Geographies of Informal and Precarious Labour Seminar Series

Hilary Term Seminar Series

Transformations Cluster – SoGE – University of Oxford.
All talks will be held in the Gilbert Room in the School of Geography and the Environment, South Parks Road.

Tuesday 26th January, 4pm: Seth Schindler, The University of Sheffield

“Paradigmatic urbanism in the global South”

Thursday 11th February, 4pm: Kate Maegher, London School of Economics and Political Science

“The Dark Side of Inclusion:  Informal Enterprise, Inclusive Markets and Islamic Extremism in Nigeria”

Tuesday 23rd February, 4pm: Author meets critics session with Linda McDowell, University of Oxford

“Migrant Women’s Voices: talking about life and work in the UK since 1945 (2015)”

Critics: Negar Behzadi (SoGE, Oxford), Olivia Robinson (History, Oxford), Dr. Carmen Teeple Hopkins (SoGE, Oxford), Dr. Tim Schwanen (SoGE, Oxford) and (to be confirmed shortly: Dr. Patricia Daley (SoGE, Oxford)

Tuesday 8th March, 4pm: Andrew Brooks, King’s College London

“Informal and Precarious Labour in New and Second-hand Clothing Industries: Persistent Poverty in Southern Africa”

Seminar theme 

This seminar series explores the changing patterns of the uneven and variegated geography of contemporary capitalism (Peck and Theodore 2007) by focusing on the role of labour and the underpinning social relations (Brooks 2012, Coe and Hess 2012). The series examines the relationship between informality and precariousness and the differences between these two categories across geographical and social landscapes.

Insecurity and violations of labour standards and occupational health and safety regulations are common features of precarious and informal labour. Not all definitions of informality and precarity, however, correspond to this characterization. Whilst precarious work is usually characterized by low pay (Vosko 2006), increasingly there are precarious and informal workers who earn high wages. One body of literature argues that informal activities can provide job opportunities to marginalized and stigmatized groups (Gutberlet 2012); we assess the variations of wage and insecurity among precarious and informal workers. This seminar series critically engages with theories of informality and precariousness.

A range of literatures has dealt with these questions. Feminist economic geographers have challenged conventional definitions of paid work by highlighting the importance of unpaid domestic work to capitalist production (Massey 1984; McDowell 1989; 1991), an argument that remains integral to contemporary discussions of precarious work (Strauss and Meehan 2015). Similarly, the literature on informality has questioned narratives that divide the formal from the informal economy (Meager 2013, Schindler 2013). Presenters in our seminar series will reflect on these interpretations to create a dialogue between the scholarship on precarity and informality. Specifically, this series particularly gives voice to research on: women, immigrants, migrants, children, and workers in the Global South.


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Michaelmas Term Transformations Cluster and Technological Natures Cluster Seminar Series

Tuesday 20th October (week 2) 4pm, Herbertson room
Karen Till, National University of Ireland Maynooth
‘Decolonising urban imaginaries: Land justice, memory-work and care in wounded cities’

Thursday 22nd October (week 2) 4pm Herbertson room
Dr Bronwyn Parry, KCL
‘Economies of Assisted Reproduction: Regulation as Normative Performance?

Tuesday 3rd November (week 4) 4pm, Gilbert room
Al James, QMUL
‘Minorities getting in and getting on? Segmented labour geographies of employability, skill development and (im)mobility in India’s New Service Economy’

Tuesday 10th November (week 5) 4pm, Herbertson room
Elaine Ho, National University of Singapore
‘Incongruent migration categorisations and competing citizenship claims: ‘Return’ and hypermigration in transnational migration circuits’

Tuesday 1 December (week 8) 4pm, Gilbert Room
Kevin Ward, University of Manchester
‘On the waterfront: experimentation, innovation and speculation in the financing of urban infrastructure’

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Popsicle freeways, plastic parks: participation in urban planning. In conversation with James Rojas

James Rojas and Anna Davidson (twitter: @acdavids)

James Rojas and I met at the Congress for New Urbanism in Dallas, Texas. James gave a presentation on Latino/a Urbanism – the myriad of ways in which Latino/a cultural influences transform U.S. urban fabric. James is an urban planner, community activist and artist. He previously worked for Metro (the public transportation agency in Los Angeles), and now runs public-engagement community visioning workshops entitled Place-It. This summer I took part in his session Create Your Ideal Freeway through Art and Play. As my research takes a feminist materialist lens to consider power and mobility on Los Angeles streets, we spoke about how his method of engagement might allow for more accessible envisioning of future cities.

Picture1 Participants build favourite childhood memory, at Place-It workshop, Los Angeles, June 2015, (Photo: James Rojas)

Anna: At the Place-It workshop I was struck by the open-endedness of your first question: “think back to your favourite memory from childhood”, and the instruction to use plastic props available to ‘build’ this memory. All the memories recounted by workshop participants involved family, friends, and some form of space of play – the seaside, grass, water in a pool – the memories seemed so far removed from the freeways we were to envision in our next exercise. I’m curious how this initial open question might allow for wider accessibility. As you phrased it; everyone has been a kid, so this is something anyone could talk about. You mentioned this being particularly empowering for women you’ve had in your workshop, why do you think this is the case?

