Rethinking Responsibility

The programme is now out for this weekend’s conference, Competing Responsibilities: The politics and ethics of responsibility in contemporary life. I’m excited to hear keynote speakers Nikolas Rose and Cris Shore, of course, but I am also looking forward to hearing how other presenters are rethinking responsibility and responsibilization as theoretical and analytical concepts. SavageMinds.org recently featured an interview with conference organisers Catherine Trundle and Susanna Trnka which nicely introduces the conference theme.

I was inspired by the conference theme and have developed the paper below (based on my PhD research) to focus on how grassroots organisations become responsibilized in the absence of effective state interventions in urban poor areas.

TITLE:
Responsibilizing grassroots organisations in “forgotten places” in Howrah, West Bengal, India.

ABSTRACT:
In 1991 the Government of India implemented widespread economic liberalisation policies which, as well as contributing to India’s recent economic rise to global significance, had important and uneven effects on various social groups within India. Despite official reports of declining poverty in India, neoliberal ideas and policies have not improved the lives of those living in poverty – many of whom are Muslim – in bastis in Howrah, West Bengal. This paper argues that Howrah’s bastis are “forgotten places,” historically and politically constructed enclaves that are neglected, but nevertheless deeply inhabited, by the state. In these bastis, services that are the responsibility of the state – such as access to education – are not adequately provided for, leaving a gap that NGOs and grassroots organisations try to fill. This paper provides an ethnographic account of what happens in such “forgotten places” by describing the efforts of Howrah Pilot Project, an organisation that seeks to address this gap by running a grassroots-level, nonformal school in one of Howrah’s bastis. Processes of ‘active forgetting’ serve to responsibilize such organisations, but their practices need to be augmented by a responsive state in order to achieve meaningful, long-term, beneficial change.

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Parenting, AAA 2013, and being an anthropologist

Last month I went to the AAA 2013 meeting in Chicago. This was the first time I’d attended an international conference with my family in tow (20-month-old toddler and amazing husband). My husband looked after our daughter during the day but her presence gave me the opportunity to reflect on how being a parent of a young child has changed my experience of conferences, and possibly my future research directions.

I had a great time at the AAA 2013 and live-tweeted from about half of the panels I attended. I didn’t enjoy all of the papers I heard (mainly because I find it boring to listen to people reading articles or excerpts of thesis chapters – there’s an art to this and not everyone has mastered it) but I did appreciate the opportunity to hear some excellent speakers and meet people doing interesting and exciting research.

One of the first things I noticed was the number of children aged three or under with caregivers (mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunties, uncles) at the conference. I’m sure this is due to my heightened sensitivity as a first-time parent but it was great to see toddlers playing on stairs, younger babies in frontpacks, and kids sleeping or just taking it all in from the vantage point of a stroller while their parents gave presentations. What I didn’t see, though, was a parent’s room at the conference venue. Was there one? Could there be in future? What did anthro-parents with toddlers do at changing and feeding times if they didn’t stay at one of the conference hotels (like we did)?

Networking was also a different experience this time around. The 19-hour time difference between Wellington (NZ) and Chicago meant my daughter had a hard time settling, which ruled out any evening social events for me. However, explaining why I wasn’t going to be at a dinner did open up a space for people to talk about their own kids and how they handled going to conferences when their children were young. Plus I got to meet some lovely caregivers looking after toddlers whose parents (usually mothers) were giving presentations, people I would not have felt confident introducing myself to at previous meetings.

I noticed a divide in opinion about whether or not I would continue fieldwork in Papua New Guinea now that I’m a parent. This is something I have been thinking seriously about as I start to develop a new research project addressing vulnerable urban spaces in India and PNG. While no-one questions that I will continue to work in India, PNG is a different story (mainly due to reports of crime, security, and violence). Attending the AAA was good for meeting other anthropologists working in Melanesia and discussing the issues involved in taking children/family on fieldwork trips to PNG. Back at home I’ve continued these conversations with other anthropologists. I would love (and plan) to continue to work in PNG but being a mum is likely to shape future research directions.

I’m curious to hear from others about whether/how being a parent affects your future research plans. Have you done fieldwork with family in tow? Left them behind? Decided against a fieldsite due to safety concerns? I would love to hear about your experiences!

Changing India: From Decolonization to Globalization Conference 2013

I am looking forward to the inaugural conference of the New Zealand India Research Institute, which starts tomorrow. The conference theme is Changing India: From Decolonization to Globalization and it will critically examine the changes that have taken place since Independence.

I am just putting the finishing touches on the following paper, which I plan to develop into a journal article:

Bastis as “forgotten places” in Howrah, West Bengal, India

Abstract:
Kolkata’s poverty is world-famous. Howrah, located on the opposite side of the Hoogly river and Kolkata’s twin city, fares worse. Howrah’s bastis (slums) have been described as “deplorable”, “dirty”, “filthy” and “overcrowded” since the late 1800s. India’s recent rapid economic growth has not improved the lives of those living in poverty – many of whom are Muslim – in Howrah’s bastis. This paper argues that Howrah’s bastis are “forgotten places”, historically and politically constructed habitats that are neglected, but nevertheless deeply inhabited, by the state (Lee & Yeoh, 2006: Fernandes, 2010). In these bastis, services that are the responsibility of the state – such as access to civic amenities – are not adequately provided for. It discusses how such “forgotten places” leave a gap that NGOs and grassroots organisations try to fill, and draws on ethnographic fieldwork to describe the efforts of Howrah Pilot Project, an organisation that runs grassroots-level development initiatives in one of Howrah’s bastis. Such organisations can be viewed as a response to processes of ‘active forgetting’ but need to be augmented by a responsive state in order to achieve meaningful, long-term, beneficial change.

Check out the rest of the NZIRI 2013 Conference Programme to see what else people will be talking about.