EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

(P120)
Individuality and the making of urban lives
Location U6-6
Date and Start Time 23 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Noel Dyck (Simon Fraser University) email
  • Caroline Knowles (Goldsmiths, University of London) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

An exploration of the ways urban dwellers practise varied forms of individuality and distinctiveness to devise new forms of everyday relationships with which to construct more satisfying lives. These concerns will be examined through ethnographically based research conducted around the world.

Long Abstract

Neither individuality nor urbanism have been widely or warmly welcomed as fully appropriate matters for anthropological consideration, despite the insights that some anthropologists have achieved by working with these concepts within their ethnographic studies. Individuality has too often been conflated by its critics with the western ideology of individualism and contrasted with an unquestioned anthropological commitment to holism. Similarly, since urbanism fell beyond the originally designated boundaries of anthropological inquiry, it was notionally consigned to sociology and other disciplinary approaches to urban studies. Both concepts have, in consequence, accumulated decidedly "awkward legacies" within anthropology.

Recent anthropological works, however, have demonstrated the ways in which expressions of individuality characteristically embody forms of social action that entail risk. Such endeavours require not only acute readings of social contexts by those who would dare to think, speak, and act in distinctive ways but also a fundamental dependence upon others for their mutual recognition, acceptance or emulation of such ventures. By the same token, the nature and limits of urbanism and the shaping of urban lives has been transformed from an ostensibly 'modern,' western preoccupation into a predominant global concern, and one that anthropologists are especially well equipped to examine.

This panel will explore the ways in which individuality and claims of distinctiveness are being employed by urban dwellers as means for devising new forms of everyday relationships with which to construct more satisfying lives. Papers in this panel will examine these concerns through ethnographically based research conducted in cities around the world.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Sport and the devising of urban lives

Author: Noel Dyck (Simon Fraser University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper argues that urban dwellers engage with sports not merely as sources of leisure or opportunities for social connection but also as promising venues for constructing claims of individuality. It asks how such claims speak to other types of desires and projects that figure within urban lives.

Long Abstract

The playing, organizing, and watching of sports is a ubiquitous feature of everyday life in cities around the world. Which sports are preferred, in which cities, and by whom, reflect considerations reaching from the local to the global that combine diverse social, economic and political interests. While access to sport is not always invariably to all who might wish to partake of it, nonetheless, declaring and maintaining at least some level of interest and involvement in sport remains, for the most part, a matter of choice. Subject to limitations of access, urbanites may decide whether to avoid contact with sport in any form or to join in, at least to the extent they can manage. Thus, sport constitutes a social field within which personal tastes and individual choices enjoy substantial, if not unlimited, leeway.

This paper argues that urban dwellers engage with sports not merely as sources of leisure or opportunities for social connection but also—and no less significantly—as promising venues for constructing claims of individuality. It considers how the claiming of individuality through engagement with sport may speak to other types of desires and projects that figure within urban lives. The ethnographic base for the paper is fieldwork on organized sports for children and youths in Canada and the staging of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, as well as findings reported by other anthropologists of sport.

Studied indifference: urban traffic and the intentionally limited encounter

Author: Vered Amit (Concordia University)  email

Short Abstract

I draw on observations of local venues in Montreal to consider the ways in which cultivated indifference can enable the public expression of varied forms of self-presentation and engagement as well as the factors that may elicit a reinterpretation of this indifference as incivility rather than tolerance.

Long Abstract

Anonymity and indifference are often invoked in portrayals of contemporary urban life. But these circumstances or attitudes are more likely to be cited as negative or unfortunate metropolitan characteristics than as potentially productive vehicles for fashioning urban lives. Yet consider for a moment how many urban situations would become problematic, potentially even inflammatory, without the marshaling of a certain measure of indifference. At the same time, however, as numerous commentators have observed, urban settings that are thoroughly characterized by apathy or facelessness can also become alienating. In this essay, I draw on observations of several localized public venues in Montreal to consider when and in what ways, carefully cultivated indifference can support the burgeoning of a variety of different forms of self-presentation and engagement. For example, a small local park affords a wide range of regular uses (play, dance, conversation, solitary reading, parties, movies, music shows, dog runs, ice skating and much more) by a variety of users (families, teenagers, summer camps, community groups, local businesses, readers, sun tanners, recreational athletes and so on). This variety is at least, in part, enabled by the willingness of individuals and groups to work around and past each other but in some situations this kind of studied indifference can come to be viewed as incivility rather than as tolerance. In this paper I therefore also consider the circumstances in which indifference shades into incivility, and the sorts of responses this reinterpretation may elicit.

"Bad guys" imagining a "good life": negotiations around individuality and belonging in downtown Kampala

Author: Anna Baral (Uppsala University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper introduces a group of Kampala vendors accused of triggering violent urban unrest and discusses how their transgressive behaviors do not contradict a struggle for a “Good Life” and claims of belonging to disparate moral communities in and beyond the city.

Long Abstract

A record of riots, unfavorable locations and sometimes illicit economies make African urban markets the dystopian targets of urban development and badly affect the vendors' name. This has happened in Kisekka Market (Kampala), destroyed in 2014, whose workers were publicly nicknamed bayaaye (sing. muyaaye), loosely translated as hooligans or "bad guys".

In the Luganda language, the muyaaye is more generally the one who "has no rules" and disrupts the reproduction of norms within a community. Rioting, like Kisekka workers have often done to protect their market from evictions; cheating, in love or business, to achieve a status; or behaving egoistically, to survive urban competition, are all examples of norms transgression within various normative systems of reference (citizenship, kinship or tradition).

However, deviation from collectively held norms does not necessarily imply a declaration of independence from one's communiti(es) of belonging: a rioting, cheating or hustling muyaaye does not inevitably abdicate his role as worker, citizen or kin.

