Informal Markets, Livelihood and Politics. Book Review by Karthik Harinath

Book Review of Informal Markets, Livelihood and Politics. Routledge, 2017

By: Karthik Harinath (HDR)

Even as ‘informality’ has become a valuable point of study when it comes to the developing world, so much so that any study of the Global South is “inconceivable” without using the concept (Goodwood, 2016), street vendors haven’t exactly found favour as a point of analysis. Although the last couple of decades have triggered scholarly interest in street vending in India, very few studies have taken the form of a monograph. Even as Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria’s Slow Boil (2016) provides an ethnographic account of street vendors in India, it was limited in its scope because Shapiro chose to base it on the city of Mumbai alone. It is this lacuna in the sociological understanding of street vending in India that Debdulal Saha’s Informal Markets, Livelihood, and Politics: Street Vendors in Urban India aims to fill. As a scholar of development economics and labour studies, Saha’s extensive work covering 10 cities across India’s varied linguistic and cultural diversity offers a wealth of quantitative data collected from the ground, along with a reasonable amount of qualitative data, to provide unique insights into the lives of the most visible form of informality in India today.

In informal Markets…, Saha explores the lives of street vendors in urban India to study their “strategies of survival and sustenance” (Saha, 2017, p. 1). Several aspects of these strategies are explored, including the structure and characteristics of informal markets in India, the politics and survival strategies surrounding public space, the precarity and vulnerability of street vendors, the negotiations and collective bargaining that vendors undertake both successfully and in vain, and the challenges of legislating this domain of informality in contemporary India. Two heuristics that are prevalent throughout the book are the instrument of bribery – its modus operandi, uses, and flexibility – and vendors’ access to credit. Even as their use seems repetitive at some points in the text, Saha manages to add minute details at each instance in order to provide more insight to the tussle between the vendors’ informality and the state’s indifference to their struggles.

Saha’s stance on the debate between formality and informality, which he addresses in the introduction and the first chapter, sets the tone for the book. For Saha, it is the lack of employment opportunities in the formal sector that pushes people into undertaking informal jobs (Saha, 2017, p. 55). He points out on several occasions that the profession of vending needs little capital, education, and skill. Even as he cites copious data to suggest that the size of the informal sector in India outstrips that of the formal (almost to a ratio of 9:1), Saha argues that informality is a failure of formalization. It is no wonder then, that he is in favour of regulations from the state to reign in informality. However, Saha is also appreciative of the possibility that policies and regulations could be disconnected from ground realities. Taking the case of bribery, for instance, he documents how extensive the network of bribery is in several cities across in India. It cuts through several layers of bureaucracy and is a fact that is taken-for-granted by both the vendors and the officials they interact with on a daily basis. Looking into the Street Vendors Act (2014) and its provisions, Saha remains unconvinced that it could, even as it aims to provide licences to vendors at some cost, fully root out bribery. However, he provides no solution to fill this gap between the intent of the state to formalize and the potential issues in its enforcement.

Methodologically, Saha’s focus has been on collecting extensive data on various variables across 10 different cities in India. Data varies from basic parameters such as gender, religion, social group, marital status, age distribution etc. to more contextual ones such as the types of products sold, credit providers, storage conditions of unsold products, customers’ perspectives on vending. Around 2,000 vendors have been surveyed across 10 cities, making this body of data the first of its kind. While quantitatively robust, Saha’s analysis of this vast body of data falls short of expectations. For instance, when talking about the setup and composition of the Dadar market in Mumbai, Saha mentions how the market begins at 4 am daily as a wholesale market, mostly patronized by both brick-and-mortar retailers and vendors. He moves on to note how roughly four hours later, the impromptu wholesale market converts itself into a retailer’s market, welcoming regular officegoers and other individuals. Unfortunately, this routinized shift in practices of a working group is left under-analysed, with the continuities and discontinuities left unexplored.

Nevertheless, what Informal Markets…misses out on the sociological analysis of its extensive data, it makes up for in terms of its analysis of what Saha identifies as an inextricable and politically crucial aspect of street vending in urban India: the notion of public space. Saha’s discussion on public space, its links to both the everyday aspect of vending, and the more surreptitious links to bribery, and survival strategies of vendors with several actors are the strongest parts of the book. In a chapter dedicated to public space, its politics, and the survival strategies that vendors are forced to adopt, Saha develops the idea that the public space occupied by the vendor – be it legally or illegally – is her “capital” (p. 104). Siding with the long line of Marxist thought that associates social relations to public space, Saha argues that a vendor exercises two kinds of bargaining with the space she occupies – economic and social. Economic bargaining is defined as the capacity to negotiate over rates of interest on borrowing with credit providers and the rates of bribery on offer to civic authorities. Social bargaining, on the other hand, is also seen to be crucial, as it is the basis on which the vendor builds social relations with different actors such as customers, other vendors, and moneylenders. The sole consideration available to the vendor is the public space she occupies. Noting how the state denies the vendors any legal rights over the space they occupy, Saha also points out to the blatant corruption in practice, by citing an example of a market in Mumbai where civic officials have been charging unofficial rent from vendors, thereby indirectly legitimizing the vendors’ occupation of that space. At this juncture, he raises the crucial question of whether the state would do well to legalise vendors’ usurpation of public space in order to control their rapid growth and earn a legitimate income. Fieldwork across 10 cities, however, underpins Saha’s scepticism towards a solution, at the root of which is an extensive analysis of bribery as a socially networked phenomenon. Saha expands upon the types of bribes, the relationship between the products sold by the vendor and the nature of the bribe, the role of intermediaries (individuals, typically gang members used by state officials to collect bribes), and the demand-driven process of bribe payment. This leads him to conclude that the entire network of bribery acts under the radar of senior-level bureaucrats. The conclusion not only demonstrates that the ones working on policy measures are unaware of the way their own subordinates treat vendors, it also challenges Lipsky’s concept of “street-level bureaucrat” (Lipsky, 1980).

