For a productive dialogue between urban anthropology and urban sociology in India


In the LASSNET conference held in December 2016, I had the chance to meet wonderful urban anthropologists and attend some phenomenal presentations. The panel on techno-utopias of identification in which Tarangini Sriraman, Nayanika Mathur, Ranjit Singh and Anu Karippal (Azim Premji, B-lore) presented was a treat. The work of anthropology is not in the resolution of problems but in the raising of critical questions, that shake some of the very foundations we take for granted. The art of weaving in a critique of the subject that we deal with, all the engaging in a keen sense of practice, while asking fundamental conceptual and theoretical questions is an art that does not come easy. The presentations I was privileged to attend were short of music to my parched ears, in a place where there is so little of this rhythm of anthropology.

In a country in which urban studies and urban sociology far outweighs urban anthropology, both in terms of courses and the research that is being conducted, it makes me wonder why anthropologists like MN Srinivas and André Béteille were successful and yet unsuccessful when it comes to studying the urban. Urban sociology has always teetered on the in-between spaces of activism and academic study, with some of the earliest urban sociologists being activists first – for example Usha RamanathanSheela Patel and now more recently Gautam Bhan. The line between practice and research is very thin as researchers are often drawn by both forces, to research but also to make a difference, a real difference. With the state relying on the expertise of these activist researchers, the study of the urban has increasingly become normative and practice oriented, focused more at resolving problems than at asking those fundamental uncomfortable questions that practitioners often consider irrelevant and complicating. An anthropology of everyday practices can add a dimension to policy, law and institutional analysis that enriches the study of the urban. Yet a productive dialogue between these two factions is far from near.

What can anthropology lend to a legal or political analysis? I have been researching urban poverty, visiting and studying every year one of Bangalore’s largest rehabilitation area – Laggere. My work looks precisely at what happens post rehabilitation and this is an area that is less researched. Ayona Datta’s work ‘Illegal City’ is one of the few exceptions and though my work is on the same subject, it uses a different lens. I look at the ways in which the urban poor navigate laws, policies and institutions, through a series of everyday negotiations that defy the very laws that are meant to ensure their control. The govern mentality in these areas is meant to be contorted, readapted, renegotiated and often diverted. A strictly legal and policy analysis cannot reveal these practices and though sociology does look closely at these practices, anthropology enables a deeper engagement with these practices as reflective of norms that surpass or ebb over defined legal and policy frameworks. Fundamental questions of what one means by law, evidence and institutions is thus integral to the practice of anthropology while sociology takes these institutions as a given. It is this questioning that then enables anthropologists to look at formal laws, institutions, policies, etc as much broader, as constituting a sub set of broader sets of social institutions and norms.

Anu Karippal’s presentation of the affective career of the document (slum files) takes this analysis further to look at how formal legal documents and what they mean, permeate the consciousness and the lives of the urban poor, reflecting how the normative can then pervade the affective. Her wonderful exposé of the manner in which people treat documents, storing them close to the photographs of deities in their homes, brought a smile to my face. So much of what we do as urban anthropologists is often to do with the political, with institutions and institutional actors, and yet this dimension of the affective is something we are all familiar with. Having travelled non stop since the last couple of months, I remember vividly checking and rechecking my passport and my tickets, afraid I would be stuck without them. The loss of a passport during a journey is equal to a loss of self, through the loss of identity. I remember passing by immigration and wondering what my document revealed of me – did it show that I have not visited the permanent address mentioned in it since the last 10 years?  What did my picture reveal of me? Recently at the Manipal Police station, when I visited for a police verification for a visa to Brazil, I was told by the officer that I had changed a lot from the photo in my passport. I felt my heart sink and rise at the same time – sink because I wondered if I would have to get the passport reissued, and rise because I am now leaner and healthier than I was in the picture. After noting that my passport was issued in Switzerland, much of the lengthy procedures were shortened. The passport was me, somehow it represented who I was to the extant that this police man I had never met before trusted me more than he would have, if it had been issued in India.

These testimonies of how these documents affect us, make us skip a heart beat, give us a sense of elation, relief and sometimes even joy, is rarely looked at. Identity documents  that the urban poor rely on – aadhar cards, ration cards, BPL/APL cards, allotment certificates, slum declaration documents, seem to possess a similar sway over the lives of the urban poor. Documents that attest a life, a lifetime, of struggles, of negotiation, and the quest to make it in the city. Documents are not just about politics in these experiences, they are also about upheavals, fatigue, struggle, frustration, relief and desire. They embody the urban poor’s quest to survive the city, to bring dignity to an otherwise harsh and pitiless city. Documents are creatively produced by the urban poor who wish to possess these signs of their lives in the city. Slum ‘leaders’ are often those who can enable the production of formal documents. But apart from these formal pieces of proof of living in the city, a range of informal documents are also produced. The piece of paper thus acquires much more significance as it is not just something that is produced to obtain something, but is produced to establish a relationship with the city, irrespective of the state’s affirmation of this life. The trajectory of the document is thus not just that of its political significance and the exclusions, but also ways of relating to oneself. img_1079

Anthropology and the detailed ethnographies it entails enables the emotive and the affective surface and it is this that makes this work endearing while evoking fundamental questions. To the urban poor nothing is more important than the slum file, copies of which are often safeguarded in homes and in the offices of urban poor organizations. The everyday ethnographies of these experiences can complete the study of the urban and lend a more balanced view to what we see and experience in the urban world. Its with the hope that these two different factions can engage in a productive dialogue that I end this note.


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