Convening a Network of Friends: Southern Researchers During Pandemic Times
by AbdouMaliq Simone
2 Dec 2021

Since April 2020 the Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield has been curating a series of monthly convocations of 30 urban researchers, most working in the Global South. Many participants in these convocations coordinate the work of the most renowned of urban labs and research centers. The objective of these convocations was solely to constitute a space of reflection, a place where researchers could talk freely about what they were experiencing in all dimensions of their professional lives.

As such, the convocations reflected the intensive oscillations of determinations to respond, the exhaustion of protracted periods of live disengagement from the field, the seemingly inordinate demands on people’s time and creativity, and the difficulties of navigating through a plethora of conceptual frameworks and governmental practices incommensurable with realities on the ground. Taking precedence, however, was the sense of being confronted with a problem that required sensing in a different manner, rather than being reflected upon through an available set of analytics; forcing through different practices of sociality even when neither their anticipations nor dispositions were very clear.

In this short report, I want to highlight some of the perspectives on contemporary urban conditions that emerged from our collective discussions. Conditions from Beirut, Belo Horizonte, Boston, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Cape Town, Columbo, Dakar, Delhi, Freetown, Hong Kong, Hyderabad, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Karachi, Lima, Mexico City, Nairobi, Rio De Janeiro, Manila, Mumbai, and Sheffield. Acting as the convenor of this process, the synthesis of these discussions is my own, although I draw upon not only the live discussions, but from a larger archive that the convocation has prepared, including a series of smaller three-way discussions among participants. Given the diversities of geographical and historical situatedness of the convocation’s participants, there is, of course, a wide range of perspectives not easily synthesized, particularly as there were no attempts to attain any kind of consensus. So what follows is an outline attempting to embody this heterogeneity yet at the same time discern particular patterns that seemed to cut across contexts.

As the months of the pandemic went by, when it was increasingly evident what different tiers of governmental interventions would and could do, what was particularly striking about many of the urban regions where participants worked was a tacit dependency on the capacity of these regions to absorb death in increasing volumes. While not obviating the even begrudging determination of states to do something effectively about the pandemic and its multiple ramifications, the increasingly erratic, arbitrary, and gestural interventions pointed not to the conundrum of balancing the protection of life and the maintenance of an economy, but an implicit banking upon the absorptive capacities of the sheer “massiveness” of urban regions and their diverse compositions. This is not simply a necropolitics because, in contrast to a politics of inhabitation focused exclusively on the prolongation of life—which shrinks the very horizon of the political and the capacity to make political demands—the atmosphere of this massiveness also “registers” all those freewheeling, sometimes impulsive expressions of wanton desire that are indifferent to life’s sustainability. Not only does the “massive” urban absorb death, but it stages all of those seemingly purposeless and irrational actions that are not undertaken in “life’s interest” but remain manifestations of liveliness.

Yet, at the same time, the exigency to deliver the fundamental provisions of any kind of urban existence was a constant preoccupation of participants, many of whom actively participated in both state and non-state directed programs of ensuring adequate supplies of food, shelter, and health services during periods of protracted lockdown that fundamentally destabilized the livelihoods of an urban majority dependent upon popular economies outside or only partially incorporated by wage labor. This exigency to deliver was compounded not only by the economic ramifications of conventional epidemiological protocols but a sense of crisis illustrated by the total closure in many countries of critical social infrastructures. This included judiciaries and educational institutions, as well as the intersecting debilitations of transportation and solid waste management. Government bafflement and incompetence were often diverted into more familiar rationalities, such as blaming external factors, electoral procedures, or the behavior of the poor themselves.

Whatever sense that the pandemic might occasion profound structural changes in urban governance rapidly dissipated in the resounding reassertion of long-term inequities and state insensitivity to how urban space is actually lived in and reproduced by the majority of inhabitants. State provisioning and protection found itself relying upon conceptions of socio-spatial organization that provided only a partial picture of the complexity of everyday arrangements of livelihood formation and social reproduction. Accounting and delivery systems remained dependent upon categories of individuated kinship-organized households, anchored in stabilized territorial residencies when increasingly households were forged with diverse memberships and distributed across multiple locales. Managing pandemic conditions by getting people off the streets failed to appreciate the extent to which basic household relations and economies are managed through the street.

