Jennifer Mack on her book, The Construction of Equality

Interview by Lynda Chubak

Lynda Chubak: Bringing together architecture, urban planning and anthropology, you trace the decades-long transformation of Södertälje, Sweden arising from the settlement and spatial practices of Syriac immigration. What drew you to this project and what were your primary goals going in?

Jennifer Mack: Before I started the project, I had a longstanding interest in thinking about alternative, minoritarian forms of public space in European cities. I wanted to understand whether European public parks and town squares were exclusive, and, if so, what kinds of other spaces migrants had been developing to accommodate their needs to gather. And when I first visited Södertälje, I had the good fortune to meet some very enthusiastic soccer fans who were also Assyrian nationalists and Syriac Orthodox Christians. During that summer, I followed the fans (of the Swedish team Assyriska FF) as much as possible and sometimes 24 hours a day for a documentary project I was working on with the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. As I followed the fans to away games in central Sweden, to a burger joint in town, to the high school gym where they painted banners for a match at 3 o’clock in the morning, and to their homes, I learned a massive amount about the town and the role its physical space had in Syriac Orthodox Christian diasporic practices of identity-making. That’s because they talked about those spaces all the time. It also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Assyrian Democratic Organization, and people from all over the world were in the town for the celebrations. So, I quickly understood that places like the soccer arena, the Syriac Orthodox churches, and the cultural associations in the town were not just “standard” Swedish public spaces or forms of architecture.

Another primary goal of mine was to examine how Swedish tropes of segregation played a role in creating both means and methods for spatial intervention on the part of both politicians and design professionals in that country. During my research, I observed that segregation (and fears of future segregation) was frequently used to justify holistic, sometimes quite radical approaches to urban design and planning. These approaches rested on ensuring that enclaves would not emerge, or, if they did, that they would somehow be disrupted or dispersed. Why were ethnic enclaves regarded as a problem? I wondered. Of course, as you can read in the book, there is a long tradition harkening back to the expansion of the Swedish welfare state that assumed that standardization and building norms would produce societal equality. Part of the logic there was that historical built environments in which people had constructed building in formally distinct ways or lived in housing that specifically telegraphed their class status had reinforced socioeconomic divisions in the society. So, developing enclaves in the 21st century still served as a representation of the very opposite of that approach, especially when ethnic minority groups were behind them as clients or designers. I wanted to understand why these architectural projects were so threatening and why they were repeatedly framed as a so-called planning problem.

Lynda Chubak: You offer an alternative to a common assumption that geographic segregation or enclavization is an inequality problem to solve. Can you briefly describe what you mean by “urban design from below”, and how this played out in Södertälje to unsettle understandings of integration?

Jennifer Mack: My notion of “urban design from below” helped me to theorize how people whom planners understood as only users – not as agents in designing or forming the city – were actually reshaping whole neighborhoods. I presented this as a process that happened building by building and over a very long period of time – a process that was very different from the faster ones that planners might themselves label urban design but that had, nonetheless, changed the main spaces for shopping, social gathering, and leisure in one neighborhood, Geneta, replacing the welfare-state planned town center where those activities were supposed to take place. Urban design is traditionally positioned as a top-down practice carried out by design professionals, but this change in Geneta happened because of the individual and collective initiatives of migrants themselves. So, suddenly we saw that each building that had been constructed had become part of a larger whole that was not imagined – as a master plan – in advance. Instead, this hub for the community grew, one could say, both by the accumulation of buildings and by the socially-enacted, everyday reinforcement of the idea that some areas of the city were more accommodating of specific Syriac needs – such as wedding planning services or Orthodox religious services – than others. Over time, Syriacs changed the built environment of the city of Södertälje at the urban scale. This process happened slowly and required Syriacs to interact with professional planners and architects. In other words, they changed plans piecemeal, but their efforts had large-scale results. In fact, if you look at an aerial view or map of the Geneta area today, the Syriac commercial and social zone looks very much like a coherent urban design that an urban planner could have drawn. In my view, and in light of their numerous architectural projects, renovations, and productions of space, the way that both planners and politicians typically relegated Syriacs to the user category was inherently discriminatory. This discursive move suggested that they were only passive and perhaps just recipients of other people’s buildings and spaces. By using the rubric “urban design from below,” then, I wanted to call attention instead to how Syriacs are active, agentive participants in the architectural development of the city, and I hoped – and hope – that planners might see my work as a call to engage with minority groups and their architectural aspirations differently.

