Research Ethics and Positionality
I rely on ethnographic interviews, oral histories, participant observation, and archival research to investigate three thematic clusters, outlined below. I work collaboratively with scholars and activists in India and take seriously the call to decolonize research methodology to ensure that it is less extractive and one-way. That being said, I am acutely aware of the privileges of my positionality. I am an intercaste savarna: my mother belongs to a Kerala ambalavasi/warrier caste and my father belongs to a Tamil brahmin caste. I am also a cis-het middle-class female scholar of South Asian origin in the U.S. academy. Indian-Americans like myself are deployed to bolster, and themselves buy into, the “model minority myth” to negatively stereotype Black and Brown groups in the U.S., even while history shows that South Asian immigration to the U.S. has benefited precisely from the civil rights activism of these same groups. I actively resist this myth and try to practice an ethical solidarity with Black and Brown scholars and activists. I engage in racial and environmental justice research in Washington, DC, my home city, with this in mind. This layered vantage of mine means that I am always aware of micro and macro power relations. I try to develop research questions collaboratively with organizers and advocates on the ground and follow their lead; I contribute financially to their activism and programs to the best of my ability; and I try to ensure a transparent and collaborative citational and authorial politics. This is a solidarity ethic that is no doubt a work in progress and prone to mistakes. I welcome critique and feedback at any time.
(1) Anticaste Urban Political Ecology
Caste has generally been ignored in critical urban studies and urban political ecology, especially since these two fields have been heavily influenced by “metropolitan” frameworks rooted in postcolonial, poststructural, and Marxian theory. Yet urban caste is everywhere, from the intimate spaces of the dominant caste household, where domestic help must drink water from a cup reserved exclusively for her to avoid “contaminating” utensils; to the segregated food and housing geographies dividing vegetarians from meat-eaters on the basis of caste’s purity/pollution binaries; to the mass evictions that stigmatize and banish Dalit slum dwellers to the far outskirts; to the precarious sanitation labor heaped almost exclusively on workers belonging to the Adi Karnataka or Adi Andhra Dalit castes
My book project seeks to center caste power as a key analytic in the study of urban ecologies. Caste is a relational system of power, which means that it must be “studied up” as much as it is “studied down.” I write explicitly to frame an anticaste urban political ecology and environmental justice praxis. In particular, I look the role of caste power in (wet)land grabs and argue that caste-laden property and labor regimes (reinforced and codified through colonial capitalism) undergird the making of “environmental unfreedoms.” I also consider the role of “eco-brahmanism,” or the fusing of caste supremacy with corporate supremacy in urban “greening” and lake restoration efforts in Bengaluru, showing how these betray brahmanical impulses to rid the city of unwanted SC/ST populations. These impulses, though appearing to be caste-neutral and “ecological”, sit all too comfortably with right-wing Hindutva programs to criminalize beef-eating and “illegal Bangladeshis.” Please see below for a presentation I gave at the King’s India series “Confronting Caste” in November 2020.
This work builds on earlier archival and ethnographic research on water politics, stormwater infrastructure, and landed property regimes in India’s colonial and post-independence period. For instance, tracing classically liberal regimes of private property ownership to the British East India Company in the late 1700s, I found that colonial planners—motivated both by the fear of the diseased “native” (including lower-caste Hindus and “Mohammadens”) and the desire for property taxation revenue—had carved up segregated housing for Bangalore’s economic and cultural elite, a process still known today as urban “improvement.” Crucially, this process has left Dalits [bureaucratically, “Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST), including ex-untouchable castes], impoverished Muslims (and Dalit Muslims), and other laboring classes to negotiate informal housing and services with the lower bureaucracy. It has also assembled the conditions for flood and climate change risk, what I have referred to as “climate apartheid” in forthcoming work. Ultimately, confronting these logics of caste power and ramifications related to environmental unfreedoms, and also reading anticaste archives and tracing urban anticaste activism, my book project argues for an approach to environmental justice centered on radical and anticaste humanism. I was honored to speak on a panel organized by Suraj Yengde and Prashant Ingole titled “Anticaste Ecological Politics” in May 2020.