James: If we want to bring better, more comprehensive data to our search for urban planning solutions, we need to consider different outreach strategies and visioning tools to engage women in meaningful ways. Acknowledging that need is the first step. Most urban planning public outreach meetings become competitions among different interests, in which the loudest person or the biggest group wins. Not everyone likes to play that game, nor should they be forced to. Collaborative experiences and activities — not competitions — are what we need if we want to detect everyone’s needs and goals. This activity also validates everyone’s personal experiences, which may not be planning related.

Anna: I’m interested in your notion of ‘better comprehensive data and solutions for urban planning’. If the aim is to build cities that are collaborative experiences and activities, perhaps then citizens need to have a say in what the definition of ‘better data’ and urban solutions are? From a feminist perspective it could be argued that strategies to better include women (or others with less access to political power) in current practices may be helpful, but it is the practices and aims that may ultimately need to change. Your workshop leads to that point too: Some of the visions presented by participants represented spaces that are playful, safe, “full of love” …These aren’t visions you commonly hear as top priorities for cities.

James: What I observed from these workshops is that urban space is thought about, and experienced in different ways.  What makes people happy, secure, and function in cities is both physical and their own perception of that space. It’s fairly straight forward to understand the physical form of urban space but we all seem to carry a mental state of urban space that is shaped by our experiences, memories, needs, and desires that may impact how we use that space. This is what I find interesting. In places like LA, often they will hire an urban designer to fix a space and they fail because the space becomes their own and not a collective design process.  So, for example, many public spaces in LA like Pershing Square are not female friendly. However at the same time you have rich spaces like Boyle Heights where immigrants have retrofitted spaces to meet their needs. This is driven by the mental space in their minds based on previous experiences.

I was thinking how the role of the city center is evolving from being an economic power to a place to live.  Besides places like London and New York which still retain their commercial business districts most downtowns have seen an increase in housing and the jobs and retail is out in the suburbs. This shift calls for a change of planning. For example most transportation systems like freeways were designed to bring workers and shoppers in and out the cities, however this model is becoming obsolete.  With this change comes a paradigm shift in how we plan for living in cities rather than working in cities.  My method attempts to capture this shift.

Anna: This shift towards seeing urban living as a desirable, profitable ‘new frontier’ was really highlighted at the Congress for New Urbanism in Dallas, and it was clear that property developers and urban planners were excited about the prospects for increased urban density, increased walkability, cycling and public transport usage. I was concerned by what this means for lower-income residents already living in these areas. In Los Angeles, for example, I’m thinking of areas like Highland Park that have seen displacement due to gentrification. It raises the question of who can be part of a collective design process now in, say, Highland Park, if they no longer can afford to live there? Do gentrification and displacement come up in your workshops?

James: The Place it, collective design process is a way of giving displacement closure by allowing us to learn how these places lost impacted our lives. Places that we hold dear are like people because we develop emotional and physical relationships with them and they become integral parts of our lives. The way these places are physically, socially and culturally structured shape our bodies, and emotions. They become a blueprint on how we view, create, and interact with the environment around us.

Displacement is like a sudden death because something we once valued is abruptly taken away from us. Enduring places are like people and are interwoven with physical responses and memories created by interactions with other people in a place. When a person dies we have a funeral, an eulogy and reflect back on that person’s life and how they impacted us individually and collectively.

However when we are displaced because of outside forces there is often no closure. We leave and disperse with an individual loss and collective sadness or pain that is rarely reflected on.  We never learn how these places, like people, impacted our lives and how to bring closure to the removed place. By bringing closure to places we can learn what we valued from it and how we can reproduce the same environment elsewhere.

The first activity for the Place It workshop is for people to build their favorite childhood memory because this is a place that matters to us. The childhood stories help people bond and create empathy for each other. By building the memory participants investigate the physical form of the built environment that shaped that memory. From an architecture/design/planning perspective the physical details of these models inform us on how we interact and value the world around us. This is important information because we can understand places we value and reproduce those places elsewhere. When my family neighborhood was demolished I was able to go back later on and study what was lost and how it shaped my life. This understanding gave me closure for my family’s displacement by highlighting what that space represented. Unlike the death of people that have closure, places that we lose rarely do.

Anna: Your thoughts show that we can’t think of places as being tied to a map, a country or a street, just like we can’t think of mobility as simply a body moving from place A to B. As you say, places shape who we are and we carry them with us, equally our movements and displacements shape and identify us (as in the term “migrant”). It also makes me think of the tensions between mobility and displacement – especially how a mobility infrastructure can mean some people’s displacement or confinement, at the same time as others’ enhanced mobility (for example, the Tel Aviv – Jerusalem  train, or in L.A. the freeways built through Boyle Heights). At the Place–It session, I thought of these political questions because I found it difficult to design an ‘ideal’ car-based freeway, one that doesn’t pollute, doesn’t kill people and doesn’t displace and break up communities…I guess partly because these questions are about historical context (who lives there?) and future impacts (who will benefit or be harmed?), whereas focusing on designing the freeway, felt like an exercise outside of time and place. I wondered also, given how bodily/’sensory’ and interactive so many childhood memories are, whether the freeway comes up in your workshop as a favourite childhood memory? Is a freeway a ‘place’ in that sense? Or is it the car?

Picture2A freeway underpass designed at the Place-It workshop (Photo: James Rojas)

James: For Americans after WW II the newly constructed freeways and cars were a sign of progress, technology, and access. The single-family house, and car was the new (male) gadget. Gas was cheap, there was plenty of free parking and no traffic made freeways the ideal travel mode for many. Freeways also opened up hundreds of miles of land for affordable housing.  Local Sunday family drives became an event and trips to destinations like the beach or visiting friends and family were common.  Many Americans grew up making cross-country road trips visiting national parks, or out of state family members.

