Alpa Shah is a Reader in the Department of Anthropology. She read Geography at Cambridge, trained in Anthropology at the LSE, and taught anthropology at Goldsmiths until 2013 when she returned to the LSE.
Alpa Shah’s research has been driven by concerns for inequality, how it is produced and addressed, and how ordinary people experience it. She has drawn on extensive long-term ethnographic field research in India, and more recently Nepal, to comment on themes ranging from: the intersection of class, caste and ethnicity/indigeneity in indigenous rights activism and politics; the moral and political economy of the developmental state, programmes of poverty alleviation and practices of corruption; transformations in the agrarian economy and seasonal casual labour migration; citizenship, education and the politics of affirmative action policies; and the spread of emancipatory politics through class struggle, notably the Maoist movements.
Alpa Shah’s first major research, in the hilly forested tracts of Jharkhand State in Eastern India, analysed how the region’s indigenous or adivasi people understood the modern liberal developmental state, why they rejected it, and how they resurrected an alternative sacral-polity rooted in values of mutual exchange, consensus in decision-making and egalitarianism. In the Shadows of the State considers the significance of the politics of these alternative values in relation to the discourses promoted by international indigenous rights and development activists. Seeking to promote a class analysis in relation to a culture based politics, Shah argues that these well-meaning activists may unintentionally misrepresent and further marginalise the very people they intend to save.
More recent research focuses on the spread of revolutionary movements and analyses a Marx, Lenin and Mao inspired guerrilla insurgency in India and also Nepal. Windows into a Revolution (edited with Judith Pettigrew) illuminates the intimacies of everyday life amidst the spread of the class struggles in both countries. Dr Shah is currently working on a book-length manuscript on the Indian Naxalite or Maoist movement and has made a 30 minute documentary with BBC Radio 4, ‘India’s Red Belt’ for the Crossing Continents series as well as reported for BBC Radio 4’s 'From Our Own Correspondent' on the guerilla insurgency.
A third strand of research on inequality and affirmative action analyses the impact of state legislation against institutionalised hierarchy. This work is explicitly comparative and focuses on the lessons learned from Indian policies of affirmative action (in dealing with caste) for the constitution making process underway in Nepal, and also considers the South Asian cases in relation to Latin America (and ethnicity/indigeneity). Explored through this research are: notions of justice and rights in the making of citizenship; the legacies of socialism and the effects of liberalization policies on the possibilities offered by affirmative action; as well as the relationship between political and socio-economic inequality.
In the next few years Alpa Shah will develop an international research programme on Inequality and Poverty. In the context of the agrarian transitions underway in the belly of the Indian economic boom, one focus of this programme is to ethnographically investigate the persistence of poverty amongst the quarter of the Indian population that has historically been cast out of society as ‘untouchable’ and ‘savage’ – dalits and adivasis. BBC Radio 4’s 'Thinking Allowed' discussed some of the issues at stake. The overall research programme will further perspectives on political economy within the discipline of anthropology and contribute to a broader comparative project exploring changing patterns of inequality and poverty in South Asia and beyond.
Dr Shah’s research is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, the EU European Research Council, the British Academy and the Wenner-Gren Foundation. She is a Research Associate on the Contemporary South Asia Studies Programme at Oxford University, serves on the editorial board of Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute and Dialectical Anthropology and on the ESRC Grants Assessment Panel.
2013. 'The Underbelly of the Indian Boom.' (Edited with Stuart Corbridge). Special Issue of Economy and Society 42:3. Includes a co-authored introduction and Shah (2013) ‘The Intimacy of Insurgency: Beyond Coercion, Greed, or Grievance in Maoist India.’
2013. 'Conservative Force or Contradictory Resource? Education and Affirmative Action in Jharkhand, India.' (with Rob Higham). Forthcoming at COMPARE: A Journal of Comparative and International Education.
2013. 'The Tensions Over Liberal Citizenship in a Marxist Revolutionary Situation: The Maoists in India.' Critique of Anthropology. 33:1 March (In a Special Issue on Citizenship edited by Sian Lazar and Monique Nuitjen).
2013. 'Towards an Anthropology of Affirmative Action.' (Edited with Sara Shneiderman). Special Issue of Focaal, Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology. Spring 2013. Vol 65. Includes Shah and Shneiderman (2013) ‘The Practices, Policies and Politics of Transforming Inequality in South Asia: Ethnographies of Affirmative Action.’ Also includes Higham and Shah (2013) ‘Affirmative Action and Political Economic Transformations: Secondary Education, Indigenous People and the State in Jharkhand, India.’
2013. 'Savage Attack: Adivasi Insurgency in India.' (Edited with Crispin Bates). New Delhi: Social Science Press.
2012. 'Windows Into a Revolution: Ethnographies of Maoism in India and Nepal.' (Edited with Judith Pettigrew). New Delhi: Social Science Press. Includes a co-authored introduction and Shah (2012) ‘In Search of Certainty in Revolutionary India.’ An earlier version of this edited collection was published as a Special Double Issue of Dialectical Anthropology 33 (3/4), 2009.
2012. ‘Eco-incarceration? Walking with the Comrades.’ Economic and Political Weekly. May 26 2012. XLVII(21): 32-34. Commentary on Arundhati Roy’s (2012) Broken Republic.
2012. 'Éliminer la class, la caste et ‘indigénéité dans l’Inde maoïste.’ Terrain: Revue d’ethnologie de l’Europe. Pourquoi Coopérer? 58. March: 64-81.
2011. ‘Resurrecting Scholarship on Agrarian Studies in India.’ (with Barbara Harriss-White). Economic and Political Weekly. 24 Sept. Vol XLVI: 39, 13-18.
2011. ‘India Burning: the Maoist Movement.’ In Isabelle Clark-Decès (Ed) A Companion to the Anthropology of India. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
2010. 'In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India.' Durham (N.C.): Duke University Press. An Indian edition has been published in 2011 by Delhi: Oxford University Press.
2010. ‘Alcoholics Anonymous: the Maoist Movement in Jharkhand, India.’ Modern Asian Studies. 45(5): 1095-1117.
2009. ‘Morality, Corruption and the State: Insights from Jharkhand, Eastern India.’ Journal of Development Studies 45 (3): 295-313.
2009. ‘Corruption: Insights Into Combating Corruption in Rural Development.’ In Karen Sykes (Ed) Ethnographies of Moral Reasoning: Living Paradoxes of a Global Age. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
2007. ‘Keeping the State Away: Democracy, Politics and Imaginations of the State in India’s Jharkhand.’ Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute 13 (1): 129-145. A version of this article was reproduced in Uwe Skoda and Lidia Guzy (2009) Power Play. Berlin: Weissensee Verlag.
2006. ‘The Labour of Love: Seasonal Migration from Jharkhand to the Brick Kilns of Other States in India.’ Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s) 40 (1): 91-119. A version of this article was reproduced in Priya Deshingar and John Farrington (Eds) (2009) Seasonal Migration in India. Delhi: Oxford University Press
2006. ‘Markets of Protection: The Maoist Communist Centre and the State in Jharkhand, India.’ Critique of Anthropology 26 (3): 297-314. In a Special Issue of the journal edited with Tobias Kelly as ‘A Double-edged Sword: Protection and State Violence’. A version of the article was reproduced in David Pratten and Atreyee Sen (Eds) (2007) Global Vigilantes. London: Hurst.