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.

 

Gil Hizi flips to page 99 of his dissertation

My dissertation deals with pedagogic programs for self-improvement in a city called Jinan, northeast China. I focus on workshops that cultivate interpersonal “soft” skills, namely emotional expression, communication, and public speaking. Through the work of various state and market actors, these type of pedagogies have expanded in recent years from the middle-class culture of big metropolises to wider urban China. The crux of my work delineates the ideal of the person that is promulgated through these pedagogies and the ways it is enacted in workshop exercises. In short, soft skills in China offer an imagined avenue for self-transformation and social mobility that supposedly traverses more rigid factors such as background, educational credentials, and social capital.

Page 99 concludes a section where I introduce Aisong, 33, who joined interactive workshops offered by a local psychology club. During a short time, Aisong became a dominant participant and a poignant voice of expertise in the club. Despite his lack of prior experience in psychology, he expressed his goal of becoming a “master teacher” (dashi), and complemented his verbal performances with a new appearance: traditional suits, hair gel, a hairband, a Buddhist bracelet, and a fan in his hand. While undertaking this journey, Aisong maintained his blue-collar technician job. Like many other workshop participants I met, he was not pursuing self-improvement as merely a hobby or self-help method, but he was also not undertaking a new profession. I raise this point on page 99:

Unlike the visions of scholars of soft skills and immaterial labour, Aisong’s affinity to soft skills was not a response to direct demands of an enterprise. Yet, being both fascinated by and anxious regarding the potentialities of the market, Aisong was motivated to experiment with new modes of self-assertion while heralding new values.

Many self-improvers in urban China meticulously pursue self-improvement through a vision of entrepreneurship and market success, while also celebrating “doing what I love” and “becoming a better person”. They illustrate an intriguing coalition between a market-driven impetus for self-development and a moral cultivation of the person as a whole.

Anxieties about one’s competence in a changing world lead individuals as Aisong to envision new channels for professional success and social influence (the “master teacher” encompasses both), as well as to experience an untapped potential to become more competent. By practicing soft skills in an interactive workshop where he affects other participants through his speech and gestures, Aisong could achieve these goals ephemerally.

Hizi, Gil. 2018. “The Affective Medium and Ideal Person in Pedagogies of ‘Soft Skills’ in Contemporary China”. Ph.D. Dissertation. Sydney University.

 

Ilana Gershon on her new book, Down and Out in the New Economy

Down and Out in the New Economy

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo25799564.html

Interview by Matt Tomlinson

The topics your book takes on are complexly intertwined: how people are meant to become their own brands, how patterns of hiring and quitting are changing, and the role of new media ideologies and ecologies. One of the points that emerges in your book is that people who try to connect these strands are themselves often confused, perplexed, and frustrated by the systems and processes. So can you distil your argument into a short summary—the elevator talk or, as this case might be, the elevator blog?

Pithy summaries are indeed the goal of so many of the job-seeking performances I studied, it seems only fair that I attempt to reduce my argument down to a handful of sentences.  My book is an attempt to make the notion of a neoliberal self as rigorous as possible by using historical comparison with earlier forms of capitalism.  So I suggest that Fordist work structures relied on the metaphor that one owns oneself as though one was property.  This means that the employment contract is a moment in which you rent yourself out to an employer for a certain period of time, and get yourself back, so to speak, at the end of the day.   Many union battles were fought over how long you should rent yourself out (the 40-hour work week), or other practical conundrums created by extending this metaphor of self-as-property.  But since Reagan and Thatcher, the metaphor has changed, and under neoliberal capitalism, people imagine that they own their selves as though they are businesses – bundles of skills, assets, experiences, qualities, and relationships that must be consciously managed and continually enhanced.  The employment contract becomes metaphorically a business-to-business contract in which you as a business are providing temporary solutions to your employer’s market-specific problems.  The book is about how the hiring ritual and various aspects of workplaces have changed in response to this shift in metaphor.

You describe how your students’ questions about how they should go about getting jobs led you to write the book. Can you say more about this, and what practical critical tools you see linguistic anthropology offering to students and job-seekers?