Lynda Chubak: Part of your investigation included working for one year as an intern at the Södertälje Municipal Planning Department. For new researchers interested in anthropology of bureaucracy or documentation, what were some of the pitfalls, benefits, and/or surprises of doing ethnography within a government department?

Jennifer Mack:This is a really interesting question! It’s one that I have also raised with some of my students, many of whom are studying to be architects or planners themselves. One of the main pitfalls of doing ethnography in a government department, I would say, is that bureaucrats – and especially politicians – typically have assumptions about what you want to know and, when interviewed, can present something like a prepared speech as a response to your questions. In these bureaucratic settings, I always recommend paying attention to things like topics brought up during coffee or lunch breaks or before or after what one’s fieldwork interlocutors might think of as a real meeting about a project. These interstitial moments are often when the really interesting things get said, rather than during the meetings themselves. Furthermore, and this may be pretty self-evident because it applies to all forms of ethnographic research, I found that it was really helpful to establish a good relationship with colleagues before attempting to interview them, if interviews are planned. If you look at some of the ethnographies of planning offices or architecture firms that have been done in the last few years, you also see an emphasis on things like the gestures of different people within meetings, or on practices of project representation (like model building). For me, the relationship between bureaucrats and their objects (computers, drawings, chalkboards, file boxes, and the like) are also very interesting. One challenge, of course, is that you don’t usually record video of such encounters, so I find it important to find ways to remember how the relations between human designers and their non-human professional objects are bodily enacted (through the hands, through the voice, and so on), and to remain actively aware of those relations while talking with them.

Lynda Chubak: You describe how planners, as agents of the Swedish state, sought to create equality and redefine citizenship through the ambitious Million housing program, and the built environment more generally.  With a specific ethnographic example, can you explain spatial governmentality and how it relates to these kinds of recalibrations of citizenship?

Jennifer Mack:Yes, I was very inspired by Sally Engle Merry’s ideas of spatial governmentality when thinking about the Swedish welfare state and its explicit use of an architectural toolbox to enact its own desired modes of citizenship during the 20th century. This is in part what Yvonne Hirdman refers to as “setting life right” in her influential book on that topic. As you say, these recalibrations of citizenship were in fact part of a major modern project to transform Swedish society, and this was also possible because of a continuous period of Social Democratic leadership from the 1930s until the 1970s. We have to remember that Sweden’s housing was among the worst in Europe well into the 1940s, and that there was both a housing shortage and poor-quality housing stock in the country during the first half of the 20th century. This also led to a wide range of promises about housing from political leaders across the spectrum, which also produced numerous governmental studies on housing and urban standards in the pursuit of best practices, including observational studies of housewives. Optimal dimensions for housing, along with furnishing plans and sunlight diagrams, were then published the series Good Housing (God bostad), with the standards required when builders used government loans. This was especially important during the so-called Million Program, which built over one million dwelling units across Sweden between 1965 and 1974, including five new neighborhoods in Södertälje, where I did my research. With this, the notion that erasing visual difference would support social equality became pervasive both rhetorically and materially.

What I then found during fieldwork was how that these ideas continued to resonate in contemporary planning practice. When I was working in the Södertälje planning department as an intern, the promotion of social equality through spatial standardization was reinforced all the time. I mention in the book how one planner told me, “There is not a single plan in the entire planning department that is not functionalist.” I found this statement extremely interesting because this planner recognized how little things had actually changed in his line of work since the mid-20th century. This was despite the fact that the Swedish political context had shifted radically since the 1980s with intensive neoliberal reforms and the widespread popularity of ideas like New Public Management within public professions and bureaucracies. Even with these changes, I repeatedly found that urban planners held on tightly to the notion that minority groups could only achieve social quality if they submitted to architectural standards. Planners even expressed a kind of moral panic when Syriacs distinguished themselves architectonically and when they explicitly sought to live together in enclaves.

For me, one of the most interesting expressions of these concerns had to do with the new private houses that Syriacs were building in the town and their choice of both form and materials. I write extensively in the book about how much anxiety resulted among planners when one deregulated plan for a new neighborhood produced a wide range of architectural forms commissioned by Syriacs: from houses in stucco to walls on the edge of the street to buildings where two stories looked like three. Planners talked mentioned this plan as a cautionary tale all the time. One time, I was talking with a majority Swedish planner in her 30s about her understandings of what a dream house was for Syriacs versus majority Swedes. She subscribed to the idea that most Swedes wanted a small wooden house in the traditional style with white window frames, while Syriacs preferred large houses in stone with columns. For her, it was a major professional issue that these dream houses could potentially be built side by side! She decried the impossibility of having “an area where everything matches” in a place where “gigantic stone houses with very grand columns” would coexist with smaller wood frame houses. She also told me that visitors might assume the wooden house to be a “construction barrack” rather than a private house, suggesting other anxieties bubbling below the surface of her comments. In her professional understanding, a plan that allowed this kind of formal, architectural difference would ultimately lead to that Swedish house being eclipsed visually (and culturally, it was implied) by its neighbor.

