that have not been thought out completely, and that no one seriously discusses because no one has the time to read; the social conditions of scholarship has changed a lot in the past thirty years.
Meanwhile, I have translated the works of Indian social scientists into French. I have collaborated with Isabelle Kalinowski on the translation of Max Weber’s Hindouisme et Bouddisme, I have edited and annotated two volumes of correspondence written by Sylvain Lévi, with lengthy introductions, and I have just published the letters written by Lévi to his friend and colleague, the sinologist Paul Pelliot. I initiated an international conference on Sylvain Lévi and wrote two articles which required a lot of research, one on his family milieu, the other about his publications in order to understand Lévi’s position in the field of Oriental studies. But the publication of primary sources, which used to be the subject of many thèses secondaires for French historians [when the old thèse d’État was in force, scholar had to write a “secondary thesis”, on a complementary subject], has been overlooked today and it is negatively considered, perceived as an activity of little worth and not personal enough. Yet, this kind of publication is also part of the accumulation of knowledge which is useful for the scholarly milieu.
I am still doing research on Sylvain Lévi. With Catherine Fhima, a historian completing her dissertation on Jewish intellectual networks before WWII, we have published two articles. One deals with Jewish academic sociability at the beginning of 20th century and the other addresses the intellectual and political relationships that Lévi entertained with the East. We are currently preparing the publication of the correspondence between Sylvain Lévi and Marcel Mauss (and partly with Henri Hubert), which highlights Mauss’s training in Sanskrit. Over the past fifteen years I have gathered more than four hundred manuscript letters written by Sylvain Lévi (others are yet to be discovered). I do not intend to publish all of them even though many do merit as much, especially those from the WWI years. These letters should allow us to write Sylvain Lévi’s biography in which we shall explore the intellectual stakes that link his scholarship on India and his political engagements as a Jew.
Finally, I have just spent four years (2010-2013) at the Centre de Sciences Humaines at Delhi where I initiated an Indo-French research project on the history and sociology of Indian engineers. The project, now headed by the historian Vanessa Caru, is financed by the ANR (2014-2016). I have also submitted a two-hundred page report to the Agence pour l’emploi des cadres (APEC) [Association of the Employment of Executives], which is a general survey of the ICT sector in India; it should be published shortly. I intend to carry on my research on the ICT sector and plan to write a book on “The Making of Indian IT Engineers”.