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british colonialism investigative modalities

Bernard Cohn and Colonial Investigative Modalities

Anthropologist Bernard S. Cohn, a pioneer in writing about British colonialism in India, in his work Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India introduces us to the term: “Investigative Modalities”. Although, at first instance, the term may seem alien to postcolonialism, it adds an important to the postcolonial scholarship on knowledge production.

Cohn’s work has inspired and influenced writings on South Asia and South-East Asia. Earlier, this blog reviewed the work of one of Cohn’s famous students, Nicholas Dirks, and his pathbreaking work The Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. To read that essay, click here. Ronald Inden, another postcolonial scholar was his student.

Apart from the illustrious set of students he had supervised, Cohn was also known for “his lucid prose combined with an amazing command over English, vernacular, and anglo-vernacular sources and narrative and archive use never escaped the minds of the readers who found it difficult to stop reading the essay half-way through.”

In this blog, I will discuss his important contribution to the scholarship on British colonialism through the lens of Investigative modalities.

Colonialism and Knowledge Production

One of the running tropes of arguments propounded by postcolonial scholars is that colonialism transformed the way we think, represent and talk about ourselves.

Postcolonial scholarship emerged in the 1970s through the writings of Edward Said in his Orientalism, Franz Fanon in his The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skins, White Masks, Ashis Nandy in The Intimate Enemy, Gayatri Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, and others. This school of thought asked pertinent questions regarding how knowledge is produced about the other when juxtaposed with power relations.

Edward Said in his Orientalism (1978) writes:

Orientalism was responsible for expressing and representing ‘the Orient’ as primitive and inferior, as the recurring image of the Other, in order to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient.

(Said 1978)

Said also shows his readers that “the European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self”. Bernard Cohn takes this approach in studying the practicable ways in which European knowledge production worked.

Classification, Codification, Registration: Investigative Modalities

The European powers increasingly made their powers visible through the process of “officialising” procedures. It began with control over the definition and classification of space—leading to a strict distinction between what constitutes public and private. Michel Foucault has referred to this phenomenon as “Governmentality”.

In the Foucauldian sense, governmentality refers to the ability of a state/or government to treat the population not as people, but as numbers. It takes the population as objects—with purpose. This population is constituted, and reconstituted, to suit the ruling desires of a state.

British colonialism began in India by imparting an official value to terminologies. Birth, death and marriages gained a process of formalisation. Registration (of birth, death, and marriage) made for your existence. If you don’t have the paper, you don’t exist. Or if you don’t exist, and since your paper says you do, you cannot go in peace. Remember CAA and NRC!

There was also a standardisation of language. You should only speak this way; else we don’t get what you speak. This standardisation happened in most European states, and then soon, by virtue of colonialism, was applied to colonised (including India).

Cohn also states that there was a strict policy of what accounts of official and legal and legitimate. If you didn’t fit in, you would be punished. There was a codification of laws and practices. More importantly, Census was introduced. It was a mechanism for the British to determine, codify, constitute, and enumerate the population.

This documentation of Indians (a means to learn about the alien society—the alluring culture they possessed) was systematically done to further assert their rule over them.

What are Bernard Cohn’s Investigative Modalities?

Colonialism was as much a cultural project as much as it was political and economic. It is this part of colonialism that Cohn seeks to uncover. Bernard Cohn argues that the process of classification, categorisation, and documentation was carried through a series of investigative modalities.

Investigative Modalities:

The definition of a body of information that is needed, the procedures by which appropriate knowledge is gathered, its ordering and classification, then how it is transformed into usable forms such as published reports, statistical returns, histories, gazetteers, legal codes, and encyclopaedia.

(Cohn 1996)

In loose terms, investigative modalities refer to processes of collecting facts that the British used in India in their ability to govern Indians.

Bernard Cohn identifies SIX investigative modalities:

  1. The Historiographical Modality
  2. The Observational/Travel Modality
  3. The Survey Modality
  4. The Enumerative Modality
  5. The Museological Modality
  6. The Surveillance Modality

The section below briefly discusses each of these modalities with examples.

What is the Historiographical Modality?

According to Cohn, historical modality is the most “complex, pervasive and powerful modality” used by the British. This modality acts as a base for other modalities that follow. Historical modality refers to the investigation into the knowledge of the history and practices of Indians.

