Johanna Lessinger

Johanna Lessinger

Distinguished Lecturer
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Room number: 
9.63.35 NB


Ph.D Anthropology, Brandeis University
BA Anthropology, Radcliffe College



I am a social anthropologist whose long-term academic interests are in South Asia, gender, class and class struggle.  An early student field trip to Trinidad sparked my interest in both South Asia and in diasporic populations, since Trinidad has a large population of Indian origin.  My Ph.D. research and subsequent work has been carried out in South India. Fortunately the cultural richness of the area's classical music, classical dance and vibrant filmmaking traditions are now accessible in New York as well.

As a dedicated New Yorker I became interested in the waves of immigrants who have been reshaping American cities, changing  ethnic balances, challenging  racial hierarchies and fostering  transnational identities.  This interest has translated into a second strand of research interest. As I teach my students in urban anthropology classes, New York is now a world city, central to global flows of people, ideas and capital. The same process of globalization has also transformed once-sleepy Indian cities and even small towns. It has also accentuated

I have taught anthropology at John Jay since 2004 and am currently the Anthropology Majors coordinator, responsible for both recruiting and guiding students and for building the course offerings of what is still a new, small major.  Among the courses I have taught are "sex and culture," "urban anthropology," "race,class, ethnicity and gender" and the department's capstone seminar. I am presently, along with colleagues, developing an ethnographic writing course.







From the Ganges to the Hudson: Indian Immigrants in New York City. Boston: Allyn and Bacon 1995.

Perspectives in U.S. Marxist Anthropology, co-edited with David Hakken. Boulder: Westview Press 1987.

Class, Race and Sex, the Dynamics of Control, co-edited with Amy Swerdlow. Boston: G. K. Hall 1983


"Love and Marriage in the Shadow of the Sewing Machine: case studies from Chennai, India" In Marriage in Globalizing Contexts: exploring change and continuity in South Asia, (eds) Ravinder Kaur, Rajni Palriwallah, Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2013.

"Indian Immigrants in the United States, Transnationalism and the American Dream." In Culture, Economy and the Indian Diaspora (eds) Bhiku Parek, Gurharpal Singh and Steven Vertovec, 2003. London: Routledge.

"Work and Love: the limits of autonomy for female garment workers in India." Essays in honor of Herb Applebaum in The Anthropology of Work Review. 23 (1-2), summer 2002.

"Religious Violence in India: the Ayodhya Case." In State, Identity and Violence, (ed) Brian Ferguson, 2002. London: Routledge.

"Chennai (Madras)" Entry in Encyclopedia of Urban Cultures, (eds) Carol Ember and Melvin Ember, 2002. New York: Grolier Publishers

"Class, Race and Success: Two Generations of Indian-Americans Confront the American Dream." In Migration, Transnationalism and the Political Economy of New York, (eds) Hector Cordero-Guzman, Robert Smith and Ramon Grosfuguel. Temple University Press, 2001.

"Inside, Outside and Selling On the Road: Women's Market Trading in India." In Women Traders in Cross-cultural Perspective: Mediating Identities, Marketing Wares, (ed) Linda Seligmann. Stanford University Press, 2001.

"New York: Asian Indians and the Search for Community." In Manifest Destinies: Internationalizing Americans and Americanizing Immigrants, (eds.) David Haines and Carol Mortland. Greenwood Publishing Co., 2000.

"Class, Race and Success: Indian-Americans Confront the American Dream" In The Expanding Landscape, South Asians in the Diaspora, (ed) Carla Petievich. New Delhi: Manohar Books 1999

"Sweatshopping Academe: Capitalism and the Part-time Academic in U.S. Universities," with Jagna Sharff. In Transforming Academia: challenges and opportunity for an engaged anthropology (eds.) Linda Basch, Lucie Saunders, Jagna Sharff and James Peacock. Washington, D.C.: American Ethnological Society Monograph 1999

"Investing or Going Home? A Transnational Strategy Among Indian Immigrants in the United States" in Towards A Transnational Perspective on Migration, Race, Class, Ethnicity and Nationalism Reconsidered (eds) Nina Schiller, Linda Basch and Cristina Blanc-Szanton. New York: New York Academy of Sciences 1992.


My research has several interconnected strands.

Since graduate school  I have focused on the study of India, particularly urban South India. At a time when much work in India was still preoccupied with village life, I studied the social organization of the produce marketing system in the large city of Madras (now called Chennai). The marketing system connected entrepreneurial sectors of the rural elite to the city as wholesale distributors who dominated the city's central wholesale market. Local retail markets employed the urban poor, both male and female, and served as an urban entryway for large numbers of rural migrants.

In doing this work I became interested in the gender divisions within the petty retail traders. Despite cultural prohibitions on female employment, many women contrived to work but needed to develop social strategies to protect their reputations and status as "good women." (See my "Work and Modesty: the dilemma of women market traders in South India.") There were, in that period, few other options for paid work open to poor women. Yet these necessary  strategies of "social chaperonage" severely limited the amount of income women could earn.

By the 1990s the global export garment industry had reached Madras, and opened up a new sphere of economic activity particularly for younger women.  In addition to the physical difficulties of grament work (long hours of forced overtime, health hazards of cotton dust and prolonged sitting) garment work put severe strains in traditional gender ideology. Cultural concepts about female seclusion, female dependence, marriage and family organization were challenged as more and more women "went to garments." (See   my "Work and Love" and "Love and Marriage in the Shadow of the Sewing Machine.")

More recently I have begun to consider the toll that the economic consequences of globalization on employment for the urban poor in India. While new opportunities--in service work, care work and retailing open for working-class women, employment opportunties for men at the same class level are shrinking. In current work-in-progress I am tracing the relationship between male frustration and status loss to the apparent increase in gender violence in India--a violence increasingly sanctioned by India's right-wing governmental policies. (see my "Left Behind by the Tide of Globalization").

In the 1980s it became clear that large numbers of Indians were immigrating to the United States (as well as to Europe and Australia.) Most (but not all) of those coming to New York were professionals or businesspeople. My study of this group in New York City (see From the Ganges to the Hudson, Indian Immigrants in New York City) led me into a longer consideration of transnationalism and transnational identity. (See my "Investing Or Going Home?"). I watched as the Indian community here struggled to reject racial categorization, agonized over class divisions and downward mobility within their supposedly affluent and well-adjusted ranks. I also watched as the second generation of immigrant children--Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan-- began to reject national identity in favor of a general South Asian identity. Meanwhile the very transnationalism that moved so much of the area's Indian immigrants impelled some to seek an identity which embraced both the new Indian diaspora in North America, Europe and Australia but also the older diaspora in Fiji, South Africa and the Caribbean.






Research interest

South Asia; gender; class and class conflict; immigration

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