Llerena Searle on her new book, Landscapes of Accumulation

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/L/bo24117771.html

Interview by Liza Youngling

Liza Youngling: In Landscapes of Accumulation: Real Estate and the Neoliberal Imagination in Contemporary India, you analyze how the “India story,” which “recast Indian society as a rapidly globalizing frontier of capitalism and as a market for new buildings” (5) brings foreign investors into collaboration and conflict with Indian real estate developers.  What makes narratives such as the “India story” such a powerful, market-making force?   How does this narrative align with or diverge from other ways of representing/making markets?

Llerena Searle: I began working on this project because I was fascinated by the explicitly “global” aesthetic of the office towers, gated condominiums, and malls under construction in places like Gurgaon, a satellite of Delhi.  I wondered why developers were building glass-encased buildings rather than drawing on local architectural traditions.  I wondered why they were constructing expensive apartments in a country with an extreme housing shortage and low incomes.  To understand what was going on, I had to train myself to see buildings as financial instruments.  But I was also surprised to find that stories motivate construction.

The “India story” was my informants’ term for a collective narrative they told about India’s growth.  Developers, financiers, consultants, and others routinely referenced predictions about rising land prices, GDP, incomes, foreign investment, consumer demand, and urban populations.  This ebullient narrative positioned India as a frontier of capital expansion, and it motivated many foreign funds to begin investing in Indian real estate in order to position themselves in markets that they thought would grow well into the future.

The “India story” was so strong that fund managers often spoke of these decisions as imperatives: we have to be in India if we want to be competitive.  Indian consultants would say, our cities have to grow if we want GDP growth.  The power of the “India story” stems from its wide circulation: I trace its roots in stories told by a range of actors, from the UN to Newsweek and Goldman Sachs.  Repeated often, it becomes commonsense.  What’s more, it’s a useful story for many different people to retell: it serves a range of value projects, from attracting investors to growing market share, and it also serves to guide investors and developers as they decide what to build where.

One of the things that fascinated me about doing this research was how people in the real estate industry could transform problems – poverty, for example, which is a real impediment if you’re trying to construct and sell million dollar apartments – into advertisements for investment.  The “India story” helped people do that.  In conversations, reports, presentations, and brochures, industry members repurposed familiar modernization discourses to predict that Indian society – today “underdeveloped” – would change along a fixed trajectory, coming to resemble places like Singapore soon.  I argue that the sorting, rating, and classifying work that these discourses do is central to making an international market in Indian real estate by making Indian society seem familiar but improvable.

Indian developers, foreign financiers, consultants, and others found common ground in the “India story,” but other market-making work was more contentious.  For regulatory reasons, foreign investors had to partner with Indian developers who agglomerated land, sought government permits, and hired local consultants – necessary work for transforming Indian land into a commodity that could be invested in from abroad.  The second half of the book looks at these unstable investor-developer partnerships and conflicts over how real estate should be practiced.

Liza Youngling: Your study makes a powerful case for the value of ethnographic research in our understandings of economic life, but you also note some of the challenges you faced in “studying up” with informants that were sometimes wary to share information they saw as proprietary or who did not want to give you the time of day. What can ethnographic research tell us about how markets are created and sustained that other methods cannot? What were ethnography’s limitations, if any, in this study, and how did you fill in the gaps with other approaches?

Llerena Searle: Before I began my anthropology degree, I studied urban and economic geography.  I read a lot about gentrification and urban restructuring, but the point of view of real estate developers was, for the most part, missing from this literature.  Scholars critiqued the effects of construction industry actions but didn’t provide detailed accounts of how it worked.  In India in particular, scholars have given voice to those who have been displaced by new construction, but it seemed to me that without also documenting the voices of the powerful, scholars run the risk of attributing urban change to abstract forces like capitalism rather than to people.

