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Finding the Middle Ground in an Interdisciplinary Debate

Sudha Pai

By M.N. Srinivas and edited by A.M. Shah
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 379, Rs. 695.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 9 September 2007

The elections examined in this volume were held in the mid 1960s/early70s when studies of voting behaviour were just beginning in India. While the individual contributions can be read as useful accounts of elections and voting behaviour in local communities, their importance lies in the attempt by the editor A.M. Shah to use them to demonstrate the value of the anthropological method of grassroots fieldwork for studying elections, as against the survey and statistical method used by political scientists. The response by Yogendra Yadav in the epilogue provides a rich debate between the social anthropologist’s micro-field view or, according to M.N. Srinivas the ‘worm’s view’, as against the macro or ‘bird’s eye view’ (p. 2) of political scientists. Hence, the volume raises seminal methodological issues for scholars researching elections in India.   Conceived originally by the eminent anthropologist M.N. Srinivas and edited by A.M. Shah, the volume consists of eighteen field studies of national/state elections covering a wide spectrum of rural, tribal and urban communities in ten Indian states and published for the first time: eleven essays on the 1967 elections and eight essays on the 1971 elections. They show how local events and disputes such as shifts in electoral alliances between village leaders during panchayat elections; conflict between families of dominant brahmins over the appointment of village officers; refusal of the dominant castes to allow lower caste members to build their houses near the village site; disputes over land, factional conflicts and patron client relationships can affect electoral outcomes.   The common thread running through these studies is the use of an approach characteristic of social anthropology: intensive fieldwork in small communities/villages/constituencies; participant observation by researchers or, choice of a location studied by social anthropologists thereby providing rich background material about the community; and use of interpretative rather than quantitative analysis. However, a few studies do employ statistics to interpret the results. Shah claims that this method developed in the Delhi University under the leadership of M.N. Srinivas had the following distinctive qualities: it gave importance to intensive study of local communities, their power struggles, caste divisions, linguistic differences and factional groupings which helped shape as well as understand, regional and national electoral patterns. Second, it did not view the individual as a ‘rational political man’ but gave due cognizance to the impact of social cleavages on voting patterns. He argues ...

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