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Anthropological study in India hooks student on research

Photo of: Sara Christensen

Fourth-year University of Toronto student Sara Christensen. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

After spending two months in Calicut, India, and the surrounding towns in the state of Kerala, Sara Christensen, a fourth-year University of Toronto student, is hooked on anthropological field research.

“As much fun as classes are, they can’t hold a candle to actually practicing anthropology,” said Christensen, a specialist major in cultural anthropology, with a minor in environmental anthropology.

Her reaction is one that Tania Li, Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy and Culture of Asia, was hoping to inspire when she made connections at the Centre for Research and Education for Social Transformation (CREST). The centre is run by anthropologists in Kerala to help members of the former Dalit (untouchable) caste and Adivasi (tribal) youth acquire the additional skills that will make them stronger competitors in the job market.

Photo of: a group of CREST students

U of T students connected with the students at the Centre for Research and Education for Social Transformation (CREST) in Calicut, Kerala, India. Photo Courtesy: CREST.

Students at the centre have “been to university, but they still lack soft skills like English language and confidence,” Li said. “They aspire, not just to the jobs protected for them, but to others, so this is a four-month program to work on social skills and computer skills, to brush up and polish.

“I thought it would be a cool connection for Canadian undergraduates who are also thinking about positioning themselves in the job market.”

With assistance from the Dean’s International Initiatives Fund and the Dean’s Undergraduate Research Fund, Li arranged for six students to make the trip to India. To prepare, they were given an extensive reading list, as well as briefings by graduate students and an India expert prior to departure.

The readings were no substitute for actual experience in India, however. Christensen was amazed by the differences between Canada and India.

“It was mind-blowing,” she said. “Going through culture shock is very important. As an anthropologist, you are asked to get out of your own head and remove biases. You’re seeing something so totally different.

“You must lose your own values and morals and be adaptable to new settings.”

For example, Christensen said, “Our status as women was very different there. There were three girls and one guy in our group, and people would address the guy by name and call the women ‘the Canadians.’ They wouldn’t shake the women’s hands. I had to get past that and think, ‘What can this teach me about this culture?’ It taught me not to take things personally, even though they angered me.”

Although the caste system is officially illegal in India, Christensen says it still affects the everyday lives of Dalit and Adivasi youth. The focus of the students’ research was to see how.

Christensen discovered that opportunities in India were “very much based on birthright. Economic standing doesn’t affect social status so much. Although many of the people in Kerala had big houses and cars that others coveted, there was no way to shake the shadow of caste. There were students with economic capital, but no social capital.”

As she worked to finish her research paper, Christensen reflected on her experiences.

“It definitely makes me want to do more research,” she said. “It is important for people’s stories to be told and to listen with open ears. When you hear others’ stories with open ears, you develop a sense of empathy and hear their story from their perspective. Anthropology gives you that opportunity.

Christensen is grateful to the Faculty of Arts & Science for the experience.

“I had the sense that the university was really behind me,” she said. “They really wanted to me to have this opportunity.”

She would undertake another research trip in a heartbeat.

“I felt like my entire undergraduate career built up to this and I was able to apply all the things I’d learned,” she said.