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The Center for the Advanced Study of India provides funding and support to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct independent research and volunteer internships in India. Funds for the CASI internships are made possible through the support of Penn’s Office of the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives in conjunction with Penn Abroad and Penn’s Global Internship Program (IIP) and through the generous support of CASI donors.
Updated: 23 hours 28 min ago

Data collection amid policy chaos: a progress report

Wed, 07/08/2020 - 14:26

I’ve conducted and transcribed 17 interviews so far this summer, 13 with people currently working in India and four with people currently working in the U.S. holding H-1B visas. Since our last meeting, there have been major policy changes to both the H-1B program in the U.S. and the student visa program, with significant implications for students’ academic plans for the fall and ability to stay in the country.

At the end of June, Trump blocked the issuance of H-1B and J-1 visas, which also bars migrants from entering the country on an H-1B visa, until at least the end of the year. While the order does not seem to affect migrants currently in the U.S. on a current H-1B visa, it might complicate visa renewals, and limit migrants’ ability to leave the country for an ambiguous period of time. Last week, ICE announced an end to a waiver implemented at the beginning of the COVID shutdown, which allowed international students taking online classes to remain in the country on an F-1 or M-1 visa. The change in the policy stipulates that international students must be taking in-person classes to maintain visa status, which creates health risks and particular complications for students whose universities are online-only in the fall.

I am waiting for the dust to settle on both of these orders before interviewing H-1B holders and F-1 holders on these topics, as the news has unfolded quickly in the last few weeks and plans are changing. In the interest of giving respondents some time to process these developments for themselves and not overburden them during a busy and stressful time (and to collect data that more accurately reflects the broader context) I am going to wait a few more weeks before interviewing people on these two topics, though they are very relevant to my project.

As such, I’ve been focusing on interviewing return migrants in India. I’ve found data collection during the shutdown to be both challenging and rewarding. Social distancing has created some unique logistical complications, from travel restrictions preventing in-person interviews to technical issues with connectivity and WhatsApp, to finding a time with the nine-and-a-half-hour time change when both my respondents and I are awake and not working.

But the particularities of this moment have led to a surprising richness of data collection. First, because many respondents have more flexible schedules working from home, they are not in a rush to get through the interview, and I’ve found the interviews have lasted longer and respondents are more open to sharing with me. I’ve also tried to leverage the unique moment as a point of contrast for people’s “normal” daily lives before the pandemic, to highlight specific routines, work experiences or behaviors that individuals normally would not be attuned to. Because I’m not able to observe respondents’ office settings in person, I’m trying to pull out as much detail and specificity about their workplace experiences in the interviews themselves.

The nature of the pandemic and the way it’s impacted my respondents’ lives has offered new perspectives into my research questions as well. Challenges related to working from home, balancing childcare responsibilities with a spouse, and navigating expectations from bosses, has given me new insight into the tricky balance of responsibilities and pressures that many respondents in my sample face, especially working moms. And even before the changes to the H-1B in the U.S. were announced, prior travel restrictions and the heightened significance of citizenship has raised some questions for respondents currently living in the United States about their long-term settlement plans, wanting to be closer to family, and having concerns about visa processing while immigration offices are closed.

Hello again!

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 17:19

Hi everyone!

I am a rising fourth year PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science at Penn. I grew up in Bombay, India and moved here to the US in 2017 to start my PhD. My research interests lie at the intersection of gender, urbanization and political participation in India.

My dissertation project looks at the influence of circular male migration on the political participation of left-behind women in India. Specifically, I ask: Does the absence of men due to circular internal economic migration create a condition for women in sending communities to turn politically active? If so, are these effects significantly different for long-term and short-term internal male migration? Also, do they persist even after men return? I aim to study this in the context of rural Bihar, India.

In order to answer these questions I will use a mixed methods approach that will rely on observational data, survey data and qualitative interviews. This summer I will be conducting qualitative phone interviews with elites in low and high migration regions in the state. The goal is to collect information on the types of changes that are occurring in women’s lives and at the village level in terms of political participation and interaction with the state.

I look forward to updating this blog with my findings from these interviews over the course of the summer.

