Women in Science

My research program has concentrated on understanding the impact of global economic restructuring on the ways people organize themselves and constitute their social identities. The research has taken place in Central and South America and also in urban areas in the United States. My aim is to use the results to formulate more humane solutions to social problems.

How did you get interested in this field?

My freshman year at Harvard I took a class called Seminar on Thought in which we read a series of articles and discussed them critically. Many of them were, in fact, classic pieces of anthropology. I just didn't know it because the professor didn't talk about it as a discipline, even though he was an anthropologist.

When I came back in my sophomore year I chose English as a major, but I was not very thrilled with my classes. That anthropology professor suggested I do fieldwork somewhere to see if I liked it. Harvard had something called the Chiapas Project, a long-term field project looking at the modern Mayan communities in Chiapas, Mexico. They took students down there to do ethnographic fieldwork every summer.

I was interested in going but I didn't speak Spanish, so I spent the summer in Mexico, living with a family and learning the language. While I was there, I did a project on folk songs. I fell in love with the idea of fieldwork and with Latin America, especially Mexico. It seemed very similar to what I remember of my own country, India.

The next summer I did fieldwork with the Chiapas Project and I became interested in anthropology as a discipline because it seemed to answer some questions that I had based on my experiences growing up as a foreign person in this country, questions about what it means to have a cultural identity.

Also at that time at Harvard there was a core group of junior faculty and graduate students who were thinking about how you use anthropology to address pressing issues. One issue they were looking at was the question of human rights for indigenous peoples. We were becoming aware that threats to their land were increasing, especially in South America and Central America. That combination of human rights for indigenous people and using anthropology to address some of those issues appealed to me.

What do you love about what you do?

I love that every time I do anthropological research, I become more and more amazed at how creative people are in so many different ways. To me that is so exciting, and it enriches my life.

Have you ever encountered any gender barriers in your career path?

It's a complicated issue. I was the oldest of three daughters in my family and my father was a very non-traditional Indian. He's a physicist, and he had kind of eschewed religion and Hindu traditions. He believed in the pursuit of intellectual ideals, knowledge and truth for their own sake.

And my mother also was a very non-traditional Indian. She had eschewed the role for middle-class women--marriage and family--and had gone off to seek higher education.

So both of them came from this background where their children were not going to follow traditional roles. I was always raised with the expectation that I should do whatever I wanted to do as long as it was in the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Anything less than that was not worthy of pursuit.

It was never in my tool kit to think I couldn't do something because I was a woman. Maybe there were times when there were barriers and I didn't perceive them because I just barreled straight ahead.

I resisted being channeled into doing certain kinds of research a lot of times women were told to do--like research on women. Similarly, a lot of the students of color were subtly or not so subtly pushed to do research on their own people. That's kind of a weird thing in anthropology.

I wanted to do research in Latin America--and you don't find too many Indian anthropologists doing that. I resisted being put into traditional categories and I think that helped my career.

What about the role of gender in science in general?

The interesting thing to me about gender is that it's complicated. It's not about the women-are-oppressed-and-men-aren't kind of thing. I don't think we really understand what gender's effect is in different cultures. It's only since the mid-1970s that anthropologists themselves began to pay attention.

Science can be looked at in a social context just like anything else. All science is a method of inquiry into phenomena. It's nothing more and nothing less than that.

Some people say that science was deeply patriarchal in its origins. I don't really know how they come to that conclusion because it seems to me that science is a method that enables anybody to look at the world in a particular kind of way and there's nothing male or female about it. There's nothing ethnic about it. It transcends those things.

The way it has been practiced has been exclusionary, yes. What that has resulted in is that the types of problems that scientists investigate and some of the experimental methods that they use are shaped by gendered perspectives. In a sense gender does matter in that people have different approaches based on their social experiences. Men raised in a certain way and women socialized in another way aren't going to think about problems in the same way.

It just stands to reason that the more you can get folks of diverse perspectives in there doing research, the better off you'll be. Anybody can use the scientific method-its design is not based on gender. There's no difference in how men and women do it.

What's maybe different is the type of research problem you choose to do because you have a different perspective. You may be asking different questions and that's great, because who wants to ask the same questions? We'll never get more insight that way.

It's when women entered anthropology and started asking different kinds of questions that we began to have a whole new paradigm for understanding social organization. Today, no anthropologist would not consider gender.