Dr. Riddhi Bhandari

January 9, 2018
Jepson School visiting scholar explores trust and ethics in economic transactions

From attending Jepson Leadership Forum events to doing yoga in Carytown with Claire Danes, anthropologist Riddhi Bhandari is spending the year immersing herself in research, learning, and life in Richmond, Va.

Bhandari is the 2017–18 Zuzana Simoniova Cmelikova Visiting Scholar in Leadership and Ethics. Through this program, international scholars spend one year at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, where they have opportunities to develop courses, design programs, and conduct research on the topics of leadership and ethics. The scholar plays an active role engaging with the Jepson, University of Richmond, and greater Richmond community.

Below, Bhandari discusses her research and teaching.

Your research explores the intersections between trust, ethics, and jurisprudence that are articulated through economic transactions and exchanges. What inspired your interest in this area?

As an anthropologist, I am trained to be alert to structures and systems within which social actors exist and that give shape to their behaviors and interactions. However, as one begins to pay attention to how people feel, react, and respond to situations and to others, it becomes amply clear that structural determinism is only one part of the story. There is a lingering something that escapes or evades structure and even socialization, and I don’t like the term “agency” because I find it limited to structural possibilities and constraints. This “something” looks a little bit like individual untrained, unsocialized “freedom.” During my fieldwork in Agra, I would see glimpses of this in the moral anxieties of the police who habitually took bribes. They would talk about what they were doing and the repercussions of their actions. And they weren’t talking about being caught or punished because that never happened. The worry was of engaging in actions that would attract supernatural forms of justice. This manifested in discussions of karma and of black magic and of how “corrupt” money would never be productive. So, here were a people, in a position of power and supported by a tacit socio-political order that permitted and condoned bribe-taking without any consequences. And yet, the lingering anxiety indexed that people thought beyond structures even as they articulated this freedom in social terms. So, long story short, this is how I came upon the idea of ethics, which I am leaning increasingly towards calling “freedom.” I borrowed the terminology of ethics from my reading of Adam Smith and Kant, both of who refer to this individualistic aspect of human motivations as ethics.

What is the focus of your research while you’re in Richmond?

I have recently submitted a book proposal that presents an ethnography of corruption in India. I’m waiting to hear on that. I am working on two articles. One looks to understand the rise in aggression and alleged criminality of local tourism entrepreneurs in the context of a profitable public-private partnership of a market segment. The other interrogates the moral anxieties of corrupt police officers to argue that anthropology must accord due consideration to human freedom and its impacts on social structures. Maybe this will allow us to account for social change and not just continuity. I’m also doing a short-term ethnographic project that assesses how local birding groups contribute to building a citizen-scientist form of knowledge.   

This spring, you’re teaching a course on informal leadership in postcolonial societies. How will you approach this topic with students?

The aim is to help students understand why informal leadership is important to study — primarily because it predominates as a form of leadership in half the world — and to highlight the structures of governance and polity that necessitate such leadership. We’re going to be reading a lot of ethnographies; I hope the students will enjoy that. The underlying motive is to alert students to a world out there that is often frustrating, chaotic, seemingly irrational and that moves in fits and starts but that is nevertheless worthy of consideration, understanding, and intellectual engagement.

What do you hope students learn from your course?

Aside from a grasp of informal forms of leadership and socio-political conditions that sustain them, I am positioning this course as a research methods course. Students will learn to read ethnography and treat people’s words and actions as a source of data that can tell us something about their social world and individual motivations.