An introductory Q&A with the Women in the Field in South Asia network.

Q: How did ‘South Asia: Women in the Field’ come about?

We are researchers and academics from various disciplines, where fieldwork is a major component of research, and who either study South Asia or are part of the South Asian community and identify as women. This is all women, including trans women.

Collecting valuable primary data ‘in the field’ – beyond the walls of the institution in which we work – is an important part of research, career progression, and the reason why many of us choose to go into the disciplines we do. There are unavoidable difficulties we all will face when conducting research. In the course of our own work in South Asia, we have become increasingly aware of various issues that we as women may experience in particular ways. For example, dealing with issues of extreme climates, possibly remote locations, and very specific cultural contexts. That is without even considering the complex connotations related to ethnicity, nationality, sex and gender.

It is this tangle of complexities that our group of researchers wish to unpick. The majority of our group identify as women, and many as women from South Asian backgrounds. These identities have shaped the way that we conduct and have experienced fieldwork, but they are not monolithic. While we have shared lived experiences, we also have to navigate different issues specific to our own positions of intersectionality.  At the same time, we also contend with the fact that because of these experiences that there is a relative lack of women in active fieldwork positions. As in many STEM and humanities subjects, there is a ‘leaky pipeline’, whereby the numbers of women in the field drop off as seniority increases, even if well represented at the very early stages of the career ladder. We hope to address these issues and look for practical solutions to encourage and support women, all women, who work in these fields.

Q: By definition, a CRASSH research network has an interdisciplinary question at its core. What is yours?

‘Going into the field’ is a term used by many disciplines, ranging from Earth Sciences, Geography and Zoology to Archaeology, Anthropology and Sociology. Whether it relates to conducting environmental surveys, carrying out an ethnographic study, collecting mineralogical samples, or excavating an ancient civilisation this phrase normally precedes some of the greatest experiences a researcher can have, but may also expose some of our most difficult and vulnerable moments. Our core question is ‘what does it mean to be women conducting fieldwork in South Asia?’.

From a lack of willingness to employ female field researchers, to issues relating to safety or sexual harassment in the field, there are many shared experiences. By answering the ‘what’ we can then answer the ‘why’. We hope not only to share the kinds of experiences we have had but also to look at the different ways our speakers and audience have actively tackled problems, in the hope that we can propose more solutions rather than just discuss the difficulties. We also hope to be a forum where women, especially South Asian women, can build a support network, encourage each other and benefit from the creativity that comes from engaging with other disciplines for their own research.

Q: Could you tell us a bit more about this year’s convenors, speakers, and attendees and the perspectives they bring to the discussion?

We have convenors from the Departments of Archaeology, Geography, Sociology, and Politics and International Studies. Their research backgrounds are truly diverse, including heritage and archaeology, labour and infrastructure, urban transformation to the studies of gender and politics, and much more. We also represent a cross-section of women at different stages of our careers.

Our programme hopes to reflect the wide range of experiences of women researching and working in South Asia by having speakers from entirely different disciplines, backgrounds and levels of experience. Each speaker-led session aims to have one external speaker and one internal speaker, with a balance of early and later career researchers. We also aim to have women from specifically South Asian backgrounds.

There will be a focus on in-person attendance and participation, however, the sessions will be run in a hybrid format over Zoom to enable a remote international audience – although we will not be recording our sessions to ensure everyone feels free to speak. We hope to attract students and researchers from different disciplines within Cambridge, but also to look outwards and build connections with institutions in South Asia. Though the focus will be on women and South Asian women we hope to appeal to all researchers who study a facet of the South Asian region in the hope that we encourage rich and useful discourse and promote good work and research practices.

Q: What can we expect from South Asia: Women in the Field in 2022/23?

The Michaelmas term sessions will be held fortnightly from 20 October 2022 and will be centred around themed talks with an external speaker. We have selected these speakers based on their fieldwork experience and backgrounds as South Asian women. They will be paired with an internal respondent to facilitate discussion who has some similar experience but from another discipline and/or different stage in their career. Each talk will be followed by a Q&A session as well as further time for discussing issues and networking. Some of these sessions may have an element of ‘show and tell’ and other activities that will aim to encourage audience participation and create a comfortable atmosphere for discussion.

In Lent term 2023 we will form a series of reading groups which will draw on the lecture series of the previous term, exploring the issues raised in greater depth through interdisciplinary discussion, and bringing an analytical approach to the previous term’s themes, working towards practical solutions to specific issues. The findings of these sessions will then inform us of the kind of training and workshops that will be run in Easter Term 2023. Some suggested workshops include CV and application writing to help attendees navigate the complicated job market. We also hope to start a reading list comprised of recommendations from our speakers and attendees based around the themes of identity, fieldwork and South Asia.

How can people learn more about your Network?

You can find out more on our network page, and we can be found on Twitter , Facebook and Instagram.

  • Written by Rosie Campbell (Mcdonald Institute), Shreyashi Dasgupta (Geography, Cambridge), Afifa Khan (McDonald Institute), Maria Suarez Moreno (Mcdonald Institute), Rebecca Roberts (MAHSA project, Fitzwilliam Museum) and Azadeh Vafadari (MAHSA project)


  • Posted 22 Sep 2022
  • Contributor CRASSH News, Rosie Campbell, Shreyashi Dasgupta, Afifa Khan, Maria Suarez Moreno, Rebecca Roberts and Azadeh Vafadari
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