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Meet the Fellows: 2018 Newcombe Fellow Erin Torkelson

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship fosters the original and significant study of ethical or religious values in all fields of the humanities and social sciences. The 2018 class, announced by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, includes Erin Torkelson, a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of California, Berkeley. Erin’s dissertation, titled Taken for Granted: Geographies of Social Welfare in South Africa, explores how an enormous and ambitious social welfare program has become a new means of dispossession in post-apartheid South Africa.

Erin describe the unlikely source of her dissertation topic:

I never thought my research would begin with receipts — the small, mundane slips of paper that list the things we’ve purchased, routinely printed by shop clerks operating cash registers, and carelessly crumpled in pockets or tossed in trashcans. But, when I started talking to people about their experiences of the South African social grant program, my interlocutors would inevitably reach into their purses, wallets, or even the inside covers of their identity documents in order to unfurl yards of flimsy 2 inch-wide paper with smudged blue-black ink. Brandishing this record, a pensioner might retort: “What social grant program? My money is vanishing! Look here!” And then, as she points to umpteen inexplicable transactions, she might say: “Look what they took. This is for a funeral policy they made me take. This is for airtime. I don’t even have a phone! “

After many such ethnographic moments, I understood that each of these creased, but very carefully preserved, reams of receipt paper told a story. Each one was an archaeology, an accounting of small tragedies, unfolding invisibly across South Africa. And, but for these receipts, these stories would never be told. Uniting them was an organic critique of South Africa’s social welfare program, evidence that people’s experiences were quite different than the promises made in development reports. Even as universal basic income and cash transfer programs have gained popularity worldwide for their progressive potential, South Africa’s grant recipients were voicing something quite different: the sheer impossibility of addressing centuries of state-sponsored racism, segregation and poverty through the distribution of social grants. Wading through hundreds of receipts and the stories they tell, my research explores how the social grant program has materially reproduced racial and economic difference through a new regime of spatial and technological politics.

For more information about the 2018 Newcombe Fellows and a list of their dissertation titles, click here.

 


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