Hannah A. Carlan

AnthropologyUniversity of California / Los Angeles

Award Information

2017 IDRF Program

AnthropologyUniversity of California / Los Angeles

The Semiotic Life of Empowerment: Multilingualism and Development Practice in North India

In many parts of the Global South, "women's empowerment" is a major objective of state and non-state development projects. Even before economic liberalization in India formally began in 1991, non-governmental organizations and the developmental state adopted various "logics of empowerment" (Sharma 2008) by promoting an ethos of economic self-reliance for its citizens, especially women, who were encouraged to participate in the market rather than rely on state support. In the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, non-state development practitioners draw upon transnational ideologies about women's empowerment within a densely multilingual social landscape. This project examines how the discourse of empowerment, or sashaktikaran in Hindi, is transformed across multilingual contexts of interaction at one NGO in Himachal Pradesh, India, and how ways of speaking become semiotically linked to forms of personhood, knowledge, and expertise about gender and development. This process occurs through multiple languages, registers, and styles of communication--including professional registers of Hindi and English, as well as local languages--which occupy various positions in an institutionalized hierarchy of linguistic value in the NGO setting. The project asks: how does the discourse of women's empowerment shift across multilingual contexts of interaction, and how does this impact the way in which speakers perceive and re-shape transnational development mandates? Using both linguistic and sociocultural anthropological methods, the project will document how multilingual and embodied forms of semiotic practice—especially register formation, translation, and linguistic ideologies—work to construct official forms of knowledge and expertise at developmental NGOs in India, while also generating unpredictable forms of interaction and collaboration between workers and community groups that constantly challenge and re-shape the meaning of "empowerment" in practice.