Workshop Report 'Urban Precarity'
Outlining ‘Urban Precarity’
Cities have long been associated with economic, social, moral, and salutary precarity. By its very nature, urban life - where relative anonymity, physical proximity to strangers, reliance on money economies, and an ever-changing built-environment converge with transnational flows of people, ideas, and capital - is often considered to produce unique challenges in terms of vulnerability, uncertainty, and risk.
The link between urbanity and danger seems to have intensified under the globalized regime of late capitalism. Access to secure jobs and welfare is increasingly tenuous, altering life trajectories in unforeseen ways. Migrants and impoverished classes are pushed to derelict, stigmatized neighborhoods where they become objects of fear and disgust. And as public attention shifts from Grenfell to Barcelona to Kabul, media channels routinely offer horrifying spectacles that remind cities’ inhabitants and visitors how beautiful squares and places of worship - indeed, their very homes - could become death traps: in the city, your neighbor might well be your mortal enemy.
On the 27th - 29th of March 2019, the leading scholars on urban anthropology met at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle(Saale) with the aim of critically interrogating the link relationship between urbanity and precarity. The workshop’s ten participants, who all contributed to the debate through the presentation of freshly gathered ethnographic data, were arranged into five panels, each probing a distinct dimension of the urban-precarity nexus.
Günther Schlee (MPI for Social Anthropology) opened the workshop by welcoming the participants. Afterwards, the workshop’s conveners - Christian Laheij (MPI for Social Anthropology) and Brian Campbell (MPI for Social Anthropology) – used their research experience in Mozambique and Spain to tease out a number of important questions and issues that arise when talking about “urban precarity”.
Cities Policed – Legal Precarity, Migration, and the Reshaping of Urbanity
Following this introductory address, Christoph Brumann (MPI for Social Anthropology) chaired the first Session, which focused on how the policing of cities could shape and constrain urban landscapes and rhythms. Nolan Kline (Rollins College) described how, in Atlanta (US), police checkpoints and roadblocks disrupt migrants’ networks, mobility, and access to jobs and services. Agathe Menetrier (MPI for Social Anthropology) likewise notes how the criminalization of homosexuality in Senegal also shapes the trajectories of queer asylum seekers in Dakar. Caught in a double-bind, these migrants must project helplessness in the eyes of UN authorities while also establishing alliances with fellow asylum seekers or wealthy patrons in order to survive in a highly homophobic environment. The city – especially at night – is a place of fear and danger, but also of opportunity, agency, and change. The discussion was chaired by John Comaroff (Harvard University), who drew attention to how migrant policing can be seen as a performance that casts the state as a highly visible champion of order in increasingly uncertain economic circumstances. Such performances required the reproduction of highly problematic racial, gender, and ethnic categories.
Frayed Edges – Contemplating Life at the City’s Frontiers
Session 2, chaired by James Carrier (MPI for Social Anthropology), expanded on the idea that precarity tends to push groups and individuals towards dangerous margins, boundaries, and frontiers. Julie Soleil Archambault (Concordia University) described the resettlement of the suburbs of Inhambane (Mozambique). Widely thought of as a perilous space on the edges of the city, this paper argued that the settles themselves succeed in turning uncertainty into new forms of prosperity and community. In Mozambique, precarity is not the absence of stability, but is life without the opportunity for rupture, change and progress. Marwa Ghazali (University of Kansas) likewise notes how in Cairo (Egypt), those forced to seek shelter in the tombs of the dead respond by constructing worlds that collapse the distinctions between life and death, and include the dead in ties of patronage and care. Anne Allison (Duke University) remarked that precarity cannot be reduced to kin notions of risk or uncertainty, because it is a creative and meaningful condition conducive to world-making.
Work in Progress – Intersecting Mobilities and the Building of the Future
Chaired by Marian Burchardt (Leipzig University) and discussed by Ursula Rao (Leipzig University), Session 3 delved into the notion that precarity is a condition that is constantly in the making. This is because attempts to escape precarity tend to expose people to new dangers and contradictions. Rebecca Bowers (London School of Economics) followed the women who restlessly oscillate between the poverty of village life and the adversity of construction work in Bengaluru (India). Their liminality makes us reconsider the aspirations of extra-urban migrants, and remind us of how urban and rural precarity are mutually constitutive. Working in Kinshasa (DRC), Katrien Pype (Leuven University) argued that urban precarity does not often emerge from social isolation, but from exposure to too many relations. Her informants employ two techniques to try and control these dependencies. New forms of Christianity seek to establish obligation between strangers, creating communities of solidarity and trust. The inhabitants of Kinshasa also resort to technologies (e.g. apps, mobile devices) that promise a “better life” by “thinning” or bypassing social relations.
