Order, Chaos and Dreams

Order, Chaos and Dreams.

Source: http://www.fondationlecorbusier.fr

Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab, is a city designed as a symbol of modernity, casting off what was seen as the superstitious baggage of the past.   The anarchic streets of urban India would seem an impossible task for the orderly ideals of utilitarian architecture, yet here functionality dominates.   However, from the tensions between these two extremes of life, a curious art form was created.   Nek Chands Rock garden is a surreal labyrinth of figures, secretly constructed out of cast off material from the city.   There is a childlike feeling to this world, nothing is quite even and straight lines are decidedly wonky, yet it is all totally immersive.   The sense of space it creates is unreal, like it is several times bigger than it actually is.   Every time you enter a new area, it feels like falling into a whole new reality.   Having broken out of the confines of the orderly metropolis, the Rock Garden inevitably inspires people to see their home anew…

Immersion in Chaos

India, from the perspective of a confused Englishman, is an odd place.   There is often an unrelenting flood of sensory overload and a disconcerting lack of personal space.   Cultural/linguistic barriers can feel almost insurmountable, peoples body language is subtly but fundamentally rewritten and unfamiliar foods reinforce the sense of disorientation.     However, one of South Asia’s stranger destinations holds a different set of eccentricities.   Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab, is India’s only planned city.   Commissioned by Nehru in the 1950s and orchestrated by utilitarian architect Le Corbusier, it was a brave bid to herald the coming of modernity to India.

There is a sharp contrast between the original section of the city and its chaotic suburbs.   Outside the designated perimeter, live poorer communities who have gravitated towards wealth and opportunity.   Here the diversity of life thrives; engines spew black smog and streets are lined with the detritus of everyday existence.   Men stand idly on street corners engaging in animated banter and every conceivable industry is undertaken on the side of the road (mechanics, blacksmiths, mystical healers, ear cleaners, hairdressers, chai sellers, tailors, etc).

A Functional Entity

On passing into the carefully organized center of the city, things change instantly.   Moving from the congested cacophony of the outskirts everything becomes calm.   The buildings are arranged along wide boulevards and all is scrupulously clean.   Concrete is the building material of choice and is applied with imposing geometric symmetry and precision.     Cars drive at reasonable speeds on the correct side of the road.   Everybody goes in the prescribed direction around roundabouts and no one unnecessarily uses their horn.

The city was designed as a grid system, with government buildings at one end, symbolizing the head of the organism.   City blocks are arranged in sectors and assigned numbers.   In the core of this residential area, is the commercial center, the heart of the city.   To stand in a spacious pedestrianised shopping district is a strange experience after a few months spent immersed in India.   Slightly disconcertingly, there are no rickshaws to dodge and haggling is supplanted by the modern innovation of price tags.   In appearance it could be interchanged with any bland city center in the world.   There is the usual assortment of chain shops and juice bars.   People sip coffee from polystyrene cups, sit quietly on benches, and obediently go about their day.   This is very much a progressive, middle class enclave and the only indication of poverty to be seen is the occasional old lady, cooking corn on hot coals to sell to hungry shoppers.

This ordered world, however, is not the full story of Chandigarh.   While the city was in its infancy, built from scratch and born out Nehru’s utopian dreams, another man was pursuing his own vision.

A Space for Dreams

A young official called Nek Chand had begun, in 1957, unknown to the authorities, to create a unique garden on a concealed patch of land.   Taking the excess material, the stuff rejected from the ordered reality of the new city, he began to construct a textured dreamscape of strange, irreverent gods.   Using broken plug sockets, ceramics, concrete, wire, rope and barrels, he shaped an entire, self enclosed reality.   Working by night, by the light of burning tires, he moved even the heaviest supplies using only his push bike.   The surreal maze is filled with hundreds of characters from the mind of its creator, every figure is full of dynamic energy and each seems unnervingly alive.   The straight lines and order of the city are banished here and replaced by complex organic forms which immediately capture the imagination.

Each courtyard is surrounded by a high wall, and the doors that take you from one area to the next are low enough that visitors must stoop.   Its creator suggests that this compels visitors to enter each section in a manner that is deferential to its assortment of deities.   It also adds to the uncanny feeling of immersion in this reality.   The whole, carefully balanced landscape draws you through its varied courtyards with a strangely magnetic momentum, much like floating through a dream.

Chandigarh Reawakened

The genius of this creation is by no means constrained within its own bubble universe.   It casts its spell over the entire city.   After a few hours lost in this interlinking labyrinth of concrete idols and mischievous sprites born out of discarded bike frames, these unreal dreams begin to leach beyond its walls. The rough, textured universe of Nek Chand begins to bring the cityscape to life.  Walking through the streets, inorganic shapes and dead materials begin to invoke the subtle ghosts of the mind.   With your imagination revived, odd bits of piping begin to look like lost arms and faces peer out from entirely coincidental patterns.    The accidental elegance of abstract forms is suddenly obvious and lucid.   The utilitarian city has reawakened its lost gods.

In 1975, after 18 years of working in secrecy, the garden was revealed to the authorities.   As an illegal development it was vulnerable to the threat of demolition.   Unexpectedly, however, the outcome was very different.   Chand was given a salary and a team of workers to realize his ambitions for the site.   The garden now has its safety reasonably assured; it is protected from the whims of politicians and is growing faster than it ever has before.   Giant swings, concrete trees and fish tanks have sprung up on the grounds.   Nek Chand has gone from being an outsider artist and an eccentric loner, to being internationally praised for his vision and artistic talent.      Since its discovery, there have been various attempts to truncate or demolish the garden.   Each time a threat has arisen, public outcry, even human shields, have prevented damage.   Talking to local people, the Rock garden is clearly highly valued.   It is a defining monument, inextricably linked to Chandigarh’s unique character, and a space for dreams in this symbolically segmented city.






Strolling in Ahmedabad

I set out,

With only the perceptive lens of my camera as my guide

Unravelling the mundane architecture of people’s lives,

Beginning with the static maze of streets,

Whose sagging structures conspire to form each isolated niche,

Where enigmatic sculptures are decorated, to defy their age,

Hindu demons whose weathered faces still convey their rage,

Trunkless elephants of stone, locked in combat, have newly painted eyes,

Warped door frames, elaborately carved are colourfully disguised,

The alluring forms of goddesses grace crumbling walls

Shrines are secreted between flyovers and market stalls,

Punctuating concrete with splashes of red and green.

My lens starts by picking out these elements of the scene.

Drawn in by the fractal gravity of detail, I am camera blind.

Each alleyway is a whole new universe of geometry, fixed in time.

While this narrow depth of field leaves a breadcrumb trail of clues

The blurred background of the world inevitably intrudes.

Perhaps it will be jarring rickshaw yellow and a blaring horn,

Or it may be blaring techno from a temple megaphone.

Or maybe, ghostlike and alone, the lumbering form of a placid cow

Floats like an otherworldly mirage through congested crowds,

Forcing you from its path.

But the camera has its own momentum and creates its own sense

As people see themselves reflected in its lens,

Eliciting Bollywood poses or enthusiastic smiles,

Attracting Facebook savvy school kids with western styles

All demanding selfies and lining up to shake my hand.

While excited stall holders beckon from behind their overloaded stands,

Embracing the theatrics of their trade with flair,

Counting out money and loading scales with exaggerated care.

As the camera works to frame its own stage the route of my passage unfurls,

Drawn with strangely cinematic certainty through the living fabric of successive world’s.

And the scene shifts

Relaxed, radiating the energy of his youth, he appears on cue,

He is crouched by the dusty roadside for a spontaneous tattoo.

Defying the heat in skinny jeans, presented in his trendy best,

He grins through chunky blue rimmed glasses and thrives off my passing interest.

And the scene shifts

Two shopkeepers sit, wrapped up in woollens and practicing their time pass with an easy air,

Their shop (merely a shelf on the side of their house) stocks all manner of tobacco related wares.

Yet they are more preoccupied with studying the street, reading its fluid script like scholars,

Parsing the characters they meet for gossip- be they photographers or rickshaw wallahs.

And the scene shifts

An electrician insists I photograph his work- imparting camera angles with friendly sincerity,

Sifting purposefully through his own clutter, he restlessly tinkers with practiced dexterity,

While his shop spills from a modest cupboard- a cryptic mess of boxes, all battered and rust stained.

