Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
As women’s rights NGOs in north India seek to transform family relations, individual subjectivities, and social norms, they rely upon social workers to interact with clients and communities. These range from salaried staff “family counselors” to elite volunteers participating in longstanding modes of voluntary social reform, prompting fierce debates about what constitutes social work expertise. Such debates are typically contextualized within the NGOization of feminist politics. However, social work has long been a site for debating social difference and democratic social transformation in India. This paper situates my ethnographic research on counseling centers in Rajasthan within a history of efforts to put educated middle-class women “in touch with the people” in order to create social transformation. Drawing on texts, training materials, and government films from the 1960s and 1970s, this paper traces the roots of contemporary debates about social work to mid-century anxieties about population. I argue that these debates frame social work as phatic labor (Elyachar 2010, Ansell 2017), labor that creates communicative infrastructure to connect citizens. Mid-century experts imagined the social worker as a channel of communication across deep social divides of class, rurality, education, and caste. In doing so, they built a model of democratic development connected to communicative practices of “motivation” and “education” that continue to inform the practice of development in India today. This model imagines the middle-class female social worker as a person uniquely able to carry out the public needs of the state through interactive interventions in the private sphere.