During fieldwork, I heard a lot of comments like hers, where choices about materials or even the design of the front yard appeared to serve as shorthand for concerns about migration and its effects on Swedish society more generally. Planning and architecture were frequently cited as tools to improve an imagined integration between minority Syriacs and majority Swedes, but the way that this would be enacted and the outcomes envisioned had not changed much from earlier methods to address differences between socioeconomic classes in early and mid-20th century Sweden. This is another reason that I wanted to call attention to the way majority Swedish planners were interacting with Syriac clients and interpreting the consequences of their building projects.

Lynda Chubak: Throughout your book you reveal how diaspora space is made material, having both intended and unintended consequences. For example, “Major monuments may unite the diaspora, but they also bifurcate the city.” (p. 131)  Over the last several months, across the United States and beyond, contestations over monuments have intensified. With these conflicts and your research in mind, what advice might you give to planning departments that are considering public monuments?

Jennifer Mack:Thanks for this question, which is very relevant in the present moment! And I think I would like to frame my response by expanding the definition of public monuments because, in my view, they can take many forms. They may be literal sculptural elements in the landscape, such as some of the monuments that you’re referring to in this question. Certainly, there can be explosive debates about projects like that when they make it down the pipeline to a planning department. For example, in Sweden, here have been controversial proposals to create monuments in suburban neighborhoods to the victims of the genocides in early 20th century Turkey, and one such monument was constructed in Botkyrka despite opposition that deemed the tragedy it represented as supposedly foreign to Sweden and thus out of place. This shows just how much emotion that monuments – which are not merely materials carved or cast – can elicit. I would like to suggest that we could also broaden the definition of a “monument” to include symbolic buildings that, for many diasporic groups, also serve as pilgrimage sites.

During my research for the book, I found that Syriac Orthodox churches and a soccer arena were not just gathering spaces for religious services and rituals and soccer matches but also critical symbols of settlement and success for the Syriacs who proposed and commissioned them. When Syriacs from abroad came to Södertälje, it was often to visit these sites – not just to join community members in their celebratory or solemn rites – but because of the status of these buildings as monuments. Intriguingly, both my historical research and in ethnographic research conducted in planning meetings about new churches (and in a later project, mosques), planners’ concerns often centered on two issues: 1) parking and noise levels during events; and 2) the social and spatial effects of these buildings on the neighborhoods and cities holistically. For these reasons, these emblematic, expensive, and often hard-won buildings typically ended up sited in peripheral locations, and very often these were even in industrial zones next to factories or other spaces with more mundane or pragmatic functions. In conversation, planners expressed their beliefs that this choice of location would reduce complaints about traffic and other disturbances associated with the projects, but it also placed the largest Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in Europe (at least the largest according to my interlocutors) in the middle of a block next to a factory and a chain link fence. Certainly, many Syriac interlocutors believed it was, as one man told me, better not “to be in the people’s eye,” and therefore desirable to be hidden in this way – to avoid conflict. But the results are tragic and exclusionary, too.

Based on my experiences in these settings, my advice to planning departments considering public monuments – especially those commissioned by minority groups – would therefore be to embrace these projects as evidence of societies in transformation and to give them prominence and the kinds of spaces that other similar majoritarian monuments would receive. Likewise, when planners reflect upon monuments from the past, it is important to understand how they relate to the society of the present. If a monument – such as those you might be referring to in the United States – represents oppression and racism, then it is also the duty of a planning department to consider its continued relevance as part of the public realm. So, monuments are indeed tricky when we think about issues of permanence, representation, political conflict, and belonging.

Catherine Fennell on her new book, Last Project Standing

Interview by Janet Connor

Janet Connor: If you were at dinner with an urban planner, maybe not from Chicago but from another large American city, how would you describe your book?

