Prema Kurien

Prema Kurien headshotOffice: 302 Maxwell Hall

Phone: 443-1152


Ph.D., Brown University


My research focuses on the relationship between religion, ethnicity, and international migration. My first book, Kaleidoscopic Ethnicity: International Migration and the Reconstruction of Community Identities in India, 2002, was based on ethnographic research in three communities in Kerala, India (Ezhava Hindu, Mappila Muslim and Syrian Christian), which sent large numbers of workers to the Middle East for temporary jobs. The book explored the factors responsible for the striking differences in the groups’ patterns of migration and migration-induced social change to understand what ethnicity is and how it affects people’s activities and decisions. I discovered that in each case, a community-specific nexus of religion, gender, and status, shaped migration and was in turn transformed by it. The book was a co-winner of the 2003 book award of the Asia and Asian America section of the American Sociological Association.

After this study on emigrant communities in India, I turned my attention to looking at religion, ethnicity and politics among Indian immigrants in the United States. My second book, A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism 2007, discusses the new forms, practices, and interpretations of Hinduism in this country. I also examine the relationship between the institutionalization of Hinduism as a minority religion and the political mobilization of Hindu Indians seeking a place in multicultural America. This research led me to focus on the ways in which Indian Americans have been entering the public sphere in the United States.

In 2006-2007, I received a fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars for a study titled, “Contemporary Ethnic Lobbies: Asian Indian Americans on the Hill.” I began a project examining how Indian Americans are exercising their citizenship rights and are participating in American politics. There are multiple types of Indian American organizations that are politically active, each based on very different understandings of ethnicity and identity and with very different goals. There are differences between first and second generation Indian Americans, between those who organize around an identity based on their Indian origins, those who adopt a pan-ethnic, South Asian identity, and those who prefer to unify around a religious identity. There are also powerful trade groups that mobilize around their occupational interests.

I am also completing a project on transnationalism and the generational transmission of religion in churches in the U.S. that are part of the Mar Thoma denomination based in Kerala. My work examines the effect of the American religious landscape on Christian immigrants. My research makes clear that immigrant churches, particularly those from countries where Christians are an insulated minority, have to face several challenges if they are to successfully institutionalize as an "ethnic" church in a context where Christianity is the majority religion. An important issue is how to retain the allegiance of the second and later generations to an "ethnic" Christianity in the face of the intense competition from American evangelical churches. In facing this challenge, the transnational nature of Mar Thoma denomination is its greatest asset, but also its biggest liability. Transnationalism will also determine whether Christian immigrants are successful in transmitting their ethnic identity to their children.

In addition to the Woodrow Wilson Center fellowship, I have been fortunate in obtaining a variety of fellowships and grants (from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Center for the Study of Religion, Princeton University, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Louisville Institute and other sources) to support my research from my dissertation until the present.




A Place at the Table: Multiculturalism and the Development of an American Hinduism. Rutgers University Press, (2007).

Kaleidoscopic Ethnicity: International Migration and the Reconstruction of Community Identities in India. Rutgers University Press, (2002).
2003 Book award from the Asia and Asian American section of the American Sociological Association. Published by Oxford University Press, India, (2004).


Special Issue Journal:

Editor, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 2004, Special Issue on "The Impact of Immigrants on American Institutions." Vol 24, No. 7/8.


Articles and Book Chapters:

"A Socio-cultural Perspective on Migration and Development: Middle Eastern Migration for Kerala, India." In Josh DeWind and Jennifer Holdaway (eds.) Migration and Development Within and Across Borders, International Organization for Migration ((IOM). (Forthcoming 2008).

"Redefining Americanness by Reformulating Hinduism: Indian Americans Challenge American Academia." in James T. Campbell, Mathew Guterl, and Robert Lee (eds). Race, Nation and Empire in American History. University of North Carolina Press. (2007).

"Who Speaks for Indian Americans? Religion, Ethnicity and Political Formation." American Quarterly, (2007).

"Hindu Student Organizations." Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Web Forum on "The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates" ( (2007).

