Dr Jacob Doherty
  • Research Associate in Urban Mobility


Jacob joined the Transport Studies Unit in June 2018 as a researcher on the PEAK Urban project. His research is broadly concerned with urban infrastructures and cultures of mobility in African cities.

Jacob completed his PhD in Anthropology at Stanford University in 2016 and also holds an MA from the New School for Social Research and a BA from the University of Mary Washington. His research has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation, and Social Science Research Council. Prior to joining the TSU he was a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Wolf Humanities Center, University of Pennsylvania.

Current Research

Jacob's research is concerned with the everyday life of infrastructures, the dynamics of urban transformation, and the constitution of political authority in African cities.

As part of the PEAK Urban project, he is focusing on how informal transport systems like motor-bike taxis, minibuses, and walking differentially provide opportunities for social mobility and reproduce social inequalities. Rather than framing informal transport as yet another example of a continent lagging behind and in need of western intervention, he approaches traffic as a paradoxical and generative site of economic and cultural production, of unevenly distributed everyday mobility, of class and gender identities, and of political authority and contestation. The focus is not what the city lacks, but how it works, for whom, with what consequences, examining the spatial and cultural paradoxes of informal mobility in order understand how transformations in existing modes of transport shape belonging, wellbeing, and upward mobility. This research takes up three theoretical and empirical themes:

  1. Meanings of Mobility: For middle classes in many African cities, informal transport are highly ambivalent: they represent a vital mode of mobility, but pose personal and moral risks by association with speed, vulgarity, violence, and criminality. Jacob uses ethnographic methods to parse the meanings of mobility and the ways difference of gender and generation shape how passengers conceptualize upward social mobility and manage the risks of spatial mobility.
  2. Beyond Informality: The concept of informality groups together vastly different forms of mobility, obscures actually existing structure within informal infrastructures, and privileges planned over popular mobilities. Combining mapping with qualititative methods to detail emergent patterns of regulation and improvement within informal transport systems, Jacob's research challenges the formal/informal binary and generates new decolonial conceptual tools to analyze urban infrastructure.
  3. Visual Culture and Visual Methods: How transit systems are represented and seen by users, operators, and regulators plays a vital role in how they are valued and governed. Jacob's research critically examines existing visual representations and uses engaged participatory research with operators to generate new images (maps, photographs, illustrations) and new ways of knowing and seeing mobility.


Prior to joining the TSU, Jacob taught as a visiting assistant professor in the Anthropology Department at Wesleyan University.


Jacob has received a Wenner-Gren Foundation Engaged Anthropology Grant to complete a collaborative project with ECO-Action, a youth-led Ugandan environmental, art, and education NGO. The project entails:

  1. a day-long workshop bringing together artists and informal waste collectors to create designs for alternative infrastructural systems and
  2. staging a pop-up exhibition constructed from recycled plastics to display these designs along with photographs and key research findings from Jacob's doctoral work.


Journal Articles