Public Policy – Making, Unmaking, and remaking Urban Precarity
Session 4 was chaired by Tabea Scharrer (MPI for Social Anthropology). This panel focused on strategies that make, unmake, and remake urban precarity from above. Martijn Oosterbaan (Utrecht University) described the Brazilian government’s recent widely-publicised project to re-establish order in the favelas of Rio (Brazil). As the abandoned police infrastructure dotting the favelas however indicate, performances of state power and presence can fail dramatically. Here, precarity engenders affects of cynicism towards a state unable (or unwilling) to impose order in the favelas, marginalization and worthlessness, but also hope towards an ordered future. Rachael Scicluna (University of Malta / Ministry for the Family, Secretariat for Social Accommodation) likewise interrogates governmental strategies, in her case government attempts to control the housing market in Malta, where spiraling land and house prices are placing housing beyond the reach of many citizens. Dominated by men, these policies are only partially effective, because they are informed by traditional, conservative, inflexible and patriarchal notions of family, home, masculinity, and entrepreneurship. The paper advocates the “queering of policy making”, so that well-intentioned attempts to unmake precarity do not end up reproducing it. As the panel’s discussant, Ulf Hannerz (Stockholm University) remarked that urban precarity touches on issues of infrastructure, community and urban welfare that have been topics of anthropological concern long before contemporary discussions around “precarity”.
Marked Presence – Spatialised Patterns of Representation, Integration, and Exclusion
The workshop’s final session explored how Urban Pecarity works through highly spatialized patterns of representation, integration and exclusion. Mikaela Rogozen-Soltar (University of Nevada) notes how specific neighbourhoods of Granada (Spain) exclude and include Muslim migrants in different ways. In the old neighbourhood of the Albaycin, Muslim presence can legitimize itself by tapping into Granada’s infamous Muslim past. But the Islam promoted by the government in this region is highly orientalised and mystified, designed as it is to attract tourism. This turns the Albaycin into an “Islamic Disneyland”, and while Muslim migrants are encouraged to open businesses in the area, they feel that the relations they form with clients are superficial at best, that the accepted form if Islam is trivial and inauthentic, and that gentrification puts affordable housing beyond their reach. Indeed, Muslims – who often have the qualifications acquired at home devalued – are socio-economically to the stigmatized Poligono, where they live in squalid and derelict housing. Despite this, Muslims are able to form effective community associations and practice an Islam which they feel is more authentic. Robin Balliger (San Francisco Art Institute) focuses on mural painting in Oakland (United States). She notes how estate agents seek to appropriate local black traditions of political mural painting, in order to make the area attractive to a new class of professional elites. Aside from pushing out the local black community, the appropriation of mural painting also distorts their memory, essentially blunting the political edge of this form of resistance. The panel was chaired by Asta Vonderau (Martin Luther University) and discussed by Nina Glick-Schiller (MPI for Social Anthropology).
Study visit to Halle-Neustadt: Urban Precarity in the Post-Future City
The workshop additionally included a study visit to Halle-Neustadt. Frank-Torsten Böger (Geschichtswerkstatt Halle-Neustadt) described the history of the town, initially constructed to attract young industrial workers during the GDR. Following the unification, Neustadt experienced a population decline, and is now widely stigmatized as an impoverished and dangerous neighbourhood, marked by unemployment, crime, poverty, and ethno-religious strife. Zahir Abdal-Kareem (MPI for Social Anthropology) highlighted the major institutions that the migrants settling in the city have established, while Johanna Ludwig (Quartiermanagement Halle-Neustadt) outlined the government’s plans to revitalize the area and make it, once again, a “City of the Future”.
Conclusions Regarding the Conceptualisation of “Urban Precarity”
Combining case studies from the global north and south the workshop on “Urban Precarity” interrogated the timing of scholarly concerns with precarity. Following suggestions from John Comaroff, the workshop debated the question of whether anxiety over precarity reflects the difficulties that are encountered by western urbane middle classes. Indeed, conditions of uncertainty, risk, vulnerability, disruption have always dominated by the cities of the global south, where precarity is often embraced as the necessary precursor of change.
As Günther Schlee (MPI for Social Anthropology) noted during the final round-table discussion, “urban precarity” is strongly connected to notions of stagnation and frustration, and is most intensely felt by groups with status and prestige to lose. Our discussion evoked images of the middle classes struggling to accumulate the economic, social, and cultural capital needed to reproduce themselves.
The workshop also concluded, that precarity goes beyond material scarcity. Following, Veena Das and Shalini Randeira, urban precarity was rather exposed as a multifaceted condition that encapsulates moral, legal, political, spatial and ecological aspects. These dimensions interact in complex ways; contributors noted that while attempts to overcome precarity often expose people to new dangers and cul-de-sacs, urban precarity can also unlock new avenues of prosperity, hope, relationality, solidarity, and affect. As Ida Susser (CUNY Graduate Centre) mentioned during the workshop’s keynote lecture – which drew on her life-long experience with social movements and fresh fieldwork with the Gilets Jaunes - precarity must be also seen as an inherently creative condition conducive to world-building and radical social change and transformation. The latter implies forms of political agency which, in the dynamic urbanities of late capitalism, is necessarily experimental and hardly infallible.