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Volume 49 Number 4
Committee on Women
Eylin Palamaro Munsell, Chair, SCRA Committee on Women
Each issue we will be spotlighting a member of our committee. When asked for recommendations this summer, our committee members overwhelming suggested Urmitapa Dutta from UMass Lowell. Below is my conversation with her about her background, experience and the work she does.
Eylin Palamaro Munsell: Thanks so much for taking the time. To start, tell me a little bit about yourself.
Urmitapa Dutta: I’m an assistant professor at UMass Lowell. I started in the psychology department as a faculty member right after I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was in the clinical community psychology program there. I have been here for almost four years now. I would characterize myself as a scholar activist, or at least that is what I strive to be. So, my scholarship is really geared towards critical social action.
E: What do you mean by that?
U: I think part of it has to do with the trajectory that I have taken. The whole reason that I wanted to be in academia and to be a scholar had to do with the issues that I wanted to address. I grew up in the Northeastern borders of India, which has been experiencing ethnic conflict for many years now. It is also a region that is systematically marginalized. To me it seemed like one way to impact what was happening was through research and through scholarship because there’s really not much around and what was there was very disempowering. It felt like a very natural thing to do. So the reason that I was doing all of the scholarship was actually in service of trying to do something about the issues in my home community.
E: Tell me about your work.
U: I’ve been doing work around conflict for a really long time; for twelve years now. My program of research focuses on different forms of violence—structural violence, direct violence, and cultural violence—and how these forms of violence affect a community, along with the development of community-based interventions to address such violence. I’m particularly invested in how marginality intersects with these different forms of violence. So I am not only looking at individual experiences of violence, but also the institutional and cultural policies and practices that characterize the context in which violence takes place. I attend to issues of marginality, both in ways that they intersect with violence that is every day and violence that is acute. Moving beyond just crisis-based politics, I focus on multiple configurations of marginality and forms of violence that have become an endemic part of our everyday lives and are no longer questioned. This could be structural violence or direct violence that we normalize and naturalize.
E: What’s been the most surprising thing for you in your work?
U: I was interested in looking at different perspectives. When I was doing ethnographic work on ethnic conflict in Northeast India though, I had sort of aligned myself with local Garo tribal youth there (Garos being the dominant ethnic group). They were the ones that I would be accountable to and I would be advocating for. But then, (there was) another group of youth who were from the group that constituted “the ethnic other.” As I started interviewing them, I began to see the kind of violence they experienced. Then I realized that I was ethically bound to do something with the fraught stories they had shared with me. It was imperative to include them as key stakeholders or protagonists just as I had with Garo youth. So, that was really crucial to me and my work. I knew that the work that I was trying to do was about challenging the victim/victimizer binary. But I think that it made it really real for me, in some sense, to think about the ways in which different groups of people experience forms of marginality and that my role is to highlight all of those different aspects and to bring them into conversation. The things that are usually missing in public discourse are the things that really stand out for me.
E: What have been the most challenging aspects of the work that you do?
U: I would say speaking truth to power, both in the field and in the academy. A lot of work that I’ve been doing is really about challenging the status quo. It’s about collectively raising issues and trying to initiate conversations that are usually avoided. So, that has been really challenging. You constantly come up against injustice and it can take a huge toll. Within academia, we still live in an age where engaged scholarship is considered less rigorous. It’s not viewed in the same way as what would be considered more positivist or objectivist kind of work. I’m really working hard to get people to take this work seriously. On a personal level, a challenging aspect is the constant work that I have to do to hold myself accountable. I don’t want to be reproducing the same structures that I’m trying to challenge, and that requires constant vigilance.
E: I would imagine in the work that you do your assumptions are being challenged and you probably witness various difficult circumstances. How do you protect and nurture yourself?
U: I’m still trying to figure out good ways to do that. What has been really helpful has been having a community, having colleagues or other activists who understand where you’re coming from. One of the barriers to self-care in doing this kind of work is that I know I’m privileged and I can always step out of many of those really, really challenging and actually dangerous circumstances and my participants or my collaborators often don’t have that luxury. So, sometimes, it’s really hard to sort of let myself go there, in terms of how it affects me. As academics and scholars who do this kind of work, I think it’s really important for us to have a more collective conversation around challenges that we face when doing this kind of work.
