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HERA Joint Research Programme "Cultural Encounters" No. 586

Creating the 'New Asian Woman' -  Entanglements of Urban Space, Cultural Encounters and Gendered Identities in Shanghai and Delhi (SINGLE).

The SINGLE project counts itself as one of 18 projects selected from over 500 proposals for the 2012 round of the HERA Joint Research Programme held under the theme ‘Cultural Encounters’.

About HERA

The HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area) Joint Research Programme is a partnership between 21 Humanities Research Councils and the European Science Foundation (ESF).


The Programme supports innovative collaborations between universities and research centres all across Europe.  

About the Project

‘Mobile Media, Gender and the City in China’, picture by Jeroen de Kloet, 2008

This project analyses the new cultural geographies of gendered urban space in Delhi and Shanghai, focusing on ‘single’ women across the life-course. The context of neo-liberal urbanisation in India and China is enabling the formation of new biographies and spaces for women. Single women are increasingly visible in public, be it through media representations or everyday practices and mobilities. Their presence is informed by repertoires of cultural encounter stemming from urban and national histories, globalised media landscapes and flows of capital, concepts and people. Single women in the city have also come to legitimise urban aspirations to cosmopolitanism and Global City-ness.

Rapidly transforming urban centres such as Delhi and Shanghai, the sites for this research, are the backdrop to changing family patterns and the unravelling of ‘traditional’ social contracts as a result of migration, new work opportunities, delayed marriage, divorce, open homosexuality, and a growing leisure and consumer society. These cities are cultural contact zones, shaping and being shaped by global, regional and national flows. Yet the resulting subjectivities are precarious, marked by asymmetrical power relations reflecting moral panics centred on discourses of ‘westernisation’ and associated perceptions of transgressions of normative gendered comportment and spaces such as the domestic and the public. Gendered imaginaries of emancipation are therefore contested in the light of a variety of cultural practices that impact women’s multiple lifeworlds.

Meet the team

The HERA SINGLE Team & the HRA (Heidelberg Research Architecture) during the Kick-Off Workshop.


From left to right: Matthias Arnold (HRA), Penn Ip, Laila Abu-Er-Rub, Lucie Bernroider, Anna Vinogradova, Nina Nessel, Eric Decker (HRA), PI Chenying, Christiane Brosius, Maddalena Chiellini, Jeroen de Kloet, Melissa Butcher, Tony Buchwald, Chow Yiu Fai.


'SINGLE' is composed of three Sub-Projects, exploring different aspects of the experiences of single women in Delhi and Shanghai. The Projects are work under themes: autonomy (Christiane Brosius University Heidelberg), respectability (Melissa Butcher Open University) and precarity (Jeroen de Kloet University of Amsterdam). The relationship between women’s use of space is set within wider debates of cultural encounter, world cities and globalisation, with subprojects focusing on localised connections between neo-liberal urban transformation and gendered constructions of singleness in the city.

Autonomy - PI1: Christiane Brosius

Subproject 1 based at the University of Heidelberg explores gendered representations and media landscapes as well as perceptions of urban space in Delhi and Shanghai.  This subproject focuses on middle class women (20-40) researching their aspirations, everyday realities as well as the gendered geographies they navigate. Young Middle class women are at the forefront of social change in these cities. However, tensions between 'autonomy' and 'risk' still maintain a constant presence in their everyday life. The Project will explore media discourses and narratives, and everyday realities of women working in the creative industry as well as urban activism in order to understand how notions of private and public, safety and autonomy, 'tradition' and 'westernisation' are negotiated.

Learn more about the subproject and its members

Respectability - PI 2: Melissa Butcher

Subproject 2 based at The Open University explores the intersection between transforming City space, class and gender through a study of spaces and mobility in Delhi. Working with middle aged, middle class  single women, the Project will explore notions of 'respectability' as a form of spatial governmentality.  Strategies deployed by women to navigate a rapidly transforming city challenge a historically grown discourse of respectablity and explore relation betwenn movement and 'freedom'. Using mobility methods research examines these challenges as well as the effects of precarity they may entail.

Learn more about the subproject and its members

Precarity - PI 3: Jeroen de Kloet

Subproject 3 based at the University of Amsterdam studies the lifeworlds and media representation of single migrant women in Shanghai. China is experiecning the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history, women who choose not to return to their rural homes have become part of what is termed 'aspirational class'. The project explores how they accomodate to the numerous challenges of the city, transcultural encounters, marginalisation and aspiration. Research focuses on migrant women navigating workplace and gendered urban space as well as representation of migrant women in Cinema, TV and literature.  

Learn more about the subproject and its members

Collaborative Approach

Sample poster of Oriental Calender Manufacturing Company, Calcutta, 1940s. Priya Paul Collection, at Tamboti Heidelberg Research Architecture

The project uses ethnographic, mobile and visual methodologies, documenting the experiences of single women in Delhi and Shanghai that are indicative of wider social and demographic transformations. ‘Singleness’ will include temporal and spatial understandings, repositioning it as salient to collective as well as personal identity and experience (e.g. loneliness or independence), and as a phenomenon that women move into and out of across the life-course. The relationship between women’s use of space is set within wider debates of cultural encounter, world cities and globalisation, with subprojects focusing on localised connections between neo-liberal urban transformation and gendered constructions of singleness in the city.