For people who grew up in this era of the family drive, driving became a favorite childhood memory for a few especially in California where freeway construction and development was innovative and massive. Most of these people were too young to drive, but being with family, conversing, listening to music, playing games, and gazing out the window looking at orange groves in the California sun made it a visceral experience.

For example these are some stories and models that illustrate this point. A woman built a model of the State of California and spoke about the family road trips they would make up and down the state. One woman built a model of a street with trees and spoke about her father driving her around LA teaching her the names of the trees they saw. Another woman spoke of her father driving her around LA showing her the latest new buildings.  A woman built a car model and spoke about the evening drives and conversations she would have with her father during this time. A man built a model of a farm in Pomona, California when they were building the freeway through it.  He said they played with the sewer pipes and the razed dirt.

Freeways and cars in themselves are not special places but it’s the interactions with others and visceral experiences people created through this infrastructure that have become enduring. Today congestion, the price of gas, expensive lodging, cheaper flights, and lack of parking prohibit this type of mobility. People see driving as a negative experience and rarely build freeways and cars as their ideal city.  However access to places, being with family, social interactions, the open air, are mobility values for people. Maybe freeways and cars can inform the next generation of mobility infrastructure.

Picture3A cycle and pedestrian freeway, designed at the Place-It workshop (Photo: James Rojas)

Anna: I can’t help but ask, given my group designed a bicycle & pedestrian ‘freeway’ (above): Have you found that bicycles feature in participant’s memories or in their future visions of cities?

James: Bikes often appear both in people’s childhood memories and in their ideal city. Learning how to ride a bike is a rite of passage for many children and it frequently comes up as a favorite childhood memory. When we are children our body dictates actions to our brain and from what I have observed through the workshops is that riding a bike as a physical urge, a challenge, an accomplishment, an extension of walking, socializing with friends, and a way to explore the world around them.  Adults will talk about the hours spent learning how to ride a bike: “And than it happened” that euphoric experience of accomplishment.  Recently an African American participant built her favorite childhood memory and it was learning how to ride a bike on an asphalt lot in NYC. Or participants will talk about the places they would go with their friends. One man said every summer he and his friends would ride their bikes to Chicago’s lake-front to see the downtown skyline and lake.  One woman from the Caribbean said that in her village there was only one bike so everyone took one-hour turns riding it and rode as far as they could during their turn.

From what I have observed, bike infrastructure is frequently constructed in people’s models for their ideal city, this is for various reasons such as improved mobility, health, sustainability, social equity or enhancing the experience of the city.

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By Viresh Patel

During the Hindu festival of Diwali I was living in small rural village of south Gujarat. This entry is a snapshot of time spent with a pair of brothers from a wealthier Hindu family in the village, providing a brief insight into their perspectives on alcohol, the local village government, and manufactured goods.

Ranchhod is in his late 20s. A recent graduate with a Ba in Psychology from the city, he lives in a small pakka ghar (concrete house) with his parents and brother. Following the family’s annual tradition, during the build up to Diwali I accompanied Ranchhod on a trip into the nearby city to purchase a small selection of fireworks for he and his family to celebrate.

One warm evening we head out onto the rooftop terrace of the house, accompanied by his elder brother, Prabhu. Ranchhod crouches down, carefully loading the mislabelled ‘Whissling Roket’ into an empty bottle by the dim light of his mobile phone screen. Shrugging off the misspelt English, I tilt my head slightly and lean in to examine the bottle more closely: ‘Haywards 5000 – Indian Premium Beer’. As Ranchhod strikes a loose match, the shimmering light illuminates a series of other discarded Haywards-branded bottles and cans scattered across the mosaicked terrace floor.

Noting my intrigue, Prabhu proceeds to explain. “In all India, daru (alcohol) is banned in only our state but still Gujarat has the biggest business of black (illegal) daru. So instead we buy 100 percent proper alcohol. It is better for your health.”

As our conversation continues, Ranchhod burns through three more matches. I ask whether there are ever any attempts to curb the local trade of illegally brewed alcohol. With his eyes fixated on the light of the match, Ranchhod dismissively points out that the police do sometimes come to raid villages but usually “some politics happens and a rate is agreed.” Prabhu, visibly disgruntled by the topic of conversation, proceeds on a two minute long rant about the Panchayat (village government) and how they control the brewing business. “Look, I’ll tell you”, he says, tucking a large piece of chewing tobacco under his lower lip and proceeding to speak in a muffled tone, “They’re all involved. Police, Panchayat, people who brew desi daru. To us, they brew it, drink it, come to do raids; to us, they’re all the same person. You get involved and it’s dangerous.” 

Especially with Daru”, chimes in Ranchhod, holding a freshly lit match to the rocket’s fuse. “People get addicted to the chemicals and will do anything for another bag (in the village daru is typically distributed in watertight plastic bags)”.

Conversation is interrupted as the rocket begins to howl prematurely, not yet having launched itself from the bottle. Retreating a few metres further back, Prabhu shouts in jest, “Look, Viresh! Look! Mangalyaan!”, a humorous reference to India’s Mars Orbiter Mission launched in November 2013. A huge explosion of light briefly blinds us all as the defective rocket erupts on the terrace, accompanied by an ear-splitting ‘BANG!’. As my hearing comes to, I notice the heckles of a group of village youth who have gathered on the roadside below to set off small firecrackers near the local bus stop.

