“Failure to examine the conceptual structures and frames of reference which are unconsciously implicated in even the seemingly most innocent factual inquires is the single greatest defect that can be found in any field of inquiry.”
- John Dewey
The explosion of ‘theory’ in the social sciences and the sense of urgency it has known to carry in a little over the last three decades has arisen out of a hugely creative effort to challenge dominant paradigms and to make sense of the radical openings offered in the understanding of the ‘human condition’. This has been thrown open by a deep sense of unease with established civilizational organization and modes of enquiry. Increasingly growing in the innards of European society in the aftermath of the World War II was a slow but sure recognition of the basic fractures within the structures of the subject. There was also a ‘radical disagreement’ with the institutions of advanced democratic capitalism, imperial colonialism and its ‘alternative’ - state socialism. The very idea of progress bound up with the project of the Enlightenment, science and modernity has been subjected to questioning. There proliferated a whole range of ‘epistemic’ (and some activist) strategies engaged in ‘dismantling stable conceptions of meaning, subjectivity and identity’. New philosophers of science have revealed the paradigmatic and chaotic nature of the process of scientific discovery, thus undermining the image of a singular rational world and rational man. Displaced from itself and losing its bearings the subject gains access to a different openness to the world and exhilarates in a new sense of knowledge and freedom. Braving all consequences social theory has ‘posited’ the decentred and desiring subject, aesthetic subjectivity, and radical democracy. In a genetic and semiotic theory of capital, desiring and social production has pushed space and territoriality beyond their frontiers. Classical sociological theory has been subjected to the most intense interrogation resulting in new areas of methodology, research and concept formation. Social theory has incited the repositioning of the question of imperialism, the post-colonial and development leading to novel theorizations of oppression and emancipation. Furthermore a re-engagement of social theory with Marxism has led to numerous creative pathways ranging from criticism to appropriation. An enriched Marxism and social theory have begun to offer new critical insights in international political economy and in the 'superstructural' space.
In this climate of a productive rupture there has been a burst of questioning and creativity vis-à-vis the social sciences in ‘decolonized’ societies. Classical formulations of socio-theoretic categories such as caste, class and gender have begun to be subjected to scrutiny, their inter-relationships re-interrogated, and relativized to their indigenous origins and conditions. The ‘scientific intellectual activity’ which largely permeates traditional social science has been problematised in terms of the ‘thorny dilemma between universality of science and specificities of cultures’. Rejection of ‘borrowed consciousness’, indigenisation of the social sciences and the development of an ‘authentic self-awareness’ have become some of the major clarion calls of this new creative thrust in knowledge. The contention has been not so much that indigenisation is opposed to universalisation but that ‘all cultures, civilizations and historical experiences’ are to be considered integral to the universalisation of the social sciences. The call for indigenous valences of inquiry in order to grasp the post-colonial subject has been sharpened, for instance, by an investigation into the structures of subjectivity through the fundamental ruptures of Indian society. Theorizing from marginality in order to conceptualize both identity and the social forms is, today, a fruitful direction for social theory. In this context the ethical and epistemological role of ‘lived experience’ is beginning to be explored. Moreover, a call to the intellectual and cultural categories of Indian philosophizing seeks to complement the emerging social theory.
However the above trends have just begun and much remains to be done. These concerns largely remain marginal in the contemporary conceptual imagination in India and do not occupy significant space in mainstream academia, policy discourse and fields of praxis. The global implications of frontier and cutting-edge social theory at the international level and the positioning of local theorizing is a vastly expanding space calling for immediate intervention from India. The creative questioning of dominant paradigms remains an unfinished task and this constitutes a huge gap in governance and needs to be forthwith addressed. Globalization and social justice demands the prising open of new vistas of social theorizing in India and the South often in tandem with frontier areas, insights and methodologies of international social theory. Hence the need to look at social theory differently and creatively in India remains as urgent as ever.
Importantly, the helping professions in India and at TISS specifically have made enormous strides in intervention, field-action and research in social work and allied domains. TISS has been inspired by the vision to “be an institution of excellence in higher education that continually responds to the changing social realities through the development and application of knowledge, towards creating a people-centred and ecologically sustainable society that promotes and protects the dignity, equality, social justice and human rights for all, with special emphasis on marginalised and vulnerable groups”. The consequent unique knowledge-generating and interventional work especially with marginalized and excluded communities leading to a questioning of dominant paradigms involves a degree of conceptual formulation, criss-crossing of disciplinary boundaries, and conscious, planned and political participation in subjectivities, group dynamics and socio-economic contexts. This places two specific demands on the Institute and its family. First, there is a need of exposing this interventional work to serious theoretical articulation so that the fundamental and universalist pre-conditions and structures are recognized and assimilated. Second, in the context of structural social injustice the implications of interdisciplinarity within classroom pedagogy and field/research training and the consequential relations between theory and practice within and across taught, field-action and consultancy Programmes need to be subjected to greater critical scrutiny, elaboration and development.
In order therefore to do creative social theory which contributes to debate at the international level and in India and to strengthen the link between theory and practice a Centre for Social Theory has been established under the aegis of the School of Development Studies at TISS. The Centre shall be focused on a comparative, historical and interdisciplinary approach and shall encourage critical reflection from multiple perspectives. The Centre shall aim to be the best location for social theory in the South in the next five to ten years.
The general objectives of the Centre for Social Theory shall be the following:-
The Centre shall take cognizance of these global and Indian/non-Western critiques of dominant paradigms and seek to actively participate in the creativity and freedom which they offer - it shall try to be a fellow traveller and further extend developing lines of interdisciplinary theorizing in India and across the globe.
The Centre shall consolidate at the theoretical level the considerable interdisciplinary knowledge arising from intervention and from research projects of the Institute – it shall provide the connecting link between theory and practice so that both the domains feed into each other.
It is hoped that the exertions of the Centre would contribute to a sharper realization by the helping professions of both the emancipatory potential of social theory and of the cruciality of theory in making experience known.
In furtherance of these broad objectives, the Centre shall have the following specific objectives:-
The Centre shall encourage and support cutting-edge research in the social sciences, humanities and the sciences largely within the frameworks of humanism, science studies, post-structuralism, philosophies of exclusion (e.g. women's studies, dalit and tribal studies, lesbian and gay studies, etc.), Marxism and critical theory, indigenous science and technology, and heterodox and orthodox Indian philosophies and science/technology (broadly conceived).
The aim of the Centre would be to stimulate contact and exchanges between different theoretical approaches and disciplines so as to facilitate an explicit link between social theory and social work and other helping professions in their engagement with excluded and marginalized populations.
The Centre shall be a platform for providing exemplary teaching in social theory at the postgraduate level which shall strengthen teaching, research and field-action projects in the helping professions and in the social sciences.