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. 

Using a mix of ethnographic and participatory film methodologies, I conducted fourteen months of fieldwork with members from Adhyaapaka Foundation, a Bangalore-based education NGO headed by a group of Indian Americans, as they intervened in rural government schools all over Karnataka state. I found that in the Adhyaapaka organization praxis, the method of intervention was to “motivate” rural students, explicitly attempting to change how students felt about themselves. In so doing, Adhyaapaka sought to promote a set of techno-urban values in schools that mimicked the ideas commonly circulating in development spaces about what rural children should value. The resulting aspirations and anxieties are examples of how development feels. This research was funded by a Fulbright-Hays DDRA Fellowship, Provost’s New Media Research Grant, a Zwicker Award, and a Curiosity Postdoctoral Research Fellowship.

My work makes two interventions in the field of anthropology. First, while work on the anthropology of development has critiqued a West-to-East flow of resources which reinforced colonial social relations, my ethnographic work updates these discourses for the age of global-digital connectivity. I argue that current development projects rely on a new class of workers who are characterized as ‘native’ but whose technological savvy, transnational experience, continued use of racialized empowerment discourse, and interest in facilitating rural to urban migration make them the idealized purveyors of development. In the Indian context, I term this the brown-savior industrial complex, a regime of value which sees the Indian, upper middle class, diasporic technocrat as the key driver for social change. Second, I approach this regime of value in relation to the production of emotions – motivation, aspiration, fear, anxiety, and the like. In my study, emotional production comes into focus in the distance between value (what one ought to want or relative desirability), what one actually wants (desire), and the contestations and negotiations therein. This analytical approach is especially useful in the study of development as interventions are intended to change what those ‘in need of development’ value by producing emotional responses.

My book project is currently under advanced contract with the University of Chicago Press and articles based on this research are under review with Public Culture, American Ethnologist, and HAU. In an article for Public Culture, I show how global digital circulations and neoliberal agricultural policies are imbricated in both the tragic suicide of Manoj’s father, a farmer, and Manoj’s choice to join Adhyaapaka as a fieldworker rather than stay in his family’s traditional occupation. In an article for American Ethnologist, I argue that my rural participants’ ability to construct the urban and rural as being of radically different character depended on a pervasive experience of continuity, exchange, and mutual influence that I term “rural-urban nativity”. In an article for HAU, I use a single participatory image to show how values are digitally re-mediated for those living in rural Karnataka state. In this case, a folk story that might have been analyzed as an example of tradition and authenticity is instead re-framed as a marker of emerging worlding practices and urban-rural connection. Previously my work has been published in Anthropology and Humanism (2016), Visual Anthropology Review (2016), and Visual Communication (2014).

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