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New Faculty Profile: Kavita Dattani, Assistant Professor in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies

October 10, 2023

The South Asia Center’s graduate assistant conducted an interview with Kavita Dattani, who assumed the role of Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington in the autumn of 2023. Explore further to gain insights into Professor Dattani’s compelling academic journey.

GA:  To begin with, I am eager to know what motivated you to pursue a career in academia.

KD: It definitely wasn’t a linear path for me. I began my career working in different places and spaces. I spent some time in China learning Mandarin and in India working for the largest union of informal women workers, the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA). If I had to choose a ‘moment’, it would probably be when I conducted an MSc at SOAS University of London in Development Studies. I had some incredible professors who taught me to think about the world differently and that really stayed with me. One of them encouraged me to apply for a PhD, and that’s when I started to learn about what a career in academia could be.

I started a career in international development following the course, but I struggled to deal with the structures and hierarchies in the sector. To put it frankly, I’d just spent a year being taught to problematize neoliberal capitalism and then I basically moved into a sector where the next ‘big thing’ was getting huge banks to invest in development projects in the global South that would give them high monetary returns on development outcomes. That’s when I thought–okay maybe not my thing! I had been working on a project on digital banking for women in Maharashtra, and that got me interested in the interesting ways in which India was becoming a digital powerhouse. I applied for a PhD based on some ideas I had and went from there. I ended up doing my PhD in human geography at Queen Mary University of London. I was attracted to the department because it has a reputation of radical geographical thought. My supervisors Professor Kavita Datta and Dr Philippa Williams were really the dream team and supported me to get through the process and make it out still wanting to do the work.

GA: Please provide an overview of your PhD and share your research experience. 

KD: My PhD thesis focused on the use of digital dating apps (Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Truly Madly) among middle-class women and gender minorities in Mumbai against the backdrop of a fast digitizing and nationalizing India. The thesis really delves into the complex interplay between gender and sexuality, class making, digital tech and the city. In the project, I uncovered the ways in which dating apps’ algorithmic architectures and design features are built to maintain class and caste endogamy, which is co-produced by dating app users’ digital dating practices and dating app companies’ marketing campaigns. This was reflected in the geographies of the city too. I showed how, through different mechanisms, dating app users and companies mapped their cartographies of desire. This happened either through orienting to the wealthiest parts of the city for digital dating ‘success’ or practicing and promoting digital enclaving along class and caste lines, reflecting the physical enclaving of the city. In the thesis, I use the term “data-bility” as a double entendre to argue that how dateable one is on a dating app, relies on data in many forms.

In general, my research experience was great, apart from being cut short by the pandemic. I managed to complete 10 months of fieldwork in Mumbai and that was really when I was getting into the swing of things. Luckily, I was still able to continue research online. If I had to share one tip to qualitative researchers it is that your notebook is your best friend–write it all down, you will thank yourself later!

GA: Can you share more about the global Fairwork Project conducted at the Oxford Internet Institute (University of Oxford) and provide insights into the research focus? 

KD: Fairwork is an action-research project which highlights the best and worst practices in digitally mediated work. I specifically worked on the ‘location-based’ arm of Fairwork which looks at work like food delivery and ride hailing (think DoorDash and Uber) among other forms. It is location-based because a worker has to interact with a customer or client physically in a location (unlike online piece work which can be carried out remotely).

We work across 38 countries and in all of those countries we conduct research (secondary research, interviews with workers and interviews with platform managers), and we use that to rate platforms against our 5 principles of fair work on location-based digital labor platforms. We then use the ratings to work with platform companies. We give them a roadmap as to how they can improve. I also specifically worked on gender and location-based platform work, and recently co-authored a global report on this, which you can read here.

GA: What led you to choose the University of Washington? 

KD: As you know, I’m joining the UW as Assistant Professor in Critical Feminist Data Studies in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies. When I saw the position come out, I thought to myself–wow that is exactly what I do. I think it’s really important to generate knowledge on digital tech and data. These things are rapidly developing in all areas of industry, but we don’t necessarily know all of the cultural, social and political implications of them. Across the university there seems to be a huge thematic focus on digital tech and data, and I wanted to be part of that research community and contribute from a feminist perspective. My department is a great place to do that. It was also important to me to be part of a community of scholars working on South Asia. The South Asia Center has many people who I’ve looked up to for a long time!

But ultimately, I chose the UW because of the people in my department. Every single person in GWSS is doing important work and fighting the fight in different ways. I am inspired by the way my department colleagues are pushing the bounds of what it means to create knowledge.

GA: What can students anticipate learning from your classes? 

KD: This year, I’ll be teaching Feminism in an International Context (300-level, Winter), Digital Capitalism and Data Colonialism (400-level, Winter) and Intro to Gender and Platform (Gig) Work (200 level, Spring).

In all of my courses I like to take so-called mundane things that we experience every day – a name, a home, a city, a smartphone, a dating app, a food delivery platform ­– and explore the ways in which that thing has a politics, and particularly a gendered politics. In their own assignments, students can expect to delve deeper into class topics which are most meaningful to them.

There are at least three exciting things students will benefit from in my classes:

  • An international focus with ideas and cases from multiple contexts.
  • A range of resources including podcasts, news articles, films, academic texts.
  • Knowledge and skills to set you up for life after university. We will draw on examples that teach you more about skills for careers in activism, NGOs, media, government and more.

GA: How is your experience so far in Seattle? Anything, in particular, you like about it?

It was always going to be hard to compete with my beloved London where I have spent the best part of a decade. However, Seattle really is a great contender! I love how beautiful the city is. Food produce, in particular, is so good. I never knew tomatoes could taste so sweet!