Anupama Rao on Interdisciplinarity, the Conceptions of Race and Caste, and Global Racisms

An interview with Anupama Rao, Professor of History and MESAAS (Middle East, South Asia, Africa Studies) at Columbia University and Barnard College and the Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. We discussed her research, pedagogy, the Ambedkar Initiative, and her work as a 2023 Global Humanities Institute awardee for the current project "Global Racisms, Cold War Humanism, and the Imagination of Just Futures”. In our interview Rao discussed interdisciplinarity, the work of ICLS, and the thinking around global racisms. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

On Research and Pedagogy

Anupama Rao describes how her training as a historical anthropologist of South Asia has influenced her research and methodological approaches, which work across imaginative, textual and the discursive, and sociological registers.

Rao’s work on questions concerning the history of caste and on anticaste thinking has led to her interest in “the question of stigma and subalternity,’ in how groups with “historical experience of social exclusion and deep historical discrimination lay claim to forms of thought and orders of imagination, and engage in practices of remaking selfhood and personhood.” Rao notes that she is particularly fascinated by our ideas about, and commitments to equality though we are surrounded by practices of hierarchy, domination, violence, and exploitation in our daily life. This has led to her focus on how ideas and practices of equality and freedom have developed through efforts to name and analyze structures of historic discrimination while developing new practices of democratic life and mutuality. For this, caste offers a powerful global rubric for understanding the dialectic of identity and difference, equality and exclusion.

In discussing pedagogical approaches, Rao highlights the need to center interdisciplinarity and international perspective, and notes that she believes in getting her students to “think in more global and comparative ways in all of my courses,” so that they can understand how they are implicated in global contexts and structures of power.

On the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society

Anupama Rao is the Director of the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society, and its “first director to be drawn from a social science discipline”. She describes the structure of ICLS as unique and distinctive among the Humanities Institutes and Centers in its founding aims: to work across the humanities and social sciences disciplines, subjecting the discipline of comparative literature– with its Eurocentric origins and focus on national literatures– to scrutiny and social critique. The Institute thus explores the complex interface between the history and the politics of knowledge formation through lifeworlds of languages,

Rao continues, “ICLS is interdepartmental and it is interschool and so we have members on our Executive Committee who are a part of the medical school, or who have appointments in public health, the law school, or in architecture” She describes the focus of ICLS’s current initiatives as drawing from those connections, and notes that the Institute has developed four distinct areas of interest over the last many years, including: critical translation studies, data justice, the medical humanities, and work around historical comparison and political thought, which is organized around the Ambedkar Initiative.

Rao notes, “The Ambedkar Initiative was started in 2018 as a way to explore global connections around work in political thought and the history of ideas.” She details the significance of the venture noting, “B.R. Ambedkar is a Dalit activist, a leader of an autonomous movement of Dalits in South Asia on the subcontinent. But he was also a radical political thinker, a thinker of radical democracy who studied at Columbia University.” The question that animates the work of the initiative is how to think about the histories of the world’s largest democracy India and the history of the world's first democracy, the United States and the deeply contradictory and paradoxical ways in which both of these democratic orders have addressed questions of social difference such as caste, race, gender, and sexuality. Rao elaborates, “The Ambedkar Initiative uses the figure of this globally significant thinker as a link between the institutional lifeworlds of the university and the world and to rethink global connections between the Global North and the Global South. This has some bearing on the GHI project we proposed as well.

A work in progress, the initiative is organized around a series of annual lectures; collaborative student research and public programming; a course that uses the university archives to develop a model of collaborative student research to develop an Ambedkar finding aid to map the complex political and intellectual histories of the interwar period; and efforts to expand access to the rich archival collections in New York. Rao notes that a scholar from an upper caste background who finds herself in an institution with this remarkable history of connection with one of the twentieth century’s most significant political thinkers has the responsibility to do everything possible to create institutional spaces that address enduring questions of social difference and historical inequality with an eye to developing rigorous ethical-political response.

“Global Racisms” GHI Project

Rao credits the interest of the Ambedkar Initiative in historical comparison and social difference, and the focus of ICLS on understanding systemic racism more generally as the inspiration behind the Global Humanities Institute 2023 project "Global Racisms, Cold War Humanism, and the Imagination of Just Futures.” She highlights the significance of thinking critically about the work of “race” in global contexts, noting, “Race even though it is globally available to us as a category of difference, distinction, and inequality is also emplaced in North Atlanticist contexts”

Instead Rao highlights what it might mean to think from the perspective of caste, from “trying to globalize the caste concept.” Discussing her own longstanding interest in “the analytics of race and caste,” Rao elaborates, noting, “American caste has a very long history, certainly from the early nineteenth century, when everyone from Frederick Douglas to British abolitionists using the term caste to denote the social complexity of racial distinction.” These examples and others like them suggest a long history of thought and activism which pose difficult questions about intellectual affinity, and about political solidarity and allyship.

In her concluding remarks Rao posed critical questions that shape the project’s ongoing work and future approaches. “What specific forms of inequality do we confront? What practices of exclusion and enclosure do we need to think about?” She believes that the Global Racisms project will open up space for contentious conversations amongst faculty conveners, the program partners, and emerging scholars. “ We are all coming from very different places,” Rao notes. “We all have to think about our intellectual formations without giving in to an easy critique that is identitarian in conception so we can think in far more rigorous ways about historical responsibility, about complicity, and ethics. We are a bunch of scholars, so what can we do best? What we do best is to think and to teach. What we do best is to intervene as critical pedagogues.”