Invisible in Austin

  • "Austin City Lights," Photo by Julia Robinson

    “Austin City Lights,” Photo by Julia Robinson

  • "Keith: A Musician at the Margins," Photo by Julia Robinson

    “Keith: A Musician at the Margins,” Photo by Julia Robinson

In Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City, Sociology Professor Javier Auyero and a group of graduate students explore the lives of those working at the bottom of the social order: house cleaners, office machine repairers, cab drivers, exotic dancers, musicians, and roofers, among them. Recounting their life stories with empathy and sociological insight, Invisible in Austin shows us how these lives are driven by a complex mix of individual and social forces. These poignant stories compel us to see how poor people who provide indispensable services for all city residents struggle daily with substandard housing, inadequate public services and schools, and environmental risks. Timely and essential reading, Invisible in Austin makes visible the growing gap between rich and poor that is reconfiguring the cityscape of one of America’s most dynamic places, as low-wage workers are forced to the social and symbolic margins.

It all began with a nagging discomfort that slowly metamorphosed into an incredible, expansive, collective energy. It was the spring semester of 2012, and Javier Auyero was teaching a graduate seminar on poverty and marginality in the Americas. Although in agreement with diagnoses about the economic and political sources of dispossession, students were uncomfortable – distrustful and, on more than one occasion, angry – with the ways in which many a text represents the lives of those living at the bottom of the socio-symbolic ladder – their daily predicament, their beliefs, their hopes. Oftentimes entire, and quite diverse, categories (the urban poor, young poor men, poor women) were reduced to one or two salient portrayals (single mother, welfare recipient, sex worker, drug dealer, gang member); other times the complex and changing character of their lives was truncated in order to make (more or less sophisticated) social-scientific arguments. Doubts about how well researchers knew the people they were representing, and how well they were representing these people, linger.

Readings from Pierre Bourdieu’s now classic The Weight of the World changed the terms of our conversation and first planted the seed for what became the forthcoming book Invisible in Austin. Reading chapters from The Weight of the World, and with the students’ shared discomfort in mind, we decided to try something along similar lines in the city we call our home: an exploration of current forms of social suffering in Austin, Texas – a thriving, rapidly-growing, highly unequal, and segregated technopolis. It was not, at the beginning, a well-conceived plan. There was no grant money to support the fieldwork it would require, and there were neither material nor symbolic rewards in sight for those willing to be part of it.

The work that went into making this book was not part of a research project with a clearly defined objective, design, or timetable. Yet we were clear – adamant, in fact – about one thing. It was going to be a collective enterprise – students were not working as “research assistants” for a “principal investigator”; they were the protagonists of an intellectual adventure. Together we defined the end (and aim) of the journey in ambitious yet vague terms: we would write a book that people outside the restricted and restricting confines of academia would enjoy reading and that would make them think and reflect about the place where they live and the people they live alongside. It would be a book that would not be circumscribed to Austinites, but that could speak to the manifold ways in which inequality and social exclusion are lived and experienced in the United States. Attempting to gently and persuasively force readers to acknowledge the suffering they normally do not see, we thought of our group as engaging in a collective effort in public social science.

For more information about this project and its culmination into Invisible in Austin, see the book’s website here.