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Asian Journal of Social Psychology (1998) 1: 17–31

Changing perspectives in social psychology

in India: a journey towards indigenization
Durganand Sinha
Allahabad University, India

The popularity and success of social psychology in the U.S. have created the
impression that social psychology is purely a Western, if not a U.S. product.
Many scholars from African and Asian continents accept this claim that the roots
of social psychology are American, and have tried to emulate their research
strategies and methodology. Only recently, the European social psychologists
have established their identity and distinctness different from the culture of
American social psychology. Among Asian social psychologists, there is a
growing awareness of a distinct identity and a rediscovery of their cultural
heritage. In particular, Indian social psychologists emphasize functional
interrelatedness of the self, relations, society, and universe. With this
indigenization process, social psychology in India is taking on a character
distinctive from that of the West, is imparting a new look to social psychology,
and promises to provide what the mainstream social psychology lacks.

Is social psychology a Western product?

In the chapter entitled ‘‘The historical background of modern social psychology’’ in

Lindzey’s Handbook of Social Psychology (1954), discussing the origin of social
psychology, Allport asserts that the intellectual soil for social psychology was provided
by Western civilization in its tradition of free enquiry, a philosophy and ethics of
democracy, and, in the orderly growth of science from physical to biological. Not only were
these features of Western civilization regarded as the nourishing sources for the growth of
the discipline, but what is more significant is the claim that its flowering was
characteristically an American phenomenon. It is said that the pragmatic tradition that
prevails in the United States has been most congenial to the growth of social psychology.
Triandis (1994, p. xv) regards social psychology as ‘‘a product of Europe and North
America.’’ In spite of his deep interest in cross-cultural perspective, one is surprised to find
Triandis displaying a kind of ethnocentric myopia when he overstates that ‘‘almost all that
we know systematically about social behavior was derived by studying individuals and
groups from those regions of the world.’’
The sudden upsurge in its popularity during the post-Second War period and the large
churning of research, especially from the U.S., have created the impression that social
psychology is purely a Western, if not a U.S. product. Dazzled by the enormous research
output, scholars even from African and Asian continents began to feel that the roots of social
psychology were American, and tried to emulate their fashion in content coverage, research
strategies and methodology. Thus, multifarious roots of social psychology in non-Western
traditions were ignored (Sinha, 1981, p. 5). Only recently, the European social psychologists
ß Asian Journal of Social Psychology 1998.
Published by Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK
18 Durganand Sinha

have established their identity and distinctiveness from the culture of American social
psychology which has dominated the discipline during the last six decades or so. Similar
effort is visible in the Asian region with the establishment of the Asian Association of Social
Among social psychologists of Asia, there is a growing awareness of distinct identity
and a realization of their ancient cultural heritage. They are now conscious that Asian
cultures and traditional sources, particularly Chinese and Indian, provide rich intellectual
soil for social psychology. ‘‘If we start searching for the roots, they are as firm and as
favorable in our Indian (and Chinese) traditions as they are in any other tradition – western,
American or European’’ (Sinha, 1981, p. 5). Curiosity into analyzing and understanding
human nature and social behavior, which is the beginning of any scientific enquiry, is
present all over and from time immemorial, and there is no question of its single original
root. Allport (1954, p. 3) himself admits that ‘‘our intellectual ancestors, for all their
fumblings, were asking precisely the same questions that we are asking today’’. We need not
be parochial about its origin. Of course, contemporary social psychology, whether in India
or in the Chinese-speaking regions, owes a lot to phenomenal developments in the United
States. But social psychology in these regions has its own roots, perspectives and distinctive
features. As Sinha (1981, p. 5), discussing the issue concluded, ‘‘what we imported from the
West is not social psychology as such but its new scientific tradition, a new method of
enquiry into social behaviour and the nature of man.’’ Therefore, what has been borrowed
from the West is not the discipline of social psychology, but only the scientific
methodology. It is noteworthy that the adequacy and suitability of the methodology that
has its origins in positivistic and mechanistic traditions of the West and is modelled on
physical sciences are already being questioned. Its capacity to go into the subtleties and
complexities that are so typical of social behavior are seriously challenged – a trend that is
visible also in the West.

