In Defense of Liminal Borders

Sasanka Perera

On July 31, one of the new PhD candidates dropped by in my office for a chat. Though I was quite busy, I was very happy about this encounter as this is one of the things I expect from both MA and PhD candidates in any civilizedintellectual domain. It is something I have cherished since my own graduate years which now almost feel like the Ice Age. If one has ideas, then they have to be debated and thought through, not only in classes but also beyond classes: with your teachers, with your friends, in the corridors, in the street, in the bus and even in the hellholes we refer to as eating places in our university, as long as you are mindful enough not to eat the food. In any event, in the midst of our conversation, he asked me what the relationship between sociology and social anthropology was in our department. My answer was quite simple: I said that we do not bother to make a practical distinction in the way we work even though individuals were specifically trained inone discipline or the other. I also told him that personally I see no point in making this almost invisible border, tiresomely visible. This issue had come up on and off in the department, which I have opted not to take seriously from the perspective of my own background and intellectual position. It is possible that some of my colleagues are more open to the idea of a more visible and better guarded border between these disciplines.  More than a decade ago, a senior colleague at University of Colombo asked me weather a separate social anthropology program should be started at that university or at least if the name of the existing Department of Sociology should be changed to Department of Sociology and Anthropology. I told him it was a waste of my time and that I had better things to do than playing verbose acrobatics. That was considered rude. In 2011, when I was interviewed for the position at SAU, the late president asked me if I would like to change the name of the department. I told him more politely than I had dismissed my colleague in Colombo that I did not see any reason for this. The Indian sociologists in the panel seemed to agree, if I am to give meaning to their nods.

Since I got the Rickshaweditors’ request for brief intervention for the August issue of Rickshaw almost at the same time I had this conversation with our PhD candidate, I thought of taking this encounter as a point of departure to hawk my own simple take on this border issue. This is something I have talked about before in other forums, and much of what I will say has been said before, not only by me but by many others as well. To reiterate my basic point,as disciplines attempting unravel contemporary society and culture, I do not see a fundamental difference between sociology and social anthropology that is worth serious academic consideration in today’s global academic and intellectual contexts. In this sense, am in agreement with Pierre Bourdieu’s contention that “for obvious sociological reasons, sociology is a very dispersed discipline” and that “the distinction between ethnology [meaning social anthropology] and sociology is a perfect example of a spurious frontier(Bourdieu 1995: 8-10). Similarly, Andre Beteille, speaking with the authority of his experience in teaching, research and writing in India notes that “in my career as teacher and author, I have been continuously preoccupied with the relationship between sociology and social anthropology” and that “relationship raises questions not only about my own professional identity, but, more importantly, about the professional identity of all students of Indian society and culture” (Beteille 2000). Continuing on the same line of reasoning, he refers to the following question posed to him by an interviewer in Sweden: “You are a professor of sociology, but in Scandinavia most people would probably think of you as a social anthropologist. There seems to be some confusion here. What is the relationship between sociology and anthropology in India?” Beteille answers this question in the following manner: “For my part, I try to present myself as a sociologist wherever I am, for I feel that since I am a sociologist at home, I should also be one abroad” (Beteille 2000). Similarly,  though my own formal training is in cultural anthropology, which is what Americans call  social anthropology, at the time I resigned from my previous academic affiliation at the Department of Sociology at University of Colombo, I was ‘Professor in the Department of Sociology.’ University of Colombo had quite intriguingly left the area of my professorial competence undefined, and only opted to identify my professorial sensibility in terms of my institutional location. At my present assignment in the Department of Sociology at South Asian University, I am officially known as ‘professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences’ thereby leaving the area of my academic training as well as institutional location even more vague and open to interpretation.

