SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Dr Stephen P Hughes

BA (Bates College, Lewiston) MA PhD (Chicago)
  • Teaching
  • Research
  • Expertise
  • Publications


Stephen Hughes
Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology

Centre for Global Media and Communications

Associate Member, Centre for Media and Film Studies

SOAS South Asia Institute

Academic Staff, SOAS South Asia Institute

Dr Stephen P Hughes
Email address:
020 7898 4070
SOAS University of London
Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG
Russell Square: College Buildings
Office No:
Academic Support Hours:
Wed, 11.00-13.00 by appointment


Born and raised in California, I earned my BA in Anthropology (Hon) and Philosophy at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, US and went on to complete my MA and PhD in Social and Cultural Anthropology at The University of Chicago. Over the course of the last thirty years my work has focused on Tamil speaking south India.  I have worked on various research projects relating to the history and ethnography of media including Tamil cinema, film exhibition, drama, music, gramophone, radio, popular publishing, election campaigns and the emergence of satellite TV. 

Since joining SOAS in 1997 my teaching has focused on the Anthropology of Media, ethnographic and documentary film, social theory and South Asia. I spent two years away from SOAS as a Research Fellow, on the NWO Pionier Program, Modern Mass Media, Religion and the Imagination of Communities: Different Postcolonial Trajectories in West Africa, India, Brazil and the Caribbean, Amsterdam School for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam (2003-2005).  And then during 2009-2010 I was away for another year on fieldwork in Chennai, India funded by the AIIS/NEH.


Programmes Convened
Modules Taught

PhD Students Supervised:

Bryony Whitmarsh, 'The Narayanhiti Palace Museum: Memory, Power and National Identity'

Maiko Kodaka, GIRLS’ PLEASURE : pornography as a cultural commentary in modern Japan with reference to female friendly Adult Videos (working title)

Rakesh Sengupta, An Archaeology of Screenwriting in Early Indian Cinema (1930s-1950s)

Ilaria Callegari, Tibetan Buddhism Went Global: Tibetan Buddhists’ Responses to Modernization Tendencies

Emily Stevenson, Picture Postcard Bengaluru: Visual and Material Pasts in India’s Silicon Valley.  Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS (2018).

Tung-Yi Kho, In Search of the Good Life in Contemporary China.  Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS (2018).

Helen Underhill, Art school, art world, art circuit: an ethnography of contemporary visual art education and production in two Palestinian locations. Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS (2018).

Taha Kazi, Religious Television: Changing Notions of Religious Authority and Piety in Karachi, Pakistan, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS (2017).

Jamilia Dorner, Learning Bharatanatyam: Motor, Sensory and Social Enskilment in South Indian Dance, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS (2017).

Carl Rommel, Revolution, Play and Feeling: Assembling Emotionality, National Subjectivity and Football in Cairo, 1990-2013. Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS (2015).

Sylvia Simpson, Technologies for the Self: Japanese Women in the UK and Their Media. Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS (2015).

Farida Batool, New Media, Masculinity and Mujra Dance in Pakistan. Centre for Film and Media Studies, SOAS. (2014)

Lucia King, Performance on screen in India: methods and relationships in non-fiction film production, 1991-2011, Centre for Film and Media Studies, SOAS. (2013)

Giulia Battaglia, Documentary Film Practices in India: History of the Present, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS. (2012)

Shireen Mirza, Embodying Pasts: Ritual and Memory of Shi’a Practices in India’s Deccan, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS (2011).

Virginia Whiles, Miniature Manoeuvres- Art and Polemic in Pakistan: Politics, Culture and Tradition on Contemporary Miniature Painting. Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS (2007).


My work clusters around three main research areas broadly relating to the history of media in south India- 1) early film audience and exhibition; 2) musical performance and the emergence of sound media; and 3) religion, media and politics.

One area of research interest concerns the social and cultural history of silent cinema audiences in south India from multiple perspectives. Chronologically, this work covers the beginnings of commercial cinema in south India from its introduction by touring exhibitors at the turn of the twentieth century until the transition to sound films and the emergence of a distinctly Tamil cinema in the 1930s. Within this period I have examined the leading institutions, practices and discourses that variously defined the rapidly shifting conditions of audience composition and the film-going experience. The overall purpose of this work has been to rethink critically the historiography of early cinema in India through an investigation of its audiences. Conventional approaches to the history of cinema in India have consisted of an exclusive emphasis on the pioneering efforts of film production, film stars and classic films texts with little or no effort to consider the broader social and cultural conditions, which preceded and exceeded the films themselves. Therefore, in shifting this historiographic emphasis, I developed original ethnographic and historical research into a general approach for the study of cinema audiences. I treat audiences as people who attended the cinema and as abstracted social categories, both variously constituted through exhibition practices, government regulation, film genres, public debate and experiences of film-going.

My second research concentration focuses on the historical conjuncture of sound and modernity in south India. The overall argument is that, in contrast to a Euro-American association of vision/visuality with modernity, sound is the dominant sense of cultural modernity in south India. This work considers how over the first half of the 20th century the introduction of new sound media- harmonium, gramophone, radio, loud speakers and cinema- placed music at the centre of south Indian debates about modernity and reconfigured notions of the public and public space through new practices of sound broadcasting and listening.

