Co-Director Spotlight: Professor Nayanika Mookherjee (Social Sciences and Health)

Apr 26, 2023 | Meet the team, Transformations (Issue 9)

Professor Nayanika Mookherjee, Co-Director, Social Sciences and Health

As the Co-director for the Social Sciences and Health Faculty of the Institute of Advanced Study in Durham University, my expertise lies in the fields of political anthropology, social and feminist theories particularly in relation to the areas of gendered violence during conflict, politics of aesthetics, memorialisation, war crimes tribunals, apology, irreconciliation and transnational adoption. In the IAS, I have the portfolio of communications and have been in charge of the last six newsletters since Michaelmas 2021. This time, I thought I would contribute to this section of spotlighting the Co-Directors.

I grew up in Kolkata, India and as a child was in a female-led single parent household. Feminist sensibilities made a natural onset in our family of three women – all of which has had an impact in the choice of my research themes. My interdisciplinary skills were honed in the excellent institutions (all supported by government subsidies) I was lucky to be in – Presidency College in Kolkata (BA Honours in Politics), Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi (MA in Sociology and Anthropology) and the School of Oriental and African Studies, London (Phd in Social Anthropology as a Felix scholar).

My earlier research on wartime sexual violence culminated into the much-acclaimed book: The Spectral Wound: sexual violence, public memories and the Bangladesh war of 1971 (Duke University Press, 2015; Zubaan 2016) and in 2017 the book was chosen as the second finalist for the Best Ethnography Award on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed as well as the Michelle Z. Rosaldo award, by the American Anthropological Association.  I was also interviewed for the book by Laurie Taylor on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed. Addressing how the experiences of 1971 manifests today among survivors themselves and their families, this book triangulates the ethnographic narratives with various representations (state, visual, and literary) as well as contemporary human rights testimonies. It ethnographically analyzes the social life of testimonies, examining how the stories and experiences of raped women of the 1971 war became part of a broader set of national discourses and debates, bringing together testimonies and visual representations. The book argues that identifying raped women only through their ‘horrific’ suffering creates a homogenous understanding of gendered victimhood.

After Spectral Wound, a deep dive in developing an arts based publication was made possible when in 2019, I co-authored (with a fantastic Bangladeshi visual artist Najmunnahar Keya) a set of guidelines, graphic novel and animation film Birangona: towards ethical testimonies of sexual violence during conflict and received the 2019 Praxis Award from the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists. The guidelines and graphic novel have fed into the Murad Code (named after the Yazidi sexual violence survivor and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad) developed by the Prevent Sexual Violence Initiative of the UK government. Above all they have been read by survivors in Bangladesh, Colombia and Congo and used by various organisations working with survivors of wartime sexual violence.  My focus on ethics in this graphic novel and film emerges from my own research as well as being part of the ethics committee of the World Council of Anthropological Association and an Ethics officer of the ASA (Association of Social Anthropology) from 2007-2012 when I updated the ASA ethics code in consultation with the members.

I have published extensively on anthropology of violence, ethics and aesthetics including editing volumes like The Aesthetics of Nation (2011 with Christopher Pinney), The Self in South Asia (2013); Aesthetics, Politics and Conflict (2015 with Tariq Jazeel) and my recently edited volume is On Irreconciliation which seems to have had resonance among survivors of sexual violence, adoptees as well as climate science researchers. I have had fellowships with ESRC, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, British Academy, Leverhulme and the Rockerfeller Foundation at Bellagio.

In the next one year, I am hoping to finish another book titled Arts of Irreconciliation in which I am exploring the relationship between legal and aesthetic debates in relation to war crimes tribunals. I also have two ongoing projects. One, funded by British Academy is on war babies, conflict and transnational adoption. The second project is on the Absence/presence of the Black Histories of Durham which is an IAS Development Project and my co-PIs are Dr Liam Liburd [(History), who is focussing on the history of ‘race’ and racism, and empire and decolonisation and their legacies in modern Britain] and Dr Sol Gamsu [(Sociology), who is a sociologist of education with expertise in higher education policy, race and education and elite education)]. This project draws on my expertise in memorialisation and is linked to the carrying out the slavery walking tours in Durham University with students as part of the module Violence and Memory. I also co-set up Durham University’s BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethic) network in 2017 and was its co-chair for 4 years. In my article ‘Irreconcilable Times’ (2022), I explore these dynamics of absence/presence of the history of the enslaved. In the IAS development project, we seek to explore the links of Durham’s black history with its built structures, archives, colonial education and plantations. This project also has potentials to identify the links with mining. Two events linked to this project will be held in the Easter term of 2023.

As a Co-Director, one of my main commitments has been to bring the messages of the IAS to Faculties and Departments and to postgraduate students, early career researchers, new and adjunct academics. The post-covid, new configuration of the IAS needed a reset and a new way of engaging across the University particularly in the context of ‘quiet quitting’ happening across academia. With this in mind, myself in consultation with my other colleagues in the IAS formulated a document titled Reasons to engage with the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS), Durham University. All four Co-Directors have been speaking with this document at Faculty Boards, Research Committees and Board of Studies and this was much appreciated across the university. There is a renewed energy and dynamism in the IAS and that is reflected in the buzz in Cosin’s Hall as well as across the University as different projects take shape or research conversations are initiated. The Social Sciences Faculty is extensively represented by different PIs across different IAS projects: The Politics of Credibility [(Kirtsoglou) in Anthropology], Opportunities in Pollution [(Jamie) in Sociology], Risks to Youth in Digital Spaces [(Rapper), Education], Black History (Gamsu), Sociology; (Mookherjee) in Anthropology], Syntactical Structures [(Barton) in Anthropology], Understanding Offence [(Fenwick) in Law] and Abusing Antiquities [(Kirtsoglou) in Anthropology]. The IAS Co-Director position allows me to learn about fantastic interdisciplinary projects every day. It is an ‘admin job’ but with the capacity to awe us on a daily basis and I feel fortunate to represent the faculty and hopefully bring the conversations in the faculty to be in dialogue with the rest of the university through interdisciplinary projects.

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