UCL News


There's more than one way to satisfy curiosity

1 August 2006

United by a burning passion for their subjects, today's young academics in the social sciences are itching to pursue their ideas out in the real world.


Today's up-and-coming social scientists are a far cry from the esoteric bunch they are often imagined to be. Rather than being cooped up in ivory towers, they are bright and interested men and women bent on discovering answers to the questions that keep them awake at night. They are adept at taking society's ills and coming up with solutions, media savvy and quick to share their findings, keen both to shape their discipline and change the world.

The Times Higher has spoken to key research funders, learned societies and institutions to track down the rising academic stars in different subjects. ...

Mukulika Banerjee [UCL Anthropology]
Few academics' research involves them having to sleep in a mud hut with no running water, but for Mukulika Banerjee it is part of what makes anthropology so exciting. Research for the 39-year-old Bengali social anthropologist at UCL (University College London) entails regular field trips, which can be logistically very taxing and, she says, impossible without "a sensible and supportive partner".

But Dr Banerjee "comes into her own" on research trips and aims to travel abroad at least once a year. She manages to juggle trips with the demands of her role as director of graduate studies, teaching and recent motherhood with apparent ease. ...

"It's been very good for my daughter and me. I've had four overseas conferences in the past two years and two briefer research trips than normal. It's hard to leave her, but they were so important I didn't want to miss them. That's what drives me and gives me credibility.

"You have to live and work in a way that's totally unfamiliar, and the dislocation is important. Being somewhere with no running water or electricity, learning to change out of a wet sari into a dry one (discreetly), constant conversations about your personal life, sleeping in a mud hut with five others - it all keeps your head firmly on your shoulders."

Dr Banerjee made her name with books about a non-violent anti-colonial political movement among the Pathans in Pakistan, and the social significance of the sari in Indian culture. Now she is looking at why people vote.

"There are very high rates of illiteracy in India, between 80 and 90 per cent. When elections come round every 18 months or so, turnouts are about 90 per cent. I'm trying to find out what it is about these people - whom the world would see as uneducated - that makes them go to the polls and vote," she explains. ...

Interviewing former non-violent revolutionaries from the 1930s and 1940s, on the Pakistan border with Afghanistan, Dr Banerjee found life-changing, personally and professionally.

Her book on the Pathans ['The Pathan Unarmed : Opposition & Memory in the North West Frontier', School of American Research Press, 2000] was picked up by the world's media when the September 11, 2001, attacks took place and people wanted explanations for al-Qaeda. ...

"When you are an anthropologist, you have the luxury to take the problem that really interests you, research it and write about it," she says.

'The Times Higher Education Supplement'