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Spotlights

Emily Cummins

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Describe your current research:

My current project explores the notions of home and future in Detroit, locating the built environment as a space of uncertainty where conflicts over the design of city space unfold. I examine the infrastructural relationships that unfold in the city and that produce various frictions among different stakeholders. I draw from in-depth interviews, participant observation, and active participation with housing advocates to locate “home” as a particular site of struggle. I trace residents narratives of (dis)belonging alongside the grand visions of revitalization from planners, business stakeholders, and city officials.

I conceive of design as both an active process of creating and changing things and objects in the built environment, but also as a speculative and imaginative process, where architectural dreams collide with racialized processes of eviction and removal. I study how the physical landscape of the city articulates with our social world, shaping narratives of past and future, informing contestations over place and space. My aim is to understand how ways of thinking about urban futures are circulated through the built environment. My concern is with understanding how the city, it’s subjects, and the built environment are all reformed through one another.

Why do the Humanities Matter?:

My work is very interdisciplinary and I’ve benefited immensely from working with others outside of sociology, and the sort of questions that have always interested me defy disciplinary boundaries. I think the humanities are particularly well-suited to say something about our complicated social world and our struggles to find meaning. I think the humanities are particularly well-suited for exploring the kinds of questions that don’t have any easy or obvious answers.

The humanities provide us a lens to understand what it might mean to be human, to suffer, to imagine. Humanistic scholarship provides a grammar to explore challenging questions about inequality, citizenship, technology,  culture, ethics, among so many others. I think these sorts of questions matter deeply for anyone interested in creating a more equitable future, which is a central concern in my project.

What do you look forward to this year as a Humanities Center Fellow?

This year at the Humanities Center I’m looking forward to engaging with innovative and creative work. I’m excited about exchanging ideas with an interdisciplinary group. As a fellow, my project will benefit enormously from input from others outside of my discipline, who I might never have had the chance to collaborate with if not for the center. I think my own interdisciplinary leanings will fit in very well with the center’s mission and provide an ideal space for the writing phase.


Emily Cummins is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northeastern University. Broadly, her research focuses on cities and infrastructure, development, and urban social movements with a regional focus on the U.S. Based on 12 month of ethnographic fieldwork in Detroit, her dissertation explores the politics of (re)development through the contested “social field” of the future. Her project explores the ways in which narratives of past, present, and future circulate through the lived environment, simultaneously transforming subjects and structures in the context of a transforming urban space.

Published On: August 20, 2015