A Scholar Who Sees Everything Through a Global Lens

Historian Anupama Rao thinks about identity and difference, equality and exclusion, through the caste system.

Eve Glasberg
June 28, 2022

Anupama Rao, a Barnard history professor who also teaches in Columbia’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, has a wide range of research and teaching interests—gender and sexuality studies, caste and race, historical anthropology, social theory, comparative urbanism, and human rights.

Among her many projects, Rao is the director of Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, and she co-directs the project, Geographies of Injustice, hosted by Columbia’s Center for the Study of Social Difference. Rao has written extensively on colonialism and humanitarianism, and on non-Western histories of gender and sexuality. She is currently working on a book about the political thought of Indian social reformer and political leader B. R. Ambedkar, and a project, Dalit Bombay, which explores the relationship between caste, political culture, and everyday life in colonial and postcolonial Bombay.

Rao talks about her wide-ranging pursuits with Columbia News, as well as how she developed them and her advice for anyone planning a career in academia.

What is the single unifying thread that runs through your broad body of research?

I am interested in the conditions of possibility—material, infrastructural, ideological, imaginative—that organize and constrain ways of being together. That is, I am interested in the social question, in how social relatedness is imagined, and in how it operates. I am particularly fascinated by our ideas about—and commitments to—equality, though, in our daily life, we are surrounded by practices of hierarchy, domination, violence, and exploitation.

So the organizing thread, the arc uniting my body of research, focuses on how ideas and practices of equality and freedom have developed. This entails examining efforts to name and analyze historic structures of discrimination, while cultivating new forms of democratic life and mutuality. Because I was trained as a historical anthropologist of South Asia, I tend to think about these issues through the prism of caste, and the complex ways in which the caste system continues to function as the political unconscious of Indian society—while also offering a powerful global rubric for understanding the dialectic of identity and difference, equality and exclusion.

If you had to pick one of your many projects as being representative of your entire output, what would it be, and why?

The Ambedkar Initiative links the world’s oldest and largest democracies through the figure of political thinker, constitutionalist, and Dalit (people belonging to the lowest stratum castes in India) leader, B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), who was also a Columbia alum. A work in progress, the initiative is organized around a series of annual lectures; collaborative student research and public programming; a course that uses our University Archives to develop an Ambedkar finding aid, which maps the complex political and intellectual histories of the interwar period; and efforts to expand access to the rich archival collections in New York, including at Barnard and Columbia. (As you might imagine, this last effort has proved both difficult and challenging precisely because it involves the commitment of material resources.)

Finally—as a scholar from an upper caste background who is at an institution that has a remarkable connection with one of the 20th century’s most significant political thinkers—it is my responsibility to do everything in my power to create institutional spaces that address enduring questions of social difference and historical inequality, with an eye to developing rigorous forms of ethical-political response. One of the ways we hope to do this is through a collaboration with partners in China, South Africa, and India on the topic of Global Racisms, for which the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society received a prestigious outside grant.

By Michael Alvarez from the series "We're Out Here"

What was your path to developing this diversified career?

I have been a scholar-teacher throughout my adult life, so I am not sure how diversified a career this is! What might be distinctive is that I have tried to relate historically specific questions of social existence with the broad concerns of critical theory, thus bridging the area/theory divide. I have also remained attentive to how people come into critical thinking, through what forms of self-reflection and practices of expression. Most important, perhaps, is that I challenge the Eurocentric assumptions about the geohistorical provenance of critical thought.

I approach the world in terms of how best to fully explore the consequences of a problem I have set for myself, if not to find adequate answers. This opens up lateral thinking—working with sensed connection, possible correlation, and strong explanations for why things are the way they appear. I trust myself with this kind of associative thinking, and I have become more comfortable with engaging in acts of academic refusal, in challenging assumptions and the ways in which people are trained to approach them.

I have tried to think about the problem of personhood, of social boundaries, asking why inequitable structures prove so resilient and flexible. In the process, I try to think across disciplinary domains, while simultaneously engaging with questions of the archive, its relationship to time and temporality, and ideas of change and transformation that historians typically concern themselves with.

What are you working on now?

I am increasingly interested in U.S. history, and in deeper exploration of traditions of African American political thought. I say this with some trepidation, being at an institution with amazing scholars, whose work I admire, from whom I learn. This is a return of sorts to my own intellectual formation as a teenager on Chicago’s south side, but equally, it is an effort to think from my own peculiar intellectual formation as a South Asianist trained in American institutions at a particular historical moment. A focus on South Asia and the world—particularly the links between imperial Britain, the U.S, and India—will frame my next project on affirmation action regimes in the 20th century, and ideas of historical redress.

Advice for anyone going into academia?

Enter at your own risk. This is not because I think academia is unimportant, or worthless. The opposite is the case, and there has never been a more urgent need for critical thinking and fearless response. We are living through catastrophic times. The example of young people taking to the streets, engaging in thoughtful practices of change-making, and teaching us how to inhabit new worlds through their actions is instructive and exciting. Many of them are or have been in the academy, and experienced its manifold contradictions.

The identity of the academy, of the American Cold War research university, is itself in flux: The university as we know it is being reconceived from within and without. (The recent student worker strike at Columbia is a powerful, and proximate, example.) And there is, of course, a great deal to be concerned about with regards to who can afford to be in the classroom, and the prior exclusions that structure access and opportunity.

My way of thinking about our present has been to see the university as a social form, to ask what democratic education means, and how we have come to separate orders of intellectual and manual labor. I think those who are interested in becoming professional academics should think about the transformative work that can happen in the classroom, and the privilege of pursuing an intellectual passion, while remaining aware of the difficulties of finding a permanent position, and the enforced precarity that intellectual workers increasingly face. 

Any exciting summer plans?

I am revising my book, Ambedkar in America, which models a form of close reading focused on Ambedkar’s first publication, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis, and Development. This was a short essay he wrote in 1916 for a seminar, Modern and Primitive Societies. It is an extraordinary essay, to which Ambedkar returned across his life as a thinker and a writer who addressed the enduring problem of (caste) stigma, inherited privilege, and caste power. Here, he opened the way to comprehending caste as a historically determined form of general processes of inequality and subordination, rather than as a mysterious and unapproachable Indian problem.

I engage in a close reading of this text, but I also offer approaches to read and engage with it, through critical annotation.

What's the best part of teaching at Barnard and Columbia?

Our students can think backwards, forwards, and everywhere in between! This is a set of institutions linked by complex histories of gendering and racial exclusion, but which was equally shaped by inspiring histories of struggle and insurgence.

I approach the classroom as a space for asking difficult questions. Something magical happens when you are able to let go and think about texts and their animating contexts as cherished fellow travelers. My own approach to teaching and scholarship has changed quite profoundly since I have been here, and this is entirely due to the institutional surround, the connections within and without the classroom, and, most of all, the students who set a very high bar indeed.