Uncommon Sense Part- 7: Cities

The Sociological Review

Alexis Hieu Truong: Hello, and welcome back to Uncommon Sense from the Sociological Review. I’m Alexis Hieu Truong inRosie Hancock: And I’m Rosie Hancock in Sydney. Each month we look sideways at a theme that seems self explanatory – let’ssay bodies, care, intimacy – and we work together to see it differently. We’re all about seeing the world afresh throughthe eyes of sociologists. Even when, Alexis, in your and my case, our eyes are a wee bit blurry, because the timedifferences means Alexis is always up to record at about 5am, and I’m on the other side of the world and ready to go tosleep. Every month, Alexis, you and I give these intros and we, you know, point out that we’re on other sides of the world andin these different cities. And today that matters more than usual, because we are actually going to be talking about cities.Ottawa. Alexis Hieu Truong: Yes, that is right. And it will be with Romit Chowdhury, a sociologist who has looked at things like cities,masculinity space, from Kolkata to Tokyo, and beyond. But before we say hi to him, Rosie, maybe I should ask you what yourrelationship to cities is. Are you an urbanite at heart? Or are you actually just like living in cities out of necessity?Rosie Hancock: Oh, my gosh – cities all the way for me. I spent the first 23 years of my life in Auckland, which is NewZealand’s biggest city – tiny by global standards, but you know. Then I came to Sydney, where I still live, but I did also spendnine-ish months living in Amman in Jordan during my PhD. I really, really, really like going to the country on holiday.But I thrive on city-life and could not imagine living anywhere else. How do you feel about cities, Alexis?Alexis Hieu Truong: Hmm, I don’t really know. Like, I was … I was raised in the city that … like, in Gatineau, where I stilllive now. And it’s like 300,000 people. So it’s kind of small. And there’s a lot of nature, we have this really big park. But Ialso, like, when I was 26–27, I moved from my parents’ place to Tokyo. And that was a shock. And then I stayed a couple of yearsalso in London, but I guess when I’m in cities, I’m like, “cities are the best”. And then when I’m back here, I’m like, “here’s thebest”. Yeah, I’m not … I’m still undecided, I guess.Rosie Hancock: Well, let’s jump straight in and say hello to Romit, who I’m sure can enlighten us a bit more on you know what it takes to be a city. Let’s say, Romit, hi.Romit Chowdhury: Hi, Rosie. Hi, Alexis. Really nice to be Rosie Hancock: You’re joining us from Kolkata. So, if we catch chatting with both of you. the sound of aircon in the background, maybe the sounds ofthe city as well, it’s fine. This is an episode on cities and a bit of background noise, it’s just ambience. So, could youpaint a bit of a picture for us, though, of where you are right now, like, in the city? Romit Chowdhury: So yeah, I’m in Calcutta, and I live in Alexis Hieu Truong: First up, we wanted to know what’s your ownRotterdam. But it’s been 10 months that I’ve been away from Calcutta, which is the city that I grew up in and my parentsstill live here. And yes, this is a city that I’ve always loved relationship to cities, your urban kind of autobiography? as my hometown. It’s large, it’s chaotic, it’s humid. But it’salso, you know, a sight of some of my closest friendships, my earliest relationships. All of these drove me back to the city.And you know, I guess like any love story, it’s also full of disappointments. So, I think that’s how I would characterisemy relationship to this city, at least; it’s a story of attachment, but also one of disappointment.Romit Chowdhury: I’ll definitely say that I’m very much a city person. I’ve always lived in cities and these big, what wecall, you know, mega cities, in India, large more generally in Asia. So … and I’ve enjoyed it. And I can’t really say thatI want to live in a village or in the rural countryside. It’s not something that attracts me at all. In fact, just to giveyou an example, I lived in Newcastle for a couple of years, which by British Standards is a fairly large city. And people inNewcastle are really proud of the metro station, of the metro system. And I remember standing at the stations waiting for asmuch as 15 minutes for one train to come. And this was a huge,huge call for me. I mean, it was a huge requirement as far as I was concerned, because I’m used to trains coming in every, youknow, minute or two. And I remember my colleague was travelling with me telling me that “Oh, you’re such a metropolitan snob”. So that pretty much says a little bitabout my relationship to the city. So yes, definitely as a city person, quite possibly a “metropolitan snob”. Sincereapologies. Rosie Hancock: I mean, if you kind of said there about your experience with “mega cities”, not just cities, but megacities. And I mean, I’m curious about how do we actually define what a city is, right? Like, there’s these definitions aroundnumbers of people, right? Or in the UK, apparently, if you have a cathedral, you get to count as a city. But also there aredefinitions that go back to thinkers – male thinkers, of course, like Aristotle from ancient Greece. So, what does acity have to have in essence for it to be considered a city? Romit Chowdhury: Right. So, traditionally, cities have beenthought of as large places, and these are also dense spaces, andthey are heterogeneous