The Layered World

Vinay Gidwani studies the underside of globalization

When he was growing up in Delhi, India, in the 1970s, Vinay Gidwani saw his city as a study in stark contrasts: newly constructed buildings abutting slums and villages, members of a successful middle class living amid large swaths of poverty.

His parents taught him to appreciate the gravity of what he saw. His father, a psychologist who came from a well-off family near Karachi, Pakistan, had lost everything during the violent partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947. His mother was a gynecologist who often provided free care to poor women. "My parents started from modest backgrounds. They always emphasized seeing who's below you in society rather than who's above," says Gidwani, now an associate professor in the Department of Geography and jointly appointed in the Institute of Global Studies.

It's for that reason that Gidwani grimaces when he encounters best-selling mainstream accounts of globalization. Public intellectuals like Thomas Friedman credit globalization for rapid economic growth and poverty reduction in countries like India and China. Globalization, they say, transforms developing countries, raising standards of living and bringing previously unknown levels of peace and prosperity. Gidwani knows firsthand that these accounts don't tell the whole story.

Globalization reconsidered

Friedman's success stories tend to come from a relatively small segment of the urban population--an increasingly affluent, educated middle class whose employment is tied to the global movement of capital and work, often for multinational corporations. "But there's a raw end, an underside, of globalization," one that disproportionately affects poor urban residents in the developing world's megacities, Gidwani says. Many recent rural-to-urban migrants who have tenuous access to housing, sanitation, basic municipal services, and employment in their urban destinations.

Delhi is illustrative: 300,000 to 500,000 migrants flow into the city annually, mostly to toil in the informal sectors of the urban economy that are not counted in India's gross domestic product. Their work and their daily existence are fraught with hardship and insecurity. Yet their abject work and living conditions rarely gain media attention amid the glowing reports of globalization.

Not for long, Gidwani hopes. About four years ago, he and research partner K. Sivaramakrishnan, a University of Washington anthropologist who recently accepted a position at Yale University, began studying the experiences of rural migrants in urban areas. The goal, Gidwani says, was to better understand those overlooked populations and see how their experiences reveal larger patterns of globalization. They wanted to see whether urban work and life experiences allowed migrants to accumulate economic and political resources that could be deployed in rural areas to contest social hierarchies there, and, similarly, whether rural resources were being put to use to negotiate urban existence.

Rural-to-urban migrants straddle the two realms, so they help geographers answer questions about the rural-urban relationship. How do rural and urban labor markets influence each other? Is urban migration a way for groups to gain social and economic mobility or challenge existing caste hierarchies in rural areas? Does the concentration of rural migrants in urban areas raise their political consciousness?

What Gidwani and Sivaramakrishnan found surprised them. Expecting to find that rural workers gained a sense of class consciousness in cities and worked to resist hierarchies in both cities and rural areas, the two found a much more complex dynamic among migrants to urban areas.

Throwing off the shackles

Defying economic wisdom, the rural poor sometimes migrated to cities even if it meant a diminution in their net income. Migration, Gidwani says, was often driven by noneconomic factors such as the desire for anonymity or escape from rural hierarchies that had locked them in rigid positions of subordination.

Counter to expectations that movement to urban areas might stimulate political activism, they found that migrants often tried to advance within, rather than challenge, existing hierarchies. Thus, urban migration could actually heighten conservatism. When they did resist middle-class norms, Gidwani says, it was often through dress, speech, demeanor, and other forms of cultural expression rather than overt resistance.

But those subtler forms of resistance, he's found, have nonetheless been significant. Even if they aren't directly challenging the hierarchical system, newly arrived migrants have run into opposition, sometimes fierce, from city residents whose employment is more deeply tied to global flows of capital and who have radically different lifestyles.

In his current research on urban space and the urban underclass in India, Gidwani is studying the impact of the post-1991 liberalization of India's economy on larger patterns of movement to and from urban areas, on the structure of regional labor markets in India, and, finally, on the politics and splintered ecologies of urban life in megacities like Delhi.

His findings, he hopes, will culminate in a book (Eviscerating Urbanism) and contribute to a larger body of knowledge that will help us understand how and why globalization produces an uneven landscape where the privileges of global integration and interdependence accrue to a minority. Gidwani says that phenomena he sees in Delhi--the daily travails of living and making a living, and emerging conflict over uses of space between the city's affluent and underprivileged residents--also have occurred in Bangkok, Manila, Mexico City, and other major cities.

To collect the data he needs to make his arguments, Gidwani often spends long stretches of time living in rural and urban Indian communities. On sabbatical during the 2007-08 school year, he will return to the city of his childhood to live and work alongside those whose voices he hopes will one day inform dinner table and cabinet table discussions of globalization. (A book based on his earlier research--Capital Interrupted: Development, Agrarian Change, and Politics of Work in Western India--is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press.)

It's exhausting, time-intensive work, but Gidwani says that globalization can be truly understood only when academics have firsthand experience of the economic processes and lives they write about. "Without the vital but unremarked contributions of poor migrants, cities and the infrastructure of urban life would crumble. It is the obligation of academics who work on urban globalization to witness their struggles and aspirations--and to ask which lives are considered worth caring for and which lives are
treated indifferently. Where is the justice?"

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on July 23, 2008 11:22 AM.

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