Eclectic tools, bits of broken things. Everything in its place, systematised by the cypher of his brain.

And the scene shifts

Around him stalls sell badly photocopied tomes; countless stacks of science and engineering.

In the half light beneath the busy bridge, he is conscious of the angular arrangement of his limbs,

Selling posters, he perches before a rainbow pantheon of gods, whose every pose hold hidden omens.

He stares into the middle distance with a practiced grace, his Bollywood dreams being voicelessly spoken.

And the scene shifts

The very lens which led me blindly on my traveled path

Now digests the lived experience, leaving merely frozen moments in its aftermath.

Cast forward into the future and reaching back to shape the past

Like fossilised fragments of time, transforming memories and shaping fact.

Images which hold monopoly on truth, their vivid power once transmitted,

Denies even the thought of who, or what things, may have been omitted.

Obscuring the frayed symmetry of a cluttered city,

Offering in its place a photogenic simplicity

Which feeds the pattern hungry cravings of my mind,

Draws my photographers eye to seek out and to find

A wealth of hidden details

Within the static maze of streets.

Click here to see some of the photos which inspired this poem

A farmer in Darkness

A nest of receding embers glow.

Wrapped in swathes of Shadow

He cradles the brick black hole.

Antimatter that crackles with Kathmandu,

A hiss of disembodied voices and distant news.

Hunched over and deeply entranced,

He is seemingly of the same substance

As the Red earth floor.


The red earth floor

That drinks daily of spilt chai,

Of the essence of life, to be revived

In the grey half light by calloused hands.

Each previous day’s remnants

Sealed in a new layer of rich clay soil.


The Rich clay soil

That is compounded by the passage of bare feet,

With each passing winter in wood-smoke steeped,

A mute testament to ingrained routine

Whose powerful gravity permeates dreams,

Wordlessly whispers when the darkness is strong,

Here you belong.   Here you belong.

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Hitch Hiking.

Taking control and letting go.

It was a cold day in Swindon.   A small but vicious mob had coalesced out of each passenger’s private frustrations.   Egging each other into a frenzy, they collectively laid into a young girl stuck behind the help desk.   She’d had no part in making the train 30 minutes late.   She certainly hadn’t been allowed into the board room to determine First Great Western Rail policy.  The mob however, was looking for victims.  Their journey had been delayed, time had been wasted and somebody clearly must be at fault.   The emotion showing through the cracks in her professionalism only fed the crowd, who instinctively sensed that they had gained the upper hand.

For these people the allure of hitch hiking as a mode of travel might seem elusive.   It frequently involves standing for hours in the rain.  Even the shortest of journeys could potentially take days.   In addition to this you are exposed to the verbal abuse of motorists, who apparently can’t resist hurling expletives at anyone doing something slightly out of the ordinary.   As a way of getting around, it certainly throws up plenty of challenges.   Each trip is full of uncertainty and worst of all- there is no one else to take responsibility if it all goes wrong.

Despite its inconveniences however, hitching can be beneficial on both a personal and on a wider social scale.   Ultimately, the act of sticking out your thumb and waiting to see what happens is an empowering process.   It forces the hitcher to relinquish control of the parts of his journey over which he has no immediate influence.   At the same time it demands that he take responsibility for the bits of the journey which he is able to change.   Instead of acting as a passenger, he has graduated and become a traveler.

An illuminating experience.

An exciting aspect of hitching is the opportunity to meet a randomly selected sequence of people, all in an environment where they feel perfectly secure.   Whether they are looking to engage in conversation, debate or simply deliver a monologue to an anonymous person, people who pick up hitch hikers usually have something interesting to say.   Anyone who holds any interest in other human beings should hitch a few journeys for this reason.   Each lift is a strange insight into somebody’s world.

Previously I have been picked up by grocers, meditation instructors, rail safety inspectors, circus performers, antiques dealers, office workers and many other interesting folk.   Unstable Yorkshire-men have regaled me with diatribes on assaulting cyclists and unreasonable parking tickets.    Trusting elderly ladies have discussed embroidery and dead relatives.   Rich business men have attempted to win me over to religion while others have engaged in 300 mile rants concerning the ‘sick state of politics’.   Every leg of the journey is something new and unexpected.   The outcome of this roulette style social experience is that normal societal boundaries are broken down.   When people are pushed out of their private bubbles, you learn that most people in the world, regardless of their back ground, are quite nice and happy to help you out.

Changing Perceptions

There is no one type of person likely to offer a lift, although many who do so hitched in their youth and express the desire to ‘give something back’.   These people often talk of turning up in service stations in the 60s and joining orderly queues of hitch hikers.   Despite the competition for a ride, because it was an accepted method of getting around, you would be guaranteed to get picked up quickly.

Since those days something, it seems, has changed.   Often it is the same people with rosy memories of hitching in the past who now seem convinced of its perils.   Having kindly picked me up, a driver will often express sincere concern for my fate.   More than once people have suggested that they stopped only because the next person to pull up might have been some sort of ‘weirdo’ (Weirdo, I have deduced, is a subtle way of saying ‘axe murdering rapist’.).

The reasons behind this change in perceptions are difficult to unravel.   Presumably risks involved in hitch hiking have not changed substantially over the years.   The rise of 24 hour rolling news certainly seems likely to have played its part in proliferating fear.   Every disaster in the world is broken down into accessible headlines and fed into our living rooms.

Litigation also seems to have contributed.   Some professional drivers will not pick people up in case it voids their insurance or upsets their employers.   Many will not pick up women in case there are accusations of rape or sexual assault.

At the same time large portions of the population have become wealthier and more comfortable over the previous decades.   Thus the impetus to venture out of their collective comfort zone has generally decreased.   There are signs however, that this could all be soon to change.

A return to the road

Recently, for the first time since 1981 household income in England house showed signs of declining.   Concurrently the cost of travel is rising.   Fuel costs are rocketing upwards and even train fares are now set for a series of hikes.   These conditions would seem to lay the foundations for an imminent resurgence in hitching.   The only barrier that remains is the image of hitch hiking as a dangerous occupation and an underlying suspicion of strangers.   There is a chance however, that given greater financial incentives which are arising, these perceptions might be gradually overcome.

As more people take to the road and stick out their thumb prejudices will naturally begin to recede.   For every hitch hiker seen standing by the side of the road, hitching becomes a little more acceptable in the eyes of passers by.   For every person picked up, social barriers are broken down.   The best way that you can contribute to this trend, is to make a sign for yourself, head for the nearest motorway junction and see what happens.

Reclaiming the Roads.

Militant cyclists stage a soggy Coup in central London.  

A damp mass of hippies and all manner of urban cyclists.   Approximately 400 souls, huddled with their bikes beneath Waterloo Bridge, as the drizzle escalates steadily into a downpour.   They are waiting on something, although nobody seems quite certain what that something is.   Some of the lycra clad enthusiasts make mysterious references to ‘Critical Mass’.   Whatever the qualities of this phenomenon might be, they are obscured by the excited and contradictory statements of participants.

Some hint that it may be some arcane principle of crowd dynamics; an almost physical property to be measured by those with the correct instrumentation.   As if there might be an invisible tipping point in the growing potential energy of the gathering.   A fulcrum, beyond which it can flow without impediment, through the snarl of London traffic.

Others seemed to consider Critical Mass in terms of military strategy, as if we were a legion forming up to march on war.   They were waiting for the optimum force, the momentum required to deflect incursions of police officers and irate taxi drivers alike.

More still appeared to regard it as some sort of religious fervor.   A collective thought, like a species of hysteria building to its ultimate crescendo.   Sound systems, lashed to the back of bicycles, fed the infectious atmosphere which spread through the mass of people.   The acoustics of the bridge over our heads helped to amplify the chatter of cyclists.   Something invisible indeed seemed to be taking hold of the crowd.

Riding into the Rain.

Whatever Critical Mass might be, it eventually arrived.    At some imperceptible cue, the procession began to move.   The mass drifted at a relaxed pace towards the deadlocked carnage of Waterloo roundabout at rush-hour.   What possible results could be expected to follow?   Lycra clad limbs twisted into impossible shapes, bicycle frames contorted and wheels brutally despoked.