I was drawn to anthropology precisely because methodologically, ethnography foregrounds people’s agency, experiences, and ideas, and enables scholars to tell fine-grained stories.  It’s a method well-suited to the continual scholarly work of reminding people that market expansion isn’t inevitable or natural and that urban spaces aren’t just the backdrop against which human dramas play out.  So, ethnographic fieldwork with real estate industry elites promised a way of opening up a key black box in explanations of urban, economic, and social change – and of pushing back against mainstream economic narratives that render economic life people-less, mechanical, or inevitable.

As you point out, doing ethnographic fieldwork for this project was challenging for a number of reasons that I lay out in my Introduction.  My positionality (as a young, white, American woman) in a field dominated by men in a patriarchal society shaped my access to my informants – as did the competitive and secretive nature of the real estate industry.  Of course all ethnographers face limits to what they can learn based on who they are and the subculture in which they are working.  This limitation (which is really just a reality of social life to which anthropologists are attuned) – and the fact that collecting ethnographic data is time-consuming and personally taxing – means that one researcher cannot do it all.  Understanding something as complex, geographically variable, and multi-faceted as the politics of land in India today will require numerous ethnographies.

That said, my main fieldwork strategy was flexibility: I talked with anyone who would talk to me, attended every event I could, and followed up every lead.  I found that if real estate developers weren’t always interested in talking candidly with me, the bankers, architects, planners, consultants, and graphic designers who worked with them often were.  I also broadened my idea of what constituted “data” beyond face-to-face interactions, using my linguistic anthropology training to combine textual and other forms of analysis.  As both the products of numerous interactions and elements in ongoing chains of communication, industry documents were not just descriptions of how real estate markets worked but attempts to create markets.  Analyzing them in conjunction with participant observation and interviews produced insights into the industry that I could not have gotten from one type of source alone.

Liza Youngling: In your chapter on constructing consumer India, you describe how macroeconomic growth projections are used to justify the development of luxury apartments, office buildings, and retail stores for an imagined “genuine resident” with “global” middle class tastes and income. When you returned to India in 2014, what was your sense of the lived experience of residents in places like Gurgaon? How did their lives align with or differ from those earlier projections of what life would be like in spaces built with an imagined ‘genuine resident” in mind? 

Llerena Searle: It’s funny you should ask this because I’m headed to India in a couple of months to investigate people’s lived experiences in these “global” landscapes.  It’s clear that the material trappings of elite urban life in India are undergoing rapid change.  While developers have built new high rise housing complexes, malls, and offices, other companies have been rushing to sell appliances, paint, furniture, tiles, and modular kitchens to Indian consumers.  An array of magazines, advertisements, and television shows model how homes should look and how people should act in them.  I’m interested in whether, and in what ways, this influx of goods and media has restructured home-making practices.

As I wrote in Landscapes of Accumulation, images of domestic life displayed in advertisements for housing and home-related goods emerged from projections about the growth of India’s “middle class” and the assumption that consumer tastes and behaviors will converge between India and the “West” over time.  So one part of the current project will be to trace out the corporate logics that animate the production and marketing of home décor.

But I’ve never been really satisfied with questions about whether daily life is really like the images that corporations produce or not.  On the one hand, I’m mindful that there’s always a gap between the images in advertisements and people’s everyday lives; analyzing the former doesn’t necessarily tell us about the latter.  Moreover, consumers are quite savvy about how fantastical advertising images are.  Yet for me, the alignment between representation and reality is not the most important question.  In Landscapes of Accumulation, I was really interested in how people use stories and images as tools for accomplishing interactional goals.  Claims about building for “genuine residents” were not statements about the builders’ expectations about actual consumers but a way of signaling to investors that they were building for end-users, not speculators, and thus that the market was sound.  Predictions about “global Indian consumers” were alibis that corporations used for expanding into India without changing their product lineup.  Housing brochures featuring emblems of luxury were attempts to position developers and their projects as prestigious; they were never straightforward predictions of what life in the housing complex would be like.

