My research elaborates the sources of everyday practices and logics that shape urban economic and environmental institutions. I am an urban sociologist who uses tools from cultural and economic sociology in order to investigate how social relations facilitate economic provisioning and exchange, the processes through which competing environmental logics shape urban planning decisions, and how the legacy of key historical experiences – particularly colonial rule and postcolonial visions in India and the legacy of racial segregation in the U.S. – continue to shape contemporary cities. I am fundamentally concerned with identifying how processes of socio-economic change, or development, actually occur. I do this by using qualitative and ethnographic forms of analysis that seeks to join the traditions of urban ethnography with urban political economy.
My dissertation examines the domain typically known as the “informal economy,” where legally permissible goods or services are provided through legally unrecognized forms of organization. In it, I analyze a case where multiple actors have come to differently define their relationship to a common issue: garbage collection. Beginning in the 2000s, cities across India expanded their municipal garbage programs through corporate contracts, which frequently infringed into territory previously served by informal garbage collector-recyclers. The high-level state’s modernist urban vision, which has served as an impetus for increased spending on state programs, thus conflicted with existing practices. Twenty months of ethnographic fieldwork in the capital city of Delhi revealed a surprising finding: while the number of state collection programs are rising, informal collection and recycling economies are persistently strong. The question my dissertation addresses, then, is: What makes informal economies so persistent? More specifically, How are markets organized and sustained on the margins of state authority?
To begin, I examine the category of “informality.” How is this understood and deployed by state officials? In turn, how do these understandings shape the range of social possibilities for different actors? Then, I turn to the non-bureaucratic sources of meaning and hierarchies that structure opportunities for garbage collectors and scrap recycling business operators. I argue that existing planes of meaning and social structure are redeployed from villages to urban economic contexts in order to provide a reconfigured scaffolding for repeated economic exchange. By analyzing the actual categories and practices that serve to coordinate actors within these extra-legal economic relations, I demonstrate that there are multiple ways that actors coordinate in contract-like relations without state-backed contracts. Specifically, I demonstrate how monetary exchanges and the maintenance of long-term accounts serve to solidify repeated transactions.
A second project analyzes how racial biases became institutionalized in US metropolises through processes of stigmatizing administrations. I investigate the Detroit water department, arguing that suburban political leaders effectively organized to mark the City of Detroit as administratively inept after the election of the city’s first black mayor in 1974. This characterization of the city endured, I argue, and produced a defensive stance toward sovereignty, effectively setting in motion a vicious cycle of stigma that protects suburban interests and thwarts regional cooperation.