Notes on Conducting Research in a Pandemic and Jenga

by Shreya Pabbaraju,  21C  Political Science and English and Creative Writing

When I first proposed my undergraduate thesis topic last February, a pandemic was the last thing I had expected to disrupt my research plans. I had submitted a proposal to the Halle Center for Global Research to conduct research at the University of Cambridge, to parse through archival South Asian works to better understand ethnic fractionalization and religious tensions in India through natural language processing techniques.

Thanks to the support and development of Emory faculty, I was able to think more critically about how to address some of these unforeseen challenges. After talking to several fellows and scholars, I ultimately reworked my project to be in a survey format that would be administered remotely. Ultimately, my project seeks to understand what causes interethnic conflict, especially in the Global South, and by what mechanisms ethnic-conflict can be cemented into law. Additionally, I wanted to examine how these tensions “spilled over” onto alternate social dimensions: for instance, how does ethnic conflict shape the way we think about gendered issues? Do people who are minorities in both senses, such as women from ethnic minority groups, face additional barriers to support when it comes to mobilizing around policy to better promote policies curbing violence against women?

After fielding for political attitudes in India as well as evaluating how respondents view gender norms and other various components of their identities (including religiosity, nationalism, etc.), I presented each participant with a fictionalized short story called a “vignette.” Each vignette described a woman coming home from a location who became the target of violence, and each had a few key words changed to indicate certain nationalistic, religious, and occupation-based qualities about the target. Some might describe a woman as “Indian,” others might describe her as Hindu or Muslim, and others might indicate that she works. Overall, I found that both men and women have considerable discrimination against Muslim women in India, particularly if they work. If the respondent described themselves as “religious” or “very religious,” we found that these biases particularly magnified. There also existed particular stigma around Hindu women who worked, although not to the same extent as working Muslim women.

At the Fox Center, I found a community of collaborative scholars who not only challenged me to think about my research from different perspectives, but also about how my research could apply to our everyday lives. Despite the conditions brought about by the pandemic, we still had the privilege of engaging in Zoom debates that cultivated a rich repertoire of psychological, post-colonial, and feminist critiques on interethnic and gender violence.Talking to scholars who were approaching similar questions about what the role of borders meant when thinking about violence through the works of Behrouz Boochani or what feminist organizing looked like in historical depictions of America taught me how to look at political and gender violence with an enriched perspective. One of the takeaways from these conversations that I applied to my own research was learning how to advocate for greater understanding of intersectionality in policy across fields. Through our weekly conversations, we engaged in a sort of linguistic Jenga, where we kept building and bridging our ideas and disciplines into several papers that were palpably rich. I genuinely don’t think my thesis would have been as rich without hearing about the engaging perspectives of the Fox Fellows, and am excited to have a network of academics I can continue to engage with following this research residency. This fellowship has been one representative of my Emory experience: beautifully complex and in true reverence of the liberal arts, one that has kept me ruminating about our conversations long after they have concluded.

Shreya Pabbaraju is a double senior majoring in Political Science and English and Creative Writing. Her honors thesis examines how histories of colonization, partition, and nationalism have affected inter-religious attitudes toward violence against women in India through a surveys design. She further examines the media’s labeling of Jyoti Singh as “India’s Daughter” as an example of the Hindu-dominated efforts toward mitigating gender violence. Through the theories of Amartya Sen and Gayatri Spivak, she hopes to investigate religious intersectionality within feminist movements in India. 

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