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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  People  /  Academic Staff  /  Tatiana Thieme

Dr. Tatiana Thieme

Tatiana A. Thieme, Associate Professor in Human Geography

Room 110
26 Bedford Way
London, WC1H 0AH.


* Academic Support & Feedback Hours : I hold regular meeting times during academic term. For online bookings, click here; for in-person bookings, click here. Outside of these, please email me if you want to get in touch.

Tatiana Thieme graduated from Cornell University (New York, USA) with a BA in Anthropology and Dance (2000), where she was awarded a grant from the Cornell Council for the Arts. She completed an MSc in Law and Anthropology at the London School of Economics (2004), and an MPhil/PhD in Human Geography at the University of Cambridge. She was an Honorary Cambridge European Trust Scholar (2008) and her PhD was funded by an ESRC Case Studentship (2013). She worked as a Lecturer in the Geography Department of the University of Cambridge and a Director of Studies at Fitzwilliam College from 2013 to 2015. Tatiana joined UCL’s Geography Department in October 2015, where she currently teaches across the undergraduate curriculum and on 3 MSc programmes. During her time as Undergraduate Tutor (2018-2021), she was awarded a 2020 UCL Social and Historical Sciences Faculty Education Award for Academic support to students.

Since 2011, she has also been affiliated with Paris based Social Business/Enterprise and Poverty Chair at Haute Ecole de Commerce (HEC), and has been a visiting lecturer at Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) for their Masters modules on “Economie et Société”. She is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a member of the Association of American Geographers, Association of American Anthropologists, British Institute of East Africa (BIEA), Institut Francais de Recherche en Afrique (IFRA), and the University of Cambridge African Research Forum. Tatiana is also passionate about the convergence of critical academic reflection and practice. She has worked as an academic advisor on numerous action research projects in Kenya, India, Philippines, and South Africa focused on improving access to urban sanitation, nutrition, and energy for the urban poor, and is a member of Paris-based think tank Re(Source), focused on tackling water, sanitation and energy poverty. Tatiana is a co-editor, with Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh of UCL Geography and Mette Berg of UCL Social Research Institute, of the journal Migration and Society. She is also a contributing editor for Cityscapes Magazine.

Journal articles

Book chapters (available upon request)

  • Thieme, T. (2021), "Shit wages and side hustles: Ordinary working lives in Nairobi, London and Berlin", in Beyond the Wage: Ordinary Work in Diverse Economies. eds. William Monteith, Olivia Vicol & Philippa Williams (Bristol University Press).
  • Thieme, T. (2016), "'This upgraded place is my bedroom, but the ghetto is my living room': Negotiating doing (too) well and belonging in the 'hood' of Nairobi slums." in Rethinking Life at the Margins (Ed. Michele Lancione)

Book reviews

Other publications

  • Thieme, T. November (2019), Connection is Key, An interview with Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh on the personal and political in her work with Syrian, Palestinian and other refugee communities across the world, for Citiscapes Issue #9 Passages
  • Thieme, T. February (2019), "Shit Wages and Side Hustles: Reconfiguring Infrastructures of Work," post-conference collection for Urban Geography, theme: Urban Infrastructures and Cities in the Making. pp. 62-64. Available online at:
  • Thieme, T, E. Kovacs & K. Ramakrishnan (2018) Camps2Cities zine [an edited collection of photo essays, field reflections, interviews and contributions from interlocutors across Athens, Budapest, Berlin and Paris. Hard copies available upon request.

At a broad level, my research focuses on different forms of entrepreneurial and makeshift urbanism and their effects. More specifically, I am interested in the cultural and economic geographies of work that takes place outside of (or alongside) waged economies, and everyday coping strategies in precarious urban environments. The four sub-themes of my research are: Youth geographies and "hustle" economies; Urban political ecology of sanitation and waste; social enterprise and development. I work in cities, and am interested in moving between and thinking with urban contexts across the global North and global South.


1. Youth, hustling, and belonging in precarious urban environments

Spending Time

This British Institute of Eastern Africa research project aims to bring together researchers and practitioners whose work engages with questions related to Spending Time. Studies on the cultural constructions of time have long fascinated scholars, with notable emphasis on how conceptions of the future grant meaning and purpose to the present. This project draws on a rich tradition of anthropological and geographical scholarship challenging inherent assumptions of linearity that characterize the relation between present and future. Considering non-linear temporalities as a point of departure, the goal of this project is to investigate diverse conceptions and experiences of time in everyday contexts of informality, precarity, and improvisation that have come to depict urban life across different spheres of human activity (e.g. work/labour, leisure, domestic, social, personal life) in the East Africa context. BIEA funding gave me the opportunity to organise and host a workshop in Nairobi in 2017 titled "harnessing the hustle" which brought together ethnographers and community activists, and a special issue building on that workshop was published in 2021 in the journal AFRICA, Link to whole special issue here.