Despite these fears, at the point of collision, the unseen force of Critical Mass was clearly manifest.   Hundreds of cyclists merged recklessly with the traffic but each infernal machine, despite growling engines, seemed inexplicably defanged.   The hidden masters behind these behemoths goaded them into viciousness with no avail.   Horns sounded furiously but the cars sat like beached whales behind a wave of cyclists.   Occasionally these drivers would reveal themselves and hurl expletives at some straggler who, with a burst of speed, would swoop like a sparrow back into the flock.

So we were off, gathering cyclists as we went, while the diffuse consciousness of the crowd spontaneously determined our route.    The police were noticeably absent from the whole proceeding.   Previously they have harassed cyclists and thrown them into armoured vans, using minor misdemeanors as an excuse for aggression.   It is possible that they had a lucid moment of common sense and realized that running around with bright yellow uniforms and truncheons might be antagonistic in itself.   Conspiratorial talk from some cyclists cast innocent eccentrics as cunningly disguised policemen.   Alternatively, perhaps the authorities felt that there wouldn’t be any cyclists to police in the rain.   Either way it made the ride considerably more pleasant.

The mass was not restrained by roads, as a mere car might be, and it often took to pedestrian areas.   It turned monuments into sudden roundabouts and indoor shopping malls to chaos (to the horror of impotent security guards).   At one point, much to my confusion, every cyclist stopped and got off their bikes.   They then turned around almost in unison and started cycling the other way.   The front of the procession wasn’t in sight and the reason for this u-turn is still a mystery.

Every time a junction was reached, cyclists peeled off from the mass and used their bikes to block the road.   These human barriers served the important function of preventing cars from pushing in halfway through the procession.   This would be a dangerous place to have an impatient motorist and would have undermined the strength in numbers.   The tactic did leave individual cyclists vulnerable to the wrath of drivers.   Once or twice this came close to inspiring physical violence on the part of motorists.   On other occasions however, it simply provided an opportunity for good natured discussion between those on two wheels and those on four.   While some were unable to contain their fury at having to drive slowly for five minutes, many drivers seemed to see the spectacle as something colourful and fun to break up the endless commute.

What is achieved?

The whole experience was certainly entertaining (for bemused spectators and for those involved), but why are all these people careering around the capital, causing chaos and gratuitously angering motorists?   The answer to this question is different for every participant.    Indeed, as a confluence of individuals instead of an organized march, it circumvents many of the laws surrounding protests and requires no preset route.

The event has the straightforward and obvious benefit of getting lots of people on their bikes.   It gets them all fit and generally makes them happy.   It has more subversive strengths in that it highlights the sheer impatience that driving in London seems to generate.   Ironically, people who are obsessed with getting places fast, don’t seem to feel like they have any time to spare at all.

Finally, with its party atmosphere, the critical mass bike ride creates a suitably bizarre spectacle.   It raises the profile of the neglected cyclist on the roads of the capital.   While the car has been bequeathed hundreds of miles of perfect tarmac, cyclists are all but ignored by motorists and town planners alike.   Critical Mass forcibly takes some of the power back into the hands of the self propelled minorities.

Unfortunately, although probably inevitably, this post has failed to capture the exact atmosphere of a Critical Mass bicycle ride.   If you have reached the end of this article and you are still confused, perhaps more confused than when you began, there is an easy solution.   The last Friday of this month, clear your diary, ensure your bike is in a reasonable working order and pack your panniers with a poncho.   Then you too can set out on a surreal meander through central London and judge the Critical Mass phenomenon for yourself.   You might find that you have fun and it is just possible that it might even be sunny.

Lost in the Hills.

Nepal’s fledgling tourist industry has been hampered by political unrest and some immense obstacles to infrastructure development (largely consisting of the Himalayas).   Surprisingly this has not halted the development of a sophisticated tourist trap.   The country has two major cities, Kathmandu and Pokhara.   Within the prescribed ‘tourist areas’ of these cities, most western luxuries can be had and local chefs will take a vague stab at cuisine from almost anywhere in the world.   This is even true of some of the more established trekking routes.   If you wish to gorge on apple pie at soaring altitudes, the Everest or Annapurna treks are for you.

Thankfully, however, for those seeking a relatively unadulterated experience of Nepalese culture, the tourist route is extremely narrow.   Neither tourism nor the money it generates has diffused even a short way from the few more accessible destinations.   This means that it is refreshingly easy, at the expense of some discomfort, to escape the beaten track.

Once even a short way from the whirlwind of touts and tourist tat, it seems several worlds away.   Nepal is a rural nation, where tarmac roads are making their first intrusions and modernity is in many ways kept at bay.   The few roads that have been carved from the landscape generally balance precariously alongside dramatic precipices.   Valley bottoms are littered with the remains of wayward juggernauts and any accident brings the traffic to a halt for hours.

Despite the increased urban influx of the past few decades, many Nepali people still live in the villages where they were born.   Many (of the older generation in particular) will have never been further than the nearest town.   The isolation of these communities breeds resilience.   Traditional, organic farming practices have been upheld and a diverse repository of local knowledge is still treasured.   Most journeys are still made by foot, using paths worn into the landscape by centuries of use.   While Nepal is in many ways outward looking and international, rural Nepal has been relatively insulated from external influences.   If you ask local kids what their favourite food might be, it is always Dal Bhat, the simple rice and lentil dish, eaten twice a day, every day of their lives.

Beyond the end of the road.

Picture 297 (800x600)Sitting in the suburbs of England, it is difficult to stress quite how remote rural Nepal can be.   During a recent trip, I spent several weeks living and working on a farm in the central hilly region of the country.   I had just finished working for a rural development charity in India and hoped for a more direct experience of subsistence farming.   My aim was to observe and learn but also to participate in daily life and contribute my labour.   The convoluted journey required to reach the village where I was to stay is a good illustration of the distances and obstacles involved in simply getting around.

Public transport in Nepal is generally fairly treacherous and unfortunately, to reach my destination, I had to take several buses.   My journey coincided with the end of a 3 day strike (The ‘Maoist’ party periodically shut the country down in the name of the poor).   This meant everyone who would have been traveling on the previous three days were also on my bus.   Rather miraculously, the bus was judged by the driver to be full.   I wasn’t previously aware that this concept existed in Nepal.   Loading buses is like an extremely sweaty, 3 dimensional version of Tetris.   The bus conductor orchestrates the whole thing by scrambling over and under people to physically rearrange them.   On this occasion the conductor had reached the limits of his expertise.
This was not deemed to be a problem.   On top of the bus (and in turn, on top of a metre high layer of stacked luggage), there was room for a whole extra bus load.   Thus I travelled for 6 hours, precariously balanced on top of a bus, on top of a pile of luggage, with 40 other people, along some highly unstable mountain roads.   When you are clinging on for dear life and there is a sharp drop either side (as well as some great views), pot holes become more than a mere discomfort.

This was all fine; we slowly climbed up from the flat Terrai zone bordering India into the higher altitude of western Nepal.   The temperature gradually dropped and everyone managed to wedge themselves a little more securely as the journey went on.   A healthy sense of camaraderie developed.   The only issue was the police.   The Nepali police are not so convinced of the safety of loading luggage racks with people.   As a result, every time we came to a police checkpoint we had to take evasive action.   40 people had to climb off the roof and take a short cut off road.   We would then rejoin the bus (which only ever deigned to slow down for everyone to clamber up) after it was safely through the checkpoint.

Unfortunately just as we were almost at our destination, the police outwitted us with a mobile inspection post.   This meant everyone had to climb down and wait an hour for the bus driver to come to an ‘arrangement’ with the kind police officers.   After they had been given a suitable fine/beer money, they were extremely accommodating and allowed us to carry on.   The only catch was that, at least to create the appearance of safety (presumably to their superior officers), we all had to fit inside.   This was possibly even more dangerous than before, with everyone packed in so tightly that movement was impossible.

When I finally arrived in the general area of my destination, I found a hotel/house to sleep in.   It was a pretty tiny village which didn’t have any real facilities and was very surprised to have a tourist.   The next day, after some inquiry, I found I had the wrong telephone number for my host (who was still 45 minutes away by white knuckle jeep taxi and then an hours walk).   Thankfully, by determinedly drinking chai and making use of the information that naturally flowed my way, I found several people who knew him.   I was also rather forcibly adopted by a retired Gurkha and his wife, who kindly insisted on paying for my accommodation and sorted out the jeep for me.   After becoming on first name terms with most of the village (and even being taken to meet the local holy man who proudly harbored a pair of red sandals worn by the Hindu goddess Devi in his little shrine/hut) in the space of half a day, I was loaded on to a jeep and sent on my way.   On arrival at the end of the road, I made a whole new set of very excitable friends who, on account of it getting dark, gave me a lift, as far as was possible, on a moped.  After another very bumpy journey, I was close!   I managed to meet my host and he showed me the rest of the way on foot.

