Geography PhD students Alex Liebman and Thomas Crowley were recently awarded Fulbright Doctoral Dissertation Research Awards (DDRA) from the US Department of Education to begin fieldwork for their dissertation projects.
Thomas Crowley's dissertation project is titled Flows of Caste: Political Ecologies of Small-town India. The Fulbright DDRA will fund a year of ethnographic research in Mahad, India. Through following the rhythms of everyday life, punctuated by twice-yearly Ambedkarite commemorations that draw enormous crowds, I hope explore how hierarchy is lived and disrupted in a rapidly industrializing town (see photo above of the Mahad Industrial Area).
His project abstract follows: Millions of people in India celebrate March 20th as Kranti Din – the “Day of Revolution.” These annual celebrations commemorate the day in 1927 when the pioneering anti-caste leader Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, accompanied by thousands of Dalit (formerly “Untouchable” caste) supporters, drank water from a public tank that had historically been reserved for the “upper” castes. Ambedkar compared the event to the French Revolution, and recent scholars have affirmed its importance. However, recent activist interventions have drawn attention to cases of caste-based segregation of water infrastructure less than ten miles from Ambedkar’s 1927 protest site. This raises pressing questions about the persistence of social hierarchies and environmental injustices, even in places with histories of egalitarian struggle. Focusing on the present-day realities of the small town where Ambedkar’s protest took place – Mahad, in the state of Maharashtra – my research explores how intertwined caste and infrastructural inequalities have reproduced themselves, and how the anti-caste movement has resisted such twinned inequalities. I hypothesize that: (1) despite the increasingly variegated spatial politics of land and water infrastructures in Mahad, underlying caste hierarchies are still crucial in understanding infrastructural change in the town. Nonetheless, (2) the future of both caste and infrastructural politics remains radically open, in part because of highly-charged contestation over cultural memory.
Alex Liebman's dissertation project is titled Programmed Landscapes - The Production of Digital Nature in the Valle del Cauca. His project abstract follows: I contextualize the ubiquity of digital development discourses and initiatives in the Valle del Cauca, demonstrating how efforts to resolve the “digital divide” are themselves shaped by regional land and labor conflicts that reflect longstanding race and class antagonisms. Through an institutional ethnography of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, I use situated research examining the center’s work amidst agrarian transformations in the Valley. I engage in theoretical debates in science and technology studies, political ecology, and related interdisciplinary fields questioning the impact of digital processes on nature, labor, and subjectivity. Technology is embedded within thick webs of history, social networks, and political processes, reflecting these linkages while also belying them. I complicate the depiction of digitalization as a unidirectional application of the “smart” digital to “backwards”, analog-processes of rural farming. Through questioning the Valley’s history as a site of international development, an agro-technological frontier, and a space of extreme violence and inequality, I question the normative claims surrounding agricultural digitalization as a solution for socio-ecological crises. The multivalent process of agricultural digitalization requires attention to the politics of how and where scale is created and the frictions that emerge as the universalizing ideals of technological grandeur are interrupted and impacted by situated contexts.