Catherine Fennell: It’s a challenging question because tbbhe topic of public housing is utterly over-determined by public sentiments and an ongoing history of racism that reduce the complexity of subsidized housing in the U.S. to a particular kind of place — “the projects”. These sentiments and this history also tend to paint this particular kind of place as particularly decrepit, impoverished, and black. All this despite the fact that the vast majority of public housing projects in the U.S. provided sound housing to people who fell into a range of economic and social categories. These reductions make it difficult to appreciate the extent to which many Americans’ lives are bound up in the project of state subsidized housing. They also collapse people into place, making it near impossible to divorce the imagined decrepitude of “the projects” from the imagined depravity of their residents. These potent sentiments shape the kinds of questions that often get asked about housing projects and the kinds of debates they anchor.  And they also shape what urban planners learn to recognize as successful housing. And they shape the kinds of urban development interventions that gain traction. So I’d want to be careful about how I set up a book that was always more interested in how such sentiments gather and circulate within and beyond a housing project, than in proving particular iterations of such sentiments right or wrong.

I’d start by sketching the Chicago case: A ten, then fifteen year urban planning experiment that has demolished some 25,000 units in the city’s public housing projects, partially replaced them with smaller mixed-income developments designed to promote mainstream employment, and displaced some 75,000 Chicagoans, many of them impoverished African Americans.  I’d tell planners that this case is worth learning about even if they never pick up my book because this case guided the direction of national policy. More than that, though, it also gets at the heart of why many planners who I’ve met get into planning in the first place: to realize more inclusive cities. Then I’d tell them two more things. First, that I’ve left it to scholars better versed in policy assessment to determine whether or not Chicago’s experiment has succeeded on the terms it set out to succeed. Second, I’d emphasize that there are compelling questions to bring to an urban planning project that have little to do with assessments of success or failure.

When ethnographers show up in housing studies, academics and practitioners alike expect them to be focused on “the lived experiences” of marginalized peoples. Throughout my research, people often understood my purpose as relaying the voices of public housing residents. This focus has done so much good, yet it can reinforce the idea that housing projects have been worlds unto themselves, removed from “mainstream” social and political life. So, I’d explain to the planners that I designed my research to foreground moments in which a range of urbanites collided with a built environment in tremendous social and material flux. This included, of course, public housing residents transitioning out of one housing project on Chicago’s West Side. But it also included their new middle-income neighbors, social workers and advocates, politicians, and even people who assumed that they had nothing at all to do with public housing.  I’d tell them that focusing on people as they collided with the people and things of changing public housing, like the ferocious decay of under-maintained buildings, the unnerving loudness or silence of new neighbors, or the presumed poignancy of public housing residents’ struggles, allowed me to analyze how urbanites might become attuned to the problem of poverty and its alleviation in a “neoliberal” policy climate. This would be a climate in which state and municipal agencies step further and further away from the provision of low-income housing and related services, even as they recruit urbanites in their capacity as neighbors or simply concerned citizens to become more involved in caring for the poor.

Finally, I’d want to offer several concrete cases from my research that presented discrete problems that planners might be in a position to address. I’d do this because problems like a systemic lack of financing for maintenance, a narrow conception of who or what constitutes a legitimate household, or appropriate practices of energy consumption very much impact low-income people who are living within or seeking subsidized housing. My interlocutors leaving public housing want and need these issues addressed in a thoughtful manner, and I see no reason why anthropologists cannot contribute to that.

Janet Conner: Central to the book’s argument is the concept of sympathy, which you describe as “a communicative mechanism whose subscribers invest it with the capacity to extend feelings, qualities, and visceral states across very different entities” (p. 7). How does this concept help you think about the ways public housing residents, social workers, and other Chicagoans who appear in your book navigate housing reforms? Why should anthropologists concerned with questions of communication be interested in sympathy? 

Catherine Fennell: Sometimes it seems that you come to a concept only after pushing against others that seem perfectly plausible but that don’t quite fit the material you’re working with. Late in the process of writing my dissertation I had a conversation with Danilyn Rutherford about my hesitations concerning the analysis of my material in terms of writings on affect theory. Specifically, I was hesitant about how some of this work presented the experience of visceral intensity as something that escaped language. Was this a suggestion that such experience eludes social mediation? If not, how should an anthropologist approach the affective resonances of social and political life? Rutherford suggested that I look at the classic work on sympathy. This was an extremely helpful and generous suggestion and it ended up completely changing my thinking and writing for the book. It helped me move toward a conceptual framework that would be alive to two things. First, it allowed me to foreground the visceral intensities of fraught collisions between my interlocutors, the disappearing built environments of Modernist-Era social welfare projects, and the emerging ones of a “neoliberal” communitarianism. Second, it allowed me to track how social worlds structured by profound racial and economic discrimination realigned the people, places, and things of disappearing projects. What attracted me about the classic concept of sympathy (as articulated by thinkers like Hume, Ribot, and Frazer) is precisely its capacity to accommodate material and visceral forces alongside meaningful coordination.  I don’t consider myself a linguistic anthropologist, but I think that any anthropologist interested in communication could learn something that anchors what we now call affective experience firmly within social and political life.

