Four Ana and One Modern Home – Nelson

Four Ana and One Modern House: A Spatial Ethnography of Kathmandu’s Urbanizing Periphery

Andrew Nelson – University of Virginia – 2013 – Anthropology

This dissertation concerns the relationship between the rapid transformation of Kathmandu Valley’s urban periphery and the social relations of post-insurgency Nepal. Starting in the 1970s, and rapidly increasing since the 2000s, land outside of the Valley’s Newar cities has transformed from agricultural fields into a mixed development of planned and unplanned localities consisting of migrants from the hinterland and urbanites from the city center.

The scholarship of Kathmandu’s transformation reflects a common assumption in anthropology to understand space as a product of social relations. In Kathmandu, urban sprawl is often attributed to ethnic shifts in the urban population or economic transformations that have produced a shift from a caste to class social structure. Given the inchoate social nature of the urban periphery, I find it more fruitful to reverse the question to ask how spatial processes produce social outcomes. Rather than starting with the categories and practices of ethnicity, caste or class, I give analytical primacy to the material conditions, symbolic conceptions, and everyday practices regarding land, mobility, houses, and community.

In part one, I show how current sprawl patterns follow a history of land value altering in meaning and practice from a system in which land is an ‘inalienable’ good to one in which it becomes an exchangeable gift or commodity. I understand the current ethnic tone of Newar farmers’ claims to land within a trend of land expropriation by ‘outsiders.’ In part two, I introduce the perspective of new residents in the periphery through the category of the Hindu householder. The move into the urban periphery reflects the householder’s aspirations of social mobility, which combine the short-term demands of social status, migration and consumption with the long-term cosmic concerns of kinship and morality. In part three, I reconsider the social organization of the urban periphery within debates of caste, class, and democracy in South Asian cities. Through a study of how space is used, I argue that the society and politics of the urban periphery reference nostalgia for Nepal’s pre-democratic Panchayat era in which certain social positions of geography and ethnicity are privileged within the rhetoric of nationalism.

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