spaces. But, increasingly now, urban scholars, urban thinkers have really moved away from that kindof thinking around cities. So, we also now think of the urbannot so much as a geographically defined space, but more as a process. So, even when we talk of urban studies, you’re notreally thinking about the city. But we’re thinking of the urban as a process. So a lot of urbanisation is in facthappening outside of places that we would commonly call cities. So, in a lot of, say, areas that are on the peripheries ofcities, which may not actually have a large population, but they, in fact, capture a lot of urban characteristics thatlarger towns with higher population load do not capture. Rosie Hancock: So, you could be like somehow urban but living ona farm, or in a little village? Romit Chowdhury: Perhaps, perhaps. I’m not too sure. But Ithink what you’re saying is also important, because it’s entirely possible that many elements that we recognise as urban culture,could very well be a part of rural life. Rosie Hancock: Could you give an example? Romit Chowdhury: So, for instance, the media is, youknow, one source, where your ideals and norms of urban life are increasingly getting transmitted to traditionallynon-urban spaces. So, certain patterns of living, certain patterns of relating to each other, that we normally think ofas characteristic of city life is increasingly becoming quite normal and acceptable in a smaller community kind of space.Alexis Hieu Truong: What you’re saying here, like, the urbanisation, right? And thinking about those things in terms of processes rather than fixed places, right? It reallymakes us think about the city differently. What are the big questions and challenges currently facing people studyingurban life? Surely there’s climate change, there’s air pollution, privatisation of public spaces, housing andinequality. But I think you wanted to talk also about density, right? Romit Chowdhury: Right. And you’re absolutely right, Alexis.I mean, pretty much any problem that you can … any social problem that you can think of right now is being traced backto urbanisation, is being traced back to cities. But what this also means is that many of the solutions to the most pressingsocial problems of our times are also being traced back to the cities. So, in as much as cities are being seen as drivers ofclimate change, they’re also being – sort of – identified as possible solutions to climate change. And perhaps the densityquestion here is immediately relevant, because, as we’ve just spoken about, density is one of those traditional markers ofwhat a city is. But density has really divided urban scholars onwhether it’s a good thing or whether it’s a bad thing. So, for some people, high density is a problem. And this isparticularly true of cities of the Global South. So, if you think of cities, like say, Cairo, a lot of the big Indiancities, say, a lot of the massive Asian cities like Tokyo, certainly, you think of density as exercising a kind of crushingforce on infrastructure. But, in another way of thinking, density– high density – is often seen as a good thing. Compressed living is seen as something that’s good for the environment,so it’s ecologically more sustainable. It’s also seen as a better economic model, because you have concentration of labourand consumer markets. It’s also seen as possibly better for society, because you have a large number of people living ina relatively small place, so it possibly includes more introduction. So yes, so density is one of those key issues thatpretty much is animating urban research. Alexis Hieu Truong: It’s like the density element that is usedto talk about “objective” things about the city, but at the same time, it’s also something that’s felt right. So, is it aeuphemism sometimes? Like, is density being used to kind of translate into things that people … how people feel aboutthe city? Romit Chowdhury: Absolutely. So, I mean, this really raises the question, what exactly is density? So, is it simply anarithmetic thing? Or is it also as you’re saying, Alexis, perceptual – is it also subjective? So, the kind ofresearch that I have been doing alongside my colleagues at Durham is more concerned with the latter. Thinking of densitymore as a lived category; thinking of density as a lived experience. And to give you a very, you know, mundane example.Now, of course, I live in the Netherlands, in Rotterdam, and I hear so many people complain about the crowds in Amsterdam.Everyone you speak to will say, “well, Amsterdam is so crowded, it’s beautiful, sure, but it’s so crowded, it’s unlivable”. Andfor me, having grown up in India and lived in Asia for the most of my life, that always, you know, brings a smile to my face.Because Amsterdam actually seems, you know, fairly sparsely populated, if you compare it with Calcutta, for instance. Thewhole of Calcutta’s population is slightly less than the population of the entirety of the Netherlands. So, is densitymath, or is it more a story? Alexis Hieu Truong: Talking about, like lived experiences, right? There’s this word “enchantment” that comes up whensociologists and geographers talk about cities. What does it actually mean in that context? It kind of conjures up, like,images of fairy tales of, like, magical forest – concrete forests, maybe? But that’s not what it really means here, I think.Romit Chowdhury: Yeah. I mean, the city has a strange relationship to