Date of Award

January 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Joanne P. Waghorne


empathy, exchange theory, Hinduism, student organizations

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


Every fall, the Syracuse University South Asian Student Society (SASA) hosts two major fall Hindu festival events: Navaratri and Diwali. SASA members understand their mission on campus to be providing a “home away from home” for South Asian students, particularly Indian international students. Through an ethnographic investigation of these events and the lives of SASA board members, this thesis explores the relationship between empathy, cycles of exchange, and transnational Indian identity. I investigate two types of exchange that occurred at SASA festival events: material exchange via food and charitable giving. Providing guests at events with food and working with non-profit groups were both social and emotional commitments for SASA members, because they both represented methods through which SASA members could provide a form of care for their social peers. Through an exploration of these two issues, I argue that the logic that connects empathy and non-reciprocal, supposedly disinterested giving is too narrow and misses the potential of empathetic giving within contexts that are closer to commodity exchange or that are evidently reciprocal. I also build upon and interrogate the work of anthropologists of South Asia who have explored the issue of the gift. Using the South Asian religious conception of dana as a comparative framework, I argue first, that relational empathy, or the imaginative capacity to find similarity and therefore enact care, for others can be found in forms of exchange that blur the line between commodity exchange, reciprocal exchange and non-reciprocal exchange; and second, that particularly in transnational settings, systems of exchange may be very vulnerable to the whims of authority.


Open Access



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