Balakrishnan Rajagopal

Founder of DRAN + Professor of Law and Development and Head of the International Development Group at the mit Department of Urban Studies and Planning

On behalf of the Displacement Research and Action Network at MIT, I am delighted to be able to initiate and host this blog symposium on important recent scholarship on displacement and eviction.  The co-editors of this DRAN symposium, Nick Blomley and Sai Balakrishnan, who are also DRAN faculty affiliates, have ably led the process of framing the questions which we had in mind, and shepherded the solicitation of contributions from authors and commentators.  I thank them for their leadership.  I also thank Kelly Leilani Main, a DRAN associate and a graduate student in planning at MIT, as well as Diana Bell, DRAN coordinator, for their assistance in putting this effort together.

There has indeed been a veritable explosion of scholarship on evictions and displacement, concerning both the global North and South in recent years.  The books discussed in this symposium mark an important new turn in the study of global urban transformations, bringing displacement and evictions to the center rather than being treated as marginal.  We hope that this symposium marks the start of a deeper and more sustained study of displacement in the global North and South, including studies on countries and regions which are not the focus of the books in this symposium.

To encourage more reflection on the books and the issues raised in this symposium, let me outline six key axiomatic developments in the study of displacement globally.  First, as several authors (Bhan, Lees) note, it is important to retain the centrality of ‘displacement’ as a frame for describing the massive deprivations and dispossession underway around the globe.  Mainstream urban planning scholarship is averse to using the word displacement, and prefers softer and more neutral but deeply depoliticizing terminology such as urban renewal or regeneration.  Development scholars (Michael Cernea) prefer to use ‘resettlement’ in the context of large development-project related displacement, which elides the question of how one justifies displacement in the first place which requires resettlement.  The important theoretical contributions of sociologists (Saskia Sassen), and social theorists (Judith Butler) which have brought terms such as dispossession and expulsion (among others) into scholarly discourse recently, help problematize spatiality, territoriality and place but lack a sufficient tethering to actual struggles of masses affected by displacement and do not tell us what to do.  As planners, we are interested in not only understanding the nuances and severity of global displacements, but also in how to effectively respond to them.  ‘Evictions’ do describe the actual process of physical expulsion but remain limited in time and space compared to displacement, which captures the enduring and complex nature of rights, loss, territory, and identity that is central to what we are focusing on (as noted by Yiftachel).

A second dynamic in displacement scholarship is the increasing questioning of the traditional boundary between ‘urban and ‘rural’ displacements (noted by Lees and other commentators such as Li).  Traditional displacement scholarship on the global South comes from studies of rural displacement due to large development projects such as dams, while urban planning scholarship in the global North tended to focus on the ‘urban’ or the ‘city’ as discrete entities.  Indeed, the urban-rural distinction has long been at the core of both development and planning scholarship.  However, a focus on displacement highlights what is common in the nature of the deprivations and indignities that growth and development impose on people, and reveals the deep linkages that exist between rural and urban spaces.  Indeed, the fast-growing areas of the world show the increasing porosity and nebulousness of categories such as ‘city’ or ‘urban’ as seen in recent work by urban theorists (Neil Brenner in his planetary urbanization, Terry McGee in his reference to desakota regions), and in the linkages between urban and rural movements against displacement (Weinstein).  Indeed, my hope is that there should be more fruitful engagement between displacement scholarship from the North and South, rural and urban.  Displacement is the consequence and symptom of the pathologies produced by the same ‘growth’ and ‘development’ machine, wherever it is spatially produced (as noted by Li and Roy).

A third and related characteristic of the new wave of displacement scholarship is its grounding in political economy and geography.  Previous studies of displacement emerged from anthropology, urban planning, or socio-legal studies of indigeneity or human rights.  As development and global capitalism have made the ‘urban turn’ and begun to see cities as ‘engines of growth’ (as stressed by the World Bank for example), contestations over land (Hern, Li, Bhan) have emerged as major characteristics of contemporary political economy.  In some cases, the turn to political economy takes as its entry point the re-aesthetization of urban space as in the turn to ‘world class city’ as an ideal and its normative enforcement through laws and courts (Ghertner).  These studies do draw on anthropology, urban planning, socio-legal studies or human rights in their methods or sources, but their interdisciplinary is nevertheless distinctly grounded in political economy.

