‘Making Sexual Subjects: From Agency to ‘Majburi’ by Svati Shah

Svati Shah from Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts and Visiting Professorial Fellow in the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at JNU presented his research entitled ‘Making Sexual Subjects: From Agency to ‘Majburi at the Sociological Research Colloquium.

When: Friday, 28th October 2016 at 3:00 p.m.

Where: Seminar Room (First Floor), Department of Sociology, University of Delhi 


Over the past two decades, anthropological critiques of ‘agency’ have necessarily mobilized the argument that ‘agency’s’ problem is its conflation with ‘choice,’ which mobilizes and produces a liberal individualist subject in the process. In this talk, I discuss two problems that arise from this conflation in relation to sexual subjectivity: that of  producing individuated autonomy as a foundational referent for agency, and that of producing sexuality in relation to liberal individualism, by excluding the material constraints of everyday life from its purview. I argue that an ethnographic critique of subjectivation which accounts for the broad range of behaviors and ideas that congeal within the rubric of the ‘sexual’ disrupts the easy slide from agency to choice. Furthermore, such a critique pushes the idea of agency as the capacity to act beyond the notion of constraints or structural contexts. Reflecting on the concomitant uses of the terms ‘majburi’ (compulsion/constraint) and ‘marzi’ (choice) by women who worked as construction and sex workers in the city of Mumbai, I show that it is not only sex workers’ who are ‘majbur’ with respect to the choices they make, but that a radical deployment of ‘majburi’ could reframe sexual identitarianism itself. Moving from sex worker to LGBTQ subjects, I place this critique of agency within a broader frame that interrogates the incitement not only to speech and the name as a temporal problem constitutive of modern sexual subjectivation, where eschewing the name is, at best, an anachronism remedied by the discursive regime of identity.   

About the Speaker

Dr. Svati Shah is a Visiting Professorial Fellow in the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at JNU this year. She is otherwise based at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she serves as an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and where she also teaches in the Department of Anthropology. She has previously taught at Duke University, Wellesley College and New York University. Dr. Shah earned her PhD in 2006 from Columbia University’s joint doctoral program in anthropology and public health. Her first ethnographic monograph, entitled Street Corner Secrets: Sex, Work and Migration in the City of Mumbai, was published by Duke University Press in 2014 and by Orient Blackswan in 2015. Dr. Shah’s research focuses on sexuality, migration, economic informality, urbanization, and subjectivation through studies of sexual commerce and LGBTQ identity in India.

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