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Adaner Usmani, an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Studies at Harvard University, is a recent recipient of a Mittal Institute faculty grant for his project, “The History of Punishment in India.” LMSAI faculty grants support research projects that catalyze connectivity between scholars at Harvard and those in South Asia. Professor Usmani’s particular project explores the incarceration system in India and how, despite low levels of policing and punishment, India has remarkably low levels of (recorded) violence. Professor Usmani’s project aims to solve this sociological puzzle by collecting data to understand the history of violence and punishment in India. We spoke to him about his project, his interest in the field, and an upcoming book.

Adaner Usmani.

Mittal Institute: Professor Usmani, what led you to study incarceration – why were you drawn to the field?

Adaner Usmani: I originally entered graduate school intending to write a dissertation on the origins of the Tehreek-e-Taliban in Pakistan (which is where I am from). Eventually, for better or worse, American academia exerted a gravitational pull on my work, and my work became more America-centric. It’s difficult to reconstruct why I chose to write about mass incarceration specifically but looking back I’d say that there were two reasons.

First, I think the purpose of the social sciences is to help us better interpret the causes of social injustice, to more effectively fight it. Mass incarceration—the fact that the United States incarcerates almost as many people as Stalin’s Soviet Union did at the height of the gulags, and that these people are drawn from the bottom of its racial and economic structure—strikes me as one of today’s salient injustices.

That said, I also think that it’s important to choose research questions that you think others have thus far answered poorly (If someone has already given a good answer, what value are you adding?). When I was first introduced to the ‘standard story’ of where mass incarceration came from, I was immediately skeptical. That skepticism has driven my research.  

I think the purpose of the social sciences is to help us better interpret the causes of social injustice, to more effectively fight it. 

Mittal Institute: Your new project, which received Mittal Institute funding, focuses on the history of punishment in India. Why did you focus on India? And what lessons can be gleaned from your research?

Adaner Usmani: One of the problems with research on mass incarceration is that it studies a comparative historical problem (why does the United States incarcerate more people than other countries at other times?) in an America-centric and presentist way. This is a strange way to approach the problem. Without studying cases that are not mass incarceration, it is difficult to say anything generalizable about its causes. Consequently, for a few years, with the help of several dozen research assistants, my collaborator John Clegg and I have been collecting data on crime, punishment and policing around the world.

There are two reasons that we were particularly interested in India. First, like many ex-British colonies, the data are superb. The British kept thorough records on the criminal justice system, and so we have been able to build a continuous dataset spanning the last 150 years. Second, India poses some puzzles for traditional theories of crime and punishment. Recorded levels of interpersonal violence are low even though our traditional theories (at least in sociology) would predict that they should be high. We are interested in better understanding this. Is this just an artifact of how difficult it is to measure crime reliably? Or is there something sociologically puzzling going on?

A section of the Madras Central Prison before it was demolished in 2009.

Entrance to the Central Prison in Viyyur, Thrissur district, Kerala.

Mittal Institute: You also have a project on mass incarceration in America. What does this project explore? And what are the similarities and/or differences between incarceration in the U.S. and India?

Adaner Usmani: As I suggested, the puzzle of American mass incarceration is the main question that animates this research. However, as we have collected comparative and historical data, other related puzzles have come into view.

One of these is the puzzles I mentioned above. Traditional theories of state formation and development suggest that the rise of capitalism and the modern state have led to a decline in interpersonal violence. Yet this doesn’t seem to be true in many poor countries today (e.g., in Latin America). We’re not yet sure what the data we are collecting in India will suggest.

Another concerns racial and ethnic inequality and how it varies across time and place. It is generally difficult to study these inequalities comparatively and historically since reliable data in many countries does not exist. But criminal justice data is one dimension in which it is often (though not always!) possible. Although the data in India is not always available, we have managed to collect some contemporary data on caste inequality as well as other data on regional and religious inequality over time.

Mittal Institute: You plan to build a database covering the global history of prisons and policing in the modern world – a project two years in the making. Can you share more details about the database and what we can expect from it? And how do you source your data?

Adaner Usmani: The project began in Fall 2019 with just a single research assistant. Our goal was to collect better data on incarceration rates in the developed world in the early 20th century. But it has slowly ballooned into a much bigger data collection effort, spanning many other countries and many other statistics. In total, about 60 different research assistants—undergrads, graduate students, volunteers—have worked on the project over the last 3 years. We have manually recorded about 30,000 different data points from about 1,000 different primary and secondary sources. We combine these data with other criminal justice data from other machine-readable datasets, and so the final dataset is much larger. We hope to make it publicly available in a few years.

Our India data collection has the work of Rohit Sharma, a lawyer based in India. Rohit emailed me in March 2021 to ask if I had any research opportunities. I offered him the chance to work with us on a volunteer basis, which is probably one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. He has done extraordinary work, building our India dataset single-handedly. Thanks to the support of the Mittal Institute, I have been able to officially employ him. He has been working out of the Delhi office over the last several months. Recently, he has been joined by Himanshu Agarwal, an LLM student at Harvard Law School, who previously worked as a capital defense lawyer in India.

Mittal Institute: Your research will soon be published in a book, From Plantation to Prison, co-authored with John Clegg. Could you give us a brief overview of the book? What else is on the horizon for you – any next steps with your research?

Adaner Usmani: Alas, the book was supposed to be ready in 2023, but it will hopefully be on shelves in 2025. The argument of the book is that mass incarceration in the United States is the bitter fruit of America’s slave past—but in a very different way than has commonly been argued. Slavery matters, we argue, because of the specific ways in which it deformed American political and economic development, and not because of its cultural or ideological consequences. Our bigger ambition in the book is to use our dataset to build a general theory of the development of the penal state under capitalism.

Otherwise, the research assistants who are working with us are at work on other papers based on these data. One project uses the India data to study Empire-wide incarceration rates around the world, prior to decolonization. Another, on which Rohit and Himanshu are working, will use the India data to write a paper specifically about crime, punishment, and policing in the Indian case. There is a lot to learn. 

Read more about Adaner Usmani’s Research Grant from the Mittal Institute here. You can also read about the grant in the Mittal Institute’s Year in Review 2021-2022 (page 28).