The management of a large number of the sub-territories of urban regions has historically relied upon implicit social compacts that allowed for a broad interweaving of economic activities of distinct legal statuses, a repurposing of spaces with officially designated functions, and an intercalibration of different forms of local authority, with various degrees of incorporation into formal governance. Pandemic measures not only circumvented these compacts but also inflicted potentially long-term damage on their functioning. The mobilization of pandemic conditions acts as the legitimization for more formalized apparatuses of administration, control, and surveillance. The need to ensure the prolongation of life was being increasingly deployed as a need for more extensive application of tools for surveying urban populations, as a precursor for greater inclusion. While many states would end up offering more comprehensive forms of recognition in terms of social protection and access to basic services, it offered no real economic underpinning for that inclusion, particularly a younger generation of urban inhabitants that faces even greater levels of under-employment and income precarity.

In India, thousands of migrant laborers, faced with the closure of many factories and workshops, simply walked home to their villages, sometimes a thousand kilometers away. For them, there was simply nothing more to do in the cities where they had often long resided, and that home, far from being a place of any kind of economic security, was simply a place from which to garner some perspective of where and how to start again. In this respect, the state offers not even the semblance of a concrete vision of a viable future beyond the further roll-out of interoperable systems of registration, identification, and quantification of resource transfers. On the other hand, India, through the protracted strike of Punjabi farmers, “sons of the soil,” amassed in Delhi for months in response to the new regulations regarding marketing systems and land allocation, the power of sheer refusal came to the fore. Farmers refused to engage the state on any aspect of the matter beyond the complete withdrawal of the legislation instituting these regulations. In many less overt ways, such refusals and disobedience began to characterize citizen responses to states attempting to mask their obvious insufficiencies through increasingly adamant commands for compliance.

On the other hand, participants were continuously heartened by the profusion of solidarities taking place particularly in working poor and working-class communities. An implicit and intricate choreography at work in making collective lives, which is inherent in the everyday functioning of these communities but often not readily and empirically visible, showed its face in a multitude of concrete generosities and infrastructures of care. Districts, whose densities of populations and activities would seem to render them most vulnerable to high rates of transmission, often managed to avoid them in part because of the attunements of residents to the quotidian activities and rhythms of others. Here, the limited allocation of individualized space requires intricate maneuvers of sharing that accord a sense of mutual spaciousness capable of accommodating disparate agendas. Impromptu micro-interactions took on a deep affective sense: musicians playing on the street while neighbors give them money through a system of ropes and baskets from the windows, offering a mask or hand gel to someone who couldn’t enter the subway because she didn’t have the required gear, a young woman distributing flyers under apartment doors with her phone number on it for elderly people to call and chat if they felt isolated. Additionally, there were many examples of new enterprises that provided essential commodities, manufactured personal protection equipment, offered different modalities of medical advice on the phone, and developed ecologically-friendly sanitizing products. Such mutual aid demonstrated the potential viability of large-scale state investment in public employment creation, which for several participants has become their main research and public policy preoccupation.