enchantment, right? Because, again, youtypically, when you think of the city, you think of it as a space of impersonality. It’s a place of anonymity. It’s also place ofcold rationality. You work in the city. And in the workspace, your ties are typically professional, there’s verylittle scope for for intimacy. These are some of the ways in which, typically, you know, cities are characterised. Andwhile some of it is certainly true, it’s also true that cities are also places where the unexpected happens, where thepossibility of the new is just around the corner. And that means that in newness, in unexpectedness, there is anelement of surprise. And that’s where enchantment resides. Again, to give you an example of, you know, I was having oneof those, you know, bad days in Rotterdam some months ago. It’s one of those days when you’re like, “oh, nobody loves me,everybody hates me”. One of those … one of those moments. And I was standing outside my colleagues, and I was justchomping on a sandwich. And this … a woman just happened to walk past me. And she saw me eating, and she just winked atme and said “eet smakelijk”, like, “enjoy your food”. And this is one of the few words in Dutch that I still understand.And it immediately brought a smile to my face. So this is what I mean by urban enchantment, you know,unexpected, surprising that, again, seems to kind of reinvigorate you. It renews your faith in the city and maybe inlife more generally. Rosie Hancock: I love the possibility of that. Those kinds of surprising encounters in the city. I mean, it’s, yeah, it’sone of … it is one of the magical things about cities. So, there are so many different ways that researchers have studiedthe city. Most famous perhaps being that of “walking the city” inspired by flaneury, practice by people – and men, typically,historically, like Walter Benjamin – and it’s all a bit romanticised, yes? And it seems pretty gendered. What does thiscapture? Or what does it miss? Romit Chowdhury: Yeah absolutely. I think, you know, when initially the idea of you know, walking in the city becamepopular in academia, it was quite a, you know, radical gesture, because it was thought of as … I mean, typically,planners, you know, look at the city from high above. And that gives you a certain picture of the city. But to walk throughthe city is to experience it in an entirely different way. So, when initially urban scholars were speaking about walking inthe city, they thought of that act as a micro revolutionary act, as an act of resistance against the planning imaginaryof cities. But yes, what it also, you know, takes for Alexis Hieu Truong: Thanks Romit. We’ll be back in a moment granted a lot of things such as gender, such as you know, yourother subject positions, other vectors of inequality. Like, are you a migrant? Are you seen as an insider? How able bodied areyou? How are you perceived in terms of your gender and sexual performance? You know, so on and so forth. But I think what to hear about your work on sexual violence on publicinterests me about the idea of, you know, walking in the city, ironically, is not so much you know, “walking in the city” as”walking to the city”. Because every time I think of, you know, walking and city in tandem, I keep thinking for instance ofdomestic workers, you know, in a city like Calcutta and also in transport in Tokyo, and feminists readings of the city – many other Indian cities, who live in villages, and for whomcommuting to the city largely depends on walking to the suburban railways. So they will walk for miles from their homesto get to the nearest train stations, and then take a train into the city and then walk to the various homes where theywork as domestic workers. So, that kind of walking is of course, you know, very different from the kind of leisurely after a word from our producer, Alice.flaneury that you mentioned, Rosie.Alice Bloch: Hi, thanks for listening to Uncommon Sense from the Sociological Review, where we sit down with a differentguests each month. And together, we take an everyday concept that we all kind of think we understand quitestraightforwardly. So far bodies, intimacy, security, for example. And together, we work to see it differently. And ofcourse, more sociologically, without the jargon or the paywalls. Click on the podcast page atthesociologicalreview.org to find details on all of our guests, plus some surprising reading and viewing tips toshare, and do take five seconds to tap “follow” in the app you’re using to hear this – it really does help us to keepmaking this podcast for everyone. Thanks for listening.Rosie Hancock: Okay, so, Romit, our conversation just now about walking the city leads us pretty neatly to talk about another wayof moving about the city, public transport. And, you know, let’s be honest, it’s not necessarily the most exciting topic on facevalue, at least, even though it’s so central to all of our lives. If you live in a city and you have to get to worksomewhere, most of us are going to take public transport. And we talk about it all the time, particularly if we’re going tocomplain about it. And yet, we think it’s just so dull andboring. But I think, Romit, that maybe you have a defence of public transport, that we should really be looking a bit closerat this stuff? Romit Chowdhury: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And that’s some of the things that, you know, we seem to all be convinced about,right, that