Profile photo of Ritu Birla

Ritu Birla

Associate Professor, Department of History
Asian Institute
Centre for South Asian Studies
Research Project in Global Governance, Economy and Society


Ritu Birla is Associate Professor in the Department of History. She has held positions as the Richard Charles Lee Director of the Asian Institute at the Munk School, and before that, Director of the Asian Institute’s sub-unit, the Centre for South Asian Studies. She currently directs a research project in Global Governance, Economy and Society at the Munk School.

Recognized for bringing the empirical study of economy and empire to current questions in cultural and political theory, her research has sought to build new conversations in the global study of capitalism and its forms of governing. She is the author of Stages of Capital: Law, Culture and Market Governance in Late Colonial India (Duke University Press, 2009; Orient Blackswan India, 2010), winner of the 2010 Albion Book Prize in British Studies. Cited widely for its foundational analysis of colonial law on markets and what she has called “vernacular” kinship-based capitalism, the book charts the production of that modern abstraction we call “the economy” as an object of governance, as a name for the public and as a model for social relations. Birla has published across the social sciences and humanities in venues such as Social Research InternationalPublic CultureModern Asian Studies, and The Journal of Law and Society. Her writing has addressed the legal fictions that animate capitalist economic modernity—from the family, to the trust to the corporation—and has investigated law, culture and economy as gendered and mutually constitutive value-systems. Her recent research has turned to processes of economization, financialization and governance, especially the institutionalization of risk, uncertainty and derivative value. These research projects are woven into her ongoing work on non-western formations of political and economic liberalism, epistemologies of the modern economic subject/agent, and global/post-colonial intellectual history and theory.

She has co-edited Speculation: India and Futures of Capitalism, in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and Middle East 35:3 (Dec. 2015), a project that delves into the subcontinent to uncover new global practices that play with instabilities of value for both profit and survival.  Representative of her attention to the many geographies of political, social and economic ideas, Itineraries of Self-Rule: Essays on the Centenary of Hind Swaraj, a special issue of Public Culture 23:2 (Spring 2011) co-edited with Faisal Devji (Oxford) and the product of conferences they organized in Johannesburg and Mumbai, addresses the transnational circuits of M.K. Gandhi’s thought. Birla is currently working on a colonial genealogy of neoliberal thought and governance via questions in the long history of India’s economic liberalization entitled Neoliberalism and Empire, a book solicited by Duke University Pressfor which she received a Jackman Humanities Institute Faculty Research Fellowship. Other current projects include research on law and the history of philanthropy; currency and global governance; family law as constitutive “outside” for liberal market society; and the historiography of capitalism as seen from non-western sites.

Birla graduated from the first coeducational class at Columbia College, Columbia University summa cum laude with a double major in History and South Asian Studies. She then travelled to Cambridge University on a Euretta J. Kellett Fellowship, where she earned a second B.A. and M.A. in History and returned to Columbia for her PhD. She is on the Senior Editorial Board of the award-winning journal Public Culture and on the Editorial Advisory Board of Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics She has delivered a range of public presentations, including the Godrej Archives Lecture on Indian Economic History in Mumbai and the Carol Breckenridge Memorial Lecture in South Asian History at the New School for Social Research in New York, and spoken to both ideas and policy at venues such as the Advanced Seminar at Harvard’s Institute for Global Law and Policy. In addition to recognition for her research, she has also received two teaching awards, the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching from Columbia University, and the Arts and Sciences Student Union Teaching Award at the University of Toronto.


Books and Edited Projects

Stages of Capital, Law Culture and Market Governance in Late Colonial India (Duke University Press: 2009).

Speculation: India and the Futures of Capitalism, special section of Comparative Studies of South Asia Africa and Middle East 35:3 (Dec 2015) co-edited with Laura Bear (London School of Economics) and Stine Simonsen Puri (University of Copenhagen).

Itineraries of Self Rule: Essays on the Centenary of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, special issue of Public Culture co-edited with Faisal Devji (Oxford), 23:2 (2011).

Selected Articles

Birla, Ritu. “C=f(P): The Trust, ‘General Public Utility and Charity as a Function of Profit in India” Modern Asian Studies, 52: 1 (January 2018), 132-62.

Birla, Ritu. “Failure Via Schumpeter:  Market Globality, Empire and the End(s) of Capitalism,” Social Research: An International Quarterly 83:3 (Fall 2016).

Birla Ritu. Entry on Gayatri Spivak Fifty-One Key Feminist Thinkers ed. Lori Marso (Routledge, 2016).

Birla, Ritu. “Speculation, Illicit and Complicit: Law, Uncertainty and Governmentality” Comparative Studies of South Asia Africa and Middle East 35:3 (Dec 2015).

Bear, Laura, Birla, Ritu and Puri, Stine Simonsen. “Speculation: Futures and Capitalism in India,” Comparative Studies of South Asia Africa and Middle East 35:3 (Dec 2015).

Birla, Ritu. “Jurisprudence of Emergence: Neoliberalism and the Public as Market in India” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies (Fall 2015).

Birla, Ritu.  “The Rule of Law and Economic Development: Global Scripts, Vernacular Translations” in Sarat and Ewick Eds. The Wiley Handbook of Law and Society (Wiley, 2015).

“Business Rajahs,” in G. Dharampal-Frick, M. Kirloskar-Steinbach, R. Dwyer and J. Phalkey Eds. Key Concepts in Modern Indian Studies  (Delhi:  Oxford University Press, 2015).

Birla, Ritu.  “Maine (and Weber) Against the Grain: Towards a Postcolonial Genealogy of the Corporate Person,” Journal of Law and Society (2013).

Birla, Ritu.  “Law as Economy: Convention, Corporation, Currency,” UC Irvine Law Review Inaugural Issue (2011).

Birla, Ritu.  “Performativity Between Logos and Nomos: Law, Temporality and the Non-Economic Analysis of Power,” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 21:2 (2011).

Birla, Ritu.  “Vernacular Capitalists and the Modern Subject in India:  Law, Cultural Politics, and Market Ethics,” Anand Pandian and Daud Ali, Eds. Ethical Life in South Asia, University of Indiana Press, 83-100, (2010).

Birla, Ritu.  “Postcolonial Studies: Now that’s History” in Rosalind Morris Ed. Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea, (Columbia, 2010).

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