Meet Manali Desai, first Indian-origin woman to head department at Cambridge University

She is currently working as the Principal Investigator on a big project focussed gendered violence across on India and South Africa. Read more about her illustrious career below.

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Manali Desai Cambridge Interview

Manali Desai has been appointed head of the department of sociology at the University of Cambridge, making her also the first woman of colour to hold such a role in the 811 year old history of the University. "This is in a sense the history of women in education," said Manali Desai in an exclusive interview with SheThePeople when asked about this appointment. "The fact that it's taken even longer for women of colour to be recognised as equals to other women. White women have made a lot more gains than other women have made. That just shows the importance of thinking intersectionally about how the gains for women have not translated for all women.


Desai received her PhD in Sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles where she trained as a comparative and historical sociologist. She is currently working as the Principal Investigator on a big project focussed gendered violence across on India and South Africa. "In this project we are building upon a second-wave of research that places gendered violence within wider transformations in the political-economy of urban life and livelihoods, shifts in family forms and gender relations, and the historical legacies of racial, ethnic and other forms of categorisation that in turn implicate men and women in specific relations to the state and economy."


Deeply impacted by the horrific rape case in India in 2012, Desai was compelled to work in the space of gendered violence and understand what leads to it. "We are undertaking a very thorough investigation of what is going on, how are women undergoing urban transformation, where do they encounter violence, how much of it is happening at home, where do they face this violence and how do communities around them perceive this violence."

Manali Desai takes up the chair in Sociology this year, and in doing so becomes the first woman of colour, to our knowledge, to lead a Cambridge department in the University’s 811-year history.

She also reflected on many movements for social change unravelling around the world. Her work encompasses the areas of parties and political articulation, social movements, ethnic and  gendered violence, and post-colonial studies. "We have witnessed dramatic transformations and ruptures in recent years, with the global pandemic and movements for social change such as Black Lives Matter coming on the heels of austerity and the rise of global populism to name a few."


She has also published her research in the American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, Social Science History, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Journal of Historical Sociology and Critical Asian Studies, among others.

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