commuting is such a waste of time. It’s like “dead time”, it’s something that you have to do to get somewhereelse. It’s not really meaningful for its own sake. But if one pays attention to what’s happening in these spaces, onemight notice a lot of really interesting things that go on. Transport is also a place where people are interacting, theymight literally be interacting in the sense that they might be talking, cracking jokes, fighting. But even when no wordsare being exchanged, a certain form of interaction is still happening between them. And as sociologists, I think we try andpay attention to that and try and figure out what exactly is that telling us about society, about social relations, aboutsocial inequality? So on and so forth? Rosie Hancock: Yeah. So, I know you quote, I think Doreen Massey on thrown togetherness, is that the kind of thing that you’retalking about here? Romit Chowdhury: Absolutely. So, if you think of, again, your cities as heterogenous places, public transport is one of thoseplaces where different kinds of people are forced to cohabit. So then, how do you negotiate co-presence? You know, how doyou coexist with someone whom you don’t know, and who looks like a stranger? So yeah, thrown togetherness, absolutely.Alexis Hieu Truong: You’ve done research in Tokyo, where you looked at sexual violence on public transport in that city and how people talk about it. I’m really interested in that,because some years ago, I also did research there, actually, looking at people dressing up and reproducing characters likethose of Anime and Manga, or creating originals. And I found that people who did that did get unwanted attention or evenphysical contacts, including sometimes on public transport. And I wanted to ask you, how did you become interested in this?And what were your aims? Romit Chowdhury: Right. So you know, when I went to Tokyo, it was essentially to study crowds on Tokyo’s trains. And we knowthat Tokyo trains have some of the largest commuter crowds inthe entire world, they have some of the busiest train stations in the entire world. And that was really the goal of my researchtrip there. But the more and more people I spoke to – women, but also men – it quickly became apparent that there is really noway to understand crowds in Tokyo without looking at howwomen constantly have to deal with sexual assault, sexual harassment, as they travel on the streets. So, the more Ispoke to people, the more they told me stories of how they deal with it, what the theories are of, you know, why this happens,what the possible solutions might be. So that’s what the results really grew out. Alexis Hieu Truong: So, you heard about how people wererationalising, right, there and how they explained it. Do you have some examples? Romit Chowdhury: Absolutely. So, for instance, a lot of people,men but also women, they said that one of the reasons why, say, women are unable to protest when they experience sexualassault is the whole kind of cultural value that’s attached to punctuality, especially when one is travelling for work. So,a lot of women told me that if they were to protest, they feared that the train would be stopped in order to punish theoffender. And this would cause the entire train, all the people travelling on the train, presumably for work, to getdelayed. And this was too much of a cultural sort of transgression for them to brake. So that, that’s certainly, youknow, one example where an idea of national culture kind of mediates the way people rationalise experienced sexualassault on trains. Rosie Hancock: Romit, I think there’s also this figure of the salaryman that you wanted to raise. Yes?Romit Chowdhury: Absolutely. So, the salaryman increasingly, you know, gets identified as one commuter type who’s likely toinflict sexual assault on women passengers. A lot of women told me that one type of figure that we really try to avoid standingnext to is the typical salaryman. And why is this? This is of course, a question that I threw to my respondents, andmany of them explained to me that the salaryman has a particular relationship to the uniformed figure. Theyconstantly feel affronted, they constantly feel that their freedoms are curtailed by the strictures of work, by thestrictures of family life. And a lot of the social demands get gathered in the figure, in any figure in a uniform. And the waya lot of these women explained a sexual assault to me was to say that salarymen take out their frustrations on the young schoolgirl who’s travelling on the commuter train in her school uniform. So, she emerges as an especially vulnerable figure,who is likely to face up sexual assault. The majority of women whom I spoke to said that it really began when we were younggirls travelling to go to school, and it stopped, or significantly reduced after we turned 50. So that’s one folktheory, if you will, that emerge from the research, which I did. Alexis, I’m curious, you mentioned you’ve lived in Tokyofor a little bit done a fair bit of research there. What was your experience travelling on these trains?Alexis Hieu Truong: It was, it was quite a surprising experience at first, especially, like, that, that big crowds. Butsometimes, like, when people were really squished together, I was really also surprised to see that some people were taking theopportunity to sleep, that was very different from my experience here in Quebec City on the bus system. How