"Multiculturalism and 'American' Religion: The case of Hindu Indian Americans. Social Forces, Vol 85 (2): 723-742 (2006).

"Mr. President, Why do you Exclude us from your Prayers?: Hindus Challenge American Pluralism." Pp. 119-138 in Stephen Prothero (ed)., A Nation of Religions: The Politics of Pluralism in Multireligious America. University of North Carolina Press (2006).

"Caste Mobility, and the Gilding of Rituals: The Impact of Gulf Migration on Ezhavas in South Kerala." in Harnam Singh Verma (ed)., Stagnation, Retrograde Change, or Positive Progress? Vignettes from the Journey of the Other Backward Class Communities in the Process of Change in India. Serials Publications, New Delhi (2006).

"Being Young, Brown, and Hindu: The Identity Struggles of Second Generation Indian Americans." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol 34 (4): 434-469 (2005).

"Opposing Constructions and Agendas: The Politics of Hindu and Muslim Indian American Organizations." Pp. 148-172 in Rey Koslowski, (ed)., International Migration and Globalization of Domestic Politics. Routledge Press (2005).

"Christian by Birth or Rebirth? Generation and Difference in an Indian American Christian Church." Pp 160-181 in Tony Carnes and Fenggang Yang (eds)., Asian American Religions: Borders and Boundaries. New York University Press (2004).

"Multiculturalism and Ethnic Nationalism: The Development of an American Hinduism.", Social Problems, Vol 51 (3): 362-385. (2004).
2005 Distinguished Article Award, Sociology of Religion section, American Sociology Association.
2005 Distinguished Article Award, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

“Introduction: The Impact of Immigrants on American Institutions.”, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 24 (7/8):1-14. (2004).

“To Be or Not To Be South Asian: Contemporary Indian American Politics.” Journal of Asian American Studies, Vol 6 (3) 261-288. (2003).

"Reinventions of Hinduism." Pp. 116-120 in Gary Laderman and Luis Leon (eds). Encyclopedia of Religion and American Cultures, Volume 1. (2003).

"'We are Better Hindus Here' - Religion and Ethnicity Among Indian Americans." Pp. 99-120 in Jung Ha Kim and Pyong Gap Min (eds)., Building Faith Communities: Asian Immigrants and Religions. Altamira Press (2002).

"Constructing 'Indianness' in Southern California: The Role of Hindu and Muslim Indian Immigrants." Pp.289-312 in Marta Lopez‑Garza and David R. Diaz (eds). Asian and Latino Immigrants in a Restructuring Economy: The Metamorphosis of Southern California. Stanford University Press (2001).

"Religion, Ethnicity and Politics: Hindu and Muslim Indian Immigrants in the United States.", Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol 24 (2):263-293. (2001).

"Hinduism and Sikhism"., Pp. 881-885 in James Ciment (ed), Encyclopedia of American Immigration. M.E. Sharpe (2001)

"Gendered Ethnicity: Creating a Hindu Indian Identity in the U.S." American Behavioral Scientist, Vol 42 (4):648-670. (1999).

"Becoming American By Becoming Hindu: Indian Americans Take their Place at the Multi‑cultural Table." Pp. 37‑70 in R. Stephen Warner and Judith G. Wittner (eds). Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration. Temple University Press (1998).

"Constructing "Indianness' in the United States and India: The Role of Hindu and Muslim Indian Immigrants." Southern California Studies Center Research Report. (1997).

"Colonialism and Ethnogenesis: A Study of Kerala, India.", Theory and Society, Vol 23 (3): 385‑417. (1994).

"Non-economic Bases of Economic Behavior: Consumption, Investment and Exchange Patterns among Three Emigrant Communities in Kerala, India.", Development and Change, Vol 25 (4):757-783. (1994).

"Sojourner Migration and Gender Roles: A Comparison of Two Ethnic Communities in Kerala, India." Pp 43-61 in Continuity and Change: Women at the Close of the Twentieth Century, by Regina Cortina, Eleanor Doumato, Marida Hollos, Prema Kurien and Marilyn Rueschemeyer, Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies, Brown University. (1992).