Department of Sociology

The Other Side of Austin, Texas

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Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City

Edited by Javier Auyero

Contributors: Eric Enrique Borja, Caitlyn Collins, Jacinto Cuvi, Jessica Dunning-Lozano, Katherine Jensen, Kristine Kilanski, Amias Maldonado, Pamela Neumann, Marcos Perez, Jennifer Scott, Katherine Sobering, Maggie Tate, Eva Hershaw (photographer), Julia Robinson (photographer)

University of Texas Press, summer 2015

 

When someone moves out of the city center because s/he cannot pay for increasing rental prices or property taxes, or someone else dwells with her few belongings in a storage space or is pushed into homelessness, the increasingly exclusionary features of a city’s housing market are made visible. When someone’s job submits them to unwanted advances, physical insecurity, and seemingly innocuous but demeaning and degrading behaviors, from which no amount of savvy or skill can protect or shield them, the unseen exploitative particularities of those jobs deemed most unprestigious and undesirable are felt acutely.

 

Together, these vignettes highlight the subjective experience of socially and politically produced suffering that ethnographer Javier Auyero and his students inspect in Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City. The seeds of the book were planted four years ago in a seminar room in the Department of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. There, a group of graduate students, many of them future members of the newly established Urban Ethnography Lab, first expressed their discomfort with portrayals of the urban poor dominant in social science literature. Although in agreement with diagnoses about the economic and political sources of dispossession, students of the seminar “Poverty and Marginality in the Americas” were uncomfortable—distrustful and, on more than one occasion, angry—with the ways in which many a text represents the lives of those living at the bottom of the socio-symbolic ladder, including their daily predicament, their beliefs, their hopes. Oftentimes, entire, and quite diverse, categories (the urban poor, young poor men, poor women) were reduced to one or two salient portrayals (single mother, welfare recipient, sex worker, drug dealer, gang member); other times, the complex and changing character of their lives was truncated in order to make (more or less sophisticated) social-scientific arguments. That general discomfort slowly metamorphosed into the incredible, expansive, collective energy that lies at the root of a joint intellectual enterprise—a book that, modeled on Pierre Bourdieu’s now classic study of social suffering in contemporary France, The Weight of the World, relies on life-history interviews and ethnographic observation to portray the lives of those working at the bottom of the social structure in the city many call their home: house cleaners, office-machine repairers, cab drivers, restaurant cooks and dishwashers, exotic dancers, musicians, and roofers among them.

 

Even in a surface reading of newspapers, online news sources, or monthly magazines about Austin, one cannot fail to notice a set of parallel (though hardly contradictory) images and trends. Glowing descriptions of a fast-growing city, a city for the “young and creative,” a “cool” place to live and raise a family, and a city of internationally famous events like the South by Southwest Music Festival and Formula 1, compete with (more or less concerned, depending on political orientations) portrayals of increasing socio-economic inequality and residential class, racial, and ethnic segregation. As seen in many other American cities and metropolitan areas, wealth and poverty, material abundance and penury are booming right alongside one another in contemporary Austin—a thriving, highly unequal technopolis. As elsewhere, the sharpening of social inequality magnifies the effects of social insecurity (from job instability and precarity to fears of downward social mobility), and reconfigures the cityscape. Rich and poor residents are increasingly separated from each other, in low- and high-income neighborhoods, with little mobility in between. New exclusive areas of prosperity emerge, while deprivation forces others to the urban margins where environmental risks and poor quality of housing, schools and public services prevail.

 

The social sciences, and sociology in particular, are on relatively secure ground when it comes to describing and explaining objective inequalities of class, race, and gender, and the mechanisms that generate them. They are on less certain terrain when it comes to understanding the many ways in which individuals, alone or in groups, make sense of and cope with these inequalities. These experiences matter because they oftentimes do the cultural work necessary to perpetuate the social order, but at other times serve as the basis for challenging it. Invisible in Austin scrutinizes this more subjective dimension of inequality by zooming in on the lives of 12 individuals—folks like Chip, Raven, Kumar, and Clarissa—who dwell on the “other side” of a booming, increasingly inequitable, and segregated urban area.

 

The study of social suffering takes a particular relevance (and urgency) in the context of neoliberal governance in the United States under which most previous forms of protection are being swiftly dismantled (i.e. welfare benefits, employer-provided health-care coverage, traditionally defined retirement pensions, etc.) and where the penal state has expanded exponentially in order to manage the effects of growing inequality at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In neoliberal times (and especially in the context of “neoliberalism on steroids,” as one could call the particular climate in Texas at present), socially produced forms of suffering take on exceptionally alarming features. This collective work seeks to bring these experiences to light so that they can be the subject of public debate.

 

Courtesy of Caitlyn Collins, Katherine Jensen, Kristine Kilanski, and Javier Auyero

 


  • Department of Sociology

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