about yourself?Romit Chowdhury: Yeah, I think I was very aware of myself as a migrant, who didn’t speak Japanese – still don’t – whodoesn’t read the Japanese script. So, I think I was especially alert that – and kind of cautious – that I don’ttransgress any cultural norms. So, far from manspreading, I kind of occupied as little space as possible, and made sure thatI had as little physical contact with anyone around me as possible, which, as you know, is almost impossible during rushhours in Tokyo. Rosie Hancock: I mean, so your comment there, Romit, is reminding us that there of course, barriers that some of usface to moving freely through the city, not just in Tokyo, but everywhere. Cities aren’t just places where we can wanderfreely and leap from bus to travel, you know, whatever. And feminist geographers have been doing a lot of work on this fordecades. Can you tell us a bit about that? Or, you know, point us in the direction of people we should read?Rosie Hancock: Yeah, I mean, is there any … do you have any Romit Chowdhury: For sure. And just quickly, to go back to the earlier point, I mean, and this also tells us, you asked me, youknow, why should we study transport? But the fact that you favourite feminist geographers you want to point us to? know, you can’t really take how to behave in public transportfor granted, also tells you how these spaces are actually kind of practical workshops, where you get to teach yourself how tobehave in a city. And maybe, you know, this is one way of connecting the thread to feminist urban scholars. A lotof Feminist Urban Studies has basically been around the question of giving differential access to public space. How arecities structured through the experience of men and cisgender, heterosexual, upper-class, white men in particular? And what doesthat do to the experience of other communities? And this, of course, has been a vital contribution. But on the otherhand, we also, I think, need to ask how exactly do men experience the city as men? We know that men have access to thecity in a way that women don’t. But what exactly do men do in these spaces? What do they talk about? And how do they relate toeach other? What do they think of women’s prescence? And I think we can deepen our knowledge of cities when we Romit Chowdhury: Linda McDowell, a British Feminist geographer.bring in these questions in our study. She’s written a great deal on economic restructuring and howthat has affected working-class men’s lives in British cities.That’s something … I mean, her work has been very inspiring forme. So, another kind of feminist argument that has become quiteinfluential in South Asian cities is the whole argument that women need to wrest the freedom to loiter in cities. So,rather than think of safety, women could wrest the risk to risk pleasure. I mean, if women could risk pleasure and loiterin cities, that could actually be a way of gaining further access to public spaces. So, that argument has increasinglygained a fair bit of influence, both on scholarship and on everyday life. So that’s something worth mentioning.Rosie Hancock: Yeah, so as you point out, much of the research that has to do with sexual violence on public transport hasfocused on the Global South. And there’s that very well known case of the female student who was gang raped and murdered on abus in Delhi in 2012. And, very rightly, that case got a lot of coverage, inspired a Netflix show. But it would be reallywrong of us to talk as though so-called “everyday sexual violence” – which is part of the continuum of public violenceagainst women, of which the Indian case is, you know, at the very extreme – doesn’t also happen in cities like London andParis and New York. So, you know, why have such cities in the Global North been relatively neglected?Romit Chowdhury: Right, I think this is possibly, you know, a part of a long tradition within urban scholarship, where wethink of so-called “third worlds”, non-Western cities in the Global South, as crucibles of problems. And we think of theso-called “developed world” as the locus of human solutions. So, when you think of a problem, when you think of socialproblems, you immediately go to the Global South to look for examples. And you look at the Global North for solutions toAlexis Hieu Truong: I wanted to ask you about some other related that. work that you’ve done in Kolkata, where you lived untilyour late 20s. You interviewed auto rickshaw drivers there. What got you interested in this? And how does that work tie intothe mission that you described above, about, like, using a feminist lens to interrogate masculinity in the city?Romit Chowdhury: I think that interest really grew out of my experience of living in this city. I’ve always taken publictransport in the city, and the auto rickshaw, which is this three-wheeled vehicle that connects adjacent neighbourhoodsand it’s a shared mode of transport. I mean, I would use it every day to go to college, to go to university, to go towork. And, again, this is a mode of transport that’s constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons. So it’s, again, a sitewhere you know, women are molested. It’s a site where auto rickshaw drivers behave badly with passengers, where serviceis unreliable, so on and so forth. And while a lot of this is true, I also, in my travels, I would notice these everydayforms of friendships, these joking relationships that were playing out