Ancient philosophical base of social psychology in India

Any analysis of social behavior is ultimately shaped by the weltanschauung (worldview) and
basic cultural postulates about the nature of human and his/her place in the world and
society. The worldview of the ancient Hindus, which is shared by a large section of Indians
even today, provides a congenial soil for social psychological discourses. Very briefly, it can
be said that the essence of the Hindu view of life is a completely functional interrelatedness
of the universe. There is no separation or duality between self and not-self, human and
nature or human and society. It is the basic postulate of Avaita Vedanta – the philosophy that
is dominant in the country and shapes the beliefs and worldview of its people in all walks of
life. ‘‘Man, animal and plant are for the Hindu interrelated and of essentially the same
nature; all are part of the cosmic immanent life-force’’ (Heimann, 1964, p. 39). From the
earliest times of Rgveda (about 1500 B.C.), the Hindu view of the universe has been based
on Rta, the governing cosmic dynamic principle that underlies the world balance or cosmic
order. ‘‘Rta is the functional balance of already existing single phenomena of which each in
its proper place functions in its own law of activity, and all of them collectively balance each
other in mutually retarding or accelerating, limiting or expanding rhythm’’ (Heimann, 1964,
p. 37). Each single function is appropriate to the thing concerned, but serves at the same time
to fulfill the purpose of the whole: ‘‘While remaining in their own functions of development,
growing and decay, they consequently fit into the general order of movement and balance’’
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(p. 37). They are functionally interdependent. ‘‘The individual function of the one blends
with the individual functions of the others, and results in a collective immanent balance of a
living combined organism’’ (p. 42). The idea is also implicit in the famous purushshukta of
Rgveda which assumes the functional cooperation of all living organisms and a social order
of the human community. A huge cosmic organism is visualized in which certain functions
are allotted to its head, to its arms, to its trunk, and to its feet – each of the four representing
four castes. Each of the functions have proper place for the smooth collaboration of the
Translated to the human plane, interrelatedness of human and society is the central
point. Human existence is possible and has meaning only in relationships with others. For
the Western mind, dichotomy between the self and others is taken for granted. An
individual’s separateness, identity, autonomy, and individuality are emphasized and the
stance that social psychology takes is individualistic. The point is clearly brought out by
Misra (1979, pp. 9–10). Since nature and its power are considered separate from human, the
two are in a state of opposition. Human is placed in the center and the control and conquest
of nature are regarded as the life-goal. The entire world is viewed as one for the enjoyment
of human beings. Exactly opposite is the Hindu view, as also the Orient generally.
Interrelatedness of human kind is stressed all through. There is no question of conquest or
control. Establishment of perfect harmony with nature and society is considered the ultimate
goal of life.
Further, identity lies not so much in one’s individual characteristics, qualities,
aspirations, and achievements, but in the innumerable relationships that one inevitably
has with caste, class, groups, and community and many others – even with the entire
universe. His/her existence has meaning only in the social context. As in the Chinese culture,
proper conduct consists of knowing how to act in relation to others (Ho, 1994). The model of
human underlying all theorizing and experiments in social psychology in the West is
‘‘human in society,’’ as ‘‘human and society’’ – the two being conceptualized as distinct and
separate. As far as Indian thinking goes, the model is ‘‘human–society,’’ i.e., the two being
in a state of symbiotic relationship where you cannot separate the one from the other (Sinha,
1981, p. 7). Thus, there cannot be general psychology in which behavior is analysed,
divorced from its social context. Since human behavior derives its meaning in relationship
with groups and society, social psychology had a very special place in ancient Hindu
discourses on human nature and human behavior.

