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Theoretical Brahmins, Empirical Shudras, and Experiential Dalits: On the Impasses of Indian Social Science Practice

Mr Ankit Kawade, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India


This paper is an attempt to recapitulate and reflect upon the central themes of Gopal Guru’s 2002 article titled “How Egalitarian Are the Social Sciences in India?”. Although one can count several major institutional and political changes that have happened in the field of higher education in India in the last two decades, Guru’s piercing concern about the lack of egalitarianism in Indian universities and social science practice remains as true today as it was twenty years ago.

Guru himself describes the institutional and discursive practice of social sciences in India as harbouring “a cultural hierarchy” between the practitioners of empirical research vis-à-vis theoretical research. Thus, in what has become perhaps the most enduring catchphrase resulting from this article, Guru writes that “Indian social science represents a pernicious divide between theoretical brahmins and empirical shudras”.

If one pays close attention to the above quoted sentence about “the pernicious divide between theoretical brahmins and empirical shudras” in Indian social science practice, one would realise that there is a sense of incompletion in the structure of this analogy itself. Although Guru speaks of a binary model of division here, much of the fundamental concern of his 2002 article is about what remains unnamed in this famous sentence— if the Brahmins are the head of the purusha-like structure of Indian social sciences and the Shudras are its feet, where are the untouchables or the Dalits in this schema of division?

This question is important to consider because it brings to light the missing third category of the experiential Dalit that the bulk of Guru’s article is actually about. Guru’s fundamental insistence towards establishing the egalitarian principle in Indian social science research rests on the way social scientists have historically dealt with the notion of experience as affecting the process of research. It is the notion of experience that mediates the operation of theory and empiricism in this article. According to Guru, the experiential Dalit is, arguably, the heuristic figure that brings to light what the notion of experience can do towards making Indian social science research more egalitarian in the future.

In other words, my argument is that it is the third category of the experiential Dalit and not theoretical brahmins and empirical shudras that mainly carries the critical weight of Guru’s analysis about the nature of inegalitarianism in the social sciences. This category is what allows Guru to make his universalist claim about theory itself as being based on experience, whose realisation is prevented by the structure of caste-determined inegalitarianism that persists among the practitioners of social science research in India.

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