Research

Cities occupy only 2% of the world’s surface but hold half of the world’s population. Estimates suggest that by 2050, over 75% of the world’s population will live in cities. In a sobering development, three of every four incidents of terrorism and four of every five terror-connected casualties now happen in cities. Both the rise in population and incidents of violence has led to increased scholarly attention on cities and the nature of urban security. Such studies presume that the city is an object of security, or a site on which the national state imposes its security mandate. Less attention has been paid to the experience of security in cities, where different structures, logics, and histories come into play. Few examine security as a productive process at work, one that is concerned with how people live, and not just how they might die.

In my dissertation, I ask: What does security mean as a ‘lived’ process in cities? What are the effects of security practices on urban life, and consequently, on how urban inhabitants understand ‘security’? Through an ethnographic study of Mumbai, Istanbul, and New York, I show that the practices of security in cities found in everyday experience enable us to understand how contemporary urban threats are imagined, how order is generated and maintained, and how local fears, violences, and histories are inscribed into the global. The purpose of my study is to reframe our object of analysis, to ask: How do these practices and understandings condition populations? How do we study security when it is employed as the ultimate justification? What logics shape the terrain of practices and engagement, when our focus is not on ‘national security’, but on security as an ordinary activity carried out by ordinary individuals, even if under the banner of national security?

Through this research, I problematize forms of security that are too easily designated as militarized and the technical responsibility of the national state, and uncover both state and non-state (public, private, legal, illegal, and non-legal) spaces of violence that are created through the socially pervasive felt ‘necessity’ of providing security in cities. I focus on the cities of Mumbai, Istanbul, and New York- all three are financial and cultural centers, with diverse populations, and have experienced different kinds of violence, resulting in a comparative range of security practices. Being differently located in the putative North and South, this choice of cities sidesteps a tendency in scholarship to isolate developments in one from the other, or to situate them in a hierarchical relationship. Further, by studying cities that are not already marked as ‘fragile’, ‘failed’, ‘conflict-torn’, my research highlights developments in urban security that exist as normalized as opposed to ones that are deemed exceptional.

My dissertation is primarily based on 22 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Mumbai, Istanbul, and New York. I studied checkpoint practices, defensive architecture and infrastructure, and other objects embodying a security environment. This involved studying security materialities – walking through door-frame-metal-detectors; having one’s personal belongings x-rayed and scrutinized; being subjected to personal body searches; being continuously surveilled by CCTV cameras; being exposed to posters, audio announcements, and televisual displays, encouraging one to be constantly on the alert for signs of ‘danger’/’trouble’ – in financial districts, transport terminals, malls and marketplaces, government buildings, popular thoroughfares. In conjunction, I studied – through observation and informal conversations– the lived experience of urban inhabitants who interact, interpret, understand, adapt, and consent to mundane and extraordinary practices, understood as security, to make sense of the world they live in through their experience. I am attentive to the fact that scholarly attention on security in these cities is ‘event’ and ‘law’ -oriented, focusing on signal acts of violence, and legislation that was passed in response to said acts. Accordingly, I juxtapose my ethnographic study against a discourse analysis of such laws – the 2008 Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (India), the 2018 Anti-Terror Law (Turkey), and the 2001 USA PATROIT Act. By tracing the material objects of security, as well as the logistics and experiences of their distribution, and putting those conversations in context with the law, I want to bring out how a vision of urban security that is ‘event’ and ‘law’ -oriented reifies an idea of what security ‘ought’ to be, but neglects the mechanisms through which security gets enacted, and how they have a transformative effect on cities.

Conference presentations (selected)

“Securing the city: Theorizing everyday practices in Mumbai,” presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association-Northeast, Baltimore, November 2-3, 2018

“What we talk about when we talk about security,” presented at the Annual Meeting of the Western Political Science Association, San Francisco, March 29-31, 2018

“The Normalization of Security: Fanon, Foucault, and the Colonial Order of Things,” presented at the 58th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, Baltimore, February 22-25, 2017

“Beyond Precarity: Vulnerability, Relationality, and the Challenge of Disordering Society,” presented at the 57th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, Atlanta, March 16-19, 2016

“Terror(ized) Mumbai: Sovereignty, (In)security, and Affect in a Postcolonial City,” presented at the 56th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, New Orleans, February 18-21, 2015

“War Against the People: Military Strategy and the Repoliticization of War,” presented at the 55th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, Toronto (ON), March 26-29, 2014