Watson Institute at Brown University
Development Studies
Aarti Sethi

Aarti Sethi

280 Brook Street, Room 201


Aarti Sethi

College Fellow - Social Anthropology at Harvard
Postdoctoral Fellow in International and Public Affairs, 2017-2019

Areas of Interest: South-Asia, anthropology, agrarian change, peasant studies, social movements, cinema, media and visual culture.


Aarti Sethi is an anthropologist who works on the economic and social life of debt in rural India. Her current book project examines farmer suicides in Vidharba, central India, to argue that the destructive psycho-social force of transgenic cotton cultivation in peasant communities emerges from the financialization of social obligation. With the large-scale adoption of hybrid cotton-seeds, monetary debt now travels through networks of kin, clan and caste reciprocity, transforming customary understandings of status, honor and mutuality in village societies. She is also currently working on a project called 'The Crops of Capital' that examines the centrality of agrarian transformation and agriculture not as vestigial but as central to the emergence of modern industrial capitalisms. Sethi has published and has ongoing interests in south Asian visual and media cultures, urban history, particularly cinema and circuits of spectatorship.

Sethi earned her PhD from Columbia University and holds an MA in Political Science from the University of Delhi and an MPhil in Cinema and Cultural Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is a founding member of kafila.online and on the editorial board of New Text, a copyleft academic publishing house based in New Delhi.


Over 250,000 farmers have committed suicide across India since 1995, the majority of deaths concentrated in central India’s cotton belt. Scholarly consensus views mass suicides amongst the peasantry as debt-induced: transgenic cotton cultivation imprisons producers in downward monetary debt spirals. Based on two years of fieldwork in rural Vidarbha, my book project titled, ‘The Life of Debt in Rural India,’ examines the proximate entanglements of debt and techno-material transformations in cotton cultivation. It demonstrates that with the emergence of cash-debt as an essential component of the productive process, differentiated interest rates have become the medium of negotiating social and familial proximity. From a formerly caste-specific proscribed activity, the generalization of usurious lending has made monetary debt the language of social prestations (of gifts, grain and labour), reshaping customary understandings of status, honour and obligation. This project contributes to the anthropology of South-Asia, the peasantry and debt in two ways. In ethnographically tracing the force of debt as social obligation and the imbrication of modes of production with symbolic cultural life, I demonstrate the inadequacy of an economistic obsession with debt as monetary liability. Accordingly, against characterizations of the ‘risk-averse’ peasant in a customary moral economy, I describe an emergent ethical economy centered on uncertainty as risk becomes a structural precondition of peasant life.


Chapters in Edited Volumes

“Incidents at the Cinema: Violence and the Everyday.” Chapter. In Delhi’s Twentieth Century, ed. Ravi Sundaram, New Text, (forthcoming,  Fall 2016)

“Politics and Cultures of Cinema: Delhi 1920-1940.” Chapter. In Critical Studies in Politics, ed. Nivedita Menon, Aditya Nigam and Sanjay Palshikar, Orient Blackswan, 2013.

“The Apparel of Anxiety.” Chapter. In Sarai Reader 08: Fear, ed. Sarai Editorial Collective, Center for the Study of Developing Societies, 2010.

“The Currency of Character: Black-marketing of Cinema Tickets in 1950s Delhi,” in Aarti Sethi ed. Circuits of Cinema, Seminar, no. 598, June 2009.

“Introduction,” in Aarti Sethi ed. Circuits of Cinema, Seminar, no. 598, June 2009.

“Free Speech and Censorship.” Chapter. In An Introduction to Political Theory, ed. Rajeev Bhargava and Ashok Acharya, Pearson Education, 2007.

“The Honorable Murder: The Trial of Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati.” Chapter. In Sarai Reader 05: Bare Acts, ed. Sarai Editorial Collective, Center for the Study of Developing Societies, 2005.