N. Majumdar was born on 3 June 1903 in Patna. He was educated at Dacca Government College (now in Dhaka), University College Calcutta (now in Kolkata), Cambridge University and Dalton Laboratory in London. He became a Masters in Anthropology from Calcutta University in 1924 . He started lecturing on Primitive Economics at the Department of Economics and Sociology, Lucknow University as a Lecturer in 1928.
N. Majumdar, a student of Sarat Chandra Roy from Calcutta University, went to Cambridge to conduct his Ph.D. under Professor T. C. Hodson in 1933.
For his fieldwork, he selected a tribe called the Ho in the Kolhan region of Chotanagpur. The approach could be shortened to MARC, or Man, Area, Resource and Cooperation. The relationship between these four elements guided the existence of any society. Man here refers to human beings having certain biological needs and physical properties. Area refers to the spaces which they occupy, the geographical referent which forms the basis of their existence. Resource signifies the materials available in the spaces that they occupy. Finally, cooperation indicates the relationships between the human beings studied. Harmony in all these four elements leads to a functional unity in society. This unity breaks down due to external pressures.
He saw that primitive tribes were declining and this was for him a primary concern for anthropologists. An advanced culture impinging on a simple and passive society, according to him, caused such a decline. He did not agree that this could be stopped by creating reserves for tribals so that they may not be influenced, or by including them very closely within the Hindu fold as a backward form of Hinduism, but that they should be integrated into Indian society, a form that he called “creative or generative adaptation.” He believed that dominant groups should give respect to those communities that were backward or downtrodden. A social change, in his opinion, should not be disruptive but should be in continuity with existing cultural traditions.
In spite of his specialization in Social Anthropology, he managed to keep up with trends in Physical Anthropology and Prehistory. In 1939, he became the President of the section of Anthropology and Archaeology of the 26th Indian Science Congress held at Lahore.
He was involved in the decennial census operations of 1941, carrying out anthropological and serological surveys in the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). P. C. Mahalonobis, the famous statistician, collaborated with him.
Majumdar also went on to study polyandrous societies like the Khasa of Jaunsar-Bawar in the Himalayas, the Korwas and the Tharus as well as towns and castes in Uttar Pradesh. After Sarat Chandra Roy, he carried on the traditions of fieldwork in India. He extended his work from tribals to urban societies also.
In physical anthropology, he worked on blood groups, anthropometric surveys, health and disease also. Anthropometric and serological data was analysed statistically by him (known as biometrics). In Uttar Pradesh, he tried to find out the biometrical correlates of caste hierarchy. Though using racial factors in his analysis he was opposed to the concept of race and was not fond of single factor explanations in caste studies. Using physical anthropology, he also studied the school children of Lucknow. He was also known to be interested in prehistoric archaeology, keeping up with the latest on the topic and occasionally lecturing on it. He became more and more knowledgeable about the castes and tribes of the country and went on to promote a problem-oriented research work based on theory rather than mere ethnographical ones. He learnt more about the tribes and castes of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (studying the Gonds of Bastar), Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat (studying the Bhils) and West Bengal. Another promoter of this approach was his peer Verrier Elwin.
In 1953 he collaborated with M. E. Opler of Cornell University in a research project on village studies. By 1945-7, he laid the foundation of what became the thriving ‘Ethnographic and Folk Culture Society’ (EFCS) in Lucknow. He contributed greatly to village studies in anthropology in India. He recommended the kinds of studies that were required for the future and also demarcated the social contours of an industrial city. He also incorporated an evaluation of administratively engineered social change. He was further involved in carrying out excavations of archaeological sites.
He wrote many important works like Race Elementsin Bengal (which he wrote with C. R. Rao), Social Contours of an Industrial City (with N.S. Reddy and S. Bahadur), A Village on the Fringe, Race and Cultures of India, Fortunes of Primitive Tribes and A Tribe in Transition. He also wrote a very famous textbook which has been reprinted again and again, remaining popular till date – the book An Introduction to Social Anthropology that he wrote with T. N. Madan.