Majumdar, D. N.

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Majumdar, D. N.



D. N. Majumdar (1903–1960) was born of Bengali parents. He obtained a first-class master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Calcutta in 1924. The training that he received there was in both cultural and physical anthropology, and to the end of his life he retained a broad interest in both the physical and the cultural aspects of the science of man. A large number of his papers and two of his books deal with anthropometric and serological studies among the tribes and castes of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Bengal.

“General anthropology” was not a mere slogan for Majumdar; it reflected his firm conviction that a unified science of man is not only desirable but also possible. Thus, in his analyses of social stratification in India, he emphasized the need to examine racial factors, Earlier H. H. Risley, in The Tribes and Castes of Bengal (189lα 1891b) and The People of India (1908), had asserted a relationship between race and social groups in India; Majumdar gave further support to this view by his own extensive investigations. He showed that in Uttar Pradesh those castes which constitute “clusters,” being close to each other in the hierarchy of castes, also fall within a narrow range of biometric variation (1949). Similarly, in his unpublished studies of growth among the school-children of Uttar Pradesh, he included a sociocultural factor as a significant variable.

The greater part of Majumdar’s published work is ethnographic in nature and consists of accounts of the Ho (Bihar), the Khasa, the Korwa, the Tharu, and the so-called criminal tribes (all of Uttar Pradesh), the Gond (Madhya Pradesh), and the Bhil (Gujarat). He published monographic studies of both the Ho (1937) and the Khasa (1962). He knew the Khasa best and spent 22 summers doing field work among them.

Majumdar considered these studies to be contributions to cultural anthropology; he regarded social anthropology as a subdiscipline within cultural anthropology and not as an alternative frame of reference for the study of human social behavior. His approach to the study of culture was that of a functionalist. He went to England in 1933 to work for his doctorate at Cambridge, and he was awarded his degree in 1935. While in England he attended Malinowski’s seminar at the London School of Economics and came under his abiding influence. Majumdar was also much influenced by the writings of Ruth Benedict (e.g., Majumdar 1944α). He stressed the integrated character of culture and maintained that cultural stresses and strains are the outcome of a disturbance in a culture’s “base.” The “base” of a culture, he wrote (1937), is a function of four variables, namely, man, area, resources, and cooperation. If the disturbance is not of too fundamental a nature, a culture has a tendency to absorb the shock and revert to its original character; if otherwise, it changes to attain a new equilibrium (1958). His view of culture was thus essentially “integrationist,” though not static.

Majumdar was the first formally trained Indian anthropologist to study the impact of nontribal cultures upon the ways of life of Indian tribes. This early interest in cultural change led him, in the 1950s, to welcome the emergence in India of rural anthropology. He played a notable part in this new field of research and produced one of the first book-length village studies in India (1958).

He also pleaded for the application of the findings of social science to the task of national reconstruction. As a member of the Research Programmes Committee of the National Planning Commission, he emphasized the help which anthropologists and sociologists could give to the administration by studying the problems of backward communities and by assessing the impact of government-sponsored projects of community development. His posthumous book on the Khasa (1962) contains a detailed discussion of the community development program in Jaunsar-Bawar (Uttar Pradesh).

It was Majumdar’s deep belief in the utility of applied sociological research which made him undertake, in 1954, a survey of the industrial city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh (1960a). In this, as in many other personal and academic attitudes, he reflected the strong influence of Western social science. Although he did not visit the United States until 1952–1953, when he attended a WennerGren Foundation symposium on anthropology and lectured at Cornell University, from quite early in his life he was receptive to ideas emanating from American universities. Thus, in his very first book (1937) he underscored the importance of studying the psychological dimension of human behavior, particularly in the acceptance and rejection of innovations.

Majumdar’s ethnographic works are characterized by a richness and precision of detail, but they lack theoretical sophistication. This is probably due to the fact that almost the whole of his work in physical as well as in cultural anthropology was of a pioneering nature. More than any other individual of his generation, he endeavored to place anthropological studies in India on a scientific footing. The success he achieved, considering the circumstances, was considerable.

At the time of his death, Majumdar was professor of anthropology and dean of the faculty of arts at the University of Lucknow. When he died, a book on polyandry among the Khasa was about to be published; at least one more (a village study) was ready for the publisher; and a research project on growth among schoolchildren in Uttar Pradesh was in progress. He was editor of the Eastern Anthropologist, a journal he founded in 1947. All these activities bear testimony to the breadth of his academic interests.

T. N. Madan

[Directly related are the entries Asian Society, article on South Asia; Caste; and the biographies of Benedictand Malinowski.]


(1937) 1950 The Affairs of a Tribe: A Study in Tribal Dynamics. New & enl. ed. Lucknow: Universal Publishers. → First published as A Tribe in Transition: A Study in Culture Patterns.

1944α The Fortunes of Primitive Tribes. Lucknow: Universal Publishers.

(194β) 1961 Races and Cultures of India. 4th ed., rev. & enl. New York and Bombay: Asia Pub. House.

1947 The Matrix of Indian Culture. Lucknow: Universal Publishers.

1949 Mahalanobis, P. C.; Majumdar, D. N.; and RAO, C. R. Anthropometric Survey of the United Provinces, 1941: A Statistical Study. Sankhyd: The Indian Journal of Statistics 9:89-324.

1950 Race Realities in Cultural Gujarat: Report on the Anthropometric, Serological and Health Survey of Maha Gujarat. Bombay: Gujarat Research Society.

(1956) 1960 Majumdar, Dhirendra N.; and Madan, T. N. An Introduction to Social Anthropology. New York and Bombay: Asia Pub. House.

1958 Caste and Communication in an Indian Village. Bombay: Asia Pub. House.

1960a Social Contours of an Industrial City: Social Survey of Kanpur; 1954–1956. New York and Bombay: Asia Pub. House.

1960b Majumdar, Dhirendra N.; and Rao, Calyampudi R. Race Elements in Bengal: A Quantitative Study. With a foreword by P. C. Mahalanobis. New York and Bombay: Asia Pub. House.

1962 Himalayan Polyandry: Structure, Functioning and Culture Change; A Field-study of Jaunsar-Bawar. New York and Bombay: Asia Pub. House. → Published posthumously.


Risley, Herbert H. 1891α The Tribes and Castes of Bengal: Ethnographic Glossary. 2 vols. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press.

Risley, Herbert H. 1891b The Tribes and Castes of Bengal: Anthropometric Data. 2 vols. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press.

Risley, Herbert H. (1908) 1915 The People of India. 2d ed. Calcutta: Thacker.