I am indebted to Matthew Cook for his review of the 2013 Brill edition of Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present.
He has often read closely and summarized succinctly. Like any author, I am gratified by his praise of much of my work.
I must however take issue with his overall framing of my book. He presents it as an effort by a historian to deride anthropological research and to separate anthropologists from historians. He attributes to me the claim that I reject practically all anthropological arguments on South Asia except for the work of Fredrik Barth and Susan Bayly. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have positively cited important advances made by many social anthropologists, past and present. In alphabetical order, these include Thomas Beidelman, Andre Beteille, Bernard Cohn, V.M. Dandekar, Mary C. Douglas, G.S. Ghurye, Dipankar Gupta, M.B. Jagtap, Surinder Jodhka, Morton Klass, Rajni Kothari, McKim Marriott, A.M. Shah, Ghanshyam Shah, Peter van der Veer, and Nur Yalman. In Chapter 1 I repeatedly acknowledge my debt to Morton Klass and Bernard Cohn.
Cook’s larger framing of my book as the work of a historian attacking the practitioners of another discipline is therefore completely misconceived. He declares that my “polemical approach tends to reaffirm the disciplinary boundaries between anthropology and history.” (Review p.3) When any scholar presents an account of past time based on contemporary documents and testimony rather than on intensive field observation, she or he is working as a historian. On the other hand, historians must analyze earlier times through concepts drawn from other social sciences. Thus ideas from anthropology, sociology and economics are constantly deployed in my historical work.
While there are a number of details that I could dispute, I will only correct one deeply erroneous imputation. Cook alludes to one of my “statements” being that “Nicholas Dirks is hypocritical in his intellectual opposition to Dumont”. (Review, p.2) This is simply false. I have never, either on page 40 of my book or anywhere elsewhere, accused Dirks of conscious dissimulation, or hypocrisy. On page 38 I specifically highlight my indebtedness to the breakthrough made by Dirks and Susan Bayly at the end of the 1980s:
“Dirks and Bayly opened a new way of understanding South Asian society and –by returning political power to social structure, they also allowed us to link it with the studies of modern political life that flourished from the 1950s onward.”
Thus I in fact lauded Dirks’ effort to bring the state back into the history of caste and argued only that he (and Bayly) failed to consistently implement this research agenda and hence escape the Brahman-centric outlook that was the legacy of nineteenth-century Orientalism. Anyone who is developing a long and complex argument may fall into inconsistency. It does not mean that the scholar is a hypocrite.
Ed. note: The following response is posted on behalf of the review author, Matthew Cook.
I would like to thank the editor for allowing me to reply to Sumit Guha’s response to my review of Beyond Caste. I would also like to thank Sumit Guha for taking time and effort to respond to my generally positive review. Since Guha’s response is basically devoted to the penultimate paragraph of my review, I will restrict my reply to it.
Rather than quantify and compare positive and negative citations, the penultimate paragraph concludes that most chapters in Beyond Caste are anchored in critiques of writings by specific anthropologists and/or groups of anthropologists. Some of these critiques hit their mark while others less so. Regardless of effectiveness, I maintain that Guha’s critiques would be enhanced by greater attention to the history of anthropological thought. Such history (or “theory”) is generally important to understanding anthropological writings. One example, from among many, concerns Fredrik Barth: His perspectives on culture, society and ethnicity directly relate to his training in the “British School” of anthropology and his admiration for Edmund Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma. Guha’s analyses deliberately eschew such relevant facts. The results are analyses of anthropological writings without sufficient reference to the “belief systems” that inform them. In this sense, Beyond Caste misses an opportunity for deepening the interdisciplinary conversation between anthropology and history. Such a lost opportunity, when read against the light of Guha’s critiques, gives the (perhaps unintentional) appearance of reaffirming disciplinary boundaries.
In Beyond Caste, on page 40, Guha states that, “The starting point of Dirks’s argument is consciously opposed to Dumont but it terminates in a rather similar conclusion.” This sentence clearly states that Dirks says one thing but ends up doing another. While Beyond Caste does engage Dirks’ writings at length (e.g., chapter two argues that janapada is more suited than Dirks’ “little kingdom” for understanding the longue durée of South Asian history), this fact does not change what Guha states in the above quote. If an “inconsistency” due to a long and complex argument, Guha’s statement simply points toward issues of editing. However, it also directs attention towards a certain polemic approach. Whether or not this approach furthers interdisciplinary exchanges is, ultimately, something that time will determine.
Again, I thank Sumit Guha for his response. It provokes good academic exchanges.