Renowned academic Ananya Roy’s talks to Gautam Bhan about fashioning an urban theory that is cognisant of the role of place

Words by Ananya Roy & Gautam Bhan | 21 Sep, 2013

Toussaint Losier lives in Chicago. His doctoral research at the University of Chicago focuses on the intersections between grassroots mobilisations amongst black youth and the politics of mass incarceration in his native city. Off campus, Losier is an organiser with the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, a direction-action social justice group that assists tenants and homeowners confronted with foreclosure in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis. Losier imported the model and tactics of his organisation from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign after visiting Cape Town on a fact-finding mission in 2009. For urban theorist Ananya Roy, such instances of reciprocity and learning between nominally unequal cities—they are many and oftentimes unacknowledged—reveals some fundamental things about how the discipline of urban studies is shifting. Conventional western urban theory, with its tendency to universalise parochial insights, is not only ill-equipped to address evolving urban dynamics in the global south, it even fails to offer an adequate account of urban realities within its own backyard. Paying attention to the shifting realities that characterise urban formations and modes of cohabitation will require unlearning old models of thought. “I think the only way we unlearn is to think about field, and being in the field doesn’t mean just being in a squatter settlement in Kolkata or in a shack settlement in South Africa,” Roy tells Gautam Bhan, a former student of hers at the University of California, Berkeley. “It is also very much about turning what seems to be familiar and intimate into something that is strange.” Strange, but also predictive.

Gautam Bhan: Let me start in the middle of a conversation we’ve been having for some time now. I’ve been thinking about the difference in thinking from the south versus thinking in the south. So, to begin, let’s consider the idea that thinking in place is not just to say that place matters, but that there’s an epistemological project at stake in thinking from the south. There’s been a growing trend in your work over some time to build this possible new episteme incrementally. Could you think a little reflectively about how you came to thinking this way?

Ananya Roy: I think this idea of searching for new geographies as theories started alongside my interest in cities. I got interested in urbanism as an undergraduate at Mills College in Oakland, California. I came thinking I would do an undergraduate degree in psychology but hated the first psychology class I took. I was fortunate enough to end up at the same time in an urban sociology class. I knew what sociology was but I don’t think I had a good understanding of what the urban was—or what that qualifier meant—but I had this brilliant sociology professor who was truly an urbanist, Ted Thomas. He was trained as a sociologist but he immersed us in the canon on urban theory, Chicago School onwards. I realised that the analytical issues that I cared about, that had drawn me to college were, in fact, issues of urbanism.

In discovering myself as an urbanist, I realised there was a huge disjuncture between all these theories and ideas that I was reading in class and my experience having grown up. I had just left Kolkata, all I could think about was Kolkata. But I was also slowly realising that the theories I was studying in this beautiful, small, gated liberal arts college didn’t allow me to understand even the city around it—Oakland—where every night there was a shootout a few feet from our campus. The south was, I realised, never just Kolkata, as in southern hemisphere, third world, stereotypical under development; it was all of those places that the canon of theory could not make sense of except in quite dystopian ways. I don’t think at that time I came to terms at all with these ideas in thinking about Oakland. I had a very uncomfortable relationship with Oakland, a place that I am still navigating.

In seminars Ted Thomas would often ask me, as I was the only non-white person in class, to narrate my experience in Kolkata (or Kolkata, as it is now known). I don’t think he ever saw himself in the sort of projects we see ourselves in, which generate a new set of concepts. I think it was much more straightforward pedagogical thing, but for me it created this idea of at least beginning to theorise urbanism from Kolkata. This task of thinking about the margins of the canon was tremendously inspiring to me.

At the same time as I was reading about the Chicago School in class, I was working nightshifts in this beautiful library. I would have to shut it up at 11pm, after which I would often wander through the stacks of books, sometimes sitting amongst them late into the night. One night I came across the writings of Manuel Castells. I remember reading The Urban Question (1977) and The City and the Grassroots (1983), which were not part of the required readings for class. I still have the notebooks in which I took notes that day. Those notes make no sense at all because the books did not make sense to me then, and yet I knew that they were changing my world, that there was something going on there. Of course, it was an idea of becoming not just an urbanist but also really beginning to understand neo-Marxist theory. I had found something that could explain what I was struggling with. So my initial way of making sense of Kolkata, making sense of what had drawn me to urbanism, was through Castells. The idea of it, at its heart for me, was about the grassroots of the city, about the city as politics.

GB: It’s interesting that the spaces outside normative urban theory are not geographically reducible. In thinking about the evocation of both Kolkata and Oakland, do you find yourself returning to the conversation between them, one you couldn’t have then?

AR: It has always been a theme for me, Gautam, in research and teaching. On one hand, of course there is the very blunt and crude task of saying: “Can we please stop talking about London and New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Enough! This is so parochial, so limited. Can we please take seriously the cities of the global south, where the urban future lies? This is where urbanism will unfold.” This is a blunt and crude task, but it’s an important one, and I don’t think the battle has been won.

GB: Who are you fighting this battle with?

AR: Jenny Robinson, the Durban-trained urban geographer currently a professor at University College London, would say that she is fighting that battle partly with a rather standard political economy of cities. But the global cities narrative of contemporary capitalism, as we know it, is one that can’t really make sense of economies of prosperity in the global south. I think it just gets it wrong. The folks who have advanced very sophisticated theories of neo-liberalism—I like them very much and I rely on their work greatly—depend still on a handful of case studies to explain what urban neo-liberalism entails. I think the task of simply expanding the repertoire of the site at which and through which we think about the urban political economy and global political economy continues to be a mission. But then as you pointed out, what we do with those geographic locations in relation to theory is another matter.

GB: Right, because the case can’t be just about adding a more diverse set of empirics to the conversation. It has to be more than just thinking about what is happening in the city, there is a need for a new set of conceptual lenses or vocabularies. You and others have written about such an emergent set of concepts that come from looking at the cities of the global south, including ideas of informality, worlding, extra-territoriality, grey spaces, to name a few. Do you see these new vocabularies or terms entering urban theory?

AR: Yes. I think precisely for me the idea of new geographies as theory is to think in a very straightforward way. This is inspired by Dipesh Chakrbarty’s work for sure, but more broadly postcolonial theory from Said to Spivak. I think Dipesh articulated it very nicely in Provincializing Europe (2000): we have to pay attention to thought and place. For me the starting point is that all theory is parochial. I was just finishing up the introduction for my new book, Territories of Poverty: Rethinking Poverty Scholarship, and I have been returning quite a bit to Karl Polanyi, the Hungarian social philosopher. I think Polanyi’s analysis of industrial revolution and welfare regimes is a very parochial story of a particular part of the England. Yet those ideas travel as universal theories.

I’m very interested in recognising how all theories are parochial—all theories come from place—but then asking: how we can put into motion concepts in theories that come out of the inevitably parochial experiences of certain cities in the global south? Because I think they tell us something important about all cities, including Oakland, Chicago, Detroit and so forth. They possibly also prefigure certain North-Atlantic futures, which is partly the argument that the Comaroffs are making in their new work. So if we think non-teleologically and relationally about the north and south, then I think we can see something very interesting in thinking from the south.

GB: It’s interesting that you’re using the word “parochial” and not “local”—they are very different ways in which place can figure in thought. Say a little more about that because one of the insistences in many disciplines is to pay attention to the local. One of the ways in which the motion of ideas is bounded and refused is when we are encouraged to be attentive to the local, without being wary of being reduced to the parochial. What do you think about that distinction, that slippage?

AR: I think that’s an important one, but I haven’t thought it through entirely. I think I am drawn to “parochial” because I am relying on Dipesh’s work and his idea of “provincialism” and what it means to recognise that universal thought is provincial thought. Even when it is making a set of global claims or analysing global processes it can still be provincial, which is a little different than a relationship between the local and global. I tend to stay away from the term “local” because it is too often used as something different than the global, as a counterpoint, when in fact that is not at all the case. So, again it is a relational not a locational term.

GB: You’ve written a lot about the nature of inquiry. When you challenge certain linear narratives or projectionist tendencies, and attempt to think relationally, what does that do to the project of comparative work? Because, again, so many ideas of comparative research come from such particular histories, including ones now so strongly critiqued, like area studies. I’ve always been compelled by the distinction you draw between “translocal” and “comparative” inquiry. In your work, say, comparing Hezbollah in Beirut and SPARC in Mumbai—a seemingly very odd and quite controversial comparison—you have insisted that you aren’t comparing like against like at all but, in fact, asking the same question from two different locations to say something about a larger concept. In some sense then, is the very nature of inquiry also then transformed by this different understanding of how knowledge is produced?

AR: I think that’s a great question, Gautam, and, in fact, you will find in Territories of Poverty that I take a strong, perhaps controversial, stance against that being a comparative project. Let me just say a few words about this. This project continues the work that I have been doing, along with others, in urban studies. It is an attempt to bring together what have been two very separate domains: on the one hand, folks who do critical ethnographies of development, which is understood to be in the global south, and folks who do social histories of welfare state, which is understood to be in the north Atlantic. So the idea was to say, how do we think about a new agenda of poverty scholarship capable of holding these two things simultaneously in view while recognising the present historical conjuncture? For me this has meant thinking about what I call a “rearranged world”.

Clearly, the north Atlantic is in crisis, an economic crisis. There are new formations of economic hegemony in the global south. How do we think about that? For me, that could be, in fact, a comparative project. But it’s not, because I am not interested, for example, in comparing economic crisis in the global north to prosperity in the global south. Nor am I interested in comparing patterns of poverty across the global south. I think all of that can be important, but it’s not my project. So instead, what does it mean for us to think relationally about the north and south, recognising that these are connected geographies in all sorts of ways? For me I take the cue in this book from poor peoples’ movements. I think what we have seen very much in the last two decades is an extraordinary set of global social movements. I am using that old phrase “poor people’s movements” because I think these are precisely that, and they have an imagination of trans-national thinking and global inter-connectivity. I would argue that their imagination is not one of comparison. And that to me is a cue. One of my opening lines in the book is that poor people’s movements have been doing this for some time—but can the critical theory catch up?

This is another way of thinking from the global south. The book starts with an article by Ben Austen that appeared in New York Times Magazine (“The Death and Life of Chicago”, 29 May 2013): it is about the southwestern periphery of Chicago, which is an area of great suburban poverty, foreclosed homes. It details a squatter movement called the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign that is directly inspired by the model of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in South Africa. They do housing take-overs based on things they’ve learnt from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign. That’s what I mean by inter-connected relational thinking and praxis of poor people’s movements. I am increasingly convinced that this is an important cue for critical theory.

GB: I’m struck by this idea that the movements in the south can pre-figure some of the urban transformations to come in the north. I’m sure this is an argument that will make many people uncomfortable because it basically challenges the temporality and linearity at the heart of projectionist thought. So much of our ideas of “development” are based on that idea. Do you think these moments of economic crisis in the west make this theoretical project so salient, as well as explain the kind of inter-referencing that is now happening between movements?

AR: Yes, and I think that these movements are well ahead of the curve. I think they already know that in fact new political imagination and vocabularies require us to think in non-teleological ways, in ways that defy the vocabulary and frames of development that we all inherited. When I started doing Territories of Poverty, it was so tempting to contrast the great recession of the north Atlantic with, say, the rise of the new Asian age, as Arrighi puts it. I am not willing to see this as some unilateral shift in economic hegemony from north to south. Nor am I interested in seeing this as divergent pathways. We need to think relationally: about the continuing contacts of imperialism, or global economic hegemony. But we need to recognise that we are also looking at these very uneven geographies, and we are looking at pre-figuration. What does that mean?

One example is perhaps around work. Take Jim Ferguson, who is talking about how waged employment cannot be the reality in relation to which social protection policies are crafted in the global south. He is talking primarily about the South African case and the debates there about the guaranteed minimum income. He is saying that informal income will be the new reality and that is the future. But that is not the case only in the context of South Africa or India—it is also very much the case in the context of the global north. And, in some ways, I would argue that therefore the innovations we have seen in the global south around social protection or housing policies, pre-figure the futures of the north Atlantic. I think they indicate the sorts of policy innovations and political practices that are going to be necessary in order to inhabit a world of great inequality.

GB: Let me take some advantage of our friendship here to be more personal. One of your arguments that I have always enjoyed is to take seriously the geographies of the institutions we inhabit and where knowledge is produced. I have just finished running a doctoral workshop for PhD students from both the global north and global south here in Bangalore. The differences among them have stayed me. One of the things I must ask then: what does it mean that so much of this thinking from the global south is being done by thinkers like yourself based in institutions in the north? Don’t you think it is necessary for this thinking to come from institutions that are based in the south? Can one think from the south if one is based in the powerful institutions of the north?

AR: I think this is one of the most important questions that we need to ask ourselves each time we think about the production of knowledge. The production of knowledge is inevitably an exercise of power and privilege. I come to this in two ways, one of which is from a long engagement with feminist ethnography. When I was in Kolkata as a PhD student, in the field for a year and a half, doing research in some of the poorest communities I will ever know, I had to constantly think about my role there. I didn’t see myself as giving voice to the poor. It’s a very patronising attitude, in the same way that any of us can give voice to the something called the south. Instead, I saw myself as an interlocutor whose politics of location indicated precisely the unequal geographies of power and privilege that she was studying.

Feminist ethnographers have always said that ethical feminist research is not possible, right? And yet we do it. What they mean by that statement is that feminist research can never live up to the values of solidarity that feminism espouses as a political philosophy. So, we do our research with a profound discomfort—and it is this sense of betrayal and discomfort that carries over into all research. I have never reconciled myself to the fact that I belong to one of the most powerful knowledge producing institutions on earth. And yet I try to make my students aware of this constantly because I think it is only by being aware of power and privilege that we can undo some of it.

I think undoing is also partly that practice of unlearning and this is where, for me, ethnography really matters. I think the only way we unlearn is, in fact, to think about field, and being in the field doesn’t mean just being in a squatter settlement in Kolkata or in a shack settlement in South Africa. It is also very much about turning what seems to be familiar and intimate into something that is strange. More recently, that has involved ethnographically thinking about, and deconstructing our world of authoritative knowledge. Studying it as something strange, studying it as we would the lives of the poor. That to me has been one way of making sense of how we produce authoritative knowledge, how strange the world is, how enclosed it is.

A colleague in Rio de Janeiro once said to me that we live in a world where there is profoundly unequal ownership of the means of the production of knowledge. I think that’s a reality. I think the North American academy remains an obscenely privileged place. Therefore, when I speak from the North American academy, I am speaking only from North American academy. I can’t claim to speak as an Indian. I can’t claim to speak as some sort of mediator or translator. All I can say from this place is that I am interested in unlearning, constantly, what some in the North American academy tend to enclose and guard.

GB: I want to talk about how this thinking about research and knowledge production translates into our teaching. You and I have taught together in a course called “global poverty” at Berkeley. In the course, I saw the sections that dealt with American poverty expand over the years. You once told me how this phenomenon was partly you responding to the demands of your students wanting to learn and see more about American inequality than they had in years past. How does this relational view of the north and the south translate into an altered political economy in the context of unlearning as you teach a course called “global poverty” inside a power institution in the north?

AR: Let me just preface that by saying that I find it that different intellectual projects play out in different ways in teaching. So, years ago, when I launched the urban studies major at Berkeley, the project of converting that into a pedagogy and teaching took very much the form that allowed you to learn the canon while dislocating the canon. With the global poverty course, as you rightly point out, the task became something else. It became a way of returning home to the first world by particularly engaging with the third world. When I first started teaching the course, I thought: “This is going to be some version of development studies.” It quickly turned out not to be the case. As you know, the class drew students from a range of political interests and professions—engineers, pre-medicine, environmental scientists—as well as a wide swath of the political spectrum. Many of them are drawn to the topic of poverty based on this idea of doing good.

This is a millennial can-do generation for whom poverty alleviation has become really important. But they see poverty as something that exists elsewhere: for them global poverty is poverty that exists in the third world, that they, as empowered citizens of the global north, can act upon. They see themselves as global leaders making change. I want them to hold on to this enthusiasm, but I also want them to question the politics of location. I think the most sophisticated and challenging task is to say: can we shift this generation from asking, “How can I end poverty?” to asking, “How is poverty produced?” The emphasis shifts in the terms we use; you yourself introduced in the class to the notion of “impoverishment” rather than “poverty”, the need to think about the ways in which inequality and privilege are produced, reproduced and maintained, and to do so across scale. I want them to think about power and inequality in North America, but I want them to think about it in this context of thinking about wealth, power and privilege, and not just humanitarianism and philanthropy.

GB: Let’s do an exercise here together. Let us take the ideas we have talked about and apply them to something happening today in cities across the south. We’re at this extraordinary moment of public movement, mobilisation and presence in cities that we care about. There is the incredible moment in Egypt, but there is also Sao Paulo, Istanbul and Delhi. One of the placards in Sao Paulo read, “Turkey is here.” There were signs in Cairo referencing Istanbul, signs in Istanbul referencing Delhi. To take seriously then that there is a new kind of relational inquiry, how do you organise a thought experiment that aims to theorise these moments? A lot of what I am reading about these movements tries to embed them, and rightly so, in Egypt’s history of dictatorship, in Turkey’s of secularism, in Sao Paulo’s democratisation, but I am wondering if we lose something if we don’t see them as more than just the sum of their individual parts? What reading is possible here?

AR: Let me turn that back to you: what do you think?