China! China!”, they shout, “That’s from China!

A hot-headed Prabhu proceeds to hurl profanities in the vague direction of the bus stop whilst a more collected Ranchhod smirks at his elder brother’s reaction. As the two of us stray over to perch on the terrace’s parapet, he looks back at his brother and tells him to calm down. “In the city”, he explains to me, “a lot of cheap products sold on the roadside come from China. You can buy a Rs.100 rocket for Rs.15 or Rs.20 if it comes from China. Stores all over the city buy imported goods from over there, they sell mostly electronics but also when big festivals come products are imported.

I question the youths’ immediate and vociferous reaction to the rocket’s failure to launch. Ranchhod takes out his phone and hands it to me. “Look at this mobile phone. This is not from China. But if you visit an electronics store in the city, you will find one that looks 100 percent the same. Look at the plastic here, the big parts will look exactly like this. But instead of quality parts inside, these parts.. .”, he demonstrates, pointing out the power button and volume switch, “. ..are different. Instead of expensive components they are cheap and will break easily. When they do, villagers have to pay more to repair them or will just buy a new phone and sell the old one for repair work.

I cast my mind back to time spent in the nearby city; elderly men patrol the streets heaving huge netted sacks over their backs hawking all sorts of discounted goods, from kitchen knives to counterfeit iPhone earphones and mobile phone chargers, all for exceptionally low prices. Granted not all of these will be Chinese imports, but the sentiment among youth in this village indicates that a notable proportion is likely to be.

On a broader level, statistics support Ranchhod’s on-the-ground observations. Bilateral trade between India and China is considerably unbalanced; China currently exports a $51bn worth of goods compared to India’s $15bn, alongside a heavier focus on manufactured goods as opposed to India’s raw materials export. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is making steps to address this imbalance. In September 2014 he unveiled his ‘Make in India’ campaign, a national drive with the aim of turning India into a global manufacturing hub. The campaign incentivises companies, both domestic and international, to invest in 25 key sectors in all states across India, with Modi promising a ‘red carpet, not red tape’ to investors.

I briefly mention the campaign to Ranchhod, suggesting that maybe this will see a change in cost and quality of products found in the city. Maybe it will bring about a noticeable shift toward more local, Gujarat-made goods being sold in and around the city? My comment appears to aggravate his elder brother. “Look”, Prabhu interjects, apparently still fuming at audacity of the hecklers down below, “these campaigns come and go. The big men stay big, and us little men stay little. All of this money comes in but we will never see it.

Gujarat, where Modi held his position as Chief Minister for 12 and a half years, has long played a key role in India’s economic development and is no stranger to attracting domestic and international investment. In January 2015 it will hold its seventh Vibrant Gujarat Summit, a biennial event held by the Government of Gujarat designed to promote an investor-friendly climate. Many have perceived the summit as a great success, attracting increasing foreign investment commitments since its inception in 2003. However, it has also come under great scrutiny. Many of whom I have spoken to allege the state’s ‘big-business’ approach to be at the expense of the everyday villager. When in their early stages, commercial drives to set up medium- and large-scale industries in rural areas boast job creation for rural youth and semi-skilled workers, but many rural villagers suggest that sustained employment opportunities fail to materialise.

The Vibrant Gujarat Summit has an ongoing action plan for Industry Responsive Skill Development, acknowledging how ‘the major skill gaps are at the entry level as students are not ‘industry ready’”. These deficiencies are in need of addressing if Gujarat’s rural population is to take up some of the 100 million additional jobs the Make in India campaign hopes to creates by 2022. Perhaps in the near future youth from the village will be manufacturing their own high quality, low-cost replacement components for their mobile phones in a factory nearby.

As we turn to head back indoors, Prabhu shines his torch over to the upright beer bottle, sitting in its original place unscathed from the failed launch attempt.

Majbūt! (Strong!)”, he shouts, marvelling at its resilience.

Must be made in India”, Ranchhod smirks.


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What counts as work and who counts as worker in post-apartheid South Africa

By Hannah Dawson

With close to fifty percent of young people (aged 15-34) in South Africa without work, unemployed youth are frequently portrayed in the media as the source of social chaos and moral decay. This moral panic finds expression in the governments emphasis on job creation, economic participation and entrepreneurialism and the recently released Draft Youth Policy for 2014-2019 that emphasises the need to get youth into work to ‘strengthen a culture of patriotic citizenship’ and enable youth to become ‘responsible adults’. Drawing upon my masters research that explored young people’s, particualry young men, role in poltiical protests in Zandspruit informal settlment (on the outskirts of Johannaesburg, South Africa) in 2011 and my current PhD research, this blog post is an attempt to explores how the unemployed young men I spent time with position themselves within the govenrment’s rhetoric that ties waged work intimately to social citizenship and personhood. I highlight two disconnects between the official discourse of ‘getting youth into jobs’ and the social and economic reality of young men in Zandspruit.

What took me to Zandspruit originally was not an interest in people’s economic lives but a string of local political protests representing wide-ranging discontent with local government representation and a lack of basic services. In an attempt to understand the central role of young people in this unrest, my study revealed that the underlying reason for participation amongst youth was the discrepancy between the ‘better life’ promised during the transition to democracy and the recognition that this promise has not been realised in their lives (Dawson, 2014).

