This written interview is part of a new series on Insights, “Ask A Scholar,” through which we highlight the personal experiences of fellows and other affiliated researchers. The following conversation with Kendra Kintzi (ACOR-CAORC predoctoral fellow, 2021–2022) took place by email in July 2021.
Thanks for joining us on Insights! Tell us a little more about yourself and your current project.
I am thrilled to be here! I am currently a doctoral candidate in the development sociology program at Cornell University, where my research explores how the development of renewable energy and smart electricity shape experiences of urban life in Amman. As an interdisciplinary social scientist, I draw on tools and methods from geography and anthropology, and my work is rooted in postcolonial and intersectional feminist approaches. Something that I find particularly fascinating about energy infrastructure is the way that it transects multiple scales of interaction and exchange, from the intimate practices of caring for one’s home to the cultivation of regional and globe-spanning flows of data and capital. Through my research, I hope to contribute to ethnographic understanding of how the transition from hydrocarbon to renewable resources is reshaping lived spaces across these scales.
During my ACOR fellowship in Jordan, I am exploring the distribution of renewable resources across Amman, documenting how changing energy infrastructures are reshaping daily life in a cross section of different neighborhoods. I am working with local architects and community organizers to map how the transformation of the built environment both shapes and is shaped by household- and neighborhood-level energy practices. Jordan was one of the first countries in the region to turn towards an aggressive renewable energy development plan, and for over a decade now, renewable energy development has flourished at both the utility and household scales. This makes Jordan a particularly rich site from which to examine energy transition, from the gleaming, utility-scale solar farms of Ma’an to the simple, micro-scale rooftop solar water heaters (Fig. 1) that increasingly bevel the city skyline (Fig. 2).
What is one thing someone might not know about your area of research?
I am trained as a political ecologist, which means that I am always thinking about the ecological dimensions of social and political processes and the politics of ecology. Political ecologists have long worked against the artificial separation of “natural” and “social” worlds, asking critical questions about how resources come to be valued, cultivated, and exchanged in particular ways. So, when I think about renewable energy, I think about the material, geophysical qualities that make it different from hydrocarbon resources, as well as the financial, technical, and social arrangements that shape how it is developed and the kinds of possibilities it might open up. This also means that I approach environmental knowledge as rooted in place, forming in and through particular sets of social relations and historically situated systems of meaning-making. To put this in slightly more concrete terms, a solar panel is so much more than a device for capturing energy from the sun; it contains within it the history of its relations of production — the material resources it was built from, as well as the labor conditions under which it was built, and the conditions that made it possible to be shipped from its point of production to its point of use. And once installed, it creates not just the flow of energy but also financial and information flows that tie together multiple networks of people with different ways of valuing time, energy, and risk (Fig. 3).
Who is someone who has inspired or influenced you in your course of study?
After I graduated from college, I had the privilege of working at a small, grassroots environmental center in Palestine called the Environmental Education Center. The director of the center, Simon Awad, was the first person to introduce me to the incredible biodiversity of the region and its rich ecological heritage. Having grown up in Southern California, I already had a deep appreciation for the beauty and complexity of desert and chaparral ecologies, but Simon helped me begin to see the profound linkages between social and environmental systems. Spending time at the center enabled me to better understand the diverse ways that people cultivate, care for, and form attachments to the land, and through this experience I began to see how environmental protection is bound up with social and political liberation. These perspectives have indelibly shaped my approach to researching renewable energy and smart electricity infrastructure, as I center questions of access, equity, and environmental justice in thinking about energy transition.
Finally, what do you love about Amman?
I love cities, and there are so many things that I find beautiful about urban life in Amman. On any given day you can probably find me at a suq or walking the streets of the balad, listening to the thrum of sidewalk life. One of my favorite thinkers, AbdouMaliq Simone, developed this concept of people as infrastructure, which centers the provisional movements and actions of real people that make cities work. I really see that here, in the sounds and movements that animate the city center; it’s like watching an orchestra. The slow footsteps of street vendors pushing wooden carts filled with ka’ek; the radio waves broadcasting the sound of morning prayers through shop doors and windows; the cadence of vendors unloading boxes from carts and trucks, stacking goods to be sorted and organized, and, of course, the musical refrains of passing trucks selling gas canisters or watermelons. To me, this is the heartbeat of the city — the movements, the interactions, the people that suture together the spaces of life between the stone and cinderblock buildings.
 Simone, A. M. (2004). “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.” Public Culture 16 (3): 407–429.
Thanks, Kendra, and we look forward to learning more in the future about the results of your research!
Kendra Kintzi is a doctoral candidate in development sociology at Cornell University in New York, where her dissertation examines the material politics of renewable and smart energy development in the Middle East. Questions of resource governance, urbanization, and the political economy of infrastructure development drive her research. She draws on ethnographic, archival, and digital methods, and she centers intersectional feminist approaches by asking how urban communities in Jordan experience and shape processes of environmental and infrastructural change. Prior to joining Cornell, Kendra worked as a federal evaluator on renewable energy and smart-grid development projects across the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Originally from California, Kendra earned dual BA degrees in development studies and comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated with highest honors in the major.