In summary, Debdulal Saha’s Informal Markets… stands tall as one of the foremost sources for data relating to street vendors in India. With 2,000 vendors interviewed, Saha manages to compile a source that is bound to be useful for researchers for several years to come. However, the book’s limitations include its lack of depth in analyzing certain well-identified phenomenon. Additionally, with the book being published just a few years after the promulgation of a landmark legislation relating to street vending, some of Saha’s access points to vendors have been negated. Nevertheless, Informal Markets, Livelihood and Politics: Street Vending in Urban India is an invaluably important contribution to research on street vendors in urban India.


Anjaria, J. S. (2016). The Slow Boil: Street Food, Rights and Public Space in Mumbai.Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Goodwood, T. (2016). Urban Informality and the State: A Relationship of Perpetual Negotiation. In J. Grugel, & D. Hammett, The Palgrave Handbook of International Development(pp. 207-226). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Service.New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Saha, D. (2017). Informal Markets, Livelihood and Politics: Street Vendors in Urban India.New York: Routledge.

Karl Marx 200: I contemplate… Thoughts by Nihal Perera

He has made an immense contribution to our understanding of the world. He expected us to know him through his work; to worship him is to lose his teachings. I am glad that I too learned a lot from him.

He is immensely popular, perhaps more than John Lennon who claimed to be more popular than Jesus Christ. Yet there is no one Marxism; it is quite diverse. As I crossed several cultural boundaries, I was fortunate to get exposed to a few variations.

As one of the greatest critical thinkers of our time, he questioned everything. Perhaps, he expects us too to be critical of his own work; i.e., to critically build on it.

He was the greatest European anti-systemic thinker, who thought outside the box. Transcending the theory-practice duality, he approached his work from the standpoint of praxis; he learned history in order to change it because it was unjust. He saw that the society is not one, but made of classes and is in conflict (than consensus). His work laid the foundation for social history.

He probably does not expect us to remember what is in Das Capital, an examination of 19th c. European capitalism, but to further develop the synthesis of his work: The Communist Manifesto.

To learn from a great person is not to import that persons time-, space-, and culture-specific findings (the model or the diagram), but to learn from her/his process of investigation and thinking; i.e., to carry out investigations inspired by her/his work, but within our own culture, time, and space, and find avenues to make a difference.

Despite violence caused in his name, his work was perhaps driven by the kindness that opted to liberate the exploited (than an animosity towards capitalists). His thinking was not limited to the working class too. He talks about many classes, especially during the French Revolution.

Most useful for my own work (especially People’s Spaces) is his understanding that the working class people (and the subjects of society) are not victims of capitalism, but “survivors.” They produce value and could change the system. They are agents of change.
Maybe our historic role -according to him- is to be partners of the revolutions that people carry out than look for people to follow our revolution.

Seeing the ongoing transformations perhaps requires a new vision (intellectual glasses). The (broader) agents of social change may not wait for outside leadership (the vanguard) and self-appointed representatives.

Nihal Perera is Chair and Professor of Urban Planning at Ball State University and the founder and Director of CapAsia, an immersive learning-by-doing semester in Asia based on collaborative projects with Asian universities.

Further Reading:


Donna Haraway: Staying with the Trouble. Book Review by Juan Guevara

Donna Haraway. Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin with the Chthulucene London: Duke University Press. 2016.

Staying with the Trouble compiles Donna Haraway’s latest thoughts.  In the book, Haraway calls for the need to reflect and think on the possibilities for facing the era post-Anthropocene, the era of, what she calls, the Chthulucene. The book is divided in eight chapters that can be presented in three parts: the first 4 chapters of the book are mainly ‘theoretical’ and serve to conceptualize String Figures-SF, Tentacular Thinking, Sympoiesis and the Chthulucene; the second part (Chapters 5, 6, and 7) provides practical examples of becoming-with other species and elements to show how the Chthulucene can shape and transform our human ways to relate with other species and the planet (Terrapolis in the Chthulucene); the last part builds on science fiction (Speculative Fabulation-SF) and storytelling as a way to present the forms the Chthulucene may have (Proctor, 2017). Response-abilities is one of the main and most important elements of the book alongside with String Figures-SF, Becoming-with, Tentacular Thinking and Sympoiesis; these concepts are explored in this review.