The absence of work was dominant in young people’s experience of constrained agency and frustrated aspirations. Many of the young men I got to know had worked sporadically, moving in and out of temporary jobs to which they were not committed or that did not pay adequately or, in some instances, from which they had been fired. Others relied on haggling with residents, criminal activity and cultivating relationships with kin, peers, neighbors and patrons to ‘get by’. Moreover, many young people who complained about not having a job refused to engage in work that was locally available or accept wages below a certain threshold and insecure forms of employment. Some young men expressed a preference for unemployment over the work available to them.

A common refrain was that the government must create jobs for young people but what type of work or the amount they should get paid was never directly expressed.

You cant live without working. Without money. You cant survive without money. You cant survive. You have to have money to have a family

So if the government doesn’t provide [jobs] and make sure that people get enough employment, and youth also. Nothing is going to work out. That’s why people end up in jail. And getting years, for nothing. Even government, they’re not serious.

For these young men, however, any job was not better than no job. This puzzled me at first but raised a set of questions that I’ll be exploring in my PhD fieldwork from June. How did these young men make a living in the absence of work?; How do they define work?; On what basis do they differentiate between types of jobs? And further, what dynamics shape these young men’s economic decisions, expectations and incorporation in the labour market?

Young men’s rejection of work locally available suggests a disconnect between the idealisation of work in the official discourse and the reality of work that is increasingly low-paid and informal (Barchiesi, 2012). Young men expressed that they, as Julie Archambault (2015) notes in her work with young people in Mozambique, wanted to ‘live’ and not just ‘survive’. These sentiments were often expressed via remarks about foreign immigrants (who make up 20% of the population in Zandspruit) who are prepared to accept wages so meager that they bring down the pay scale for everyone.

The reason being that these people [foreign immigrants] don’t actually mind getting paid less…There is a difference. They accept anything. They are desperate. Even if they give you roughly R60 a day. But as a South African I cannot accept R60. I would say No. R100 is fine. They accept anything they can get because they have suffered. That’s the reason. A lot of them are employed and us, are unemployed.

The refusal of these young men to work in low-paid precarious is not new with urban youth from the 1930s rejecting the idea of regular, disciplined work and preferring to make a living through illicit means without a schedule or a boss. The government’s discourse around ‘getting youth into work’ also expresses a prejudice that ‘real work’ only happens in the formal economy rendering other forms of making a invisible and problematic. In places like Zandspruit, unemployment is often not a viable option in the face of economic difficulty. Instead, so-called unemployed youth are actively carving out new economic opportunities outside of formal employment. Examples in Zandspruit include youth engaging in informal businesses, working for local NGOs or community organisations, illegal and illicit activities including crime, operating as brokers in local patron-client networks and cultivating social relationships and networks of support.

Despite many young men calling themselves ‘unemployed’ in Zandspruit they were not ‘idle’ but moved in and out of various temporary jobs and engaged in a plurality of economic and social strategies to ‘get by’. Their claims on the state to provide jobs suggest a continued attachment to the symbolic value and recognition of waged work and yet a rejection of low-paid and insecure forms of employment. However, we know very little about the type of work young people in South Africa want, or how young people themselves define, categorise and value their economic activities in terms of the employment/unemployment division. It is clear these questions cannot be understood primarily through an economic lens of material necessity but require a deeper appreciation of the multifaceted political, social and cultural contexts that shape young people’s aspirations and expectations.

To conclude I want to suggest that one way of making sense of youth’s claim on the state to provide work while refusing to work in certain jobs is to see young people as appropriating the state’s discourse of job creation to signify economic marginalisation while valuing their time, social relationships and freedom over the wages on offer – in effect subverting the disciplining function of work that Barchiesi (2012) describes.


Archambault, J. S. (2015). Rhythms of Uncertainty and the Pleasures of Anticipation. In Ethnographies of Uncertainty in Africa. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
Barchiesi, F. (2012). Liberation of, through, or from work? Postcolonial Africa and the problem with “job creation” in the global crisis. Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements, 4(2).
Dawson, H. (2014). Youth Politics: Waiting and Envy in a South African Informal Settlement. Journal of Southern African Studies, 40(4), 861–882.
Mains, D. (2012). Hope is cut: youth, unemployment, and the future in urban Ethiopia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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‘Unanticipated’ cosmopolitanisms: a view from private degree students in Singapore

By Yi’En Cheng, DPhil Candidate

During fieldwork in Singapore, between 2012 and 2013, I interacted with students at a local private institute that offers a range of tertiary educational programs leading to the award of degree, diploma, and professional certificates. One major faction of students whom I encountered was Singaporean youths in their twenties studying for a first degree through the institute’s ‘global education’ arm, where overseas degree programs from partner universities in Australia, North America, and the UK are being administered. In one conversation with a group of these local students, Kit told me, “Maybe we are considered a heartland university, for ordinary people like us who are not the elite and smart enough to get into better universities, but also not so rich we can go overseas to study.” “Actually we study the same thing as students in, say, London and Australia, so maybe the only difference is we don’t get to physically immerse in their cultures,” Jack added. Elson responded to Kit in disagreement, “Actually we are not that heartland leh. Our education is quite globally-oriented, and we also have a lot of international students in our campus, just that mostly are Asians.”

The students’ experiences of the campus as simultaneously ‘global’ and ‘local’, including the contestation over what is meant by ‘heartland’ and ‘international’, raises important issues about transnationalism, im/mobility, global-ness, cultural diversity, and class division. While these issues are distinct and may be separately explored, they also coalesce around the notion of cosmopolitanism understood as a form of openness that is performed through various sorts of mobilities (including those arising from consumerist objects), symbolic competencies to navigate difference, and a willingness to engage with alterity (Skrbis and Woodward, 2007).