The third area of research was started as part of my contributions to the collaborative research project I was part of at the University of Amsterdam- Modern Mass Media, Religion and Imagination of Communities: Different Postcolonial Trajectories in West Africa, India, Brazil and the Caribbean (see As part of this project I developed a line of research using the study of Tamil cinema to address questions about the changing relations among mass media, religion and politics in south India. I have been working on an episodic history concentrating upon a series of key films and debates in the changing religious and political equation around Tamil cinema. Specifically I have followed the political debates surrounding initial religious orientation of Indian silent cinema through to its transformation into a Tamil film genre with the introduction of cinema sound in the 1930s. As Tamil cinema developed into a south Indian regional and linguistically defined sub-national film making tradition, Hindu mythological and devotional films featured prominently in a major realignment within south Indian cultural politics of modernity.


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Available for
  • Radio
  • Press
  • Briefings
  • Special Study Programmes
  • Short Term Consultancy
  • Long Term Consultancy
  • TV
Regional Expertise
  • South Asia
Country Expertise
  • India
  • Sri Lanka
  • Tamil



Jump to: Articles | Book Chapters |

Hughes, Stephen and Stevenson, Emily (2019) 'South India Addresses the World: Postcard Circulation and Empire'. Trans Asia Photography Review, (9) 2.

Hughes, Stephen and Stevenson, Emily (2018) 'From Madras to Bangalore'. Frontline, (36) 18, pp 99-116.

Hughes, Stephen (2013) 'Show Time: 1913 Reconsidered: Exhibition and the making of Indian cinema'. Frontline.

Hughes, Stephen (2013) '“The production of the past: Tamil film history as a living archive”.'. BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies, (4) 1, pp 71-80.

Hughes, Stephen (2011) 'Five Short of Centenary'. The Hindu, pp 1.

Hughes, Stephen (2010) 'What is Tamil about Tamil Cinema?'. South Asia Popular Culture, (8) 3, pp 213-229.

Hughes, Stephen (2010) 'Our tryst with celluloid magic'. The Hindu - Sunday Magazine, pp 1.

Hughes, Stephen (2010) 'When Film Came to Madras'. BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies, (1) 2, pp 147-168.

Hughes, Stephen (2010) 'The Sound of RMRL'. Maatruveli Aayvitazh, (4), pp 76-81.

Hughes, Stephen (2010) 'In search of beginnings...'. The Hindu - Sunday Magazine, pp 5.

Hughes, Stephen (2010) 'The Lost Decade of Indian Film History'. Journal of the Moving Image, (9), pp 72-93.

Hughes, Stephen (2007) 'Music in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Drama, Gramophone and the Beginnings of Tamil Cinema'. The Journal of Asian Studies, (66) 1, pp 3-34.

Hughes, Stephen (2006) 'House Full: Silent Film Genre, Exhibition and Audiences in South India'. Indian Economic & Social History Review, (43) 1, pp 31-62.

Hughes, Stephen (2005) 'Mythologicals and Modernity: Contesting Silent Cinema in South India'. Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts and Contemporary Worlds, (1) 2-3, pp 207-35.

Hughes, Stephen and Meyer, B (2005) 'Introduction: Mediating Religion and Film in a Post-secular World'. Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts and Contemporary Worlds, (1, no.), pp 149-153.

Hughes, Stephen (2003) 'Pride of Place: rethinking exhibition for the study of cinema in India'. Seminar: The Monthly Symposium, (525), pp 28-32.

Hughes, Stephen (2002) 'The 'Music Boom' in Tamil South India: Gramophone, Radio and the Making of Mass Culture'. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (22) 4, pp 445-73.

Hughes, Stephen (1996) 'The Pre-Phalke era in South India: Reflections on the formation of film audiences in Madras'. South Indian Studies, (2), pp 161-204.

Hughes, Stephen (1996) 'Madras Cinema Audiences in the 1920s: a sociological approach'. Kalaccuvatu, (16), pp 19-25.

Book Chapters

Jump to: Articles | Book Chapters |

Hughes, Stephen (2019) 'Social Sense and Embodied Sensibility: Towards a historical phenomenology of film going'. In: Biltereyst, Daniel and Maltby, Richard and Meers, Philippe, (eds.), The Routledge Companion to New Cinema History. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, pp 355-364.

Hughes, Stephen (2014) 'Play it Again Saraswathi: Gramophone, Religion and Devotional Music in Colonial South India'. In: Booth, Gregory D. and Shope, Bradley, (eds.), More Than Bollywood: Studies in Indian Popular Music.. New York: Oxford University Press, pp 114-141.

Hughes, Stephen (2011) 'What is Tamil About Tamil Cinema?'. In: Dickey, Sara and Dudrah, Rajinder, (eds.), South Asian Cinemas: Widening the Lens. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hughes, Stephen (2011) 'Media anthropology and the problem of audience reception'. In: Ruby, Jay and Banks, Marcus, (eds.), Made to be Seen: Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hughes, Stephen (2011) 'Film genre, exhibition and audiences in colonial south India'. In: Maltby, Richard and Biltereyst, Daniel and Meers, Philippe, (eds.), Explorations in New Cinema History: Approaches and Case Studies. London: Wiley-Blackwell, pp 295-309.

Hughes, Stephen (2009) 'Tamil mythological cinema and the politics of secular modernism'. In: Meyer, Birgit, (ed.), Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 93-116.

Hughes, Stephen (2006) 'Urban mobility and early cinema in Chennai'. In: Venkatachalapathy, A. R., (ed.), Chennai Not Madras: Perspectives on the City. Mumbai: Marg Publications, pp 39-48.

Hughes, Stephen (2000) 'Policing silent film exhibition in colonial south India'. In: Vasudevan, Ravi, (ed.), Making Meaning in Indian Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp 33-64.


This list was last generated on Monday, 10th August 2020, 04:10 Europe/London.