I am not particularly engaged in Haraway’s work. However, in this book, I observe how the author engages with Northern aboriginal perspectives, Feminist theory, Biology, Ecology, and Postmodern theory. I found intriguing the way the Nomad is presented in the process of becoming, that for Haraway is always becoming with other species. The book has the merit of exercising imagination and for bringing some Northern Aboriginal wisdom to thinking the post-Anthropocene.

For Haraway, the Chthulucene is an era (with no time nor history) in which human race will confront its arrogance and ‘superiority’ and humbly make kin with the biological critters coming from the under-ground. The Chthulucene is the era in which humans will make kin with tentacles, spiders, bacteria, different ways of perceiving, living and dying, and becoming-with in n-dimensional time-spaces.

I observe that some concepts of the Chthulucene, especially its n-dimensional time-spaces and becoming-with, are inspired in Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming. In her conceptualization of the Chthulucene, Haraway forgets Deleuze’s exploration of the Tick in Difference and Repetition to deconstruct and dissolve the static and unity of the self, to open up the possibilities of becoming. The Tick relies on different structures outside of itself, at the organic level, to perceive the world (Posteraro, 2016). The idea of the Tick is explored by Deleuze inspired by the work of von Uexhüll. Von Uexhüll suggests that each living cell perceives and acts but also “has perceptual or receptor signs (Merkzeichen) and impulses or effector signs (Wirkzeicheri) which are specific to it” (von Uexhüll, 1934, pp. 322-323). From this idea, von Uexhüll (1934) argues that “perceptual and effector worlds together form a closed unit, the Umwelt” (p. 320).

What is really important in von Uexhüll’s work for this book review is the acknowledgement of n-dimensional time-spaces of the Umwelt. This category is relevant in Haraway’s book but not well developed. The recognition of n-dimensional perceptual spatio-temporalities in each “soup bubbles (perceptual and effectors living cells) which intersect each other smoothly, because they are built up of subjective perceptual signs” (von Uexhüll, 1934, p. 339), plus the way in which time regards a succession of moments by different subjects are key elements of the Umwelt. This is indeed related to the entanglements of species and the actual existence of n-dimensional time-spaces that Haraway suggests for the futuristic Chthulucene.

Continue reading Donna Haraway: Staying with the Trouble. Book Review by Juan Guevara

Strauss, Rupp and Love: Cultures of Energy. Book Review by Moni Holowach

Strauss, S., Rupp, S., & Love, T. (Eds.). (2013). Culture of Energy: Power, Practices, Technologies. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

You do not even have crack its spine to correctly anticipate its contents. The cover of Cultures of Energy: Power, Practices, Technologies features anthropomorphised electrical transmission towers across lush hills and plains.  They suggest that energy—in the form of fossil fuels and electricity—gives shape to modern human life.

Cultures of Energy: A Conversation Starter

This collection of sixteen theoretical and ethnographic accounts bridges the gap between culture and energy systems. This book’s global but narrow scope will expand your notion of energy and bring visibility to the often invisible energy sources that we rely on daily.

This book, edited by three American anthropologists, “explores cultural conceptions  of energy as it is imagined, developed, utilized, and contested in everyday contexts around the globe” (p. 10). From pointing out the many interpretations of the notion of energy in New York, to observing how communities in rural Peru finally feel connected to the world through electrification, to viewing coal mining as a culture and a livelihood in Wyoming, and to revealing conflict in the Gulf of Mexico over deepsea oil drilling, this book delves into the myriad ways that ‘energy’ interacts with cultural, economic, and political systems.

The book is well-structured with an easy-to-read tone. It is divided into five thematic sections, which offers a cohesive structure and flow to the compilation. A casual “conversation” between the authors concludes each section to highlight key points. Together, these features would make for an excellent undergraduate or graduate level resource, as the book can be read out of order, used for selected chapters or topics, or could be quickly grasped using the conversation pieces. Courses in anthropology, sociology, or science technology studies could draw from many implicit themes within the book, such as the (im)materiality and (in)visibility of energy.

The other benefits (and weaknesses) of this book involve its scope. First, this book’s use of ethnographic accounts creates a contemporary focus. In regard to the interplay of energy and culture, the authors do not focus on how we got here, where we are going, or what we should do. Instead, its  stories are largely about right now. This allows the readers to gain an in-depth snapshot of the multiplicities of energy and their affects today, but while sacrificing historical context to get in all that detail.

