Experiencing the state: Informality, social inequality, and spatial relations in urban India
City Governance
Oxford OX


The promise of the city as a space for inclusive and dignified future on the one hand and the urban life deeply marked by structural exclusions on the other hand, outline the complexity of the development challenge faced by an increasingly urbanizing India.

This project examines the issues of social inequality and urban challenge in India by focusing on how the citizens located at the spatio-legal margins in the city imagine, access, and experience the state. Taking anthropological sensibilities as its epistemological foundation, this research will analyse urban futures as socially differentiated lived realities in Indian cities. Everyday life and people’s experiences of the state, their political practices, and their socio-material and networked linkages with infrastructures will be the key resource for documenting and examining the making of the urban subjectivities where the question of socially distributed city futures needs to be empirically explored.


The primary field-site for this research will be in Delhi. This is a long-term ethnographic study based on fifteen-months of qualitative fieldwork in the city. This research operationalizes urban inequality by focusing on three inter-related dimensions: migration as rural-urban linkages, informal labour and work, and the social life of hierarchized cultural differences in urban spaces.

How these three dimensions overlap and shape the experiences of the citizens living in the “informal” settlements in Delhi is the main empirical focus of this research. Employing ethnographic interviews and participant observations as central techniques, this study will document the experiences of migrant communities, groups engaged in the informal economy, and marginalized caste groups, residing in informal settlements. More concretely, this project will document how these groups access public services, how they interact with different state officials and other urban actors, and how they make infrastructural claims in the city. This research will also examine how technological innovations and adoptions by the state and the residents shape socio-economic conditions as well as identity formation processes in the city.

In short, taking citizenship practices in informal settlements as the empirical base, this study aims to theorize the state from socio-material experiences of the city’s spatial margins. Research questions:

  1. How do groups occupying the spatio-legal margins in Indian cities imagine their urban futures and how does the state imagine the city’s future? How do groups on the social margins experience the state?

  2. How do we ethnographically conceptualize social inequality in cities with a critical focus on migration, “informal” labour, and cultural identities? How do demands on infrastructure and claims on public services shape citizenship practices?

  3. What does it mean to “see like a city” in Indian cities and how does the city see its new migrant populations and their claims on infrastructure and city resources?