Michele Friedner

I am a social and medical anthropologist whose work examines both the category of and experience of “deafness” and “disability,” particularly in urban India. I am interested in how political economic changes in India have created new opportunities and constraints for deaf and disabled people in the arenas of employment, education, politics, religion, and everyday life. In working with sign language-using deaf people, I also attend to the limits of disability as both a juridical and legislative category and as an explanatory concept within social theory. Disability has become a global category and is fixed in international documents and treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). How do such framings shape deaf and disabled people’s attempts to attain recognition, live inhabitable lives, and create futures?

My 2015 book Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India (Rutgers University Press) analyzes how sign language-using young adults in urban India work toward “deaf development,” or futures in which deaf social, moral, and economic practices are foregrounded. These practices – both actual and projected – include teaching and helping other deaf people, sharing news and information, and creating deaf institutions such as schools, businesses, and old-age homes. As educational and livelihood opportunities for deaf people change in contemporary urban India, deaf young adults have begun to circulate through novel spaces, including vocational training centers, information technology offices, pyramid scheme recruitment sessions, and Christian churches and fellowships. In contrast to the majority of academic work on disability, which analyzes the experiences of disabled people through the lens of stigma or deprivation, the book analyzes how deafness and disability enable new regimes of value to emerge for deaf people themselves, NGOs, corporations and other employers, and the state.

 

I have three current research projects at various stages of development. The first project, for which I have received a 2017-2018 American Institute of Indian Studies Senior Short-term Fellowship, is titled “Disability, Diversity, and Affirmative Action in urban India.” In this project, I analyze how the category of disability interacts with other categories of differentiation in modern India, specifically on central university campuses in New Delhi, India. The aim is to examine how students from different (disability and lower-caste and tribal backgrounds) interact to perform “unity in diversity,” India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous phrase. In tracking these interactions, the project broadly interrogates the work that the category of disability does in modern India and explores how disability claims are exerted in the context of affirmative action. How do disability-based discourses around affirmative action differ from and intersect those made based upon caste and tribe?

My second project in collaboration with Stephanie Lloyd, is funded by a Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council start grant, and is titled “When Deaf People Hear: A Study at the Intersection of Neuroplasticity, Technological Interventions, and Experiences in the Grey Zone of Deaf and Hearing.” Our goal through this pilot, and later full-fledged project, is to provide new understandings of what it means for deaf people to hear, and ultimately, to develop a new genealogy of deafness that can and does include hearing. In the process, we will create bridges between traditionally estranged disciplines such as deaf studies on the one hand and researchers focused on cochlear implantation on the other. This project has important stakes in that it provides an ethnographic examination of the effects and affects of bionic technologies that are becoming a norm.

This second project feeds into a third project which examines cochlear implantation in India and the ways that implantation is becoming a state-funded norm. In examining who gets implanted and why as well as the after-effects of implantation, I am interested in exploring what deaf futures in India might look like and how providing free implants to children of families living below the poverty line functions as a form of social, political, and economic (re)distribution. In particular, the project explores cochlear implantation in the South Indian state of Kerala which has traditionally been considered a leader in social and educational programs.

 

I am committed to the emerging disciplines of deaf studies and disability studies and to finding ways to place these disciplines in conversation with anthropology: I have co-edited a book titled “It’s a small world: International deaf spaces and encounters” (Gallaudet University Press) that features twenty five chapters written by scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds that explores international deaf similitude, development initiatives, and encounters; in this book, we critically interrogate the phrase frequently uttered in deaf worlds: “DEAF DEAF SAME.” In addition, I co-edited a Somatosphere: Science, Medicine, and Anthropology series titled “Inhabitable Worlds” which features ethnographic and theoretical interventions into how we think about ability, disability, and debility. I am on the editorial board of Disability Studies Quarterly, on the Society for Medical Anthropology’s Disability Research Interest Group Steering Committee, and I am an advisor on the European Research Council-funded project Mobile Deaf, a deaf-run research project based at Heriot Watt University analyzing deaf peoples’ translanguaging in various empirical contexts.

 

 Courses

In the 2017-2018 academic year, I am teaching an undergraduate course in the winter quarter: Disability in Local and Global Contexts, and a graduate course in the spring quarter: Disability, Vulnerability, and (Inter)dependency. I will also teach in the undergraduate core in Self, Culture, and Society in the winter quarter.

Selected Publications:

Books

2015 Valuing Deaf Worlds in India (Rutgers University Press).

2015 It’s a small world: International Deaf Spaces and Encounters. (edited with Annelies Kusters) (Gallaudet University Press).

Refereed Articles

2016 Not-Understanding and Understanding: What do Epistemologies and Ontologies Do in Deaf Worlds? Sign Language Studies. 16(2):184-203.

2015 New disability mobilities and accessibilities in urban India. (with Jamie Osborne). City & Society. 27(1):9-29.

2015 Deaf Bodies and Corporate Bodies: New Regimes of Value in Bangalore’s Business Process Outsourcing Sector. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 21(2):313-329.

2015 On “diversity” and “inclusion”: Exploring paradigms for achieving Sign Language Peoples’ rights. With Annelies Kusters, Maartje De Meulder, and Steve Emery. Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity Working Paper. (Translated into German by Das Zeichen).

2015 Deaf Uplines and Downlines: Multi-level Marketing, Fractures, and the Coerciveness of Sociality in urban India. Contributions to Indian Sociology. 44(1-2):103-128

2014 Deaf Capital: An exploration of the relationship between stigma and value in deaf multi-level marketing participation in urban India. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 28(4):202-218.

2014 On the limits and possibilities of “DEAF DEAF SAME:” Ethnographic Perspectives from Adamarobe (Ghana) and Bangalore and Delhi (India). (with Annelies Kusters). Disability Studies Quarterly. 34(3).

2014 The Church of Deaf Sociality: Deaf Church-Going Practices and “Sign Bread and Butter” in Bangalore, India. Anthropology and Education Quarterly. 45:39-53.

2013 Producing “Workers with Disabilities”: Deaf Workers and Added Value in India’s Coffee Shops. Anthropology of Work Review. 34(1): 39-50.

2013 Audit Bodies: Embodied Participation, Disability Universalism, and Accessibility in India. (with Jamie Osborne). Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography.  45(1): 43-60.

2012 Sound Studies Meets Deaf Studies. (with Stefan Helmreich). The Senses & Society. 7(1): 72-86. (Reprinted in Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond by Stefan Helmreich).

2010 Bio-Power, Biosociality, and Community Formation: How Bio-Power is Constitutive of the Deaf Community. Sign Language Studies. 10(3): 336-347.

Chapters in Edited Books

Forthcoming The Spoiled and the Salvaged: Modulations of Auditory Value in Bangalore, India and Bangkok, Thailand. (with Benjamin Tausig). In Sykes, Jim and Steingo, Gavin, eds. Remapping Sound Studies in the Global South. Duke University Press.

2017 Doing Deaf Studies in the Global South. In Kusters, Annelies, DeMeulder Maartje, and O’Brien, Dai, eds. Innovations in Deaf Studies: The Role of Deaf Scholars. Oxford University Press.

2016 Occupying Seats, Occupying Space, Occupying Time: Deaf Young Adults in Vocational Training Centers in Bangalore, India. In Block, Pam et al., eds.  Occupying Disability: Decolonizing Identity, Community and Justice. New York: Springer Publishers. Pgs 209-223.

2013 Identity Formation and Transnational Discourses: Thinking Beyond Identity Politics. In Addlakha, Renu, ed. Disability Studies in India: Global Discourses, Lived Realities. New Delhi: Routledge India. 241-262.