Short (re-)introduction to my research

I started this blog one year into my PhD. Three years on, I’ve managed to complete my coursework, undertake one internship, publish two journal articles, and give two conference presentations. It goes without saying, perhaps for many and not just me, that 2016 could have been a better year. But, on the bright side, I also managed to defend my proposal and am now looking forward to secure my candidature going into 2017. Following in an excerpt from my dissertation research proposal, followed by a list of current projects.

Local communities are increasingly occupying the front-lines in the ongoing energy systems transformation, to advance an alternate energy future which is not only sustainable but also equitable. In doing so, these communities find themselves fighting an uphill, and oftentimes, unending battle through minimally-resourced grassroots energy transitions, against a hegemonic and dominant conventional energy paradigm. Community energy (CE) represents the advent of the civil society into a highly monopolistic and oligarchic energy industry which has enjoyed state-regulated legitimacy ever since its inception. Now, in response to existential threats like climate change and exponential social and economic polarization in cities, communities of citizens are self-organizing through on-the-ground energy transition projects and virtual advocacy and resource-sharing networks to generate momentum in absence of critical state-support. The importance of civil society in ongoing energy transitions comes about as a result of the inherently decentralized and distributed nature of renewable energy technologies that constitute the future of the energy sector. The informality surrounding energy infrastructure provision based on decentralized energy systems is yet to settle into formal governance models and social organization, in that the roles, responsibilities and positions of consumers as energy producers are still open to negotiation and conflict. A greater understanding of these dynamics which unfold across institutional as well as geographical scales from locality to nation are critical to enabling an energy future for all sections of society, especially those which remain disenfranchised in the current energy system. This research project will investigate the underlying rationalities; how grassroots energy transitions come about, and how they are maintained in a dialectic opposition to the carbon economy, while at the same time being dependent on it. The primary objective of this research is to advance a greater understanding of ongoing grassroots-led efforts, which pull human and material elements into new socio-material networks, in pursuit of affecting broader societal change. As such, the research is designed to expand on the methodological frameworks generally used to study local energy transitions through an exploratory research approach that integrates influences from multiple disciplines including socio-technical studies, geography, urban planning, public policy and literary theory.

Current Projects:

Doctoral Research

  • Mainstream Planning and Insurgent Advocacy: Can the Resilience Discourse Respond to Equity in Shrinking Cities?
  • Exploration of grassroots networks to advance adoption of solar PV systems in Plano, Texas: A Narrative-Networks Analysis [Part of ongoing field exam]

Other projects

  • Experiential Learning in the Planning Classroom [tentative title]



Why are you here, then?

Most of urban social science is values. But, when decisions no longer solely remain the remit of exceptionally upheld scientific and rational derivatives, one of the questions that arises is: who is making the value judgments? Truth is no ones property and no one has the grasp over absolute reality; it eludes theorists who take positions in terms of its existence and ultimate attainability—a source of much contention, that years later students of social science continue to debate over and spend time discussing. To be clear, neither is this an argument against the positions taken by social scientists with respect to reality viz., objectivist, constructionist, subjectivist, nor is it meant to disparage the worth of pertinent discussions which expand and hone students’ research abilities, while holding them firmly to the ground; humble, in face of certain uncertainty.

What this argument is against, is the lack of agency one gets assigned for having taken a position with respect to reality, and then a stand to articulate it in no uncertain terms. The problem questions in social science cannot be pigeonholed, not in terms of their scope nor in relation to their scale; the sole reason for defining scope and scale is for manageability and retaining focus. While everyone has nationalist and patriotic affiliations, acknowledgement of the globalized interconnected world we live in shouldn’t escape us. But little did I know that it does—by a huge degree. With it, escapes the acknowledgement of the root causes of individual and collective agonies of the “other“—one who doesn’t belong here and yet, is an observer of systemic and structural subversion that implicates all lives.

Why do we have to submit our wills to creators of institutional structures that we have no option or opportunity of escaping? What makes us believe in the power of incrementalism without having experienced leapfrogging? Why does our optimism and belief in inter-system change blind us to the pessimism and distrust of those who may be less privileged?

