Book reviews –

Book reviews — Social Structures of Indian Villages: A Study of Rural Bihar by Hetukar Jha

Blair, Harry

SOCIAL STRUCTURES OF INDIAN VILLAGES: A Study of Rural Bihar. By Hetukar Jha. New Delhi, Newbury Park (California) and London: Sage Publications. 1991. 202 pp. (Tables.) US$27.50, cloth. ISBN 0-8039-9686-1.

THIS BOOK essays a sociological analysis of rural Bihar, posing as its central query, How do people perceive interpersonal relations within the village? In so doing, it seeks to move beyond “semi-feudal” explanations of power and control to explore the world of perception and behavior in accounting for how rural society functions in this most backward of Indian states.

The first step in the study was the “village notes” gathered in the survey and settlement operations undertaken around the turn of the century, which remain even now the only good source of information on caste distribution in the Bihar countryside. From the village notes were selected four representative villages for study, two each in the Maithili-and Bhojpuri-speaking areas, thus encompassing two of Bihar’s three major cultural regions. And of the two villages chosen in each region, one had a wider variety of castes and economic activities (a “feeder” village), while the other (a “satellite” village) had a smaller range of both. After implementing a complete census of current households and then selecting a stratified and randomized sample, “field investigators” were sent off with a 103-item questionnaire to interview approximately 20 percent of the male household heads in the four villages.

Many interesting findings emerge from this process. For example, younger males are very unlikely to talk back to their elders in upper class (baraka) families, whereas it is very common for them to do so in lower class (chhotaka) households. Similarly, upper class disputes rarely come to the point of abuses and blows among the upper strata, while this frequently occurs among the lower orders. Some differences appear between the regions (e.g., begar, or compulsory service from lower to upper castes, is commonly exacted in Mithila but rarely in Bhojpur).

These findings as well as many others call for explanations. For instance, we find that maliks (landowners) tend to rent out land to their bataidars (sharecroppers) in small parcels for short-term leases only and that bataidars in turn tend to rent in land from a large number of maliks. What is behind this? The author concludes (p. 145) that the bataidar is subjecting himself to exploitation by many maliks, but the explanation could also be a desire on the sharecropper’s part to minimize his exposure to exploitation by any one owner by dealing with several at a time.

On this question as on many others, this study cries out for interpretation of the sort that can only come from spending time in the study villages and following up with more open-ended interviews. The study illustrates well the advantages (sampling, controls, quantifiable and comparable results) of the sociological method, and also its deficiencies (lack of contextual relevance or focus on dynamic as opposed to static analysis). In a word, it wants anthropological analysis to interpret the sociological data it has brought forth. Such a collaboration could shed valuable light on how and why rural Bihar functions as it does. In particular, it could begin to update to the present the work launched by James Hagen and others on those old “village notes,” and could begin to put into social context much of the work on rural political economy undertaken by Pradhan H. Prasad and his colleagues at the A. N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna. The present effort has just begun that task.

Copyright University of British Columbia Spring 1994

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