RPP 5: Research Puzzle Proposal


  1. I am proposing to research the urban poor’s place in activism.


  1. This is because I want to find out why the urban poor are excluded from working- and middle-class discourses about urban inequality and activism.


  1. In order to help my reader understand how the urban lower-class, working-class, and middle-class engage in activism and why they often operate separately, despite having similar goals and opposition.[1]


In conversation about insurgence and activism in urban spaces, marginalized and impoverished groups are often at the forefront of discussion. Their place in activism is highlighted as the urban poor has often been observed as much more likely to participate in “problem-solving actions.”[2]These groups’ activism is driven by “economic deprivation and uncertain livelihoods,” and is necessary for working towards their own survival.[3]Corruption and discrimination executed by the rich and power have continually increased income inequality, and therefore forced the urban subaltern into a vulnerable states of lacking housing, food, safety, and other basic needs.[4]


Nevertheless, when considering Global South cities where those in poverty make up significant amounts of the population, it is difficult to group all of the urban poor together. There exists the urban subaltern, those who are dwell in slums and survive from informal labor, as well as what John Harriss refers to as the working class, who live in poverty, but not to the extent of the subaltern.[5]Additionally, there is a middle class presence who represent those who are better off than most, but do not possess the majority of the nation’s wealth. All three of these groups, to different extents, experience the repercussions of corruption and discrimination from the rich and powerful, exhibiting something of a common opposition. Yet, these groups have time after time been unable to truly unite over an issue. Instead, the differences between them cause exclusion from their discourses; most commonly, the urban poor classes are excluded from middle-class efforts to make change. When there is access to mobilizing the majority of the population on a common cause, why do these classes still choose their differences, and lessen their strength?


This exclusion has been commented on greatly by scholars within urban studies. However, their beliefs for these gaps differ. Ruchi Chaturvedi wrote extensively regarding the separation of what he refers to as the urban “underclass,” or subaltern, from the “informal proletariat,” or urban poor as a whole.[6]He attributes the exclusion of the underclass to their character as activists; due to their “alienation from the state,” they are more likely to use louder, more destructive, and more illegal methods to convey their message.[7]The following picture of Nigerian artist, Jelili Atiku, protesting during the 2012 Occupy Nigeria movement emphasizes this point; he marches with many signs attached to him reading different cries for help while bystanders take pictures with their cell phones.[8]

Other scholars argue that exclusion arises from more deep-rooted, psychological reasoning, often connected to postcolonial effects. Peter Marris examined the subaltern reaction to slum clearance efforts in Lagos in 1958 and 1959, in which working- and middle-class Nigerians struggled to understand why clearing slums, which are “amongst the most obtrusive of social evils,” was devastating for the Lagos subaltern.[9]The difference laid in social values; the subaltern valued family and community above all, and the destruction of the slums divided their close-knit communities with distance.[10]In constrast, Dick Hoerder’s autobiographical article regarding intimate subalternism reflects on the effects of internalized classism, suggesting counterintuitive exclusivity is a result of perpetuating such classism.[11]

General Question:

Why are the urban poor excluded from middle-class discourses about activism and inequality?

Case-Specific Question:

Why, despite a unified presence in the petrol strike, was Lagos’ urban poor ultimately excluded from middle-class discourses about inequality in the 2012 Occupy Nigeria protest?


[1]Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup, and William T. Fitzgerald, The Craft of Research(4thed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 54.

[2]John Harriss. “Middle-Class Activism and the Politics of the Informal Working Class: A Perspective on Class Relations and Civil Society in Indian Cities,” Critical Asian Studies, Vol 38, Issue 4, 451.

[3]Ruchi Chaturvedi. “Agentive Capacities, Democratic Possibilities, and the Urban Poor: Rethinking Recent Popular Protests in West Africa,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 29, no. 3, 315.

[4]Ananya Roy. “Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35, no. 2, 223.

[5]Harriss, 446.

[6]Chaturvedi, 315.

[7]Ibid, 315.

[8]Tajudeen Busari. “Nigerian Fetish,” January, 2012.

[9]Peter Marris. “Slum Clearance and Family Life in Lagos,” Human Organization19, no. 3, 123.

[10]Ibid, 124 -125.

[11]Dirk, Hoerder. “How the Intimate Lives of Subaltern Men, Women, and Children Confound the Nation’s Master Narratives,” Journal of American History88, no. 3, 875.

