We have reached the end of the academic year. What will you be working on over the summer?
I’ve just finished teaching an LSE Summer School course, An Urbanising World, together with my colleague Hyun Shin. We had a lot of fun, thanks to a great group of students, and I came away newly energised about my summer research plans.
Having just finished a long-term project on security, risk, and political life in Bogotá, Colombia, I’m starting to think ahead to what comes next. To help get the ideas flowing, I’ll be spending a good month or so making my way through a stack of new and exciting books, which have been impatiently winking at me from my bookshelf. I’ll be reviewing a couple of them, but for the most part I want to immerse myself in the latest stuff coming out of geography, anthropology, Latin American history, and urban studies.
I’ll also be reading everything I can find on Colombia’s most prominent and storied river, the Río Magdalena. As many will already know, a negotiated peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC is on the horizon, and the country is anxiously anticipating the end of one of the world’s longest running armed conflicts. I’m particularly interested in the literal work going into building Colombia’s post-conflict future, and a major initiative to revive shipping traffic along the river is arguably one of many large-scale infrastructure projects motivated by the elusive promise of peace. I’ll be in Colombia in August and September to start interviewing people involved in the Río Magdalena project and to spend some time along the river itself, watching oil barges float downstream to the coast and dredging operations excavate centuries of sediment.
Colleagues at the Universidad de los Andes will also be kindly hosting an event to mark the launch of my recent book, so there will some time set aside for celebration, as well.
Your first book, Endangered City, has just been published. How did the book come about?
I’m always intrigued by that question, as well as by how I find myself answering it. In the preface, I tell the story of arriving in Bogotá for the first time in 2006. I was immediately struck by how often friends and strangers alike would go out of their way to inform me about the dangers of everyday life in the city. There was something oddly familiar about this, since it reminded me of how, as a kid, I had learned to navigate my own hometown of Philadelphia. It also seemed to be a particularly good example of a wider, perhaps global trend whereby cities are increasingly preoccupied with potential hazards lurking on the horizon. But this seemed paradoxical in Bogotá, since by all accounts the city was now far safer than it had been for quite a while, and urbanists and security experts from around the world were busy heralding its rebirth.
How, why, and to what effect do concerns about security and risk continue to shape the political life of the city? That was the question I would spend years trying to answer. But this was only part of the story. I began my research at a time when many Colombians were justifiably wary of yet another gringo coming to study violence in their country.
One couldn’t ignore the turbulent and traumatic history of the armed conflict, but it felt necessary to look at what else was going on. So rather than studying violence and insecurity directly, I decided to come at these topics from an angle by thinking about threats and dangers of all kinds—especially those seen to originate in nature rather than society.
I made contact with the municipal housing agency, which was relocating populations out of areas defined as “zones of high risk” for landslides and floods. For me, this became a way to analyse how concerns about threat and danger, about security and risk, were reconfiguring what it meant to be an urban citizen. The rest is history (or geography), so to speak.
What do you think is unique about Geography and Environment at LSE?
I came to the LSE in 2012 after finishing a doctoral degree in anthropology at Stanford University. I was trained in a style of anthropology that took the discipline’s history and methodology quite seriously, but that also encouraged engagement with a wide spectrum of research topics and intellectual traditions.
I spent a lot of time reading and learning from the work of geographers, and often felt that had I not ended up studying anthropology, geography could have been an equally good fit. So when I joined the Department of Geography and Environment at the LSE, to a certain degree I suspected I would feel right at home. What I didn’t expect was for the department to be as inclusive, collegial, and supportive a place to work. I attribute this to the fact that we’re such a diverse group of staff and students from all over the world with an astoundingly wide range of backgrounds and interests: from bona fide, card-carrying geographers to those with training in economics, sociology, urban planning, architecture, development studies, social policy, and much more.
I may be the lone anthropologist, but I’m never lonely. For one’s disciplinary training is rarely the primary identifier that determines how we interact with one another. I often find myself wondering what, then, holds us together—what it is that we all, to some degree, share—and I’ll go ahead and hazard a guess: a strong commitment to generating unconventional insights into questions of public and political relevance on the grounds of rigorous empirical work that takes seriously the specificities of space and place. I’m sure many of my colleagues in the department would put it differently, and perhaps even disagree—but I bet they would disagree with a smile.
Austin Zeiderman is Assistant Professor of Urban Geography.