Book review: Citizen Designs (2021) by Eli Elinoff

The University of Hawaiʻi Press has been publishing some excellent books lately, including Eli Elinoff’s first monograph, Citizen Designs: City-Making and Democracy in Northeastern Thailand (2021). Having seen this book develop from a draft into its final form – Eli is one of my colleagues in the Cultural Anthropology Programme at Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington – I was looking forward to reading it. I was not disappointed (and yes, I would have let him know if I was!).

As the title suggests, Citizen Designs is a book about democracy and citizenship in Thailand, as seen from a railway squatter settlement in Khon Kaen, a city in the northeastern Issan region. The book opens in 2016, with the eviction of nearly two hundred families from homes they had built along the railway tracks. These railway settlements are where some of the city’s poorest residents live and, as Elinoff shows, have become sites of intense debate about the rights of the urban poor, democracy, political participation, and what it means to live a good life in Khon Kaen.

This is one of the most interesting ethnographies I have read about urban development and world-making in the past few years. The intervention he makes with his concept of “citizen designs” was especially interesting, as is the way he has leaned into disagreement throughout this book.

Elinoff employs the concept of “citizen designs” to refer to “future oriented visions of political and social belonging.” These future oriented visions look different for the different social actors in this book, such as the people who live in the railway settlements; the activists working for non-governmental organisations who try to mobilize the urban poor against dispossession; the State Railway of Thailand, which wanted to control the land along the tracks, and the government agency responsible for the Baan Mankong (or Secure Housing) Project. Citizen designs is a useful concept because it captures the future worlds that people envision as well as the various strategies that people use to build the visions they have of themselves, their place in the city, and their role in a democratic society.

Citizen designs are at once expressions of hope, grounds for disagreement, and techniques of governance and discipline. Housing is a good example of this. As Elinoff discusses, the railway residents are squatters who don’t have a secure claim to the land they have built their homes on; it is owned by the State Railway of Thailand, which has decreed a series of zones along the railway tracks where people are and are not permitted to build and live. Residents/squatters can apply to lease the land and fulfil their aspirations to become full citizens. However, they have to do so in ways prescribed by the State Railway of Thailand and other government agencies. For example, they have to form communities and show that they can save money as communities. They have to commit to self-help housing and ideals of sufficiency over aesthetics. They are required to develop housing plans, which then need to be approved by official agencies. Here, regulations concerning housing become techniques of policing and control. NGOs trying to help residents/squatters end up enforcing these regulations and doing the work of the state. Elinoff does a nice job of showing how citizen designs are a source of disagreement and debate among the various social actors.

This brings me to Elinoff’s second intervention, which is how he makes disagreement itself an ethnographic object of analysis. It is clear that this is a complex situation – Elinoff worked with a range of social actors, across social and political boundaries, and he resisted his participants’ efforts to get him to “take a side.” The groups and people he worked with didn’t always like one another and often disagreed on issues such as what should be done regarding those living in railway settlements, what it means to participate in urban planning, and what it means to engage in politics. Elinoff does not try to untangle or explain these disagreements for his readers. Instead, for Elinoff, disagreement is a technique of knowing, of governance and control, of community-making, and of possibility. Attending to disagreements orients us to the lived, material enactments of politics – what it means for urban poor people to do democracy and claim social and political belonging in Khon Kaen. Ultimately, he shows how disagreements are “expressions of residents’ citizen designs” (p 130).

Overall Citizen Designs makes a complicated story legible, without losing any of the complexity of the contested nature of doing democracy in urban Thailand. It’s definitely a book I’m going to return to again in my own research on hope and community development.

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