So in the new project, I’m going to be asking less about whether daily life lives up to people’s expectations based on media depictions and more about what possibilities new material cultural configurations provide to residents.  I’m interested in how producers and marketers frame new products as indexical of particular kinds of people, and I’m interested in what people do with these framings, how they position themselves in relation to them and use them in interactions to align themselves with and against other people.

Liza Youngling: The last section of your book includes an analysis of the different “quality projects” of developers, investors, and architects active Indian real estate market. As you point out, “quality” is a multivalent term; it can refer to the people who are anticipated to buy luxury apartments or frequent high-end shopping malls, to the materials and workmanship used in constructing buildings, or to the integrity and trustworthiness of the parties involved in developing land and constructing buildings. After identifying the multiple ways that claims about quality operate within and help construct the Indian real estate market, do you now see “quality projects” everywhere? 

Llerena Searle: When I was doing participant observation with a European real estate investment fund, I was struck by the ways in which the fund managers discussed “quality.”  The fund’s corporate strategy in India hinged on the idea of constructing quality buildings – which they felt were lacking in India.  They told me that doing so would enable them to attract multinational tenants, charge high rents, maintain property values over time, and uphold the fund’s reputation.  They spoke as though only they could recognize or reproduce quality, but I noticed that Indian developers were also very keen to advertise their own quality, particularly through ISO and other third-party ratings and by designing and advertising their buildings as “global.”  Investigating these divergent quality projects helped me to understand how industry members attempted to create value by making claims to expertise, construction capability, trustworthiness, and other valuable traits which distinguishing themselves from competitors.

Not only were developers, investors, and others making competing claims to value, but what counted as valuable was up for grabs.  Indian real estate developers and their foreign investor-partners disagreed fundamentally about where value lay in the real estate industry – whether in land agglomeration or building construction – and what practices would lead to profits.  Thus tracing competing claims over quality allowed me to understand industry members’ attempts to construct power and authority on an uncertain terrain.  Foreign investors did not just enter the market and reshape it as they saw fit; they encountered resistance from powerful local actors with their own established modes of working.  Ultimately, there was a lot at stake in these claims: whether companies closed deals, how they shared profits, and who controlled the construction process.

But yes, since discourses about quality are means of contesting value and asserting control, they are everywhere.  I’ve been fascinated reading about discourses of suzhi in China and about labor management techniques that inculcate neoliberal governance by appealing to quality.  Perhaps quality discourses’ ubiquity stems from the neoliberal moment we live in – a corollary of proliferating rating schemes and audit cultures – or of the geographically distributed production and consumption systems in which we are enmeshed.  As I explore in the book, even as quality discourses are central to markets and market-making projects, they draw on more than economic values.  Claims about quality raise moral implications: inferior goods are morally suspect, and their producers are untrustworthy.  So, when I encounter people assessing everything from schools to restaurants in terms of quality, I wonder, what project is that assessment a part of?  What values is it invoking to do what interactional work? 

Liza Youngling: You address the fallout of the global financial crisis for the Indian real estate market (and for its foreign investors) in your conclusion. What do you see the future holding for globally financed real estate development in India and other countries that are framed as frontiers of capitalism? Is the kind of spectacular accumulation that your informants sought to create something that remains on offer in India or elsewhere?

Llerena Searle: In the conclusion, I paint a fairly bleak picture of Indian real estate markets in 2014 and particularly of the partnerships between Indian developers and foreign financiers that I traced in the book.  The Indian experience of the financial crisis differed significantly from the US experience since there was no mortgage crisis in India (most mortgages are not securitized) and Indian banks were not over-exposed to foreign credit.  However, with the global credit crisis, a lot of foreign investors tried to pull money out of Indian real estate by selling shares in Indian companies and backing out of deals.  By 2014, many of the people I had interviewed were no longer working in India or for the same companies.  A lot of projects got stalled as construction costs escalated, debt financing became expensive, and the Information Technology industry, which fueled a lot of office space construction, stagnated.  But real estate developers didn’t start to falter publicly until a few years later when Indian economic growth slowed and Indian consumers put off buying new properties.

