Tuesday 26 May 2015

Engaging Disciplines

by Haris Gazdar

This blog is an excerpt from a talk given at the meeting of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies on 4 April 2015 at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

I wish to speak about two aspects of conducting applied social science research on the city by reflecting on some work on Karachi that I have been involved with in the last few years, hopefully as a way of thinking about the broader question of engagement in the production of knowledge.  Of the two things I want to speak about the first is methodological.  I will show, through illustration, the value of working across disciplines on urban themes. The second is political, about how actions and actors would like to make use of knowledge and knowledge producers, and how this is both energizing and frustrating. 

There were, going back to the 1970s, detailed descriptions of how informal settlements had been established in post-1947 Karachi.  What we wanted to know, however, was how laws and schemes for the regularization of informal settlements might have led to collective action among the city’s working classes for secure rights of tenure, and ultimately for their right to the city.  Our empirical perspective was going to be qualitative quasi-ethnographic research in a number informal settlements across the city, representing different periods of establishment, consolidation, and regularization (including rounds of eviction in between), and diverse ethnic groups.

So, it came to be, that Kausar Niazi Colony in the Gujjar Nala near Hyderi, an informally planned and subsequently regularized settlement was selected among others for study.  It was to meet with noted theorists of collective action to yield some of its secrets.  Yes, much of the politics of regularization was not very different from what had already been found elsewhere in other studies which showed up the importance of patronage and negotiation for consolidation and regularization as part and parcel of competitive politics.  Framing the original collective action problem in rational choice terms, reading it in terms developed in social movement theory, and then interacting it with individual and community histories from qualitative fieldwork produced a textured understanding of the politics of regularization beyond simple patronage politics.  We certainly thought that we had chanced upon some fresh insights into Kausar Niazi Colony and into the politics of regularization within and across informal settlements in the city.  Scholarly peers appeared to agree and we published the paper in the online journal SAMAJ in 2011.

So far so good.  There was an interesting problem, an important one even. What are the micro-politics of regularization.  There were intuitive answers floating around, variants of which were used and are used widely in conversations about the city.  There was an opportunity to do some interesting empirical work and to frame it across disciplines, not only to say something slightly different, and to persuade scholarly peers that something slightly different had been said, but also to acknowledge the complexity of the city.  But we always do want more, don’t we?  And one of the things we want is to know that someone is listening.

The city does make demands on active citizens.  The city speaks to the researcher through the reporter, the political worker, the community mobiliser, the government official, the human rights activist, the international donor, and sometimes through another researcher.  But what it asks is rarely the same as that which persuades your scholarly peers that you have said something slightly new.  It recognizes your skills and your work, but in the coldest way possible.  You think you can interview people, so become part of a human rights mission. We know you can write so help us put together a report.  Assemble some facts that you have at your disposal and facilitate a dialogue for peace. And your work clearly shows, albeit incidentally, that you can do calculations, so show me the numbers.

Protest all you like about the nuance in your cross-disciplinary insights into the politics of regularization, about intra-poor inequalities and new collectivities emerging out of the struggles for tenure security. It all falls on deaf ears until any of it is of value to the city.  The city will come to it when it will.  Right now it wants to know something else that it knows you know, even if you thought that was incidental information.  How many people in Karachi? How many in unplanned areas? How many Pashtuns, how many Mohajirs, how many Sindhis and Baloch? Now? In ten years?  How much poverty in Lyari? How many killed last year? How many this year? But mostly, it wants to know, like the famed Gabbar Singh: kitnay aadami thhay? How many people, Pashtuns, Mohajirs, Sindhis, Baloch, now and in ten years?