Studying the lived experience of urban informality

Wed, 06/24/2020 - 15:07

I am a doctoral student in City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. My summer dissertation research is being supported by the CASI summer research grant. As a planner, I am interested in how urban space is constructed. In particular, how informal space is formed by the critical relationship that defines it – the state that defines legitimate use of space, and informality that negotiates the use of urban space.

My dissertation project seeks to understand how these relationships define the lived experience of urban informality in Ga-Mashie (Accra, Ghana) and Fort Kochi (Kerala, India). In both sites, the underlying informality is comparable; what is different is the lived experience of informality. The problem, simply put, is a question of why two similar cases differ in their interaction with the state, and whether this has an impact on the lived experience of informality, and how this plays out in the growth and development of these places?

Across the world, two billion of the world’s employed population worked informally in 20181, and across all developing regions of the world, just under one billion people lived in slums in 20142. These numbers hide regional variation. For example, urban employment in India was 70 per cent in the last census3, and 88 per cent in Ghana in the last Labour Force Survey4. For urban planners, the need to define and maintain a hegemony of what I call, the “planned normal” or a desired shape of the city drives practice. Urban planners employ plans, zoning regulations, and even policy instruments that shape a city’s built environment to this end. With these tools, they aim to bring into line, anything deviating from this planned normal, defining a hegemony for the city, which the city’s residents are expected to follow. In everyday life in the global south, however, the planned normal is an aberration, often confined to a few parts of the city (if at all) where regulations and formal governance institutions prevail. Instead, the dominant hegemony is organic and informal.

Given that the pandemic restricts my being in the field, this summer, I will focus on visual ethnography techniques, in particular, photo-voice with participants in Fort Kochi. Over the last two summers of fieldwork, photography played a key role in generating dialogue among my participants about the ways in which they defined, structured, and navigated everyday space in the city. Using photo-voice, I hope to generate participant narratives about everyday spatial choices and memorialised and inherited space. Doing so also allows me to structure interviews around the photographs participants have taken – why are these views of space important to them? What do they consider the defining aspects of those spaces photographed?

1 ILO. 2018. Women and men in the informal economy: A statistical picture Geneva: International Labour Organisation.

2 UN-HABITAT. 2016. Slum Almanac 2015/16: Tracking improvement in the lives of slum dwellers. Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Program.

3Chen, Martha, and Govindan Raveendran. 2011. Urban India 2011: Evidence. Bangalore: Indian Institute for Human Settlements.

4Baah-Boateng, William, and Joann Vanek. 2020. “Informal workers in Ghana: A Statistical Snapshot.” WEIGO Statistical Brief 21:1- 12.

Choice in Childbirth

Tue, 06/16/2020 - 20:03

I am Neelu Paleti, a rising undergraduate senior studying Health and Societies with a concentration in Health Policy. This summer I will be conducting my senior thesis project, tentatively titled Modern Births?: The Construction of Power, Choice, and Safety of Caesarean Deliveries in South India. This research stems from my broader interests in maternal and child health, institutionalization of care, government-led health policy, and the evolving doctor-patient relationship in India. Though originally from Columbus, OH, I have experienced many different facets of India through my parents and extended family, who are all from the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. These experiences and stories of their interactions with the country’s medical system have piqued my interest to study the complexities of healthcare in this region.

When considering maternal healthcare and childbirth, one of the biggest patterns seen across many different parts of the world is the rise in C-section deliveries over traditional vaginal births. Over the past several decades, research has shown more and more mothers undergoing surgery to deliver their babies for a host of reasons. While a caesarean delivery has historically served as an emergency option during pregnancy complications, the World Health Organization deems that such “medically necessary” caesarean deliveries are required only for about 10-15% of all births. The problem that South India is facing is the rise of elective “medically unnecessary” caesarean deliveries that use more healthcare resources but do not necessarily contribute to any improvements in maternal mortality indices.

