During the Renaissance, the powerful orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church came under increasing criticism. Humanist intellectuals used the weapon of reason in order to counter the traditions, conventions and customs of the Church. This was the birth of Modernity. As the sciences developed under the aegis of reason and rational thought, new disciplines of study were introduced, such as physics, chemistry and other natural sciences. Progress in these disciplines helped reinforce a particular methodology grounded in the use of cold, objective reason to study the natural phenomena. This methodology was known as the “Scientific Method”.
During the late 18th and 19th centuries, there was a sudden increase in the interest in society – both in Europe and in the rest of the world. Due to the overwhelming supremacy of the Scientific Method in the realm of intellectual study, society was studied in a scientific manner – that is, it was assumed that there are universal laws of society similar to those in the natural sciences. This led to a scientific and objective analysis of social institutions, organizations and phenomena. Thus, the “social sciences” such as economics, sociology, social anthropology, etc emerged.
Such a “scientific” analysis, instead of producing a truly objective picture of society, instead produced a highly biased model of society. The European society was taken as the ideal society, and all other societies were compared using this ideal model. Thus, a set of universal “scientific” principles were formulated on the basis of the European society, and were applied elsewhere.
For example, the discipline of economics accepted the Smithian idea of free-markets, free-trade, prices which were determined by demand and supply, etc and propagated them as the axioms of economics. These axioms had a deeper sociological root in the concept of private property. Up until the 17th century, land was owned by the entire community, such as a village. But as powerful merchants started to enclose public land and declare it their private property, there arose a group of thinkers who rationalized this process into a full-blown theory on individualism, private property and free-will. Since there was no space for public property in their scheme of society, the state (as the owner of public property) was diminished to a very minimal role. This, of course, had an impact on the way Adam Smith left the state out of the economic process completely. Thus, even now, Western economic (and even social) thought thinks of the state as an outsider and a necessary “evil”.
Such developments in social, political and economic thought were seen as the objective truth of society, and therefore, any society which had not developed these concepts were seen to be “traditional”, “primitive”, “barbaric” and “savage”. Today, such words have been euphemized into “Less-Developed Countries”. Although the Indian, Chinese and the Islamic civilizations had produced great works on society, politics and economics, they were discarded by “objective” social anthropologists as being mere dabbling in primitive modes of thought. A teleological process development was created, where Western-style industrialized capitalist society was deemed to be the endpoint of every society around the world, and since the Europeans had achieved it first, it was their “duty to civilize” the other societies in order to help them achieve this end. Thus, colonialism was justified in this way.
From the 1960s onwards, the critique of colonialism took on a new philosophical turn. Two of the greatest critics of modern thought, Michel Foucault and Edward Said, clearly demonstrated the nexus between power and knowledge. Knowledge alone is not power, but power also helps define what knowledge is. As Napoleon had famously said, “History is written by the victors.” Those who are in positions of power have the ability to create an official narrative, and discredit all other versions. This “post-modernist” critique opened up new angles of study in the social sciences, and previously well-established theories were now reinvestigated critically. Today, no one in the academia takes the idea of “scientific objectivity” seriously any more, although one still finds such words thrown around by politicians and the media.
A few articles which I read for my sociology class really opened up a whole lot of reinterpretations of colonial history in India. For centuries, identity was a very fluid concept in the subcontinent. Castes and religions intermixed into a very diverse yet united melting point. There existed no official religion for the Indians, and traditional methods of worship sometimes borrowed heavily from Islam, just as how Islam itself borrowed many Indian cultural practices. This was something the British colonialists could never understand. You had to belong to either the Hindu or Muslim religion, not both. Most natives were apparently confused by what the term “Hindu religion” meant. Therefore, the British made it a residual category – if you were neither Muslim nor Christian, you had to be a Hindu. Also, since the sociological (and “scientific”) definition of religion required the existence of a sacred text, the British were quite perplexed when they found that there was no central text that was followed by the different social groups all over India. In order to find a counterpart to the Bible and the Quran, the British fixed the Bhagavad Gita as the authoritative text for the “Hindu religion”. Thus was the Hindu identity born.
Such rigid categorization of the peoples in the subcontinent helped create fixed identities and the polarization of society along class, caste and religious lines. It led to the anti-Brahmin Dravidian movement in the south (again due to the division of the castes as Aryan and Dravidian by the British), it led to foolish Marxist interpretations of Indian society and their hold over Indian academia, it led to the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and Hindutva, and scores of other social and political problems among a people who, on top of now being confused of their identity, were never used to such modes of thought before. And this confusion reigns supreme even today.