For her psychology thesis, Divya Shiv ’16 conducted two studies: one investigating how cultural differences impact how people benefit from various types of social support, and one exploring how people from different cultures perceive and evaluate different types of support.
“As a potential social worker,” says Shiv, “I wanted to research social support to figure out how I can best support my future clients, as well as my friends and family.”
Though a massive undertaking, that project, which resulted in the paper ” Cultural Differences in Reciprocal and Mutual Social Support,” wasn’t the only thesis that she wrote last year. Shiv was also an English major and wrote a thesis, “The Embodied God of Small Things,” on a book by Arundhati Roy.
“I was originally inspired by two different lines of thought,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to explore my Indian heritage by writing on a modern Indian-English text, but I was also fascinated by the relationship between silence and speech, and, in particular, the silence of marginalized characters.”
Shiv’s paper concentrated on the character Velutha, who, because of his caste, is both socially and textually repressed. “Specifically,” she says, “I wrote about Velutha’s embodied characterization—how he is always perceived in terms of his body, but how there are many different interpretations within the text surrounding his embodied status that both empower and suppress him.”
Before embarking on a social-work career, Shiv will spend next year working at High Rocks Academy in West Virginia, a leadership, education, and enrichment program for local rural young women. The lessons learned from her psychology thesis will obviously serve her well in that work, but, perhaps more surprisingly, she says her English thesis was great preparation too.
“I have learned a lot about perspective and understanding from analyzing the three different interpretations of Velutha’s body,” she says. “I also find that studying English, in general, fosters empathy and a critical eye, both of which [will be] especially helpful.”
What did you learn from working on your English thesis?
I like to see the world in black-and-white terms, but working with such a rich text helped me realize that the world is not black and white. By exploring three interpretations of Velutha’s embodied characterization, I was forced to consider the text in complex terms, while simultaneously interrogating my own limited perspective at the same time. Ultimately, I have come out of the thesis process with the understanding that texts are not “suppressive” or “empowering,” just as people are not wholly “bad” or “good.” In my thesis, I also focused on how social structures seem to persist while resting on insecure foundations, which I find helpful when thinking about the problematic social structures that exist today—racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc. In fact, one of the best moments in the thesis-writing process was when of my friends who read my thesis experienced a racist moment similar to one in The God of Small Things. She texted me with a quotation from my own thesis and later told me that my analysis of the novel helped her understand and shake off that racist experience. Working on my thesis has taught me about the persistence of harmful social structures, but it has also given me hope that small moments, like the one with my friend or the ones in the novel, can snowball into large-scale, effective social change.
And what did you take away from your psychology thesis experience?
The biggest thing I learned while working on this thesis project is the seemingly infinite number of social supports that can be given and received. Now, when a friend is having a rough time, I can assess if they seem to be in need of emotional support, informational support, or even implicit support, which is the idea that someone feels supported just by hanging out and not discussing their problems with friends and family. Or, when I’m having a bad day, I have a better sense of what I need from the people around me, because I have done so much research into the differences between each type of support.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.