I am an urban, economic, and environmental sociologist working transnationally in the United States and India as an ethnographer and qualitative researcher. My work connects struggles over urban infrastructures—water in the United States and waste systems in India—to larger questions of how social inequalities shape urban economies and local governments. I maintain a deep commitment to practicing sociology as a means of social transformation.
My research has examined the social bases for the persistence of informal waste work in Delhi and identified mechanisms through which racial divides endure in Detroit and Flint. In all three cities, I show how residents seek to ensure their rights to sanitation, clean water, and economic livelihoods.
My US-centered research examines the politics of water infrastructures and the stigmatization of black-led cities. My article “The Structural Origins of Territorial Stigma:Water and Racial Politics in Metropolitan Detroit” (International Journal of Urban & Regional Research, 2016) shows how white suburban politicians drummed up racial stereotypes of black Detroit leadership as incompetent and predatory. This established a denigration of place, or territorial stigma, that allowed the regional government to shift the increasing financial burden of water infrastructure onto majority-black and low-income Detroiters in the following decades. This article received the journal’s best paper award for 2016. Turning to Flint, Michigan, my recent collaborative article, “Organizing Under Austerity: How Flint Residents’ Concerns Became the Flint Water Crisis” (Critical Sociology, 2018) charts how activists under emergency management inverted the politics of discredit and forged ties with credible institutions in order gain recognition for residents’ suffering.
My dissertation Reclaiming Waste, Remaking Communities—which will serve as the basis for my first book project—is an ethnographic study of India’s informal urban garbage collection and scrap recycling economy, based on over twenty months of fieldwork. Across Delhi, thousands of informal workers collect garbage from middle-class households, sorting it first into wet and dry, and then into around a dozen different items for re-use and recycling. Remarkably, these informal collectors have survived the recent introduction of competing municipal services heavily promoted as part a public-private partnership program prioritizing incineration. I ask: How do informal garbage collectors survive when the city and its new public-private partnerships are trying to push them out? And what do these collectors’ strategies of survival tell us about the persistence of urban informal economies more generally?
I argue that informal economic actors have been able to effectively undermine state-backed encroachments on their de facto territory by cultivating appeal with their middle-class patrons, engaging in particular economic and social practices that foster long-term bonds and hold out the promise of improved social status. I identify exchange relations and practices that function like contracts in this setting, showing how they generate particular responsibilities. Through these economic practices, moreover, status is reconfigured as actors take on new identities and relationships in the urban context. Contemporary urbanization, then, is marked by the reconfiguration, and not the replacement, of traditional economic practices.