Hardship and Riches.

The village in which I had arrived is called Jharket, a collection of houses spread sporadically over a hillside with plots of farmland at precarious angles.   It is a 45 minute hike and a wade across a sizable river to get to the local shop (impossible in the rainy season).   To the nearest secondary school it is a full hour up hill (a mountain by the standards of any other country).   The village has no electricity and the nearest hospital is several hours away.

Picture 290 revisedDespite the porous soil and steep slopes, the village generates enough food to feed itself, although some farmers do migrate for work during the harder months.   Excess produce is often carried by foot to the nearest market, although it is more commonly traded with neighbours.   A close-knit community and an informal system of mutual giving ensures that nobody goes hungry.   There is a deep sense of pride concerning this way of life, kept alive through generations of each family.

However, the labour involved in sustaining a smallholding on this marginal land is grueling.   The working days are long, from first light to sunset, on two basic meals each day.   For my host and his wife; a couple in their 40s, supporting several children through school, this workload clearly took a toll on their health.   Mechanisation doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone in the more remote hilly areas.   The only bit of outside technology which I saw was a hand powered fan, for winnowing wheat, which had broken 15 years ago.

As a result, everything is done entirely by hand.   The wheat harvest for example, begins using sickles in the heat of the day and tying the crop into bushels.   The bushels are then gathered into piles.   These are carried off the fields using a traditional Nepali sling, which is balanced on the forehead (this is more ergonomic than you would imagine, although you do end up with a very itchy back from abrasive chaff).   The wheat is then threshed; which involves vigorously smashing each bushel on a large flat stone.   The light chaff is winnowed out using the wind and finally, the grain is ground into flour using an old hand powered grind stone.    Partaking in the harvest was, for me, a steep learning experience.  Quite a lot of the village turned up and looked greatly edified at the westerner, tottering up mountain paths with 30 bushels of wheat on his head.

In order to take the edge off the relentless nature of the work, any break is often enriched with a good glass of topi, the local rice based liquor.  Thus I found myself, sitting in the sun, swigging extremely lumpy fermented rice (somewhere between rice pudding and saki), in the company of some extremely formidable old women.   The women in the village did a large proportion of the hard labour.   By the time they reach pensionable age they have been ground down to a lean mix of muscle, sharp gossip and an unquenchable appetite for topi.   I certainly wouldn’t like to pick a fight with one.

In contrast to these sinuous old women, the children in the village spent every possible hour of freedom playing in the fast flowing river that runs near the village.   Diving for pebbles and chasing each other through the current like a bevy of otters.   Childhood is valued highly in a community where later life brings hardship and responsibility.   Every child, if sometimes a little reluctantly, took advantage of the nearest school.   Families dedicated their little excess income to this end, hoping for a better life for their children.

The pull of the City.

Bhim, my host, embodies many of the issues which Nepal, as a country, now faces.

He is a clever and dignified man, who had been educated and worked as a science teacher in the nearest large town.   However when his parents died, he was duty bound to return and tend the family farm.   He expressed sincere pride in his simple way of life as well as a strong sense of belonging, tied to the land and to the community.   He knew not only his immediate neighbours but also exactly how his family has been associated with their ancestors for generations.Picture 280 (600x800)

And yet despite this understanding, perhaps because of it, he clearly felt the pull of the city.   He saw with sadness, that if his son is to have a higher standard of living in the future, he will have to sacrifice this traditional lifestyle and the intangible wealth that goes with it.   Every evening, when the light had faded and the work was finished, he would sit beneath the stars, hunched over a battered old radio, listening to distant, crackly voices from Kathmandu.

It must be said that by the time of my own return to Kathmandu, I had developed a greater appreciation of its (occasionally) warm showers and pseudo-western food.   After a month of rising with the sun and working in the fields, I was more than ready to indulge in a little modernity.   Following a prolonged period without even the distant rumble of an engine, it was a shock to battle the chaotic congestion and dust clouds of the capital.   Sitting in a noisy bar, sipping a slightly toxic approximation of lager, it was difficult to connect with the rural tranquility of the past weeks.   Not so many miles away, families were living much as they had for centuries.

The people of Nepal have inherited a wealth of traditional knowledge and deeply felt community ties.    However, these are not easily separated from considerable hardships and uncertainties.     The challenge for the future is for Nepal to develop without compromising the resilience and riches generated by the subtle, diverse fabric of its society.

See Also: http://benjaminredmond.co.uk/2016/08/22/a-farmer-in-darkness/

Economic activities are always socially embedded?

This essay will look at different ways in which economic activity has been understood as being socially embedded.   It will begin by laying out Weber’s conception of an economy and show the kind of social action which he sees as influencing it.   Weber’s categorisation of four types of social action (instrumental, value, affectual, traditional) will be referred to throughout the essay and ultimately it will be argued that all have a place in shaping markets (Weber 1922: 24).   Malinowski’s work on the Trobriand Islands will illustrate that Weber’s sense of the economy and economic action is excessively rational (Malinowski 1922).  The dialectical processes through which the economy and the social shape each other will then be discussed through Gell’s account of an Indian Market in Madhya Pradesh (Gell 1982).    Having explored these ethnographic examples which look primarily at pre-capitalist economies, theoretical formations will be considered that examine the ways social conditions and economic practices are interrelated.   The discussion will move from models of ‘substantivist’ economies based on reciprocity and gifting to the rise of the ‘formalist’ market economy.   This globalised market economy will then be examined in the light of work by Miller on local shoppers in a North London supermarket (Miller 1998). As a counter-point to this Zaloom’s ethnography on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, an international financial institution founded on neoliberal ideals, will be explored. Both these examples will illustrate a continuing link between social practices and market performativity (Zaloom 2006).   Finally, the ambiguities created by a market that is both globalised and socially embedded will be discussed in relation to work by Quayson (2010) and Bestor (2001). Understanding these diffuse markets will be shown to pose important challenges within the discipline of anthropology.

Weber’s Economy: Instrumental Rationality

Weber defined “economic action” as “any peaceful exercise of an actor’s control over resources which, is in its main impulse orientated towards economic ends”. Economic action, which is “rational”, involves “deliberate planning” and is “autocephalous”, is the basis of what Weber calls an “economy” (Weber 1922: 63). This is contrasted with the “reactive search for food or traditional acceptance of inherited techniques and customary social relationships”.   Rational exchange according to Weber, can be conditioned by tradition or convention, however it can only be said to be rational if either “both parties expect to profit” or when one party’s need leaves him economically subordinated to another (Weber 1922: 70). Weber defined four types of social action, only one of which he permits to have bearing on economic action.   This is “instrumental rationality”, in which “expectations as to the behaviour of objects…and human beings” are used for the “attainment of the actors own rationally pursued and calculated ends” (Weber 1922: 24).  This essay will argue that this is too narrow a view of the economy and that all of Weber’s forms of social action are central to the functioning of markets.

The Role of Tradition: Value Rationality

Malinowski’s Study of the Trobriand Islanders provides a useful foil to Weber’s conception of the economy.   Malinowski described an intertribal exchange in valuables (vayg’ua)  taking place across islands. These objects have little use value and instead bestow prestige on their holder.   As objects they carry importance based on their individual history.   An important vaygu’a may be named and its fame may stretch across wide geographical areas.   The names of those who have previously held a vaygu’a will be known.   Stories will be told of trade missions across dangerous seas and of notable exchanges of which it formed a part (Malinowski 1922: 62).   The compulsion to partake in this trade, Malinowski argues, is tradition and prestige rather than profit.   Conspicuous and competitive generosity form an element of the Kula tradition and this is seen to be possible because “the social code of rules overrides…the natural acquisitive tendency” of the individual (Malinowski 1922: 73).   Even the very structure of the trade, which is so large that no one participant has a full understanding of the whole, is “rooted in myth, backed by traditional law, and surrounded with magical rites” (Malinowski 1922: 17).   The vaygu’a exchange includes red shell necklaces (soulava) and white shell bracelets (mwali).   They are exchanged between male trading partners who pair up for life (for people and objects it is true that “once in the Kula, always in the Kula”) and greater status is associated with having more partners with which to trade.   Within each pair one partner will always gift soulava and the other will always gift mwali.   The direction of exchange is always determined based on the relative position of those partners in geographical space, creating a circular movement of objects.   soulava, therefore, pass in one direction and mwali in the other.   When an individual has been gifted a soulava by his trading partner, he may not reciprocate for days or even years, although there will be an expectation of the return of a mwali of equal or greater value (Malinowski 1922: 62).