If calling out progenitors of global turmoil and terror requires a national or patriotic affiliation, then there exists no recourse to those who crumble under its injustice. If belonging to a piece of land confers the ability to stand up against the excesses committed on it, and from it, then perspectives of those alien to the land are of no consequence to their own subjugated existence. If being distrustful of apparent incremental systemic changes occurring from within existing political and institutional structures requires justification through patronage, then there exists none, for anyone, not even for those who think they possess it.

Ideological Convictions and Self-Marketing

Inasmuch as distinct doctoral education might be from other professional degrees, the question of self-marketing remains vital for students to answer as they enter the job market. Assuming that an academic position is being sought, self-marketing needs to be based on the scholarly milieu that one wants to associate and work with upon graduation, analogous to the practical specialization one wishes to pursue as a masters graduate. This in turn will depend, predominantly, on the ideological convictions implied in the student’s dissertation. After all its a doctor of “philosophy” degree, something often ignored in a rush to expound and deliberate on—using precious energies and expensive credit hours—the methodologies that will be employed and data that will be used. In fact, rightly so, because without those two aspects a research is as complete as brilliant ten page proposal. Yet, the philosophy aspect has far reaching implications in determining the academic community a PhD student will eventually and decidedly belong to, and it is worth a conscientious student’s while to reflect on this aspect of his or her dissertation. After all, as intellectuals-in-training, PhD students need to honest with themselves about what worldview they think needs to be advanced and what values they stand by in administering this advancement through their future research.

In reflecting on this, I realized that the scholarship that I tend to naturally align with as a consequence of my ideological convictions perhaps, remains staunchly opposed to perpetuating the status quo. I guess the value-laden discipline to which I belong affords me the ability to situate myself as I please and I can only imagine how rigidly directed, in terms of implied values, the process of research would be in an engineering domain. But I can only imagine.

I found the prospect of being able to effectively market myself, as unfortunate as that phrase might sound, problematic within the discipline of planning. I had written earlier, wondering why planning practice was incapable of attempting to recognize and engage in cross-scale issues that clearly have a bearing on future of cities, and I found, as I studied further and after being serendipitously pointed towards by my PI,  that the epistemological orientation in a discipline that I was seeking was not far off from the world of planning–Urban Geography. Although I say this, I do not find myself situating in either one of these disciplines purely exclusively, especially given the level of overlap and concurrence between these seemingly distinct fields. Nevertheless, an excursion in reflecting on the possibilities is nothing short of exhilarating.

There are a number of ways to distinguish between urban planning and urban geography as one might imagine, and in my mind, a good distinction can be made on the basis of corresponding epistemologies—the nature and scope of knowledges that each discipline holds. In this sense, urban planning is mainly concerned with examining the best way to organize material and immaterial aspects of ‘the urban’ that enable a good life. This leads to analyses that may be focused on design and operation of urban infrastructure services like transport to satisfy certain objectives–pertaining to economic or ecological ends for example. Some other analyses may be focused on investigating the ability of new models of governance or principles of design to be applied in analyzing and reforming urban cityscapes. In contrast, urban geography, while debatable, views the gamut of normative ideas on cities and their ontology within a broader landscape, where ‘the urban’ is considered in terms of its relationship to different critical aspects that are known to shape or guide the evolution of ‘the urban’. Of these critical aspects considered by geographers, ecology or environment has remained the dominant one, yet new tools like GIS are enabling geographers the ability to include wider aspects into their analyses like the political economy, social physics, and systemic approaches to study and gain a greater understanding of ‘the urban’.

If I downloadcan use a provocative analogy to describe this more simply; in my mind, urban planning attempts to organize and engage with aspects related to ‘the urban’ within a proverbial box, while urban geography endeavors to understand and examine the influences on the box, as well as on its insides, in reference to where the box is placed, how its placed and what forces are acting on it. It follows that the ability of urban planning research to enable a more pervasive and radical change within its boundaries (that it is incapable of navigating, i.e. across scales), can possibly be enhanced by encouragingly drawing on the views accumulated by urban geography about the box from the outside.