between passengers, between passengers and drivers,between drivers and traffic police. And I thought this is also a story that needs to be told. That also has significancefor the way we understand, you know, again, how thrown togetherness happens in cities, how urban society holdstogether. And I saw that masculinity was very important to both why conflicts happened, and how conflicts were resolved,how real friendships were being formed. Alexis Hieu Truong: It’s really interesting to me how your Romit Chowdhury: But why not do both? research is, is allowing you to kind of look at these, thesegender power relations. And here, like, you look at the Romit Chowdhury: And I think that’s what I … that’s what I Alexis Hieu Truong: Yeah. experiences of men. And I mean, you could make the argumentthat, “hey look, like men get enough attention”, and it can did in this … for this project that I’m that I’m trying to tie pretty much seem like the city belongs to men. That’s somethingthat you mentioned earlier. So, why speak to them here rather than let’s say, their female passengers.up now. What I did was that I spoke to these auto rickshaw drivers also, because they’re not simply men. They are men,but they’re also working-class men. Many of them are migrants. And these other identities complicate their masculinity andtheir experience of the city. And therefore, it’s no longer possible for us to speak of them, of their relationship tothe city, as some kind of unhindered smooth access. They are also in the margins of the city. They also occupy themargins of city life. So how does that tie in with their masculinity? So, to give you a very concrete example, onequestion that I asked them was, “how has the city changed for you?” And I was really struck by the number of men who told methat the city hasn’t changed for them. That “I’ve lived here for 10 years” – sometimes 20 years – “and sure, many new flyovershave been built, shopping malls have come up, but my life has not changed.” “And why has it not changed?” “Because my fatherstruggled to provide for my family is my struggle as well.” So, notice how men’s relationship to the city isbeing narrated through a comparison with their relationship to their father, and most importantly, to theprovider roles. So, man’s relationship to the city is meaningful, only in terms of whether they can be goodfathers, whether they can be good husbands, whether they can be good sons. Rosie Hancock: Okay, so Romit, this is the part of the show,where we challenge a commonplace notion or, you know, a bit of a lazy idea that is just begging to be seen sideways. So wewanted to turn to this idea that urban life is kind of mean and lonely. Or the idea that there’s no community in urban life,whatever, whatever that means. And that’s something that has maybe been exacerbated, but also possibly challenged by thevarious lockdowns that we’ve experienced throughout COVID-19. Alexis Hieu Truong: So, to start with, Romit, we’re wondering,where does the idea that the city life is lonely actually come from? I mean, sure, there are films like “Lost inTranslation” and “Blade Runner” or whatever. But, I mean, in terms of thinkers and sociologists, where does thisidea come from? Romit Chowdhury: Yeah, I think there’s this long tradition of, you know, writing sociological writings on the meanings ofcommunity in the city. And I think this is probably it, as much as one can separate Urban Sociology from Urban Geography.I guess this is what one would say that, you know, Sociology is concerned with the community question, and Geography is moreconcerned with the spatial question. And of course, now increasingly, these two issues have been brought together. Butyeah, there’s just this long tradition in within Sociology, of thinking about what community really means in city life. Andthe received understanding, as you’re both, you know, correctly pointed out, largely is that as society urbanises, communitysomehow shrinks. And that the proper place of community is the rural, it’s the village, and the city is more impersonal. Andthis again, connects to the idea that the city is this place of cold rationality. It’s a place of anonymity. And all of thatdoesn’t square with community. Rosie Hancock: Yeah, so in your experience, as a sociologist ofcities, on the one hand, but also as a person who has lived in a lot of cities on different continents, is it actuallyalways lonely to live in a city? I mean, like, where does loneliness actually come from? Can we blame it on the place? Oris it more about processes? Romit Chowdhury: Yeah, I mean, that’s a tough one, isn’t it? Because loneliness is also …Romit Chowdhury: … a psychological state. right? So, Rosie Hancock: Sorry. I feel like Sociology can only provide part of the answer tothe loneliness question. But as far as cities is the concern, yeah, personally, for sure. I mean, I’ve felt lonely in myhometown. And I’ve also felt connected in my hometown. And similarly in, you know, most of the cities that have been in.But yes, I think, as far as, you know, research is concerned, increasingly, people are arguing that, yes, while in certaincases, in certain instances, you might see the kind of witheringaway of community in city life, but the city also provides other opportunities where new kinds of communities can come intoexistence. And also, and I think this is probably sort ofcounterintuitive, that anonymity need not always go