T.K. (Tharaileth Koshy) Oommen

T.K. Oommen
by Jennifer Platt, University of Sussex, England

Born: 1937
Nationality: Indian

Education
B.A. (Economics), Kerala University, Trivandrum (India), 1957.
M.A. (Sociology), Poona University (India), 1960.
Ph.D. (Sociology), Poona University (India), 1965.  (Thesis topic, ‘Charisma, stability and change: an analysis of Bhoodan-Gramdan movement in India’; supervisor, Y. B. Damle.)

Posts held
1964-70, Lecturer in Social Sciences, Delhi School of Social Work, Delhi University
1970-71, Reader in Sociology, Delhi School of Social Work, Delhi University.
1971-76, Associate Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.
1976 -2002, Professor of Sociology, CSSS, JNU.
2003-2006  In this period he undertook three public tasks: he was Chair of the Advisory Committee, Gujarat Harmony Project, to explore the possibility of reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims after the 2002 ‘communal’ carnage in Gujarat; he was a member of the Prime Minister’s High Level Committee, to study the Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India; he held a Ford Foundation Chair on ‘Non-traditional Security’.  Each of these led to a book.
2007, Professor Emeritus, JNU.

ISA participation, main roles
1986  Secretary General, XI World Congress of Sociology, New Delhi
1986-90  EC member
1990-94  President

Participation in other settings      
Treasurer, Indian Sociological Society, http://www.insoso.org , 1975-78.
Secretary, Indian Sociological Society, 1989-91.
Editor, Sociological Bulletin, official organ of the Indian Sociological Society, 1975-8, 1989-1991, 1998-1999.
President, Indian Sociological Society, 1998-99.
Member, Board of Directors, International Institute of Sociology, Rome, 2001-2005.
Council Member, International Association for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1989-91 and 1993-95.
Vice-Chair, Church and Society, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1984-89.
Member, Indian National Commission for UNESCO, 1993-97.

Intellectual and ISA career
Oommen has listed his main interests as in the areas of social movements, political sociology, professions, social transformation and social theory, and he has published in all these areas.  His work in the first part of his career was very much oriented to Indian situations; this often entailed critique of western sociology, with which he showed his familiarity, for making generalisations that ignored Indian data, or theorised it in terms of backwardness, but he also wanted to go beyond existing Indian practice. The book based on his doctoral thesis (1972) was the first by an Indian sociologist to deal with a social movement, and his Doctors and Nurses was the first book-length study of a modern occupation, but it was not only in opening up new substantive topics of research that he aimed to break new ground. 

He sees three broad orientations as having dominated Indian sociology: ‘institutionist’, aiming to perpetuate the past and cleanse it of alien accretions; ‘nationalist’, seeing the role of sociology as to promote an Indian version of modernity and nation-building; ‘cosmopolitan’, seeing sociology as a nomothetic science, and India as essentially the same as other societies despite a few cultural specificities.  He has not been happy to subscribe fully to any of these, but calls his own position ‘pluralist’, advocating theoretical eclecticism with attention to historical diversities, and reconciliation of national and basic humanist values, the ‘alien’ and the ‘indigenous’.  (Welz and Kumar, 2000). Not all of those points would seem equally relevant to other national sociologies, but they will have their own equivalents; he has also played an active part in the discussion of internationalisation and how to achieve it (1990, 1991).

It is of interest to note that Oommen’s identity as a Kerala Christian, which puts him outside the Hindu majority, has given him a valuable and relatively unusual social perspective.  He points out that in India, far from Christianity having been imported by colonialism (though of course that also played a role, much later), it existed in Kerala by the third century AD, before Hinduism, which came in with the Aryan conquest.  This means that its adherents can neither be treated as less indigenously Indian than Hindus, nor as a western religion intrinsically connected with colonialism. The issues of identity raised by looking at the complexities of modern Indian society from this angle have surely helped in the development of work such as his ‘Insiders and outsiders in India…’ (1986), and Citizenship, Nationality and Ethnicity: Reconciling Competing Identities (1997). 

As these notes suggest, Oommen has, and had before his active role in the ISA, an impressive range of publications, on a range of significant social issues and theoretical topics.  The distribution of their appearance exemplifies a pattern which illustrates the structuring of the sociological literature more broadly.  They have all been in English, though their empirical focus has usually been on Indian data; most of his books have been published in India, but often by the Indian branches of prestigious western publishers such as Sage, Macmillan and Oxford University Press.  His articles have been very widely spread, divided between Indian journals such as the Sociological Bulletin  or Economic and Political Weekly  and international or specialist ones.

