Postdoc Spotlight: Luisa Cortesi

Luisa Cortesi

Luisa Cortesi is featured as part of Cornell’s Postdoc Appreciation Week 2018.

Luisa Cortesi is a Stanford H. Taylor Postdoctoral Fellow in Science and Technology Studies and Anthropology at Cornell University.

What is your degree, field, and hometown?

My academic background is somewhat convoluted—not so infrequent for anthropologists. I have a postgraduate degree in Diplomacy and International Relations, for which I studied economics, history, geography, law, linguistics, politics, and statistics. I soon realized, however, I was not sufficiently “inclined to obedience,” or at least not enough to become a diplomat. I worked in international development for a while, for NGOs in different continents, the United Nations, and bilateral cooperation agencies. Again, I soon realized I needed more freedom and engagement to pursue what I believe in. By then I also had a master’s in Social Anthropology of Development and Development Studies from SOAS-University of London, so I knew what I wanted to explore further! A couple of months ago I completed my PhD in Anthropology and Environmental Studies from Yale University.

I am from Italy, although I have not lived there in a while. Before Connecticut, I lived in the United Arab Emirates, and in India for over seven years. My family and I make our home wherever we find friends: we just moved to Ithaca, and it feels very homey already!

What is your area of emphasis? Why is this work important?

Despite the scientific advances and the continued political discussions on climate change, we often forget that it is not all in the hands of scientists and policy makers: every one of us, nobody excluded, is increasingly dealing with new climatic extremes, expecting them, trying to figure them out, preparing for them. I study knowledge of nature under disastrous conditions. My area of focus is North Bihar, in India—just below Nepal, where all the water from the Himalaya flows down towards the Ganges. My study area—as big as Maryland and more populated than Texas—is crisscrossed by multiple rivers. Part of this area floods every year, several times, for several months. Floods in North Bihar are far from fluvial, because flood-control interventions have multiplied, prolonged, and worsened the inundations. The findings from this area, I believe, are diagnostic of what we will see in the immediate future in other parts of the world: increased environmental segregation and injustice, unexpected consequences of disaster management and its technologies, and decreased self-reliance and collective expertise.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

It may sound romantic, but I am a vocational anthropologist: anthropology is not what I studied or what I do, it is who I am, although this does not mean I regurgitate social theory as I sleep! I am deeply interested in the entanglements, dissonances, and complexities of our society, driven by a commitment to listen to the marginal, the poor, and the discriminated against. In particular, I have been interested in environmental justice since my undergraduate studies. But for a long time a PhD was not something I could consider. My motivation remains the same, to think critically about the world we live in by virtue of long-term, engaged, participatory, ethnographic research and writings. I also have come to appreciate how it can be fostered through teaching: mentoring students to develop as engaged and thoughtful global citizens, and to carry such identities in their respective careers.

How has your background influenced your scholarship?

As the daughter of an immigrant mother from a discriminated-against region, I was often insulted with racial slurs, and at the same time deeply influenced by my parents’ code-switching and cultural compromises, both at home and outside. As a result, I naturally befriended the few “others” around me: my best friends were the two only families in town coming from far away—from Sierra Leone and Indonesia, to be precise. Even in an apparently homogenous and conservative society, I was “tasting” different worlds before even learning to read and write.

I pursued interdisciplinary studies: philosophy and ancient languages, political science and development economics, environmental ethics and environmental studies. All of it flows into my very cross-disciplinary way of studying the environmental knowledge of dirty water: my work combines, for example, hydrogeology with epistemology and biochemistry with semiotics.

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar?

My personal experience of floods. I found myself in a mud flood at one point during my undergraduate studies. Later, in Bihar, while coordinating several NGOs working on water, we lived through the two floods “of the millennia,” one after the other, in 2007 and 2008. The first was water everywhere, for over a hundred kilometers. My work was at its peak during the floods, so I had to find whatever way to move around, and I got stranded in water several times. The second was a river that changed its course. We woke up one fine morning to find that the mighty river in front of us had disappeared, as if drunk by an even mightier demon. But a few kilometers east, on the same fine morning, whole districts found themselves in the midst of such a river. I spent two years with these people and their rivers, and these memories never left me.

Have you won any awards or fellowships?

This past year, I have been awarded the biennial PRAXIS Award for Applied Anthropology for “outstanding achievement in translating anthropological knowledge into action,” the Curl Prize by the Royal Anthropological Institute for “the best paper relating to the results or analysis of anthropological work,” and the Eric Wolf Prize by the Political Ecology Society for “advancing the field of political ecology.” In addition to individual paper prizes, my dissertation project was awarded the Josephine de Karman fellowship (2017-18) for “high academic standards” based on a national competition amongst graduate students of any discipline in the U.S. I am also very grateful for several research grants—Fulbright Commission, Wenner-Gren Foundation, Social Science Research Council, American Institute for Indian Studies, MacMillan Centre, Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, Tropical Institute, among others—for allowing me to devote more than three years (2012-2015) to ethnographic research.

What other hobbies or activities do you enjoy in your spare time?

If I am not writing or reading, or teaching—which I actually enjoy, so I rarely feel in need of a break—you will find me walking around green and wet areas. I also like yoga and meditation—I am in fact a certified instructor. I like to try new things, too: I have just dragon boated on the Cayuga Lake and I loved it!  

Why did you choose Cornell?

I was mainly attracted by its well-known excellence in Science and Technology Studies and in Anthropology. Coming from the Forestry and Environmental Studies School (apart from Anthropology) at Yale, I was also happy to find here the very interdisciplinary Environmental Studies Major, the Atkinson Center for Sustainability, and the Natural Resources Department.

I was pleasantly surprised by how inclusive Cornell is—I found everybody extremely respectful of differences and actively trying to shed assumptions—and welcoming: in the little time I have been here, I have met so many great people, fostered connections, and started collaborations. In fact, let me use this opportunity to reach out: my office is in 305 Morrill Hall and it is always open!

What’s next for you?

Engaged scholarship, in whichever form it can take. Despite studying disasters and climate change (or maybe because of that?), I am a stress-free person, so the future is always exciting. For now, I am grateful to Cornell University for the present: there has not been a day that I have not been part of a great conversation here!

Do you have any advice for current graduate students?

Historicize your learning! Everything we learn is part of a conversation, a trend, a set of relations. Stepping back and thinking about the most obvious in critical ways can bring about a very different perspective. I think the job of a graduate student is questioning everything but the questioning itself.