I am an urban sociologist who uses ethnographic and historical methods to explain processes of socio-economic transformation. In particular, my work has analyzed how social relations facilitate economic provisioning and exchange in the Indian informal economy and the enduring significance of postcoloniality, race, and caste in Indian and U.S. cities.
My dissertation, titled Reclaiming Waste, Remaking Communities, is a detailed ethnographic study of economic life in India’s informal garbage collection and scrap recycling economy. During twenty months of ethnographic fieldwork, I discovered that Delhi’s informal garbage collectors—who recycle papers and plastics, but also human hair—had survived the recent introduction of competing municipal garbage collection trucks, which were part of a public private partnership program that prioritized incineration. The presence of both actors on the ground produced a visible state boundary, which was mutually recognized if also transgressed.
The dissertation begins by analyzing the production of this boundary, effectively untangling a complicated knot of urban governance institutions in practice. It proceeds by identifying particular exchange relations–for example between Bengali Muslim newcomers and more established Dalit groups of informal collectors, informal collectors and middle-class residents, and scrap buyers. Through practices of indebtedness, account-keeping, and monetary exchange, I find that actors create relationships straddling city and village that function like contracts. Moreover, I find that the lure of earning money can provide an incentive for new actors to take up stigmatizing work, even in the context of a caste-stratified India.
In responding to the question of persistence, then, the project surveys the urban re-making of established social and institutional hierarchies, drawing on concepts from economic anthropology to conceptualize exchange practices as transactions with social-structural effects.
A second body of work examines the politics of infrastructure in the United States, with a focus on water. A first project on the history of the metropolitan Detroit water system, which has served around 140 regional municipalities, found that white suburban leaders organized against the black-led city beginning in the mid 1970s by characterizing the city as greedy and inept for attempting to increase water rates. The result of their actions, I argue, was to cultivate an enduring territorial stigma at the administrative level. A second collaborative project analyzes the events of the Flint water crisis, charting how activists inverted the politics of discredit in order to have their claims taken seriously.