Although Malinowski was very careful to present ‘natives’ as rational individuals, comparing their motivations to those of “civilised businessmen” (Malinowski 1926), his picture of the Kula ring falls outside of Weber’s sense of Instrumental Rationality and therefore outside of the economy itself.   However, a wider view of the economy would include what Weber called value rational social action.   This he defines as action “determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic, religious or other form of behaviour”.   It is pursued “independent of its prospects of success” (Weber 1922: 24).

Performing Markets, Constructing the social: A Dialectic?

Malinowski suggests that economic and traditional institutions which govern the Kula system also shape the way people think, thus reproducing society itself (Malinowski 1922: 17).   This point is explored further by Gell in his exploration of symbolic aspects of an Indian tribal market in Bastar District, Madhya Pradesh.  Quoting Leach, Gell argues that anthropologists studying markets need to be “aware of the ritual component in normal everyday action”.   He describes the market as laid out in a way which performs the social hierarchy of the local caste system.   The Rajput, Brahmin Jewellers occupy the center of the market where a sacred Banyan tree stands.   Their high status is signified by their wealth and their central position.   Moving radially, further from the center of the market brings progressively subordinate groups.  On the outermost ring are the potters, smiths and basket makers who are of the lowest status (Gell 1982).   Hacking describes the legibility of previously abstract social orders created by anthropologists, which then influence and fix the social identities of those categorised (Hacking 1996).   What is described by Gell is a similar process, where the market institution renders the social order as legible in space and therefore has influence over the social order itself.   In short, “the market provides an occasion par excellence for the differentiation of groups and for the articulation of inter-group relations”.   In addition to the structure of the market, commodities, as they are both produced and consumed are important social indicators.   Gell explores a “hierarchy of goods” in the tribal market, showing how certain transactions are permissible only between certain groups.   Only Rajput Brahmins, for example, sell jewellery while only Tribal people buy and wear it, utilising it as a symbol of their identity and prestige (Gell 1982).

Substantivist Theory and the Rise of Formalist Economics

In the Market described by Gell most of the Tribal and lower caste Hindu groups are marginal farmers practicing subsistence agriculture in small communities.   Following Scott, these communities can be understood as linked to the wider economic and political system through markets but operating internally through pre-capitalist systems.   Pre-capitalist societies have evolved in response to a history of scarcity, “Living close to the subsistence margin, subject to the vagaries of weather and the claims of outsiders”.   Peasant societies are characterised by Scott as being risk averse; looking for small dependable returns rather than taking risks to make large gains.   Certainly under these conditions there is “little scope for the profit making maximisation calculous of traditional neoclassical economics” (Scott 1976: 4).   Complex social and technical arrangements such as “patterns of reciprocity, forced generosity, communal land and work sharing”, help to provide insurance against crop failure and starvation.  Scott’s argument can be retrospectively read into Leach’s description of Pul Eliya in 1961, a village in the Northern Central Province of Sri Lanka.   The village is extremely arid and relies on a complex irrigation system to render it habitable.   The social and economic institutions such as kinship and land tenure are shown to have evolved and been maintained around the requirements of this irrigation system.   Leach describes these social institutions as providing labour for the upkeep of the system, cooperation for the distribution of water and insurance against its failure (Leach 1961).  Similarly, Sahlins argues that in pre-capitalist societies, “the very concept of the maximising individual is meaningless…where the unit of production is not the individual but rather the household” (quoted in Erikson 1995: 185).

This sense of communalism and reciprocity, has roots in Mauss’s classic essay concerning the institution of the gift.   Mauss was interested in the development of social and economic contracts in pre-industrial societies.   He states that “it is not individuals but collectivities which impose obligations of exchange and contract upon each other” (Mauss 1950: 6).    The gift is portrayed by Mauss as being at the centre of this contract.   As Parry puts it “the gift contains some part of the spiritual essence of the donor, and this constrains the recipient to make a return” (Parry  1986).   While this constraint creates social cohesion, it also means that the receiver is placed “quite literally in the hands of his creditor” and vice versa (Parry 1986).   It is this power that comes with familiarity which leads Graeber to observe the common root for the words host, hospitality, hostage and hostile (Graeber 2011: 101).

Bloch explores this link between familiarity and risk in “Commensality and Poisoning”.   He shows that among the Zafimaniry in Malaysia close kinship terms are used to emphasise the fact that even very distant relatives are part of the same ancestral house.   This allows the sharing of food among people who in other respects are strangers.   The exchanged food carries with it spirit, in this case expressed as bodily substance.   This intimacy brings a sense of danger, disgust and invokes a fear of poisoning which must be countered with magical charms (Bloch 1999).

Mauss contrasts the pre-capitalist economy governed by gift exchange with the disinterested exchange of the market economy.   The idea of a contrast between reciprocity on one hand and Market exchange on the other is also explored by Polanyi.   Polanyi described the emergence of Market Capitalism which he understood as a new kind of economy.   This unique form of economy had developed in England during the 19th century.   It had then spread to the rest of the Western World and eventually become a global entity (Isaac 2012: 13).    Economies based on reciprocity and redistribution, which Polanyi termed substantive economic systems, stem from “man’s dependence for his living upon nature and his fellows” (Polanyi 1957: 243).   However, the market economy was exceptional in that it had become “dis-embedded from the social matrix” (Isaac 2012: 13). This was possible because goods, even those which were previously viewed as utterly inalienable, could now be commodified and given value through universally accepted currency (Isaac 2012: 13). Prices, instead of being fixed through social relationships, became determined by the “self-adjusting mechanism of supply and demand” (Isaac 2012: 13).   Under these conditions, exchanges could be completed on an entirely anonymous basis, carrying none of the essence of those connected to the transacted object (Erikson 1995: 184).

This new, increasingly global market system, Polanyi termed formalist.   Formalist economics stem from a realm of maximising “logic” while substantivist economics lay for Polanyi at the humanist level of “fact” (Polanyi 1957, 243).   Those who took formalist approaches and those who tried to understand economies using substantive tools formed different camps within the social sciences. Polanyi was to become associated with the latter, arguing that substantivist theory could fundamentally explain all types of economic systems.   As anthropology gravitated towards the study of large scale societies in the 1980s and 1990s substantivist theories of economics fell out of favour.   This was further exacerbated by the increasing influence of neoliberal economics, which led to a privileging of the formalist paradigm both in the social sciences and in world politics (Isaac 2012: 21).

This new economic system rested on Adam Smith’s premise of man’s innate tendency to “barter, truck and exchange” (Smith 1776: 17), which Polanyi considered “almost entirely apocryphal” (Polanyi 1944: 44).   While the market was seen as driven by individual action, as a system it was seen as self-regulating, guided by an “invisible hand” (Smith 1776: 349).   Theorists also drew inspiration from Newtonian physics, professing a world which operated according to fixed laws comparable to the laws of nature.   The new science which had arisen to make sense of this world and provide the authoritative discourse on its inner workings was economics. This discipline, according to Foucault, “was entirely devoted…to convincing intruders to keep out of its inner workings”. It was what Polanyi “referred to as a secular religion” and set out to discredit (Latour 2014).