Similarly, the book aims for a global scope but falls short. First, out of sixteen chapters, six focus exclusively on topics within American borders, and four more largely involve American relations o=r western perspectives. Thus, the authors’ global focus takes a western turn. Unfortunately, they skip out on Asian countries entirely. Finally, the ‘conception of energy’ used in this book stems largely from fossil fuels and renewable energy technologies. Although they address a diverse range of sources—wind, biomass, oil and gas, and coal—this scope is narrowed again by the contemporary focus. In comparison, Ian Morris’ How Human Values Evolve: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels (2015) offers a historical look at how energy has shaped human values. Unlike, Cultures of Energy, Morris applies a more general conception of energy, where energy comes from foraging,agriculture, and fuels. Although Morris’ macro-theorizing is quite grandiose compared to the well-focused insights from Cultures of Energy, these two books are not in contest. Rather, they would pair nicely for a more well rounded understanding of energy and culture. Overall, Cultures of Energy’s narrow focus best allows readers and students to expandt heir understandings of energy as it plays out today from a western perspective. It will be sure to spur conversations by making visible one’s own daily interactions with energy systems.

Moni Holowach, University of Alberta, Canada.


Morris, I., Richard, S., Spence, J. D., Korsgaard, C, M., & Atwood, M. (2015). How Human
Values Evolve: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels
. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University

Manuel DeLanda: Assemblage Theory. Book Review by Kalan Kucera

Manuel DeLandaEdinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2016, ISBN: 978-1-4744-1363-3

When describing the genesis of the 1971 animated film The Point, Harry Nilsson said the idea came to him when he was “on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to points. I thought, ‘Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn’t, then there’s a point to it’” (Jacobson, 2004). While Nilsson may not have actually inspired anything about Manuel DeLanda’s Assemblage Theory–a refinement and expansion of ideas from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari–this quote could serve as a tongue-in-cheek thesis statement for the work. Manuel DeLanda is a philosopher and filmmaker who lives in the U.S. and, in recent decades, has cultivated an interest and expertise in the philosophical works of both Deleuze and Jean Baudrillard (Cvjeticanin, n.d.).

The idea of assemblages explored here originates from Deleuze & Guattari’s book, A Thousand Plateaus, where assemblage is defined as “a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures” (DeLanda, 2016, p. 1). For the most part, DeLanda hews fairly closely to the theory of assemblages presented therein, framing this work as an “attempt to bring these different definitions together, introducing and illustrating the terms required to make sense in them” (p. 1). In the endeavor to define and explore assemblages across a variety of disciplines he mostly succeeds, with the exception of a discussion of topics related to the virtual that obfuscates and nearly sinks the whole construction that is presented.

After introducing important structural and definitional concepts, DeLanda uses the first few chapters of the book to refine these ideas and uses them to contextualize different historical assemblages. Concepts important to defining the construction of assemblages–exteriority vs. interiority, coding, emergence, singularities, historical entities, and territorialization–are all defined and set in several historical contexts including Human History (Ch. 1), the Evolution of Languages (Ch. 2), the Weapons of War (Ch. 3), and Scientific Practice (Ch. 4). Myriad examples in these chapters help show how assemblages form from heterogeneous components which ebb and flow as they are encoded / decoded and territorialized / deterritorialized. Assemblages themselves form larger assemblages, painting a complex systems theory that DeLanda uses to great effect with the assistance of these examples. In later chapters, the topic turns to the virtual and to a concept that DeLanda calls the “diagram” of an assemblage, a sort of “potential space” describing possible attributes of an assemblage that aren’t currently displayed.

In these latter chapters, the coherent tapestry of assemblage theory begins slowly to unravel. Discussion of assemblages and components thereof is tacitly abandoned for an exploration of their virtual counterparts, or diagrams. A description of something akin to a potential space, or representation, is described and explored, only to be seemingly tossed aside as a step towards “reified generality” (p. 138). Another section leads to conceptions of topological time and counter-actualization, concepts that DeLanda concedes are so abstract that special tools are needed: “Tools to manipulate these intensities… in the form of a growing variety of psychoactive chemicals that can be deployed to go beyond the actual world, and produce at least a descriptive phenomenology of the virtual” (ibid., p. 133). Until some rogue libertarians rescue the world from the tyranny of psychoactive sobriety, though, I fear these concepts shall remain shrouded in an impenetrable haze of conjecture.

Fortunately, the rest of the book is more accessible and, as an attempt to define and explain a theory of assemblages, this work is largely successful. DeLanda’s description of the components of assemblages and the ways in which they emerge based upon the coding and territorialization of their components is lucid and the historical examples help define a clear image of the concepts. As a materialist philosophy, the idea of assemblages is an attractive way to construct the dynamic interrelationships between history, components, and the whole that emerges from them. Several fascinating ideas are presented in an effective manner, including that the properties of an assemblage (or system) are emergent and not simply the summation of the properties of components, and that the history and ‘individuality’ of the assemblage is key to its properties, something DeLanda calls the “processes of individuation” (p. 140). These ideas are important to the theory and provide useful and welcome scaffolding for other conclusions.

