Alaka Basu


250B Warren Hall
(607) 255-1247

Professor Basu`s area of expertise and research is predominantly in the areas of population and development, reproductive health and family planning, gender and development, and health and mortality.

Research Focus

While my general field of research is Demography, within this field I am particularly interested in the vast diversity of human experience as well as the equally vast potential for change even in social behaviors and practices that seem to be culturally ingrained or biologically immutable. In both the areas of reproduction as well as practices related to health and survival, I am interested in studying the social and cultural dynamics that constrain people’s choices at some times but can just as radically force changes in these choices. Gender relations are an important feature of these social arrangements that impinge on reproductive behavior and I have a special interest in this.
Understanding these dynamics offers policy lessons on how to retain protective behaviors as well as to change those that are harmful. So I have a great interest in the policy implications of demographic research. But my policy interest goes beyond straightforwardly drawing policy prescriptions from research. I am avidly interested in the politics and biases of the policy process itself and one of the ways in which I try to understand this is by studying the history of the academic discipline of demography.

Outreach and Extension Focus

In addition to the ‘public’ engagement I have already described in the section on the Service Statement, I should mention my long-standing interest in increasing interaction with researchers in my field who are working in relative isolation; that is, without access to the kind of physical as well as collegial resources that a place like Cornell provides. As Director of the South Asia program at Cornell (a position I held until June 2008) I tried to achieve this by setting up an association of researchers working on South Asia in the smaller schools and colleges in Central New York. The members of this association are able to talk to one another online and also now get to meet once a semester at Cornell to discuss common research interests, listen to presentations from others and to explore possibilities of research collaboration.

Teaching Focus

I have always enjoyed teaching and I find my teaching responsibilities at Cornell particularly gratifying. My primary interest is in teaching students to look analytically at the diversity and the complexity of the world; to understand the many injustices and deprivations that also underlie some of this diversity. For example, my course on Theories of Reproduction (DSOC4210), uses the example of birth rates and reproductive practices to illustrate the enormous variations in human behavior between countries and regions as well as between sub-groups of the population within a single country or region. Moreover, by explicating the theories that have been propounded to explain these variations, it demonstrates that these differences in reproduction often have a rational basis; that is, other people’s behavior that is different from ours is not different merely because other people are irrational or unthinking. Instead, the course uses anthropological and sociological knowledge to focus on the variations in socioeconomic levels, social structures, kinship patterns and political systems that underlie many of the variations in fertility rates.
On the other hand, my course Inequalities in Health and Survival (DSOC4100) is about the unfortunate and preventable diversity in human experience in a crucial area – illness and death. It illustrates the enormous gaps in health and survival levels between different parts of the world and in population sub-groups within a single country. It then goes on to ask what can be done so that the health and mortality advantage of the better off can be extended to those who suffer needless sickness and premature death. The course tries to demonstrate that these differences are preventable; that is, they are not a result of biological, unchangeable differences between different groups of people. Instead man-made structures of social organization, unequal power relationships, unequal access to resources, and political commitment, account for the fact that the infant mortality rate in the developed countries is in single digits, while in countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, it often easily crosses a hundred. Similarly, race and income differentials in health and mortality within a country like the United States need explaining in terms of both contemporary socioeconomic differences as well as historical processes that have added to the burden of socioeconomic disadvantage. In sum, the course is about the fact that not all forms of diversity are to be embraced or celebrated – in matters of life and death, we want convergence rather than difference.