SOAS University of London

Department of History, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Dr Eleanor Newbigin

BA, MPhil, PhD (Cantab)
  • Teaching
  • Publications


Eleanor Newbigin
Department of History, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Senior Lecturer in the History of Modern South Asia

Centre for Gender Studies

Member, Centre for Gender Studies

SOAS South Asia Institute

Academic Staff, SOAS South Asia Institute

Academic Board

Chair of Senate

Dr Eleanor Newbigin
Email address:
020 7898 4625
020 7898 4699
SOAS University of London
Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG
Russell Square: College Buildings
Office No:
Academic Support Hours:
Monday 11-1pm


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. 


Programmes Convened
Modules Taught
PhD Students supervised
  • Aditya Ramesh, Water technocracy: Dams, Public Works, and Development in Colonial South India
  • Anisha Thomas, The Erasure of 'Normal' Violence in the Production of Rape as a Crisis
  • Jennifer Bond, Nationalism, Christianity and Feminism: Missionary Education for Girls in East China, 1923-1949
  • Naina Manjrekar, Discontent and Decolonisation after World War II: The Case of the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny
  • Sarbajit Mitra, Cultures of Consumption: Popular Responses to Intoxicants in Colonial Bengal


Authored Books

Newbigin, Eleanor (2013) The Hindu family and the emergence of modern India: law, citizenship and community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Newbigin, Eleanor (2020) 'Accounting for the nation, marginalising the empire: taxable capacity and colonial rule in the early twentieth-century'. History of Political Economy, (52) 3, pp 455-472.

Newbigin, Eleanor (2011) 'Personal law and citizenship in India’s transition to independence'. Modern Asian Studies, (45) 1, pp 7-32.

Newbigin, Eleanor (2010) 'A postcolonial patriarchy? Representing family in the Indian nation-state'. Modern Asian Studies, (44) 1, pp 121-144.

Newbigin, Eleanor (2009) 'The codification of personal law and secular citizenship: revisiting the history of law reform in late colonial India'. Indian Economic and Social History Review, (46) 1, pp 83-104.

Newbigin, Eleanor and Denault, Leigh and De, Rohit (2009) 'Personal law, identity politics and civil society in colonial South Asia'. Indian Economic and Social History Review, (46) 1, pp 1-4.

Edited Books or Journals

Newbigin, Eleanor and Shani, Ornit and Legg, Stephen, (eds.), (2016) Constitutionalism and the evolution of democracy in India - special section in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East).

Book Chapters

Newbigin, Eleanor (2017) 'Public finance and personal law in late-colonial India'. In: Balachandran, Aparna and Pant, Rashmi and Raman, Bhavani, (eds.), Iterations of Law: Legal Histories from India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Newbigin, Eleanor (2017) 'Brexit, nostalgia and the Great British fantasy' Open Democracy.

Newbigin, Eleanor (2017) 'India on Film: 1899-1947 [Various Contributions]' BFI Player.

Newbigin, Eleanor (2016) 'Lest we forget: Trump, Brexit and the ‘elites’' Open Democracy.


This list was last generated on Friday, 4th December 2020, 09:02 Europe/London.