Assemblage Theory works to refine and clarify some of Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas. There are interesting views worth considering for sociologists and those who wish to explore ideas of complex systems and their components. If, perhaps, someday another author attempts to summarize and expand upon a vision of assemblage theory, this edition will undoubtedly prove an invaluable reference. Unfortunately, an opaque treatment of the virtual and the complete lack of a unifying conclusion–or concluding statement of any kind–prevent this work from effectively making its Point.

Kalan Kucera, University of Alberta, Canada


Cvjeticanin, S. (n.d.). Manuel DeLanda – Biography. Retrieved from

DeLanda, M. (2016). Assemblage Theory (First). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jacobson, A. (2004). What’s The Point? The Legendary 1971 Animated Feature on DVD. Bright Lights Film Journal. Retrieved from

Eduardo Kohn: How Forests Think. Book Review by Anthony Fisher

Kohn, E. (2013). How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

When people think of trees they most certainly would not associate them with having the ability to create thought processes. This is, of course, because trees have no brains. However, in his book How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (2013) Kohn indicates that trees (and other beings) have the ability to think and discusses how they accomplish this. He pushes the reader to step out of an anthropocentric view and re-evaluate how humans can interpret the world. Indeed, the author stresses that the field of anthropology has been too short sighted and has not yet fully explored how other beings constitute what it is to be human. Therefore, by studying the world outside of the human this gives insight towards what it truly means to be human. Kohn explores this idea by conducting an ethnographic study of the Runa people in Avila, Ecuador.

Kohn builds his case that trees and other nonhuman entities think by delving deep into semiotics. He explains that all beings can represent, produce, and interpret signs. Thus, the entire world is made up of semiotics. All beings, in their own way, respond to these signs and subsequently grow and adapt to these sensory inputs. Kohn repeatedly emphasizes that signs go further than just simply the realms of human symbolic interpretation. The author recognizes that even evolutionary success is dependent on responding or not responding to particular environmental signs. An “ecology of selves” is then used to explain how relationships between individuals, through the process of sign interpretation, is how individuals are defined. Individuals then can be said to “represent and are represented by other beings” (p.78). Therefore, “if selves are thoughts and the logic through which they interact is semiotic, then relation is representation” (p. 83). This is made clear by examining tree characteristics and spatial orientation. Trees that have specialized characteristics “form relatively more nuanced and exhaustive overall representation[s] of the surrounding environment” (p.81). Pest resistance is an example of these specialized characteristics and this shapes where a tree species can be naturally found. This is how trees think. Relationships amongst trees (and other beings) form repeated arrangements that can be predictably exploited. Modern and historical forestry markets are one example of humans’ understanding environmental relationships or misunderstanding in the case of over-logging. These misinterpretations or simply ignoring environmental associations is called soul blindness where “treat[ing] other selves as objects” (p. 119) and being “[unable] to see beyond oneself or one’s kind” (p.117) is the cause of not understanding the interconnectedness of nature.

The author explores complicated topics, such as the ecology of selves, by using examples in everyday Runa life. Metaphors as well as pictures are used to emphasize key points. Consistently referencing and referring back to environmental examples firmly grounds this theoretical work. Kohn does a fantastic job in explaining how understanding relationships amongst various beings can sometimes be quite complex and that the virtual can be sometimes used to understand the perspective of other beings. The Runa often use dreams or the hallucinogenic properties of substances to make sense of the living, material world. Continue reading Eduardo Kohn: How Forests Think. Book Review by Anthony Fisher

What is Strategy? The Topological Exercise of Power

Topology of Power

What does it mean to say that power operates ‘topologically’ in politics, economics and everyday life?  Topology concerns non-Euclidean geometries – the kinds one might observe if one stretched a drawing of a triangle. Another example of a topological transformation is if one added dimensions to the drawing, extending the triangle into a 3 dimensional pyramid or developing and imagining it even further in more dimensions.

The topological character of power is that it exceeds ‘action on bodies’ or ‘action on others’ actions’ (cf. Foucault). Using techniques and administrative apparatuses, power can be projected as ‘action at a distance’. ‘Reach’ is a keyword that describes this extension of power to actualize it and put it into action despite intervening distances and mediations . For example, we talk of ‘the long arm of the law’.

The powers of a topological sensibility

Powers are multiple, subtle and include influence. ‘Reach’ describes the influence an actor may have on other actors.

Powers exists in and as ‘power relations’, whether the parties are aware that power is a factor. That is, power doesn’t have to be exercised as much as it simply has to have an effect. As such it is not a concrete thing but a virtual or intangible thing. It is real but not actual, ideal but not abstract. It has a multiple quality. There is no single ‘power.’

Sovereignty’ designates the aggregate powers exercised by the state. History is the time of this power-exercise. Territory is the space of the exercise of sovereignty.