A conceptual framework centred on transcultural analysis links the sub-projects. This approach differs from conceptualisations of global-local encounters as generating multicultural or cosmopolitan spaces. Multi-culturalism recognises cultural difference but confined within distinct and predominantly national boundaries, and cosmopolitanism has been criticised as a celebratory and deterritorialised/-ing notion of universal world citizenship (Brosius & Wenzlhuemer 2011; de Kloet & Jurriens 2007). While valid, both notions can also be critiqued and enriched with the concept of transculturality, underlining oscillating boundaries and fluid cultural spaces and practices best studied in urbanised contexts. Transcultural analysis focuses on sharpening competencies to explore the processes and constructedness of cultural interaction through practices such as gendered space use. It focuses on appropriation and contestation in cultural encounters, in both intra-Asian flows and connections with the Global North.

Research design and methodology

The project will work with women of different age and social backgrounds accessed through the team’s existing networks in Delhi and Shanghai. The multi-site methodology includes:
(1) Ethnography: diaries; “thick” and multimedia observation and description of research sites and social agents; case-studies of social relations and space use.
(2) Mobile methods: “walk alongs” and mapping (GIS), documenting space use and spatial experience.
(3) Visual methods: photographic elicitation; analysis of media landscapes and media products in which single women feature prominently as a specific social trope.
(4) Digital Humanities: Heidelberg Research Architecture (detailed in Part B).
(5) Collaborative processes: joint field work and writing.

Associated Partners:


Mr Xiaofei Li

Fei Contemporary Art Center, Shanghai


Mr Heiko Sievers

Goethe-Institut New Delhi


Dr Peter Verdaasdonk

Royal Tropical Institute Amsterdam


Prof Dr Paromita Chakravarti

School of Women's Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata


Prof Arunava Dasgupta

Department of Urban Design, University of Delhi


Prof Dr Ulrike Gerhard

Geographical Institute, University of Heidelberg


Prof Dr Jennifer Robinson

Geography Department, University College London








Solo Cities Delhi Workshop

The next HERA SINGLE workshop “Solo-cities: Representations of the ‘Single’ in Urban Spaces” will take place in Delhi on 6–8 October, 2015.

Lecture by Sanjay Srivastava

The Research Area B & HERA Single cordially invite you to the lecture  “From the Five Year Plan Hero to Mr. Modi’s Masculinity: Notes on Modernity, Consumer Cultures and ‘Tradition’ in India”by Sanjay Srivastava (Jawaharlal Nehru University Delhi).

The lecture will take place on July 1, 2015 at the KJC in room 212. Discussant will be Susan Brownell (University of Missouri-St. Louis).

More details

Recent Events

Precariously Yours Workshop Shanghai 2014

The workshop Precariously Yours: Gender, Class, and Urbanity in Contemporary Shanghai took place on December 4-6, 2014 in Shanghai and culminated in the opening of an exhibition at the Fei Contemporary Art Centre.

Gulabi Gang Screening 2014

On November 15, 2014 the HERA project SINGLE, together with the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University organised the screening of the movie "Gulabi Gang" (2012) at the Karlstorkino. The film maker Nishtha Jain was present during the screening and available for questions.

Meeting with Saraswati Raju 2014

On June 16, 2014 SINGLE met with Prof. Saraswati Raju, Professor for Social Geography at Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi.

Meeting with Arunava Dasgupta 2014

On June 3, 2014 SINGLE met with Arunava Dasgupta Professor for Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture. He talked to Single Project members about issues of safety in and identified ‘problem areas’ in Delhi.

Film Series "Home in the City" 2014

SINGLE cooperated with the Forum Urban Spaces on a seminar film series titled ‘Home in the City’ which screened selected documentary film segments framed by an introduction by filmmakers and scholars.

Meeting with Prof. Aparna Rayaprol

Aparna Rayaprol met with Single project members on May 5-7, 2014 to discuss the different waves of feminism in India and shared her concerns about the current gender politics.

SINGLE Cooperations 2014

SINGLE cooperates on an ongoing basis with the project "Mobile Spaces: Urban everyday practices in transcultural perspective" and the recently founded Forum "Urban Spaces".

HRA Workshop Heidelberg 2014

The HRA Workshop took place April 14-16, 2014 at the Karl Jaspers Centre in Heidelberg.

Kick-Off Workshop Heidelberg 2013

All  members of the research consortium met at the Kick-Off Workshop which took place from December 5 - 7, 2013 at the Karl Jaspers Centre in Heidelberg.

HERA Launch in Dubrovnik 2013

From September 30 to October 01, 2013 Prof. Dr. Christiane Brosius, Prof. Dr. Jeroen de Kloet and Dr. Melissa Butcher attended the HERA Launch in Dubrovnik.