against community. One definition of the city that really resonates withme is that it’s a community of strangers. And notice these two words, “community”, “stranger”. They seem to be pulling inopposite directions. So, this really shows you the kind of paradoxical possibility of the city that it can alienate, butit can also bring together. Rosie Hancock: Yeah, because urban encounters have this rather precise quality to them. It’s there’s like this dancethat we do with strangers of knowing and not knowing, of asking of not asking, of invading space and leavingspace. And, you know, city life can seem anonymous, but that seems to also be part of civility, right of living withone another. And when it’s working well, it’s how we’re able to live closely, but also peacefully and respectfully witheach other. Romit Chowdhury: Certainly, again, to give you an anecdote here, personal anecdote – you asked me about my experience ofloneliness in the city. So, I moved to Rotterdam very much in the middle of the pandemic. And, shortly after I moved, the sortof hard lockdown happened. And all these cafes that I would often hang out at, generally, were only open for takeaway. Andthere is one cafe that I began frequenting, and this guy who was, who was the owner of the cafe, we would speak every day,I would go for my daily coffee there. And we would have these, you know, passing conversations. And that ritual really began tocreate a sense of belonging inside of me as far as Rotterdam was concerned. And I still don’t know his name. And he doesn’tknow mine. And we don’t even feel the need to share that kind of biographical information. But yet, at least in my narrative ofthe city, he would play a prominent role. So that’s also how belonging and community functions in cities. And in acertain sense, we are anonymous, we are biographical strangers, but we also know each other, and that knowing is sufficient.Rosie Hancock: I mean, we’ve been talking about, you know, cities and trying to question some stereotypes around citiesand urban life. But we could do the same thing as well, and this is a good reminder, I guess, to rural life, and we can’toversimplify rural life. So, you know, we can think about it as idyllic, Romit, you and I, you know, is the place, the onlyplace we want to go on holiday and then leave. But there’s also rural poverty, bad housing, things that we maybe don’t talkabout enough or that aren’t captured in simplistic representations of the rural, particularly the “rural versusthe urban”, right. And that’s something that Raymond Williams classic work, “The Country and the City”, really speaks verywell to. So, we’re going to pop that in our episode notes, if anyone’s interested, to check it out. But going back to ourconversation about density, cities are often associated with crowds and going to cities with a fear of crowds. I mean, youknow, crowds are often seen as bad things, but they can also have positive qualities. Yes?Romit Chowdhury: Well certainly, again, this is something that the results that I didn’t talk you threw up. I spoke to thisguy who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome. And when I spoke to him, he’d recently been laid off from his job because he wasn’tbeing able to cope with his professional duties. And he told me that he would spend this new free time that suddenly hadfallen on him by going to Shinjuku Station – which is one of the busiest transport, possibly the busiest transporthub in the entire world, certainly in Japan and in Tokyo – and he would simply sit at the ledge and observe the crowds.And these crowds, he told me, would make him, put him in a meditative mood, make him really reflect on the meaning of life.So, and he would derive a lot of charm from seeing foreigners, seemingly outsiders to Japanese culture, talking about andshowing such tremendous enthusiasm towards Japanese culture, discussing Cosplay or Manga or Anime. So again, wethink of crowds as enervating, as something to avoid. But perhaps when seen from a distance, they can be a kind ofurban theatre that you derive pleasure from. Rosie Hancock: Of course, I suppose that that does depend onwho you are, right? So a persecuted individual from a minority group or someone from an over-policed community. Orindeed, you know, if you’re subject to ableism, then crowds aren’t always so great.Romit Chowdhury: Certainly, I think social inequalities pretty much inflate every aspect of our life and life in the city andthere’s no escaping that. Alexis Hieu Truong: Okay, well, time for our next section before we head off, and we share some ideas for pop-culture books,movies, songs, poems, I guess art, basically suggestions that are related to today’s topic, right, “cities”. Romit, whatwould you want to share with us today? Romit Chowdhury: Yeah, I’m … I feel like a bit of a dinosaurwhen it comes to, you know, pop culture. It’s just been like one month that I got a Netflix membership. So that’s the kindof person you’re talking to. But yeah, I do read novels. So, this one novel that I just finished reading it’s quite fascinating,both in terms of ableism in cities and public transport, which, as you might have guessed, is an interest. So,this is a novel called “Elena Knows”. It’s by this Argentinian Mystery Crime writer, Claudia Piñeiro. It’s basically about anelderly woman who lives with Parkinson’s disease. And she has recently come to know that her daughter, her adult