How Development Feels: Value in India's Global-Digital Age

Project Abstract
My current research project, entitled the How Development Feels: Value in India’s Global-Digital Age, explores the types of technologically-driven justifications that have emerged during India’s current phase of human development, a moment associated with the rapid NGOization of the education and health sectors in India.

Over the past twenty years, Bangalore, once a sleepy garden city in South Karnataka, has been re-branded as the “Silicon Valley of India”, a hub for global technology companies and one of the first test cities for the Digital India movement, a new initiative by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make India’s urban centers internet enabled. The city’s population has nearly doubled in a ten-year period, rising from 5.1 million in 2001 to 9.5 million in 2015 while also tripling in physical size over the past ten years as it seeks to make room for the ever increasing number of companies and people, both from across the globe and from neighboring villages, who continue to migrate to the city seeking opportunities, sometimes imagined and sometimes concrete (Heitzman, 2004; Nair, 2005). As it has grown, Bangalore has quickly enveloped the villages that surround it on its south, east, and west, submerging these agricultural populations as it seeks to mark itself as the next world-class city. Simultaneously, Bangalore has seen an exponential proliferation of development organizations, both international and national, that bring these rural areas into the urban fold through interventions that seek to shift values in Bangalore’s peripheries. 

I argue that what it means to “develop” in India must be re-theorized given these emergent digitally-mediated circulations and transnational diasporic networks that influence how social change is conceived.  I conducted fourteen months of ethnographic fieldwork with personnel from Adhyaapaka Foundation, a Bangalore-based education NGO, as they interacted with teachers, students, and parents in villages outside the city. My work revitalizes the anthropology of value by fleshing out its affective dimensions (Fassin, 2012). Recently, anthropologists have been concerned with the global regimes of value that circulate and change what various populations believe “they ought to want” (Graeber, 2013). These types of changes do not work primarily within the realm of the intellectual, but instead through the prism of affect, directly influencing (or affecting) the potential for particular types of action in the future (Povinelli, 2011). In my fieldwork, affects were produced within a regime of development-based value, manifesting as dreams, aspirations, desires, and anxieties that together I term the affects of development or, put more simply, how development feels. For example, in the Adhyaapaka organization praxis, the method of intervention was to “motivate” rather than provide skills, explicitly attempting to change how headmasters, teachers, and students felt about themselves and their capabilities and, in so doing, promoting a set of techno-managerial values in schools, including those of accountability and sustainability. The affective intensity of these encounters emplaced these values in students as “what they ought to want”, destabilizing competing values, and pushing them along a path dictated by the precepts of development. 
As part of my research methodology, I participated in a film and photography project with my 9th grade students in Adavisandra, challenging them to find audiovisual techniques to represent their lifeworlds themselves. Over the course of nine months students developed their skills using handheld video cameras, photo cameras, and audio equipment. A Dean’s Award for Research and New Media covered the costs of equipment, all of which I have left with my students in Adavisandra in an effort to create a sustainable practice at their school. It was in these filmic imaginings that I started to understand the everyday struggles and intimate suffering in Adavisandra in relation to globally circulating representations of value, articulated most directly in references to mediatized images drawn from TV serials and films, what I argue is an unique digital culture emerging in villages surrounding Bangalore. 

Funded by: 

Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship

Penn SAS Gov and Dean's Award for Research and New Media

Zwicker Award


In the Field w/ Lekha, Naveen, Kiran, Arun, and Chandan

Curious Photography (Student Photo Exhibit)

A student-led photography project conducted at Adavisandra school outside of Bangalore India. Over the course of eight months, students were tasked to document their community in whatever form they deemed fit -- photographically, filmically, aurally. Click the link below to see the photographs which they selected to be presented as part of their photo exhibit both in their own school and in Azim Premji University in Bangalore. 

The Photographs

Surya: A Meditation on Chandrika's Photograph

The Bull on a Hill: A Meditation on Ajaykumar's Photograph

(More coming soon!)