Oommen reports that ISA was not salient to him earlier in his career, despite his prominence in India and the fact that he had had a number of invitations to foreign countries.[1]  He had no involvement with it until he found himself organising the 1986 World Congress on behalf of the Indian association; he was then surprised to find himself nominated for the EC without even his consent being asked!  He became a member of several RCs, but his membership of the Working Group on Famine and Society has probably lasted longest.
In his presidential address he discusses geographical as well as social boundaries of many kinds, and their interrelationships. He sees them as an essential part of identities, although their co-terminality is not desirable because it promotes religious fundamentalism or secular totalitarianism., threatening pluralism.  It can be seen how his earlier work already raised themes related to those of his presidential address, and one may assume that his interest in these issues influenced the choice of a Congress theme which invited discussion of them.

References, other sources of information, related work

  • Bottomore, T. B. (1962), Sociology, A Guide to Problems and Literature, Allen and Unwin.  [This book was commissioned by UNESCO to meet the needs of students in India; after the first, 1962, edition it was revised and the Indian theme became less salient.]
  • Chatterjee, Partha (2003), ‘The social sciences in India’, pp. 482-497 in ed. Theodore M. Porter and Dorothy Ross, The Modern Social Sciences, vol. 7, The Cambridge History of Science, Cambridge U. Press..
  • Connell. Raewyn (2007), Southern Theory, Polity Press, ch. 8 (‘Power, violence and the pain of  colonialism’).
  • Kaul, Ashok (1992), ‘Sociology in India: missing links, adaptations and disillusionments’, pp. 93-9 in. ed. Josef Langer, Emerging Sociology, Avebury.
  • Mukherjee, Ramkrishna (1989), ‘Indian sociology or sociology of India?’, pp. 135-50 in ed. Nikolai Genov, National Traditions in Sociology, Sage.
  • Oommen, T. K(1972)  Charisma, Stability and Change, Thompson Press.
  • Oommen, T. K. (1978)  Doctors and Nurses, Macmillan.
  • Oommen, T. K. (1986), ‘Insiders and outsiders in India: primordial collectivism and cultural pluralism in nation-building’, International Sociology 1: 53-74.
  • Oommen, T. K. (1988), ‘The nature of sociological research and practice worldwide: a perspective from India’, International Sociology 3: 309-312.
  • Oommen, T. K. (1990), ‘Sociology for one world: a plea for an authentic sociology’, Sociological Bulletin 39.1 & 2: 1-14.
  • Oommen, T. K. (1991), ‘Internationalization of sociology: a view from developing countries’, Current Sociology 39: 67-84.
  • Oommen, T. K. (1995), ‘‘Contested boundaries and emerging pluralism’,  International Sociology 10: 251-268.
  • Oommen, T. K. (1995), Alien Concepts and South Asian Reality: Responses and Reformulations, Sage.
  • Oommen, T. K. (1997), Citizenship, Nationality and Ethnicity: Reconciling Competing Identities, Polity Press.
  • Oommen, T. K. (2007), Knowledge and Society: Situating Sociology and Social Anthropology, Oxford U. Press.
  • Patel, Sujata (2010),   ‘At crossroads: sociology in India’, pp. 280-291 in ed. S. Patel, The ISA Handbook of Diverse Sociological Traditi.ons, Sage.
  • Ray, Parshuram (2000), ‘Interview of T. K. Oomen [sic], “Christians are more indigenous than upper-caste Hindus”’, Humanscape, Dec. 2000; http://www.hvk.org/articles/1200/92.html>.
    Welz, Frank and Anand Kumar (2000), ‘Interview with T. K. Oommen
  • Welz, Frank (2009), ‘100 years of Indian sociology: from social anthropology to decentring global sociology’, International Sociology 24: 635-55.

Web site
None found.

Presidential address
Oommen, T. K. (1995), pdf ‘‘Contested boundaries and emerging
pluralism
’, International Sociology 10: 251-268, 1995.

[1]  Issues of the ISA Directory show that in the 1970s there were fewer than 10 individual members of ISA in India, and by 1987 the total had only reached 24.  (Since then, the numbers have risen considerably.)