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Since his early research, on nationalist politics in south India in the 1920s and 1930s, his work has ranged widely over the history of modern South Asia, and beyond, and has included social and environmental history and the history of science, technology and medicine. Along with David Hardiman he was a founder member of the Subaltern Studies group of historians of South Asia.

He is currently writing a history of South Asia and developing research on food and 'everyday technology' in South and Southeast Asia.

David Arnold's work has been translated into several languages (including Portugese, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean).