Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Urban, National and Transnational/Global Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Cities
Cities have long been associated with economic, social, moral, and salutary precarity. By its very nature, urban life - where relative anonymity, physical proximity to strangers, reliance on money economies, and an ever-changing built-environment converge with transnational flows of people, ideas, and capital - is often considered to produce unique challenges in terms of vulnerability, uncertainty, and risk.
This association between urbanity and danger seems to have intensified under the globalized regime of late capitalism. Access to secure jobs and welfare is increasingly tenuous, altering life-trajectories in unforeseen ways. Migrants and impoverished classes are pushed to derelict, stigmatized neighborhoods where they become objects of fear and disgust. And as public attention shifts from Grenfell to Barcelona to Kabul, media channels routinely offer horrifying spectacles reminding cities’ inhabitants and visitors how beautiful squares and places of worship - indeed, their very homes - could become death traps, suggesting that in these vast megacities one’s neighbor might well be one’s mortal enemy.
This panel explores contemporary linkages between precarity and urbanity through the systematic comparison of empirical data about cities and the experiences of those who build, visit, live, and work in them. Following Judith Butler, Veena Das and Shalini Randeria, this panel understands precarity as a politically-induced and unequally-distributed state of frailty and dependence. While observing that precarity is a multifaceted phenomenon that goes beyond material scarcity and encapsulates moral, legal, political, spatial, and ecological aspects, the session seeks to shed light on the complex – and occasionally ironic - manner in which these aspects interact. It likewise aims to uncover the modalities of action and opportunity that various forms of precarity enable and foreclose in the city.
In their contributions, panelists examine the expansion of and resistance to urban immigration enforcement regimes in Atlanta (US); the appropriation of murals celebrating black history in processes of gentrification in Oakland (US); cycles of urban-rural migration amongst female construction workers in Bengaluru (India); the challenges of living in and logistically supplying “accidental cities” and refugee camps in Kenya’s semi-arid Garissa County; and urban ride sharing and the gig economy in the United States and China.
Taken in concert, these diverse case studies address issues central to the urban-precarity nexus. They investigate how ideological discourses used to make sense of cities are reproduced, and how they come to impact the management of public and domestic space, frequently in ways that exclude and render invisible individuals and groups thought threatening or vulnerable. These discourses include – but are not limited to – historically widespread juxtapositions of urban poverty, crime, social fragmentation, immorality, and disease with idyllic images of village life. Panelists additionally inquire how and why political and economic actors create senses of precarity in and through the urban landscape. Above all, these papers empirically reflect on the strategies people use to resist, adapt to, and live with precarity, and whether urban forms of precarity - as suggested by Anne Allison and Mike McGovern – can unlock new avenues of prosperity, hope, relationality, and affect.