How do communities and institutions produce and enhance their member’s capacity to aspire? How do aspirations move across and within cities and in what ways are they adapted for aspirational actions in different urban contexts? How are cities shaped and remade by the aspirational interactions of communities and institutions?
The Urban Aspirations (“Aspirations, Urban Governance and the Remaking of Asian Cities”; 2013-2016) research project aimed to answer these questions through multi-sited ethnography in Asian cities. It was made possible with funding from the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Academic Research Fund (AcRF Tier 2).
We draw inspiration from anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s formulation of capacities to aspire among communities and institutions. These capacities are crucial to understanding the success or failure of projects through which urban societies evolve. We seek to develop a social-theoretical and research approach that not only explains the present and describes the past, but also attends to how society’s members imagine and make their urban futures.
“Projects” refer to the ways in which collectivities organize themselves with an orientation toward the future. These collectivities may form self-conscious and institutionalized project identities. We seek to compare across more formal collectivities, such as urban planning boards, to less formal and less consciously construed collectivities such as street vendors and rural-to-urban migrant networks.
Our interdisciplinary research team is made up of collaborating ethnographers working in the disciplines of Anthropology, Geography, Political Science and Sociology. Our ethnographic investigations will focus on aspirations of whom, for what, and through what means? What interests or communities do these aspirations intend to serve? What are the aspirations; what urban futures are imagined? And most crucially, through what means are the aspirations constituted and enacted?
Aspirations of whom? Each ethnographer will be investigating differently configured groups of varying scales across Asian cities. Social researchers no longer understand culture to be a kind of uniformly shared collective consciousness, but rather shared meanings emergent from intra-community dynamics. Multi-sited and multi-scalar research will provide the basis for comparative theorization of these dynamics.
Aspirations for what? In our investigations, we will attend to the goals and orientations of urban aspirations. What do diverse individuals and groups aspire to across urban Asia? By working as a team across different sites and groups, we will also attend to conflicts and compatibilities of urban aspirations.
Aspirations through what means? Our research focuses not on simple descriptions of “aspirations” but on the more complex issue of “capacities to aspire.” Our ethnographies aim for a better understanding of the conditions on which those aspirations rest and the media through which they are expressed.