Radhika Govindrajan completed her PhD in Anthropology at Yale University in 2013, and is now an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington. Last year, Govindrajan released her first book, Animal Intimacies (University of Chicago Press, 2018), an exploration of multispecies relationships in Uttarakhand that won two prizes - the 2017 American Institute of Indian Studies Edward Cameron Dimock Prize in the Indian Humanities and the 2019 Gregory Bateson Prize, by the Society for Cultural Anthropology. In an interview with Ram Vishwanathan, our South Asia Fellow at the South Asian Studies Council here at Yale, Govindrajan reflected on her academic journey so far, her experiences at Yale, and her hopes for the future.
RV: Tell me about your academic path so far. What was you background coming into Yale, and how did your time at Yale shape your interests?
RG: I came to Yale with a prior degree in history, focusing on colonial environmental history, the history of wildlife conservation in the United Provinces, and the legacy of the laws enacted in the colonial period for contemporary people in the region whose daily lives are entangled with animals. My teachers at St. Stephen’s and JNU were fantastic scholars who constantly reminded us to articulate the ethical and political stakes of our research, and not think of our research projects as driven merely by “intellectual” curiosity. They trained me to historicize my research questions, and that interest in bringing history and anthropology together continues to drive my work even today.
At Yale, I found myself embraced by a wider intellectual community that stretched my thoughts in a number of directions. The Agrarian Studies program, for example, was really important in shaping my understanding of agrarian histories and the changing experience of rurality; it really pushed me to think about agrarian worlds and politics in ways that complicated and challenged the village studies paradigm. My engagement with South Asian Studies at Yale was also fundamental in encouraging me to think actively and critically about the relationship between environmental history and caste, gender and class. The South Asia Center was a second home, and allowed me to bring disciplinary questions into conversation with regional, interdisciplinary issues in ways that were really productive. The environmental anthropology group at Yale was fantastic, and together with other graduate students, I found myself thinking through and against fundamental binaries like nature/culture, human/animal, and wild/domestic in ways that have really shaped my subsequent research and writing.
RV: Tell us a little more about your research, both the actual nitty-gritties and the experience of conducting it?
RG: Most of my research was focused on a cluster of villages across eastern Uttarakhand. I lived there for close to eighteen months, and have been going back to do further research every year. My engagement with Agrarian Studies at Yale was really critical in pushing me to think about the ways in which rural social worlds were being shaped by of agrarian labor, migration, technological change, and environmental transformation. The sense of rural areas as dynamic sites of social transformation really shaped my ethnographic process by pushing me to conduct fieldwork not only with “villagers” but also newly arrived urbanites who were moving to villages in search of “peace” and “environmental purity”, state officials, animal-rights activists and wildlife conservationists, small-town Hindu nationalists, and others who were usually not included as key actors in the traditional “village ethnographies”. Ethnographic research is a rewarding and challenging experience, and raises several ethical, political, and methodological challenges. My teachers and colleagues at Yale centered these issues in ways that fundamentally shaped my understanding of the power dynamics of fieldwork, and the questions of ethnographic representation, trust, and collaboration that are at the heart of discussions in the field of anthropology today.
RV: To take this topic further, how did the SASC help you – both in the practical terms of a support structure, and methodologically, as an area studies program?
RG: Area studies doesn’t follow the narrowly-defined State Department model at Yale. I was privileged to be part of a community of South Asia scholars that was broad in its scope and interests, and that drew on insights from places beyond South Asia . I was fortunate to have such supportive advisors –Shivi (Prof. K. Sivaramakrishnan) in particular but also the wider community – that helped me navigate the ups and downs of research and the often-disorienting process of writing a thesis. In terms of my own research process, I remember that the fields of animal studies and multispecies ethnography were really exploding at the time I was writing my thesis. I was reading so much new and exciting scholarship. It would have been very easy to get caught up in the broader theoretical conversations, but my advisors constantly reminded me to remain grounded in my specific context and let the questions that emerged from my ethnographic research drive my work, and I’m very grateful for that.
RV: As someone interested in animals myself, I’m very curious to hear more about your work, and to think about how we might breach the line we’ve drawn around our species in academia. Do tell me more!
RG: In broad terms, I’m very interested in the question of inter-species communication and translation. I like the anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena’s understanding of translation as a process that isn’t hungry for commensuration, but is open, incomplete, and imperfect. I think this understanding is particularly useful when it comes to thinking about how we can do ethnography with and write ethnographies of non-human animals. If we recognize that process of doing ethnography with humans is itself fraught and raises fundamental questions of understanding and translation, then we can extend the same openness and doubt to ethnographic work with nonhumans. We cannot fully know nonhumans, but that doesn’t meet we can’t try to do imaginative, creative, and playful work that tries, even if imperfectly, to get to know nonhuman animals!