Interview with Priti Ramamurthy

Priti Ramamurthy at the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies 2014 Fall Reception.

Priti Ramamurthy is Professor and Chair of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. Ramamurthy’s articulation of feminist commodity chain analysis, as a way to track the creation of value and gendered identities, is an important methodological contribution to studies of gender and globalization. Her interdisciplinary publications appear in Gendered Commodity Chains: Seeing Women’s Work and Households in Global Production (Stanford, 2014) and Marrying in South Asia: Shifting concepts, Changing Practices in a Globalising World (Orient Blackswan, 2014). She is a co-editor and co-author of The Modern Girl Around the World: Modernity, Consumption, Globalization (Duke, 2008).

She was the Director of the South Asia Center from January 2007. In Spring 2006, Amy Bhatt, a PhD student in the Women Studies program, had the chance to sit down with Priti Ramamurthy, Associate Professor of Women Studies, to talk about her early fieldwork experiences, her current research on cotton body politics, and how she spent her time on sabbatical. 

The interview below was originally published in the Washington South Asia Report Volume XXII, Number 1, Autumn 2006.

How long have you been at the University of Washington?

Since January of 1998.

Where were you prior to that?

At Syracuse University. At Syracuse, I was Visiting Assistant Professor in the Maxwell School and I was also Associate Director of Women Studies.

Was there anything in particular that brought you to the University of Washington?

Yes, well, the job was actually advertised as a Women and International Economic Development job. I don’t think I could have asked for a better fit in what I wanted to do and the location I wanted to do it from.

Can you tell me a little bit about your earlier research?

Sure. My dissertation research was on the political economy of canal irrigation in South India. The kind of puzzle I was trying to solve was why irrigation canals, many of which have been put in by the British as drought relief works, were being used in very productive ways, even though they had been designed as protective systems. I knew from reading the papers, that there were some pockets in the tail ends of these canal systems that were actually getting water because there were people who were collectively organizing to get water to those villages. So there were two questions really: one was why is it that canal systems that had been put in as protective and drought relief works were not really serving those purposes, but rather were being used as productive canal systems. And then the second was were people actually able to change the natural ecology and the political ecology of canals, so that some tail-end villages were actually getting the water, was it filtering down to people who were smaller farmers? (What was the impact on) people who were of the scheduled castes, who were in this area – Mala and Madiga-the two castes who are at the bottom of the caste hierarchy? And what were the impacts on people who were landless? Also as part of that work, I actually found that very productive agriculture uses a lot of women’s labor. So, my work became a critique of some of the work that was done in North India on the Green Revolution, which had shown that women had been displaced by mechanization and that as families moved into Green Revolution agriculture, women (became) housewives. This was simply not happening in the south where women were working more and more. Moreover, women, even of the land-owning castes, were still working in the field as supervisors. So, (what) came out of my work was something that I had always been interested in as a student, which was how agricultural relations are gendered relations.

Much of your field work has been done in Andhra Pradesh. How has it been working in that region, particularly in terms of working as a scholar who also has roots there?

I’ve done most of my intensive work in Andhrapradesh. I’ve also done a brief spell of work in Karnataka. Its been quite a trip actually! I come from a very urban family – middle-class urban family. And the first time I went into a village to do a survey, I was 16-years-old. I had finished high school and I a six-month gap between school and college, so I volunteered in this organization called Mother and Child Healthcare. It was funded by CARE and they started mid-day feeding programs for pregnant and lactating women and children. The person who was running it was someone who had been an Italian nun and given up the order and had come to India and started this NGO. This was in the 1970’s, so it was long before development had been NGO-ized. And she just entrusted me with going off and doing a survey in these villages they were working in (to find out) whether the program was working or not. So I literally went door to door, having never been to a village before, or having done a social science survey! And it was completely mind-blowing, on several levels. First, I had never really seen that kind of poverty up front, where children didn’t even have (their) basic nutritional needs met. I also had not seen such obduracy around sending girls to get the food. And it wasn’t just obduracy that was cultural, because there was also a major road that some of these kids have to cross. So very soon, I could see that this was a complicated process by which people were being denied basic needs. One day, the jeep that was supposed to drop me off and pick me up forgot to pick me up. So here I was, 16, alone, and it was nightfall. I was in this village which was a 20 or 30 minute walk to the nearest phone or the nearest highway. And there was this disabled man, who walked me to the gas station, where there was a phone so that I could call the office and tell them that they had forgotten me. And then he waited with me until the jeep actually came back. And it was both frightening and it was so productive of what humanity does, and the kindness that people can give. It stands out in my memory as really being something that was
both so humane and so frightening. So I guess that was a marker of when I thought I would be doing
some work in development. Then I went back in the 1980’s to do fieldwork for the first time. The city, Kurnool was really a hick town. There were open drains, there was nowhere to live. I (first) got turned out of the three hotels that there were because I was a single woman and they thought I was a prostitute. I actually ended up staying in one of the hotels with a prostitute three doors down from me. I would take the village bus or the village Tempo, which was packed. It was supposed to seat 8 and there would be 25 people in it! And chickens, and rice, and feed… But I would do a lot of great fieldwork on those trips because you would be sitting next to people. And it was always people who couldn’t afford motorcycles, which was the other major form of transportation. And I would just chat with them. And they would often be the people who would introduce me to other people in the village.