A fourth and major innovation in recent studies of displacement is their ‘legal turn’, with many of them offering close-up empirical studies of law in action of the sort that is typical of socio-legal scholarship (David Trubek).  They highlight the increasing and perilous reliance on courts by middle class resident welfare associations (Ghertner, Bhan) in the context of New Delhi, and the systematic historic role played by colonialism and property law in dispossessing native Americans in the US (Hern).  The deeply racialized and ethnocratic nature of law in its design and operation in producing displacement in the US (Roy, Schragger),  or Israel (Yiftachel), is by now recognized but not reckoned with and new work reveals how law played a central role in segregating America (Richard Rothstein).  The work discussed here also reveals how law is not only an instrument of producing displacement, but also of enabling resistance (Bhan).  I have discussed, in my past work, the rise of ‘judicial governance’ as courts and law become central to the everyday ordering of our rights including in the context of displacement (Bhan).  Put together they reveal a new paradigm shift in the study of displacement in which the turn to law needs to be seen as a project of state action and violence (Roy), whether explicitly through eminent domain and regulation, or indirectly through the expanding judicial power to enforce private choices of ‘aesthetics’ through nuisance (Ghertner) or other private law.

A fifth aspect of the new studies on displacement is their post-liberal sensibility.  In particular, there is a deep ambivalence in these studies towards classic liberal categories such as rights, especially towards property rights (which many are very critical towards) and even constitutional and public law rights such as right to housing.  Instead, they emphasize a right to stay put in Mumbai (Weinstein), a notion unknown to liberal rights theory, or reject rights in favor of recovering sovereignty (Hern).  Instead of rational, context-independent and timeless categories of rights, they emphasize deeply historical, colonially conscious, and deeply redistributive strategies to address displacement.  Indeed, these works show the ‘dark sides of virtue’ (David Kennedy) by showing how even formal rights lead to negative outcomes (Ghertner, Bhan) in terms of displacement.  In my past work, I have called attention to the need to decolonize liberal rights discourse, and discussed ways of encouraging counter-hegemonic approaches to rights.  The wave of displacement studies offers further hope for a turn in that direction.

A sixth characteristic of the new studies on displacement is the sense of deep criticality towards many common assumptions in the fields of urban planning, and development.  In what could be dubbed a ‘critical turn’ in displacement scholarship, the new work asks such deep questions as: is it useful to talk about gentrification – which is typically associated with urban transformations in the global North - when studying urban displacement in the global South?  Are markets and rights artifacts of law or are they socially embedded?  Can displacement be seen as a result of larger structural forces such as neoliberal capitalism no matter where they happen?  How does rights-framing affect social change through practices of contestation (and vice versa)?  What can American urban planning experience learn from – not just attempt to teach – the global South or using a ‘Southeastern perspective’ (Yiftachel)?  A focus on global displacement usefully questions American exceptionalism – in its property-centeredness and outdated public law categories - while insisting on the specificity of community experiences in displacement rather than overarching general laws of capitalism (a la David Harvey) or of the legal field.   Indeed, I see this new critical turn in displacement scholarship as part of a larger canvass of critical work emerging from and oriented towards the global South, but deeply critical of the global North-South distinctions, in the fields of international law (Third World Approaches to International Law or TWAIL in which I have contributed over the years), development studies and urban planning (Roy, Yiftachel).

Balakrishnan Rajagopal is the founder of the Displacement Research and Action Network at MIT.  He is the current head of the International Development Group (IDG) and a Professor of Law and Development at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and founding Director of the Program on Human Rights and Justice at MIT.  He is a leading scholar-activist of human rights and development and is well-known for his critical approach to development planning and the law and politics of the Third World.  He has been a member of the Executive Council and Executive Committee of the American Society of International Law and is currently on the Asia Advisory Board of Human Rights Watch and on the editorial boards of many journals. He has published numerous scholarly articles in leading law and social science journals and is the author of two books -International Law from Below: Development, Social Movements and Third World Resistance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003; 2nd edition forthcoming), and Reshaping Justice: International Law and the Third World (co-editor, Routledge, 2008).  He served for many years with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia and was human rights advisor to the World Commission on Dams. He recently served as a member of the International Academic Advisory Council at the Fourth UN Conference on Least Developed Countries in Istanbul, Turkey. His work has been translated into Chinese, Spanish, and French. He has published widely in the media on human rights, development and international law and issues concerning the global south in such publications as the Boston Globe, the Hindu, Washington Post, the Indian Express, El Universal, and the Nation and is a blogger at