Department of History

Dr Eleanor Newbigin

Key information

Department of History Senior Lecturer in the History of Modern South Asia Member, Centre for Gender Studies Academic Staff, SOAS South Asia Institute
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 modern South Asia with a particular interest in histories of social difference and inequalities, and in how these histories are told. I am interested in understanding how and when new kinds of rights claims emerge, and how these claims gain, or fail to gain, traction to force political and social change. In my work so far, I have explored these questions through a study of the end of imperialism in India and of the place of the Indian subcontinent in global histories of democracy. 

My research interests stem from my own experiences of growing up in central London in the 1980s and 1990s, a highly diverse, and unequal society. At school and university I found the writings of post-colonial, feminist and queer scholars inspiring and useful tools to think through these experiences and the questions that they ignited in me. I feel that history is key to understanding how social inequalities are created and sustained, information that is vital to any project to challenge and break down these barriers.  

My doctoral research 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 argued that, rather than reflecting a commitment to women's rights, the primary driver for reform was an attempt by colonial officials and elite Indian representatives to restructure the joint family and break down the power of the older patriarch to give younger men greater individual control over their property and over female family members. Women thus gained rights within this new patriarchal order as wives and daughters, not as autonomous actors. My book The Hindu family and the emergence of modern India: law, citizenship and community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) is based on this work. 

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 am interested in how a growing emphasis on measuring economic output during the interwar years shaped debates about poverty, workers' rights and living conditions. I have looked at how Indian nationalists used economic data to build new arguments, but also at the ways in which colonialism, unequal access to education and political representation shaped the field of economics and financial expertise in this period, with powerful legacies for economic theory and practice today. You can read more about this argument in my essay 'Accounting for the nation, marginalising the empire: taxable capacity and colonial rule in the early twentieth-century' published in the History of Political Economy.
At present, I am building on some of this work to look more broadly at histories of education and empire. We know that scholarship played a critical role in securing and legitimising colonial rule but we still know very little about the role of scholars and the university in the formation of the post-colonial world order, in South Asia and beyond. This history is particularly important for an institution like SOAS as I have written about for the History Workshop. Thinking more closely about the history (and present) of SOAS has given inspiration to a number of projects with which I am involved. In early 2019 the department launched a playwright in residence project with Tamasha Theatre Company to think about what Decolonising History meant for SOAS and our students. I am also teaching a new module on the history of Empire and Education at SOAS, so that all members of the SOAS community can engage with our complex past, and its legacies. 

PhD Supervision

Name Title
Mr Sarbajit Mitra Cultures of Consumption: Popular Responses to Intoxicants in Colonial Bengal


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