So, some of your more recent work has expanded away from your earlier work with irrigation and agriculture. Could you tell me a bit about what direction your current research is headed toward?

Sure, my new work is going to be on cotton body politics. I am calling it “cotton body politics, intergenerationality, and social reproduction.” This work is going to try to question the relationship between the crises in farming agriculture and the crises in farming families. And I am looking at the crises in farming families as a series of transformations in masculinities and femininities. I am working on cotton, which I have been working on for the last several years now. Cotton is really important as both a major crop in Andhra and also to think about questions of gender and globalization, which my earlier work has mapped out. In terms of starkness, on the one hand you have cotton suicides. So something like 3,000 farmers, mostly gendered male, have committed suicide. The state has found it very important to respond to the issue of suicides and it becomes something that is debated in the public arena between intellectuals, academics and NGOS. In the last election in 2004, it was a huge issue, which both the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Congress brought up. It was a signal of the
failure of the development state. One could even argue that it is leading to some changes in the way the state provisions agriculture. For instance, Manmohan Singh, the first thing he did after he became prime minister was fly to villages in Andhrapradesh. There were helipads built so that he could fly and give out compensation out for suicides. It was such a public statement of change. Now on the other hand, Andhrapradesh also has the highest incidence of infertility rates in the country. And there has been practically no work on the social implications of high infertility rates, no academic research. But if you talk to people in the villages, they are linking this with common pesticide use, which is terribly high. A whole lot of 11 anxiety is growing around modern forms of farming, new forms of education, a number of things. So one of the things that I am going to be studying is how in such a pro-natalist society, where mothering is so important for a woman’s identity, things like infertility – biological aspects of being a person – are playing out. I’m going to be interviewing people, both at the villages and at the infertility clinics in Kurnool and Hyderabad about what infertility means as a social process. And so this notion of cotton body politics is really going to allow me to study a range of ways in which the new economy of agriculture, the new biotechnology, especially around cotton and BT cotton, what are being called new bio-political governmentalities, and the way the state is reaching out to people, are affecting femininities, masculinities, and the possibilities of reproduction.

Are you currently on sabbatical (the fall quarter of 2006)? What do your research plans look like for the next couple of months?

I am actually working on a book project during my sabbatical, which is on a feminist commodity chain analysis of cotton. Its called “One Hundred Percent Cotton.” I am writing it as an undergraduate textbook, to be used in Women’s Studies, Anthropology, South Asian Studies, and classes on gender and globalization. Then I’m going to be going from end of June to November to do fieldwork. I will be updating some of the work that I am doing on cotton in terms of changing agrarian relations, femininities, masculinities, these processes that I’ve been talking with you about. And then I am also going to start my work on inter-generationality and social reproduction. I’m going to use the American Institute of Indian Studies Senior Fellowship to go back for next summer, June to September, when I’m not teaching to do more of that work.

Has there been anything that you’ve been able to do for yourself while you’ve been on sabbatical? I’ve heard rumors of your appearance at some South Asia Studies cricket games. 

Yes! I have been enjoying sabbatical. I’ve finished up one Modern Girl essay. I’ve been working on the Modern Girl Around the World Project for five years now with my colleagues. We have an edited volume, which is currently under review. Other than that, I’ve just been enjoying sabbatical a lot. I’ve been reading, both scholarly stuff that I’ve been wanting to read for a long time and I’ve been reading fiction, which has been wonderful. Just spending more time with family and relaxing, Netflix!

Thank you so much for sharing your time and stories with us!