I am so glad that you asked, because the more I studied what hiring actually involves, the more I realized that linguistic and media anthropologists teach very helpful analytical tools for being a competent job candidate.  And I also think that we could all be much more direct when faced with the question “How will this major help me get a job?” about all the ways that an anthropology degree is truly helpful preparation for specific tasks involved in looking for a job.

For example, all the workshops that I attended were openly guides for how to master a certain genre.   The instructors were teaching how to understand the way information should be presented on the page to anticipate a certain kind of reader – often an impatient one who wants clear signals that the applicant fits certain criteria, and with their own styles for interpretation.   These are readers who are also reading with other people’s assessments in mind, who are anticipating having to show a resume to someone else in their workplace with their own techniques for interpreting a genre.  And while the workshops tend to focus on one genre alone, the job seeker is supposed to be competent at a range of genres, all of which are supposed to interconnect and tell a persuasive narrative about the applicant.  This is precisely what students learn in our courses.  You learn how to become competent at new genres.  You learn how to anticipate the different ways people might interpret your own texts, at the same time that you are learning a range of different techniques for interpreting a text.  You often learn the relationships between a textual genre and a performance genre.  And, as importantly, you learn how to be persuasive about your own interpretations of a text, a skill that will come in handy when our students have to discuss with their future co-workers who they want to hire.

 Your book is written in an appealingly informal tone, but there are moments when the immense anxiety and frustration of job seekers is apparent. Was the fieldwork emotionally challenging at times? Were there folks for whom you felt you needed to intervene sympathetically in some way?

Honestly, this was the most depressing fieldwork I have ever done.   And this is proven to me all over again when I give talks.  When I talk about my previous research on how people use new media to break up with each other, I often feel like a stand-up comedian.  The stories and my informants’ take on things are just so funny.   And now, when I give a talk about hiring, people in the audience keep telling me that they feel deeply depressed after I am done.

One of the reasons it was so painful is that the white collar workers I interviewed seemed to accept the neoliberal advice that they were surrounded by. At the end of an interview, I would sometimes mention that I was a bit skeptical about some aspect, say the requirement to create a personal brand.  And invariably, the person I was interviewing would defend the advice.   By contrast, last summer, I spent a month interviewing homeless people about how they looked for jobs.  It was much more enjoyable fieldwork because so many of the people I interviewed had a healthy skepticism about the systems they were trying to navigate.

It was also hard because I had no concrete way to intervene for the people I was interviewing in the moment, no matter how much I wanted to do so. And offering yet more advice didn’t seem like a satisfying way to go.  After all, part of the trap that job-seekers face is not only that they are surrounded by advice, some of it good and some of it crappy, but almost all of it must be said at a level of generality that isn’t helpful enough for getting a job in a complex and specific workplace.  In the end, I decided that maybe the best I could do was point out in my book the problems with standardized advice as clearly as possible.  This might help job-seekers realize they also might want to do thoughtful research about any workplace they want to enter, research (to continue my point in the previous question) that resembles ethnographic explorations of how decisions are made in a specific organization.

For linguistic anthropologists this book will resonate strongly with your previous book The Breakup 2.0. In fact, they would be great to assign as a pair to students. But I wanted you to think of this new book in terms of your work on Samoan migrants, No Family Is an Island. I want to go out on a limb here. In No Family Is an Island, you make it clear that government bureaucrats who see their systems as acultural put Samoans in the position of “being cultural,” and making culture something to be managed in particular ways. In this new book, you mention how companies are seen to have cultures, but individuals have some leeway—true, they need to have a cultural makeup that fits the company’s own, but they’re also free to craft selves as brands and decide what kind of individual culture they have, if you will. So to draw all this out: Samoan migrants are forced to be culture-bearers, whereas American job-seekers need to be culture-designers. Is this a fair comparison?

For me, this is a very unexpected comparison, but let me see if I can work with it.   Why unexpected? In my research on hiring, I was constantly baffled by what people meant when they were talking to me about company culture and making sure that those they hired were a good cultural fit.   It often sounded to me like “not a cultural fit” was a politic way to reject a job candidate you didn’t like for whatever reason, but seemed perfectly acceptable on paper.  And I never came across anyone who thought they were creating a culture of one, job-seekers and employers both understood culture to involve a group of people interacting together.

