Theses Doctoral

Black Spots: Roads and Risk in Rural Kenya

Melnick, Amiel Bize

This dissertation examines “post-agrarian” transformations in Kenyan rural areas. But where rural transformation is usually written as a story about land, Black Spots is a story about roads. Kenya’s massive investment in roads infrastructure over the last decade has intersected with the decline in smallholder agriculture in such a way that, for many rural residents, fortunes are now imagined on the road rather than on the land. Roadside trade, transport, and even salvage from crashes provide supplementary livings for rural populations facing declining agricultural opportunities. The dissertation argues that in the context of austerity policies and rural abandonment, road work and its “fast money” not only expose roadside residents to physical danger, but also entrench entrepreneurial risk ideology into local imaginaries.

With the road accident as a lens illuminating a wider landscape of rural hazard, the dissertation shows how rural residents refashion relationships to land, work, technology, and loss in high-risk environments. At the same time, it demonstrates the limits of “risk”—that is, a calculated engagement with potential loss, conducted in the interest of profit—as a framework for managing contingency. In this sense, Black Spots is both an ethnography of risk and of what risk fails to capture. It tracks how rural residents learn to engage bodily and economic hazard and to understand it as risk; how they coordinate the disparate temporalities and technologies of life on the road and life on the land; and how they withstand loss when these attempts do not go as planned. The dissertation thus advances two parallel concerns: on the one hand, it demonstrates how economic practice is at once bodily and reasoned. On the other, it considers how experiences of and ideas about contingency are shaped in relation to shifting economic, social, and infrastructural possibilities.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Melnick_columbia_0054D_14542.pdf Melnick_columbia_0054D_14542.pdf application/pdf 11.1 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Larkin, Brian
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 21, 2018