So, on the one hand, the industry saw significant setbacks and reorganization.  On the other, the industry and the “India story” seemed quite resilient.  One prominent banker told me in 2014 that despite industry problems, the real estate “fundamentals” were sound; he punctuated our conversation with a familiar refrain about the strength of Indian economic growth and consumer demand for housing.  A fund manager insisted that India remained a good “long term” investment in part because urbanization continued unabated.  He cited a McKinsey Global Institute report which concluded that “India needs a new Chicago every year.”  These were exactly the kinds of statements that I had heard seven years earlier, at the height of the market.  Other firms found ways to transform industry distress into speculative opportunities.  For example, the private equity firm Blackstone bought up $900 million in Indian properties between 2011 and 2014.  I came away impressed by the continued power of the narratives that I describe in the book and of the developers, bankers, and politicians who circulate them.  It’s depressing that relentless work goes into making money through ecologically and socially destructive modes of urbanization, but that work continued even as the financial crisis unfolded, and it continues today.  I think that it would take more than an economic crisis to completely upend the real estate development practices that I studied.

 

Sirpa Tenhunen on her new book, A Village Goes Mobile

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https://global.oup.com/academic/product/a-village-goes-mobile-9780190630270

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What is so fascinating about A Village Goes Mobile is how effectively you use your long historical relationship with a West Bengali village to reflect upon how the introduction and decade-long use of mobile phones affects social relationships.   Which aspects of your previous research shaped your research foci and your questions? 

Sirpa Tenhenun: My previous research in Janta focused on gender, kinship and politics, so I was inclined to continue to observe these aspects of culture and society when I started working on the appropriation of mobile phones. Without my long-term relationship with the community I might not have been able to recognize changes, and how mobile phone use, on the one hand, contributed to these changes and, on the other hand, to how mobile phone use was intertwined with changes. I, for instance, could observe how mobile phone use helped transform kinship relationships. I also witnessed how most people could accomplish more in a shorter time by being able to coordinate their activities with the help of mobile phones. However, the most significant economic change in the village since the turn of the century was not due to the use of mobile phones, but to the agricultural policies. Since farming small plots of land has become increasingly unprofitable, young men from small farms use their phones to find paid employment outside the village.

Ilana Gershon: You discuss the fact that most West Bengali villagers did not have landlines, that their only experience of telephony were the mobile phones.  This reminded me of Terry Turner’s discussion of Kayapo videos, that their makers had experienced radio and then video cameras without experiencing all the different media in-between that Euroamericans have.   How do you think this affected people’s experiences of telephony – to never have had an experience with landlines first?  

Sirpa Tenhunen: Villagers who never had an access to a landline phone experienced the ability to use mobile phones as more spectacular than those of us who have routinely been using landline phones before mobiles became available.  This does not mean that the idea of a landline phone did not at all affect how mobile phones were used: initially, when the phone density was low, mobile phones were mostly kept at home and shared by the household members.   However, villagers were able to use mobile phones more innovatively since they had not developed routines of landline phone use. For instance, they frequently used the phone’s speaker to share the phone conversations with whoever was present.

Ilana Gershon: How did the introduction of smartphones affect social organization in Janta?  Did it change gender relationships?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Smartphones were used to strengthen pre-existing identities but they also offered opportunities and technical affordances which challenged hierarchies. Contrary to their hierarchical position, educated young wives and children could become the phone use experts in their families. Low caste people were able to make identity statements simply by possessing smartphones. Digital sphere constructed through mobile telephony was first associated with male-dominated public sphere but it proved much more malleable than the public sphere outside the home from where women are still largely excluded—the great majority of women continue to be housewives despite women’s growing aspirations to be able to work outside the home. The young men pioneered the use of smartphones—if their older models were still working, they were kept in the house and used by the rest of the family, mainly by women, who usually stay at home more than men do. At the same time, few women who moved outside the home for work or study started to acquire their personal phones. Young women now also preferred smartphones, readily discussing the multiple functions of these phones and demonstrating their ability to use them. Most people stored music and films on the smartphone’s memory card from downloading shops instead of browsing the internet independently. I never saw women listening to music on their phone in public places like men do —listening to music on smartphones through the phone’s loudspeaker is used to ascertain the meaning of the public sphere as a masculine space where men can spend their leisure time. The few men and women in the village who have used their personal phones to browse the internet all had a college education. The ability to browse the internet with one’s phone was, therefore, related to one’s education and wealth rather than merely gender.