There were three ways historical modality functioned under British colonialism:

First, the British began asking questions about how ruling practices were codified by the existing or prior Indian rulers. This knowledge, the British thought, would help build a most valuable source of knowledge upon which they would build their empire.

To do so, the British began investigating through “enquiries”—asking a list of questions on how revenue was assessed and collected.

James Mill and division of Indian history investigative modalities
James Mill, in his The History of British India, divided Indian history into three periods: Hindu, Muslim, and British | James Mill (1773–1836), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Second, there was an effort to typify Indian civilisation through the ideological construction of the civilising mission. They used the writings of early historical efforts of Orientalist scholars such as Alexander Dow, Robert Orme, Charles, Grant, and James Mill.

To gain a broad understanding of how this process was carried out, read: Dirks’ Castes of Mind. Moreover, there were efforts to suggest that Indians were backward, and that they need to be civilised—and that the British were merely on that mission.

Third, there was an effort to re-construct the “popular history” of events significant to local people – and represent them. Some of these examples could be the stories of the black hole of Calcutta, the seize of Calcutta, and the defeat of Tippu Sultan, among others.

What is an Observational/Travel Modality?

Observation—an imperial gaze, is an important element of any kind of colonial control. The observational modality discusses how itineraries were created and then made use of by the British to navigate through India. There were landmarks now represented on maps. In addition, there was a sketch of the kind of things they saw and felt amazed about.

investigative modalities
1865 Johnson’s Map of India (Hindostan or British India), WIKIMEDIA

It was a kind of “repertoire of images and typifications” that determined what the Europeans felt was significant. This interest in documenting India through its practices was further pushed into creating categories of what made an Indian.

In fact, the behaviour of an Indian was not consciously used to create stereotypical categories that pervade European societies to this day. That is India—a land of a fakir, a snake charmer, and spices.

What is a Survey Modality?

Surveying people and places surely was one of the important modalities of Europeans. The survey modality is one of the investigative modalities composed of mapping India, collecting botanical specimens, recording architectural and archaeological sites, and measuring a farmer’s land.

Busy Street in India
Bsravikiran, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1765, Robert Clive appointed James Rennall to survey the whole of Bengal. It was with him that surveying began as a modality in India. It also paved the way for new ways of documentation.

Rennall was followed by Colin Mackenzie and Alexander Cunningham. Documentation and classification became important tools for governance. These tools were further standardised and refined through the colonial period. This method was further used to point out topology, flora and fauna, ethnography, culture, and economy.

What is an Enumerative Modality?

Enumerative modality is interesting! It is also a modality I have obsessed myself with understanding since my Master’s days at Delhi University. This modality has shaped my thinking about caste categories and identity politics.

But, that aside, here is what it means.

It is a modality that focuses on the collection of basic information about the people the colonisers rule over. India was a vast reservoir of numbers. Cohn argues, “A number was, for the British, a particular form of certainty to be held on to in a strange world”.

After the revolt of 1857, the British realised the need to classify Indians. As a result of it, they began attempting a census project to categorise Indians into one of the pre-fixed identities. By 1881, the British had perfected their classification structure, which included collecting data about religion, caste, gender, sect, etc.

Census of India 1911 . IA censusofindiav17pt1to2indi.pdf
The Census of British India 1911 | Wikimedia Commons
Primordiality of Indian Societies

However, a singular identity did not define primordial Indian societies, and there was complexity in identifying an individual with one identity. Therefore, the British began to prioritise one identity over the other. The category “Mohammedan Hindus” in parts of colonial India were either classified into Hindus or Muslims.

To understand this phenomenon broadly, READ: Abhinav Chandrachud’s Republic of Religion: The Rise and Fall of Colonial Secularism in India.

Otherwise, Kaviraj’s conception of fuzzy communities has made this argument. Kaviraj further argues that, with modernity, identities emerged as we see today. Herbert Hope Risley, in 1901, introduced the caste census in India. However, it was a flawed model, and to gain an in-depth understanding, read Dirks.

In essence, enumerative modality helped reshape the identities of individuals into structured social categories. And by default, it propelled identity and communal politics in India.

What is a Museological Modality?