In this blog entry, I train the analytic lens on cosmopolitanism, in part due to its particular construction as the counter-discourse to that of ‘heartland’ in the context of Singapore, to explore those imaginaries, identities, and sensibilities among local students that are ‘cosmopolitan’. Specifically, I highlight some ways in which students perform cosmopolitan sensibilities that are counter-intuitive and unanticipated in the dominant imagination of the ‘cosmopolitan subject’ in contemporary Singapore.

Singapore-style cosmopolitanism 

Cosmopolitanism in contemporary Singapore is highly engineered and deeply embedded in the logics of neoliberal economic globalisation, privileging people who possess elite educational capital, social networks, and embody global mobility. The term ’Cosmopolis’ was first introduced in 1999 to fashion Singapore in the image of cosmopolitan ideals, drawing on the language of culture and sophistication, as well as that of multiculturalism and social diversity (Yeoh, 2004). ‘Cosmopolitans’, within the state discourse, are those who possess an international outlook that helps them navigate work and adapt to different cities in the world. If cosmopolitans are characterised by their mobility, high educational level, and flexibility, then ‘heartlanders’ – the counter figure to the ‘cosmopolitans’ – refer to those majority who tend to be rooted, study and work locally, and are concerned with more parochial issues such as everyday livelihood rather than participating in sophisticated activities (Ho, 2006). The purported parochialism and local-ness of the ‘heartlanders’ has its origins in the preceding term ‘heartland’, which first appeared in 1991 on the main local newspaper to describe the public housing neighbourhoods, including those “local tastes, small businesses, and something more homespun” in contrast to the high-end upmarket areas in the city centre (Poon, 2013, p.562). In describing current-day cosmopolitanism in Singapore, Yeoh (2013, p.102) eloquently summarises,

“national narratives on cosmopolitanism (as formulated by Singapore’s political elites operating in a highly centralised system), while they draw selectively on cosmopolitan imaginings of the colonial past and build in highly contradictory ways on the multi-racialism of post-independence times, are constructed with an eye on the future. They are much more part of state-imposed projects to purposively ‘cosmopolise’ the city and its people to ensure its place amidst a global future than sensibilities that emerge from the tumult of Singaporean society.”

Indeed, this form of strategic cosmopolitanism that seeks to include racialised (officially categorised as ‘Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other’), (hetero)sexualised, and economically productive (‘foreign talent’ and ‘skilled labour’) bodies through a narrow construction of multiculturalism and diversity has been widely criticised in existing studies (Ho, 2011; Poon, 2009; Oswin, 2012; Ye and Kelly, 2011; Yeoh, 2004; 2013). The highly selective and exclusionary nature of Singapore style cosmopolitanism has since been described by local journalist Asad Latif as “cosmopolitanism which extends upwards, not sideways” (quoted in The Straits Times, 14 May 2001). Through these writings, we gain much insight into the limits of state-endorsed cosmopolitanism. However, they reveal rather little about how cosmopolitan aspirations  are produced ‘from below’ from the viewpoint of local Singaporeans. 

Ho’s (2006) work on Singaporean citizens negotiating notions of belonging through the state-construct of the ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘heartlander’ binary offers some clue to the existence of ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ (Appiah, 1997) among local youths (between 18 and 30 years old). She highlighted that for these people, instead of “being distinctly ‘cosmopolitan’ (global) or ‘heartlander’ (local)… the global and the local dissolve into closely related versions of each other” (Ho, 2006, p. 391). In Chen’s (2014) study on how Singaporean teenagers (between 15 and 17 years old) perceive cosmopolitanism through their citizenship curriculum, a ‘cosmopolitan’ is strongly associated with international mobility such as studying in overseas universities, working in ‘global cities’ in the west, and living a lifestyle of the global elites. Her work reveals cosmopolitan imaginations amongst the young in Singapore are strongly informed by the hierarchical ordering of ‘global’ privilege, education, and work under the state’s vision of a ‘cosmopolis’, rather than the counterpart curricular message around ‘staying local’ and ‘taking roots’.

But in these works, attributes of cosmopolitanism are often discussed with reference and limited to state-led discourses and projects of cosmopolitanism, and we are left with a restricted knowledge about what ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ (Werbner, 2007) might entail for these locals.

‘Unanticipated’ cosmopolitanisms 

The idea of cosmopolitanism as rooted in a sense of the ‘global’ all too often privileges the western modernity, framing conventional forms of cosmopolitan identities and sensibilities through the lens of the ‘west’. As Kang (2012) argues, cosmopolitanisms can be made in and through the image of the ‘Asian global’, whereby the everyday issues related to ‘global’ connections, encounters with difference, and diversity are fashioned by ‘global-yet-Asian’ agendas. Elson’s (introduced at the beginning of this article) intimation that “we also have a lot of international students in our campus, just that mostly are Asians” provides one way of instantiating this notion of the ‘global-yet-Asian’. From this perspective, private degree students are not only engaging with and learning about cosmopolitanisms from the space of ‘transnational education’, which arguably confines students’ imagination of the ‘global’ to ‘western’ forms of capital, ideas and images. Elson elaborated later in that conversation,

“We have students from Thailand, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, where else? I have seen a few angmohs (‘westerners’) but not many. But ya, our international students are mainly Asians but that doesn’t mean we are less international. Maybe we don’t really hang out or mix with them, but they actually add vibrancy to the campus quite a bit, like they have cultural performances and other activities.”