Socially Embedding Globalised Markets: Affectual and Traditional Social Action

Despite Polanyi’s efforts, capitalism, along with classical economics, has reached global hegemonic status (Latour 2014) (Erikson 1995: 176).   The mass performance of capitalism on this scale brings us to Weber’s last two categories of social action.   These are affectual , “that is determined by the actors specific affects and feeling states” and traditional, “that is determined by ingrained habituation”.   This can be illustrated in the work of Miller’s ethnography of a supermarket in North London.   Interviewing housewives he suggests that their practices of consumption are motivated by feelings of “love and sacrifice”.   The sense of mundane routine presented by those interviewed also highlights the role that habit plays in decision making (Miller 1998: 15).   The marketing aimed at these shoppers consciously utilises premises drawn from sociology and psychology to exploit affect and habituation.   The layout of supermarkets and the carefully manufactured familiarity of brands within them has reached such  level of subtlety that shoppers may not even be aware of their influence on decision making (Wilkinson 2012: 109). A study by Yalsh, for example, shows how different background music in supermarkets changes shopping habits (Yalsh 2000).  Carrier also explores the way in which marketing of fair trade products attempt to exploit affect by taking anonymously produced, alienable goods and embedding them in social and ethical frameworks.   Even if the reality of these goods and their production is dictated by the global market system, the narrative imposed on them by consumers is one of egalitarian human relationships (Carrier 2010).   This ethic of social justice draws on ideas of reciprocity and redistribution similar to those described by Polanyi in substantivist economies.

Zaloom’s “Out of the Pits”, offers an ethnographic insight into the futures trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.   While Miller’s housewives could be seen as acting on a small stage, the traders Zaloom studies are part of an international neoliberal financial institution.     In this context, “No grain or currency changes hands…here capitalism is a pure search for profit”, and yet the picture painted by Zaloom is considerably more complex than this simple principle (Zaloom 2006: 3).   Zaloom presents the futures market as “particular spaces of economic practice” where “traders, managers and designers constantly define for themselves and for the market as a whole, what constitutes principled economic action” (Zaloom 2006: 4).   Essentially she argues that the market is embedded in complex social and technological networks.   The technology of the ‘open outcry’ trading floor, as a physical stage for performance, allows certain types of social networks to develop.   This is particularly evident in ‘Floored’, a documentary about the Chicago Exchange.   Floored illustrates the way in which the nature of competing in such a chaotic and fast moving environment has led to the evolution of a masculine, adrenaline fuelled culture of trading where visibility, high stakes risk taking and aggression are prized as indicators of prestige (Smith 2009).   In a stark contrast to Scott’s ‘moral economy’ (Scott 1976), the instability of markets creates a culture of excess where conspicuous consumption is an important signifier of status.   This is highlighted in Floored by the ever present cloud of cigar smoke enveloping interviewees (Smith 2009).   Traders “put their money where their status is” in what Geertz would call “deep play” (Zaloom 2010).   Part of this “deep play” is the pure pursuit of “sensory satisfactions”.   Traders chase a sense of “flow”, a desubjectified state in which “their sense of their own presence dissolves”.   Traders use the term “discipline” to describe the rituals which they use to “gain access to an immaterial market deity” in a way which feels like becoming “part of a living thing”.   This discipline can “seem ascetic and often mystical” and involves manipulation of the trader’s “sense of physical and social space to merge with the flow of the market”.   The shift in trading to computerised systems has completely changed the “disciplines” required to enter the market (Zaloom 2006) (Smith 2009).   This has left experienced traders feeling stranded, lacking the “social capital” to participate (Zaloom 2009) (Bourdieu 2005: 2). The marriage of the technological and the social is something which runs through the examples discussed in this essay.   Malinowski, for example describes the importance of canoes in the Kula exchange and the ritual practices surrounding them (Malinowski 1922: 80).   This idea of objects as social actors in networks is reminiscent of Latour’s Actor Network Theory (Latour 2005).

Locating the Market, Identifying the Social?

If the modern market economy, from individual shoppers in North London to international market institutions like the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, can be seen as being socially embedded then this poses a difficult question in the context of today’s globalised world.   If the market system is embedded in social networks, then how can we meaningfully locate these networks in time and space?   Ambiguities of scale are highlighted by Quayson, showing how locals in Accra have layered perspectives from which they respond to marketing billboards.   While they are residents of Accra, they also self-identify and act as Ghanaians, black Africans and global citizens (Quayson 2010).

This is explored by Bestor in his study of the “reconfiguration of spatially and temporally dispersed relationships” in the globalised sushi trade.   Bestor sees specific cultural practices and technologies in Tokyo as driving and shaping the market.   However since the tuna themselves are “highly migratory” they are sourced from all over the world.   The huge prices commanded by these fish generate “a gold rush mentality”.   The culturally mediated criteria for quality product are “mystifying and apparently arcane” to foreign suppliers.   This mystification creates “imaginative possibilities” leading American fishermen, who lack the relevant social capital to maximise profit from this market, to mythologise the Japanese social world.   Given this need to create a model of transnational influence while maintaining the phenomenological social reality which is fundamental to the market, multi-sited ethnography becomes a vital component to understanding markets both on the local and the global scale (Bestor 2010).


While this essay has concluded that the hegemony of neoliberal economics has attained a global reach (Latour 2014) (Erikson 1995: 176), it is clear from the work of Zaloom that even at the core of neoliberal institutions, rational, profit maximising logic is elusive (Zaloom 2006).   Even in the face of this hegemony, “homo oeconomicus” proves mythical (Bourdieu 2005: 7).   This should alert us to the fact that neoliberalism and the ‘science’ of economics is itself a paradigm which has a specific social and historical genesis (Kuhn 1962: 161).   It is important to understand this genesis in order to counter claims of universalism (Bourdieu 2005:11).   Through the ethnographic examples cited in this text, it has been illustrated that all the types of social action characterised by Weber are fundamental to the functioning of the economy.   Indeed we can go further, following Gell’s work on the Indian tribal market and suggest a dialectical relationship between the economic and the social.    As a result we can conclude, to quote Bourdieu, “the social world is present in its entirety in every economic act”.   This leads to the idea that “economic dispositions” are acquired through processes of acculturation and that specific economies are contingent on their social and historical context (Bourdieu 2005: 3).   This is as true for the Trobiand Islander as it is for the Chicago Futures Trader.   It is Polanyi and others who have examined what they understood as pre-capitalist economies, who provide the requisite tools to embark on a “comparative economics”. This “comparative economics” has potential to illuminate the underlying social and technical mechanisms of global market capitalism as well as alternative, localised market systems (Isaac 2012: 14).   However, while the societies studied by Polanyi were geographically and historically situated in one locality, the global capitalist economy exists across a diffuse network.   The diffuse nature of these networks creates a new set of challenges in the anthropological description of markets which anthropologists are yet to fully overcome (Bestor 2001).


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The City

“Anybody can be good in the country” – Lord Henry in A picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

What, if anything, does this tell us about living in the city?

Introduction: constructing the moral landscape

Oscar Wilde’s facetious comment that “anybody can be good in the country” is suggestive of the powerful and yet problematic distinction often drawn between the urban and the rural.   It references a putatively uncomplicated and cohesive morality that is sometimes perceived as regulating village life.   In contrast to this the city is seen as a site defined by anonymity and alienation.   It is often understood as an arena where numerous fundamentally different moral codes intersect, leaving a disruptive (and in the case of Dorian Gray, seductive) uncertainty.  This perceived duality will initially be set up in this article by looking at the distinction made by Durkheim between traditional and modern industrial societies (Durkheim 1893).

The diversification of accepted moralities in urban centres opens up questions and even potential conflict concerning etiquette, diet, language, the utilisation of space and numerous other mundane details of everyday life.   These mundane details form part of a life-world both for individuals and whole communities.   This life-world is constantly forced to adapt in order to accommodate the fluid realities of life in the city.   This article will explore the methods through which the city, as an entity, is able to digest what are potentially opposing ways of being and allow them to coexist.  Different theoretical constructions of this urban entity have very different implications as to how these processes of cohabitation and negotiation are seen to occur.   The trajectory of the article will move from critiques of fixed or idealistic constructions of the city towards a dynamic understanding which fits the emergent and fluid properties of urban social processes.

Initially holistic and unifying conceptions of urban society will be explored.   Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism and the tenets of modernist architecture will be discussed as processes which attempt to tie together diverse moral communities through rationalism and universal ethics.   However, these totalistic and top down constructions of unity will be shown to have repercussions which exclude those who transgress from the cosmopolitan norm.   This cosmopolitanism will be shown to privilege pre-existing power structures while flattening the dynamic reality of urban societies (Harvey 2000).