A 2015-16 version of India’s National Family and Health Survey has shown the rates of caesarean deliveries in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh to be 58% and 40.1% of all deliveries, the two highest rates across the nation. Moreover, 41% of all deliveries in private healthcare facilities in India are C-sections, increasing from 28% in the 2005-6 survey. This compares to around 30% C-section rates in the US. The question raised here asks why in particular are the rates in these South Indian states comparatively so high? What differentiates this procedure in this region of India that formulates this number? Such data has drawn the attention of providers, policymakers, and patients across the country who are now beginning to question the medical necessity of this procedure and the social forces shaping such trends of childbirth.

C-section rates across India, 2010-16

For the past several decades, India has been fighting to salvage its poor maternal mortality rates and ensure better patient outcomes. Many of the safe motherhood initiatives taken by the national and local governments aimed to raise the number of institutional births. As seen in the case of the Janani Suraksha Yojana, mothers were oftentimes even paid to deliver in a hospital, thereby equating institutionalization of childbirth with lower maternal deaths and safer outcomes. However, many of the secondary consequences, such as higher C-section rates, that came with this measure were never fully addressed. 

My project will research the underlying themes of the power and agency of mothers and families in the decision-making process of childbirth, as well as the dynamic of the doctor-patient relationship, especially in private healthcare settings. Through remote interviews with providers, I will contextualize the already existing quantitative research on the rates of C-sections within the nuanced circumstances of pain, family intervention, governmental regulation, and provider convenience more qualitatively. Interviews with healthcare providers in the hospital will portray how the formal education of obstetricians, payment incentives, overall attitudes towards patient populations, and awareness of this rate of C-sections influence the methods of delivery they recommend and use. I hope to contextualize these current themes within the historical evolution of maternal healthcare and midwifery in postcolonial India. Ultimately, this research around caesarean deliveries in South India speaks to larger themes of choice, social control, modernity, and gender, amongst many more that draw from the disciplines of history and anthropology to contextualize health in these communities.


Tue, 06/16/2020 - 13:37

I am a doctoral candidate in sociology and demography at the University of Pennsylvania whose research is supported by a 2020 CASI Summer Research Grant.

I grew up in Mesa, Arizona and completed my bachelor’s degree at the University of Arizona in 2012 in international studies. As an undergraduate, I spent a year in India through a study-abroad program that helped solidify my interest in India and the study of Indian society. After graduation, I returned to India on a Fulbright-Nehru Student Research Fellowship where I studied the impact of seasonal labor migration on education in Rajasthan. I then moved to Philadelphia where I worked as the Research Coordinator at CASI before joining the PhD program in sociology and demography at Penn in 2015.

As a social demographer, I am interested in how social and cultural factors impact various dimensions of population composition or change over time. My main research interests are in gender, family, and social inequality in India. I also do research on family and kinship in other social contexts such as the United States.

My dissertation project will be comprised of three papers on marriage in contemporary India. This summer, with the support of CASI, I will be working on the analysis and writing of my first and second dissertation papers. The first examines how young people and their families manage uncertainty in marriage decisions and utilizes interview data collected with the support of CASI Summer Travel Funds in 2018. The second paper will use survey data to examine patterns of homogamy in India.

A woman enters a marriage venue. Photo credit: Megan Reed 2019

Development and Expertise in Postcolonial India

Tue, 06/16/2020 - 12:27

I am Tathagat Bhatia, a rising senior in the College of Arts and Sciences from Lucknow, India. I’m majoring in Science, Technology & Society in the Department of History & Sociology of Science, and minoring in Russian. This summer I am working on my senior thesis, tentatively titled “Development Dreams: Exporting U.S. Expertise to Postcolonial India, 1947-72.” My project hopes to explore how Cold War-era U.S. agronomists, sociologists and bureaucrats sought to produce an “India” whose path to development was decidedly agricultural rather than industrial. According to these experts, India was so fundamentally ridden with problems of hunger and overpopulation that any attempt by the Indian government to pursue large-scale industrialization at the cost of agricultural reform was tragically misguided, if not reckless.

I find this story particularly compelling because of the persistence of this paternalism even in contemporary regimes of development. Every time India launches a rocket into space, for example, I notice how there is an immediate flurry of criticism from Western observers who wonder whether a country as poor as India should even be investing in space research when it could be feeding hungry mouths. Through this project I want to show how there is a history to this kind of reasoning which demands developing countries to pursue food-first development strategies.