My colleagues and I have just finished editing a special issue in Ethnic and Racial Studies titled “Rethinking Difference in India: Racialization in Transnational Perspective.” Stay tuned for more!
(2) Corruption Plots: Stories, Ethics, and Publics of the Late Capitalist City
A second research cluster examines “corruption” as a political narrative through which slum dwellers and the lower middle-class challenge neoliberal land grabs by the elite and dominant castes and classes. Across cities of the North and South, the elite flout or manipulate planning regulations and property law with impunity and encroach on wetlands and forests, while poorer groups are evicted and punished for their actions. First, Sapana Doshi (Associate Professor at UC Merced) and I argue that “corruption” serves as an ethical discourse for deciphering this dissonance. We show how marginalized residents and activists deploy a repertoire of strategies, from theatrical performance to right-to-information petitions, to expose what they understand as corruption. Departing from economistic models deployed by international development actors, we show how valuable interpretivist and ethnographic methods are for parsing diverse and shifting meanings attached to corruption.
Second, building on the humanistic strengths of this work, we teamed up with literary scholar David Pike (Professor, American University) to successfully apply for a grant from the ACLS (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) to write a book-length monograph on corruption narratives in imagined and real urban worlds. Weaving our ethnography together with the fictional worlds of novels and films, we are co-writing a book titled Corruption Plots: Stories, Ethics and Publics in the Millennial City. In it, we analyze ethnographic and literary story-telling to argue that “corruption” is deployed by differentially situated groups to call attention to a widening wealth gap and the erosion of the public sphere. What is especially fascinating to us is how corruption is used to name partnerships and collusions between the state and private actors that are officially deemed “legal.” In other words, corruption talk is more about situated ethics than a strict binary between “illegal” and “legal.”
This project is a complement to my previous research critiquing the donor-driven anti-corruption agenda and, specifically, the alleged role of digital technology in improving the responsiveness and accountability of government. In these prior publications, I show that technologies designed to digitize citizen complaints (“e-grievance redressal”), a popular “good governance” tool, systematically bias against collective in-person complaints lodged by lower class and lower-caste women living in informal settlements.
(3) Antiracism, Abolition, and Environmental Justice in the American City
Finally, I am interested in racial and environmental justice in the US. Some of my thinking across the North-South divide stems from a 2015 scholarly article I co-wrote calling for “transnational learning” between California’s Central Valley and Bangalore’s urban fringes. Following the call in the critical social sciences for thinking “from” the South (and not just “about” the South), we find that informality is very much present in Central California’s poorer, Latinx-Hispanic urban fringes, but is rarely grasped as such. On this basis, we contend that rethinking how minority farm laborers in poorer urban fringes engage the state for basic services through insights from political practices in the South decolonizes academic inquiry and reveals novel possibilities for policy change.
In a research grant funded by AU’s Metropolitan Policy Center, Eve Bratman (Assistant Professor, Franklin and Marshall College) and I studied: (a) what makes certain groups in DC vulnerable to environmental change and climate disasters and (b) how organizing around housing and displacement by minorities can be leveraged for building “resilience” to climate change in the fullest sense of the word. Preliminary findings establish that the environmental injustices (proximity to toxic wastes, illegal dumping, public transport idling) suffered by African Americans in the District—owing to a legacy of institutionalized discrimination and racial segregation—are deeply consequential for climate vulnerability. For instance, there is a long history of environmental injustice in the Kenilworth/Parkside/Eastland Gardens area of Ward 7. Residents report toxic wastes in the soil near the community rec center due to an old (now shut down) waste incinerator, placed there in the post-war period when it was already clear that the area was predominantly African American. The area also has a history of flooding, including sewage overflow in the now-closed elementary school (Thomas Elementary). A third problem is illegal dumping as seen by the plea in this photo.
Our research on the place-based and historically rooted vulnerabilities in Ward 7 in DC’s northeast Anacostia region will provide needed texture to macro assessments of DC’s climate risk. To learn more, please visit the project website and an interview I conducted in 2019 for NPR. For a recent talk I gave at UCLA, please see the video below.