During the first decade, CSDS began to establish a reputation for its pioneering empirical work on Indian politics. Its founder Rajni Kothari's Politics in India was the first systematic and comprehensive study of the national political system by an Indian scholar, receiving unprecedented international acclaim. The crucial insight in this work was that there is neither an easy translation of questions and categories in the Indian social and political setting, nor a useful link available between political science methodologies and the Indian reality they are 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 modernisation theory.

However, as the country’s most extensive data unit on social and political indicators was being developed at the Centre, a healthy scepticism about some of the conclusions it yielded also began to emerge. The collective thinking generated by this unease led to a profound questioning of Western modernity. At a time when virtually everyone was in the thrall of Western social science, scholars at the Centre began to scrutinise the fundamental cultural and intellectual assumptions underlying it and launched a thorough search for alternative paradigms, sometimes described as “nonmodern” and “non-Western.”

D.L. Sheth's work on caste and democracy and Sudhir Kakar's Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and Its Healing Traditions are outstanding examples of these early intellectual trends at CSDS. These were accompanied by a serious rethinking of the multiple relationships between the coloniser and the colonised. Ashis Nandy's The Intimate Enemy explores this issue with an originality that has made this short tract a classic of mid-century social science. Each of these thinkers-Kothari, Sheth, Kakar and Nandy-had a significant impact both within India and abroad, not only in the academic world, but also in the wider public domain. All of these members of the founding faculty played a significant role in the public life of our society and in their own ways shaped state policy as well.

During this period, the Centre also gave intellectual and ethical 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 a blind faith in science and technology and, in particular, of development induced displacement, environmental degradation and the loss of marginal cultures and traditional ways of life.

In the Centre’s imagination throughout the latter half of the 20th century, India could not be conceived of or understood independently of its neighbours. The Centre is among the few places in India which have continuously tried to connect with researchers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal. It is its long-standing commitment to this engagement that made possible the two reports on the State of Democracy in South Asia in 2007 and 2017. The Institute of Chinese Studies was incubated at CSDS and focussed under the leadership of Giri Deshingkar on understanding Chinese civilisation as also modern China. This network of scholars and other China experts has only recently become an independent institution.