Making work outside of prison: Young Offenders and Informal Economies (PI)

Funded by a Cambridge University Humanities Grant (2015-2016) and in collaboration with Dr. Lizzie Richardson (Cambridge Geography), this research draws together four disparate disciplinary perspectives to theorise the cultural and economic geographies of informal economies and their effects on young people living in precarity. The informal sector in the UK is increasingly prevalent, but poorly understood. This project addresses this deficit by investigating the skills, aspirations, and risks associated with informal and/or illicit economies amongst young offenders in austerity Britain who are serving short-term prison sentences. It addresses the empirical gap between the statistics indicating the rise in insecure forms of employment in austerity Britain and the growth but under-documentation of the informal economy in the global North. Through long qualitative interviews with offenders serving short-term sentences, the research documented offenders' conceptions and experiences of 'work' together with the future aspirations and perceived opportunities associated with it, seeking to understand calculations of risk and reward; and social and economic rationalities associated with street culture. Broadly, the research argues how appreciation of the changing spaces, times and legalities of employment is vital for policy connecting future welfare and work, to adapt to a climate where workers are simultaneously more flexible but less secure.

In relation to this project, Tatiana co-convened (with Geography colleagues Dr. Lizzie Richardson and Professor Brendan Burchell of Cambridge University) a research group titled Rethinking work following a Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) grant.

Temporary migrants or new European citizens? Geographies of integration and response between ‘camps’ and the city (PI)

This project brings together my research interests in informality, labour limbo, and social navigation of uncertain urban life. Funded by the British Academy UK International Challenges award, and in collaboration with Dr. Eszter Kovacs (University of Cambridge) and Dr. Kavita Ramakrishnan (UEA) the project aims to provide an alternative account of the European ‘refugee crisis’, where the arrival of over 1.5 million refugees since 2015 has stretched EU and individual state capacities; tested formal registration and arrival procedures; and (reignited) debates around continental ‘margins’ and geopolitical power differentials between east and west Europe. In this project, we provincialise and challenge narratives of ‘the crisis’ through an engagement with the evolving duties of care, needs and agencies of refugees and providers on the arrival ‘frontlines’. Our multi-sited research has engaged in punctuated ethnography in four European capital cities: Athens, Budapest, Berlin, and Paris. By ‘thinking from the south’ and vantage of post-colonial cities, we have aimed to document the improvisation, precarity, makeshift practices and alternative scripts of citizenship that refugees and local agencies utilize alongside how state rules and norms are negotiated. More information can be found on our project website: and the British Academy website here.

Development Frontiers in Crime, Livelihoods and Urban Poverty in Nigeria (FCLP) (Co-I)

Funded by ESRC/ DfID Development Frontiers Award (with UCL colleague James Cheshire as PI), this project responds to a call to “fund innovative, strategic and catalytic research with the potential to radically impact on sustainable development concepts or practices, or lead to new thinking and action on poverty reduction”. One of the key development barriers in lower income countries are the adverse impacts of crime and urban poverty on the livelihoods of urban residents, and on the socio-economic well-being of communities in general. Our research collaboration between UCL and ABU Zaria focuses on the dynamics and interlinkages of crime, livelihood and urban poverty in second-tier cities in Africa. We have approached this challenge by creating a research design which incorporates mixed method approaches ranging from urban ethnographic techniques, semi-structured interviews and household survey questionnaires, along with statistical modelling and applied GIS to map and visualise inter-city perceptions and experiences of crime. More information can be found on our project website.


2. Urban Political Ecologies of Sanitation, Waste and Repair

My doctoral research involved ethnographic research conducted in Kenya, examining the informal waste economies in one of Nairobi's largest and oldest informal settlements. The research examined the effects of unplanned urbanization and economic liberalization on the generation of Kenyan youth raised in the "slums" and left to their own devices to make a living in the highly unregulated urban economy. The research also explored the narratives of "hustling" that features prominently amongst youth referring to their everyday waste work in informal settlements. The research also studied the actors (corporate, NGO, state) purporting to address the challenges of urban poverty through efforts reflecting assorted discourses of entrepreneurship, rights, and public health. Youth engaged in waste work were often criminalized and harassed by local authorities, while serving as entry-points for various development interventions focused on urban ecologies including sac farming and sanitation services. In both instances, the urban environment was at once subject to entrepreneurial urbanism in the absence of public provisions, and also to everyday negotiated practices and tensions within neighbourhoods and the city more broadly.

Building on my PhD, one of my current projects investigates and theorizes contemporary trends in socio-technical and socio-ecological systems through comparative research theorizing from my research on informal economies of waste in Nairobi, Kenya, and examining emerging London-based forms of repair and re-use. Cultures of repair have long-established histories as crucial aspects of human productive effort, yet they have often been invisible to mainstream measures of production, economic activity, and consumption. In Nairobi, everyday survival depends on prolonging the usable lives of material things, especially in low-income areas experiencing rapid urbanisation and inadequate public service provision. Conversely in London, where 'make do and mend' practices integral to wartime coping strategies were replaced in the second half of the 20th century with disposable consumption, repair is experiencing a revival. Grassroots initiatives are seeking to prolong the durability of objects through practices of mending, re-use, and up-cycling, yet little is known about the motivations of 'bricoleurs' and to what extent these practices challenge and even reverse the take-make-waste models of production and consumption. These 'inner' circular economies are pro-business but also reflect practices of frugality, improvisation and adaptation, challenging the consumption-discard nexus and planned obsolescence of capitalist modes of production, and in today's context of austerity also reflect frugal economic rationalities.


3. Social Enterprise and Development

Corporate-community encounters

I am interested in applying an anthropological and geographical lens to the claims and counter-claims of enterprise-led approaches to poverty alleviation. This is an area that has been, to date, under-studied by geographers and yet environmental problems have become fertile sites for social entrepreneurs. My work seeks to critically evaluate the processes, discourses and impacts of enterprise- and corporate-driven development encounters with low-income communities. A number of hybrid development models are founded on the premise that the survival strategies of the poor are sites of potential opportunity and partnership, giving way to particular forms of "ethicised" capitalism. As such, new potential sites for ethnographic and geographical research have opened up, to study how the social, cultural, and economic structures of low-income communities become refashioned as entry points for the incubation of various enterprise-led solutions to poverty alleviation, development and sustainability strategies. My PhD research incorporated project ethnography of SC Johnson's "Base of the Pyramid" initiative (2005-2013) in low-income urban communities of Nairobi focused on community-led sanitation services. The research explored the complementary and contradictory perceptions and definitions of "success" amongst diverse institutional and community-based actors, grounding the qualitative study of one company's sustainability efforts and encounter with “hustle economies” within the broader politics of enterprise-led development.


Radical Social Enterprise

One of the most urgent and complex challenges facing Southern cities is the large-scale lack of productive employment and access to socio-economic rights in the form of vital services. This multi-year research project (July 2017-December 2020) will endeavour to bring together diverse literatures on social and solidarity economies; the circular economy; and the informal economy, and draw on the integrative and spatial implications of design thinking and digital culture. We explore the potentials for cross-pollination between these seemingly disparate literatures, particularly in relation to practices of place-making. Following this literature review, the research will involve in-depth case studies of homegrown innovations in diverse African cities, (including Nairobi), where forms of what we call "radical social enterprise" are promoting livelihood opportunities for marginalised youth, practices of place-making, and commitments to social justice at neighbourhood-scales. The project is pursued in collaboration with Professor Edgar Pieterse, at the Centre for African Cities, University of Cape Town.

I am committed to teaching and outreach activities that go beyond formal University halls. Since 2013, I have been a Contributor and Dissertation Supervisor for the Masters in Sustainable Leadership, at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership (CISL). Between 2010 and 2012, I engaged as a Tutor for mature students undertaking a Certificate in International Development through the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge. I have also given lectures to non-academic audiences for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2014, Cambridge University Reunions Week-End (2015), and engaged in outreach events including the Progress in Geography Day for prospective students (Fitzwilliam College, 2013-2014).



  • Invitation to host an exclusive podcast interview for French Think Tank (Re)sources (Recorded on March 4th 2022) in conversation with Gilbert Houngbo. In the podcast, we discuss his personal and professional journey, from his childhood in rural Togo to his time serving as the Prime Minister of Togo from 2008 to 2012, to his current roles with the ILO and as President of IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), and Chair of UN Water. He shares his thoughts on various pressing themes that concern the local and the global, from the future of work to international diplomacy, and social justice. Episode available here:


Short documentary & film:

Story Yetu/Our Story (2010).

During the first 12 months of fieldwork in Nairobi (2009-2010), I worked on a documentary in partnership with Ghetto Films Trust, a grassroots film production company, documenting the untold stories of youth entrepreneurship in waste management across Nairobi's Mathare Valley. The documentary, STORY YETU (Our Story), can be viewed online. Story Yetu has been featured at community venues in Nairobi, and at universities and film festivals in France and in the UK including the Cambridge African Film Festival in 2014.