What the question posed to Beteille and his response as well as my own experiences in Sri Lanka, India and South Asia more generally suggest is that disciplines such as sociology and social anthropology in specific ‘national’ contexts become defined on the basis of their relative location in local academic domains as well as in terms of the discursive practices in their immediate localities of practice and the specificity of their historical evolution, and not on the basis of some globally accepted template or definition of practice even though there are standard definitions of both sociology and social anthropology. However, on the basis of recent merging of disciplinary and theoretical borders that is evident at the global level and in actual practice in South Asia, it is not particularly useful to make such seemingly airtight distinctions that would simply not hold water in the contexts of actual practice. So the kind of research that Betellie undertook in India as a formally trained sociologist was perceivably conducted more typically in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries by people who were considered anthropologists. At the same time, while many scholars would acknowledge the merging of these disciplinary borders in India and elsewhere in the region at the level of practice, the continuation of separate departments of sociology and anthropology at different universities lead many others to strongly believe in the utility and reality of this distinction. On the other hand, in a country like Sri Lanka, that difference has never been historically established. Beteille further explains this sense of diminishing boundaries between sociology and social anthropology more clearly in his collection, Six Essays in Comparative Sociology[1]:  “So much diversity in the conception of what is sociology and what is social anthropology may be a sign of vitality, but it can also become a source of confusion. If one wishes to assert the fundamental unity of the two subjects, a particular conception of sociology can be chosen and it can be shown to be the same as the prevailing conception of social anthropology. But by choosing another conception of sociology, someone else can highlight not the similarities between the two subjects, but their differences” (Beteille 1982:4).

As I have argued elsewhere, if it is necessary to establish differences between the two disciplines, they would be located in their institutional, contextual, historical and initial theoretical developments rather than in their contemporary practice (Perera 2010). Nevertheless, one can still hear anthropology’s claim for ethnography as its exclusive preserve while in some quarters, sociology strives to claim its identity on the basis of other kinds of methodological exclusivity, which includes its alleged preference for statistics as seen in some branches of Indian as well as British and American sociology since about the 1980s.  We also hear articulations such as ‘anthropologists study tribes and villages’ while ‘sociologists’ focus on urban space’ and that ‘sociologists rely on numbers’ more than anthropologists and so on (Perera 2012). To me, this is mere rhetoric and noise that is not worth serious attention.

At ‘Sociology@SAU’, as a new department, we have chosen people who represent formal training in both disciplines in trying to make our experiment work. True enough, all of us carry the burden of the specificities of our training and their histories and cultural artifacts. But part of that same history since more recent times indicates the fundamental inability and lack of utility in maintaining this ‘ancient’division in practice. It seems to me that the way we teach theory and method at the Mphil/PhD level furtherdiminishes and unravels these disciplinary borders. The MA course structure also shows similar tendencies. A formal, more robust and clearly thought out diminishing of these borders might well be one of our most iconic contributions to the sociology of South Asia if can survive in these precarious times not merely as an institution, but as an institution that is worth its existence. As such, when I refer to sociology, I also mean social anthropology and when I say social anthropology, I also mean sociology. For me, in the liminality of the border between these two disciplines, ‘sociology’ is simply a general description that explains the multiplicity of our discursive practices. But I hope my lack of deference and reverence for borders would not confuse our new and continuing graduate students.



Beteille, Andre . 1982. Six Essays in Comparative Sociology. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Beteille, Andre. 2000. ‘Teaching and Research.’ In, Situating Sociology: A Symposium on Knowledge, Institutions and Practices in a Discipline (http://www.india / Last visited on 5th September 2011).

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1995. ‘A Science that Makes Trouble.’ In, P. Bourdieu.Sociology in Question. London: Sage Publications.

Perera, Sasanka. 2010. ‘Contemporary Social Sciences and Humanities in Sri Lanka: Towards a Reflexive Understanding through a Critical Reading of Sociology/Anthropology.’Paper presented at the Third International Symposium, Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka, 26 – 28 August 2010.

Perera, Sasanka. 2012. ‘Notes from an Anthropological Wilderness: A Critical Self-assessment of Sri Lankan ‘Anthropology.’ In, Ajit K Danda and Rajat K Das eds., Alternative Voices in Anthropology. Kolkata: Indian Anthropological Society.

[1]Beteille has also discussed this issue in his 1993 essay, ‘Sociology and Anthropology: Their Relationship in One Person’s Career’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, n.s. 27 (2): 291-304.

Prof. Sasanka Perera is Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University


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