Faculty Spotlight: Sonalde Desai by Ann Horwitz

What made you decide to become a sociologist?  I did not start out to be a sociologist.  I was not a particularly motivated student and the fact that Sociology education in my second tier college in Mumbai was not designed to inspire students did not help.  I was a Sociology major because one must major in something and for an aspiring journalist, Sociology was as good a major as anything else.  About the time I graduated, my fiancé decided to study in the United States and I wanted to get a student visa to come to the U.S. Somehow I was admitted to the Sociology graduate program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and fell in love with Sociology. From there I moved to graduate program in Sociology at Stanford and that love has only grown over the years.

I think I fell in love with Sociology because it gave me tools to try to make sense of the social world around me.  I have always liked observing the life around me but until I studied Sociology,  I did not have the vocabulary to link individual behaviors with social structures.  Of course the flip side is also true, I seem to view the world through social science lens. I am writing this from the beautiful city of Lucknow that was once a seat of power of Muslim kings of India and later served as a location from which the British East India Company ruled India. I look at the lovely university buildings and instead of seeing beautiful architecture, wonder about historical circumstances that led a colonial power to incorporate Muslim architecture in its designs in Lucknow while the Mumbai campuses seem modeled on Oxbridge. Maybe sometimes it is better to think of a cigar as just a cigar and I would be better off enjoying the architecture!

Tell us a little about your current research.  My current research, undertaken in collaboration with Reeve Vanneman, Surajit Baruah and a number of UMD students, involves a survey of 41,554 households in India. We interviewed these households in 2005 and given the rapid changes in Indian society, we would like to understand how different groups partake of recent economic growth.  While societies rarely remain static, some moments are characterized by a rapid disjuncture; India is at this historic moment of disjuncture and it is fascinating for us to have a ringside seat.  Social changes are so rapid that sometimes we don’t even know how to ask the right questions.

For example, most Americans are used to upper crust Indian students who come to the US speaking flawless English. Few people realize that rapid expansion of education in India that we may hail as democratization has also led to tremendous inequality in quality leaving a large number of recent college graduates without any marketable skills. This emerging social stratification will shape the nature of Indian society in years to come.  Capturing antecedents and consequences of this stratification that is taking place before our eyes is fascinating.  Over time, I have come to believe that one of the primary causes of this stratification is unregulated entry of private educational providers, possibly in response to slow and highly bureaucratized expansion of public education.  Interestingly, similar processes seem to be operating in many other countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

Our current research and data collection speaks directly to these major structural shifts by recording changes over time in the same areas and in the same households. This is the first large panel study in India and perhaps one of the few studies worldwide where issues of social change and social structure are so deeply embedded in its design. Do look at my personal website www.sonaldedesai.org where I try to keep a diary of observations from the fieldwork.

What do you like about working with Maryland students?  I really like working with students and our department has a culture that creates fascinating communities.  We are fortunate that our DC location is attractive to a diverse student body; departmental culture creates a highly collegial working environment. For the past five years, Reeve and I have worked with a group of 2-5 students that regularly meets and works on the India project, writes research projects and generally provides a forum for professional development. I have really enjoyed these meetings and continue to participate in them via Skype even when I am traveling.

Outside of sociology, what are your hobbies and interests?  Hobbies. Sociology feels like it is all absorbing – both a vocation and a hobby.  But I do like traveling and sailing.  For the past three summers I have been sailing in Maine.  Taking a sailboat from Annapolis to Maine is an incredible adventure and I love being alone on the deck in the night with no electric lights anywhere in sight.

Ann is a 1st year graduate student.

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