Social psychology in ancient Indian thought

Ancient religio-philosophical treaties like the upanisads (2000–600 B.C.), the puranas,
dharmasatra, the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the later writings such as
Kautilya’s Arthasatra are replete with discussions that provide excellent insights into
various facets of human conduct and behavior. Even folklores, aphorisms, maxims, sayings,
and anecdotes – that embody collective wisdom of the people – are full of materials relevant
to understanding human nature and interactions.
A few examples are given as illustrations. A dialogue in the Brihadaranyak Upanisad
provides a model for interpersonal attraction – a popular topic in contemporary social
psychology. The pupil asks the sage: what makes a person attracted towards his/her son,
drawn towards his/her friends, towards this person or that person? The Upanisadic theory is
epitomized in the famous reply of the preceptor that it is because of one’s own self that
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everything is liked and loved (Atmanastu kamaya sarvam priyam bhavati). The dictum can
serve as a theoretical framework for generating hypotheses and designing studies.
Prosocial or helping behavior is another topic on which Indian cultural approach provides
a new dimension. In the West, it is conceived in terms of person-to-person relations in which
four sets of variables have been analysed, viz., characteristics of the benefactor and the
recipient, their traits, social roles and demographic variables, and social norms. In other
words, the main focus has been the psychological and demographic characteristics of the
individual donor and the recipient. The Indian approach is very different. Concern for the
good of others and the welfare of the community is regarded as a cardinal virtue not only for
the king and the significant (powerful) people but also for the ordinary human. The concept of
dana (giving) is vital. Its essence lies in parting with a possession even at the cost of personal
loss. In one adage, the entire universe is to be regarded as one’s kin. Dedication to the service
of others (sarvabhuta hita rata) for achieving the ultimate good is emphasized in all religious
and philosophical texts. The interrelatedness of the whole of humanity is stressed not only
when one is enjoined to do good to others and regard the universe as one’s relation
(basudhaib kutumbkam) but in the Upanisadic doctrine of ever expanding ego or the self,
where one begins with concern for oneself and gradually expands one’s ego to encompass
one’s community and ultimately even the entire world. Similarly, in one of the verses of the
Mahabharat it is stated that for the sake of the clan one gives up the individual (person), for
the sake of the village one gives up the clans, for the sake of the country (janpada) one gives
up the village, and for the highest good one even gives up the earth. Concern for others has
been given the highest place and the target is the larger group (Sinha, 1984a).
There are many stories (like that of Raja Harishchandra) illustrating supreme sacrifice in
which the king gives up all his material possessions including his son and wife. Through this
giving (sacrifice) he is blessed by God and becomes great and powerful. Not only mythology
but history also records cases of altruism where the target is the entire community. It is
reported that the great king Harshvardhan used to organize a festival every five years in the
holy city of Prayag (now called Allahabad) in which he gave up his entire national
possessions for the welfare of the community and retained only his loincloth. Thereby he
acquired virtue and became more powerful.
Traditional Indian treaties, especially the Mahabharat and the Arthasastra, provide rich
material on social power and throw light on certain aspects that are ignored by Western
social psychologists. Contemporary researchers have focussed mainly on the kinds of power
available to people and how it is acquired in social groups (Raven, 1974). The traditional
Indian approach also takes into account the sphere of state craft and spiritual aspects, and
among other things emphasizes how power emanates from sacrifice, dana (giving)
penitence, and accumulation of virtue. The analysis provides a dimension to power that is
totally absent in modern psychological studies.
Distributive justice is a popular topic in social psychology today. As a theme, justice has
been important in religious social and political spheres in traditional Indian life and is
discussed elaborately in the ancient treaties. The analysis has a strong prescriptive element
and is closest to the sense of getting or giving what one deserves (Krishnan, 1992). Its key
lies in the idea of ‘‘deservingness’’ and is embedded in an implicit action–outcome
relationship (p. 42). To the extent that this relationship is maintained, justice prevails. The
theme is discussed in two broad contexts: (a) the one involving the distribution of a concrete
and visible resource such as property or a kingdom, and (b) the other involving retribution
for a proscribed action. In both cases the ultimate goal of justice is to maintain dharma;
retribution for behavior that defies or violates dharma. Ancient texts reveal certain criteria
Social psychology in India 21

that were adopted for defining deservingness in specific situations, and the factors that
govern it.
Though the forms and expressions of justice were different from what we find in
contemporary researches, there are many points of similarity. In any case, they are capable
of proving many interesting hypotheses for testing. A blend between the traditional Indian
views and contemporary focusses on justice research is likely to be productive.
These and many other similar examples reflect the deep interest our seers and ancient
thinkers had in understanding the nature of man and social behavior. However, unlike in
modern social psychology, these discussions were not based on experiments but on
intuitions and experiences of seers. Therefore, they cannot be considered ‘scientific’ in the
strict sense of the term. However, they do provide valuable insights for social psychological