In contrast to those scholars who have searched for unifying ethics, others have looked instead at difference and how this can be mapped.   The “radical particularism” of Waltzer is an example of this approach.   Kant’s work on Geography is shown to demonstrate the dangers of simply promoting a spatial awareness of difference while ignoring temporal and experiential dimensions.   The understanding which arises out of Kant’s Geographies will be seen as simplifying a complex reality.   His spatial understanding of diversity works to fix and create essentialist ideas of difference which are reinforced by people’s daily experience.   This leads to prejudice and can ultimately pit different communities against each other (Harvey 2000).

This article will argue for a move towards a more dynamic and syncretic picture of the way moral communities interact in the urban environment.    An example of this approach is found in Certeau’s “Practices of Everyday life” (Certeau 1984).   Various authors are also shown to take inspiration from Turners’ ideas of liminality to show the constantly emergent properties of different communities and the fluid ways in which they interact (Thomassen 2009).   This will lead to the idea of a decentred “vernacular cosmopolitanism” similar to that put forward by Bhabha (Keller 2004:38).    Ultimately a deconstruction of the very concepts of a rural urban divide and hermeneutically sealed moral communities show that these are not fixed and discrete entities but part of fluid, wider networks of interconnection (Latour 2005).

Establishing a Rural Urban Divide: traditional vs modern

Durkheim in his Division of Labour in Society (1893) was interested in how societies held together.   In studying social cohesion he described two categories of society.  He saw what he understood as “traditional societies” as being held together through “mechanical solidarity”.   This assumed that the entire society was unified by a single, undifferentiated collective consciousness.   As a result all members of the community shared and were regulated by the same morality and beliefs.   On the other hand he characterised modern industrial societies as held together by “organic solidarity”.   Organic solidarity is created by the division of labour, brought about as a necessity by increases in the density and size of population.   As different groups take on different roles in society, ideas of morality, identity and belief begin to diverge.   Durkheim saw all these divergent moralities as different components of a single organic system, allowing social cohesion to maintain itself (Durkheim 1893).   Durkheim’s characterisation of a transition from traditional to modern can be read also as a transition from rural to urban.

This specialisation and diversification, while it provided opportunities, also represented a threat to social order.    If the division of labour is carried to its extreme then individuals get isolated in their own sphere of operation.   Durkheim called this lack of integration into the social group ‘egoism’.   Egoism leads to a deficit of moral regulation described as ‘anomie’.

As moral order declines, “a thirst arises for novelties, unfamiliar pleasures, nameless sensations, all of which lose their savour once known”   He maintains that “all these new sensations in their infinite quantity cannot form a solid foundation for happiness to support one in days of trial” (Durkheim 1897: 256)   It is this subversion of the mainstream moral order and the self-destructive, alienating repercussions which are explored by Oscar Wilde in A Picture of Dorian Gray (Wilde 1890).   Durkheim discusses this phenomenon in his treatise on suicide.   He shows that as people stop living in small, cohesive family networks there is a loss of integration and therefore of moral regulation (Durkheim 1897).

Durkheim’s ideas rested on the concept of a society where the individual’s sense of morality was imposed by the cultural whole.   This ultimately operated because he understood the whole of society to be a cohesive structure which worked for its own ends.   In post-colonial and post-modern anthropology this synchronic and holistic view of society is seen as problematic.   It silences the voices of those who have been marginalised, leaves little room for individual agency and treats pre-existing dynamics of power as privileged and enduring (Edles 2009: 101).    However theorists have continued to grapple with the difficulties of tying the world-views of diverse moral communities together with various conceptions of a unifying ethic or with regulatory infrastructure and planning.

Unifying Ethics: the global city

The word cosmopolitan is derived from the Greek words for world (cosmos) and city (polis) (Leichtman 2012).   The conjunction of these concepts from the outset highlights the tension between heteromorphic elements, both local and global, that are inherent in urban culture.   Different ideas and moral codes are imported from geographically and culturally diverse sources as well as organically generated in the milieu of city life.      In modern social theory the concept of cosmopolitanism has been used as a tool to show how these different moral codes are able to exist side by side.   A key element of the cosmopolitan subject in social theory is an “openness to foreign others and cultures”, allowing diverse and yet unified societies to exist (Saito 2011).

Nussbaum suggests a version of cosmopolitanism which seeks to “put right before country and universal reason before the symbols of national belonging” (Leichtman 2012).     Nussbaum references zeno‘s dream of a “well ordered and philosophical community”, where people are not “divided from one another by local schemes of justice” (Harvey 2000).   This conception of cosmopolitanism is inspired by Kant’s Metaphysics which suggested that “the people of the earth have entered in varying degrees into a universal community…where a violation of laws in one part of the world is felt everywhere” (Harvey 2000).   This “universal community” is often understood to be most advanced in urban and multicultural societies.    The EU and the proliferation of international law could be seen as a full realisation of this utopian vision of post-industrial society (Harvey 2000).

This vision can also be seen in the modernist urban planning of Le Corbusier.   His utopian project attempted “the erasure of social difference and creation of equality in the rational city of the future” (Wardsource 2002).  Le Corbusier’s philosophy can be seen as exemplified in the construction of Chandigarh.   Chandigarh was a planned city built to serve as the capital of the Punjab after partition.   It was commissioned by Nehru as a symbol of rationalism and modernity in the newly independent India.       The city was laid out in the “international style” with housing allocated on the basis of a lottery to reduce clustering of caste communities (Shaw 2009).   This was designed to change traditional social structures and generate a new egalitarian ethos.  However, the realities of Indian society have proved a stark challenge to this idea of a rational and egalitarian future.   Migration to Chandigarh has dramatically exceeded the planned population and while the centre of the city is regulated, it is surrounded and constantly encroached by diverse and fluid slum communities, marked by stark social and economic disparity (Shaw 2009).   As Certeau (1984), in a different context, describes “beneath the discourses that idealise the city, the ruses and combinations of powers that have no readable identity proliferate, without points where one can take hold of them, without rational transparency, they are impossible to administer”.  Similarly Kandinsky talks of “a city built according to all the rules of architecture and then suddenly shaken by a force that defies all calculation” (quoted in Certeau 1984).

Harvey criticises Nussbaum’s Cosmopolitanism and Modernism in general for failing to grapple with this fundamental diversity and dynamism.   On the one hand it produces a simple and concrete moral code for living which can be applied to all of humanity.    However, simultaneously, marginalised groups must conform or be considered morally defective. In a situation where “normative ideals get inserted as a principle of political action”, those who do not fit are “thought indolent, smelly, or just plain ugly” (Harvey 2000).   This is ably illustrated by the ethnographic film, Dark Days, which documents the lives of homeless people in New York who have chosen to live in the tunnels underneath the city.   Those who tell their stories emphasise the dangers of living in this environment.   At the same time they stress that it affords them protection from police who would move them on, strangers who might attack them on the streets and landlords who demand money.   While they are in many ways constrained and excluded, they are able to maintain a sense of freedom that is unavailable within the prescriptive structure of the city above ground (Singer 2000).

The potentially tyrannical aspect of this unified vision of the city is also discussed by Certeau who describes the view of New York from the top of the world trade centre.   He expresses the voyeuristic sense of being lifted out of the phenomenological, immersive experience of being at street level and looking out over the static visual map of the landscape.   He sees this totalistic understanding of the city as preventing people from generating their own meaning through the “practices of everyday life” (Certeau 1984:102).

Mapping Diversity: a focus on difference

This repressive conception of the city is countered by some theorists by turning it on its head.   Rather than looking for unifying themes, they have moved to focus on fundamental difference and how it is arranged spatially.   An example of this is the work of Waltzer, who espouses “radical particularism” and the promotion of “local justice”.   Waltzer argues that “for each cultural group there is some theory of justice that captures its ethical institutions and moral universals” (quoted in Harvey 2000).

Superficially this appears to show complexity, with radically different social orders coexisting side by side.    However, this privileging of geographical knowledge achieves what Harvey considers is simply a static map of anomalies and curiosities.  This map fails to tackle the complex, experiential ways in which discrete communities relate to each other.  Effectively it advocates “a fetishistic politics that would try to freeze existing geographical structures of places and norms forever”.   This, according to Harvey, allows “geographical racisms and ethnic prejudices” to proliferate (Harvey 2000).