Nevertheless, participants share a profound sense of exhaustion, disheartened by the sense that despite this massive global crisis, what remains intact are the now even more sharply delineated inequalities that have long been at the heart of urban life. While occasioning an enlarged number of seminars, working groups, policy recommendations, and global forums, the past year of pandemic conditions also illustrate just how limited the prevailing discourses and funding mechanisms of Southern-oriented research have been in addressing these inequalities. As convocation member Gautam Bhan has put it, inhabitants are not so much broken-hearted but indeed broken in the way in which these inequalities are accommodated and internalized. Even as populations were forced to hunker down in more constricted registers of operation, many urban regions were pursuing the materialization of logistical imaginations to convert larger swathes of urban space into zones of infrastructural investment, oriented towards enhancing the circulation of capital and the articulation of regions to many different “elsewheres.” These investments in logistical proficiencies, beyond doing violence to the bodily capacities of the city’s inhabitants, act to erase substantial archives of place-making. As such, participants, such as the Hyderabad Urban Lab, have emphasized the importance of maintaining active archives of these place-making practices, which embody the ways in which urbanization processes have been driven through the active efforts of inhabitants to instantiate themselves into and shape the city. The current and prospective emphases on rectification, on the redesign of urban space in order to deal with future pandemics, tends to vilify these practices without a full appreciation of what they have enabled, despite their sometimes-problematic dimensions.

Finally, participants amplified the critical role played by arrangements, those constellations of collective enactment that can’t quite be subsumed under the categories of household, institution, network, or the processes of contractual obligation, governmental responsibility, or familial reciprocity. While arrangements may incorporate bits and pieces of familiar contextual categories and relational processes, they most frequently circumvent clear definition and are held together, at least provisionally, through a range of artifacts, actors, and terrain. This is seen as particularly important, as the engagement with states will be crucial in terms of the immanent restructuring necessary to maintain a semblance of economic viability for majority populations. At the same time, states are insufficient in and of themselves as either provider, guarantor, or designer of mitigated inequities. New institutional architectures will have to emerge in order to address the intensified disjunctions existing among multiple urban territories of operation, i.e. between those of capital accumulation and the suturing together of a semblance of livelihoods; between the infrastructural investments needed for the employment generation and the exigencies of sustainability. These will emerge only by thinking and looking carefully at the multiplicity of arrangements that mediate these various disjunctions, albeit in highly limited ways, on an everyday level.

Here, it is important to recognize that such arrangements sometimes become visible only as they shift over time, when their stagecraft becomes apparent, the taking-to-the-stage of specific constellations of assessment, brokerage, mutual attentiveness, provisional rules, and collaborative practice. For example, when the implicit governance systems of migrant hostels no longer have a basis in the subsidies and salaries paid out by formal employers and have to shift to new arrangements of resources, social connections, livelihoods, and social identities. Household functions may be redistributed across multiple locations, where a single address serves more the pragmatic function of having an address than representing a coherent household unit. The operations within local markets might shift from specific jobs being the purview of particular identities to a proportion of all jobs being allocated to a cross-section of identities.

All of these arrangements are deployed to facilitate a sense of spaciousness, a fundamental characteristic in the elaboration of territories of operation. Part of the difficulty inherent in conventional epidemiological protocols as applied to Southern urban contexts is that the locus of inhabitation has increasingly shifted operations. Once primarily based on a certain anchorage in place, cultivated over time to attain the semblance of community and deeply embedded affective ties to it, the emphasis is currently placed on an extended arena of itineraries in motion, of spreading out across larger swathes of urban regions in more provisional, temporary constellations of settlement. While such mobility may simply take the form of longer commutes between home and work, it also entails the loose coordination of multiple sites of residence, more opportunistic, short-term employment, the deferral of committing to long-term investments in specific locations, and the formation of social ties across various networks and locales. While states are increasingly proficient in tracking populations in motion, and often concede that inhabitants will not stay put, development-oriented to formatting specific settlements viewed as offering necessary affordances, and being affordable at the same time, will likely again miss the mark of what urban majorities are up to.

In order to stay with these conundrums in creative ways, and to nurture the spirits of researchers who are staying with them, the enactment of these convocations as a network of friends superseded all other uses. For friendship, after all is said and done, is the medium in which almost anything of value is attained.

AbdouMaliq Simone is an urbanist and Senior Professorial Fellow at the Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield. He is also a research associate at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity and a visiting professor at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Since 1977 he has worked in different cities across Africa and Southeast Asia in education, housing, social welfare, local government, and economic and community development.