Social psychology in modern times

Coming to modern times, it is significant to note that one of the earliest textbooks in social
psychology was written by two Indian authors (Mukherjee & Sengupta, 1928), which was
almost contemporaneous with the text of F.H. Allport (1924) and is listed in Lindzey’s
Handbook of Social Psychology. It was published in England and was accepted by the
academic circles on both sides of the Atlantic. It indicates that Indian scholars were not far
behind their Western counterparts. As G. Bose (1938), one of the pioneers of modern
psychology in India, observed in his review of psychology in India up to 1938, the
publication included that ‘‘social psychology and group psychology [had] received efficient
handling’’ (p. 343).
During the period prior to Independence, mostly general and theoretical papers were
published on topics like communal conflict, social organization, social character, religion,
poetry, and art (see G. Bose, 1938, p. 343 for details). There were, however, a few
significant exceptions. For example, Sengupta and Sinha (1926), modelling their
investigation on those of F.H. Allport, studied group effects on performance – it became
the first published study on experimental social psychology in the country. Almost a decade
later, Prasad (1935) published, in the British Journal of Psychology, his analysis of
earthquake rumors. It was in many ways a unique field investigation of collective reactions
to a natural calamity, and became one of the stating points of Festinger’s famous theory of
cognitive dissonance. Barring these significant exceptions, the studies ‘‘followed more or
less the beaten tracks’’ (Bose, 1938, p. 345). But Bose was optimistic about the future when
he observed that ‘‘time was not distant when it will be able to open new paths for itself. The
field is exceedingly rich and good harvest awaits the earnest and intelligent workers. Much
fruitful work may be done in folk and social psychology’’ (p. 345). It is interesting to note
that looking at different types of cultures ranging from the most modern to the most
primitive existing side by side, Bose realized the vast scope for comparative analysis of
social behavior along cultural lines, and in a way anticipated the significant developments in
cross-cultural psychology in the country in recent years.
The post-Independence period was marked by a tremendous expansion of higher
education in the country. The expansion was amply reflected in a vast upsurge and
diversification of research activities covering almost all the conventional areas of
psychology. Social psychology became one the most popular branches. Rath (1972) in his
review indicated that researches in social psychology contributed one-fifth of all studies
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until 1969. Taking all the branches into account, the percentage of studies in social
psychology in the post-Independence era showed a steady increase from 19.2 for 1951–55
through 29.75 for 1972–75, 25.86 for 1977–81 and 22.37 for 1982–86 (calculated from
Dalal, 1990, p. 108). There has been a phenomenal upsurge of interest in social psychology
in the post-1950 era. It is not necessary to make a detailed review of social psychological
researches of the period. Only their broad features and trends are outlined.
A significant landmark was the request to UNESCO made by the first prime minister
Jawaharlal Nehru for an expert to study communal and other kinds of social tensions that
had been rampant especially after the Independence and to advise the government on policy
for social harmony. Gardner Murphy, who came as the consultant in 1950, set up a number
of projects, a brief summary of which is published in In the Minds of Men (Murphy, 1953). It
provided a model for psychological research into prejudices and tensions that characterized
Indian society. It also stands as an official recognition of the role which social psychology
was expected to play in understanding and helping to solve one of the country’s most
pressing social problems.
Though not as significant, Adinarayan also conducted a number of insightful and
systematic studies on color prejudice (Adinarayan, 1941) which was later elaborated in the
form of a monograph, The Case of Colour (Adinarayan, 1964). He also did sustained work
on racial and communal attitudes (Adinarayan, 1953), caste attitudes (Adinarayan, 1958),
and analysed the cognitive background of prejudice (Adinarayan, 1957). Most of his papers
appeared in British and American journals and provided useful theoretical insights. But for
some strange reason these studies went largely unnoticed, and did not seem to have an
impact on Indian researchers.
Thus, the lead given by Murphy and later on by Adinarayan was not properly utilized.
They did stimulate research on social tension. But studies degenerated into routine types of
causal investigations into the relationships of demographic and personality variables with
caste, religious, communal and other kinds of prejudices and stereotypes, and proliferation
of ill-designed measures of various kinds of social attitudes (see Dalal, 1990, p. 103). The
findings that they yielded were confined to small incidental samples and were seldom
different from what one would infer from ordinary common sense. In any case, they were
hardly of much help in understanding social prejudices or for policy formulation for their
reduction and eradication. It was a case of lost opportunity which Murphy’s studies had
provided for social psychologists in the country. They got so immersed in haphazard and ill-
planned attitudinal studies and distanced themselves from more analytic and well-designed
experimental investigations of social processes, that social psychology in India has been
designated in derogatory terms as ‘‘questionnaire psychology’’ (Sinha, 1981, p. 14). It is to
be noted that experimental social psychology was not even a classification label in the first
review of social psychology covering the entire period up to 1969 (Rath, 1972).
Most studies conducted during the two decades after the Independence were replicative
and imitative of the West. Referring to the studies on prejudice, Nandy (1974, p. 8) observed
that dependence on the West was sometimes taken to ridiculous lengths, so much so that
caste was studied as if it were race, communalism as anti-Semitism and untouchables like
American blacks. The general prospect was not a promising one. Mitra’s (1972, p. xxii)
editorial comment in the ICSSR first survey of psychology that ‘‘no big social problem has
been tackled and experimental social psychology remains neglected’’ aptly summarizes the
There were some bright sides too. Some investigators ventured into areas that were new
and sometimes came close to making theoretical breakthroughs. Following the lead of
Social psychology in India 23