daughter hascommitted suicide. But she’s completely unwilling to accept this as the reason for her daughter’s death. She’s verycertain that her daughter has been murdered. And she decides to solve this mystery, and that entails travelling from one endof the city of Buenos Aires to another end, on public transport – the metro and the taxi. And her narrative really shows youhow ableism completely changes the way in which we experience city life, mobility. So you have passages in this novel thatdescribes how this elderly woman, because her neck muscles have become weak, her optics of the city have completelychanged. There is a new attention that she has to give to people’s shoes, to pavements in the cities, that entirelyescaped notice before she started living with this disease. Also things like negotiating co-presence, whichwe’ve spoken about, that becomes an entirely different story if you’re living with a condition like Parkinson’s. So, forinstance, she has to calculate the effect that her medicines will have and correlate it with the timetable of the metro inorder to get from one place to another. Rosie Hancock: Oh, perfect. And it’s, it’s, you know, it’s sogreat because it sounds like this idea of syncing your body to the rhythm of the city, actually, is really similar tothe novel that I wanted to recommend, which is NK Jemisin’s “The City We Became”, which is a science fiction novel, where theessence and existence of New Yorkers and its five boroughs is kind of downloaded or synced to literally six people, eachrepresenting a different borough, and then someone for the whole city itself. And they have to fight this otherworldlyforce seeking to basically destroy the city. But it’s fascinating how these people literally become, you know,embody the essence of New York City. And it’s really clever how she takes all of these tropes about cities, things likegentrification and the frustrations of poor urban infrastructures, the way money flows through the cities, andshe really personifies it into the supernatural or otherworldly creatures or forces. Alexis, did you have something you wanted torecommend? Alexis Hieu Truong: Well, actually, Romit, all that you’ve shared with us today really kind of made me think about how Iexperienced Tokyo. So, I kind of wanted to suggest Patrick Galbraith’s “Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara Tour”, because I thinkhe isn’t doing those in person anymore. But Patrick basically used to do tours of the Akihabara neighbourhood inTokyo, where he dressed up as Goku from the Anime “Dragonball Z” and showed amazing hidden gem secrets and in the Manga andAnime Mecca, that is Akihabara, and sometimes you had, like, little shrines squished in between buildings, and so on. Soreally, kind of a really interesting tour. But for something that people might be able to access more readily, I’dsay the films of Shinya Tsukamoto. The reason why I make this suggestion is that I believe that a lot of his workdraws on his experience of growing up in the post-war city, in post-war Japan, and Tokyo specifically, and is aboutexploring people’s relationships to the city. Rosie Hancock: Well, this recommendation of a walking tourin Akihabara loops us back really beautifully to walking inthe city, which we talked about right at the beginning. And we actually have other episodes that relate to walking in thecity. We’ve done ones on “Bodies” and “Security” in particular. So you can check out our archive if you want to hearwhat else we might have that’s relevant. Thank you so much, Romit, for your time today and for chatting with us.Romit Chowdhury: Thank you. This was so much fun. Rosie Hancock: Yeah, it was great talking to you. Alexis Hieu Truong: Thank you very much. Romit Chowdhury: And we have to find a common city to meet inperson. Rosie Hancock: Haha, yes! Romit Chowdhury: Let’s make it a crowded one! Bye, bye.Alexis Hieu Truong: And that’s it for this month. You can catch today’s reading list, including our pick of pieces from TheSociological Review, and more on those pop culture tips, by clicking on our podcast page at The Sociological Review website.Rosie, what are you going to take away from today? Rosie Hancock: I am so taken with Romit’s characterization ofthe city as something magical and enchanted. And I am definitely going to be open to surprise in my daily life going Alexis Hieu Truong: I really enjoyed hearing Romit’sabout Sydney. What about you, Alexis?experiences of moving to new cities or exploring new cities. It made me think about all those kind of moments and times wherewe kind of become maybe hyper-reflexive or, like, really, our thoughts or our emotions are really directed towhat is happening around us in a city. Rosie Hancock: Well, we did mostly talk about loving cities.And if after listening to we three urbanites talk about cities for 45 minutes, you’re feeling enraged? Hold on to youranger for next month’s episode, because we’ll be talking about Alexis Hieu Truong: If you’ve enjoyed listening to Uncommon emotion. Sense, tap “follow” and rate or review us in whatever app you’reusing, and share us with your friends, your family, students, fellow students, lecturers, teachers, you get the idea.Rosie Hancock: Our executive producer was Alice Bloch in London. Our sound engineer was Dave Crackles in Sheffield.Thanks for listening. Bye! Alexis Hieu Truong: Bye!


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