However, States can no longer pretend to guarantee their citizens’ safety from other threats that are themselves powerful. These might include the threats of drone strikes and collateral damage and death (Pakistan, Somalia), of chemical poisoning by nerve agents (UK Skripal nerve agent poisoning), from drifting radiation particles (Scandinavia after the Chernobyl disaster), or from pandemics (SARS in Toronto Canada).

The polis, now often associated with cities, is the space of the demos, the people and democratic opinion.  It is a distinct space-time of assembly and belonging and as such a distinct topological entity.  It is not just a different scale.


Strategy’ is a political technology that aims to persuade by establishing the spatiotemporal and other background conditions of a debate. A common strategy is public ‘consultation’ which aims to establish a ‘pubic will’ extracted from a population that legitimates a political course of action and/or the exercise of power. Power is not always exercised strategically, but even whimsical applications of power, if consistent, can be described as part of a strategy.

Tactic’ is the deflection of strategies, in the absence of control over the spatiotemporal and other dimensions of the context of a situation or of the exercise of power (cf. DeCerteau).

Influence,’ the multiplicity of powers, means that strategy is not closed off from the public or subaltern groups, or even individuals that act through social media as ‘influencers’.

Social media technologies and platforms have created new manifolds or spaces of power that exceed the reach of sovereign territories. These technologies are political and their strategic use for disinformation, persuasion has reconfigured the terrain of politics and the reach of these social media actors in general. For example, influencing the US election, extended Russia’s reach into the processes of the US sovereign state as well as into American territory.

Why? The reach of a topological sensibility

All this is more quickly grasped if one has a topological sensibility, looking to dimensions and influences rather than fixed actors such as “the State”.  This approach allows us to move from understanding positions of strength in a debate, project or struggle toward how to actualize that position as effects, to understand its reach; or to put it simply, to understand the power of the position explicitly.

Bearing the topological qualities of power in mind allows us to compare in one plane, so to speak, between power-geometries that are fixed, and to see the operation of power-topologies that stretch or bring new dimensions to the exercise of power. It allows a point-to-point comparison that pinpoints the effectiveness of the transformation that has occured despite the differences in appearances or the complexity of any resulting folded, stretched, involuted or flattened topologies.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)


Comparison with Michel DeCerteau’s notion of tactics and strategy from The Practice of Everyday Life (translated from French 1984)

Strategy: “the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an ‘environment.’  A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, ‘clienteles,’ ‘targets,’ or ‘objects’ of research). Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model”(Certeau xix);
Tactic: “a calculus which cannot count on a ‘proper’ (spatial or institutional localization ),nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tacticbelongs to the other.  A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without  taking  it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance…”(Certeau xix).
Operations: goes along with tactics as actions that form a “network of an antidiscipline”(Certeau xiv-xv).
Trajectory: “suggests a movement, but it also involves a plane  projection; a flattening out… a graph… a line that can be reversed” (Certeau xviii).

Works cited:

de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

de Certeau, M. (1985). Practices of Space. In M.Blonsky (Ed.), On Signs (p. 134ff.). Oxford U.K.: Basil Blackwell.

Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges – Book Review by Nadine Suliman Abdelrahman

 Egyptian army soldiers arrest a female protester during clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo on Dec. 17. Stringer/Reuters/Landov
Image of “the girl in the blue bra”; a prominent picture from the Egyptian revolution in 2011, referenced in page 1 of the book. Tahrir Square, Cairo. Dec. 17 2011 (Stringer/Reuters/Landov) Click to link to video.

Mia Lövheim Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges (London Routledge 2013)

Dominant religious institutions have, historically, had strict normative boundaries, especially when it relates to gender. Technology and globalization, through the media, may have instilled what would be referred to as “unorthodox” religious views and perspectives on gender and its preexisting constructs. Focusing my argument on Islam, present day media outlets have certainly impacted the voices of different genders and potentially their roles, creating a “modern Islam” that is better adapted with the world and views from around the world. It is worth noting, however, that the media has consecutively created wider space and reach for religious authority and political religious authority, as will be elaborated further in this book review. Capturing such opposing roles the media plays relative to gender and religion remains a challenge.

One of few books that relate media, gender and religion while taking into account social constructs on sex/ gender similar to Butler’s1 concepts of regulatory materialization of gender and gender performativity, Mia Lovheim’s “Media, Religion and Gender” can be considered a breakthrough across several distinct but overlapping fields. Drawing on historical concepts and theories, the book is an attempt to bring third wave feminism and gender into front centre of its research that is rooted in academia yet based on participatory and reflexive research. This book had an overarching goal of challenging research gaps on the interrelations between gender and its cultural/ societal constructs, religion and the media. Contributors to the book covered a wide range of topics including theoretical perspectives as well as more detailed case studies of different religious views in the media; drawing on examples from various parts of the world.

