Social History of Science in Colonial India. Themes in Indian History.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Harrison, Mark
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Social History of Science in Colonial India: Themes in Indian History (Essay collection)
Persons: Reviewee: Habib, S. Irfan; Raina, Dhuruv
Accession Number: 209577978
Full Text: Social History of Science in Colonial India. Themes in Indian History. Edited by S. Irfan Habib and Dhruv Raina (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007. xl plus 395pp.).

The last few decades have seen a boom in academic writing on the history of science in India and also a sea-change in the way in which scholars have construed the relationship between science and imperial rule. In the early 1980s, modernization theory--classically expressed by George Basalla in 1967--still framed much of the discussion. Most of the literature presented the history of modern science in India in terms of its evolution from a primary stage of resource exploitation, through the emergence of scientific institutions and professions, to the eventual assertion of scientific independence. Studies of these different 'phases' of colonial science also tended to endorse many long-held assumptions about the dependent nature of Indian science and continued to view science as diffusing outwards from the imperial centre to the colonial periphery.

Today the historiographical landscape looks very different. If there is a dominant theme in recent studies of science in colonial India it is not 'diffusion' or 'development' but diversity. Lately, scholars have roundly criticized the idea that science somehow percolated out from its home in the West to reach India and have stressed the ways in which science and technology were altered as they were introduced into India. Much of we might take to be 'Western' science, it now seems, emerged out of a dialogue--albeit often an unequal one--between different traditions, Indian and European. The dominant picture is thus now one of complexity, with an emphasis upon the dynamic and manifold nature of scientific activity. Indeed, some go so far as to claim that there were many local versions of modern science in colonial India rather than a single, universal Western science.

In their selection of twelve important pieces on the history of science in colonial India, and in their introductory essay, the editors show how this revolution in the historiography has come about. The essays have been chosen to reflect key turning points in the literature on Indian science and to provide an indication of the range of interpretative perspectives that have emerged over the last three decades. A deliberate decision was made to omit work in the related fields of the history of medicine and environmental history, since this would have made the volume too unwieldy. Nevertheless, relevant literature in these sub-fields is referred to in the Introduction and some of the essays, and is cited in the select bibliography at the end.

The volume begins with a classic essay by K.N. Panikkar--first published in 1980--which stresses the intellectual vitality of the immediate pre-colonial period, by contrast with what was then the dominant view of the eighteenth century as a period of factious decline. Although most of the essay is not about 'science' as such, it framed much of what has subsequently been written on this period, which is now regarded as significant because of the relative fluidity and interchange between European and Indian bodies of knowledge. The second essay--by Matthew Edney--examines the advent of British rule and a period in which a distinctly colonial ordering of knowledge occurred. Imperial map-making epitomised a trend--referred to in the work of C.A. Bayly and others--towards a rejection of Indian informants to an unmediated, rational ordering of space which served to legitimate British rule. Edney's work on mapping has since been criticized by Kapil Raj (Relocating Modern Science) for glossing over the use made by the British of Indian knowledge and for over-stating the utility of the first colonial maps. Raj's essay in this volume outlines the general line that he would take in his later work, stressing the dependence of the British on local mapping protocols and, more generally, the heterogeneous nature of interactions between British and Indian networks of knowledge.

When set against the Foucauldian argument of Edney and the post-colonial thrust of Raj's work--which dislodges the Western metropolis from its formerly central position--Sen's 1988 article on the introduction of Western science into India seems to belong to a different era, and in a sense it does. It does not problematize scientific knowledge and modernization in the way that Foucauldian scholars have, or indeed, those who have drawn inspiration from Gandhi. But at the time the dominant paradigm was still basically diffusionist, and Sen challenged this by pointing out that the introduction of science into India was anything but a straightforward transmission of ideas, technologies and institutions. In many areas it was bounded by racial divisions, most manifest perhaps in the lack of provision for the education of Indians in certain subjects. According to Sen, science did not begin to flourish in India until it was fostered by the movement for independence: a conclusion subsequently endorsed by scholars such as Deepak Kumar.

Sen's analysis resembles in certain respects that of Dionne and MacLeod who, in their chapter, show how the commercial and governmental concerns of the British skewed technological development in India. According to Inkster, in his essay, the net effect of this was to retard India's economic development. Baber's chapter on science and colonial power ploughs a similar furrow but it sees the development of science in India as the outcome of a complex interplay between economic and political structures and the agency of Europeans and Indians. It is an approach that recognizes a greater diversity of attitudes among Indians and colonial administrators.

Baber's work points to one of the main themes of most recent work on India: the ways in which the recipient culture(s) received science and understood it in terms of their own cultural and political preoccupations. This is the dominant theme of the chapters by Habib and Raina, Prakash, and Dasgupta, which examine such key figures in Indian science as P.C. Ray and S.N. Bose. Essays by Vishwanathan and Kumar develop this theme by examining the tensions created by embracing the Western path of industrial development.

It is regrettable that some major publications--such as recent books by Lour-dusamy and Chakrabarti--were not given their due in the introductory essay and that more space was not given to discussion of science in French and Portuguese enclaves. An index would also have been useful to readers wishing to cross-reference between the essays. Nevertheless, the editors have collected wisely, and their volume will be indispensible to all students and teachers of the history of science in colonial India. It will also provide a useful overview for scholars working on other areas seeking a comparative perspective.

Mark Harrison

University of Oxford
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.