An experiment with the minor geographies of major cities: Infrastructural relations among the fragments
Urban Studies (2022). 59(8), 1556-1574
Research on urban water infrastructures has seldom reached across the Global North-South divide owing to their apparent developmental incommensurability. Yet, the universalising tendencies of urban theory has meant that cities of the Global South are often deemed to have ‘fragmented’ infrastructures or incomplete circulations in implicit comparison to the northern infrastructural ideal. So, in order to truly ‘world’ the study of infrastructures and cities, it is important to go beyond these dominant paradigms and attend to how infrastructures actually work and what socio-technical implications they have in cities of the Global South and North. Building on these provocations, this paper places the water infrastructures of two ‘most different cities’ – Chennai, India and London, UK – alongside each other in ‘experimental comparison’, where the aim is not to arrive at paradigmatic urban theory but to highlight heterogeneity and excavate themes for further critical thinking on each case. This paper will delineate the dialogic and reflexive method of research and analysis adopted, tracing how it led to the practice of ‘minor theory’, which focuses on processes that do not find expression in dominant universalising analyses. Here, minor theory is mobilised towards challenging dominant or major constructs about each city and across cities, while amplifying urban multiplicities and enabling a deeper engagement with infrastructure making in the Global South and North, thus expanding urban studies’ toolbox of critical thinking. [Read]
‘Do you drive a two-wheeler?’ Of risk and relatability while doing ethnographic fieldwork in Chennai
Field Research Methods Lab. LSE. 3 March 2021.
Two-wheelers ie., mopeds, scooters and motorbikes in south India are heavily encoded with notions of gender, caste and class which in turn determines the spaces they are expected to occupy and the social function they fulfil. A closer engagement with this particular form of mobility and a mild subversion of its codes can thus helpfully animate urban ethnography in the region including in navigating the researcher’s own positionality in the field. It can also lay bare the relations of alterity that constitute urban space. [Read]
Between Fragments & Ordering: engineering water infrastructures in a postcolonial city
Geoforum (2021). 119, 1-10
This paper explores the work of engineers amidst the fragments of access and use mechanisms that make up water infrastructures in the city of Chennai in south India. It sets its ethnographic investigation against a dual backdrop. One is that infrastructures in the global south have almost unequivocally come to be accepted as fragmented, even as the fragments themselves are little examined. The second is the mandate and will to order that engineering work is presumed to operate on by academic research and city managers alike. This paper brings these two provocations in juxtaposition by examining engineering work that occurs in the fragments of Chennai’s water infrastructures. In doing so, it argues that engineering modern infrastructures involves multiple, often fragmentary epistemologies that rarely fit into a singular overarching tendency, to order or otherwise. It draws attention to the distinct sub-disciplines as well as the layers of technical jobs and technological cultures constituting the profession of engineering. Tracing the social differentiation between some of these engineering pathways, the paper calls for a rethink of what counts as engineering for the purpose of infrastructure research; and how that shapes our visibility and understanding of cities and their socio-technical support structures. [Read]
Exploring Chennai, City of Fish
Whetstone Journal. 2 Oct 2020.
If there were only one food that Chennai is known for, it would have to be seafood. The liminal space between the busy city and the vast sea—whether in the city center, the industrial north or the affluent south—is home to communities of traditional fishers. Yet, popular imaginations of the city almost always center a dominant caste aesthetic, marginalising the life, work and foods of fishers in their own coastal home. [Read]
Distributed Labour: Socialising Infrastructures Through Engineering Work
Labouring Urban Infrastructures (digital magazine). June 2019
I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Public Health & Environmental Engineers (SoPHEE) in Chennai, India on World Water Day. The agenda for the meeting included talks by sustainability experts and scientists on the hydrology of Chennai. Arriving at the venue on a sweltering March evening, I was caught slightly offguard at what appeared to be more of a family style get-together. Kids and environmental experts were sharing a meal that eschewed water intensive rice for hardy millets. It is in this context that I find it useful to recast engineering practice as labour that straddles registers of expertise, material and affective work. To approach work in this uncompartmentalised way, I draw on the feminist anthropological pathways laid out by the ‘Gens’ framework, which urges attention to the ‘generative’ aspects of all kinds of work and the values extracted from them. [Read]