Mary Hancock's Research


My first book, Womanhood in the Making (1999) drew on both my doctoral research, which was supported by the American Institute of Indian Studies, and on post-doctoral study undertaken as a Mellon Fellow at the University of Chicago and, later, as an NEH Fellow at the School of American Research in Santa Fe, N.M. The book is anchored, ethnographically, by my interpretive analysis of the household ritual practices of upper caste Hindu women in contemporary Chennai (formerly Madras), the capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. I was interested both in the representations of women’s ritual that circulate in contemporary Hindu nationalist discourses as signifiers of “tradition” and in women’s experiences as ritual actors. On the one hand, ritual created spaces of action, self-understanding and identity formation for women; on the other hand, it was among the quotidian practices that encapsulated and reproduced enduring structural inequalities associated with caste, class, and gender, sometimes in the service of Hindu nationalism. The historical and political forces at work in this apparent paradox and its ramifications for women’s lives were the dual foci of the book. I have explored other, closely related issues in several articles, which have appeared in American Ethnologist, South Asia Research, Modern Asian Studies, and Identities, and in edited collections.



My longstanding interest in the political and economic stakes in “tradition” was sharpened by visits to India during the 1990s, most recently as a Fulbright-Hays Fellow. Throughout urban India, popular concerns with public memory – sites, practices, and discourses that represent collective pasts – have proliferated and grown in contentiousness, even as the country has become increasingly committed to neoliberal economic policies and institutions. In this context, new metropolitan centers have emerged and old ones, like Chennai, have been reconstituted around knowledge- and service-based economies. And it is on these new and remade urban landscapes that competing claims on the past are being staked and possible futures envisioned. My book-in-progress, Remembered Futures, Everyday Histories, asks why, how, and by whom pasts are remembered, concentrating on the ways that the spatial dimensions of memory and its practice are implicated in the creative destruction of the urban landscape -- the cycles of construction and deconstruction tied to the growth and contraction of capital – and in the reorganization of civil society.


Chennai is a particularly fruitful site for such an inquiry. Over the past decade, state and municipal authorities have launched new efforts to create a hospitable climate for investment and consumption, not only with regulatory changes, but also by improving the tourism infrastructure. These moves have included attempts to fashion a heritage-conscious cityscape with historic precincts and buildings and well-tended museums and memorials and thus to make Chennai a recognizable “brand” among investment and travel destinations. My book charts these new forms of public memory and analyzes them in relation to the political economic transformations that followed the adoption of structural adjustment policies in the early 1990s, thereby grounding global change in the specific institutions and localities that shape and are shaped by globalization. The book’s argument, as might be inferred, does not reiterate the economic determinism that often characterizes studies of globalization, but takes account of the interests in the past and its material legacy that are embedded in other social, cultural, and political projects, new and longstanding, such as religious practice, nationalism, and gender and ethnic identity issues. Attention to these different and sometimes contradictory concerns with the past is meant to bring a humanistic perspective to this work, particularly by underscoring the agentive role that memory-practices may fulfill in enabling people to envision structural conditions of the world around them as invented, unfinished, and malleable. Of particular interest are the ways that acts of recalling and rewriting the past provide platforms for governance of and interventions in the cultural and political life of the present. Although territorialized Hindu nationalism has gained political strength and popular support over the past decade, the challenge for many is to imagine forms of collective belonging, citizenship, religiosity, and territorial identification that are less exclusionary, that incorporate the experiences and desires of deterritorialized groups, and that may provide a counterforce to the deleterious effects of globalization even while working through global networks.


Finally, I am in the early phases of a third major research project, this one on the global mediation of evangelical Christianity. I have been working collaboratively with another anthropologist, Tamar Gordon (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) on issues such as televangelism and proselytic media. We have presented several papers on these topics, most recently at the 2003 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (“Mediating the Missionary Position: International Revival Programming for American Audiences”). In these papers, we have explored the ways that mass media has helped redefine the mission field in evangelical Christianity and the ways that conversion, as spectacle, is represented for American audiences on US Christian television. I expect to begin more intensive ethnographic research on these topics in 2005.


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