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Putting anthropology to use: Insights from researching violence prevention interventions in Mumbai

Ketaki Hate and Proshant Chakraborty | 24 March 2021

This post was originally published on Antroperspektiv

A celebration of World Anthropology Day 2021 at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg.

For World Anthropology Day 2021, the Dept. of Anthropology at the School of Global Studies organized a panel with Ketaki Hate and Proshant Chakraborty, which was moderated by Prof Maris Gillette. Ketaki, Proshant and Maris spoke with anthropology students and faculty about their experiences in applying anthropology, particularly in the field of gender-based violence prevention in Mumbai’s urban poor neighborhoods. They also discussed their “origin stories” and trajectories of starting in academia, working in professional research, and returning to academia. The following text is a coauthored by both speakers, summarizing their contributions during the panel.

Our “origin stories” and trajectories as anthropologists and applied researchers bear striking resemblance, but also diverge in important ways. For one, we both studied sociology and anthropology as undergraduates in Mumbai—an academic context where lines between both disciplines blur and overlap, more than elsewhere in the world. And second, both of us worked as applied researchers in similar institutional spaces, including one particular non-governmental organization. In part, our stories also speak to why and how academia and research are institutional spaces that are based as much on the importance of ideas as they are on building empathetic connections and relationships. Here we also wish to acknowledge how these humanistic values—like empathy, for instance—defined and shaped our research on issues like gendered violence, and how our research also deepened our connection to such values the other way around as well.

But, as we mentioned, our stories also diverge. Ketaki calls herself “an accidental anthropologist.” After graduating in sociology, she pursed her masters in disaster management, assuming that she would be able to fuse together her knowledge of sociology and anthropology to design humanitarian interventions. Interventions that, she hoped, would address gender, caste, and religious inequities that arise during and after disasters and humanitarian crises. But life doesn’t always follow desired plans. And this fortunately brought Ketaki to her calling—social research.

Proshant, on the other hand, was keen on becoming an anthropologist soon after completing his very first year of BA. For the next two years as an undergraduate, he worked with an independent researcher, also an alumni of his and Ketaki’s alma mater. Together, they monitored and evaluated several intervention and advocacy projects on HIV/AIDS prevention in Mumbai city. Proshant’s experiences in the “field” deeply informed his appreciation of what he had read and discussed in classrooms; and his crucial insights from the classroom—including Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, and Stuart Hall—informed his practice of participant observation, and underscored how power and inequality impacted the lives of marginalized communities, and reproduced social and biopolitical forms of risk.

After obtaining an MPhil in sociology, Ketaki shifted from academia to professional research. Yet, she did not waver from her passion for working to address gendered inequity. And for Proshant, working as an applied researcher between his bachelors and masters was an opportunity to weld together the technical skills of doing ethnography with a critical viewpoint. It was perhaps inevitable that working on and researching themes of marginalization and vulnerability itself led to forays into the NGO world. Not only are NGOs and civil society organizations plentiful in cities like Mumbai, but they are also diverse in their forms and modes of work. For instance, Proshant interacted with organizations that were militant, and others that were highly bureaucratic.

We both moved to the field of gender-based violence prevention around 2014–15, when we became involved as research consultants with a non-governmental organization that worked on improving the health and wellbeing of urban poor women and children in Mumbai’s informal settlements. Our work as research consultants fulfilled two purposes: to investigate ground realities of public health in underserved communities in Mumbai; and then use these insights and findings to frame future interventions to address the gaps or inequities that were highlighted by our work with the community. And though we both worked in interdisciplinary teams—with colleagues in public health, mental healthcare, and social work—we often had to underline the value of qualitative and anthropological methods, like participant observation and interviews. Our collaborative research, though challenging, underscored the importance of finding out the “why” and “how” of social issues, like gender-based violence.

For instance, it’s widely accepted that gender-based violence is rooted in societal and cultural norms. One of the ways in which interventions aim to reduce gender-based violence in a given area usually focus on understanding and modifying norms to make these groups more equitable. If we were to rely on only quantitative data here, it would tell us the number of incidences, types of violence, relationship to the perpetrator, and to some extent the survivors’ coping mechanisms.

But we will all agree that a deeply entrenched societal problem of gender-based violence is more complex than that and requires sensitivity on part of the researcher. That’s where qualitative methodology based in sociological and anthropological principles comes into the picture. Our epistemology drives our entire research process; it’s not far-fetched to say that it defines the very ethos of who we are as researchers and in turn how our research is conducted.

Ketaki’s work often involved speaking with participants who were survivors of violence; thus, building trust was of utmost importance for her. Such conversations with participants may be data for the researcher, but for the participants, it is their lived reality. Treating these lived realities as life stories—and not just decontextualized or abstract data—is a way in which researchers can respect both, their participants, and their willingness to lay bare their trauma. Re-living trauma is not easy, reciting it repeatedly is even more difficult, to say the least. Here, Ketaki’s work showed how her role as a researcher was to build trust based on empathy, confidentiality, and consent.

