Airoots Interviews Arjun Appadurai

September 21, 2008

Arjun Appadurai is a cultural-anthropologist born in Mumbai and living in New York. He specializes in issues of globalization and urbanism. He is the founder and president of PUKAR, a research collective based in Mumbai. He is the author of many classics on urbanism and globalization including the groundbreaking Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. A detailed biography is available on his website.

This is a short version, the full interview is available here.

Arjun Appadurai and his wife Carol Breckenridge

Airoots: With regard to your essay ‘the production of locality’, how would you present the notions of ‘agency’ and ‘participation’ in the context of urban activism?

Arjun Appadurai: When I wrote that essay (which became part of the book ‘Modernity at Large’ published in 1996) I had in mind the sense that societies, their values and structures – so far portrayed as if they were habitual and unthinking responses – were in fact the result of intention, design and conscious effort against various political and contextual environments and pressures.

The original argument was that large areas of ethnographies of the local were actually descriptions of the labour of the production of locality. In this sense agency, design and effort were important for traditional societies and this effort had relevance to globalization as well.

At that time, I did not articulate the idea of agency as part of the argument. (There did exist a sizable body of work that used agency as a basis of understanding social change). However, if I had to do that now – and it certainly begins with the idea of labour in the context of social survival – the mediating idea would be that of ‘collective agency’ (in the way that theorists like Roy Bhaskar have articulated). In this sense agency should not always be seen as an aggregate of individual choices but as something essentially social or collective.

Thus the production of locality is a symptom of collective agency. However, the qualification to that understanding is that it is not equally distributed and embodies the differences and hierarchies that emerge in collective interaction. But what is important to note is that the product – as a social force – is more than the sum of the intention, wishes and energies of any individual in the group.

Agency implies activity; action rather than mere behaviour. This also suggests that a social dimension is inevitably tied to the project – in the sense that a project is a design, a projection or a vision. In this light, the production of locality can be seen as agency that involves design and vision.

Dharavi, Mumbai 2006

Airoots: What are the problems with the concept of participation?

AA: Words like empowerment and participation can descend into clichés very easily. It is more or less meaningful in alliance with other concepts – like informed citizenship. Thus a participant is significant if he is a more informed participant. However there is something more that has to be factored in. Along with being informed, we have to ask the question if the participant is given a voice. A woman in a movement may be highly informed – but does she have a space to articulate her views and ideas. Does she have a voice? The importance of movements like that of Aruna Roy fighting for the right to information is vital since it affects grassroots movements in a big way. However it is vital because this right to information immediately expresses the idea that the informed citizen has to have a space to be heard as well. Otherwise a highly informed and aware citizen can be silenced even through custom, traditional structures and other mechanisms of control. […]

Airoots: With regard to individual and collective control – when does collective control start to violate individual freedom?

AA: […] At the grassroots level alienation sets in at two levels: One when your voice is not heard and second when you are forced to go along even when you don’t want to. My own experience comes from my observation of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, SPARC and other groups.

My discovery (or rediscovery) is that individuals do count – and that individual freedom and dissidence is an integral part of the way in which these organizations function. However there is something more than just looking at these spaces as places of control and dissent. These are also spaces which function on long-term friendships. And friendships is between individuals. You cannot take that out of the equation. There are long term friendships in which other friendships are connected – a network of friendships in which trust forms as the basic foundation of these networks. […]

Kids in Dharavi, 2006

Airoots: Don’t most grassroots/ community groups rely on the charisma of individual leaders rather than on any type of a democratic process?

AA: Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of charisma. But to refer to the success of a movement through short-hand representations of leadership as being charismatic does not do adequate justice to what happens in many movements. It distracts from the fact that overtime the relationship between leaders and participants evolves into an interactive space. Overtime networks emerge and these are not built through the charisma of a single individual but an interactive charisma – a shared aura or what Weber called collective charisma (in the context of caste). Even Weber used the concept of charisma in different ways – not just in terms of leadership. […]

Airoots: What is a model of local information production and decision-making that we seem to be moving towards?

AA: Information is different from knowledge – knowledge is processed and placed in an ethical framework. Information is neutral. For knowledge to be of any consequence it needs a space for articulation and traction on public outcomes and debate. There is a tendency to imagine that information by default will change things – but this is not so. Information can exist and still be a harsh picture of exclusion. What we need to do is to put it in the context of knowledge and the space for its articulation. SPARC is constantly trying to bring people on the stage – as many people as possible – so that they can articulate their concerns. The PUKAR Youth Fellowship project, the Neighbourhood project all of them get people to tell their own story in different ways. Telling your story, narrating lives is a very important space within which you have to frame the question of information. The idea of the story, the right to tell your story is an old civilizational resource. Unfortunately when classified as folklore it becomes a top-down phenomenon. But it can and should be expressed in bottom- up ways and most groups and organizations which recognize this allow for such articulation. […]

Mapping the neighborhoods of Dharavi on a large google satellite image with residents at SPARC’s office.

Airoots: what is the potential of new communication technologies to radically transform the way cities get planned and developed?

AA: In a recent talk I made allusions to this. My proposal was that we have tended to think of disempowered and the disfranchised (in the context of cities or otherwise) mostly in terms of the information paradigm. I suggest that we use the imagination paradigm.

Thus for people who have access to the space of this technology, it is important to use this within the spheres you are alluding to – as much through the space of imagination and creativity as through information and knowledge. […]

It is important for all grassroots movements – whether to do with urban spaces or otherwise – to have a robust discussion on issues of information and creativity.
In fact it is vital to tell your story with proper exposure to the new technologies. […]

There is indeed a rich space for information and creativity in the world of urban planning and design by coalescing the worlds of information and imagination, but only when the people – the inhabitants themselves – become creators and a resource.

New York, October 12, 2007.
Full interview available here.


  1. Excelente su trabajo estamos en el agrupamiento de redes de vigias de patrimonio cualquier aporte y de usted es bienvenido gracias interesante su trabajo..
    Cordial saludo

    Comment by Fernando Yances — May 14, 2010 @ 8:29 am

  2. [...] Fotografía de Mathias Echanove publicada en “Mapping the neighborhoods of Dharavi on a large Google satellite image with residents at SPARC’s o…” [...]

    Pingback by Urbanismo emergente: ciudad, tecnología e innovación social /  8.8 CIUDAD S.U.R — July 2, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

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