Sem 06 / Culture Studies


Rohit Mujumdar

Cover image by Federico ‘Boy’ Dominguez, for The Journal of Peasant Studies. Used here with permission.

Asking how and why architectural production could be situated critically within the urban experience, this two-week, introductory course to urbanisation engages students with key debates on urban transformation across the globe and a sketch of the contemporary landscape of urbanisation in India. Towards this end, the seminar-lecture styled course introduced students to twelve key terms: urban, urban periphery, southern urbanisation, gentrification, splintering urbanisation, accumulation by dispossession, informality, Infrastructure, ordinary cities, urban rhythms, urban assemblage, and spatial affordances. These terms/concepts through which we come to understand our urban surrounds are suffused with values and meanings. They do “work” in many ways. They could be pejorative or valorising, they could work as heuristic devices to aid analysis / explain social or physical phenomena and so on and so forth …. They demand a close interrogation of the things that lie beneath their skin. Asking students to not being blasé with the language for one’s surrounds, the course invited them to build a glossary entry for each term. The glossary entry addressed five questions through a review of 3-5 texts for each term: (1) What is the etymology of the term? Where did it come from?; (2) Who and how has the term been defined?; (3) If the term has multiple definitions, how does one definition call into question its other uses?; (4) Describe a space / process / form of life / aesthetics / politics that the term references through text and visual?; (5) What is your take on how the term should be / not be used? The work of the glossary will be in process in the coming years.

I reproduce here the unedited version of the student-text to their assignment written by Swara Chavan, Neha Mhadolkar, Lohitha Rao, Sahil Sawant, Drashti Thumar, Nishadh More, Gargi Somani, Ananya Khandagale, Aditya Bhoite, Parth Kocharekar, Kankana Choudhary, Unnati Gandhi.
Keywords: On (not) being blasé with the language for your surrounds

The definition we typically find online and in dictionaries is "belonging to or relating to a city or town." It refers to urban and suburban areas with a large population density and developed infrastructure, as well as cultural and social activities. It shares characteristics such as being a well-planned, secondary, and tertiary economy with a highly developed infrastructure. Each country defines the term 'urban' differently. The government of India defines urban as the following: livelihood (75% male workforce should be employed in non-primary activity work, >5000 people, >400 person/sq.m, elected representatives to decide on status, i.e. whether to be labeled urban or rural). Cities are largely framed by crisis narratives; this crisis needs to be opened up and recognized beyond that. Urban cannot be comprehended through physical borders; it extends far and beyond what we read online or in dictionaries. In different settings, it has a larger and more subtle meaning.  Therefore understanding the term beyond these subliminal thinking becomes important.

In essence, the recognition of problematic elements prompts a critical examination of context. By anchoring ourselves to the text, we delve into the historical backdrop and related factors. This exploration allows us to grasp how specific terms, both consciously and unconsciously, wield influence on society. This influence, in turn, molds the intricate tapestry of urban life, shaping the very context that defines our comprehension of urbanization. It's a cyclical process where societal dynamics and urban structures interweave, creating a symbiotic relationship that significantly contributes to our evolving understanding of urban development.
The study of the urban or the urbanization branches into the identification and empirical understanding of a series of 'keywords' which are of ambiguous use in the society.
It is of the essence that these words are studied through their etymological, contextual and spatial parameters to generate a definitive understanding across people and time.

The Oxford Dictionary came into being during the 1880s - 90’s and defined a vocabulary based on the words and their meanings that were used in that specific context of time and place. It slowly became the authoritative framework that was accepted by the global north. Even in today's time defining any word outside of the dictionary is not acknowledged, because it is considered irrelevant. Regional interpretation of the same word introduced in the dictionary which may have a different meaning is also overlooked. This brings us to the question of ‘What sources do we trust ?
One such is the source of information that we get from the post-categorical line of thought, which indicates a speculative lens through which a city can be viewed without any past presumptive wisdoms and prejudices, which does not mean the banishment of mediums through which these wisdoms were produced or collected but only hints towards a more sensitive approach of using these mediums.
The Park and Burgess theory developed in the early 20th century is another approach that seeks to understand the social organization of cities and relationships between different social groups. It also articulates urban ecology as a process of succession, where different ethnic groups replace one another over time in a particular area,  creating a pattern that helps explain the social dynamics of neighborhoods and the organization of different social classes. 

When one researches a term, especially those to which strong values and importance are attached, knowing its context and intrinsic developmental process becomes highly necessary. Understanding words in a binary; one term as opposed to another term leads to a comparative analysis of both of them, often causing the designation of one as better than the other (as in the case of words like ‘normal’ and ‘strange’ or ‘urban’ and ‘rural’. One as something that is not the other.) This comparison overlooks the complexities of either word, never truly questioning what they are, where they come from, and how we use them.
Such vocabulary which deems one superior compared to the other, weaves itself into our daily conversations subtly. Words here, become the elements of the problems we see around ourselves, both social and political. In a social sector, such words which are comparative and biased are used in discriminatory and violent ways to look down upon certain groups of people. Politically, they are shaped into static definitions, where they are not comprehended beyond what administrative power stipulates them.

Usually when researching a term one starts with tracing its genealogy one finds itself inquiring through written sources of power authorities which completely overlooks growing and continuously evolving forms of orally produced meanings. These meanings are the results of intrinsic everyday usages and practices but are often perceived by a hierarchical gaze. When we are approaching such an existing complex interconnected set of knowledge we are adding to these rather than alienating our intervention. Terminologies native to a particular place cannot be used in context with another place as they won't have the same associations, meanings, and values it has evolved and used. Understanding the terms should not only be through the lens of physical hegemony but also through non-tactile forms of myths, narratives, stories, and relations between human and non-human beings is indispensable. Being aware of these nuances helps in anchoring oneself to the existing layered densities for it to transform into physical forms of local intervention. These interventions thus will be critically regional to that context and hence reconstruction of one such to another one will be hostile.