Prasad (1935), his student Sinha (1952a) conducted a field study of reports and rumors
following a natural catastrophe (extensive landslides in a popular hill station). It not only
threw light on the reactions of a community to a sudden disaster, but the findings had
potentiality for forging civil defense measures. In addition, one of the mechanisms
underlying the rapid spread of rumors and distorted perceptions was to ‘‘understand’’ and
impart meaning to the ambiguity created by the sudden calamity – which, following Bartlett
(1932), was called ‘‘effort after meaning.’’ Along with Prasad’s (1935) study, it constituted
the base for Festinger’s famous theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Referring
to these studies, Jones (1985, p. 63) states in a somewhat patronizing tone that ‘‘Festinger
was clearly impressed by the Indian rumour studies of two of Bartlett’s students . . . in
developing this theory of cognitive dissonance.’’
Group effect on performance continued to be a popular topic. Analysis of ability
differentials in work as related to group and isolation situations (Mukherjee, 1940), group
problem-solving processes in leader and leaderless discussion situations (Mukhopadhyay &
Chatterjee, 1961), effects of group pressure on visual estimation of length with and without
reference to actual values of presented stimuli (Mukhopadhyay & Majumdar, 1960), and
frustrations on problem-solving behavior (Mohsin, 1954) were a few studies of significance.
A number of interesting studies on social perception were conducted. Inspired by Sherif’s
(1935) experiment on social norms, Sinha (1952b) studied group conformity through
artificially created social norms. Using aniseikonic lens, Asthana (1960) experimented on
perceptual distortions as affected by a subject’s positive and negative valences of target
objects. Estimations of height, weight, and some psychological and social qualities of persons
depicted in pictures and drawings which had been earlier sorted as being equally ‘‘liked’’ or
‘‘disliked’’ (i.e., valence-wise ambiguous) were analysed (Sinha & Sinha, 1957), which in a
way anticipated the later researches on person perception by Tagiuri and Petrullo (1958) and
others. Though these were excellent studies in themselves and had been published in foreign
journals or referred to in standard textbooks, they lacked originality and there was nothing
particularly ‘‘Indian’’ about them. Therefore, social psychology in India, to borrow Adair’s
(1989) expression, remained a ‘‘replica product’’ and not good as the original.
During this period, efforts were frequently made to take up investigation topics that were
of importance to the Indian situation. McClelland’s studies on need for achievement
generated a lot of interest because it was felt to be relevant to an urgent need for socio-
economic development in the country. Investigators tried to interrelate it to performance in
various spheres of activities like agro-economic development and entrepreneurship (Sinha,
1969; Hundal, 1971; Hundal & Singh, 1975; Muthayya & Vijayakumar, 1980), and
educational development (Mehta, 1968). The study by McClelland and Winter (1969) for
boosting need for achievement, thereby raising entrepreneurial activity, became a model for
many intervention studies. Simulating real-life conditions in a laboratory setting,
performance differentials of high and low in nAch subjects under unlimited and limited
resource conditions and with egoistic and altruistic orientations reveal ‘‘hoarding’’ and other
kinds of antisocial behavior among those high in need for achievement in limited resource
situation (J.B.P. Sinha, 1968). The finding has relevance for development strategy in a
country with limited resources.
Dependence on the West remained and problems were viewed through Western lens and
a Western theoretical framework was utilized for their understanding and explanation.
Sinha’s (1962) paper on ‘‘Cultural factors in the origins of anxiety’’ provides a typical
example. To explain the high incidence of anxiety observed among Indian students (Sinha,
1963), neo-Freudian theories were mainly utilized. At the same time, some of its roots in
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Indian socialization practices and cultural setting were also highlighted, though somewhat
casually (Asthana, 1956; Sinha, 1962). Gradually the realization came – at least among
significant groups of psychologists – that they not only had to focus on socially relevant
issues but also develop proper theoretical perspectives appropriate to the socio-cultural
milieu. Thus, in his presidential address to the Section of Psychology and Educational
Sciences of the 52nd session of the Indian Science Congress, Sinha (1966) made a strong
plea for psychology to enter the arena of social change and national development and to take
up research topics that were related to the developmental needs of the country. About the
same time, an agenda for psychology in the context of problems of developing countries was
suggested in an international meeting in Nigeria, in which Professor Pareek played an active
role (see DeLamater, Hefner, & Clignet, 1968). Highlighting the differentials in motivation
among villages which had responded positively to community/rural development programs
initiated by the government and those which had remained static, Sinha (1969) indicated the
relevance of psychology to the vital issue of rapid agro-economic development.
A few other larger societal issues on which psychologists have begun to focus their
research interest are socio-psychological dimensions of poverty, social disadvantage, and
deprivation (Sinha, 1975, 1977; Sinha, Tripathi & Misra, 1982; Singh and Jaiswal, 1981),
acceptance of innovations in agriculture and health practices, and population control (Roy,
Fliegel, Kivlin, & Sen, 1968; Roy & Kivlin, 1968; Pareek & Rao, 1974), rural leadership
(Muthayya, Naidu, & Aneesuddin, 1979; Praharaj & Sinha, 1980), communication and
change (Kivlin, Roy, Fliegel, & Sen, 1968; Singh & Pareek, 1967). Besides, interest had
begun to widen to encompass intervention studies at a more global level (McClelland &
Winter, 1969; Shah, Gaikwad, Rao & Pareek, 1975; Pareek & Rao, 1971). A study
conducted among the residents of Delhi slums demonstrated how by re-creating a positive
self-image and dispelling feelings of apathy and powerlessness, a necessary motivational
base for effecting desired social change can be provided (Clinard, 1970). These
investigations reflect serious efforts to make psychological research socially relevant and
to link it to larger issues facing the country.
A few broad features of these researches are to be noted. First, as indicated earlier, they
mark the beginning of a serious step in the direction of problem-oriented research and focus
on larger societal issues, rather than on topics (often quite trivial) that could be easily
handled in laboratory situations. In this sense it heralded a new direction to social
psychology, and the stirrings for indigenization. In this context, it is relevant to note the
observation of Moghaddam (1987, p. 919) that ‘‘probably the most important factor shaping
the third-world indigenous psychology is the demand that it contributes directly to
development effort of third-world societies.’’
Second, these studies (e.g., Sinha, 1969) demonstrate the endeavor to develop
‘‘culturally appropriate’’ tools for the collection of psychological data that were suitable
for illiterate and semi-literate unsophisticated populations which constitute the heart of
India. It was a significant step forward from mere casual adaptation of Western tests. Third,
though following the Western ethos, borrowed theoretical models and framework and
individual-based measures were utilized, the perspectives for comparison were somewhat
different. As in Sinha’s (1969) studies on agro-economic development, psychological
comparisons of villages as a whole were made rather than of individual farmers. However,
although this aspect of the work was deficient, it marked the beginning of an effort towards
more global and holistic approach to the study of socio-psychological problems.
It would be appropriate to mention that Indian social psychologists have been
particularly vocal in emphasizing the potential contributions of psychology to research and
Social psychology in India 25