In order to demonstrate this he uses the example of Kant’s teachings on geographical knowledge.   These writings can be seen as drastically undermining the universal ethics put forward in Kant’s own metaphysics.   They are described by Droit as a “hodgepodge of heterogeneous remark, of knowledges without system, of disconnected curiosities” and contain a litany of prejudicial assumptions (quoted in Harvey 2000).

The spatial ordering of people reinforces these prejudicial assumptions through what Deshpande calls “the sedimented banalities of neighbourliness” (quoted in Harvey 2000).   Stevens for example, in a study of the twittersphere shows a strong link between social and geographical distance.  People interact socially, even on virtual networks, largely with those geographically closest to them (Stephens 2014a).   The way that prejudice becomes effectively embedded in socio-spatial realities is eloquently shown in Stephens’ Hate Map, which presents geotagged racial slurs on twitter (Stephens 2014b).   This is particularly relevant in the urban environment where there is lots of complexity and diversity, all represented in a relatively small space.   Harvey uses the example of white supremacists to show that synchronic mapping of community can pit different groups against each other, often in ways which lead to unrest and communal violence (Harvey 2000).

The Exploding City: the dialectical and emergent

Harvey rejects the idea that either a metaphysical unity or any sort of static geography can generate a proper understanding of urban environments. Instead he suggests that the “material circumstances of a lived geography” should be the object of study (Harvey 2000).   This is echoed by Certeau who suggests that geographic systems “transform action into legibility but in doing so causes a way of being in the world to be forgotten” (Certeau 1984: 104).   In order to understand the multiple “ways of being in the world” it is important to reintroduce the dimensions of time and experience into what Kant has presented as static and dead spaces (in geographies) or not spaces at all (In his metaphysics) (Harvey 2000).   Certeau draws inspiration from Bakhtin in representing walking and other performative practices in urban life as heteroglossic speech acts (Highmore 2006: 123).   This paints the city as being constantly and dynamically recreated in an ongoing dialectical process.   Certeau characterises this as “a universe which is constantly exploding”.     The infrastructure of a planned city like Chandigarh becomes grammar and syntax while the dynamic fabric of everyday life moves through it.   These heteroglossic processes are constrained by the physical structure of the city but still leak through wherever there are cracks or ambiguity (Certeau 1984: 94).

Anthropologists have also taken inspiration from the work of Victor Turner on liminality to explore dialectical processes through which moral orders are constructed.    Ring makes the argument that liminality is not, as Turner describes, a brief cathartic process which brings stability in its wake.   It is the product of prolonged, effortful labour.   What is often viewed as simply the “tedious drudgery of everyday routine” is in fact the site of cultural and moral innovation and creativity (Ring 2006:179).   Appadurai suggests that what he calls “locality” is transient “unless hard and regular work is undertaken to produce and maintain its materiality.     This “locality” is understood as a “structure of feeling” and not simply a “material reality” (Appadurai 1995).

This is supported by Thomassen (2009) who argues that liminality can be extended from brief instances into periods such as political or social revolutions.   He takes this a step further and speculates that modernity could be seen as a permanent form of liminality.   This idea of a post-industrial society which is constantly reproducing itself from the bottom up is a theme in the work of Rem Koolhas in Lagos.   Koolhas created a multimedia work, Lagos Wide & Close – An Interactive Journey into an Exploding City, attempting to present the phenomenological reality of the urban environment.   Koolhas describes a city where the neglected, often collapsing infrastructure merely provides a skeletal order.   He shows the original planning reimagined through complex practices of everyday life (Koolhas 2004). He views the ordering principle as “local improvisation and social routines” (Lewis 2009).  Rather than seeing the city as maintaining a state of crisis Koolhas paints a picture of dynamic creativity.   As an example of this, Koolhas describes a motorway intersection which at first glance appears to be a chaotic rubbish dump; literally and metaphorically the end of the road.   On closer inspection he finds it to be an incredibly organised recycling centre full of diverse activity and enterprise.   He expresses amazement that such an “apparently chaotic city could organise such incredibly efficient transformations of garbage in such a highly structured way”.

What is documented in Lagos, Wide and Close is a hugely vibrant, entrepreneurial society which is not constricted by power relations or repressive structural elements.   While Koolhas is criticised for not documenting the power structures that do exist in Lagos, his selective lens allows the viewer to see the dialectical heteroglossia which thrive in the city (Lewis 2009) (Koolhas 2004).    In the words of Thomassen (2009) “during liminal periods, characterised by a wholesale collapse of order and a loss of background structure, agency is pushed to the front and reorientations in modes of conduct and thought are produced”.   This state of liminality allows a dynamic and vibrant patchwork of coexisting moralities in one densely populated space.

Networks of Connectedness: a situated phenomenon

A sense of anonymity and the level of intimacy which individuals are compelled to accept with strangers creates potential for conflict and transgressive behaviours.   Barnett, for example, describes a high caste Indian man coming into contact with a Dalit due to seating arrangements at a cinema.   This, he suggests, would not have occurred in a rural context where there is a general understanding as to how to avoid these situations (Eames 1977: 202).   This “situated multiplicity” is what Massey would term “throwntogetherness”.   The “social reflex” which allows “unconscious negotiation of anonymous others, plural objects, assembled variety, emergent developments and multiple time spaces”, is not something which should be taken for granted (Amin 2008).   Appadurai argues that the phemenological worlds of both individuals and communities are “fragile and must be maintained carefully against all kinds of odds” in urban contexts.

Ring, for example, documents the cohabitation of extremely diverse families in a Karachi apartment block.   Karachi being a city marred by ethnic violence, risks presented by intimacy with neighbours are beyond that of simply losing face.   Ring sees the site of negotiation and innovation, through which peace is actively manufactured, as that of female domesticity.   Women in the building will have usually moved from a homogenous rural settlement where they will have cohabited with their own kin.   Thus the reality of urban life presents a practical and psychological challenge to their moral identity.  Not only must they change their practices, for example adopting more modest dress or speaking in Urdu (the common language), but they must adapt their ideas as to who can become kin and who represents a stranger.   Accordingly concepts of public and private space are also refashioned.   Ring documents an informal system of generalised reciprocity where food, gossip, sugar, information and numerous other commodities are passed between households.   The delay in reciprocating favours creates a tension.   This does not only make the tension which is a reality of cohabitation legible, but also ties diverse families together.   In the dynamic reality of the apartment block Ring identifies what could be understood as a sort of decentred cosmopolitanism- a unity manufactured through the interaction of diverse elements through dialectical processes (Ring 2006).

Quayson takes inspiration from Certeau in looking at how crowded pavements in Accra are governed by improvisation.  This dynamism causes the “transformation of discourse ecologies” as elements from very different cultural spheres are forced together in dynamic processes.   He attempts to read the street as a text, looking primarily at advertising billboards but also the “galaxy” of other “cultural inscriptions” in Accra.   He shows how signs in public space are mediated by “evanescent local traditions which coalesce into increasingly syncretic wholes”.   At the same time however, they draw imagery and ideas from national and transnational arenas with their “attendant imagescapes”.   This hints at the way in which internal and external boundaries are rendered porous by flows of ideas and identity.    Quayson shows how some signs appeal to their audience (and their audience responds) as Accra locals, Ghanaians, Black Africans or global citizens according to context (Quayson 2010).   This can be read as an illustration of the vernacular cosmopolitanism put forward by Homi Bhabha, which is not prescribed “by old boundaries and entrenched positions but allows transgression”.   This cosmopolitanism can be seen as a complex of discursive practices which result in a “multidimensional swirl of cultural ideas” and ultimately “resists any binary understanding” (Keller 2004:38).

This dynamic picture of flows, both on the local and the global scale problematises the binaries of the rural and urban as home to radically different moral worlds.   It also exposes the idea of hermeneutically bounded moral communities which might exist side by side as imaginary entities.  Instead a fluid relationship emerges where different communities, just as urban and rural arenas, can be seen as part of historically situated networks of “connectedness” (Latour 2005: 187).   By creating empirical accounts of the nodes of attachment in these networks a “science of living together” can be said to emerge. This science moves away from preconceived categories and towards the empirical description of the “multiplex connections that link actions and identities across borders” (Saito 2011).   Ultimately this aims to represent the dynamics of urban communities as they are rather than relying on theoretical constructions which are preconceived, inflexible or ideological.


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