Dr Eleanor Newbigin
- Department of History Senior Lecturer in the History of Modern South Asia Centre for Gender Studies Member SOAS South Asia Institute Academic staff
- BA, MPhil, PhD (Cantab)
- Russell Square: College Buildings
- Email address
- Telephone number
- 020 7898 4625
- Support hours
- On sabbatical term 1
I am a historian of imperialism and decolonisation in twentieth century South Asia.
My work develops nuanced, critical understandings of the end of formal colonialism in South Asia through rigorous archival research. I am also interested in exploring how creative practices and participatory methodologies enable us to reflect on and come to terms with some of the legacies of colonialism that cannot be reached through archival work alone.
My archival work has explored how the introduction of representative government in India was shaped by both nationalist and imperialist imperatives, with powerful legacies for political structures and cultures after British rule. Drawing on feminist and gender studies methodologies, I am particularly interested in how changes in governance shaped and were shaped by notions of family and household, gender and race.
Based on my doctoral research, my book The Hindu family and the emergence of modern India: law, citizenship and community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) looked at the relationship between political economy and religious-based personal law through a study of the campaign to reform and modernise Hindu family law in the mid-twentieth century. Tracing the economic and administrative incentives that drove these legal changes, I showed how the codification project significantly altered, but by no means removed, colonial-era hierarchies of gendered and caste-based power, reworking these structures to establish new forms of patriarchy and religious majoritarianism in the postcolonial state. You can read an interview discussing the argument here.
I have also written about the history of economic thought in early twentieth century India and how this worked to shape ideas of society, citizenship and welfare. I examine how Indian nationalists contributed to emerging global practices of measuring wealth, and poverty, but also how colonialism, unequal access to education and political representation shaped the field of economics and financial expertise in this period, with powerful legacies that continue to influence economic scholarship today.
Over the last few years, I have developed more practice-based approaches to engaging with imperialism and its legacies. In 2019, I led a playwright-in-residence project with Tamasha Theatre Company in which we worked with SOAS students to think about the complexities of learning about the imperial past at an institution founded specifically to support colonial governance. This resulted in five audio dramas, recorded with student support at SOAS. Students also wrote about the experience of working with the playwrights and were panel members at ‘public listening’ events we held across the UK.
With funding from the Worldmaking Beyond SOAS initiative, I partnered with Applied Stories to pilot New Histories, a participatory workshop format that enables communities to respond to local statues that commemorate Britain’s imperial past. We trained SOAS students in participatory methodologies, enabling them to co-design and deliver workshops in which local audiences discussed and responded to the William Gladstone statue in Bow Church.
In 2023, I worked with Sarah Tucker, of the Access Participation and Student Success Team, and student volunteers in building a variety of free learning resources that will allow teachers of secondary-age students to address the legacies of colonialism in more creative and engaging ways.
My current research brings together the two different strands of my work to date. Focusing on contemporary discussions about decolonisation, I am examining how memories and public narratives of the partition of 1947 have developed and changed over time amongst the UK diaspora. Through AHRC funding, I am working with Prof. Navtej Purewal in Development Studies to explore how legacies of imperialism in Britain shape public narratives of partition today. As part of this work, we are exploring how new digital technologies, particularly Virtual Reality, can enable critical re-examinations of the past.