To Know the Field: Shaping the Slum Environment and Cultivating the Self


  • Claire Snell-Rood


A broad array of public policy and anthropological research has demonstrated how the slum environment physically and symbolically excludes its residents from society. Yet recent social shifts in urban South Asia suggest that environment is a way that people living in slums also transform their social identity. I use a conceptual frame of dialectical environment-self creation to suggest that women in particular use the slum environment as a tool for personal and social redefinition. Women commented on how their techniques to see value in poor environmental conditions, endure harsh weather, and create microenvironments could result in physical changes to environment and body. To the extent they could produce these changes, it reflected on their spiritual capacities as “knowers” of the environmental field, able to identify potential in an inadequate environment through physical endurance and moral fortitude. This research contributes to our understanding of the significance of the environment to the self. I draw attention to the ways that even limited environmental change can have resounding effects for moral definition and communicating social worth.