Scholarship of Discovery (Research)

Research areas: Social Justice and the City, Cultural Landscape Studies, Cultural Landscapes of the South Asian Diaspora, Fieldwork Methods, Spatial Ethnography.

1. We live in an intensely mobile world. Goods, money, people, information and ideas crisscross the globe at increasingly faster speeds. In this new century, all that is stable melts into flows. Resultantly, the way we read and experience place has changed drastically. Not only do we experience places transiently as we move through them as vectors, but also, places themselves transform at great speeds. Properties change ownership and new functions appear in old locations. New construction materials, design processes, as well as building modeling systems respond to this culture of motility. My research examines the social, cultural and physical worlds that are generated within this contemporary context. I call these landscapes of mobility. But it is not enough to understand or delineate these landscapes of mobility; we also need to find new epistemological frameworks in order to capture the nuances of these geographies. New models of urban and architectural histories attempt to analyze the incessantly transforming, emergent, performative character of our world.  In my work on immigrant cultures I have explored how memory, embodied practices, visceral experiences, and forms of temporal rhythms frame the way mobile beings experience and interpret place. I have traced objects, people and ideas as they travel across multiple locations, and situated their movement within multiple geographical scales, ultimately reproducing networks of place stories. These multi-sited narratives of place, or spatial ethnographies as I prefer to call them, help describe architecture as part of a larger system of settings, movements, and socio-spatial relationships.

2. My long-term research goal is to examine social justice and diverse forms of ethnic and civic belonging in North America. I find that multiple publics, contested civic norms, and fractured classes of citizens constitute the North American public realm.[1]  Therefore my objective is to understand how various social constituencies, divergent cultural practices, incongruent histories, and mediated identities produce(d) North American citizenship and civil society. In order to do so, I turn to the margins of North American society, the immigrants. As outsiders, their world is seen as the most distant from the core. Yet, by studying how immigrants engage with mainstream society, maintain public spaces, interact with other Americans, and delineate social boundaries in everyday life, I get a better understanding of core values in American civil society. My research is even more relevant at a time when seemingly conflicting forces of globalization and nationalism make it difficult for us to see how citizenship and belonging is a negotiated process, not a predetermined fact.

Current Projects and Relevance

I have collaborated with organizations such as the Vernacular Architecture Forum, Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, Aga Khan Awards for Architecture, and American Studies Association to practice and disseminate a unique way of reading and interpreting cultural landscapes, a method that I call spatial ethnography. I borrow from fields such as material culture studies, environmental history and public history – spatial ethnography merges thick descriptions (Geertz), multi-sited ethnography (Marcus), material culture and spatial analysis (Carter and Cromley), observation of the near-environment (Low) and macro-level studies of systems and scapes (Appadurai).

In 2006-7, I used spatial ethnographic methods to produce urban heritage tours and public histories of Jackson Heights and the Lower East Side for the Vernacular Architecture Forum, Place Matters, and City Lore (a cultural organization dedicated to advancing the living cultural heritage of New York).[2]  In 2009, I began studying Devon Avenue, Chicago, in order to document, analyze, and read this multi-ethnic urban landscape while employing spatial ethnographic methods.[3]  Spatial Ethnography informs the architectural profession too, by suggesting ways to intervene in and evaluate everyday lived landscapes that are neither designed by specialist architects nor generated by formal aesthetic criteria.
In his editorial account of the discussions at the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture’s International Knowledge Construction Workshop[4] (Vancouver, BC, February 26-March 1, 2009), Dr. Modjtaba Sadria wrote,

“Arijit Sen explored the creation of public spheres in ordinary, everyday places. Using the example of ethnic urban space in Chicago, it was argued that the banal visual facade of homogenised, commercial buildings that characterize many modern cities and strip malls often hide remarkably complex, multilayered and multifarious social worlds. It was noted that these spaces cannot be judged on aesthetic merit but are nonetheless socially significant spaces. The way residents inhabit these spaces involves processes of translation and resistance which constitute new forms of public discourse. … [A]cknowledging informal, socially significant architecture highlights a new framework for evaluation; not a framework oriented around architecture as an object, but a framework based on sustainability and the ability of built form to sustain social worlds. … Thus, the question guiding the evaluation of built form becomes: Which narratives are being empowered or enabled?”

In a subsequent talk at the Leadership Center for Asian Pacific Americans (LCAPA) (Asian Pacific American Community Leadership Program, May 7, 2009) I argued that spatial ethnography can also be used as an applied method by grassroots social organizers in order to identify clear strategies to understand and intervene in the everyday lived landscapes.

I highlight two additional (but related) issues that interest me. The first has to do with the reappearance of the stranger in urban space and second, the concomitant issue of social/collective action. Both these issues influence design, history, and analysis of the urban built environment and how and what we value, build and preserve. The incessant movement of people and images has made us aware of a world far off and has brought us in direct contact with strangers from those distant worlds. Yet as scholars such as Ash Amin argues, we lack the ability to engage with strangers. Although new forms of public spaces replace the older plazas and parks, nevertheless, current economic, political and social conditions have increasingly produced privatized, surveilled, and controlled. A lack of public space where difference is visible, tolerated and acceptable has discouraged collective solidarities and social action. Yet landscapes of mobility have opened up new forms of collaboration, conjured up new dependencies, and sustained alternative forms of collectivities and struggles. I see mainstream architecture’s retreat from political action to aesthetic manipulations, as seen in recent obsessions over fabricated form-making, a lost opportunity. But contemporary artists have addressed these new possibilities through place-based art practices, social practice of art, and emerging stories of performative place-making. In each case the human body has become implicated in the process of place making, a process I call “embodied placemaking.”

[1] Jürgen Habermas refers to the public realm as the domain of rational critical debate that defines contemporary society. Scholars such as Nancy Fraser have critiqued Habermas by suggesting that the idea of a singular public realm is incorrect. According to them there are multiple publics and myriad public discourses. I base my argument on the work of Nancy Fraser, Geoff Elly, and Mary Ryan, who explain the existence of multiple and contested public realms.

[2] City Lore and the Municipal Art Society founded the Place Matters project in 1998. City Lore is a cultural organization dedicated to advancing the living cultural heritage of New York and other cities through publications, media, and school and community programs. ( The Municipal Art Society is a private, non-profit membership organization that is committed to enriching the culture, neighborhoods, and physical design of New York City. (

[3] I worked with the local Chamber of Commerce, Rogers Park Historical Society, South Asian American Policy Research Institute, and Devon Bank for this project. Chicago Journal noted, “The project, Imagine Devon, is an initiative launched by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to gather input from local residents on their dreams for the future of Devon Avenue and the larger West Ridge neighborhood.”

Lorraine Swanson, “Imagine Devon: University initiative seeks input from residents to create vision” In Chicago Journal (March 19, 2009), p. 1
“For students, it’s all about Devon,” Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society Newsletter, Chicago, March 2009 Tausif Malik, “Students’ Project in Devon Link with Immigrant Cultures,” in DesiTalk Chicago, March 6, 2009, p. 15

[4] Other workshop participants included Brigitte Shim, Nezar Alssayed, Ed Soja, Nasser Rabat, Abidin Khusno, James Holton, Anthony King, Ian Angus, George Braid, Mari Fujita, Jyoti Hosagrahar, and Mohammad al-Asad.