Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015, 273 pp.
Reviewed by Kristin Skrabut
In this fine-grained and theoretically embedded ethnography, medical anthropologist Claire Snell-Rood delivers a detailed portrait of women’s efforts to endure the harsh realities of Delhi’s slums, while simultaneously cultivating resilient, and largely independent, moral-selves. Drawing on fourteen-months of intensive ethnographic research with ten families, Snell-Rood provides critical counterpoints to conventional narratives of female slum-dwellers as disempowered victims by privileging women’s own interpretations of their relationships and experiences. From this vantage: women’s decisions to remain in abusive relationships and sacrifice themselves to care for ungrateful relatives are recast as affirmations of moral identities (chapter 1); petty neighborhood gossip and reluctance to organize politically are revealed as tactics of self-preservation (chapter 2); acquiescence to neighborhood demolition signals claims to a radical “moral citizenship” that exists independently of politics (chapter 3); and homogenous and insalubrious slums become sites of differentiation and self-making, where women’s efforts to create healthy “microenvironments” evidence their dual moral capacities to accept their fates while simultaneously transforming themselves (chapter 4). Although understanding women’s health behaviors clearly motivated this research, health largely remains in the background of Snell-Rood’s analysis, emerging only periodically to remind readers of what is at stake in these intricate relational dynamics. Instead, questions of kinship, relational selfhood, and religious asceticism come to the fore, placing this ethnography alongside work by scholars like Veena Das and Clara Han in its efforts to scrutinize dialectics of care and violence, and the quotidian ways political agency is realized through people’s intimate lives.
In the tradition of feminist ethnography, Snell-Rood is present throughout the text.
The book unfolds as she – at times admittedly naïve and bumbling – struggles to suspend theoretical lenses of structural violence and collective resistance to better appreciate the complex relational topographies that preoccupy her interlocutors. As she becomes aware of the political and socio-moral implications of who she “sits with,” confronts her interlocutors’ interpretations of her research motives and romantic relationships, and encounters rumors and widespread suspicions, Snell-Rood discovers that women depend on one another, but are not necessarily intimates. Instead, they maintain family secrets, manipulate their self-presentations in accordance with their circumstances, and cast doubt on the moral claims of others in an effort to command respect and maintain interpretive control in a context where their identities are over-determined by residential stigma and dangerous social divisions. At the same time, Snell-Rood offers herself as a foil for women’s claims, occasionally challenging the notion that these relational and interpretive tactics are expressions of agency. She is troubled by women’s wasting bodies, frustrated by their unwillingness to organize, and critical of religious and moral frameworks that encourage women to accept their circumstances rather than demanding better. Thus, in addition to illuminating women’s emic interpretations, Snell-Rood’s ethnographic interactions and reflections highlight the contours of current disciplinary debates within anthropology.
The juxtaposition of these two framings is perhaps the most intriguing and controversial aspect of the text. On the one hand, Snell-Rood places literature on intolerable structural violence and strategies of endurance and cultivating moral-selves side-by-side, tacitly raising important questions about what is “really” going on here. However, she vacillates between these frameworks rather than synthesizing or reconciling them. The introduction is dominated by discussions of structural violence, survival struggles, and uncritical explanations of policies that promote women’s education and empowerment. Yet after page 30, the book shifts to privilege women’s own interpretations, without much explanation of how these frameworks might intertwine. Likewise, the text conspicuously, if somewhat refreshingly, ignores how women’s framings align with neoliberal subjectivities in favor of a focus on Hindu ascetic tradition and the historically evident self-determination of the urban poor. While some readers may be disappointed by the lack of a more integrated theoretical lens, this double framing may be especially useful for debating and negotiating policy and provides intriguing fodder for scholarly discussion.
For gender and urban studies scholars, the book provides an intricate analysis of women’s self-making through both worldly and otherworldly relations and compellingly links the health and environmental hazards of slums to both global inequalities and women’s intimate aspirations. For educators, the book will prove useful as an example of feminist ethnography for upper-level courses on research methods (Introduction, chapters 1 & 2), and will likely elicit complex and spirited reactions from students in upper-level courses on urban poverty and slum ecologies (chapters 3 & 4). The book’s conclusion also offers important lessons for applied anthropologists and provides a stellar example of how embedded ethnography can be used to construct informed policies that are sensitive to local particularities and capable of generating more socially-just conditions.
Kristin Skrabut is a sociocultural anthropologist and lecturer of Social Studies at Harvard University. Her research explores the intersections of poverty, statecraft, and intimacy in urban Latin America.