Luisa Cortesi PhD ‘18

Luisa Cortesi PhD ’18 is Assistant Professor of Water, Disasters, and Environmental Justice at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. She graduated from the joint PhD program in Anthropology and Environmental Science, and received the Field Prize, the university’s highest honor for a dissertation, in 2019. For her anthropological and ecological work, she has also been the recipient of the 2016-2017 Curl Prize from the Royal Anthropological Institute, the 2017 Eric Wolf Prize from the Political Ecological Society, the 2017 Praxis Award from the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists, and 2017-2018 Josephine de Karman Fellowship.

How did you become an anthropologist?

I did both my undergraduate and my master’s in diplomacy and international relations. I fell in love with anthropology then. There were lots of assumptions built into the schemata of what we were learning in my classes, and anthropology was the one discipline where those assumptions were carefully unpacked and verified. Because of that, I moved on to SOAS University of London to do a master’s in social anthropology for development. I remember being very frustrated by the economics of development at that time, because I saw them often being applied without any contextual understanding.

During my master’s at SOAS, I spent one year in a village in Tamil Nadu, working on my master’s thesis. Halfway through, I took all the money I could gather, bought a ticket to London for a few days, and photocopied all the books that made some sense to me. Then I came back to Tamil Nadu and read them by oil lamp each night. I got to the point where I realized that all of the assumptions built into the development project I was observing in that village ran against common sense for the people I was working with. To give you an example, microcredit projects were being implemented with regimes of truth that justified them to funders, but made no real sense to the recipients. The concepts that were used for those projects, like debt, economically significant activity, even the accountability system—all of those were built with other people in mind. I realized that anthropology offered me the tools I needed to understand what I was experiencing.

What inspired you to pursue a PhD in anthropology?

After my second master’s, I had several comfortable offers to work at the UN. But I also had an offer to come to Bihar to manage a network of five local NGOs working on water projects. That job was awesome because it let me be an anthropologist. Our role was to go from one village to another, to develop field staff who would get to know villagers and their practices in relation to floods and water very well, and then to discuss possibilities for addressing the villagers’ biggest problems with them. We invented water filters and sanitation possibilities, among other things, that were culturally, economically, and technologically sustainable because they were coming from the same place in which they were going to be implemented.

I wasn’t exactly accepted by these organizations at the beginning. They were five local and locally relevant organizations. I was a young foreign woman with very coarse language skills in charge of a whole set of operations in a big district in a big state. That was Bihar in 2007, which is not Bihar today and not Kerala in 2007, either. Then, after a short time, the 2007 Bihar flood came. There were 25 million people underwater, and a lot to do. Those floods were badly underreported, with no sense in the national media about how bad they were, which meant there wasn’t much intervention by international organizations. The district administrator expected us to be in charge of relief activities and camps. That was terrible, but it also helped my relationships there. The situation was so demanding that there was no more time for organizations to ask who I was or look at differences of skin color. We stopped looking at each other and actually got to work together. And in that enormous area, equivalent to Maryland in size and California in population, I became known as the person who stayed during the floods. That garnered me a lot of acceptance.

After two years of that role, my body was so battered that I had to step out for a little bit, and I ended up working for the UN. But the comfortableness of the UN was just not for me. During those two years of experience in Bihar, I’d been living with people who were living in floods. I also underwent months and months of two major floods, in 2007 and 2008. Months and months in dirty water. That’s not an experience you swallow very easily. I wanted to know how people continued to live there. At the same time, the world was starting to talk about global warming and living with the consequences. And I realized that those people in Bihar were adept. They were knowledgeable about something, the experience of living with floods, that the rest of the world was only coming to know. There had, by that time, been 30 years of worsening floods and drinking water pollution. I couldn’t let all of that go. The bureaucracy, the salary, all of that at the UN felt irrelevant compared to my own experience in the dirty water, living with people who were so good at living with these major disasters. That was too striking to leave behind.

