My research orients around economics, urbanisation, finance, kinship, and formal bureaucracy. Based on extensive research in Kathmandu, Nepal since 2004, I explore how bureaucratised transactions are folded into individuals’ affective practices of trust, care, and aspiration, producing an urban political economy that frustrates formulaic description. I ask: can families express devotion through a bank’s income verification procedures? What personal dreams are made in a land sale? How do shifts in commodity prices come to symbolise feudal histories of exploitation? In addressing these ethnographic questions, my work shows how central components of urban capitalist marketspaces—e.g. private landownership, wage labour, standardised loans—are restructured in unpredictable ways, allowing for economic experimentation, moral play, and intimate modes of interpersonal domination.
Currently, my focus is on land. My book project examines how urban landownership is made within a multitude of necessities and wants for Kathmandu residents: financial security; entrepreneurial investment; the founding for kinship; the prestige of the middle class; the collateral for outmigration. I show how these divergent desires converge in landownership, producing a land market where—as I was told repeatedly—the price of land never goes down.
By coincidence, most of my research occurred after the Great Nepal Earthquake of 2015. Consequently, the reconstruction of Kathmandu became a lens through which I analysed how land maintains its value in the face of economic collapse. Even after the Great Nepal Earthquake, when thousands of families were digging deep to afford rent and rebuilding costs, the price of land still doubled, a consequence of the affective and interpersonal networks in which landownership is embedded. I argue that the market during this crisis—and during similar crises in Kathmandu’s recent history—cannot be explained purely in terms familiar to formal economics. Instead, formal economics is folded into this market, its principles and assumptions substantiated in documents and procedures that residents then incorporate into their lives. Residents twist “modern” market techniques—techniques built on the assumption of fluid value—to address their concerns over stability and kin amity. To show how this done, I follow land transactions: land sales mediated by informal brokers; land aggregation by large development companies; land collateralisation in banks and microfinance companies; the division of the family landed estate ratified in government offices.
I believe we can see in this narrative of land an economic concern that pervades numerous cities: how can economic value be kept from vanishing? Indeed, contemporary capitalism has an investment problem. Rampant financialisation has rendered once secure investments precarious, while political instability, technological innovation, and a rapidly changing climate have undermined established circuits of economic accumulation. In Nepal, where remittances from young Nepalis working abroad make up one third of GDP, this question is especially pertinent. How can one take the capital sent home and make it sustainable? And what happens when Nepal’s demographics inevitably shift, and the country can no longer rely on skimming the labour value off its young population? How does one settle in this whirlpool of capital, of which our bodies are inherently part?
These questions inform my second, related project on return migration. Most labour migration in Nepal is meant to be temporary, a pause in the life of young people as they earn the necessary capital to begin a middle-class, urban existence. While an adventurous rite of passage at first, it can be hard to leave this cycle of migration and return. Invested earnings vanish into failed entrepreneurial projects, Nepal’s anaemic job market frustrates dreams of home employment, and the rising cost of living reduces the reach of savings. My project, preliminarily entitled How Home is Made to Slip: Return Migration in Urban Nepal, follows return migrants as they try to return home permanently, investigating what strategies they employ, what works and what doesn’t, and how both failure and success inform their understandings of nation, family, and globalization.