AAG 2015 CFP: Development as improvisation? Exploring the significance of improvisation in contemporary development contexts

Development as improvisation?
Exploring the significance of improvisation in contemporary development contexts

Call for Papers, AAG 2015, Chicago April 21 – 25

Organisers: Ankit Kumar (Durham University) and Jonathan Balls (Oxford University)

Idea behind the session

Li (2005: 389) argues that “practical knowledge… is at work everywhere, at all times. It is not concentrated in remote rural areas, and it is not associated with the past or "tradition." The knowledge a person needs to negotiate the bureaucracy or find a moment's peace on an assembly line, a factory farm, or in a prison is just as localized, often collective, transmitted informally, and continuously revised”. This is how development programmes, their targets and technologies are often de-shaped and re-shaped by various peoples in ways not imagined or intended by those designing. This is the improvisation of development.

Solar lantern improvised to charge mobile phones (Photo: Ankit Kumar)
In many contemporary situations we can see improvisation at play. In a village in Bihar, an eastern state of India, a solar lantern designed and distributed to bring light is hacked into to charge mobile phones. In another village in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, locally manufactured parts are soldered together with low quality solar panels imported from China to assemble cheap solar home systems, more popular than costly government promoted solar panels. Improvisation helps Indian private news channels to create space for themselves in a state dominated news landscape, but also democratises news channels, giving opportunities to those previously considered below the “minimum requirements of higher education and even literacy” (Roy 2011: 767). In a diamond-cutting factory in Karnataka, south India, the workings of the factory and its spaces are continuously re-shaped by improvisations and alternative dreams of planners, managers and workers (Cross, 2014). 

locally improvised solar home systems (Photo: Jonathan Balls)
Improvisation is carried out in everyday life, encompassing social, political and material actions (Young & Jeffrey 2012; Jeffrey & Young 2014). It “emerges not necessarily as a sudden change, but as a creative recasting of relations from everyday dwelling” (McFarlane 2011: 9). Such actions are often in the context of economic precariousness, or deployed as strategies within challenging development or economic contexts. Improvisations are often celebrated as “people’s economy” and “economies of entrepreneurship”, or as expressions of "dynamic informality" (Roy, 2011, 2014). In urban informal settlements, in complex and provisional environments, improvisation is again at play (Vasudevan, 2014). In India, shrewd improvisation is expressed in the idea of jugaad. In Zimbabwe, Jones (2010) argues that during recent economic crisis youth entrepreneurs responded through a new language of capitalist endeavor and creative improvisation; described by the term kukiya kiya, this action spoke of making do, of seizing the moment, and of hustle. Other idioms of entrepreneurship and improvisation might include "jeitinho" in Brazil (Duarte, 2006), "dregging" in Sierra Leone (Hoffman, 2008), or the French concept of "bricolage" (Le ́vi-Strauss 1962).

Improvisation is contextual, local, often informal and to be transmitted informally. However, improvisation is not just about poorer people, it is as much about “elite informalities” (Roy 2011). They can often involve systemic risk(s) and disruptive innovation(s), a sign of resources being stretched too far (Birtchnell 2011). Improvisations are also non-egalitarian, with those who have the “feel for the game” often better at it (Jeffrey & Young 2014: 189). This may be because improvisations are often based on Scott's (1998: 334) metis – knowledges that are local and contingent – but “not democratically distributed”.

Questions that the session would explore (inter alia):
1.       What are the conceptual/theoretical tools that could help us unpack ‘improvisation’?
2.       How does improvisation reflect action(s) brought about within contemporary development and economic situations?
3.       Is improvisation always local in scale, to particular places, and of the moment? Or can a wider story of improvisation be told? 
4.       What issues of power and politics does improvisation open up?
5.       Is improvisation too malleable a term, too vague to be of much conceptual use?
6.       What other empirical accounts could be found that explore improvisation 'at play', and its significance.

Submission Procedure:

Please send abstracts (max 250 words) and contact details to Ankit Kumar (ankit.kumar@durham.ac.uk) or Jonathan Balls (jonathan.balls@sjc.ox.ac.uk) by 31th October 2014. We will notify contributors of acceptance shortly after. Participants will be expected to register, submit their abstracts online at the AAG website and send us their PIN by October 3rd of November 2014, ahead of the session proposal deadline of 5th November 2014. Please note a range of registration fees will apply and must be paid before the submission of abstracts. For general information on the conference: http://www.aag.org/annualmeeting

Birtchnell, T., 2011. Jugaad as systemic risk and disruptive innovation in India. Contemporary South Asia, (June 2013), pp.37–41. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09584935.2011.569702
Duarte, F., 2006. A double-edged sword: The "jeitinho" as an ambiguous concept in the Brazilian imaginary. International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 1 (1):125-31
Hoffman, D. (2004) The civilian target in Sierra Leone and Liberia: Political power, military strategy, and humanitarianintervention. African Affairs 103:211-26
Jeffrey, C. & Young, S., 2014. Jugād: Youth and Enterprise in India. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104(1), pp.182–195. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00045608.2013.847757
Jones, J., 2010. "Nothing is straight in Zimbabwe": The rise of the Kukiya-kiya economy 2000-2008. Jounral of Southern African Studies 36 (2): 285-99
Li, T.M., 2005. Beyond “the state” and failed schemes. American anthropologist, 107(3), pp.383–394. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aa.2005.107.3.383/full
McFarlane, C., 2011. Learning the City: Knowledge and Translocal Assemblage, Oxford: John Wiley & Sons. Available at: http://books.google.com/books?id=p6g-r6gC23AC&pgis=1
Roy, A., 2011. The Agonism of Utopia: Dialectics at a Standstill. Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, 23(1), pp.15–24. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41758880
Roy, A., 2011a. Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35(2), pp.223–238. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/j.1468-2427.2011.01051.x 
Roy, A., 2014. Slum-free cities of the Asian century: Postcolonial government and the project of inclusive growth. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 35(1), pp.136–150. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/sjtg.12047
Roy, S., 2011. Television news and democratic change in India. Media, Culture & Society, 33(5), pp.761–777. Available at: http://mcs.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/0163443711404467
Scott, J., 1998. Seeing like a state, New Haven and London. Available at: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_social_history/v033/33.4adas.html
Vasudevan, A., 2014. The Makeshift City: Towards a global geography of squatting. Progress in Human Geography
Young, S. & Jeffrey, C., 2012. Making Ends Meet. Young Enterprise at the Rural-Urban Intersections. Economic and Political Weekly, xlviI(30), pp.45–51


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