In conclusion, tying this contention to my initial point on marketing oneself to an intellectual milieu that one identifies with by virtue of (either implicit or explicit) ideological convictions in ones dissertation, I can only endeavor, as a PhD student, to achieve a higher level of understanding about my own research topic, as well as my convictions to make the right decision of marketing myself as honestly as I can once I graduate. I say this because I view the scope of urban planning and of urban geography as distinct from one another, which in abstract ideological terms translates to the former unwittingly embracing impositions that generate (a subset of) outcomes for the benefit of the few (imposers), as opposed to zooming out in the latter’s view, away from the incumbent frames of reference, to overcome prevailing impositions by exposing them and offering more acceptable alternatives for the greater good.

End of semester tales and reasons for doing research

This was by far the most eventful semester. Not only did the new college, with the school of Architecture and school of Urban Planning, become official, there is new faculty being hired and new spaces constructed ahead of our physical move in Fall. While things are hopefully moving in the direction as they should be, the same cannot be said about the PhD student group that we are hoping will become official by Fall. As senior cohorts come close to their graduation and the new ones focusing on their coursework and seeking out limited number of research and teaching positions, it wasn’t wise of us to assume enthusiastic support at this point. This hope is now postponed to Fall, when incoming students may be eager to join the group and help bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm.

What made this semester more eventful was the verbal approval of my committee members on my proposed research topic. So, summer will have me drafting and redrafting my proposal until it gets me approved for the field exam by end of this year. Thankfully, the timing also fits as I finish the last leg of my coursework over Fall, just in time to submit the proposal, gain approval and secure candidacy.

But as I consider the list of chapters in my proposal, and the sections and subsections that go into it, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. Having discussed this “natural” pre-proposal writing feeling with my supervisor and a senior doctoral candidate (so helpful!!), the task seems less overwhelming, but its still just as intimidating. I guess that will abate as I get things off of my to-do list of chapter—more on this later.

As these tasks get listed down on my list of things to take care of, and as I move towards the point where the  probability of reaching “valley of shit” increases (hope not!), I keep thinking about the larger ‘purpose’ of research—you know, besides the opportunity to write “Dr.” in front of my name and wear a silly robe in front of my loved ones. Having settled on a topic that is narrow enough to be completed within realistic time frame and interesting enough to hopefully hold my interest, I think its a good exercise to consider why research matters, at all.

I don’t think anyone who seeks a PhD solely for respect and acclaim ever ends up completing it in earnest. I may be wrong, but to gain either material or social credits for something that one has toil for for several years seems ridiculously unsatisfactory, if not self-defeating. It has to be more personal. Why does it matter that I make a valuable contribution to the existing body of knowledge in my field of interest when its physical embodiment (the dissertation) is only going to be read by my mother and my committee members ?

For me, my interest in research is an outgrowth of my ideological convictions, To put it simply, there are correct ways to do things (design cities, build infrastructure, enable democracy etc.) that have the potential to positively influence us all, but its something, at least I, don’t see happening in the real world. Research, in my mind, is one way to expose this misdirection in implementation of knowledge away from fundamental first principles, of life, or the world, of our very existence. It follows that if a unique contribution to our knowledge of life, the world, and our existence matters, then its articulation must be independent of who brings it forth. If new knowledge is destined to be added to our existing knowledge, it will be, regardless.

The researcher then is a channel for this destined knowledge to be brought forth, not necessarily its primary source. The things we learn, even while not consciously accessing, evaluating and juxtaposing others’ ideas or arguments into/against our own—as we usually do in literature reviews—lets us think how we think and do what we do. While this may seem like distancing oneself from ones own work, it isn’t. Rather, its an objective reconsideration of why contributing knowledge matters at a personal level and what reasons must it take to belong to a community of academicians/researchers/graduate students who do this—for the right reasons. This idea, as I sat discussing with my PI yesterday, was something I must have perhaps picked elsewhere from art and creative writing domains, but it makes sense to me and seems relevant for academic research work as well.