For Elson, the campus in and of itself is a ‘global’ space even if this is against a backdrop of mainly Asian nationalities. An interest of note is also the way the Asian diversity is contrasted with the representation of non-Asian nationalities with a singular category of the ‘westerners’. While he admitted there are limited interactions across these nationalities, he nevertheless acknowledged their contributions in transforming the campus into a more vibrant and diverse space. This to me is an expression of willingness to interpret and appreciate cultural difference and globalisation for its non-western particularities, and hence constitutes the banal cosmopolitan sensibility that pushes away from its normative underpinnings.

Private degree students also redefine cosmopolitanism by bringing in some ‘unexpected’ forms of ‘localised’ cultural competencies to help them navigate difference. 

The first kind of competency has to do with the mobilisation of ‘insider’ knowledge about Singapore as a local. Some of the students whom I spoke with were or have been part of the orientation programmes to assist fresh international students to settle down in Singapore. One such student is Jack. He told me, “I enjoy making friends with international students, showing them around the island, telling them where to find nice Singapore food, the history of say Singapore River. It’s a good ice breaker for me and the students.” As an orientation leader volunteer for two concurrent years, Jack drew on his ‘insider’ knowledge about the urban fabric of Singapore, including local foods and places, to help ‘break ice’ between the international students and him. In a way, he is also transforming those international students into ‘cosmopolitan’ subjects as they too learn about Singapore as a culturally different place.

The second kind of cultural competency derived from the ‘local’ is in the form of ‘street-smartness’. This differs from Jack’s use of ‘insider’ knowledge in that being ‘street-smart’ entails an element of immersion in local networks that goes beyond simply ‘knowing’ about places. Instead, it is about the ability to navigate the city as an urban dweller and cultivate relationships with local actors (Woronov, 2011). A student called Tai, who went to a vocational college, but later on took up a diploma course at a polytechnic, and now paying his own way through the degree education at the institute, is an exemplary embodiment of this kind of cosmopolitanism. He told me,

“After ITE (vocational school), I took up a job and worked for two years. Then I went to polytechnic to do a diploma in technical engineering. After that, my boss encouraged me to do a degree. He’s a very nice guy, I still work for him up till now. I’m the sort of person who learn about the world by ‘venturing around and toughing it out’.[1] I’m not very good at studying, but I find my own ways around, maybe I take a longer time, but I still get here.”

Tai described himself as a resourceful young man who espouses a rugged form of masculine attitude towards life. This, however, is not the same ‘rugged masculinity’ that promotes individualism but stresses the skill to build relationships. He takes the ‘local’ as his ‘world’ (as opposed to local-as-parochial), prides himself as a vagabond who navigates the local space, ventures around to build local contacts, and learn to overcome obstacles by toughing it out. In doing so, he continues to expand his sense of ‘worldliness’. This self-forged subjectivity of ‘worldliness’ is also reminiscent of the one that is espoused by middle-class male students in Jeffrey’s (2008) work, which may indicate a degree of ‘masculine resourcefulness’ key to such cosmopolitan imagination. Nevertheless, this deeply ‘localised’ and ‘immersed’ form of cosmopolitan is perhaps the most ‘unanticipated’ and ‘antithetical’ to the Singaporean state-led strategic cosmopolitan, who is cushioned by elitist cultural capital, a dense network of ‘global’ contacts, and a mobile lifestyle that can take them to any part of the globe.

Concluding thoughts  

Relatively fresh ideas about cosmopolitanism are emerging in recent geographical writings. They have adopted a more practice and performance oriented approach to theorise cosmopolitanism as sets of cultural repertoires or resources differently available to people from across a range of contexts and social backgrounds, thereby overcoming the problematic confinement of cosmopolitan identities and sensibilities to exclusive circuits of powerful actors. Such ‘ordinary’ or ‘vernacular’ forms of cosmopolitanism are not only grounded in the everyday experiences of ordinary, non-elite people, including what they eat, learn, and dream about (Bishop, 2011; Miller, 2008; Yeoh and Soco, 2014), but also constitute the discursive and practical resources for them to manage and negotiate emergent, everyday issues related to ‘global’ difference and diversity (Gidwani, 2006; Kothari, 2008; also see Jeffrey and McFarlane, 2008).

By exploring these non-normative “actually existing cosmopolitanism” (Robbins, 1998), this entry highlights the creative and emergent dimensions of cosmopolitanism. If we accept that cosmopolitanisms are cultural repertoires, rather than (pre)dispositions that are either held or not held by individuals, then new relations to the world and sensibilities of ‘openness’ can emerge in our (researchers’) own cosmopolitan imagination. Even if these cosmopolitan performances are not counter-hegemonic or ‘revolutionary’ in their current styles, they do offer alternative versions of cosmopolitanisms that are counter-intuitive and unanticipated by the western-centric and corporatist framings of the ‘cosmopolitan subject’. It is in this way that we might begin to appreciate a more expansive ‘cosmopolitanism’.

[1] Original Chinese phrase used was chuangdang jianghu (闯荡江湖).