GB: I have been struggling with this for some time, at least since the big protests in Delhi around the gang rape that happened last December. I found myself in Cairo a few months ago and the questions echoed. I was talking about urban political mobilisations and making the argument that the multiple moments of mass gathering in Delhi that have marked the last few years—from India Against Corruption rallies and protests by middle-class shop-owners against the sealing of commercial shops to the anti-rape protests—cannot be explained by idioms of insurgence or a kind of egalitarian and progressive political demands, which I associate with a certain form of public politics that gathers and organises in the streets. In these gatherings, I see a very different kind of urban actor in the streets but one that is making a very similar set of claims in familiar places as social movements once did. I’ve been writing about this a little bit in thinking through how, in some senses, the first claims to the city in India seems to be coming from a place of much more power and privilege. Yet this privilege confounds more than usual because it uses a set of techniques that we associate historically with voices of marginality. These mobilisations then seem to be more, in the case of Indian cities, in the hands of elite actors trying to stabilise inegalitarian presents rather than insurgents seeking more equitable futures.

When I was in Cairo, and we were at the American University campus in Tahrir square itself, the question I asked people there was how post-revolutionary Egypt will deal with the co-option and reproduction that it will itself produce of the inequalities that birthed that moment of revolution. How it will account when power uses the public for its own ends. In some senses, in what some people have called a “post-development” moment in India, that moment, where the street and its slogans have been co-opted by the privileged rather than the poor, seems to have already arrived even there.

But the other thought that keeps occurring to me deals with the question of what these mobilisations say about the institutional landscape of these particular cities. Are these kinds of mass public actions a new form of mobilising around governance and change that is related very closely with very different histories of institutional fragmentation and failure in each of these sites? I was very struck by trying to understand the rape case in Delhi and trying to read both spectacular and everyday incidents of violence to be almost like cracks that fill a political void left by the absence of institutional reliability and trust in governance. I’m wondering if these acts of violence, like the political mobilisations, are also not different ways of “getting things done.”

AR: It is tempting to see these movements as all being part of a global thirst for democracy and democratisation. I fully agree with you that, in fact, they are better read as an emerging political language, almost an idiom. Last time I used that term, idiom, I think it was with urban informality because I don’t think there’s a generalised pattern of urban informality. It can mean dramatically different things in different cases. It can be used by elites; it can be used by subalterns. In a similar way, I think you are absolutely right that this sort of mass political gathering in ostensibly urban spaces is an idiom. So, I think the Brazil protests in both Rio and Sao Paulo are in fact protests that are about what Castells would have called “collective consumption.” They are the cities of the grassroots. I don’t think that’s the case with the Delhi rallies, I also don’t think that is the case at all in Egypt. I think the Istanbul case is an interesting one because clearly this has to do with the legitimacy of a regime that has turned away from secularism in Turkey, but it was clearly also triggered by a particular sort of urban struggle. There is something important in thinking about what these mass political gatherings engender, but there is also a relational thinking. I don’t want to suggest that this relational thinking is superficial but for me it is very much, as you point out, around language, idiom and style, rather than necessarily the solidarity movements. This is very different from La Via Campesina as a platform for peasant movements around the world coming together, struggling with food sovereignty. It is also different from shack dwellers and slum dwellers movements learning from each other.

GB: Yes, I think there’s a difference here. These mass gatherings are inter-referencing but this inter-referencing is playing a very different political role. I wonder, though, to keep with our theme of the possibility of the south “pre-figuring” some of the ways in which northern urbanisms play out, how can we think about that in this context. As we look at the changing geographies of prosperity and crisis in the north, how do they relate? Perhaps it’s in the way we see these geographies ourselves. I’m thinking about why I didn’t include the massive gatherings of students in Montreal, Toronto, London or even Berkeley’s struggle around tuition, against fee hikes. It would seem that we do have these filters in our head that come from our locations. Though, in some senses, I think that it is because, in the north, the fissures and cracks are more easily seen in university spaces than in everyday life in the city, which is itself undoubtedly related to the very different nature of collective consumption between these cities, and the cities of the south. Can we read that set of protests in this conversation as well?

AR: Well, maybe then what enters into the conversation is clearly the “occupy movement”—not as an originary or original moment, but as one of these many sites. The occupy movement, as it played our in Oakland, and the relationship between the movement and the apparatus of the police, was quite particular. It was very different than New York, say, or from other cities. I would agree with you that the occupy movement has a different sort of relational thinking. There was an attempt to inter-link occupy movements around the world with a very different sense of inter-referencing. So, there are all sorts of ways in which we can think about pre-figuration but also think about south, to quote Mathew Spark, “as being everywhere, but always being somewhere”