Dr Anastasia Piliavsky

Social Anthropology

Research Themes

I have conducted fieldwork in Russia and Mongolia, but my great ethnographic love is the north Indian state of Rajasthan, where I’ve been doing ethnographic and archival research for the past fourteen years: first on spirit possession, then on professional thieves and most recently on crime, corruption and democracy, and how they relate. I have written on topics ranging from policing to thieving and secrecy, publicity, patronage, and the morals of political gangsterism in north India today. I am also co-investigating a large, international study of democratic cultures and ‘muscular’ politics in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan (funded jointly by the European and British Research Councils), and completing a book on hierarchy among thieves.

But my main preoccupation today is with the way cultural forms shape the course of South Asian politics and, more specifically, why India’s democracy appears at once so animated and so corrupt. My edited volume, Patronage as politics in South Asia(Cambridge University Press, 2014), offers some answers. The new project I am undertaking as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow will offer some more.

A close-range study of the lives of voters and politicians in Rajasthan, it will examine the links between India’s corruption crisis and its remarkable democratic boom. While trying to understand how India’s voters sustain their political verve, I will test my hypothesis that the personal bonds between voters and politicians, decried by critics as ‘corrupt’, are the chief mechanism of India’s electoral participation. ‘Corruption’, in other words, may itself be the key to India’s prodigious democratic vitality. This line of thought has implications that stretch far beyond the shores of South Asia. It presses us not only to rethink how we imagine ‘corruption’, but also to adopt a new and an altogether less parochial view of democracy, as it migrates, settles and naturalises around the world.


I supervise and direct studies in Social Anthropology on all levels at Girton, and lecture on Research Methods, the Anthropology of Socialist and Post-socialist Societies, and on the Anthropology of South Asia at the Division of Social Anthropology in Cambridge. In the summers, I also teach a course on ‘How to think like a social anthropologist’ at the Pembroke and King’s Programme.


Born and raised in Odessa (Ukraine, not Texas), I moved to the US, took a dual Bachelor’s degree in anthropology and religion from Boston University and later an MSc/DPhil in social anthropology from Oxford, where I was a Rhodes Scholar and a Wenner-Gren grantee. I was then a Junior Research Fellow at King’s before arriving in Girton.

In 2012 I secured nearly £2 million from the European and British Research Councils to study democracy in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

I am a Member of the Editorial Board of HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Fellow of the Groningen Centre for the Study of Religion and Culture in Asia, and since 2012 I take part in the annual meetings of the Commonwealth Election Commissioners in Cambridge.

College Role

Official Fellow

Degrees, Awards and Prizes

BA (Boston University), MSc (Oxon), DPhil (Oxon)