Academia in the cold

Last week it snowed and everything froze in Arlington, Texas. This week is a repeat. This time, however, the university did not close down the library. I am thankful for that. Although, I must admit that its nicer to stay home than go to the library in the cold even if it is a few blocks away. Previous week, my research went into cold storage and as soon as it warmed up earlier this week, my brain froze (not literally!).

Besides preparing for and attending an interview, I constantly procrastinated on the pre-proposal proposal, which is a topic for another post. I am also helping organize the informal colloquiums that some of the senior Ph.D. students had initiated. Going forward, the idea is to formalize Ph.D. student representation through these colloquiums as a means of strengthening faculty-student relationship within the new college uniting the School of Architecture and School of Urban and Public Affairs. While several outcomes on this are awaited, it would be too early to comment on the plans. The bottom line being that my brain froze because nothing I did the previous week was related to my research. It was a pretty anti-academic week, weather-wise and personally!

Just to overview some of the more academic tasks still staring down at me, here’s a laundry list:

  1. Two pager on dissertation proposal — reverse outline
  2. Literature review on Urban Energy Systems — revised manuscript plan
  3. Policy brief on the PSoF paper for class assignment and (tentatively) for Scholars Strategy Network membership
  4. In class presentation (was this week, postponed to next because of snow-bummer!) and discussion
  5. In class discussion lead on the topic of environment and energy policy
  6. Term project in GIS class (I haven’t even started on this!! @##@$%$)

It doesn’t seem much, right ? (I am convincing myself, not you!). Although I can smell the Spring break in the frigid wintry air blowing unnecessarily at 12 mph, I don’t think it will be much of a break for me. God Help Me!

Beyond Perspective

Perspective still matters. But that isn’t just what matters anymore.

A while back, drawing from my readings based on ecological and socio-ecological systems (SES), I wrote a blog post on the continuum of sciences. The post mainly discussed the way in which human agency lies centrally between ecological (nature) and technological (man made) systems. I intended to point out the focus of humanity on the technological or artificial side of the spectrum. The obsession with technology, oftentimes seen as a panacea approach to resolution of problems, has had a fallback on the fine balance between the social and ecological systems — this consequently becoming the subject of many concerns outlining sustainable development in general.

I had spent the larger part of my research (before I joined the program) on socio-technical aspects of urban systems (mainly focusing on urban energy technologies). The socio-ecological lens, therefore, provided a very different perspective, enabling me to revisit the same concepts from a different theoretical lens. Perspective matters, as I said earlier, but what seemed to matter more is the perspectival lens which I used to view the other side of spectrum. Had I studied socio-ecological systems before socio-technical systems, my conceptions, I contend, would have been very different. It wasn’t the case for me and so my inability in upholding this contention with any certainty.

But here’s what I can say about the perspectival lens given my experience in studying diagonally opposite perspectives — human-technology and human-environment. The recurring lamentation (an academically sound one rather than a dramatic one — just to be clear) in literature appears to underline the problematic singularity of technological fixes. These technocratic solutions have taken away, in fact obscured, deeper and more meaningful conceptions of interfaces between humans and their surroundings. Human proclivity to material assets, in entirety, frames all of human understanding — from social (social media and networking) to environmental (geoengineering solutions) to even biological (GM foods) aspects of life.

Nevertheless, the undesirability to break away, and rightly so, from technology, is accepted within socio-ecological theory when it discusses the ability to encapsulate internal and external disturbances on systems through technological advancement (resilience and disaster management). This openness and malleability to accept the opposite side of the spectrum, evident when viewing from the socio-ecological perspectival lens, hardly appears to be so from the socio-technical one. This is to say that human-nature dichotomy is a human construct and the ability of ecological systems to accept and obey informed human intervention contrasts incriminatingly with the inability of most technological systems to conform to natural laws and regulation.

To me, therefore, perspective matters inasmuch as the contrasts in framing an issue; be it from ecological side of the spectrum looking to the technological side or vice versa. It would be really interesting to meet someone whose research journey has taken them in the opposite direction — studying first the ecological aspects and then the technological ones. Please let me know if you are that person or know someone who is.