U.S. Cold War imperatives coincided with its mission to “develop” the so-called “Third World” to advance a particular form of development which was most suitable to U.S. interests. By the early 1960s, there was a growing realization in the U.S. Department of Agriculture that even as the Soviet Union might overtake the U.S. in many industrial fields, it would be a while before they catch up to it in agricultural production and efficiency. Hoping to capitalize on their advantage in this sector, governmental agencies such as the USDA and the State Department worked in concert with nongovernmental actors like the Ford Foundation to encourage what they considered inherently American agricultural practices in non-aligned countries like India. Over the summer I will be reading more about these extension programs through U.S. land-grant universities and colleges for training Indian agricultural workers. I argue that inherent in the activities of these programs is the assumption that an agricultural approach to development was the only way to solve problems such as hunger and poverty in India.

Frank Shuman, an agricultural extension officer from the University of Illinois, being honored with a garland that reads “Hail Nitrogen” in Allahabad in 1955, in response to his fierce fertilizer promotion campaign in the district. Source: Internet Archive.

However, not everyone was keen about a food-first strategy. Jawaharlal Nehru was a firm believer in industrialization as the path to modernization, much to the chagrin of U.S. actors, most notably President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was becoming increasingly frustrated with India’s non-aligned stance even as millions of tons of food aid made its way from the corn fields of Iowa to the ports of Bombay and Vizag. According to Douglas Ensminger, the Ford Foundation’s representative to India and Pakistan from 1951-70, the problem was that India’s Five-Year Plans were devoting more and more resources to steel mills, not fertilizer plants, which was unacceptable to people like Johnson. Eventually, Johnson instituted a “short-tether” policy towards India, holding food aid hostage until the Indian government was ready to channel resources out of industrialization schemes and into agricultural reform. I hope to use moments such as this one to illustrate the pervasiveness of the food and agriculture binary in U.S. development ideals in postcolonial India.

The biggest challenge I am facing presently is access to libraries and archives. In the first place, I decided to center this story about development around U.S. actors, since access to Indian records has been curtailed due to the pandemic. But the records of not all U.S. agencies and institutions have been digitized to the same extent. The State Department, for example, has done a really good job of making reports, memos and letters available to the public, but the USDA and the Ford Foundation’s records are significantly lacking. The sources from these organizations which have been digitized include agency reports and policy recommendations, rather than personal records of the people involved, which presents only the official side of things. However, I feel confident that between coronavirus restrictions being relaxed and the wonderful service of requesting archives to scan and deliver certain documents, I would have enough sources to tell this story.

The ‘Indo-Anglians’ in Search of the World

Tue, 06/16/2020 - 11:36

Hello! My name is Vikrant Dadawala, and I’m a Ph.D candidate in English and Cinema Studies. My areas of interest include science fiction, the global Cold War, middlebrow cinema, South Asian literature, and South African literature. I’m currently employed as a Summer Instructor and Critical Speaking Fellow at Penn. Before moving to the U.S for graduate school, I’ve worked as a journalist in Mumbai and as a volunteer social worker in rural Jharkhand.

My doctoral dissertation, ‘The Decades of Disillusionment: India and the World, 1960-1990’, analyzes themes of disappointment and heartbreak in modern Indian literature and cinema. Part I of the project focuses on the literature of moha bhang [Hindi: ‘broken love’, ‘disillusionment’] from the period between the death of Prime Minister Nehru and the declaration of the Emergency (1964-1975) — a time of war, famine scares, and political turmoil. Part II turns to Indian New Wave cinema to chart the slow unravelling of “Nehruvian socialism” in the period between the Emergency and the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992. Drawing on literary sources and archival research, my work offers a new perspective on topics such as the cultural Cold War in India; socialist intellectual culture in the Hindi belt; structural transformations in the English and Hindi public spheres post-Independence; and the rise of Hindu nationalism.

This summer, supported by a research grant from CASI, I will be working on the third chapter of my doctoral dissertation. The chapter, tentatively titled ‘The Indo-Anglians in Search of the World’, is a critical reflection on the legacy of the first generation of postcolonial Indian writers in English — writers like Santha Rama Rau, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Dom Moraes, and Adil Jussawalla — whose itinerant lives and melancholic temperament made them invaluable witnesses to the period that I call India’s “decades of disillusionment”. Over the next two months, as the chapter takes shape, I will be sharing snippets of my research on this blog. More soon!

