One of my research foci has been on Indian engineering students and professionals as they have moved between India and the United States. My doctoral dissertation, entitled “Engineering the Global Indian: Skills, Family, and Cosmopolitanism in Circuits of High-Tech Migrations between India and the United States,” was a multi-sited ethnographic investigation of the experiences of and conditions under which engineers educated in India could achieve the phenomenal degree of transnational mobility that they have assumed in recent decades. In the process, I have investigated histories of higher education and (middle) class formation in colonial and postcolonial India, ways in which the family as an institution both structures and adapts in response to increased transnational mobility, and the enormous amount of cultural and discursive work that goes into reconciling previously opposed notions of “Indianness” and “Westernness” into reformulated cosmopolitan “Global Indian” articulations of selfhood and belonging. The analytical thrust of my work has thus been twofold: to situate contemporary Indian engineers in their broader historical and cultural contexts, and to make visible ongoing social and cultural re-articulations into which the worlds of these engineers provide an excellent window.
A key argument that has emerged from my research has been that engineers can be understood as classed and cultured subjects par excellence. In postcolonial contexts such as those of India in particular, science and technology have been fundamental to the very imagination of modern nationhood and associated notions of development and progress—with scientists and engineers often embodying the promise of such modernity. Engineers—alongside medical doctors and scientists—thus come to occupy particularly privileged positions in Indian society, both in cultural and socio-economic terms. Understanding the cultural meanings attributed to engineering and the evolution of various engineering professions in Indian contexts, hence, provides an especially insightful window into the making of modern India and middle-class life therein. Sketching out various dimensions of this argument ethnographically has been at the heart of my recent and upcoming articles and monograph.
A second dimension of this work has been a commitment to working with the engineers who continue being my interlocutors—across disciplinary and epistemological divides, and those between theoretical and applied knowledges. My association as a Post-Doctoral Research Affiliate with the “Nanotechnologies for Development in India, Kenya, and the Netherlands: Towards a Framework for Democratic Governance of Risks in Developing Countries” project exemplifies this commitment: in collaboration with other project members, I organized a workshop on “Developing Nanotechnology for an Emerging India: Risks, Benefits, Governance” in Hyderabad, India in November 2012. This workshop brought together, among others, nanoscientists, social scientists, policy researchers, entrepreneurs, and industry-based personnel, with the goal of promoting cross-disciplinary understandings about nanotechnology use, development, and regulation in Indian contexts. Following up on the success of this initial workshop, I am currently organizing a follow up workshop, “Innovation: Brokering Nanotechnology, Creating Capacity,” which will be held in Pune, India on March 27-28, 2014. The scope of this second workshop has been expanded to include discussion about how innovation can be conceptualized as a multi-scalar, non-linear process in which multiple actor-groups participate. The upcoming workshop will also include discussion about how pedagogy and STS-inflected curricula could help advance creative thinking about innovation among Indian students—attuned to ways in which Indian university classrooms usually work, and to broader cultural and political-economic dynamics. I see my work with the nanotechnology project as laying ground for on-going work to design productive collaborations between differently positioned and skilled people, who need to work together to address contemporary challenges.
My effort to understand the broader social, cultural, and political-economic configurations that the worlds of Indian engineers bring into relief has also resulted in two significant collaborations within anthropologists and STS scholars. I have worked with University of Houston-based anthropologist Deepa S. Reddy to deepen understanding of the “new middle class” in contemporary India, focusing on the high-profile “middle-class” anti-corruption “Lokpal” protests that broke out in India in Summer 2011. Our collaboration hones in on understanding the “middle class” as a discursive and performative space, with moments such as the spectacular Lokpal protests serving to produce and consolidate the cultural space of middle-class practice and ideology. Using consumerism as an analytical lens to understand middle-class formation, we trace ways in which the Lokpal protests re-articulate the very terms of politics, citizenship, and democracy in a globalizing India.
A second project in this vein takes the form of a research network organized to advance understanding of technoscience-society interactions in contemporary India. I, along with Wiebe E. Bijker, have been recently awarded a grant jointly funded by the Indian and Dutch social science research councils to fund development of this network. This grant will be used to organize a workshop entitled “Publics, Politics, and Technoscience in Contemporary Indian Contexts” in November 2014 at O. P. Jindal Global University in Sonepat, India, focused on the place of technoscience in ongoing re-articulations of culture, state, and society in present-day India characterized by neoliberal political-economic reorganization. This workshop will bring together international researchers, with the explicit goal of articulating a foundation for a more substantial India-focused interdisciplinary social science collaboration.