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.
While her general field of research is Demography, within this field she is 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, she is 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 she has 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 she has a great interest in the policy implications of demographic research. But her policy interest goes beyond straightforwardly drawing policy prescriptions from research. She is avidly interested in the politics and biases of the policy process itself and one of the ways in which she tries to understand this is by studying the history of the academic discipline of demography.
Outreach and Extension Focus
In addition to ‘public’ engagement, Basu has a long-standing interest in increasing interaction with researchers in her 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.
Basu's primary interest is in teaching students to look analytically at the diversity and the complexity of the world and to understand the many injustices and deprivations that underlies some of this diversity. For example, her 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, reflecting differences in socioeconomic levels, social structures, kinship patterns and political systems. In courses such as ‘Inequalities in Health and Survival’ (DSOC4100) and 'Gender and Health' (DSOC 4230), she also challenge students to evaluate which differences are preventable; that is, they are not a result of biological, unchangeable differences between different groups of people. Instead, social organization, unequal power relationships, unequal access to resources, and political commitment play roles. Not all forms of diversity are to be embraced or celebrated – in matters of life and death, we want convergence rather than difference, and teaching that nuance is critical, while also emphasizing the importance of challenging pre-conceived notions including that demography is destiny.