Janet Connor: Your use of sympathy also allows you to weave together an analysis across many different scales that may at first seem only tenuously related, from the materiality of your interlocutors’ bodies and the buildings in which they live, to feelings of community both within and near public housing, to broader notions of citizenship. Could you explain how you think about scale in this book?

Catherine Fennell: Again, there’s a tendency in urban studies to treat housing projects as worlds unto themselves. So, research will unfold within the walls of a public housing project, or, researchers will aggregate data collected from discrete public housing communities. This makes sense given how the tradition of community studies continues to inflect urban ethnography, and given just how much patterns of racial and economic discrimination have set public housing projects physically and socially apart from their surrounds. Yet I was interested in how “the projects” had become, as one of my interlocutors put it, “a lightning rod” for debates about the nature of collective urban and more broadly, social welfare and obligation at the very moment state agencies stepped away from welfare provision. So, I needed to find a way to work across a number of scales that I considered relevant to this problem — legislative maneuvers or media spectacles surrounding “the urban crisis,” but also everyday navigation of a changing urban built environment, everything from the discomfort surrounding the strange sociability of new neighbors to the sinking but vague sense that large scale demolition portended massive displacement. Thinking with sympathy allowed me to move across scenes and scales that all foregrounded the problem of how citizens learn to care differently for or just about one another at a moment of state divestment.  I know these shifts of perspective and scale might not sit well with readers who have a clear sense of what the “object” of a study concerning public housing should and should not be. I respect that. Yet I hope just the same my book is a contribution toward thinking about what multi-sited archival and ethnographic work might bring to urban studies and contemporary anthropology.

Janet Connor: When linguistic anthropologists think of publics, we often think of their emergence through the circulation of discourse and textual materials. You discuss publics somewhat differently, particularly focusing on the role of embodiment and emplacement. Could you elaborate on how you understand publics? How methodologically can we as anthropologists study this kind of expanded conception of a public?

Catherine Fennell:

I’ve learned so much from work within linguistic anthropology that centers on publics. Linguistic anthropologists understand that the discursive encounters from which a sense of “belonging” to a collectivity of strangers emerges have some kind of material infrastructure. In other words, that publics are discursive formations that have consequential social and material dimensions. At the same time, it seemed to me that there was even more room to think about that consequential materiality in terms of built form. It seemed to me that thinking publicity through built form might give us a stronger understanding of urban publics — collectivities of strangers who presume “the urban” as a significant frame for social and political belonging. It suspected that such an endeavor would add much to the burgeoning literature on “cities and citizenship.” Now I think that endeavor is even more important because we’re seeing assertions of political sovereignty in the United States focused on “the urban”; consider for instance the “sanctuary cities” debates or moves by some municipalities to issue their own IDs or organizing critical benefits like paid family leave. We could learn much about urban citizenship by thinking through the formation of specifically urban publics. The question of course is how to do this if you’re not going to focus exclusively on discourse, its circulations and its layering.

There’s a strand of work in political theory, geography, sociology, and anthropology that sees public spaces as key to stranger sociability and political debate. I find this work dissatisfying because it takes one genre of public space — the street, the park, the square that would be open to all regardless of “race,” status, creed and so on — as indispensable to robust democratic politics. It seems to me that this approach replicates how Habermas idealizes one historically and socially specific universe of discourse as indispensable to proper democratic politics. I wanted instead to think about how urbanites become attuned to any built form as significant to the lives that they imagine themselves to be leading in common with others. It seemed possible to chart how specific encounters are mediated in some way by built forms that prodded people to re-imagine their relations to others with whom they shared their city. I was actually inspired here by a passing remark that Habermas makes early in the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. “Publicity has changed its meaning,” he complains. “Originally a function of public opinion it has become an attribute of whatever attracts public opinion.” For him, the rise of mass media has diluted publicity’s central purpose — to support “the public” as it articulates collective opinions and critical judgments in the service of reasoned democratic governance. This is a derisive definition of publicity, but its remarkable under-specificity suggests that a range of forms, like speech but also a building, could be implicated in the communicative practices that summon people to collective meanings, commitments, and identifications. I set out in my book to sketch some of those forms.