Urban struggles across the globe: Encountering and countering the state in the city


JUNE 29 – JULY 1, 2022 

 In cities around the world, a large part of the population is confronted with poverty and exclusion on a daily basis. Of late, the number of city dwellers struggling to make ends meet has increased in the wake of war, the pandemic and various economic crises. In their daily predicament, trying to meet basic needs for shelter, security, and income, residents often find the state on their path, and frequently not as a friend. While the state engages in social inclusion initiatives, crisis management, welfare arrangements, and citizen participation mechanisms, it often exacerbates inequality and reinforces the social exclusion of the most marginalised, contrary to its stated intentions. 

In this conference, we approach cities as focal points of political struggle, in which a variety of actors, ranging from (inter)national and local government bodies to charities, corporations, grassroots movements, and individual residents make competing claims of legitimacy and express visions for future living. We seek to discuss how, in both the Global North and South, urban residents encounter, and often counter, the state while trying to secure a place and a future in the city. We are looking for ethnographic research on how people experience, enact and deal with the state, while they look for ways to improve their lives. We are interested in their encounters with government interventions, bureaucracies, or elections. We also wish to explore how these encounters produce particular affects. Sentiments like hope and despair, trust and suspicion, and feelings of belonging, fear and abandonment emerge from and inform the relationships between residents and the state. 

In these encounters, particular actors often play key roles as connectors between residents and the state, and between residents among each other. Community leaders, grassroots organisers, activists, and ‘active citizens’, yet also state and non-state frontline workers, community support officers, social and advocacy workers and welfare advisers, form points of convergence of the different networks, practices and resources that constitute these encounters. Their acts of brokerage, intermediation, and negotiation are central to the functioning of governance and different forms of politics. 

We wish to explore such encounters along a variety of thematic lines: grassroots mobilisations and activism, immigration policies, welfare and austerity, urban development, housing, and security. Papers for this conference may include, but are certainly not limited to, contributions to recent debates on the right to the city, neoliberalism and austerity, mobilities, lived experiences of precarity and marginalisation, the ethics of care, the production of authority and affect in state-subject relationships, the North-South dialogue, and the politics of assemblages, networks or socio-technical infrastructures that (re)produce and/or address urban inequalities. 

Questions we wish to focus on are: How do state-subject relationships gain shape? What kinds of politics are produced in state-subject encounters? What kinds of state are enacted in these encounters? And what is the role of specific actors in these interactions? 

This conference will be organised along three thematic tracks: 

A. The disintegrating welfare state: frontline workers, bureaucracy, and activism 

This track aims to examine how frontline workers (from private, NGO, or state institutions) challenge, respond and adapt to neoliberal welfare reforms, and what these reforms mean for the way they interact and work with clients and claimants. It invites ethnographic analysis that engages with the relational aspects of bureaucracy or activism and how these enact particular imaginations of the state. 

B. Mobilities: mediating means for migrants 

This track zooms in on infrastructures of migrant support and advocacy. Its topics include: overlapping vulnerabilities between and among beneficiaries and service providers, tensions between counter-conduct and livelihood, interactions with anti-migrant activism and market-driven welfare arrangements, and the transformative potential of unsettling care practices. 

C. Urban development: housing, security and the state 

This track looks at urban development projects and programmes, and the resistance they generate, in cities across the globe. It analyses how residents encounter and counter the state in interventions related to urban development, housing, tenure regulation, and security, and how they construct resilient futures in the pursuit of dignity, permanence and agency. 

This conference will be hosted by the Department of Anthropology and Development Studies at the Radboud University Nijmegen. It is financed by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 679614). 

The research team consists of: Janne Heederik, Adam Moore, Sven da Silva, Lieke van der Veer, Carolina Frossard, Flávio Eiró and Martijn Koster.