That said, I think you are pointing to a fascinating distinction in the way that culture as a classification functions on the ground when people use the concept explicitly.  In my earlier work on Samoan migrants, culture tended to refer only to one thin slice of what anthropologists mean when they talk about culture – ritual exchanges, kinship obligations, and politeness norms.  None of these were being referred to when U.S. white collar workers were talking about company culture.  Instead, they seemed, as far as I could tell, to be referring to the specific interactional practices that linguistic anthropologists study – how do you handle conflict, or manage small talk – which was then translated into Values that company employees were supposed to uphold.  No one ever clearly spelled out the link between values such as Amazon’s “bias for action” and “think big” and how employees were supposed to behave in particular situations.  This was the tacit cultural knowledge everyone in Amazon were supposed to know — how to link these values to everyday practice.  And I suppose employees could say retroactively that the people who didn’t know how to enact this tacit link were not a good “cultural fit.”  But honestly, from my analytical perspective, moving from a job at Goldman Sachs to a job at Amazon was not switching cultures in any meaningful anthropological sense.  Both Samoan migrants and U.S. white collar workers were using culture as a classification to refer to some things that anthropologists would agree are part of culture, but it was only a slice of what anthropologists might refer to should they use the term.  But the slices were different enough that I think you are right that people viewed their relationships to culture differently.  Samoan migrants did not think they were actively making their own culture while US white collar workers thought that every conscious decision they made helped them fashion a company culture.

Finally: who do you most hope will read your book?

I wrote this book for people looking for jobs, for people looking to hire, and for the career counselors who are giving advice.  I don’t like the model of the neoliberal self, and want to encourage people to refuse it.  The question is how to do this persuasively?  I turned to analyzing hiring because it is a moment of such uncertainty and anxiety that when people are being told they had to become a neoliberal self in order to get a job, they will do it for pragmatic purposes.   I hoped with this book to suggest that this was not the way to go, both because becoming a neoliberal self isn’t all that effective as a set of strategies and because it is not allowing people to be as ethical and good to each other as I hope they want to be.

 

Lynnette Arnold’s Communicative Care Across Borders

My dissertation, “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life,” explores the role of everyday communication in the lives of multigenerational transnational families living stretched between El Salvador and the United States, revealing how technologically mediated language both produces and contests the political-economic marginalization of geographically mobile populations. These families rely on regular cell-phone calls as a primary form of kin work in the face of long-term physical separation caused by restrictive immigration policies (Di Leonardo 1987), and the dissertation provides a close analysis of these cross-border conversations, informed by insights developed through multi-sited ethnographic engagement.

Page 99 is located in the middle of my methods chapter, and discusses the relationships that made this intimate investigation possible, describing how 15 years of connection had resulted in my adoption into several transnational families, signaling close affective ties despite the insurmountable gulf between our political-economic positions. As such, although page 99 is methodological, it draws attention to the primary theoretical contribution of the dissertation, the concept of communicative care.

Building on feminist approaches to care, I develop this term to highlight how mundane conversations attend to both material and affective concerns, nurturing the relational ties upon which cross-border families depend. The dissertation analyzes long-distance greetings, collaborative reminiscences, and negotiations of economic decisions, elucidating how each practice works to reproduce material connections between migrants and their relatives back home, while also providing forms of affective engagement that maintain kin ties.

In sustaining transnational family life, communicative care practices constitute a creative response to the failures of state care, but one that also reinforces the domestication and privatization of caring responsibilities. Thus, while communicative care is a means of pursuing well-being at the margins of neoliberalism, these strategies simultaneously produce forms of personhood and relationship that conform to neoliberal models. The analysis presented in the dissertation demonstrates the crucial importance of paying close attention to technologically mediated talk for understanding how the tensions of neoliberal mobility are both produced and managed.

Lynnette Arnold, “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life,” Phd diss, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2016.

Bibliography

Di Leonardo, Micaela. “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12, no. 3 (1987): 440–453.