Image: Courtesy of Dev N. Pathak, Sociology, SAU.
About The Department - Vision and Beyond

Over the last half century or so, a vast body of knowledge(s) on the region has evolved within South Asia that mostly remain within the countries of their origin due to a number of reasons. In this specific context, there is a crucial need to share some of this knowledge in contemporary times when, despite assertions of localisations and mini-narratives, the universal does retain its emphasis through a constant dialectics of the two. The debate between the local and universal or mini-narratives and meta-narratives continue to rage, and is more clearly visible in the context of South Asian context. Even so, we are acutely aware of the non-existence of regular and serious forums for South Asian scholarship in social sciences to showcase our own research and thinking. We are also quite conscious of the fact that the process of establishing sociology in the region has created its own peculiarities which has established close inter-relationships between sociology and social anthropology, history, cultural studies, archeology and other related disciplines. We consider the porousness of South Asian sociology one of its most enduring strengths. On the other hand, we are not unaware of the unfortunate regressions sociology has experienced in different South Asian contexts over the last 30 years or so marked by numerous institutional failures.

It is within the context(s) outlined above that the Department of Sociology at South Asian university, initiated in 2011 witihn the Faculty of Social Sciences contributes to teaching, training and knowledge production. It is not intended to be a mere forum for the production of cutting-edge intellectual knowledge and exchange of that knowledge traversing across national borders in South Asia and beyond. Our expectation is that this knowledge would dislocate the persistence of an imposed framework emanating from the colonisation process and postcolonial politics of knowledge. Despite the passage of over fifty years since the process of official decolonization began in the region, much of the analyses of our problems, situations, histories and dynamics emanate from Euro American academia; this is certainly the case when it comes to conceptual formulations and theoretical approaches that are being employed in exploring the region’s social and cultural complexities often without much self-reflection.

The Department of Sociology strongly believes in the need to reformulate this situation by effectively centering South Asia without naively shunning thought from these established centers of knowledge be they in Europe or North America. We believe in an active and robust engagement with these issues within South Asia. In this context, through the work of its faculty and the research of graduate students, the Department would bring forward the newer forms of knowledge that comprehends and represents the South Asian context with a more authoritative and nuanced voice. We strongly believe in the need to actively intervene in the process of knowledge formation through a constant sharing of knowledge that the region produces as well as through interaction with the world beyond the region.

The courses taught in the Department as well as the research carried out by its faculty members reflect this overall vision and our collective commitment towards innovation, move beyond untenable stereotypes, and explore a new world of knowledge within the discipline of Sociology.

Class of 2011, Department of Sociology, South Asian University; Image: Courtesy of Dev N. Pathak, Sociology, SAU.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Karen Exell Talk Concluded

The talk by Karen Exell on 6th August 2016 at 6.30 pm at IIC, Delhi on the theme, ‘Museums and the Present: Issues of Community, Locality and Contextual Relevance’ was conclude successfully. The talk was organised by the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences at South Asian University in collaboration with IIC.

The basic argument of the presentation was that “Museums were developed in many parts of the world during the colonial period to ‘visualise and objectify’ the colonised people and country for the coloniser, as Shaila Bhatti has argued in relation to the Lahore Museum, or to collect and display archaeological material that supported western interests. Following decolonisation the perception has remained amongst local communities that these ‘colonial’ museums are irrelevant to their contemporary concerns. This contrasts with museological approaches in some northern European countries, where museums have become central to social policy agendas of community support, or the focus of grass-roots cultural initiatives. Using models from a variety of countries, this lecture argues that museums in post-colonial countries such as India have the opportunity to significantly enrich the lives of their local communities through creative interventions, and to realign these museums with contemporary socio-political concerns.”

The speaker, Karen Excel teaches Museum Studies, and is Programme Director of the MA program in Museum and Gallery Practice at University College London’s Qatar campus. Her research interests include the social and political role of museums and the impact of museums on cultural identity, with a focus on non-western societies. Her recent publications include the co-edited volume, Heritage Debates in the Arabian Peninsula published in 2014, and the forthcoming monograph, Museums in the Arabian Peninsula: Globalisation and the Politics of Representation scheduled to be published by Routledge in 2016.

In intruding the speaker and SAU Sociology department’s involvement in its organization, the Chair, Sasanka Perera made the following observations: 

I want to take a little bit of time to explain how it was possible for an academic program such as sociology to imagine a theme like this, given the fact that our discipline is generally supposed to deal with the present. Besides, we are a relatively unheard of entity as both a Department and as a University. I am sure most of you do not know what or where South Asian University is. It does not really matter. I am sure you will soon enough. 

But for me, that lack of an institutional tradition or heritage is an asset when we are in the process of building something from scratch. A tradition can sometimes be a burden for well established universities in the context of which they have to constantly measure what they do. Creative transgression would be unthinkable. At the moment at least, this is not a consideration for us. 

Clearly, we deal with issues such as migration, gender, violence, law, the city, class and so on as do other sociologists. But because we are in the process of defining our own presence and perspective as well as our collective intellectual future in Delhi and in South Asia, some of us are also interested in things and objects that many sociologists would not take too seriously. These include visual arts, film and performance, photography and in understanding the ways in which the past is an ensuring presence in our present. In other words, we would like to establish our practice slightly differently if given the option.

In that sense, the interest in this theme came very naturally. It is also in that same context that we organised a very unique and engaged conversation with Professor Romila Thapar in 2013 focused on the theme ‘debating the past and the present’. These proceedings have since been published in our ongoing series, ‘Conversations on/for South Asia.’

Though we have inherited the idea of museums as part of our colonial experience, they are now very much part of our collective existence playing out our own politics and intrigue. Not too long ago, in a single day the National Museum of Maldives was vandalised twice, and the Buddhist artefacts there destroyed. In Colombo, over a decade ago, some artefacts in the National Museum were taken to the President’s house, not as part of any specific program, but simply because he liked them. He also wanted the throne of the last king of Lanka to be taken to his residence to sit on when receiving foreign dignitaries. 

The appointment of Directors to important museums in the region and clearly in Delhi is an important political act. It is a matter of how the past might be represented in a way that would make sense to political dispensations of today. 

So clearly, the past as packaged in museums, the past as we popularly understand it, and the past as it is officially handled is very much a matter of the present. And that itself makes it relevant for us as sociologists not too keen to be imprisoned by the conventions of our discipline.

I am sure Dr Exell will deal with in detail how museums become an integral part of the discursive practices of the present in her talk.

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