Continue reading Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges – Book Review by Nadine Suliman Abdelrahman

The Social Life of Infrastructure

Rob Shields, October 27 2017.  Space and Culture Research Group

On October 27 Rob Shields presented asking, ‘What are the social effects of built infrastructure?’ Changing public interaction with civic infrastructure accumulates to changes in Canadian social forms. Infrastructure affects social integration, accessibility, and inclusiveness. Infrastructure choices affect the relations of core and periphery, and the exercise of sovereignty and Canadian values.

 Reflection notes

1. Infrastructure as representation of the system and program of the city?

Infrastructure has often been believed to reflect how the city creates its system and manages natural resources. However, that is not necessarily the case. Sometimes infrastructure functions in a way that is not planned or expected. For example, we may find many built infrastructures such as bridges that were designed to provide a new passage over an obstacle or adjust the traffic flow/density. Instead, they are now being used mainly as venues for festivals, markets, or more stationary activities. In this sense, infrastructure may not necessarily be “broken” or “dysfunctional”, but it sometimes evolves or is re-purposed by the local residents to serve different or even multiple functions.

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Review: Violence in Place. Cultural and Environmental Wounding

Kearney, A. (2017). Violence in place, cultural and environmental wounding. New York, NY: Routledge

Violence in Place, Cultural and Environmental Wounding takes on a specific type of human-generated trauma: cultural wounding. Cultural wounding is the intentional harm and violence (physical and symbolic) against members of a culture, as well as their way of life. It is enacted from a motivation to destroy or damage beyond repair the past, present, and future of a culture. In this volume, Kearney specifically locates cultural wounding in place, where place is a “relational co-presence envisioned as a vital shaping element in human life” (p. 1). Using this definition, place is imbued with its own agency and even sentience. In moments of trauma and cultural wounding, place is not just the setting; it is witness, participant, and victim. Indigenous epistemologies of place are said to demonstrate this hyper-relativist perspective, and Kearney sets out to argue that, in the wake of colonialism and neo-liberalism, a return to a kincentric ecology of place is necessary rectify the Western dualism of nature and humanity.

Generally, Kearney’s goal is to present a conception of cultural trauma that relies on the actions and interactions of humans and place. More specifically, Kearney provides accounts of 15 years of ethnographic study with an indigenous group in Australia, Yanyuwa, to show how colonization destroyed the kinship between people and place. She uses these observations to develop a phenomenological approach to diagnosing “patterns of place harm” in order to “recognize their presence in contexts all over the world and track back from this awareness to examine the axiologies that support not only cultural wounding, but also its greater effects as violence and trauma in place” (p. 95). To avoid criticisms of romanticism or anthropomorphizing, Kearney sets out to develop a methodology informed by indigenous epistemologies and decolonizing principles, acknowledging our inability to ‘listen’ outside of its relationship to humanity. Place has its own emotional geography that humans within place can relate to and read, and Kearney claims that trauma narratives told in place carry more weight and offer more opportunities for understanding across culture because of this emotional geography.

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Over the Land

An accompanying video to Phillip Vannini’s 2017 article in Space and Culture:  ‘These boardwalks were made for bushwalking: Disentangling grounds, surfaces, and walking experience’.   Video by April and Phillip Vannini (2015).

EMAC Ethnography.Media.Arts.Culture Network, is a group of students and scholars based at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C., Canada. For more information, see:

Phillip Vannini (Royal Roads University)


Topology of Denial

Climate Change, Declining Sea Ice, Extinction of Polar Bears

Topology of a Changing Climate: Evidence and Denial
The “space” of 2 intersecting issues: declining Arctic sea ice and the future of polar bears in climate change denying blogs and scientific papers (from Harvey et al in Bioscience (Nov 29 2017)).


Analysis of statements about the future of polar bears and declining Arctic sea ice reveals a polar contrast between climate change deniers’ blogs and evidence-based scientific reports.  This produces the hints of a manifold or topological space where the debate is both polarized around a left-right axis and features another line of flight (“will adapt”) that nonetheless remains within the 2 limiting dimensions of the graph of affirmation vs. denial.

Charts from Jeffrey A. Harvey Daphne van den Berg Jacintha Ellers Remko Kampen Thomas W. Crowther Peter Roessingh Bart Verheggen Rascha J. M. Nuijten Eric Post Stephan Lewandowsky Ian Stirling Meena Balgopal Steven C. Amstrup Michael E. Mann (2017). Internet Blogs, Polar Bears, and Climate-Change Denial by Proxy. BioScience.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Review: Creative Urbanity

Guano, Emanuela. (2017). Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 9780812248784. 242 pages + notes, bibliography, index, acknowledgements.

To a casual visitor, any city usually appears to be a monolithic collection of buildings, people and open spaces, all somehow connected by a hidden code of conduct that eludes outsiders. Emanuela Guano’s nuanced Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization allows the reader to steal a few furtive glances at Genoa’s subtle inner workings hidden beneath the superficial exterior of an Italian port city. This is what polyvocality looks like at its finest, supported by distinct voices of its actors in six main chapters, bookended by a thorough introduction and poignant conclusions, followed by notes, bibliography, index and acknowledgements; maps and photography by the author and other contributors constitute another valuable dimension of this project.