E: What policy change or social change would you ideally like to see put into effect that might make a positive impact on the phenomena you study?
U: I should preface my response with the fact that I’m cautiously optimistic about policies. I’m sometimes just downright cynical, because the extents to which policies translate into action, particularly for disenfranchised populations, people that experience multiple intersections of marginality, well, that’s another question! But, having said that, if I were to think about big social change and things that would be really important, one of the things would be the way we categorize people. There’s so much violence that stem from the kind of identity categories that we have. Particularly in this current time, with the migration crisis that we’re seeing, I think the kinds of standards that we use to evaluate who belongs and, you know, the authenticity of belonging, pose huge barriers. So I envision completely reconfigured ways of identification and belonging that are not just dependent on your geographic location or biological destiny. Another thing which I dream of is thinking about more thoughtful solidarities with contemporary social movements – what can be learned from social movements and different struggles that are happening all over the world and how that can inform our scholarship. These are two things that I’m really passionate about.
E: Do you have any thoughts on how to do that?
U: I think one concrete way to do that is to think about, really think about, who are the people who are producing the knowledge and who are publishing and who are generating theories and about whom. And the moment we try to look at those two things, we’ll find it’s mostly U.S. based or Western European, the institutional context where this has been generated, and it’s often about the disenfranchised populations. So there’s that distinction and what I try to question is what happens when we have people, who usually tend to be the objects of knowledge, say, people of color, when they become part of the academy. I do not claim to have any easy answers, but I think the first step would be facing up to some of those really difficult questions and confront our own complicity in reproducing those distinctions.
E: What are your next steps and future directions?
U: A direction which wasn’t as obvious when I was doing my ethnographic work initially, but now has become a really big part of what I’m doing, is really looking at gendered patterns of violence. To give you a little bit of context, the region where I work (Garo Hills in Northeast India) follows a matrilineal system, so the lineage is through the mother’s family. Even though it’s a matrilineal system, the structure is still patriarchal. So, women were often viewed as, in some sense, the vehicle or the medium through which outsiders come in and become part of the community and then usurp resources which are meant for the local tribal community. So there was all of this instrumental discourse about women. Given the hegemony of ethnic identity politics, other forms of violence, particularly gendered aspects, were completely obscured from public discourse. So I went out and started talking to local women who were directly involved in community issues. Across their biographical narratives, there were just so many different forms of violence that they were experiencing, which included sexual violence, workplace harassment and different forms of exclusion. They were experiencing violence both from armed insurgent groups in that area as well as from the state military forces. As I started looking into that, it became really important to me to begin to highlight those aspects and also do it in a way where we’re not separating the forms of violence (which I think we’re really good at doing in psychology) because all of these intersect in and are entrenched in the women’s daily. So, what I’m really working on now is using ethnographic methods and participatory action research to look at the ways in which we can interrogate the violence and the cultural impunity which sustains that kind of violence. The women there have developed different ways of resisting and contesting the kinds of violence they’re experiencing. I think it’s really important to bring those stories forward as well and I think we have a lot to learn from how women navigate those situations so that’s one of the directions where I’m headed with my research.
E: Is there anything else you would like to say or something you want people to know about you?
U: The more I do this work, I think about peace as social justice. If you’re looking at everyday forms of violence, then the way to think about peace also has to be an everyday form of peace; it cannot be just a peace treaty or a “top down” approach. So, (I have been working on) the Everyday Peace Project, an initiative that explores the notion of everyday peace as social justice and community capacity building. I’ve developed a course where I work with students to explore context specific ways in which community psychology can address issues around everyday peace-building; an area where there’s so much potential.
E: What are some of the initiatives on that project?
U: We started something called the Everyday Peace Labs. That’s a way in which students bring their own biography, their politics, and their immediate contexts to think about everyday peace. We have a small participatory research project where we work together to contextualize our definitions of peace, as opposed to starting from pre-existing definitions. We think about what peace would look like in our own contexts. Then the next part is navigating our collective understanding of that. This gives us an experiential understanding of the fact that it is not easy; we have to navigate different perspectives and the project gives an understanding of what that might look like.
E: It’s been a pleasure meeting you. I appreciate you taking the time. Thank you so much.
U: It was really nice talking to you and thanks for inviting me to be a part of this.
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