Indian society is a multicultural society which is marked by multiple complexities and efforts to understand by scholars were on even before beginning of sociology as a formal discipline in 1920. Although efforts have been made to develop an understanding of society since ancient times, but systematic efforts were made only after establishment of political administrative rule of the British.
There were two major phases in colonial rule, the early phase in which Orientalist forms of knowledge about the colonised and Christian missionary views dominated, and the later, more important phase, when (after the Mutiny of 1857) direct rule was established and major transformations in the nature of colonial state took place, and concomitantly, new forms of knowledge emerged, and Indian tradition and social institutions, particularly caste, were studied.
Seeds of sociological thought were sown by voluntary organizations of 18th and 19th century like Asiatic Society of Bengal led by William Jones who translated Manusmriti in English. Apart from voluntary organizations, government machinery and administration also laid stress on study of Indian life. Colonial rulers started to pursue social understanding of society to rule the country better in areas of law and order, revenue collection etc. During early period, say till 1850s, understanding of Indian society was generated primarily by British administrators and not scholars. During 1820–50, many books and works were done. They developed an orthodox view of India society, having broad features like — self sufficient and closed village economies, caste based social structure, primitive tribal communities. Universities were also established in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras in 1857, Department of Census was established in 1871, Ethnic Survey was made in 1901 and so on. These helped in a scientific study of social sciences and Indian society.
After 1850s, India came under direct administration of British crown and by that time, British rule was extended to the whole territory. Now, the understanding of Indian society was supplemented by writings of Christian Missionaries, Academic theologists, ethnographists and industry experts. The process was supplemented by establishment of western education and tremendous expansion of administrative framework in India. During this period a few educated Indians also help in understanding of Indian society. Many other elements like — joint family, jajmani system customary laws, Panchayati raj etc were studied along with previous elements. At the macro level also, historical works were used to generate a theoretical understanding of the society without supplementing it with field studies.
Sociology was established as an academic discipline by Sir Patrick Geddes in 1919 in Bombay University and later on a separate department was also established in Lucknow and Mysore and universities as well. It was at this time, that understanding of Indian society came in domain of ‘sociologists’.