Ilana Gershon:  What kinds of social relationships or circulation of knowledge changed because phones made it common to have a one-to-one or dyadic conversation, which might have been difficult to achieve before the advent of mobile phones?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Within the sphere of politics, mobile phones provided a channel to contact opposition political leaders discreetly. The use of mobile technology amplified multiplicity by strengthening clandestine political activities and alternative discourses. Women’s increasing access to a mobile phone influenced their relationships with men, but—more crucially— it influenced the kinship code of conduct and kinship hierarchies within families and between kin groups. I observed how phones offered women a channel to express unconventional ideas and exert their will through networking. For instance, a mother could advise her daughter over the phone to not to obey the mother-in-law whose demands were excessive. Thanks to phones, young wives were able to stay in constant touch with their natal families which was unheard of in the past.

Ilana Gershon: One of your findings that I found startling was that mobile phones had contributed to a marked decline in village-level leaders’ power.  Could you explain why this is the case?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Mobile telephony was a crucial factor in the rise of the opposition in West Bengal, where the Communist Party had been in power largely through its network of local village leaders from 1977 until 2011. In 2010 opposition activists related to me how mobile phones help them secretly mobilize against the ruling party. Political activists used phones more to organize party meetings and offer political patronage than to organize spontaneous demonstrations and support. The parties’ power used to be largely derived from their role as arbitrators of disputes: any person who feels that he or she has suffered an injustice can call a village meeting, led by local political leaders, during which a solution will be negotiated between the disputing parties. Thanks to mobile phones, patronage could now increasingly be sought from opposition leaders and from outside the village. When I visited the village in 2013, I found that after the end of CPI(M) rule in the village in 2011, not a single general village meeting had been held to solve local problems and disputes. Mobile phone use had helped amplify translocal political networks thereby reducing the power of local village leaders.  Phone use for political purposes built on earlier political patterns and meanings, but it made politics faster, more heterogeneous, and translocal.

Francis Cody on his book, The Light of Knowledge

http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100643370

Interview by Rachel Howard

What was your main goal in writing about literacy activists in Tamil Nadu? And how did your goals change as you learned more about the site?

I had gone to do research on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu with a deep interest in language and political economy.  My graduate education was fueled by the theoretical energy that had gathered around both questions of language ideology and postcolonial studies.  It struck me that studying a movement that promised to deliver enlightenment to the marginalized through written language would enable me to address some of the big questions about power, the materiality of language, and temporality that we were wrestling with at the time.  More specifically, knowing that Tamil is a language shaped deeply by diglossia, I went to study how learning the written variety was meant to empower people.  I sensed a paradox of sorts in a practice that required people to learn a new register of their own language in order to free themselves.  But my goals quickly changed when I realized that the difference between written and rural spoken varieties was perhaps not so important in a context where simply teaching people how to write their own name was such a major effort, and where the literacy movement had also reflected upon its own practice so much in its transition from being a revolutionary movement of sorts to becoming a partnership with government. The literacy had also become a women’s movement, somewhat unexpectedly.  So, following the lead of my interlocutors, I became much more interested in the practice of activism itself.  New and more interesting questions about writing and embodiment, as well as questions about the very practice of mobilizing rural, lower caste women, who are often thought of as the most subaltern, arose from the ethnography as a result.

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Dev Nath Pathak on his new edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia

CaMP Anthropology blog recognizes that information about books from some regions circulate more widely than books from other regions.   To do our part in rectifying this inequality, we asked Dev Nath Pathak to discuss the analytical interventions his new edited volume offers to our field.

