Nikhil Anand, Ph.D. 2011
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, The University of Pennsylvania
Tell us about yourself and your work.
I completed my Ph.D. in Anthropology at Stanford. As an ethnographer, I examine how natural resources and political institutions are mobilized to produce and manage urban life. Focusing on the life of different kinds of water in cities, I theorize urban and environmental processes with water not only because it is a vital resource necessary to live with, but also because it provides a unique lens to understand space and politics.
Anthropology, like other social sciences, has a “predilection for solids” in generating its key concepts (McLean 2011). As such, it privileges territorial and terrestrial understandings of social and political life. I focus on water to attend to the more fickle, fluid, and dynamic processes with which worlds are made. My work integrates the studies of human-environment relations together with the studies of urban processes in India.
For my dissertation at Stanford, I studied the social life of water flowing out of the pipes of Mumbai’s water department. How do residents, who don’t have substantive rights to water, make claims on this vital resource? Why do they strongly defend the same public distribution system that marginalizes them in everyday life? To answer these questions, I conducted 18 continuous months of field research and spent several summers in Mumbai with engineers, slum dwellers, and the many mediators of Mumbai’s vast water network (such as politicians, social workers and plumbers). I learned the different ways in which Mumbai’s marginalized mobilized both technical and political “pressure” to draw water from city pipes in order to sustain their lives in the city. My research resulted in my first book, Hydraulic City: Water and Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai (Duke University Press 2017), which received the 2018 Best Book Award from Urban Affairs Association.
What are you working on right now?
During my graduate education at Stanford, I became interested in the power of infrastructures to manage and maintain social life. Infrastructures are simultaneously technical and political forms that are key locations to examine how political claims and distributive regimes are made, managed and contested. They are also vital sites to examine our hopes and expectations of the future. Over the last four years, I have worked with Hannah Appel, Akhil Gupta, and other wonderful scholars to examine the temporalities, politics and promise of infrastructures. Our co-edited volume, The Promise of Infrastructure, was published this past summer by Duke University Press (2018).
I have just launched a new research project that focuses on the ways in which urban rivers and seas are key sites for the making and management of social difference both in the U.S. and India. I am currently conducting fieldwork in Mumbai to explore the new imaginaries and practices of planners, fishers, and scientists working in the climate changed seas of Mumbai.
How did you draw on South Asia resources during your time at Stanford?
The Center for South Asia was constituted in the last year of my PhD at Stanford. Prior to this, there was a wonderful Stanford Humanities Center workshop, Interrogating Modernity and Postcoloniality, that was an intellectual home for many South Asia Studies scholars. Led by Akhil Gupta and Purnima Mankekar, the workshop ran for many years, bringing some stellar scholars and conversations home to campus. It was a wonderfully intensive and vital space for many of us prior to the Center’s formation.
If you were to give a piece of advice to CSA students, what would that be?
Stanford students are most fortunate to now have a dedicated center for all things South Asia. CSA is an important space for fostering cross-disciplinary conversations about the region, its histories, politics and futures. It is also a space that students, faculty, and staff make together. It is such a privilege to be at Stanford, where so much is possible. I’d suggest to make full use of the Center to do what they need the space and support to do as graduate students.