This new orientation of social anthropology was witnessed by the middle of the 20th century.
The need for studying social anthropology in developing countries and particularly in India is urgent. Developing societies are confronted with the problems of poverty, illiteracy, lack of availability of funds, and general backwardness.
These wretched of the earth or the subalterns cannot be led to the road of progress unless social anthropology makes a thorough study to identify their problems and suggest some prescriptions.
Our question is simple: if the colonial regime, and for that matter, the British administrators-turned-social anthropologists could retain their power for a number of years with the insights gained with social anthropology, can we not use this discipline or apply its stock of knowledge for the betterment of the disadvantaged people?
This is the prime use of social anthropology in India and elsewhere in the world. Some have worked towards the development of an urgent social anthropology or applied social anthropology.
John Beattie and others, in their study of ‘other cultures’, have suggested some reasons for the study of social anthropology in India and South Africa. These are listed below:
(i) Understanding the primitives and tribals:
Social anthropology makes for a sympathetic understanding of other peoples, and especially the primitives and the tribals who reside in isolation.
In the developing countries, planned and massive development programmes are implemented in the societies of these people. If proper research is done among these people, the implementation of these development programmes would yield fruitful results.
(ii) Easy to study simple and small-size societies:
Social anthropology is concerned with the study of tribals, villagers and backward people. These groups are small in size and simple in lifestyle. It is easy for social anthropologists to study such an integrated and composite social group. Stressing the importance of social anthropology in the study of simple and indigenous people, John Lewis very rightly observes:
To get to know a whole people intimately, to learn to recognize the common sense meaning of behaviour, beliefs, strict rules of living, alien to what we feel to be normal is a fascinating .study. It is because these societies are simple compared with others and small, so that we can grasp the whole pattern in all its interacting parts, that we study primitive societies.
The range of social contacts, lack of developed technology, the relatively small scale of numbers and territory give us a chance to learn a great deal about a complete self-sustaining community.
In other words, the study of indigenous people, who are simple in lifestyle, small in size, and limited to a territory, helps enough to plan and construct theories of welfare for the society as a whole.
(iii) Findings applicable to other cultures also:
Social anthropology needs to be emphasized because the progressive and developed segments of society today are also encountering crises which are threatening their very survival.
The findings of anthropological studies can also be utilized for the urban, industrial, progressive groups. The theoretical formulations constructed from the study of simple societies also apply to complex societies. Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski have demonstrated such uses of social anthropology.
(iv) Knowledge of uniformities and regularities of social life:
Whatever may be the structure of a society-primitive or modern- social anthropology endeavours to find out some kind of order in the social structure. It is this order which is required to be possessed by all the societies.
With the identification of this order in simple societies we can find out some uniformities and regularities in complex societies also. John Lewis stresses this point much and says that social anthropology has great potential for the non-primitive indigenous society. He writes:
Finally, let us come back to the importance of anthropology for ourselves. The study of these societies which, while primitive, are not necessarily simpler than our own in that their kinship rules throws into relief certain general features of social life which concern all of us. We can learn something applicable to the whole of human evolution from the first true man to the races of today; we can perhaps reach conclusions that are valid for all human societies (emphasis added).
(v) Mitigation or removal of racial and caste bias:
One of the important contributions of social anthropology is to mitigate and reduce our prejudices about races and castes. For instance, in India, the twice-born castes were considered to be an intellectual and sacred category of people.
This prejudice imposed certain social, cultural and educational disabilities on the subaltern people of the society. Social anthropology has done something to do away with such prejudices.
Ruth Benedict has contributed much in this respect. She denied any social and cultural achievement of a race as hereditary. Advocating the theory of racism, she opposed the racial prejudices found prevalent in the European continent.
In 1951, the UNESCO appointed an expert committee which, in its recommendations, observed that all humans in the world have evolved from Homo sapiens and hence racial prejudice has no scientific standing.
Our argument is that social anthropology has made substantial contributions which help us to shed some of our biases. In the Indian context, the ‘caste war’ which has become vital in our social fabric can be scientifically uckled with the popularization of social anthropological studies.
(vi) Strengthening the development programmes:
Social anthropology also helps to strengthen the development programmes among the tribals and weaker sections of society. Village development programmes can be made much more fruitful with the help of the researches done in this field.
Verrier Elvin, being an anthropologist, was appointed advisor to the Government of India to study the tribals of the north-east. It was on the basis of the briefs given by him that Jawaharlal Nehru expounded the concept of Panch- sheel for framing the policy for tribal development.
There are several reasons for promoting and teaching social anthropology in the Third World countries. At present, the growth of the discipline is restricted to a few pockets of the country.
It needs to be encouraged among the social workers, development administrators and university students so that the social anthropologist becomes a dependable agent for social change among the weaker segments of society. Recently, Satish Sabbarwal has advocated for the emergence of urgent social anthropology in India.