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https://www.routledge.com/Culture-and-Politics-in-South-Asia-Performative-Communication/Pathak-Perera/p/book/9781138201132

by Dev Nath Pathak

Max Weber was right when he perceived the powerful role of intuitive notions in scientific pursuits. A quest for culture and politics, their interface, and hermeneutic significance, in the chequered cartography called South Asia indeed solicits unbridled intuition. Following this, it could be said that our edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia: Performative Communication, published by Routledge (India) is a consequence of conceptual flirting and empirical lusting. It contains several bouts of intuition provoked by the soliloquies of individual scholars as well as conversations among them. And what does it seek to know– what is South Asia, if seen through the prism that collapses the binaries of power and performance, politics and culture, structures and meanings? Indeed the binaries do not exist, and never existed, insofar as it was about what we become though our diverse performances. We become citizens as we participate in the electoral performances, we become ethnos as we participate in festivities in rites of passage, we turn objective as we perform our own empirically sound researches and we are deemed deviant as we enact the Dadaist idea of anything goes. Even though we recognise that the format in which we play our roles entails binaries of good and bad, black and white, oppressor and oppressed, and even bourgeoisie and proletariat- we are performing with the complexity of Bourdieu’s habitus. Our being and doing are too finely intertwined to be viewed in separation. Often one thought that in a controlled performance in a proscenium theatre, the power relation is indubitably clear. Was it so? The relation of the scripted and the scripting always sprang surprises on us. It is just like the relation between structure and agency in theoretical discussions in social sciences, which cannot be mistaken for a linear, zero-sum power game. It is complex and fluid, despite the institutional determinacy and structural clarity most visible. This is very much what Emile Durkheim shows, that the normal and pathological stride together. Continue reading

Adam Sargent’s “Building Modern India”

My dissertation explores the politics and semiotics of labor in India’s modernizing construction industry.  I conducted fieldwork on a few key sites in the greater Delhi region where I attended to the ways workers, subcontractors and engineers understood their own and others’ productive activities.  Drawing on linguistic anthropology I treat these understandings of productive activity as what I call ideologies of labor, to highlight the ways in which labor is not a pre-given category of action but rather something that is created through acts of framing productive activity.  By analyzing how actors talked about, remunerated and recorded construction work I argue that production was shaped by tensions and translations between divergent ideologies of labor.

Page 99 falls in a chapter that illustrates one such tension in ideologies of labor based on fieldwork at a construction skill-training center in Faridabad.  As I explain earlier in the chapter students and administrators at the center understood the very same productive activities in divergent ways.  For administrators activities like carrying bricks were part of ‘practical’ training that would help students in their future careers as construction site supervisors. Students had quite a different understanding of this same activity, as for them brick carrying was considered ‘labor work’ and had the potential to transform them in a downwardly mobile direction into a laborer.  Thus while administrators attempted to strip activities like carrying bricks of their associations with labor, students often reframed these activities through humor.  Some students would refer to students who were carrying bricks as “laborers” which, as I point out on page 99, both construed the action of carrying bricks as “labor work” and not “practical” while also expressing an anxiety that engaging in such action would transform the actor into a laborer. The humor expressed a particular ideology of labor that was in opposition to that articulated by administrators. The remainder of the dissertation builds on this approach in analyzing production on a self-described “modern” construction site in Delhi.  I argue that the practices of audit and accounting that marked the site as “modern” depended on the productive translations used by subcontractors and others to articulate divergent ideologies of labor to one another.

Adam Sargent. 2017. “Building Modern India: Transformations of Labor in the Indian Construction Industry.” University of Chicago, Phd.

 

Islam Omitted from Beyond Bollywood: Correcting Indian History as Represented in a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition

By Susan Seizer “In the Western imagination, India conjures up everything from saris and spices to turbans and temples—and the pulsating energy of Bollywood movies. But in America, India’s contributions stretch far beyond these stereotypes. […] Today, one out of … Continue reading