RPP 3: Philosophical Wagers

Ontology and methodology are schools of thought that explain different philosophies of science. Ontology covers a larger image of how we view the social world and how we believe it inherently functions. Namely, objectivists believe the social world exists apart from humans, and has stable qualities, in comparison to constructivists, who believe the social world is constructed by humans, and cannot be traced through patterns or predicted. Methodology, on the other hand, explains the reasoning behind choosing specific methods to complete research on something. Methodology and ontology reflect each other, and their philosophies must align. For example, if a person agrees with the constructivist ontology of believing that humans are agents within the social world, they will also use methodologies that reflect that belief. Therefore, the methods they choose with their methodology will search for explanations of specific instances, such as ethnographies or discourse analyses, because the researcher does not believe in stable patterns or prediction.

I don’t believe that humans can ever truly objectively observe our social world. Empirical data has little meaning until it is interpreted, and our interpretations will always be swayed by our experiences and biases.  Reading Lisa Wedeen’s “Acting ‘As If’: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria,” a great example of constructivist research, forced me to think about this impact.[1]Wedeen analyzes symbolic social behavior in an oppressive Syrian regime up close, as an Arabic speaker but still a foreigner.[2]This experience sets her understanding of Syrian symbolic interactions apart from those who do not speak Arabic and have never lived within Syrian culture, but her perception is still limited compared to native Syrians. These factors are important to shaping the depth of understanding, and therefore, there is no universal and objective understanding of the “M’s” story that Wedeen shares.[3]My belief in impossible objectivity causes me to lean towards interpretivist perspectives, and I need to stay aware that I don’t ignore the potential in neo-positivist research methodologies as I look into my topic further.

One can most easily make valid knowledge claims about physical things, feelings, and interactions because these are observations that can be relayed exactly as they are and without interpretation. Valid knowledge claims can be made about more complex things, such as invisible structures and social norms, but these must be supported by simpler knowledge claims and data.

[1]Lisa Wedeen. “Acting ‘As If’: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, no. 3 (July.,1998), 503-523.



RPP 2: Mentor Meeting

My mentor, Dr. Malini Ranganathan, and I were able to meet Wednesday, September 11, at 10:30 am. We met for about 20 minutes. Over the course of this meeting, we discussed preliminary research regarding urban studies and critical urban geography. Unfortunately, urban studies is a topic that for me has been fueled merely by personal interest and inquiry, and I have not had the opportunity to engage in extended academic conversation or take critical classes in the field. Therefore, Dr. Ranganathan and I discussed a framework of reading in which I can set a comprehensive academic foundation in critical urban studies for myself.

We did identify particular interest areas that I currently intend on pursuing in my research. I am intrigued by postcolonial lenses on urban areas within the Global South. My interest in urban areas as a whole is spurred by observations that I made as a child when I was exposed to several cities which my family called home: London, Berlin, and Cleveland. I vividly remember noticing the close existence of diversity and inequality in each of these cities, sometimes only a street apart. When I looked into the Global South, I saw many photos of slums on the literal doorstep of million dollar houses. The compression of this inequality seemed to be magnified in these cities. This initial fascination is a thought I will keep in mind while looking into other academic sources.

We also decided to move away from terms regarding urban “success,” as it can be problematic. Instead, I intend for my future questions to focus on specific concepts that I may have previously confused as “success.” My next steps will be indulging in all of the literature that Dr. Ranganathan and I discussed, and deciding my future focus based on that.

RPP 1: Research Interests

Broadly, my research interests intersect urban planning and critical urban geography with international development. The success and growth of developing countries often relies on the emergence of a major city. These cities provide economic hubs, a direct and centralized connection to other international visitors, and a birthplace for both social norms and diversity. Since the growth of cities in developing countries is so important, I want to pose a question: What urban planning strategies build successful cities in developing countries?

This question could take the form of many different lenses. What urban planning strategies build successful urban economics? Which strategies build successful social urban atmospheres? Which strategies build successful sustainable urban practices? Will these strategies ever overlap, and could they even coexist? This last question presents the first of many large puzzles I mean to research. To add onto this, how can “success” even be defined?

My interest in the complexity of city planning was sparked last semester while taking a writing course focusing on architecture criticism and urban planning literature. My view on urban spaces was revolutionized after reading Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In the final chapter of the book, she discusses why cities are so complex; cities do not “exhibit one problem in organized complexity, which, if understood explains all.”[1]Additionally, she added that strategies which work in one city may often be unsuccessful in another due to the individuality of each urban culture. The complexity she describes has only further peaked my interest in the semantics of urban space.

As for thoughts about how this research will be conducted, I am considering my options for choosing a specific lens to answer my essential question from. I also would love to delve into case studies considering the individuality of each city.

[1]Jacobs, Jane. The Death And Life Of Great American Cities. New York : Vintage Books, 1992. Print.