Spotlight on Faculty: Itty Abraham
Director of the South Asia Institute at The University of Texas

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“One advantage of working at a university is that you don’t have to be as driven by day-to-day events,” says Dr. Itty Abraham. “You can take a more long term perspective and think more deeply about the research you are doing. Whereas in a policy environment you’re expected to respond more quickly to the events around you.”

After nearly fifteen years of working in area studies policy, Dr. Abraham came to The University of Texas at Austin in 2006 as the new director of the South Asia Institute. The region of South Asia – which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and the Maldives – is becoming increasingly influential in the global marketplace in terms of culture, economics and politics. The University of Texas, having assembled one of the most distinguished South Asia programs in the country, has made a university-wide commitment to fostering exchange with this part of the world, and to making this institute a center of excellence in international studies. It does this in part by offering seminars and fellowships, by sponsoring publications, and by hosting events and speakers.

Dr. Abraham has worked in many of the major institutes that work to improve the information channel between South Asia and the United States, and his experience gives UT’s South Asia Institute a tremendous advantage. After finishing his PhD in the early 1990s at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Abraham has run the South and South East Asian programs at the Social Science Research Council in New York (the place that founded “area studies” in the U.S.); he has taught in the George Washington School of International Affairs in Washington DC; and he has done policy research at the East-West Center, a Hawaii-based think-tank for cooperative research on critical issues between the Asia Pacific communities and the U.S.

Dr. Abraham sees his former work in policy and his current work at UT as compatible and mutually beneficial. He says: “Coming back to the academy after working outside of it for a number of years is a very productive thing. The two ways of thinking aren’t divorced, but they are different. It’s good to be careful about spending too much time in the policy world, where you are always speaking to a governmental audience—the danger there is getting caught up in that world and not seeing beyond it. Being in a university setting allows you to think about the core questions underlying the everyday policy issues. Some of the questions you ask yourself change when you move between the policy world and the academic world.”

One of the greatest elements that Dr. Abraham brings to the South Asia Institute, in particular, and to The University of Texas, in general, is his advocacy for international understanding and exchange. He encourages all students – no matter what their field of study – to travel overseas and do research in other settings. He says: “Those first few encounters with other parts of the world can give you questions that you spend years trying to answer. These first-hand questions sit in your brain far longer than things you come across second-hand in the scholarly literature. It is important that graduate students get as much international exposure as possible as soon as they can. Outside their comfort zone, if possible. There is nothing more valuable. It is always a different story between what you’ve read and what you experience.”

Dr. Abraham’s major interest is the intersection of international relations with science and technology questions, and out of this came his first book – a study of the making of an Indian atom bomb, which pursued questions about when developing countries make the transition into having their own industrial base, driven by local techniques and research. The last major project he completed looks at globalization by looking at the people who we call illegal immigrants, or the ways in which human organs get trafficked; human smuggling, gun running, and so on. These things fall into the gray area between legal and illegal, and on a policy level they tend to be ignored, or worse, criminalized. He will teach a course on this topic in the spring.

By Elisabeth McKetta, September, 2007
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