University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Centre of South Asian Studies Seminars > Imperial empiricism and the decline of the Raj: Caste, religion and official anthropology in the early twentieth century

Imperial empiricism and the decline of the Raj: Caste, religion and official anthropology in the early twentieth century

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The scholarship on colonial anthropological knowledge and its preoccupation with caste is mainly focused on the late nineteenth century, ending with the 1901 census. In later years, official interest in collecting data about caste and also religion declined, partly in reaction to their politicisation. Because castes and religious communities were seen as ‘things’ that could be classified and counted, colonial anthropology was thoroughly empiricist. In the early twentieth century, however three official anthropologists – E. A. Gait, E. A. H. Blunt and L. S. S. O’Malley – started to overcome the limitations of empiricism in the study of caste. Gait and Blunt also held senior positions in the government, but their knowledge of the social realities of caste and religion did not throw much light on the political realities faced by the British, so that their anthropological expertise had little significant or consistent effect on the two men’s thinking about political problems, such as Hindu-Muslim conflict. How far official anthropology helped to sustain imperial power and authority, even in the late nineteenth century, is debatable, but it certainly did not help much in the early twentieth, despite the intellectual progress made by Gait, Blunt and O’Malley in understanding the caste system.

This talk is part of the Centre of South Asian Studies Seminars series.

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