Washington South Asia Report 

Vol. XXVI, Number 2
Spring / Summer 2010


A Conversation with Sareeta Amrute
by Ashley Dutta


On a sunny afternoon in early May, I sat down with Assistant Professor of Anthropology Sareeta Amrute for a relaxed chat over a cup of tea. I had the privilege of getting to know her - both as an academic and as a person - for this interview.

What led you to study South Asia and anthropology?

My major in college was actually art history, not anthropology. I studied art history because I was fascinated by the relationship between aesthetic forms and power – my thesis in college was on university architecture and the way universities’ architecture reinforces power. For my art history degree I had to learn two European languages, so I studied French and German. I really concentrated on German and won a fellowship to study architecture in Berlin after my college graduation. However, during my senior year of college, I took two (my first) anthropology classes. I enrolled in them because I was not satisfied with only the art history classes – I wanted to understand the social relations that produced the art. I took one class with Sherry Ortner on gender and power, and one class with the famous author Amitabh Ghosh called “The Ethnographic Imagination.” In that class, we read really beautiful ethnographies, such as Nicholas Dirks’ The Hollow Crown, Jean Comaroff’s Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance, and Kiran Narayan’s Storytellers, Saints and Scoundrels, and that turned me on to what anthropology could be. For the first time I realized I could study South Asia – coming from a South Asian community in New Jersey, I had always thought you had to study something apart from who you are. I also had felt I could not contribute to the study of South Asia since I had not grown up there. I imagined only people who had lived there their whole lives would be qualified to do that. I realized this was not true, and I could have something to contribute.

During my year in Berlin after college, I would sometimes feel my mind needed a break from thinking in German all day long. I would go to the library and read all the ethnographies written in English – this was my favorite way to spend my breaks, and finally ‘turned’ me towards anthropology. I stumbled across Arjun Appadurai’s The Social Life of Things, which was influential in my decision to apply to graduate school at the University of Chicago. Reading all the ethnographies convinced me this was what I had to do with my life, and I applied and was accepted for a PhD in anthropology at University of Chicago.

What are your areas of research and how did you become interested in them?

I found my research topic because I was interested in the social meaning of new technologies. This led me to research Indian IT workers as a new kind of migrant laborer. I’m not actually a technology person at all – I’m personally not technologically savvy – I’m just interested in the ways technologies affect society. In graduate school, I wanted to focus my project on South Asia and technology. At that time, in 2001, the German government started offering visas to IT workers. Many of these workers came from India. Even though the visas were not only for Indians, in the German press migrant IT workers were always equated with Indians. There was a lot of debate and controversy about this visa program and the number of Indians migrating to Germany. You can say that this project kind of fell in my lap. In Althusserian terms, one could say I was ‘hailed’ by the project because of the way it combined my personal interests in Indians who migrate (like my parents did), my political interests in labor and technology, and my aesthetic interests in spectacular cities. It was a happy coincidence that I could combine South Asian studies with my knowledge about Germany. My book project emerging out of the PhD thesis is called “Migrant Programming,” a title that stresses the relationship between computer programming and migration. Since moving to Seattle, it has seemed natural to extend this focus in limited ways to Indian migrant IT workers in the U.S.

What classes are you teaching? What do you like most about teaching and working with students?

Right now I’m experimenting with the number of classes, trying to find the best routine. I regularly teach a science and technology course, sometimes with a South Asia focus. My other class, critiques of contemporary capitalism, focuses on capitalism and globalization. I’m also trying to develop a course that will be a good introduction to globalization. The third class I am teaching is a course on South Asian social structure.

One of the most challenging things for me is designing courses that meet the level of the students in the classroom because they are at such different levels. Some of the students have never studied South Asia before at all, while other students have studied it for many years. It’s hard to meet them at the right level so that they all can learn from the class.
In the anthropology department we get to design our own courses. This means that the courses offered change from year to year. There is great advantage to this flexibility, which also has to be balanced with the needs of student majors to plan their course of study over several years.

My favorite thing about teaching? I love the way I can help the discussions along in the classroom using a modified Socratic method so students come out with their own opinion – this way it is their own path of discovery, not someone just telling them what to think. This method of teaching is not easy because it requires me to know the material very well and to ask the right questions that will lead them in the right direction. Sometimes, the class can take a momentum of its own, and the students help produce the ideas. I love this because I get new ideas from my students and see things in ways I had not considered before. For me this is really inspirational and exciting. However, it is challenging to do this in larger classrooms, and I am still working on strategies to do so.

What was it like growing up in a South Asian family in the U.S.?

I grew up in New Jersey, and I had a lot of family nearby – my parents, my older brother, my uncle and his family, and my mom’s sister and brother and their families. Most of my dad’s family is still in India, though. He is one of 7 children, and most of his family lives in Mumbai. My mom’s family is in Pune. I’d say growing up in New Jersey in the 80’s gave me an awareness of historical change –I witnessed such a big transition in the way that Indian culture in America changed from being something unheard of and odd, to being accepted. When I was a child there were racial attacks against Indians in Jersey City, and I was the only Indian girl in my elementary school. People would often ask me if I was Native American, because they had little encounter with South Asians. Now it is totally different! Everyone there goes to Indian restaurants and watches Bollywood movies, and there are Indian CEOs and Indians in politics; it has been a remarkable change. The South Asian community has become very prominent in New Jersey. This really interests me because I lived through that shift in such a personal way. I would say that when I was young, I felt ambivalent about my South Asian identity – on the one hand I had a deep abiding interest in South Asia, but I also wanted to fit in in America and master what other Americans had already mastered. I now feel we need to deconstruct the shift in power of South Asians in America.

What do you think will be your future areas of research?

I would love to pursue research on the ways technology affects people – for instance, the way new technologies are affecting the Kolis, a fishing community, in Bombay. I am currently pursuing a project that looks at the call center drivers in Pune. I want to look at how changes in technology and capitalism affect people on the ground. I am interested in creating much needed bridges between two bodies of work that are still quite separate, work on South Asian diaspora and work on the politics and culture of contemporary South Asia. This goal seems really important given the transnational connections between the two.

You are a new professor. Is being a professor like you expected, or very different?

It is different. Sometimes it’s harder to get small things done than I had imagined– but I think that is just how bureaucracies function, and I had never thought about that aspect of it. I feel so privileged to be here and have this job, but at the same time I am so worried about the budget cuts and how they will affect the university as a whole. This was not something I expected because I thought I’d be teaching small classes, and now I’m worried about how large the classes will get, how overworked the staff will be, and how the quality of education may go down for the students.

What excites you about being a professor, and what is most challenging?

I’m really excited by being able to work with colleagues. They are so knowledgeable, and it is inspiring to learn from them, especially in the reading and writing groups I have joined. Some of these groups are focused particularly around women, and it is important to recognize that women and minorities often face different hurdles in the tenure process that can sometimes be best addressed in intimate, non-academic settings. I have learned so much from my colleagues in South Asian Studies, Anthropology and across the University. The University of Washington seems to attract young and talented minds. My colleagues have so much energy, and it is so exciting to be with them, sharing, discussing, and joining in this creative collective process.

The challenge is to make room for writing, at least a little bit, every day.

Ashley Dutta is a Master's Candidate in South Asian Studies at the Jackson School.
Her thesis focuses on the changing identities of West Bengali women. She can be reached at ashley.n.dutta@gmail.com.

Return to South Asia Report Spring 2010


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