From the effective opening vignette of Beatrice, a tour guide in Genoa’s centro storico, who informs her walking audience about mysteries of the city long-gone while “conjuring the hidden out of the familiar” (2), Guano commands her readers’ attention with ethnographic case studies viewed through a fresh gaze as she offers “a few glimpses into the city’s nature as a fluid assemblage” (18). While the supporting ethnographic field research is impressive, the motivations behind Guano’s project constitute a solid case study in and of itself. A diasporic Genoese flaneuse, Guano walked the streets of the city in a Baudelairean style, watching, taking notes, drawing conclusions and exploring the urban everyday shaped by the corporate capital. While her methodology and concept are well explained, Guano saw her project as a labor of love grown on the genesis of her own nostalgia for the city where she would have been precluded from pursuing an academic career.

The well-edited monograph contains a healthy balance of opposing views on the role of the middle classes in the production of urban space. At its very core, the book is an exploration of “the lives and experiences of those middle-class Genoese who, seeking to escape consistently high unemployment rates, invented self-employment venues for themselves” (15).  The book does not “represent the city as a bounded and stable entity” (23), and it leaves room for investigating other creative practices informed by revitalization. Commandeered by blue- and white-collar workers in the 1960s, the parading life on display, passegiata, or an urban stroll, with the underlying air of aristocracy, is symbolized by the quirky cover photo with a quintessentially Italian Fiat 500 painted with a colorful cityscape of nearly uniform buildings—a combination of sloping roofs and high-rises.

(Guano, 2016)

The introduction, grounded in anthropology and urban theory, addresses students of neoliberalism while promising to present a cross-section of urbanity and its transformations, with a particular focus on the residual creative class. Following the outstanding literature review, Chapter 1, Chronotopes of Hope, is moderately autoethnographic as it traces the recent developments in Genoa’s rise to and fall from the level of Florence, Venice or Rome as an object of a tourist gaze, something in which the port city’s residents took great pride; this chapter provides chronotopic perspectives on the urban everyday starting with the 1970s and tracing the city’s ups and downs through the 2010s. The first major case study, Chapter 2, Genoa’s Magic Circle, narrates the dramatic events of the 2001 G8 Summit that cut short much hope for the city’s entrance to the global stage; the corollary of violence and state repression informs the discussion of local middle-class urbanity to present a different kind of aestheticization of the city stemming from its reimagining as a stage for the performance of a global political drama. Written as an ethnographic analysis of the gentrification that has unfolded in Genoa’s centro storico since the early 1990s, Chapter 3, Gentrification without Teleologies, presents a fascinating example in the study on spatial relations of solids vs. voids in an urban environment—the vertical stratification based on access to daylight; the chapter tackles gentrification as an assemblage of people, logics and materialities: one whereby a nexus of neoliberal rationality, the built environment and old and new neighborhood residents and users contribute to making a world whose emergent dynamics may, at times, unfold along the lines of the well-researched template of the capitalist “spatial fix”—and yet, at other times, they are considerably more complex. The discussion of how women eke out their living while being accused of stealing a man’s job serves as the framework for Chapter 4, Cultural Bricoleuses, with antique fairs and dealers as the subject against the backdrop of the transformation that has unfolded not just through the regeneration of the built environment, but also through spatial practices that are part of the urban everyday within an economy of consumable heritage based on the marketing of cultural and symbolic goods, services and experiences. Genoa’s walking tour guides who tread the tenuous line that separates academic knowledge from cultural consumption feature in Chapter 5, Touring the Hidden City, which contrasts the high vs. popular culture in the tourist vocation enmeshed in the aristocratic rejection of urban ostentation. The ethnography of the annual Suq, a multicultural festival—informed by its intentional hybrid spatiality—held annually in Genoa under the supervision of two women on a mission to further the cause of diversity in the city comprises Chapter 6, Utopia with No Guarantees, followed by a cautiously optimistic final research section of the monograph, Conclusion, that offers hope through a combination of empathy and sympathy Guano has for the city of her formative years where the never ending revolving door of businesses dying out, born, improved and declining points to a luminous future (195). The additional notes to various sections dispel any possible lack of clarity while framing the discussion in a much broader cultural event or a series of events, e.g., the Chinese migration to Italy.

The brevity of the monograph makes the work a victim of its author’s skill and expertise combined with the engaging and heartfelt narratives. As with any ethnography, a few elements of this one might have seemed outdated already at the time of press, and Guano realized that some of the realities she was analyzing were no longer quite as current. Any superficial deficiencies aside, Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization constitutes a solid contribution to the areas of anthropology, urban studies, aesthetics, political economy, labor studies, ethnography and gender studies—one could only wish to read more of such intricately and exquisitely crafted ethnographic portraits of cities in the 21st century.

Caesar Perkowski (Gordon State College)