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Amitav Ghosh’s Message to Oxford: Give Up

Fatalism must be selling well in New York these days. I eagerly waited for Amitav Ghosh to offer some shred of leadership, or at least insight, as he responded to a well-articulated question by an audience member in response to his lecture, “Earth as Literary Critic: Climate Change and the Limits of Imagination.” She inquired about his view on taking action against injustice, and if he had any message or suggestions for the young people in the room who had energy to take action. She recalled a hadeeth in Islam that says, basically: If you see an evil, change it with your hand (by taking action), if you cannot, then with your tongue (by speaking out), and if you cannot, then condemn it with your heart (by believing it is wrong). Amitav Ghosh resolutely defended his position of political inertia by saying there is no justice in the world, that justice is a lie and a fool’s errand. Why make an effort, when the powers-that-be (the Earth, the CIA, the Oil Industry, the Mega-Rich) have already condemned most of humanity to sure death?

Yet, Dr. Ghosh still seems to have enough energy to pump out another award-winning book and make sure they are neatly set up for sale to bewildered audience members.

Amitav Ghosh, a DPhil in social anthropology from Oxford and celebrated literary figure, stood up at the podium in the Olof Palme lecture theater at St. Antony’s College yesterday evening to address an enthusiastic crowd. The host introduced his long list of accomplishments as evidence that he is a leader in his field, adding the caveat that the introduction would last an hour if she was given time to name all of his literary accomplishments and prizes. Prior to his introduction, she said a few words on Olof Palme, the namesake of the lecture. Olof Palme was the former Prime Minister of Sweden, a major critic of the cold war superpowers of his time and a leading force against apartheid in South Africa. He was assassinated in the process. Given Olof Palme’s legacy, Dr. Ghosh’s lack of will seemed all the more stark.

Ghosh’s lecture was called “Earth as Literary Critic: Climate Change and the Limits of Imagination.” He started the lecture with a story about a river in his ancestral homeland in Bangladesh. This river changed course and swallowed an entire village. Only a few escaped, and his ancestors were among them. He followed this story by recounting Han Solo in the film The Empire Strikes Back, when upon landing on an asteroid, he finds that he is inside the digestive system of a giant worm. Ghosh gives these examples as context for the argument of “Earth as Literary Critic.” Ghosh argues that mainstream global society today fails to see nature as an agent. He points to the lack of nonhuman actors in novels since the 1980s. He argues that despite a long history of human artistic engagement with the “earth as a protagonist” in social narratives, nonhuman actors are strikingly absent in the contemporary novel.

Ghosh sees this absence of the earth as a protagonist, which “does not share our consciousness” as an example of partitioning. He draws on Latour’s critique of the partitioning of nature and culture, and Latour’s methodological focus on the agency of nonhuman actors in actor-network theory. Ghosh argues that the failure of artists and writers to engage the earth as an agent is striking, given that climate change is anticipated to be one of the most powerful agents of change now and into the foreseeable future. He sites CIA reports that name climate change as a major security threat. These reports anticipate that climate change will lead to the dissolution of South Asian states by 2030. Ghosh reports that his native homeland of Bangladesh is one of the most at risk from rising sea levels caused by climate change, though the population of Bangladesh has contributed very little to global emissions. Despite high vulnerability to climate hazards, Bangladesh continues to expand its economy and accelerate the devastating effects by investing in coal energy and destroying the mangrove forests. Ghosh likes this to Bangladesh’s “self-immolation,” where “we will asphyxiate in the process” of pursuing a vision of modernity based on a model in which everyone in the world owns a home, car, refrigerator and washing machine. This pursuit of modernity is what Ghosh calls “The Great Derangement,” where the victory of the idea that individual pursuit of self-interests in conditions of freedom will lead to the good of all is, in effect, a death sentence. He suggests that humanity needs a compelling alternative to this idea and that artists and other actors in the cultural sphere need to think creatively about what these alternatives might look like and how they might be enacted.

Problematically, however, Ghosh refuses to offer any of his own ideas for alternative imaginings. This silence is excruciating given the many alternative imaginings that do exist. The entire literature on the Anthropocene is a place to start, see Jamie Lorimer’s work. Or films such as Bear 71, an interactive documentary by the National Film Board of Canada. Jonas Wolff writes about post-liberal democracy movements in Latin America, especially in Bolivia and Ecuador. Frédéric Neyrat writes provocatively of “twilight imagination.” In upstate New York, local people have worked tirelessly to halt companies like Halliburton from hydrofracking for natural gas on rural land by pursuing “home rule” governance campaigns. These many examples provide only some evidence of the many alternatives being imagined and politically pursued. How about alternative imaginations around energy sovereignty? Ghosh calls for alternatives, yet falls prey to a discourse of “inevitability,” and in doing so defeats his own message.

Ghosh admits that he feels that the world’s elites are well educated in the threats posed by climate change, and these people have come to the decision to let the chips fall where they may as they prepare their own personal lifeboats to safety (recall Ian Klinke’s seminar on the bunker and NATO post-human annihilation survival strategies created by the political elite during the cold war)…Does Ghosh’s apologetic admission in a belief that world elites are buying time to develop self-preservation strategies, as if this is a big secret, while busying activists with campaigns to “inform the public” sound like anything new? Haven’t we been faced with the threat and reality of holocausts before? And does the ‘inevitability’ of human extinction and certain death (a certainty in any case) mean that we should stop making an effort to create vibrant, inclusive communities?  As a member of the literary elite, Dr. Ghosh seems comfortable to admit that he sees no future in making an effort. The answers lie elsewhere. As usual, this hard labour will have to be done by those less privileged to have a choice, and in the process, perhaps the meek shall indeed inherit the earth.

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