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Politics of the Urban Poor

Symp 148 Group Photo

September 20-26, 2013
Hotel Villa Luppis
Rivarotta di Pasiano, Pordenone, Italy

PUBLICATION: Politics of the Urban Poor: Aesthetics, Ethics, Volatility, Precarity. Current Anthropology (56), Supplement 11, October 2015.


Leslie Aiello (Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA)
Hayder Al-Mohammad (U. Wisconsin-Madison, USA)
Harini Amarasuriya (Open U. of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka)
Javier Auyero (U. Texas-Austin, USA)
Asef Bayat (U. Illinois-Urbana, USA)
Teresa Caldeira (U. California-Berkeley, USA)
Melani Cammett (Brown U., USA)
Veena Das - organizer (Johns Hopkins U., USA)
Filip De Boeck (U. Leuven, Belgium)
Harri Englund (U. Cambridge, UK)
Carlos A. Forment (New School U., USA)
Gerardo Leibner (Tel Aviv U., Israel)
Sylvain Perdigon (American U.-Beirut, Lebanon)
Valeria Procupez (U. Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Shalini Randeria - organizer (Graduate Inst. of International and Development Studies, Switzerland)
Fiona Ross (U. Cape Town, South Africa)
AbdouMaliq Simone (U. South Australia, Australia and U. Cape Town, South Africa)
Jonathan Spencer (U. Edinburgh, UK)
James Williams (Zayed U., United Arab Emirates)


We propose a symposium on the modalities of politics in the lives of the poor with specific reference to the urban form. The literature on the urban poor has been strongly shaped by and connected to public policy interventions that generated such internal divisions as those between the deserving and the undeserving poor, or between the proletariat seen as the engine of history and the lumpen proletariat, who are seen as those who are unable to engage in politics at all.  Concepts like social capital moved from academic theorizing to the policy world in the context of framing of policies to help the poor move out of what was called the “poverty trap”.  One of the consequences of this way of seeing the poor is that while agency is given to some kinds of poor, others are seen in policy discourses as populations to be managed through both policing and paternalistic interventions by the state. Though theoretical interventions such as subaltern studies did much to reclaim collective agency on behalf of those who are defined as subordinate, there was a concentration on moments of rebellion. As far as everyday life is concerned, there seems an implicit agreement with Hannah Arendt’s position that the poor are so caught in ensuring basic survival that they cannot exercise the freedom necessary for collective action that she calls the domain of politics. Thus following this kind of a conceptualization problems relating to the poor are seen confined to studies of administration. However, we also do not wish to romanticize the poor but rather in recognizing that poverty might corrode the capacity for collective or individual action, we are interested in more realistic accounts of the functioning of politics in the everyday lives of the poor.

We propose a symposium on the politics of the poor in which both categories – that of the poor and that of politics – are put under pressure conceptually and ethnographically. Inviting anthropologists and scholars from related fields who have who used ethnography in their own research on the urban poor in South Asia, Africa, Middle East and Latin America, we pose the following questions in order to generate comparative ethnographies that can foreground the relation between urban transformations, poverty, and modalities of democratic politics.

First, what is the relation between governmentality and politics in relation to basic amenities such as water, sanitation, electricity, and housing? Can we speak of a politics of need contra Arendt and many others who assume that need belongs to the realm of administration and not politics?

Second, what lines of solidarity and antagonism run within the communities of the poor defined by locality, kinship, and work? Instead of posing a dualism between the poor seen as unitary collective subjects and another subject (state, market), which stands out and is marked as the oppressor, we might ask how differences internal to the poor are implicated in the forging of political action?

Third, are there forms of inaction that might also count as politics, especially if life has been experienced as continually marked by violence? What kind of theory of action do we need to account, for instance, for political subjectivities that have emerged after civil wars, riots or experiences of displacement? How does decay urban decay and the complete corrosion of institutions, lead to either a negation of politics or forms of collective action (protests, gang violence) that become ends in themselves?

Finally, what kinds of traces are left in the languages that circulate in communities engaged in the kinds of politics that are assumed in the first three questions? How do material traces link with linguistic traces? We want to go beyond such issues as politics of representation and instead ask what kind of affective geographies of communication and expression can we discern in the everyday life of the poor. We are interested in asking whether regional histories and geographies as well as the diversity of intellectual traditions, leads to important differences in the very conceptualization of these issues? In what way do conceptual and political commitments as well as the artifacts through which facts are made visible shape the questions we ask, what questions get asked and what issues get eclipsed? Do regional comparisons generate new questions? We are not committed beforehand to establish that the poor exercise agency or that the lines of conflict are clearly drawn between state and community; or that democracy has failed; or that the poor are so caught up in survival that the only forms of politics available to them are forms of clientelism. These are open questions and we hope that the symposium will show many pathways through which such issues can be addressed with innovations in how we collect empirical data and how conceptual innovations might be made in relation to the pressure of the conjoining of facts and values. Since the ethnographic method is now used across disciplines, the symposium would also give us an opportunity to reflect on potential contribution as well as the limitations of this method.