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NSSR Sociology Lecture: Svati Shah (UMass Amherst)

Monday, October 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm

Wolff Conference Room, Albert and Vera List Academic Center, D1103 6 East 16th Street, New York, NY 10003, Room D1103

The Department of SociologyDepartment of Anthropology, and the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School for Social Research welcomes Svati Shah (UMass Amherst) with her lecture entitled, "Impossible Agents: Calling Powerlessness into Being Among Migrating Subjects."

This talk locates its critique in the wake of the publication of the author’s monograph Street Corner Secrets: Sex, Work and Migration in the City of Mumbai (Duke University Press, 2014). An ethnography of sexual commerce in Mumbai, the book engaged a number of debates, including those on the proper relation between sexual commerce, migration, violence and human trafficking. If the zeitgeist has favored the conflation of sexual commerce and human trafficking, concentrating almost exclusively on impoverished women of the non-West as embodying victimization and social injury, social science research has produced an array of perspectives on the utility of ‘violence’ in framing the exchange of sexual services for money. However, despite the complexity evinced within this growing body of work, it is the remarkable to see the manner in which individual works from this literature are taken up as reductive arguments for liberation, interpellated as reports of false consciousness, or disregarded for ostensibly missing obvious signs of suffering in our research subjects. The talk extends this observation through a critique of conceptual legibility, arguing that the problem of legibility with respect to new ethnographic work on sexual commerce is a larger problem of the lack of legibility of women as economic migrants per se, particularly with respect to women who migrate within and from places outside of the West. Framing the discourse on the ‘feminization of migration’ as an object of this critique, I show that, perhaps especially here, the phenomenon of women migrating for paid work is read through anxieties regarding the loss of economic opportunities for men, and the unraveling of normative family structure as a consequence. I argue that the problem of reading women migrating for work as social decay is, among other things, a problem of the persistent gendering of economic agency writ large. Following on João Biehl, I am interested in what these problems of legibility reveal of how ethnographic realities are theorized, and, in this case, how marking the uneven foreclosure of these theorizations is useful in denoting an epochal moment in debates on gender, sexuality, migration and social transformation.

Svati P. Shah, Associate Professor, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Research Associate, African Centre for Migration and Society, University of Witwatersrand.

Presented by The Department of Sociology, The Department of Anthropology, and the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School for Social Research.

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