UCL Institute for Global Prosperity


Spotlight: Dr Sumrin Kalia

19 September 2023

Meet Dr Sumrin Kalia, postdoctoral fellow at the ERC-funded Takhayyul project, focused on the imaginative forces in the formation of populist religious aspirations in South Asia. Here, Sumrin tells us about her current projects, recent fieldwork, and what prosperity means to her

sumrin photo

Could you tell us a bit about your background?

I did my PhD in Political Science in December 2021, at the Free University of Berlin. Before beginning my academic career, I had spent 12 years as a stay-at-home mother and wife – a role that was assigned to me when I was eighteen. The transition from a stay-at-home mother to an academic, came with several challenges, such as familial pressures, moral policing, mom-guilt, lack of funds, visa denials etc. I had to pay high emotional and time costs in overcoming these challenges. Most of these challenges were associated with my identity as a middle-class Pakistani woman. I grew up in Pakistan when the country was under the control of military dictator Zia, who had used Islam to legitimise his rule and consolidate his power. His brand of Islamization had a lasting effect on the society because it entrenched patriarchy, sectarianism, and state violence. It also greatly restrained Pakistan’s social and political development. For me, however, the most intriguing part was the ways in which it led to changes in peoples’ social and political behaviors.

I became increasingly curious about understanding the ways in which the state’s governmentality shaped societies and the different forms of resistance it unleashed. I therefore decided to answer these questions by pursuing an academic career alongside my traditional roles of a wife, mother, daughter etc.

Prior to the PhD, my scholarship largely focused on the role of state policy at the local level. However, I soon realised that the local could not be separated from the national and the global. Hence for my PhD dissertation, I focused on the role of religion as a tool to entrench state power. The postdoc position with the Takhayyul project at the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) offers me a chance to explore the question of governmentality from a global, transnational perspective.

Could you tell us about a current project you’re working on with Takhayyul and what you have coming up?

The Takhayyul project gave me the opportunity to pursue my research agenda of understanding the processes through which power is configured and consolidated. I see Takhayyul as a heuristic concept that captures socio-political imaginations. Imaginations are crucial mechanisms through which different processes of governmentality at the local, national, and global level operate.

My research project at Takhayyul examines how these imaginations are constructed, disseminated, and normalised and how they fuel populist politics both at the national and transnational level. More specifically I am interested in understanding the impact of imaginations on ethical and normative commitments and their political repercussions.

I have two forthcoming research papers and two book chapters which deal with the role of ethics, norms, cultural narratives, and ideologies in shaping political outcomes. Using ethnographic and qualitative insights these research outputs trace the processes through which different imaginations of the common good find political resonance. For example, one paper titled: “The Lesser Evil”- Techniques of Neutralizing Norm-Violations in Pakistan’ explores support for the populist politics and shows how ‘techniques of neutralization’ are used to justify violations of political norms by populist leaders. Another paper focuses on the ways in which an Islamic welfare organisation uses food distribution practices and combines them with religious ideas to promote social inclusion and generalised reciprocity. Additionally, I am working on my book which is built upon my PhD project and ethnographically traces grassroots processes which provide political repertoires to populist politics.

Please tell us about your recent fieldwork.

In my recent visit to Pakistan my aim was to understand mechanisms of political norm formations. Norms guide behaviors, and are constituted by socio-political institutions, which legitimise these norms through appeals to shared history, culture, and future visions. I took an ethnographic approach to understand how political actors and institutions use different tools and mechanisms to shape political norms and consequent political behaviors. I attended several political rallies, religious gatherings, and communal protests, interviewed more than 40 people, and analysed print and digital media sources. One striking finding that emerged from this fieldwork was the role of cultural narratives in constituting, disseminating, and normalising specific political imaginations.

What does prosperity mean to you?

For me prosperity is achieving success in the collective goal of improving ‘life’ not just of the people but also of the planet and its multiple life-forms.

In that sense, I think the IGP is contributing towards constructing a ‘global’ vision of this goal. In a world that is increasingly connected, but still divided, and facing grand challenges such as climate change, increasing inequalities, and rising conflict, achieving a collective, inclusive, and shared vision of prosperity is a crucial first step. As scholars, I feel our main contribution to this goal is to promote inclusive knowledge production. Knowledge that is truly built on collective wisdom and a shared imagination of prosperity.

What professional achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

During my postdoc position at Takhayyul I was offered a chance to co-organise a podcast Climate and Care During Pakistani Floods. I was tasked with the responsibility of selecting and inviting speakers. Instead of bringing climate specialists, or political analysts, I chose to invite grassroots activists, voices of whom are often marginalised in international media. This decision was fully supported by my PI, Sertaç Sehlikoglu, and she offered me the platform of Takhayyul and the IGP to bring these voices to the forefront. Despite technical, linguistic, and logistical challenges, the podcast managed to successfully highlight the concerns of those who face real challenges on the ground. It also raised several important questions concerning the role of institutions of global governance. I consider it as a proud achievement which was made possible by the collective spirit, conviction, and hard work of the Takhayyul team.

Who is influential to you and why?

I am a huge fan of Bourdieu. His concept of Habitus and its entanglements with different forms of capital, such as economic, social, cultural, and symbolic has been extremely useful in my work. These concepts were particularly helpful in connecting peoples’ daily life worlds with broader socio-political imaginations. I am also very inspired by the work of Weber. His explanations of bureaucratic, charismatic, and traditional authority were also immensely useful for me in linking predispositions of the Habitus with different forms of authority and their power in shaping political imaginations. I have also been influenced greatly by writings and lectures of Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, an Islamic scholar from India. I often find peace in his lectures and use his quotes as a guide for decisions. The wisdom and humility in his writings have helped me find balance in life and have kept me grounded.

Do you have a recent book, film, or podcast that you would recommend?

I found Michael Sandel’s book “The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good” as a very eloquent, incisive, and insightful commentary on the reasons of resentments that are eroding civility from contemporary politics. Although not very recent, the book argues that our attitudes towards success and failure are driving resentments, both from haves and have-nots resulting in political polarisation and social fragmentation. He calls for an alternative imagination of success, one that takes account of luck, and is cognizant of the different forms of privileges that have a role in success of a few at the expense of many. I believe scholars of prosperity will definitely benefit from this book, because it offers ethical commitments which can take us toward a hopeful vision of a new politics of the common good.

Where is your favorite place?

Berlin. I have made several happy memories, established an academic career, and made amazing friends in this city. It has all the advantages of a big city such as multiculturalism, a thriving academic community, a cultural and political hub, yet it does not overwhelm its residents like many other big cities. I also like that I can easily transition from Berlin’s lively and happening side to its dreamy and quiet corners.