BSRS Module 5: Urban encounters and comparative epistemologies (Yasmeen Arif)

Introduction video:

Main objective

This module will have two parts. The first part will address how an urban ‘catastrophe’ be framed sociologically – the illustration will be drawn from two distinct types of urban catastrophes in two different cities. Second, why is it necessary to think of a comparative lens on understanding urban questions of justice – especially when our focus is on the social? How do we understand a comparative method as a politics of epistemology? How do we relate particular content to universal concept? (The Arif authored texts relate to these questions directly.)

The second part will move to an exercise based on the above where the focus will be on the question of air in cities. How can air be thought of sociologically or anthropologically? How does it lend itself to representation and analysis? How can we use our ‘method’ of comparison to come to an understanding of how air in cities responds to a politics of epistemology? How does a local context connect to a global concept?

Moving ahead through our anthropological and sociological perspectives and methodology and adding artistic and locational representations, we will lead towards a workshop that will attempt a contemporary exploration of “Air in my City”. One of the  questions that will influence our discussion is:  how has the current pandemic influenced our experience of air in cities. The current circumstances surrounding the world-wide pandemic has seen a sudden and astounding fall in city air-pollution levels, considered to be connected to the lockdown in most of the world. This is linked to an almost complete cessation of air travel and ground traffic as well as many other activities. Many cities around the world are experiencing air in ways considered unprecedented in many decades.  How does this ‘new’ experience of air pollution impact the discussion of sustainable cities and pollution?


Arif, Y. (2015). The audacity of method. Economic & Political Weekly, 50(1), 53- 61. 

Arif,Y. (Unpublished manuscript). Catastrophe –Afterlife: Constituting Life at the Threshold.  (Links to an external site.)

Choy, T. (2012). Air’s substantiations. In (ed. K. S. Rajan) Lively capital: Biotechnologies, ethics, and governance in global markets: 121-152. Duke University Press. (course version)

Ghertner, D. A. (2020). Airpocalypse: Distributions of Life amidst Delhi’s Polluted Airs. Public Culture, 32(1), 133- 162. 

Zee, J. (2014). Breathing in the City: Beijing and the Architecture of Air. Scapegoat 8, 46 – 56.





Using the essays related to “Air in the city” as an approach and a perspective, participants are encouraged to show and speak about very short audio-visual representations of air-pollution – pandemic related material sourced from different urban locations around the world.


Materials for discussion

Pollution pods 1:

Pollution pods 2:

Discussion prompts

  • Does comparison across cities and their located urban issues in help us understand a politics of epistemology?
  • How do we think about local issues and the notions of universal justice?
  • How can sociological and anthropological approaches help your work and research, for example, ethnographic work in understanding sustainability in cities?
  • How do you feel that the pandemic might have an influence on thinking about the urban and its sustainable futures?

Class Discussion: 

Written response from WG 1 (Lucas Barning, Sara Dehghani, Esraa ElMitainy, Shravanth Visisht, Agnieszka Kuras)

Throughout the last days, we (WG1) had the impression, the discussions in class centred around the insight that the examination of a local context is a key for understanding and constructing policies for climate and energy transition. In our view, the singular focus on the particular, however, also runs risk to essentialise a local situation and therefore to lose the possibility to compare and relate between different urban situations. This comparison we deem necessary in order to understand the complex global interlinkages and to aspire for shared goals.  In this sense, we were happy to discuss the issue of comparability today even with a rather post-modern perspective.

The visual/artistic example today (the “Pollution Pods”) elucidated how various situations of air pollution can be related to another (abstracting them to smells of compositions of combusted material that relate to specific cities). This comparison certainly serves well for individual insights into the issue of air-pollution, but on the other hand reduces the complexity drastically.  We discussed that the different representations of air-pollution exhibited a quite similar reading of the problem in different cities: material gets combusted. However, in our view, this accounts only to a very specific epistemology and therefore obfuscates a number of other readings (such as economic dimensions, behavioural pattern, cultural practices etc.). A more complex account to comparability is therefore necessary in order to understand the interplay of universal similarities and local particularities.

This distinction between universal and particular also touches the discussion of justice. As ideas of justice are also to a degree dependent on social context (e.g. cultural, religious, economic, educational etc.) they can be contradictory to universal notions of justice (such as the human rights). As simple example for this – in relation to air pollution – we thought about the use of old, emission intense motorized vehicles that around the world many people depend on. Banning these engines for the rather universal aim of climate protection will probably prove unjust for a particular social context (people that cannot afford newer vehicles).

In order to approximate local context of air-pollution, such as the above, ethnographic methods seem highly relevant as they are particularly sensitive for the small-scale interaction between people and their environment. This embedding is furthermore theorised in the disciplines of sociology (with a slight focus on a over-individual sphere) and anthropology (with a slight focus on the individual/the body), which offer well developed toolsets.

Lastly, we talked about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on aspirations towards sustainability transformation in the light of previous in-class discussion. We stumbled particularly over the narrative of the “densification of urban form” for sustainability (e.g. as one of the core principle in Robert Muggah’s TED-Talk, Class 1), which gets challenged by the physical reality of infectious spreading in overly dense building conditions (inside/outside). Therefore, we understand this dychotomy, between urban sprawl and densification, as particular epistemology that is worth examining in the local and temporal context.


Yasmeen Arif is an associate professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, and has worked in numerous countries. Her current writing is about a bio-political critique of identity politics. Other research areas include humanitarianisms, science and technology studies, money, visual and material cultures, theory, philosophy and epistemology in social anthropology and sociology. She has worked on post-war recovery in Beirut, Lebanon, and has an interest in the politics of life across multiple global conditions of mass violence. An upcoming manuscript features her work on cities.