Appointed As

Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences


ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowships program


University of Southern California

PhD Field of Study

PhD, Anthropology, Emory University

Dissertation Abstract

"Machines of Violent Desire: Gangsters and Other Broken Objects in Urban Pakistan"

Twenty-first century Karachi, Pakistan. In the course of a decade the peaceful, working-class township of Lyari transforms into an urban warzone ruled by armed gangs. Once a repository for the city’s cosmopolitan culture and history, gang violence in Lyari, at its height, is claimed to have resulted in more casualties than the Taliban insurgency. However, based on thirty months of ethnographic research, this dissertation demonstrates that the gangs of Lyari conserved social order rather than disrupt it. The gangs were crucial doorways of access to basic civic amenities in Lyari. I argue that the gangs stabilized and legitimized state rule. They did so as much through the periodic orchestration of spectacular violence as they did through their unacknowledged yet extensive function as resource brokers for Lyari’s residents.
The role of non-state violence, as a continuation of policy and policing, in stabilizing social order remains subject to debate in the social sciences. Scholars have highlighted how violent non-state operators challenge but also legitimize repressive state orders. Humanistic anthropology, conversely, chronicles the travails of lives exposed to precarity by the actions of these violent operators. While state repression has been widely studied; the problem of suturing the objective and subjective dimensions of non- state violence into a coherent model persists. By attending to the violent and the redistributive practices of the gangs in Lyari, my work sutures state and non-state practices into a processual model for state-formation. Gangs, I show, function as extensions rather than opponents of state bureaucracies and the police as institutions.
The gang, as such, acts as what I call a proxy class. Proxy classes extend state order in spaces where the groups that claim to be the state face popular challenge. In contexts where the dominant order is inherently unstable and destabilizing, proxy classes work on either side of law and formality, to legitimize and stabilize order. Lyari, has historically challenged the legitimacy of non-democratic, militaristic Pakistani state formations. The gang was a timely instrument by which state institutions implemented projects of rule in Lyari. In time, the same state institutions also emerged as a force of order by eradicating the gangs in the name of the restoration of law and order.
This study has larger implications for state theory, urbanology and the anthropology of violence. Firstly, it shows how the locus of political subjection lies outside the institutional matrix of the state, unfolding as a process that envelops vernacular social formations, such as gangs, into itself. Secondly, it repositions the category of the gang as an emergent as a generalized social form that conserves order, not just in Lyari in particular but in urban conditions across the world. Finally, it sutures the objective and productive dimensions of violence to its subjective and destructive dimensions by placing the violence of ‘ordering’ and ‘policing’ on a conceptual continuum with the violence of putatively disorderly and criminological subjects.