The following book review first appeared in ASIEN / The German Journal on Contemporary Asia 131 (see entry in my publication list) and is reprinted here with permission. The book itself is here.

K. Hackenbroch: The Spatiality of Livelihoods. Negotiations of Access to Public Space in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013, 396 S., EUR 56,00

Through a mixed-method study of spatial claim-making in two low-income neighbourhoods in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Kirsten Hackenbroch unveils the thoroughly political nature of everyday life. The key contribution of her ethnography is to highlight "informality from above", that is the deep implication of the state in what many geographers and urban planners continue to discuss as a depoliticized, "informal" process of urban growth. This insight gains considerable weight from painstaking and thorough long-term fieldwork; "The spatiality of livelihoods" thus also stands as an example of what can be gained from this increasingly unpopular endeavour.

In a long first section, she introduces the theoretical framework of her study and her fieldwork methods, including an innovative application of participant photography (some of the resulting pictures are reproduced in an appendix, together with numerous maps and diagrams). At times, Hackenbroch could have stood her ground as a geographer-turned-ethnographer more firmly; her epistemological comments in particular are not always to the point and her decision to study two neighbourhoods rather than one or three remains insufficiently justified. This is particularly unfortunate for she rightly concludes by emphasizing how only long-term abductive fieldwork enabled her to form the central insights of her book. Her engagement with a complex theoretical literature is however nuanced and convincing.

After a concise introduction to her two study settlements, a second part describes everyday spatial practices in these neighbourhoods in great detail. Hackenbroch convincingly argues for a layered understanding of public space that spans from "familiar publicness" to "strangers' publicness", with gender and time being additional complicating factors. This differentiation owes much to her position as a "temporary citizen" of the settlements she studied and impressively underlines the importance of long-term fieldwork. The books' third part – the empirical and conceptual core of her work, again rich in ethnographic detail – dissects the politics of the everyday by analysing the positionality of different personal and institutional actors and their respective strategies in negotiating access to a multi-layered public space. Hackenbroch draws her considerable empirical material together in a third and final part, with particular emphasis on the implications of her findings for ongoing debates on "urban informality". Rather than pitting the formal and the informal against each other, she argues for a more entangled perspective on formal, informal and negotiated spaces. Unfortunately, her final comments on the urban planning process fall back behind this important insight: if the state itself is part of – rather than distant from – informal negotiations of access to public space, "awareness raising" among urban planners just won't cut it.

Besides this somewhat disappointing conclusion, my main critique of "The spatiality of livelihoods" concerns the typical German confusion of dissertation and monograph, which are two rather distinct rhetorical formats. This confusion shows in excessive signposting, verbose preliminaries, cluttered sentences and insufficiently edited English, and above all in a chapter structure that separates theory from data from argument rather than weaving all three together into one streamlined analytical narrative. Which is a shame, for once you cut through the various lists of "research objectives", flowcharts of the research process and coding tables, you will discover that Kirsten Hackenbroch has delivered an insightful and original study of the contested nature of public space, based on painstaking and rich fieldwork in Dhaka. Her central argument highlights the thoroughly political nature of public space as well as an often overlooked "informality from above"; this is relevant far beyond the Bangladeshi context and would have been worthy of a less convoluted presentation.