Partha Chatterjee
Stanford Humanities Center



Partha Chatterjee portrait
Partha Chatterjee

Partha Chatterjee was born in Calcutta in 1947. He completed a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Rochester in 1972. He is currently Director and Professor of Political Science at The Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Calcutta, and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. In addition to a rich bibliography, his curriculum vitae documents, over a number of pages, a career of academic positions in India and the United States; a wealth of visiting professorships across Europe, Asia and North America; and a dizzying list of invited lectures that span the globe.

No human can be adequately rendered in a few pages of text. In rendering Partha Chatterjee for the purposes of his upcoming lecture at Stanford, this point is worth consideration, because Partha Chatterjee’s academic life engages many disciplines (politics, international relations, history, sociology, anthropology), and he has many interests unrelated to the social sciences including theater, music, and soccer. In addition, Chatterjee himself has written extensively on the development of disciplinary boundaries, the problematics of categorization in the social and political arenas, and he disclaims especially the self-evident definitions imposed from Western thought on others.

One could look to Chatterjee’s own reduction of himself in his curriculum vitae, or his redaction of it on the website of his main institution ( A quick characterization can also be gathered from a course website at the National University of Singapore: And Chatterjee provides an interesting and relatively comprehensive view of himself in an interview given to Asia Source (see But here is a quick reading.

A major focus of Partha Chatterjee’s work is nationalism, but in order to follow his thoughts on this topic, one must simultaneously think also of colonialism, post-colonialism, modernity, and the idea of the nation-state, and also summon up, simultaneously with that cluster of concepts, a not-nationalist and counter-colonial viewpoint about what these terms actually represent (or could actually represent), with special reference to India. One of Chatterjee’s basic arguments is that the concept of nation-state is one formed in Western social scientific thought, and thus it may not even work for all states as the given it is often taken to be. The practical problem (according to Chatterjee) is that post-colonial administrators adopted the paradigm of nation-state and thus blinded themselves to new possibilities of thinking outside Western categories. These new possibilities are what Chatterjee is striving for. Along with this comes an engagement with current worries about globalization. In fact, the question remains, is colonialism really gone? This is a very rough cut on a complex thinker’s ideas. In his words:

The framework of global modernity will, it seems to me, inevitably structure the world according to a pattern that is profoundly colonial; the framework of democracy, on the other hand, will pronounce modernity itself as inappropriate and deeply flawed.... My argument... is that it is only by separating the two interrelated issues of civil society/modernity and political society/democracy that we will begin to see the dimensions of power and political strategy that underlie... the question of the democratic negotiation of citizenship under conditions of globalization. (“Beyond the Nation? Or Within?” Social Text 56:16:3, 1998)

It is the same simultaneity experienced in homogeneous empty time that allows us to speak of the reality of such categories of political economy as prices, wages, markets, and so on. Empty homogeneous time is the time of capital. Within its domain, capital allows for no resistance to its free movement. When it encounters an impediment, it thinks it has encountered another time – something out of pre-capital, something that belongs to the pre-modern. Such resistances to capital (or to modernity) are therefore understood as coming out of humanity’s past, something people should have left behind but somehow haven’t. But by imagining capital (or modernity) as an attribute of time itself, this view succeeds not only in branding the resistances to it as archaic and backward, but also securing for capital and modernity their ultimate triumph, regardless of what some people may believe or hope, because after all, as everyone knows, time does not stand still. (“The Nation in Heterogeneous Time,” Futures 37, 2005, p. 925-6)

A parallel question in this work is the question of the governed – that is, are the governed peoples really participating in ‘nationhood’ as it is seen from above – or can we see that ‘peasants’ participate in movements of change for various reasons that may or may not be aligned with the movement’s own characterization of what’s going on and why people are participating? Another cut across these ideas is India. Chatterjee has written extensively on the politics of India – religion and politics, caste and politics, ethnicities, different kinds of ‘nationalisms,’ redefining what can be meant by what is ‘India’ and the paradigms imposed – including arguments against homogeneity, and in favor of embracing heterogeneity:

What I do know is that the practices of democracy have changed in India in the last four decades, that the project of state-led modernization has been drastically modified, and that the forms of involvement of the subaltern classes with governmental activities as well as with representative institutions have both expanded and deepened.... On the side of those who are governed, they have succeeded, in the teeth of severe opposition from the dominant sections, to bend and stretch the rules of bourgeois politics and rational bureaucracy to create forms of democratic practice that, even as they retain the names given them by Western sociology and political theory, have become unrecognizably different. These are the creations of the Indian people. Perhaps some day a great storywriter will appear to give them new names and a new language. ( “Democracy and the Violence of the State: A political negotiation of Death” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 2:1, 2001 p. 20)

Interestingly, the issue of nationalism devolves all the way down to academic disciplines and individual scholars. By writing on certain topics, one gets categorized within the paradigm of these topics regardless of one’s own sense of fit. Chatterjee is therefore a writer on colonialism, but also not; an ‘Indian’ writer – but what does that tell us? If one writes on India and its history, politics, and post-colonial dilemmas – is that the true subject? Does it not also have relevance for other politics and other sociologies, other non-colonial, post-colonial happenings? And the practical problem: what language to write in, and for whom – for compatriots? for the larger hegemonic Western disciplines? Who will read? Who will listen? The problem could be equally India’s scholars not reading English language publications, and Western readers not reading in the indigenous languages of India. These practicalities are within, without, and beyond Chatterjee's compartmentalization as ‘Indian’ scholar.

[W]hat happens is that the new indigenous practitioners of the disciplines actively seek out the various points of entry – equivalence, similarity, adjacency, substitutability, and so forth – through which, in a ceaseless process of translation, the new knowledges are aligned with prior knowledges. These ‘prior’ knowledges’ are not those whose elements may have already gone into the formation of the discipline but now have to be encountered horizontally (so to speak), as adjacent formations that must be engaged in the process of translation. Perhaps... modern discursive practices in the non-European languages are driven by similar interest and desires as in the West and... instead of producing caricatures or travesties, they continue to represent serious attempts to produce a different modernity. (Texts of Power, p. 23, 27)

Curiously, my greater familiarity with Western academic institutions has made me less rather than more anxious about my inability to keep up with the latest.... I know my work will always move on a tangent to what is being done at the metropolitan centres. I will speak to…[it], but never be of it. At the moment, as a putative citizen of the global republic of letters, I suspect I have less than one vote. (“My place in the Global Republic of Letters,” in: At Home in Diaspora: South Asian Scholars and the West, p. 50, 51)

A quick reading, then, reveals a fascinating complex of thought. If only we could read all at once, all the time, and listen with equal democratic complexity!

Text by William Wheeler, Curator for Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology

Stanford University Libraries ©2007


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