In contrast, Proshant’s research and fieldwork largely focused on the community workers and volunteers who implemented the everyday routines of the program; these were women who supported and cared for survivors and engaged in different forms of civic activism. He saw his role as one that interpreted the lifeworlds of his collaborators, as well as the community they worked with (women and other urban inhabitants). Having spent a lot of time with community workers on the ground, Proshant could engage in dialogue with them, and often invited them to help make sense of the evidence collected from participant observation or interviews (ensuring confidentiality of participants, of course). He could then use these insights while working with researcher colleagues, who would often use quantitative data and methods, like surveys. Proshant was thus able to use his ethnographic expertise to generate useful data to help his colleagues answer questions of why and how programs achieved their desired goals—or, in some cases, why things did not work.

Our experiences also highlight the importance of being reflexive—that is, to be aware of how our position impacts and influences our ability to work with participants, shapes the evidence we gather, and how we collect and interpret it. Yet, we also urge others to look beyond reflexivity. Though reflexivity should be the starting point of any anthropological inquiry, how we practice reflexivity can be different in situations of applied research, where we are also required to provide answers and solutions. This means we should be careful in understanding what our commitments are to our employers and research subjects—and how these can often be different or even contradictory. This requires us to pay great care to the knowledges we produce, and how these may or may not be used for the benefit and detriment of communities.

In many cases, Proshant was unable to convey the critical remarks of some participants or colleagues for fear of them facing reprisals; yet, he had to find ways to internalize that knowledge, and use his position and privilege to make these points—which may or may not have been successful. This also meant that both of us, as anthropologists, faced the charges that we were not “objective” enough—a debate we have been more than familiar with (in fact, we recognize not being objective or neutral as an important part of being critical scholars and researchers!)

Yet, as applied researchers, we were able to convince our colleagues that context and nuances did matter—especially when based on rigorous observations. We would often use our vantage point of being fieldworkers to question the received wisdom of theories drawn from global or transnational policies; but as feminist anthropologists, we also questioned the normalization of gender violence and inequality. It is important to mention that, in the context of urban poverty in the Global South, much critical scholarship has often neglected the experiences of women, girls, gender nonconforming individuals, and transwomen and transmen.

As we conclude, we wish to make two key points. First, in recounting our professional and academic trajectories, we hope to help many young anthropology undergraduates who’d like to continue with research. We were both motivated, respectively, by the desire to address gender issues and work in the field of anthropology—which nevertheless made our paths and practices converge. For both of us, this eventually led to the realization that we really enjoyed the work we did. As confused, young people in our early-twenties, this was rather liberating! With this realization came the zeal of gaining research experience and then getting a doctoral position. So, after conducting research in the non-profit space for half a decade, we both decided to get back into university and academia—where, much like this essay, we continue to bring our insights and lessons from applied research. With this, we wish to reiterate that as anthropologists we must try to find ways to productively move between—and at times, inhabit—the threshold between the classroom or academia and applied work. This is a site for critical reflection, collaboration, and coming up with interesting and relevant solutions of social problems.

Second, our experiences have impressed upon us that it is an immense privilege and opportunity to be able to use research in applied settings. This is one way in which our skills, training and knowledge have a direct bearing on peoples’ lives—but the responsibility is as immense as the opportunity, if not more. Here, we wish to invoke to the work of the late Gerald Berreman, particularly how he rejected the difference between different ethics for academic and professional anthropologists (and thus, the difference between two forms of anthropologists, as well). In fact, Berreman recognized that a discussion on ethics in anthropology had to account for the diverse kinds of work that anthropologists engaged in, both academically and professionally. But he also underscored the need to not separate the two, so as to avoid two forms of ethics and anthropologies—principled and laissez faire. Berreman uses these terms polemically, as he problematizes both, the anthropology practiced in universities which follow ethical guidelines established by institutional review boards (IRBs), and applied anthropology that is sometimes made to adhere to market-based, transactional ethics found in professional or corporate research. This division, he ultimately said, was “unnatural, unnecessary, and counterproductive,” and resisting it is in the interest of both, “the public, and the profession of anthropology.” Like Berreman, we also believe that “There is no place anywhere for unprincipled anthropology or anthropologists.”

Acknowledgements: We are thankful to Prof Maris Gillette for organizing this panel for World Anthropology Day 2021; to Susanne Åsman for inviting us to publish our panel contribution in the form of this blog; and to the anthropology students and faculty for their thought-provoking questions.


Ketaki Hate is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. Her research examines the intersection of gender, caste, and nationalism in Western India. She has acted as a research consultant for the United Nations, Action Aid India, SNEHA Mumbai, University College London, and the University of Oxford.

Proshant Chakraborty is a doctoral candidate at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, and a practicing and applied anthropologist in Mumbai. He has previously been involved with monitoring and evaluation studies on HIV/AIDS advocacy and interventions, migration and labor, and prevention of violence against women and girls in urban poor neighborhoods.


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