For now, here’s a brief introduction to some of the figures I will be writing about:

Ram Manohar Lohia (1910-1967). Perhaps the most important socialist intellectual of his time, Lohia was resolutely opposed to the continued use of English as a language of governance and power in postcolonial India, and was the intellectual and ethical force behind the anti-English movement of the early 1960s in north India. Lohia famously characterized English as a samanti bhasha (or, ‘feudal language’) in the Indian context: functioning as a kind of jadu tona (‘black magic’) through which a minuscule Anglophone elite ruled over a vast body politic. According to Lohia, there could be no real democracy in India until English was phased out as a language of administration. Image source: The Print.

Santha Rama Rau (1923-2009). An American writer of Indian-origin, Rau was born into a family of English-speaking elites — her father was a high-ranking civil servant in British India, and mother an important figure in the women’s movement — and grew up in England. After moving to to the US in the 1950s, Rau briefly became the best known South Asian writer in the country, but has been largely forgotten since. I will be writing about an obscure early novel by Rau, titled Remember This House (1956) — a swan-song to colonial Bombay and the ‘Indo-Anglian’ way of life. Image Source: Getty Images.

Dom Moraes (1938-2004; the handsome young man on the right). Like Rau, Moraes was born into a family of English-speaking elites, and spoke English as his mother tongue (indeed, in his first autobiographical memoir, Moraes would write about a childhood memory of his father being reprimanded by Gandhi for neglecting to teach Dom any Hindi or Konkani). While still an undergraduate at Oxford, Moraes won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize, and was quickly recognized as one of the most promising British poets of his generation. Though he had famously destroyed his Indian passport on live television in the early 1960s, Moraes moved back to India later in the decade, just as racial tensions in the U.K reached their boiling point. Moraes’s best writing embraces the paradoxes of the ‘Indo-Anglian’ condition — privileged, marginal, cosmopolitan, and provincial — all at once. Image Source: The Caravan.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013). Born to a Jewish family in Cologne, Germany, Jhabvala (née Prawer) moved to England as a refugee in 1939. After falling in love with an Indian architect, Jhabvala moved to India in 1951, and lived in the country for the next twenty four years, before moving to New York after winning the Booker Prize for Heat and Dust (1975). Unfairly dismissed by Indian critics in her own time, Jhabvala’s fiction offers us a uniquely bleak vision of middle-class life in the newly Independent nation, from the point of view of a detached and cynical outsider. Image Source: Outlook India.

Universities, companies, and the state in the process of skilled migration

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 12:37

I’m a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, and my research spans the areas of migration, globalization, and immigrant incorporation and centers on the global flows of people, knowledge, and culture. I grew up outside of Philadelphia and I’m finishing up data collection and analysis for my dissertation, titled “Global Gatekeepers: How institutions enable and constrain the global flow of skills, knowledge and migrants.”  

 Headquarters of an ecommerce company in Bangalore, India, January, 2020.

This multi-sited, mixed-methods project studies skilled Indian migrants as they move between the U.S. and India for work. The unique combination of employment history data and in-depth interviews gives purchase on studying new dynamics related to return migration and skilled migration that were unmeasurable in previous data. Leveraging the transnational and longitudinal nature of migrant employment history data, the LinkedIn data and interview data follow migrants as they move across national borders and addresses common issues related to drop out and selection among migrants. Further, this project develops an institutional framework on skilled migration, enriching our theoretical understanding of how universities, companies and the state shape migration patterns in both Indian and U.S. contexts.

The growth in skilled migration between the U.S. and India creates new opportunities to study the multi-directional flow of skill and knowledge. This dissertation project explores how institutions (universities, companies and the state) work together to enable and constrain the movement of people and information in this global circuit. Using a novel dataset constructed from LinkedIn employment histories, paired with 105 in-depth interviews, I problematize existing theories of skilled migration and examine new dynamics in transnational migration that were unmeasurable in previous data. The findings from this project will shed new light on the experiences of Indian migrants living in the U.S., and the impact of skilled migration on Indian society.

