Periodically on the Philomathia website, we will spotlight the work, research, and thoughts of our distinguished faculty and fellows — providing them with a platform to share their background and tell us about their work, in their own words. In this post, we hear from Poornima Paidipaty, a Philomathia fellow in the History Faculty at the University of Cambridge.

Her Background:

I hold a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University as well as an M.A. from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a B.A. from Yale University. My academic work focuses on the intersections of decolonization, governance, and modern social science. As part of the Philomathia funded project, ‘The Measure of Inequality’, I am currently researching the history and legacy of statistics and planning in postcolonial India. Alongside this work, I am completing a book, Tribal Nation, which explores the history of anthropology in the Indian subcontinent and charts the relationship between military science, political culture, and citizenship in India’s tribal borderlands.

Prior to coming to Cambridge, I was a member of the Society of Fellows at the University of Chicago. In addition to the generous sponsorship through Philomathia, my work has been supported by the Isaac Newton Trust, the British Academy, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the School for Advanced Research, and the American Institute for Indian Studies.

PoornimaPaidipatyHer Research:

The widening gap between India’s rich and poor is captured by the National Sample Survey (NSS), an organization founded in 1950, which gathers data from roughly 14,000 Indian villages and localities to provide a snapshot of how the population at large is faring. The NSS and its pioneering role in the measurement of poverty and inequality are some of the important subjects to explore how different modern societies have gauged social and economic disparity.

As a nation, India is undergoing a profound transformation, but rapid growth has come hand in hand with rising inequality as well as growing disparity between rural and urban areas. NSS data remains one of the best resources for understanding and tracking these changes. As more of this information circulates in the public domain, it becomes all the more crucial to appreciate how such data is produced. Paidipaty’s work on the history of the NSS offers a fascinating glimpse into one of the most significant and early mid-century precursors to contemporary developments in big data.

You can read more about her research that has been published on the University of Cambridge’s Research website under Tracking inequality in India: the story of a pioneer.

How Her Career Lead to Philomathia:

The Philomathia’s program at Cambridge importantly recognizes that the many of our biggest global challenges, in areas such as global health, climate change, and economic development, are fundamentally social problems. While science and technology might provide powerful tools for tackling these difficult topics, the problems themselves can only be accessed through complex but singularly important social and political relationships.

This insight has been very important for my own work, which attempts to understand how social inequalities have informed modern science, and are in turn transformed by expert frameworks and understandings. The twentieth century has produced many powerful ways of thinking about disparity, measured by poverty lines, wage gaps, life expectancy, and electoral participation. As more and more of our daily lives are quantified and measured, my work seeks to understand the use of enumeration and its possibilities, for intervening in complex social and technical problems.

Future Goals and Ambitions:

The Philomathia measurement project will produce a special journal volume exploring the recent history of measuring inequality. In addition, I and Pedro Ramos Pinto (the lead on the project) are preparing a monograph on social measurement. Rather than assuming that measurement is a neutral activity, this book will examine the ways which measuring – as an activity – is itself a social intervention. Entitled Measuring Matters, this work is aimed at a general audience and attempts to use historical lessons in order to ask important questions about how enumeration ought to be used in public policy.