application in the area of national development (see Sinha, 1983, 1984b, 1986, 1989 for
reviews). Pareek (1980, p. vii) points out that ‘‘the new developments have shown that
psychology has a share with other social sciences the task of contributing to solutions of
national problems, both in terms of conceptual and intervention insights.’’ It has usually
been emphasized that psychology had threefold roles of facilitators, overcoming
‘‘resistances’’ to change and cushioning/minimizing its ill-effects. The role was best
viewed as ancillary and as supplementary to political and economic sciences. But as J.B.P.
Sinha (1984, p. 69) pointed out, ‘‘various programmes of development have not obeyed the
rational formula of saving, investment and growth because of interfering effects of socio-
cultural features of traditional societies.’’ He further argued that ‘‘massive evidence has
accumulated to prove that material affluence beyond a point may not lead to better quality of
life either for individuals or for social aggregates . . . It appears that economic growth has a
curvilinear relationship with human development’’ (pp. 173–174). With the model of
development being widened from the narrow economic growth to that of human develop-
ment, psychology is seen as a ‘‘partner in development’’ both with other disciplines and
between psychologists from industrialized and developing countries (Berry, Poortinga,
Segall, & Dasen, 1992, p. 387). This aspect of the application of social psychology to
national development has been accorded a prominent place in the comprehensive textbook
of cross-cultural psychology by Berry and his colleagues (Berry et al., 1992, pp. 384–390).

Phase of indigenization

Pareek (1980, p. vii) observes that from the 1960s onwards, there were signs of a growing
crisis in psychology. It consisted first in the realization that psychology had failed to make
an impact on the life of the nation. It was said to occupy, if at all, a back seat among the
social sciences (Ganguli, 1971, p. 176). There was a growing feeling among psychologists of
being left out from the arena of social change and national development (Sinha, 1986, p.
108). This awareness generated a strong urge to get out of ‘‘its narrow groove in which
psychology seems to have got stuck’’ (Pareek, 1980, p. ix) and actively take up for research
vital development and societal issues facing the nation. It necessitated tuning psychological
research to the culture-specific context taking due account of the social realities – a
necessary feature of the process of indigenization.
Second, crisis was reflected in the growing skepticism toward psychological tests and
procedures of data collection that had been freely and indiscriminately borrowed from the
West without taking into account their inadequacies and limitations in the Indian context. It
generated work toward the forging of ‘‘culturally appropriate’’ measures – what has been
termed ‘‘methodological indigenization’’ (Sinha, 1996).
Third, crisis also emanated from inconsistent and unexplained findings in psychological
investigations conducted in the country (J.B.P. Sinha, 1995). When the results did not
conform to existing Western theories and models, they were considered ‘‘exceptions’’
leaving the theoretical bases unchallenged. But disenchantment with Western-oriented
psychology had begun to develop, and ‘‘alternatives’’ rooted in Indian cultural reality were
sought, leading to modifications in theories to suit the Indian socio-cultural setting. Thus,
when effective leadership in work organizations conformed to neither participative (usually
found to be effective in the West) nor authoritarian style, an alternative model of nurturant
task leader was proposed – a style of leadership that was patterned on Indian familial and
social values (J.B.P. Sinha, 1980). The ‘‘crisis of relevance’’ led to what has been called
26 Durganand Sinha

‘‘the phase of indigenization’’ (Sinha, 1986), i.e., an attempt to develop a psychology that
matches the socio-cultural realities of one’s own society (Berry et al., 1992, p. 381). The
phase was initially slow, but it has gradually articulated and crystallized.
Many interesting developments in social psychology in this context are taking place in
India, and it is not possible to discuss them in detail here. A few broad trends are outlined
below. Indigenization is in evidence in most areas of psychology – as it is in other spheres of
knowledge, but the trend is particularly strong in social psychology. The process is in
evidence in two forms, namely indigenization of the exogenous, and internal indigenization.
Initially, it consisted mostly of transformations of Western theories and models to match the
Indian socio-cultural realties. J.B.P. Sinha’s (1980) nurturant task leader provides an
excellent example. Similarly, Kohlberg’s model of moral development was reformulated by
giving priority over individual rights to dharma and other social duties that form the
cornerstone of the Hindu ideal of interpersonal morality (Shweder, Mahapatra, & Miller,
1990). In these instances culture was utilized as the source of psychological explanation and
understanding of a social phenomenon. This has been called ‘‘explanatory indigenization’’
(Sinha, 1996). Since the Western theoretical framework was suitably modified to make it in
tune with indigenous social and cultural values, it illustrated the process of ‘‘indigenization
of the exogenous.’’
A deeper process that has been called conceptual or paradigmatic indigenization is also
in evidence. Delving into traditional religio-philosophical sources, cultural categories and
constructs are discovered and then utilized for designing psychological investigation, which
illustrates the process of internal indigenization. Analysing the traditional medical treaties
(e.g. , Caraka-samhita and Bhagavadgita), a model of psychological well-being is outlined
(Sinha, 1990) in which being in tune with the environment is the main feature (rather than its
control and exploitation which characterizes the Western outlook). This model is supposed
to be the ideal of human behavior and provides the key to mental health. Similarly, the
concept of niskamakarma (non-attachment) which is the essence of the theory of behavior
propounded in the Bhagavadgita, two alternative strategies to work, namely, goal-
orientation (which is the ideal of Western management theory) and process-oriented
(performing the task well without concern for its outcome), were elaborated and appropriate
tests developed and their relationship with work behavior analysed. While the two
orientations were not observed to differ significantly with regard to work outcome, the latter
was associated with lesser amount of stress and strain (Pande & Naidu, 1992).
Further, there are indications that social psychology in India is taking on a distinctive
character from that in the West and research are getting linked to the basic concept of
interrelatedness which is central to the traditional Hindu outlook. Investigations demonstrate
that the concept of achievement in Indian subjects extends beyond personal success and
gains, and encompasses social and familial concern (Agarwal & Misra, 1986; Singhal &
Misra, 1989). Comparing self-concept among American and Indian students (Dhawan,
Roseman, Naidu, Thapa, & Rettek, 1995), it was observed that the latter made a greater
proportion of responses in terms of role, group, caste; and gender-role identity categories.
Though like their American counterparts they described themselves in terms both of self-
ambitions and social ambitions, they seemed to emphasize group identity more. Research on
concept of self which is receiving greater attention among psychologists not only in India
and the East, but among psychologists in the West as well, further highlights the importance
of interrelatedness. In Western cultures self is conceptualized as a relatively independent
entity (Markus & Kitayama, 1991) and individuated (Marsella, 1985). In Indian and Eastern
cultures generally, it is defined more by relationship to others and is conceived as relatively
Social psychology in India 27

