The history of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) is marked by several identifiable ‘moments’ in its intellectual and institutional evolution. These include the Centre’s participation in debates on modernization in the 1960s in which its emphasis on the importance of empirical research in politics and political behaviour proved to have a life beyond the moment. It was also a part of the intellectual drive to ‘bring people back on the agenda’ after the Emergency dictatorship of the 1970s; this involved the Centre in complex engagements with social movements. Some of the other landmarks in the history of the Centre are its critique of science, reason, and governmental categories, and the bid to estimate the continuing significance of `traditional’ affiliations, world-views, and social and ecological practices against the demands of modernity; and the exploration of new democratic potentials in the contemporary period. The Centre’s work on the contemporary has been pursued through new types of research in survey work and ethnographic methods, and by addressing new publics—from educationists to students—through media and legal practitioners, policymakers, and civil society agencies.
During its first decade CSDS was known for its pioneering empirical work on Indian politics. Its founder, Rajni Kothari's Politics in India (1970) was the first systematic and comprehensive study of the national political system by an Indian; the work also received unprecedented international acclaim. The crucial insight of this work was that there was neither an easy translation of west-centred categories in the Indian social and political setting nor was a useful link available between methodologies and the reality that they were meant to understand and explain.
At a time when social worlds seemed to be neatly divided between tradition and modernity, work at the Centre, perhaps not inappropriately, was steeped in the modernization theory. However, as the country’s most extensive data unit was being developed at the Centre, a healthy scepticism about some of the conclusions it was yielding also began to grow. The collective thinking generated by this unease led to a profound questioning of western modernity. Hence, at a time when virtually everyone was in the thrall of western social science, scholars at the Centre began scrutinizing the fundamental cultural and intellectual assumptions underlying it and started a thorough search for alternative paradigms. D.L. Sheth's essays on caste and democracy and Sudhir Kakar's Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and its Healing Traditions (1982), are outstanding examples of this effort. These were accompanied by a serious rethinking of the intellectual relationships between the colonizers and the colonized. Ashis Nandy's The Intimate Enemy (1983) explored this issue with much liveliness, perfection, and élan. Each of these thinkers had a significant impact both in India and abroad not only in the academic world but also in the wider public domain. Each of these faculty members played an extremely significant role in public life and in their own ways also shaped public policy.
During this period the Centre also gave an intellectual direction to influential civil society movements through initiatives like Lokayan, which had a major impact on non-party politics. The Centre was among the first to warn of the dangers of blind faith in science and technology and in particular, development-induced displacement.
In the Centre’s imagination then, as now, India cannot be conceived or understood independently of its neighbours. The Centre was among the few places in India that continuously tried to connect with researchers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal. It was its long-standing commitment to this engagement that made possible the State of Democracy in South Asia (2007).