For the Europeans, India was a vast museum. Its past sources of collectables and curiosities were found, extracted, translated, preserved, and often transported to fill European museums, zoos, botanical gardens, and country houses. Thousands of tigers were killed so that the British officers would hang a leather sheet in their houses.

Archaeological Survey of India, WIKIMEDIA

Importantly, many archaeological sites were identified and mapped (Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro included). Colin Mackenzie collected archaeological specimens, texts, manuscripts, and oral historical records in South India.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was also created, with Alexander Cunningham as its head in 1859. ASI was mainly tasked with recording important sites based on topographical research.

In the museological modality, the British gained the power to “define the nature of past and establish priorities” in creating a corpus of civilisation, canons of taste, practices, and instrumentalities of rulership.

What is a Surveillance Modality?

Surveillance is an important source of control. Today, it is even more sophisticated with the introduction of virtual panopticons in the form of CCTV cameras. But it is nothing new. The Panopticon was first discussed as a prison structure by Jeremy Bentham in the 19th Century.

During the British period, the coloniser had learnt to survey Indians from above, afar, and at a distance: from a horse, on an elephant, a boat, a carriage, or a train. This seeing from above made the British assume a sophisticated outlook on his societal position. It also enforced colonial subjects as someone to be looked up, read about, to be experimented with, and behaviour tweaked.

Street Scene in Calcutta an engraving 1881
See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The “imperial gaze” had a goal—of assigning roles to everyone in society. Under colonial sociological theatre, Cohn writes, everyone, including the ruler and the ruled, had proper roles to play. As a result, there were classifications of special categories: sanyasis, sadhus, fakirs, dacoits, goondas, thugs, pastoralists, herders, and entertainers.

Further, in 1835, the British established Thagi and Dacoity Department, which was created to investigate and punish robbers and murders. There was also a sophisticated use of informers, who provided evidence to the British about the cultures of thuggery, and communities of the so-called thuggery. Fingerprints were used as a means to individualise documents.

Conclusion: The Imprints of Investigative Modalities

Now, as we look back at these colonial forms of knowledge, the new elite of independent India acquired these bureaucratic institutions. The end of colonialism ended colonial state rule, but its forms of knowledge production are still prevalent in present-day South Asia.

For instance, see the debates around caste census, debates around personal laws of marriage, the institutionalised role of police brutality in the face of protests, and the identity, sectarian and religious violence prevalent in South Asia—and specifically in the Indian Subcontinent.

While British colonialism ended in 1947 in India, the colonial forms of knowledge live on.


  1. Cohn, Bernard S. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton University Press, 1996.
  2. Cohn, Bernard S.. An anthropologist among the historians and other essays. India: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  3. Dirks, N. B. (1979). The structure and meaning of political relations in a south Indian little kingdom. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 13(2), 169-206.

Cover Photo: Viceroy Lord Canning meets Maharaja Ranbir Singh on 9 March 1860. Wikimedia Commons.

Suggested Readings:


Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India by Bernard S. Cohn.

Buy the book on Amazon

On the Postcolonialism:

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Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient by Edward Said

Buy the book on Amazon


The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon.

Buy the book on Amazon


Black Skins, White Masks by Franz Fanon.

Buy the book on Amazon

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The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism by Ashis Nandy.

Buy the book on Amazon


A Critique of Postcolonial Reason by Gayatri Spivak.

Buy the book on Amazon

Other books referred to in the essay:

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The Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India by Nicholas Dirks.

Buy the book on Amazon


Republic of Religion: The Rise and Fall of Colonial Secularism in India by Abhinav Chandrachud.

Buy the book on Amazon

2 thoughts on “Bernard Cohn and Colonial Investigative Modalities”

  1. A very informative post that gives a deeper knowledge and understanding of Indian history. India gained its independence about a year before I was born. The US was a British colony until the American Revolution in the late 1770s. While Native Americans were stone age people who sparsely populated North America, Indian states had centuries-old highly sophisticated cultures. The colonial experience was quite different, but in both cases, it seems to have been quite brutal. India today is a flourishing democracy with much to admire!

    1. Yes absolutely, I agree with your point that both cases were different, but they were brutal in their operation. You are right about India’s flourishing democracy. But, there are concerns about the rising religious intolerance in India. I hope we can overcome this soon 🙂

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