Theses Doctoral

Mediated Empowerments: An Ethnography of Four, All-Girls' "Public Schools" in North India

Chidsey, Meghan Marie

This ethnography takes place at four of northern India’s most renowned, all-girls’ private boarding schools, established in reference to the British Public Schooling model mainly during the tail ends of colonialism by Indian queens and British memsahibs on the sub-continent. It is a story told from the points of view of founders, administrators, and teachers, but primarily from that of students, based on fieldwork conducted from July 2013 through June 2014. Schools heralded as historic venues of purported upper-caste girls’ emancipation, this study interrogates the legacies of this colonial-nationalist moment by examining how these institutions and their female students engage in newer processes and discourses of class formation and gendered empowerment through schooling. For one, it considers the dichotomous (re)constructions of gendered and classed personhoods enacted through exclusionary modernities, particularly in terms of who gains access to these schools, both physically and through symbolic forms of belonging. It then examines the reclamation of these constructs within (inter)national development discourses of girls’ empowerment and the role of neoliberal privatization in reconstituting elite schooling experiences with gender as its globalizing force. Here, seemingly paradoxical relationships between such concepts as discipline and freedom, duties and rights, collective responsibility and individual competition are explored, arguing that the pressures of academic success, tensions over the future, and role of high stakes examinations and privatized tutoring are contributing to student experiences of performative or fatiguing kinds of empowerment. Through such frames, extreme binary constructions of empowerment are complicated, demonstrating how female Public School students exist more within middling spaces of “betweenness,” of practiced mediation. Empowerment in this sense is not an achievable status, nor unidirectional process, but a set of learned tools or skills deployed in recurring moments of contradiction or in difficult deliberations, whereby students variously buy in, (re)create, opt-out of, or reject proposed models of “successful” or “legitimate,” female personhood. Overall, this ethnography problematizes assumed relationships between empowerment and privilege, questions the alignments between school and the (upper-)middle class home, and suggests that as the reproductive capabilities of elite schooling are challenged in the face of newer venues of capital, these all-girls’ Public Schools and their students are finding unique ways to remain or become the elite of consideration.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Chidsey_columbia_0054D_13705.pdf Chidsey_columbia_0054D_13705.pdf application/pdf 3.15 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Anthropology and Education
Thesis Advisors
Varenne, Herve H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 28, 2016