Meet our Head of Department: Dr Manali Desai

To our knowledge, Dr Manali Desai is the first woman of colour to lead a Cambridge department in the University’s 811-year history.

In this interview, Dr Manali Desai (MD) speaks to MPhil alumnus Joe Cotton (JC) about taking on the role, the contemporary significance of sociology, and future directions for the department. 21 September 2020.

JC: Congratulations on your appointment as Head of Department, although I feel like it couldn’t be a more challenging time to start the job!

MD: There are many challenges of course, but I think this moment comes with some exciting possibilities too. We are living through a period of ferment and we are at a crucial juncture when fundamental questions about our very existence are at stake. The discipline of sociology has always tackled the big questions, be it climate change, war, poverty, and intersectional social inequalities. We have witnessed dramatic transformations and ruptures in recent years, with the global pandemic and movements for social change such as Black Lives Matter coming on the heels of austerity and the rise of global populism to name a few. Sociology gives us the tools to be able to investigate and understand the world around us and so I think the department is a good place to be during periods of such upheaval!

The Black Lives Matter movement has raised many questions about racial justice and the politics of representation. What do you make of the current moment from a sociological point of view?

I think the Black Lives Matter movement has actually shown how illusory the politics of representation are without other accompanying structural change. To ask why so few leaders in the academic world are BAME (and much less so if they are Black) is to raise questions about how difficult it is for us to be recognized as leaders, have our work and contributions valued, and how high the bar is raised. I am lucky to be in a department that has done so much work to rectify these imbalances. In that sense Sociology is such an exciting place, a refreshing harbinger of change.

It’s often a challenge levelled at universities to become more diverse. Do you think it’s a problem at Cambridge?

There has been quite a shift in the student body compared to when I first came to Cambridge six years ago – I think the University and the department have been conducting a lot of access and outreach work and we’re seeing the results of that more and more. This year we’re taking on the largest ever number of state school students, so I think that is very significant. We need to aim higher and better to enable greater representation across the university while recognizing that diversity alone isn’t enough.

Many people still think of Cambridge as a very traditional place while the world around us seems to be changing rapidly. How do you see the department in all of this?

The department has changed a lot in recent years and we’ve had a lot of new hires, especially in the areas of race, media and culture, science and technology among others, and much of this research is globally oriented. I think that’s broadened the curriculum and the intellectual horizons of the department and really livened the intellectual debates. It means we’ve been able to move beyond the relatively traditional focus on Britain and British history, which of course is still very important, but we’ve been able to add to this picture by including debates about politics, social inequalities, reproduction, mediated culture and so much more, that draw upon the experiences and expertise from our members of staff from around the world. 

Speaking of the expertise that different members bring to the Department, you’re also the Principal Investigator on a new £1.76 million research project investigating the urban transformation and gendered violence in Delhi and Johannesburg. What motivates your research?

This project began with a reading group on gendered violence that myself and a few of my PhD students created in 2016. It grew into a major project funded by the ESRC. In this project we are building upon a second-wave of research that places gendered violence within wider transformations in the political-economy of urban life and livelihoods, shifts in family forms and gender relations, and the historical legacies of racial, ethnic and other forms of categorization that in turn implicate men and women in specific relations to the state and economy. Our aim is to historicize and contextualize this violence, and examine violence as something that appears to connect the most intimate of affective relations with changes that are happening in the wider world. 

And talking about historical legacies, you were also recently featured in the Guardian arguing that it’s more important than ever for Britain to grapple with colonialism.  

I think it’s really important to historicize the present. In Britain there’s a massive reluctance to address the colonial past and issues such as racism and anti-immigration are often justified by such myopia. At the same time, paradoxically, imperial nostalgia emerges in all sorts of places! What strikes me is the generational dimension of the current and often bitter debate, for example about the removal of statues: increasingly I see that students’ consciousness is not framed in parochial terms and they’re keen to draw connections and consider British history in an international context.

And what about decolonisation?

This has been a priority for the Sociology Department: we set up a working group with both staff and students in 2017 and it’s been pushing for changes not just in our curriculum but also in terms of the pedagogy we use. I’m constantly enthused by the energy of the students who aren’t afraid to ask bigger questions about power relations and how the University plays into them. To me the question is: “What tools does decolonisation give us to understand how power works?” “What kind of conceptual intellectual tools does it give us to really understand these mechanics of power?” If we’re not asking these questions, we’re not taking the work seriously.

These questions clearly have a huge impact on the students. Last time I met you in your College, you were stopped in the gardens by a first-year who thanked you for one of your lectures on gender. 

I give a few lectures every year in SOC 1 (first year Sociology), and they are often sessions with up to 200 students. We get the most amazing students in these lectures – they speak their minds and try to come to grips with entirely new ways of thinking about core sociological questions. There was one particularly lively lecture that I hear about to this day! It seemed to me a turning point in sociology at Cambridge, in the sense that students could see how Sociology was not simply a set of abstract theories but could help challenge their embedded assumptions about the world, what they take as ‘common sense’, and thus also help interpret their own experiences in a new light.

Where do you see the department going into the future?

We need to carry on doing the engaged, deep research that all of my colleagues are doing so well. I would like to see us communicate this research to the wider public, and be a strong advocate for public sociology. We should be able to bring an informed voice, based on empirical research, that highlights the experiences of those affected (whether it’s by famine or war or violence or racial inequality) and bring them to larger audiences in a relevant and comprehensible way. So even as we contribute to academic debates and journals, we also want to go out into the world and have an impact on public policy and contemporary debates.

Dr Manali Desai is a Reader in Sociology and a fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge.