PhD candidate Xiao receives Newcombe Fellowship

Fellowship supports Xiao’s dissertation on lived experiences in Lagos, Nigeria

By Meghan Chua


Allen Xiao
PhD candidate Allen Xiao

UW–Madison geography PhD candidate Allen Xiao has been awarded a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

Newcombe Fellowships are awarded to PhD candidates in the social sciences and humanities addressing questions of ethical and religious values in interesting, original, or significant ways. Xiao is one of 23 to receive the award nationwide.

Xiao’s work explores how residents of Lagos, Nigeria, tell stories of and relate to their life experiences in the largest city in Africa. His dissertation is based on 15 months of fieldwork in Lagos. Xiao lived in a neighborhood with high religious and ethnic diversity, interacting with his neighbors every day while surrounded by the sounds of the city, from chickens waking him up in the morning to the buzz of his electric generator in the background.

“Life there is really dynamic,” Xiao said, pointing especially to the daily interactions with neighbors. “In this way, I as a human geographer [could] comprehend people’s behavior and interactions almost every minute.”

Through talking with neighbors, shopkeepers, and others around him, Xiao built up relationships with residents in Lagos whom he then invited to interview. He collected more than a hundred life stories in his first round of interviews. Then, he revisited some of those stories and asked his participants to reflect on why they told him that story, or why they told it in a particular way.

“In this way, I go further into their narratives,” he said. “I revisit them to understand why they speak in this way, why they tell me this story in this way, why this experience mattered to them, why this experience was told that the first time rather than second time or third time.”

With a few dozen of his interview participants, Xiao also observed them at social events or visiting their hometowns to learn more about their social life. Throughout his interviews and observation, Xiao said the theme of spirituality emerged as a common point that affected people’s perceptions of their lives and the narratives they told.

For instance, if someone saw that a neighbor got rich overnight, they might attribute that success to witchcraft, Xiao said. Or, someone might feel that the reason they don’t have a better job is that they weren’t faithful enough in gods they worship.

“All these kinds of religious, these spiritual ideologies are deeply embedded in their narratives,” Xiao explained.

Xiao added that this spirituality both empowers residents to cope with the social constraints they face, while also hindering the development of individual subjectivities outside the bounds of spiritual affiliation or faithfulness.

“Spirituality becomes the kind of reasoning in their life, the sensemaking in their life,” he said.

After completing his dissertation, Xiao hopes to find an academic job and continue his work as a human geographer.