Pushpa Arabindoo is Senior Lecturer in Geography and Urban Design at University College London. She has an inter-disciplinary background that cuts across from architecture and urban planning to geography and urban studies. Through the Erasmus Staff Mobility Teaching Exchange, she has also taught at Université Paris Diderot and University of Amsterdam. She is a co-director of the UCL Urban Laboratory and an editor of the City Journal. She is currently working on her monograph on Chennai, an urban ethnography of one particular city but which also engages conceptually with the broader challenges of theorizing from the South.
Urban studies discourses in the global South (with a focus on India); ecological imaginations in the urban context; urbanization of water and nature; politics of middle-class activism; slum evictions, resettlement and right to the city.
Writing the (unknown) city: Ethnographic theorisations of the urban
There is currently within Anglophone urban studies scholarship a strong preoccupation with Lefebvrian theorisations of the urban, one that often is unwittingly pitched against parallel efforts to postcolonialise the discourse and its broad agenda of theorizing from the South. The objective of this fellowship is to draw some wider critical reflections from my ongoing monograph, 'The unknown city: Excavating Chennai from Madras', one that reconciles tensions between these two approaches. As a larger project exploring the discomfort of situating Lefebvre in the tropics, during this fellowship period, I will employ the tactic of ‘ethnographic theorisation’ to draw out from my monograph two major thematic constructs with implications for theorising the urban: (i) The question of scale, and (ii) The contradiction of the state. In the case of the former, I suggest that the ‘scale question’ is best addressed through a spatial reimagination of the hinterland, challenging our established understanding of peripheral urbanisation. In terms of the latter, my ethnography of urban transformations in Chennai urges the need for a better theorisation of the state as we confront a bizarre socio-capitalist logic of a state-led development paradox. Secondly, as I develop the monograph on Chennai as a ‘biography of a conjuncture’ (Davis 2006), I will explore the heuristic challenges embedded in ‘writing the city’. Approaching it as a more than methodological gesture, I use this exercise to understand how one can bridge the emerging divide between particularist and planetary modes of theorising, allowing us to extract more sustained global urban analyses. Acknowledging the fact that how you write a city depends on where you write it from (including the language employed), I intend to work with French urban studies scholars to forestall not only the Anglophone dominance in this debate but also to foster a ‘transurban language of urbanisation’ (Simone and Bourdreau 2009).