The Country and the City: For a Poetics of Informal Economies in Contemporary India

Collaborative Group

Professor Vinay Gidwani, Professor Priti Ramamurthy


Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies; South Asian Studies


A key insight of recent social science scholarship on India is the severe shortage of formal sector employment, compelling 90 percent of India’s workforce to find uncertain livelihoods in an assortment of rural and urban informal sector work. These men and women work in construction, street vending, petty retail, transportation, waste picking, sex work, and domestic service labor, to name but a few venues. While the employment challenge that confronts countries like India with its vast youth demographic is humbling, the existing scholarship in fields like labor studies, urban geography, rural sociology, and feminist studies has been resolutely economistic. With few exceptions, it has had little to say on the experiences, life-making activities (poïesis), and desires of the men and women, many from historically subordinated caste groups, who toil in India’s cities even as they remain enmeshed with ongoing lives in their villages. This collaboration between geographer Vinay Gidwani and Priti Ramamurthy, a gender, women, and sexuality studies scholar, will explore the evolving entanglements of the country and the city through the life-worlds of poor urban migrants, bringing humanistic insights to current political economy scholarship through ethnographic methods, including oral history, mental mapping, and participant observation. The products of the collaboration will be a co-authored book as well as a digital public archive of anonymized oral histories and mental collages that can aid the advocacy efforts of civil society groups fighting for the rights of informal sector workers in India. Award period: September 1, 2015 through August 31, 2017