Yale University doctoral candidate Michael Degani, supervised by Dr. Michael McGovern, will undertake research on how urban residents in rapidly growing cities in developing nations access basic services from unreliable state institutions, and fashion daily life within material infrastructures defined by shortage and instability. He will conduct a case study of the social and technical arrangements of electricity access in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's major urban center. As cellphones, lights, and electronic media come to characterize properly modern life in Dar es Salaam, the electricity needed to power these technologies has become ever more expensive and unreliable. Two decades of protracted neoliberal reform have weakened the national power utility, and consumers suffer increased tariffs, aging physical infrastructure and extended rationing. Though some contemplate solar power or other off-grid solutions, others risk theft, piracy, or meter-tampering, often through collaborations with part-time or retrenched state technicians, colloquially known as 'hatchets.'

Degani will collect data from two sources: income-generating activities of technicians and electricity consumption in three urban neighborhoods. Technician activities will comprise financial logs contextualized by life histories, participant-observation and in-depth case studies of specific transactions. Data on electricity consumption will comprise month long energy diaries, interviews and participant-observation among 10 households in three neighborhoods with high, medium and low levels of electrical infrastructure. These two types of data will allow him to analyze the strategies, meanings and experience of electrification in both its distribution and use.

This research will contribute to theorizing the relationship between infrastructure systems, unregulated economies and the production of urban space and time in a postsocialist setting. It will also contribute to understanding how energy use is invested with cultural and political meanings in a global context increasingly dominated by market models of delivery. Funding this research also supports the education of a graduate student

Project Report

With the support of National Science Foundation, fieldwork was conducted in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, from July 2011- 2012 as part of twenty-two month ethnographic study of an African electrical grid in the wake of complicated and incomplete privatization reforms. The project was designed to trace electrical current across its sites of production, distribution, and consumption and examine three sets of research themes: (1) the effects of chronic power shortages on national politics and popular attitudes toward the Tanzanian government; (2) the formation of a grey market for electricity and electrical infrastructure in Tanzania’s commercial capital of Dar es Salaam; (3) household uses of electricity. Local immersion, interviews and discourse analysis were the methods used to analyze the relationship between power shortages and national politics. They revealed that thermal emergency power contracts serve as key rents for factions in state ministries and bodies. This feeds into popular discontent and undermines the long-term legitimacy of the ruling party CCM. Ironically, consistent power outages may work to channel demands for democratic accountability by creating a palpable and recurrent symbol of state neglect. Fieldwork with contractors, bureaucrats, electricians and consumers revealed the difficult spatial and socioeconomic terrain which shapes basic service provision in Dar es Salaam, and the resulting web of shifting collaborations around municipal power theft, expedited bureaucratic procedures and surreptitious connections to the grid. Commercialization reforms in the early 2000s have created a pool of under or casually employed electricians who function as entrepeneurial quasi-state agents, connecting consumers to the power utility. The outcomes of these arrangements vary depending on the social relationships between consumer, bureaucrats and brokers in question, and the scope for trickery is wide. Finally, fifty household surveys and in-depth interviews followed by three month-long energy diaries were conducted to examine the dynamics of household electricity consumption. Once connected to the grid, households treated electricity in a variety of different ways: as a prestige good associated with modern media consumption, as an investment in social relationships through gifts of light, ironing, or sound for celebrations, or as an infusion of cash by ‘pawning’ electricity as income is diverted to other pressing needs. In this sense electricity might be thought of as a small-scale capital asset. Taken together, this ethnographic data may help to describe a specific class of contemporary infrastructures common to the postcolonial world, ones that are neither heroic public works nor sunk into the background of everyday life. Rather: at each scale, the ‘grid’ juts into the foreground of the city as an object of political contention, economic opportunity and social relations. In turn, this awkwardly visible infrastructure may help refine understandings national culture, state obligation, practical citizenship and the everyday rhythms of urban life.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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Yale University
New Haven
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