Obituary: Professor Louis Dumont

Anthony Good
Saturday 05 December 1998 01:02

IT FALLS to few academics to dominate their entire disciplinary field, yet the seminal influence of Louis Dumont, the French ethnographer and historian of ideas, on the anthropology of India by no means exhausts his contribution.

Dumont is best known to anthropologists for his work on Indian caste and kinship, but his view that holism and hierarchy form the ideological basis of Indian society also led him to explore the intellectual history of their Western counterparts, individualism and normative equality.

Born in 1911, Dumont discovered social science when he began working in the Musee des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris in 1936. This led eventually to research on southern France, and to several articles and a book La Tarasque (1951) written from a folklore perspective. He soon began studying under Marcel Mauss, doyen of a whole generation of French social scientists. A few years later, while a prisoner of war in Germany, Dumont began learning Sanskrit and developed an interest in India, which he carried further after his return to the museum in 1945.

Dumont was among the first modern-style field researchers in India and worked in both the far south and extreme north of the country. His initial research (1949-50) in Tamil Nadu yielded his main ethnographic book, Une Sous-Caste de l'Inde du Sud (1957) and several key contributions to kinship theory, which had entered its most adversarial phase under the influence of Claude Levi-Strauss's Les Structures Elementaires de la Parente (1949).

Years later, in an interview with his former student Jean-Claude Galey, Dumont described Levi-Strauss's insights as the key to his own understanding of Tamil kinship, with its emphasis on marriage between cousins. Significantly, he added that Levi-Strauss's theory had first required "slight modification". These modifications, unveiled in a classic 1953 article, were based on his recognition that Tamils classify relatives, and indeed all members of their own caste, in a way that presumes particular forms of marriage will occur.

His grasp of kinship theory is demonstrated in his wonderful textbook Introduction a Deux Theories d'Anthropologie Sociale (1971); sadly for teachers of the subject, he never approved a translation, in the self- deprecating belief that a book explaining British anthropology to Parisian students could not possibly interest native English-speakers.

As a lecturer at the Institute of Social Anthropology at Oxford University from 1951, Dumont began a collaboration with David Pocock with whom he founded the journal Contributions to Indian Sociology in 1957. Early issues consisted mainly of unsigned articles by the two principals, which were intended to establish a collective groundwork for the scientific understanding of Indian society. Though this aim proved over- ambitious, Contributions itself went from strength to strength, reincarnated itself in India, and is now the foremost specialist journal on South Asia.

At the heart of his approach lay his credo that "India is one"; that behind the diversity of languages, castes and customs lay a common civilisation founded upon Sanskritic culture. One could not understand Indian society through piecemeal enumeration of local castes and customs, as colonial administrators and early anthropologists tried to do. Instead, caste relationships in particular regions should be seen as manifestations of a pan-Indian ideological whole which is hierarchical, structural (in Levi-Strauss's sense), and founded on "a single true principle, namely the opposition of the pure and the impure".

For example, in any relationship between two castes - or two people - the presumption is not one of moral equality overlaid in practice with unfortunate differences of race, class or gender, as in the dominant ideologies of the modern West; but one of hierarchy, whereby one party to the relationship is regarded as higher-ranking - and hence also purer by virtue of diet, custom or hereditary occupation - than the other.

His insights provided the framework whereby the post-war diaspora of fieldworkers could compare observations from widely-scattered corners of India, and had the added attraction of linking contemporary findings to the most ancient texts and principles of Indian civilisation. Not that his views were universally accepted. While some Indian scholars were attracted by his stress on cultural unity, others joined Western Marxists in criticising his reliance on Sanskritic sources and his strangely ahistorical approach (he wrote almost as if nothing significant had happened to Indian society between Vedic times and the coming of the British).

His position was seen as relegating Indian Muslims and Christians to the ideological periphery, and there were accusations that he had hoodwinked himself into accepting the views of ancient Brahman literati - even then only a tiny, elite faction within Hindu society - as an accurate picture of the entire civilisation. Whether with him or against him, however, it was for many years almost impossible to write on Indian society without extensive reference to Dumont.

His own interests, though, were increasingly turning towards the West, and Homo Hierachicus was succeeded by two volumes on Homo Aequalis (1977, 1991), tracing the development of European individualist ideologies, especially in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In this later work, which brought him fresh celebrity among French political philosophers, he argued among other things that modern racism and totalitarianism reflect the failure of egalitarian ideology to recognise that social relationships place practical limits upon the rights of individuals. Though the different phases of his work appealed to quite different readerships, they were thus clearly united in exploring two very different historical outcomes of the tension between holism and individualism.

Anthony Good

Louis Dumont, anthropologist: born Salonika, Greece 1911; married; died Paris 19 November 1998.

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