STORY YETU (WP) from Tatiana Thieme on Vimeo.

Nairobi Hustle (2017)

In collaboration with local cinematographers Patrick Shomba, Dave Mwangi and Charles Kimani and musician/composer Seb Thieme, I have produced a short documentary called "Nairobi Hustle", filmed during fieldwork conducted in 2016. The aim was to provide a window into the everyday practices and moments that make the city move, are difficult to pin down, and too often go unnoticed. The video can be viewed here:


Resilient Urban Economies (2017)

In collaboration with Soapbox and the British Academy, I was involved in the video production in support of a workshop on Resilient Urban Economies held at the British Academy. The interview with Prof. Ash Amin can be found here. The video can be viewed here:


Photo Exhibit (2015)

I have also curated a photographic exhibit in the Geography Department Library, collaborating with photographers Claudia Pursals and Sasha Turrentine, titled “Waste and Recycling in an Urban Slumscape: A Window into Slum Lives and Spaces”.


Applied research and publications for wider audiences

Alongside my academic commitments, I have worked as an advisor and applied researcher for social enterprise projects in Kenya, Togo, India, Philippines, and South Africa, which focus on improving access to urban sanitation, nutrition, and energy for low-income urban communities. This includes a research study on Last Mile Delivery in collaboration with a consortium of Paris-based NGOs, academics, and private sector partners and the support of the Veolia Institute, and co-authored work with sustainability practitioners on the challenges of enterprise-led development.

Following an award from the Economic and Social Research Council "Nexus Network" with the Science Policy Research Unit at University of Sussex (2014), Dr. Eszter Kovacs (Geography, Cambridge) and I are engaging in comparative urbanism in relation to the Nexus in informal settlements across scales of urbanization. The purpose of the Nexus Network is to bring together researchers, policy makers, business leaders and civil society to develop collaborative projects and improve decision making on food, energy, water and the environment.  As rates of urbanization grow across cities but also and especially small towns, we are interested in the comparative politics of provisioning and urban services across the rural to urban continuum, and investigating how the politics and economies of waste in particular have become deeply entangled with other forms of basic provisioning in processes of urbanisation across geographies of the global South, and yet often remains overlooked in conceptualisations of the Nexus.

As a member the Paris-based think tank Re(Source), focused on tackling water, sanitation and energy poverty, Tatiana has written reflections ("tribunes") for World Toilet Day and World Refugee Day aiming to reach the wider Francophone public on the humanitarian urgency of sanitation poverty and how lack of access to decent sanitation reflects wider urban inequalities and uneven development.


  • (year 1) Geography in the Field + Barcelona Field Class
  • (year 1) Global Geographies
  • (year 2) Development Geography I (Convenor)
  • (year 2) The Practice of Geography
  • (year 3) Water and Development in Africa
  • (year 3) Postcolonial Geographies of African Development
  • (year 3) Urban Political Ecology



  • Environmental Knowledges
  • Precarious Urban Environments (Convenor)
  • Interdisciplinary Approaches to Global Migration


Secondary Supervisor to following PhD Students:

Julia Dzun (Geography): Assembling Neukoln's Politics of Everyday Multiculture and Conviviality (with Prof. Tariq Jazeel)

Claire Fletcher (Geography)The roles of faith-based organisations in supporting asylum-seekers in the UK (with Prof. Elena Fiddian Qasmiyeh, and initially with Prof. Claire Dwyer)

David Zarra (Geography): Leaving empty home(s) behind: the aftermath of the Spanish building boom (with Prof. Ann Varley)

Francesco Carella (Institute of Education): From global to local: how multi-level migration governance frameworks affect the socioeconomic inclusion of migrants and refugees in urban settings in the Global South (with Prof. Mette Berg)

Ioanna  Manoussaki-Adamopoulou (Anthropology): From ‘People on the move’ to lives at a standstill: Refugee flows, distributions of Rights and the production of ‘otherness’ on the margins of Europe. (with Prof. Charles Steward & Prof. Ruth Mandel)


Prospective PhD supervision

If you are interested in pursuing a PhD at UCL in any topics related to the research areas outlined above, I look forward to hearing from you. I am interested in research situated either (or across) the global North and South, and especially interested in supervising ethnographic research though also open to mixed methods. I am especially interested in supervising research related to the following areas:

  • urban political ecologies of waste and sanitation;
  • circular economies, repair and maintenance;
  • refugee and migration place-making in European cities;
  • the social life of informal labour;
  • urban precarity & hustle economies;
  • youth geographies;
  • ethnographies of corporate social responsibility and social enterprise projects;
  • popular economies.