Although it has many strands, liberalism can broadly be defined as a concern for the rights of the individual over and against her/his community and the State; it stresses the need for a plurality of associations and ideas both as a good in itself and to check the power of the majority. While Beteille's essays are not so much prescriptive as attempts to understand the processes of change in Indian society—and some of his keenest insights come from recognising that social processes do not always move uniformly in one direction (the 'antinomies' of his title)—his own preference is for a society organised on liberal rather than communitarian or communist lines. Each of his essays, though devoted to different themes such as ideologies, intellectuals, civil society, governance and empowerment, is in some way concerned with the need to have autonomous institutions to balance each other, and to promote the concept of individual citizenship rights.
Beteille's central argument is that Indian society is made up of not only different castes, religions or linguistic groups, but by a variety of what he calls 'open secular institutions' such as universities, hospitals, banks and newspapers whose recruitment, at least in principle, is based on non-ascriptive criteria, and whose rules are framed on the basis of 'technical' requirements rather than on the basis of religious or political doctrines. He recognises that in practice these institutions are rarely as open as they should be, and that 'merit' often merely masks privilege—given that only the rich (usually upper caste) can afford the kind of education and coaching that enable entry into the civil service or engineering and management institutes. However, the solution to the imperfect functioning of these recruitment procedures is not to abandon the principle of open recruitment altogether in favour of caste or religious quotas to make them more 'representative' of society, for that would be to change the very nature of these institutions.