Joe Cotton

Dr Manali Desai, currently a Reader in Comparative and Historical Sociology and Fellow at Newnham College, will become Head of the Department of Sociology this academic year, making her one of only a few ethnic minority women to have led a Cambridge department in the University’s history.

Records held by the University’s Equality & Diversity Office indicate that Dr Desai is only the second woman to identify as an ethnic minority to head a Cambridge department, and the first BAME woman to hold such a role, since records began.

Dr Desai’s work focuses on social movements, ethnic and gendered violence and post-colonial studies. She studied her PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles, and previously taught at the London School of Economics before joining Cambridge in 2013. 

Dr Desai described her feelings about the new role, explaining that “we are at a crucial juncture when fundamental questions about our very existence are at stake. The discipline of sociology has always tackled the big questions, be it climate change, war, poverty, and intersectional social inequalities.”

“Sociology gives us the tools to be able to investigate and understand the world around us and so I think the department is a good place to be during periods of such upheaval.”

Dr Desai feels “lucky to be in a department that has done so much work to rectify these imbalances. In that sense Sociology is such an exciting place, a refreshing harbinger of change.”

A team of Cambridge sociologists previously created the ‘End Everyday Racism’ project, a platform upon which members of the University could anonymously report racial harassment and discrimination.

The Department of Sociology was also one of several University departments to establish a working group to consider ways to decolonise its curriculum, following concerns that Cambridge courses were often themselves products of colonisation and excluded some forms and areas of knowledge.

Decolonise Sociology, which was established in October 2017, has sought to decolonise aspects of departmental life. This has included seeking to address colonial contexts in teaching and supervisions, including authors from across the global south in the curriculum and consideration of the histories of disciplines in Cambridge.

Howard Chae, on behalf of Cambridge’s BME Campaign, is “delighted” about Dr Desai’s appointment as head of the Department, explaining that her support “was key to the establishment of the Decolonise Sociology student-staff working group.”

Dr Desai feels that “the department has changed a lot in recent years and we’ve had a lot of new hires, especially in the areas of race, media and culture, science and technology among others, and much of this research is globally oriented.”

She continued: “I think that’s broadened the curriculum and the intellectual horizons of the department and really livened the intellectual debates. It means we’ve been able to move beyond the relatively traditional focus on Britain and British history, which of course is still very important, but we’ve been able to add to this picture by including debates about politics, social inequalities, reproduction, mediated culture and so much more, that draw upon the experiences and expertise from our members of staff from around the world.”

The BME Campaign are calling on the University to “commit to widening access to academia and supporting and promoting women of colour in academia”.


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In a recent interview with The Guardian, Dr Desai argued that “a tick-box approach to inclusion, diversity and equality” will not address Britain’s colonial legacy “because these concepts do not address that legacy.”

“It’s really important to hold that line between the colonial past and the racist present,” she added.

With regards to the future of the Department of Sociology, Dr Desai hopes to be able to communicate research “to the wider public, and be a strong advocate for public sociology… that highlights the experiences of those affected… and bring them to larger audiences in a relevant and comprehensible way”.

Dr Desai’s appointment follows the election of Sonita Alleyne as Master of Jesus College last year, in which she became the first woman of colour to be appointed as Head of a Cambridge College.