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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