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.

3 thoughts to “RPP 5: Research Puzzle Proposal”

  1. Hey Claudia, I think your discussion on subaltern protests and your articulation of research questions are great! I wonder how you would consider these from both positivist and interpretivist methodologies. You talk about how “it is difficult to group all of the urban poor together”. This reminds me of a reading you may have consulted that I believe I mentioned before, Bayat’s “From ‘Dangerous Classes’ to ‘Quiet Rebels”.[1] He talks about that point in particular and how the very act of protest has a specific meaning and function depending on social context, using the example of informal residents gradually encroaching on and reclaiming public space and “amenities” in the Middle East.[2] Bayat illustrates how protests in this context have a particular meaning, and though not observed directly in the form of what we may understand as formal political assembly, involves seemingly mundane daily actions. He also discusses “prevailing perspectives” on the urban poor or the lumpenproletariat and their role in protest/revolution and how various scholars from Marx to others concerned with class analysis often are complicit in their prejudice towards them.[3] I’m sorry for keeping on “plugging” this reading, I’m just excited how you might approach this problem, especially considering Professor Ranganathan’s own experience on this topic!

    Essentially, how might you look at definitions of protests in different ways, and how do your scholars conceptualize it? How would you operationalize this definition in positivist study; ie: what would you qualify as protest and how would this operationalization both impact what kind of data you are able to capture and the kind that you would omit? Booth nudges us to consider questions similar to this when advising us to “[d]etermine the kinds of evidence your readers will expect…”.[4]

    Additionally, for interpretivist questions which you might think about, what are some context-specific meanings of protest in a particular society and how does that function? The article we read earlier in the semester, Wedeen’s “Acting ‘As If’: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria”, might be a good example to reexamine.[5] Another could be the film we watched in World Politics for the “Gender in IR” week, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell’, where the Liberian women and Leymah Gbowee strip off their clothing not as “self-liberation” per se, but as an act of protest and as an intentional use of their agency as subalterns to twist social norms in their favor.[6] The norms of modesty and her capacity and role as a mother conflict with her deliberate act of protest to strip naked.[7] Her protest was intended to shame the men into resuming and concluding their peace negotiations, which proved successful.[8] To understand this, one must first understand the common cultural “language” of this social setting. If you’re interested in looking into how one can attempt to understand/represent/interpret other “subalterns”, you might want to take a quick look at Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, specifically the sections pertaining to Indian women’s practice of “sati” and how these were misinterpreted and misrepresented by both the British and the male Indian nationalists.[9] Ultimately, your hope to examine how the subaltern/poor/the disenfranchised protest in their own way could be fruitfully examined from either positivist and interpretivist lenses, each providing and requiring different but simultaneously similar forms of data/knowledge. Sorry for rambling on, I just really think you have a really cool topic!

    [1] Bayat, Asef. 2000. “From `Dangerous Classes to `Quiet Rebels.” International Sociology 15 (3): 533–57. doi:10.1177/026858000015003005.
    [2] Ibid.
    [3] Ibid, 536.
    [4] Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup, and William T. Fitzgerald. 2016. In The Craft of Research, 29. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
    [5] Wedeen, Lisa. 1998. “Acting ‘As If’: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 40 (3): 503–23.
    [6] Reticker, Gini, dir. n.d. Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
    [7] Ibid.
    [8] Ibid.
    [9] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1988. Can the Subaltern Speak? Basingstoke: Macmillan.

  2. Claudia — overall your post here provides a good discussion of your proposed research puzzle. Your discussion of secondary sources and scholarly debates to substantiate the puzzle is very good, though I would have also liked some more primary source information that shows in concrete form the puzzle you propose to research. What specific (primary source) data demonstrates the pattern of exclusion that you propose to research? You’ve received some excellent comments and questions from Mohammed here as well, so be sure to keep those ideas in mind as you continue your research.

  3. Hi Claudia. Your topic is super interesting and your research puzzle is very well structured. In reading your post something that is consistently in the back of my mind is how different countries are around the world and how different the experience is of the urban poor. Recognizing the massive disparities, do you think a neo-positivist approach is justified in this field of research? I only ask simply because I feel the urban poor experience in activism and dialogue in the United States is quite different in that of Iran. The reasons for their lack of economic mobility are also due to different reasons. In addition, your third point uses “activism” as a general term. I wonder if this is too general in terms of activism. I know you and I have discussed privately about how activism vs. participating in certain actions that get people their basic needs. But, I feel like there may be different forms of activism that are more inclusive, or easier to attain. Nevertheless, your topic is great and really makes people think about our discourse about communities that are often not represented in conversation.

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