Dr Kalpana Wilson is a Lecturer in Geography at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research explores questions of race/gender, labour, neoliberalism, and reproductive rights and justice, with a particular focus on South Asia and its diasporas. She has a BA (Hons) in Economics from the University of Sussex, and an MA in Area Studies (South Asia) and a PhD in Political Economy from SOAS, University of London. She has previously taught at the London School of Economics (LSE) and at SOAS. She is the author of ‘Race, Racism and Development: Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice’ (Zed Books, 2012) and has published widely on race, gender, international development, women’s agency and rural labour movements.
What are the factors in your background that led you to embark on a career in academia?
I come from a family, especially on my mother’s side, and wider circles of friends, who were activists, both in India and in Britain, where I grew up. So there were always a lot of people around who were involved in anti-imperialist, anti-racist struggles, in Asia and Africa especially. My mother is very much a feminist and was involved with and wrote about Asian women’s struggles in Britain, right from the 1970s. That influenced me a lot. I got the chance to spend a lot of time in India from the early 1990s onwards and was inspired by revolutionary left-led movements for land, wages and against caste and gender violence which were taking place. Researching key questions about the conditions within which those movements were taking place seemed like one way of engaging in solidarity, providing the research was accessible to those who could use it within the movement, and not be restricted to those with access to university libraries!
I’m not sure if I ever really embarked on an academic career, it was more of a question of trying to use the resources of academia politically I guess, and trying to carve out spaces in what was already becoming an increasingly casualised and precarious and sector.
What considerations influenced your decision to stay in this field?
The questions I talk about in my research, particularly about racialisation and racism in international development, about neoliberal imperialism, reproductive justice, and increasingly about the rise of fascism, including in parts of the Global South, are ones which are urgent and at the same time largely silent. There is a compulsion to try and make these underlying structures visible and to keep pushing them onto the agenda wherever possible. The other reason that I’ve stuck it out has been my students, especially since I have been at Birkbeck which has a very diverse mainly London-based student body and most of our students are ‘non-traditional’ students. I have always been inspired by and learnt a lot from my students who have generously shared their experiences, knowledge and ideas with me. And students telling me for example that for the first time they could see themselves and their histories in my courses, has really motivated me to continue teaching.
What are your academic and research priorities, and why?
I started teaching international development in London following my PhD during the so-called ‘War on Terror’. It was becoming clear to anti-racist activists that racism has to be understood in the context of imperialism and the changing strategies of global capital. But in international development there was this complete silence around racism, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that mainly white academics were teaching a much more diverse student body, many of whom had travelled from the Global South to get the qualifications which would allow them to be recognised as ‘experts’ on their own country!
So I started working on questions of racism and racialisation in international development. I wrote about this in my book which came out in 2012. My approach focuses on the material aspects of race in development as well as its discursive aspects – I draw on elements of postcolonial, critical race and multiple feminist theories alongside political economy. In the last few years as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is more discussion of racism in international development institutions – but often this does not look at the material structures, or colonialism and imperialism as ongoing processes rather than only historical legacies. Most recently I have been writing about Marxism as an ideology of the global South, challenging both the dominance of Western Marxism in much of academia, as well as the notion that Marxism is inherently Eurocentric.
Secondly, building upon my research on rural labour movements in India, I have been looking at contesting understandings of women’s agency in the contexts of neoliberal development interventions, and social movements. I consider how neoliberalism has appropriated and transformed feminist ideas, and why it’s important that we challenge the gendered and racialised trope of the hyper-industrious, entrepreneurial, altruistic, endlessly resilient girls and women in the Global South.
Recently a lot of my work on this ‘neoliberal feminism’ has focused on reproductive rights and population policies, highlighting the ‘populationism’ of the Gates Foundation which really dominates this field, and what reproductive justice looks like in this context. Lately I have been exploring the synergies around population policies between corporate capital and fascism, particularly the Hindu supremacist fascism which characterises the current regime in India.
How can researchers/academics ensure that partnerships with those we work with in the global south are equitable?
Academia, like most other institutions is deeply colonial and structured by the history of capitalism and its dependence on the extraction of resources from the global south. This is particularly the case in international development, a discipline which emerged directly from colonial administration and Cold War geopolitics and has continued to be embedded in imperialist processes. The stark imbalance of access to resources between Universities in the global North and South, the extortionate fees charged to international students, the exploitation and lack of acknowledgement of researchers located in the global South and outright theft of their ideas and knowledge are symptomatic of this. However, this does not mean that day-to-day practices trying to counter these structures are not significant at all. These range from consciously addressing authorship, citation and translation practices, to thinking about how to make conferences and workshops more accessible to attendees from the Global South rather than forcing them to negotiate racist visa systems, to rethinking the distribution of funding and who controls it within research projects.
When doing this we also have to acknowledge power relations within contexts in the global South – for example the operation of class, caste, gender. When working with non-academic partners there are of course also a whole set of other ethical and practical questions to consider.
What do you hope the impact of your work will be?
I hope my work amplifies the voices of those who are at the forefront on the ground of the really vital struggles against imperialism and contemporary fascism, for social justice, reproductive justice and for transformative change which are going on today, and can contribute to building meaningful solidarity with these struggles and movements.
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