I decided I wanted to build a good understanding of water problems. I had lived off rainwater for over a year, but I really had no idea what that meant. I wanted to study more about that. So I applied to, and won, a Fulbright Fellowship. Fulbright then applied to several universities for me, and one of the offers I got back was from Yale for the joint program in Anthropology and Forestry and Environmental Studies. That was my life-changing moment. My job in Bihar had been my opportunity to put what I’d learned as an anthropologist into practice, but I felt I needed more from the environmental sciences. And that offer from Yale, for the joint program, was the only one that could actually feed that desire.

How was your experience at Yale?

I wish I could go back. I think they should have an alumni program where you can go back a semester every five years or something. It’s amazing. It’s such a privilege to attend a program like the joint PhD. I took it very seriously, and I ended up graduating with almost double the credits I needed. I really wanted to know more about the water I’d been facing, so I took fluvial geomorphology, and biogeochemistry, and hydrogeology—all of the water management courses that I didn’t need to take for credit, but which I had a lot of motivation for learning about. I spent three and a half years in Bihar again. And it was fabulous. I could move from hydrogeology to linguistic anthropology, from science and technology in contemporary India to social theory, and so on. During the training you also belong to several research groups, like the Human Ecology Lab, run by Michael Dove; the Agrarian Studies Program, run by Jim Scott; and K. Sivaramakrishnan’s South Asian Collective and Environmental Anthropology. The thing I’m most nostalgic about is actually the amount of work that I was able to do. It was a book a day, class, writing on the book, class, attending the seminar, lots of content in the research groups, and preparing and reading for those. And that kind of rigorous working environment is one of the things I miss the most. The other thing I miss is the push to learn how to ask questions and be as interdisciplinary as possible. I’m still benefiting from it. Oh, and I miss Sterling Library. I love Sterling Library.

Can you tell me about the projects you’re working on now?

The focus of my work on disasters is on our environmental knowledge of the world around us and how we live in a world that is changing, often disastrously. I’m finalizing my book manuscript, which is on how we learn to live in increasingly disastrous waters and also deals with how discrimination makes a difference in the ways in which people live in disasters. This key project, the book manuscript, has been spun off into multiple projects, including about whether we get better at surviving disasters; what people know about their environments and how they share environmental knowledge about water; drinking water contamination and the technologies of purification; and geomorphologies and how we understand our environments. That last one is with a colleague who also went through the joint PhD program at Yale.

When it comes to the book, my hope would be to give people a sense of how power relations, discrimination, and social structures matter to how we know our environment. And that relationship is not as obvious as “the poorer you are, the worse off you are.” I also want to communicate to people what environmental knowledge is and how important it is to know your environment in a time of climate change. But writing the book has been, in a sense, terrible, for two reasons. Having lived in Bihar for so long, and having undergone those floods for so long, the question I ask myself is “How much am I giving back to those people in Bihar?” It’s a question that’s sort of immobilizing. And the second challenge is that I miss the support system for writing I had at Yale, where the book as a product was valued and the environmental sciences were very interdisciplinary.

Looking back, what advice would you have given your younger self?

One thing, which comes to mind because of this conversation, is to build a support system. I think a lot of us, even at Yale, were lost in a competitive environment and succumbed to it instead of fighting against it and seeking proactively to find our own way of building the future. I tell my own students to build alliances with each other instead of spending time highlighting differences with each other.

On this note, one of the beautiful parts of being an academic is that your real employer is not an institution, it’s the community of scholars to which you belong. That includes younger scholars as well as senior ones, and it involves teaching as well as producing written work. I think this is the one thing I love most about my job: you belong to a community of thinkers. I don’t earn a third of what I was earning at the UN, and I don’t have a great work-life balance. But one of the things which is exceptionally enticing about being an academic is the broader community to which you belong, which is so uncommon for something which is a job.

Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti

Luisa Cortesi