Hayden S. Kantor

I am a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University. I received my Ph.D. from this department in 2016. As a sociocultural anthropologist, my research concerns capitalism, food, and ethics of care in South Asia.

To get in touch, please e-mail hk647@cornell.edu.


Daily Bread: Agrarian Futures and the Caring Family in Bihar, India

What does it mean to care and be cared for at a time of enduring insecurity? My book project examines how rural people in North India articulate an ethics of care for the family in the face of the precarity of agrarian life. With economic liberalization and mounting environmental risks, small-scale farming households struggle to sustain their livelihoods. Given the history and pervasiveness of food insecurity in the region, I examine care primarily in terms of the food practices—the daily work of farming, feeding, and commensal eating that sustains the family. Providing for the family in rural India also entails multiple forms of care directed at non-human others: animals, crops, foods, land, and gods. I trace the unequal distribution of resources and labor based on gender and caste, and show how the pressure for urban migration reconfigures kinship relations.

This project challenges the surplus/scarcity dichotomy that often frames social scientific scholarship on food insecurity and the global food economy. My ethnography complicates this binary by unpacking rural Biharis’ embodied experiences of eating to show how sensations of poverty and abundance, pleasure and dissatisfaction, coexist within a single community, household, and even a single person. I thus demonstrate how the sensuous body – with all its appetites, labors, and vulnerabilities – reveals the intimate ways that people experience larger political economic formations. In particular, I argue that these care practices show how rural Biharis strive to sustain their families as they refuse the logics of scarcity that govern their lives.

The Wenner-Gren Foundation and the American Institute for Indian Studies funded 16 months of archival and ethnographic research. The resulting dissertation was awarded Cornell’s Guildford Essay Prize, a university-wide award “given to the doctoral student in any field whose thesis is judged to display the highest excellence in English prose.”

“‘A Dead Letter of the Statute Book:’ The Strange Bureaucratic Life of The Bihar Food Economy and Guest Control Order, 1950-1954”

While this book project represents my most sustained consideration of how Indians articulate an ethics of eating well against the backdrop of economic instability, this stand-alone article, published in South Asian History and Culture in 2016, provides a historical treatment of these themes. This article examines the Guest Control Orders that the Indian government instituted in the period following independence in order to check food waste by restricting the types and amount of foods served at communal feasts, such as weddings or funerals. In particular, I trace the correspondence between the Union Ministry of Food, who aimed to enforce these rules uniformly across the country, and the government of Bihar, which recognized that local practices of hospitality were threatened by these directives, in order to light on early debates the appropriate role of the state in the economy. I argue that in drawing up these austerity measures, assumptions about Indian culture in general and food practices in particular – e.g., what is good for citizens to eat, and how it ought to be eaten – became objects of legal interventions into cultural practices in the early independence period.

Download the paper here.

Feeding Urban India: Capital, Ethics, and the Caring Corporation

My next project extends my exploration of food ethics in capitalism through an ethnography of Indian food companies. With concerns about environmental contamination and food safety, new businesses have emerged to provide urban, middle-class consumers with ethically produced foods, such as “pure” milk or organic produce. My fieldwork will examine how these new corporate actors balance the contradictory aims of profit and social benefits as they seek to position themselves as caring companies in a postcolonial context. I will also attend to the regulatory regimes and advocacy networks that shape supply chain practices and follow the subsequent impact on rural producers and environments. This research will demonstrate how non-Western companies devise corporate responsibility programs in response to local ideologies, social formations, and infrastructures.


My teaching, like my research, emphasizes anthropology as site for critically interrogating taken-for-granted concepts like the body, family, and poverty. In the classroom, I draw on diverse perspectives to challenge students’ sense of their place in the world and strive to provide them with the analytical toolkit that they can apply beyond the course. As a Postdoctoral Associate at Cornell, I am leading the development of the department’s engaged learning curriculum, comprised of a service-learning course and wrap-around course for study abroad students. This initiative highlights ethnography as a distinctive lens and method for students as they encounter cross-cultural difference in both local communities and abroad. I build on an approach that encourages students to cultivate an anthropological sensibility with real-world applications. For instance, my class “Food Values” won two university-wide awards for innovative teaching. In one assignment, students completed their own semester-long ethnographic research project on campus food cultures. Students submitted a final paper that integrated fieldwork and library research, and presented their work in an in-class symposium.

Copyright © 2017 Hayden S. Kantor