Africa in Our Lives: Allen Xiao

Allen Xiao is a PhD candidate in the Geography Department. His interests concern urbanism, subjectivity, mobility, ethnicity, and immigration. Allen has extensive research, teaching, and publishing experience. He recently won the African Studies Association’s Graduate Student Paper Prize for his “Lagos in Life: Placing Cities in Lived Experiences.”

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I have devoted myself to studying African peoples and cultures since 2011 when I was hired as a research assistant for a project that focuses on African migrants in South China, most of whom are Nigerian Igbos. After I studied anthropology in Hong Kong, I often went to Chunking Mansions where a number of African asylum seekers lived and worked. These encounters made me interested in the international flows in which people of the Global South largely engaged. Therefore, I embarked on my journey to Lagos, Nigeria in 2012 to research the livelihood of Chinese petty entrepreneurs in Nigeria, which is the theme of my master’s thesis. The dynamic urban life in Lagos attracted me to further delve into African studies and urban geography. That was why in 2014 I decided to study human geography at UW-Madison which is also famous for a vibrant community of Africanist scholars. I have learned a lot from a variety of excellent scholars through the African Studies Program. With a strong interest in Yoruba cultures, I have spent two years studying Yoruba language on campus.

Congratulations on your award from ASA! What is the paper about?

This paper is built on my dissertation project but more so focuses on the methodological and conceptual reorientation of studying African urban life.

Rather than examining what constitutes urban life in a particular city, this paper draws attention to how cities are ‘placed’ along individuals’ life trajectories. The outcome of 15 months of ethnographic research among 102 residents of a neighbourhood in Lagos suggests that Lagos is better understood relationally. Given the scale and positionality of Lagos among Nigerian cities, the meanings of Lagos to different individuals are illuminated via an examination of how they ‘place’ those places that are important to them –Lagos, hometowns, and regional centers – both conceptually and practically within their lived experiences and current livelihoods.

 Tell us about the research you did in Lagos.

Since I started my PhD study, my research in Lagos focuses on two aspects. From 2015 to 2017, I spent three months each year researching urban mobility in Lagos. By taking an autoethnographic approach, I shed light on the nuances of being a passenger in everyday encounters with transport workers on roads and on how these encounters shape the rhythms of passengers’ mobilities. This research is published in Urban Forum. Furthermore, together with a Nigerian scholar, I published a case study, in Urban Studies, of one of the largest transport hubs with a spacious motor park and vibrant markets in North Lagos. This collaborative project specifically examines interactions between commercial actors (shopkeepers, stallholders, and hawkers) and various forms of infrastructure in the spatial and temporal senses. From 2017 to 2019, I further delved into everyday life in Lagos by renting an apartment in a neighborhood for a year, which is my field site for dissertation research on urban subjectivity.

What is your dissertation research about?

Based on 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork in an ethnically and religiously diverse neighbourhood of Lagos, my dissertation examines how spirituality is socio-spatially interwoven with subjectivity in urban dwellers’ lived experiences. In the urban society of Lagos where a variety of societal constraints pervades, spirituality is implicitly practiced by individuals to cope with such constraints. Built on African studies literature that delves into cultural dimensions of African epistemologies, this research treats religion and witchcraft as a spiritual whole and sheds light on how spirituality emerges in everyday sayings and doings and on its meanings to living in the city. More information is available here.

What do you think a geography lens offers African Studies?

There are a lot of intellectual benefits a human geographer can contribute to African studies, but here I just mention two things in my experience. One is spatial thinking of human experience. Indebted to many geographical thoughts, including Yi-fu Tuan’s, a renowned humanistic geographer at UW-Madison, I take “experience” seriously in my research and endeavor to understand socio-spatial relationships in lived experience. This endeavor is reflected in my experiential approach to urban mobility and transport in Lagos as well as critical examination of spirituality and subjectivity in my dissertation project. The other is relational thinking of place, which informs of the ASA paper. That said, Lagos, though as the most populous African city, is not necessarily important for an individual resident, but is relationally situated in one’s life trajectories probably with other large or small places. To demystify Lagos, a critical geographer does not treat cities as a central analytical unit, but rather, inductively interprets the meanings of living in cities after assembling particular residents’ full storylines and allowing the specific meanings of the city to emerge from this holistic posterior interpretation. In brief, I have been developing my career path to becoming an Africanist geographer.