Thanks to the support from CASI, my goal for the summer is to finish qualitative data collection for this project. To understand how skilled migrants interact with institutions and navigate the migration process, I am conducting in-depth interviews with skilled migrants in both the U.S. and India, to compare the decision-making processes among groups with distinct settlement outcomes. Due to travel restrictions related to COVID-19, I will conduct interviews with India-based respondents via WhatsApp or Zoom, and will conduct with U.S.-based respondents on the phone until in-person interviews are feasible and safe again.

This dissertation project builds on extensive prior research on this topic. Most recently, I conducted preliminary field work in New Delhi and Bangalore from December 2019 through January 2020. Before that, I conducted a related interview-based research project for my Master’s thesis that focused on legal status and skilled migration, and interviewed Indian citizen H-1B visa holders about their experiences working in the U.S., the findings of which were published in Frontiers in Sociology last year.

Roadmap for Research

Sun, 06/14/2020 - 21:52

I am Arnav Bhattacharya, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science. I just cleared my candidacy exam in the end of May and am gearing up to begin research for my larger dissertation project, tentatively titled, “Making Sex Scientific: A History of Sexology in Modern India (1880-1960).” I am presently in the third year of my graduate study moving on to the fourth. I hope to complete my dissertation by 2023 to 2024 at the latest. I am originally from Calcutta, West Bengal in India and I shifted to Philadelphia in the Fall of 2017.

My larger dissertation project explores the history of sexual science in India. For anyone who has visited in India, one may have come across advertisements for “sex clinics” claiming to provide a cure for “secret diseases” (gupt rog in Hindi). I had been broadly interested in the history of medicine, gender and sexuality and was fascinated by the discipline of sexology in contemporary India, which as can be gleaned from the advertisements, isn’t unheard of in India but at the same time there is a certain amount of secrecy and awkwardness surrounding the subject. Sexuality in recent years, has managed to enter broader discussion in the public sphere in India, most visibly following several cases of sexual violence and also after the decriminalization of homosexuality in 2018. In my dissertation I take a broader historical view on the subject to show how sexology or the idea of understanding sex scientifically was a part of the bigger project of modernity in colonial India. Indian sexologists were reading and appropriating a lot on sexology from the works of British and German sexologists such as Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld. At the same time, they were also trying to understand the relevance of the science of sex with respect to issues as child marriage, widow remarriage or inter-caste marriage which were relevant in the Indian context. Moreover, Indian sexologists were perhaps some of the earliest figures in modern India to openly discuss subjects such as homosexuality and sex education.

The online Kinsey Institue Archive.

Keeping in mind my larger project, over the summer, I would like to explore the online archives of the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University. Established in 1947, by the well-known American sexologist, Alfred C Kinsey in 1947, the Kinsey Institute has been the most important site for sexual science research in the United States. Fortunately, the online archives of the Institute have been made available through the Penn Library. Based on my initial skimming of the records, there are quite a few letters, correspondences and other materials relating to India in the Kinsey Institute Archives. Researchers at the Institute were interested to know more about Indian sexuality and wrote to people in India requesting books and photographs. Several Indians wrote to the institute with a wide range of requests ranging from sex advice, permission to translate Kinsey’s studies in Indian languages and request material and advice to establish sex ed curriculum or courses on sexuality . Over the course of the summer, I want to explore, study, and find out more about these interactions to understand the significance of the Kinsey Institute in the development of Indian sexology and sexuality from 1947 to the 1990s.

The availability of an online archive has made it possible for me to access the documents, despite the present travel restrictions. An initial challenge that I think I might encounter as I explore more of this material is trying to put all these documents in context. There is a lot of material and it is difficult to find out further details about the individuals making these correspondences, especially the Indian actors. I have thus decided to contextualize these documents thematically- What was the intention of Indians to write to the Kinsey Institute? How did India become a point of interest for the researchers at the Kinsey Institute? How do these documents relate to the wider sexual and socio-economic and political context of Cold War America and Post-Independence India? These are some of my initial research questions and I would love to receive further feedback on the topic.