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State Paradoxes and the Politics of Small Things at the Urban Fringes

Talja Blokland, Gabriel Feltran, and Agata Lisiak

Urban scholars’ interest in the everyday is widespread. While we acknowledge the importance of trying to make sense of the everyday in the city, as space is shaped by uneven power geometries (Massey 2012), a guiding question is: what is the actual power emerging from the mundane? The state impacts urban positions and locations in paradoxical way: encouraging through beneficial social policy interventions and the provision of public services, constraining through regulating behaviour in public space, and criminalizing certain forms of action or restricting access to institutions or places through categorical boundaries. States may reduce and sustain inequalities, or even produce new inequalities when trying to fix pre-existing ones. States hence contribute to an unequal landscape of institutions as they provide different areas with different amenities. Not just groups, but also classed, gendered and raced spaces – often discussed as embodied ‘neighbourhood effects’ – matter to inequalities. From various angles, different scholars from the Global North and South have suggested that institutions matter most for how neighbourhood effects (the spatial advantages or disadvantages of a match of position and location) come about. Urbanites may or may not have power to influence the possibilities and constraints of state interventions.

The state acts more precisely, and strongly, in the positions and locations where things are not considered to be under control. Thus, as many scholars have recently pointed out, it is critical too look at and from peripheries, boundaries and margins of the state in order to understand the core of state-building. The dominant representation of those fringe positions – spaces and populations – is based on a presupposition that they are “excluded,” isolated from social life and politics. The “excluded” are seen as people who have lost their relations with the legitimate social spheres such as work, family, religion, law, social protection, dignity. But the more we do our fieldwork, the more is evident that they have relations in all of these realms and that is no "absence of state" in their lives; on the contrary: agents need to define their spaces of maneuver through mundane practices within the context of the state – they, too, through the ‘politics of small things’ (Goldfarb 2006), create power.

The stream welcomes empirical or theoretical papers addressed to understand the paradoxical need of the state to map, count and categorize spaces, positions and groups on its fringes on the one hand and the politics of small things in which agents carve out space to get things done and develop positions of power, on the other.