About my Work

My research borrows methods from disciplines such as ethnic studies, cultural geography, cultural studies, architectural history, public history, material culture, cultural landscape studies, and cultural anthropology. Detailed discussions of disciplinary genealogies and theories/methods are footnoted here.[1] As a result of my interdisciplinary training and interests, I employ a hybrid method called spatial ethnography in order to study human behavior, cultural practices, and daily performative practices within specific geographical and architectural contexts.[2]

PedagogyTwo ideas frame my understanding of spatial ethnography. First, empirical inductive field-based research is my primary mode of inquiry. This allows me to situate the world as a product of its context—not as a vague theoretical construct that is historically invariable. The second idea is that of shifting scalar frames: social, geographic, or temporal (see figure). The choice of scale is akin to choosing a vantage point to study a phenomenon. For instance, we can study the world from the point of view of an individual, family, kin, or community. (social vantage points). Similarly, we can explore the physical world from an architectural, urban, or regional context (geographical vantage points). Temporal frames include geological time, cultural time, and personal time (historical vantage points). Understanding the lived world requires us to position ourselves and our point of view within this matrix of scales.

My accomplishments and future plans as a teacher, scholar, and citizen fall under three interrelated themes borrowed from the Boyer Report (pdf[3] 

  1. Discovery. The goal of my research, articles, and book manuscript (as well as conferences and symposia organized by me) is to chalk out methods and theories of spatial ethnography, the primary interpretive framework by which I claim one can read the material world and uncover the myriad voices, histories, and lives of its inhabitants.
  2. Application. Applicability of my work lies in the way I envision humanistic architectural education. This is outlined in my conception of teaching and learning in the Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures area and my interpretation of the term “fieldwork.”
  3. Integration. Cross-disciplinarity is necessary for any study of culture and architecture. However, for me, integration does not merely suggest overlaps of theoretical and methodological positions or multi-disciplinary affiliations, but takes form in the goal of humanistic thought (humanities) inside and outside the academy: knowledge and action for a just, equal, and representative world.

[1] Emancipatory critical theory scholarship of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and cultural studies (Franz Fanon, James C. Scott, Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Michel de Certeau) informs my position that social histories are contested and politicized. Constructivist and interactionalist scholarship (Erving Goffman and Herbert Blumer but specifically practiced in ethnic studies by Werner Sollors, Rogers Brubaker, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Michel Laguerre, Fredrik Barth, and Kathleen Neils Conzen) inform my belief that identity and history are incessantly and contextually recreated. My knowledge of traditional ethnic studies scholarship has been enriched and expanded by the work of historical archaeologists such as James Deetz, Bernard Herman, Mechal Sobel, and Leland Ferguson, who argue that the material world has much more to tell us about identity and culture than is otherwise acknowledged.

I bring my particular interest in studying embodied, haptic, incorporating practices as a form of historical knowledge that foregrounds the heritage and values of the “weak”—people whose histories are neither written nor documented. My reading of embodied and experiential forms of geographical knowledge is informed by works of cultural geographers such as Allan Pred, Nigel Thrift, Timothy Cresswell, and Wilbur Zelinsky, whose works on mobility and transience challenge more situated and territorial readings of space. However works of geographers such as James and Nancy Duncan, David Harvey, Doreen Massey, and Mary Ryan, anthropologists such as Akhil Gupta, James Ferguson, Michael Herzfeld, and Arjun Appadurai show that embedded politics of power and resistance in the built environment can induce deceptive readings of mobility and stasis.

Cultural landscape and vernacular architecture scholars such as Paul Groth, J. B. Jackson and Henry Glassie show me the complex patterns that lie under the ordinary and quotidian world. In the end, what I do is “public history with a material bent”—the kind that is practiced by Dolores Hayden, Setha Low, and Dell Upton—all deeply influenced by the French theorist Henri Lefebvre. To their rich work I bring my background and training as an architect (informed by the structuralist logic of N. John Habraken) to practice and teach the craft of spatial ethnography.

[2] My scholarship refers to a position (supported by theories of interactionism and symbolic interactionism) that social reality is a product of its spatial, temporal, and social contexts.

[3] The terms scholarship of discovery, application, teaching, and integration come out of the report Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, by Ernest Boyer. This work published in 1990 redefines the meaning and nature of scholarship. I have used Boyer’s definition in order to guide my career. Boyer argues that “to be considered scholarship, service activities must be tied directly to one’s special field of knowledge and relate to, and flow directly out of, this professional activity.” (22) He importantly notes that knowledge is not necessarily first “discovered” and then later “applied”—“new intellectual understandings,” Boyer writes, “can arise out of the very act of application … theory and practice vitally interact and one renews the other.” (23) Ernest Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. (The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990), 17-19, 22-23.