‘‘diffused’’ and ‘‘unindividuated’’. Roland (1987) observed among Indians values and norms
that emphasized social obligations, familial duties, and normative pressure to fulfill gender-
role demands. They possessed interdependent concepts of self defined more in terms of
social relationships (Markus & Kitayama, 1991) and were also found to respond more in
terms of social identity (Dhawan et al., 1995).
Even with regard to individualism–collectivism dimensions, it has been observed that
the typical responses of Indian subjects were neither predominantly collectivistic nor
individualisitic. They tended to respond according to the situation (i.e., the response was
contextualized), and the dominant orientation displayed was a blend of individualism and
collectivism (Sinha & Tripathi, 1994).
Another noticeable development is the trend to bring in larger segments of behavior into
their researches. As we know, the main strength of modern social psychology lies in
analyzing microcosmic determinants of social behavior. Since methodologically it is more
convenient to deal with individual-based molecular variables underlying behavior, social
psychologists have tended to avoid complexity and have neglected systemic and structural
variables. This has generated methodologically sophisticated studies, but they have not been
very helpful in understanding larger societal issues. The problems that are vital to the
developing countries and societal issues have almost invariably contained structural
institutional components for which psychology is not sufficiently equipped. Referring to the
Indian scene, it has been remarked (ICSSR, 1972, p. 44) that ‘‘most of the research done in
social psychology laid disproportionate stress on narrow aspects of large social problems
and in consequence, the information gathered lacked in organization, synthesis and
integration. Social change and developmental processes are large and complex, and the
parameters of their study should not be confined to microcosmic individual processes but
should encompass larger social, structural and cultural influences’’ (Sinha, 1986, p. 113). A
more global and macrocosmic perspective is required. A plea is made for ‘‘macro
psychology’’ (Sinha, 1985), i.e., building systematic and structural variables into the
research design so that the social reality under study does not lose its vital character and
become laboratory trivialities. Alongside, it is realized that social reality is not the exclusive
domain of one single social science discipline but that a multidisciplinary perspective is
considered essential.


A brief account of the Indian scene reveals that from being largely imitative and replicative
of Western researches, social psychology is fast taking a direction that ties it with the
traditional orientation of interrelatedness of all social beings at all levels of reality. In many
recent researches the aspect of social concern and relationship is emphasized in
conceptualizing individual behavior and self. Moreover, research in social psychology is
not taken as a pastime, as is often the case in the West, but as a serious endeavor to
understand complex and large societal problems, and helping in evolving their solution.
Finally, there is also a visible trend to take account of molar variables in social
psychological research and not remain confined to fine-grain molecular analysis in which
social psychologists seem to excel. All these factors indicate a strong trend toward
indigenizing the discipline and thereby imparting a new look to social psychology.
It is, however, to be observed that the new developments and indigenization are based
largely on the efforts of a small group of ‘‘front runners’’ and their colleagues and associates
28 Durganand Sinha

(Mohanty, 1990; J.B.P. Sinha, 1993). Second, as Adair, Puhan, & Vohra (1993) have
pointed out, the process is slow, but signs of its emergence are evident. One is optimistic that
in years to come, social psychology in India will acquire a new look and a new identity by
‘‘outgrowing the alien framework’’ (Sinha, 1987). By highlighting the Indian perspective,
the new developments are likely to provide what the mainstream social psychology lacks.


Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Durganand Sinha, 8,

Malayviya Road, George Town, Allahabad, 211 002, India.


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Received: August 11, 1996