This emerges clearly from the case study of "Good Life", a self-named group of Kisekka workers mobilizing for months before the demolition. Daily discussions about their gloomy future constituted a "moral laboratory" (Mattingly 2014), where hope and a fulfilling life were intersubjectively imagined and striven for, despite the physical and "moral breakdown" (Zigon 2007) represented by the demolition.

The paper shows how transgressive behaviors, triggered specifically by the urban condition, may coexist with profound concerns with one's communit(ies) of belonging, in and beyond the city.

Individuality and the making of urban communities

Author: Judith Beyer (University of Konstanz)  email

Short Abstract

Minority “communities” in Yangon are sustained through outstanding individuals. These men and women command respect for their public performances in the name of many, but also make convenient scapegoats when things go wrong. Urban community depends on precarious individuality.

Long Abstract

Studying religious minorities in Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, I frequently encounter the concept of "community" when my informants describe their groupness. The concept is also ubiquitous when politicians, activists, and bureaucrats seek to evoke the city's assets.

However, the usual denominators of the term - ethnicity, religion, history, or residence - do not satisfyingly characterize what exactly holds these groups together. How they are distinct from the Burmese-Buddhist majority population of Myanmar does matter, but seems not foundational for the extant cooperation, interaction, and integration. In this presentation, I am probing the hypothesis that the self-declared "communities" that I encountered in this cosmopolitan Southeast Asian metropolis are to a large part sustained by particularly outspoken individuals. It is by letting these men and women speak and act for and instead of others, that groups acquire their particular cohesion.

The members of a certain category, in this sense, gain agency by delegating agency: in the act of representing and speaking for, the leaders, priests, trustees, elders, and Big (Wo-)Men of Yangon's religious minorities speak their own communities into being. But while being endowed with an important task and commanding respect from their members, their public exposure also makes them convenient scapegoats. The constant disparagement and occasional replacement of representatives is another way through which "communities" become manifest, legally, symbolically, and economically.

The urban context and the small scale of the sample communities help to visualize a process that arguably might be operative at larger levels of social aggregation as well.

Individual distinctiveness in the plutocratic city

Author: Caroline Knowles (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the social consequences for the city of productions of individuality and distinctiveness in London's plutocratic neighbourhoods. New ethnographic work with wealthy residents and their 'butler class' reveal some of the emerging social relationships and the tensions this creates in the city.

Long Abstract

Whether designing the interior of a yacht or home, choosing clothes, jewellery or art, extensive iterations of individual taste prevail in shaping the lives of the super rich, and their domestic and neighbourhood environments. Wealth offers multiple possibilities for individual expression of distinctiveness, often varied and replicated at different scales by the less wealthy, as social researchers have noted. These generate significant surfaces in the social, architectural and commercial textures of urban life overall. Through ethnographic data collected with some of London's wealthy residents and their 'butler class', comprised of architects, interior designers, beauticians and wealth managers, this paper probes some manifestations of distinctiveness co-composing London neighbourhoods, and their consequences in generating particular social relationships and tensions in the city. London has become a major centre for expanding and parking global capital, much of it channelled through buying and embellishing lifestyle and living space. Plutocrats are London's most dynamic contemporary architects: architects of their own wealthy lifestyles and of the city that wraps itself around them. No abstract fraction of accumulated assets, capital works through bodies and emotions; and it eats, sleeps and pleasures itself in London's wealthier neighbourhoods. This paper is about some of the social fabrics and tensions this generates in urban life.

"Sometimes you need to be selfish": kinship webs of the Kenyan middle class

Author: Lena Kroeker (Bayreuth University)  email

Short Abstract

My presentation concerns decision-making between communal and individual orientation of urban Middle Class people in Kenya. I tackle the question why those in the middle class continuously give hand-outs to large networks instead of investing their income in their own forthcoming.

Long Abstract

Examples from Africa showed that kinship based support networks did not erode under conditions of industrialisation and urbanisation. Quite in contrast, not only the poor but also those who managed a social climb into the middle class depend on personal social networks to secure their future well-being. Without having to pay into social networks many middle class people would be rich, argued my interview partner, but the social responsibility secures mutual support in uncertain times.

My presentation concerns decision-making between communal and individual orientation of urban Middle Class people in Kenya. I tackle the question why those in the middle class continuously give hand-outs to large networks instead of investing their income in their own forthcoming.

Based on my research on the future visions of Kenyan members of the middle class I show that planning for times of need is based on networks. Statutory social welfare is not reliable and the middle class opts for a diversifying strategy for securing life. Being interdependent on family networks is crucial even if at times individual planning clashes with a communitarian orientation. Payments assured recognition, social status and a say in important decisions even if someone stayed far from home. Catering for a large number of dependents was part of the long term security mechanism, while it strained current resources of those in employment and thereby hindered individual progress. Therefore, one interviewee concluded "sometimes you need to be selfish".

Making a home in the global city: individualism, the good life and kin work in Kolkata middle-class families

Author: Henrike Donner (Goldsmiths)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses housewives' everyday work of making middle-class homes in Kolkata as part of wider discourses on the good life, social mobility and gendered work that enables an embrace of individualism.

Long Abstract

This paper dicusses novel notions of 'housewives' and 'home-making'and the kind of kin work required in order to produce suitably modern middle-class families in Kolkata. India. Based on over two decades of fieldwork the persistance of the joint family ideal and new ideologies of individualism are discussed in the context of everyday kin work middle-class women undertake in order to reproduce status and support collective strategies for upward mobility. The paper focuses on consumption as a global middle-class concern and home-making as an assemblage of practices that negotiate neoliberal ideals of choice, individual agency and entrepreneurial selves in the global city.

"I've got my life, I've got my freedom": individuation and neoliberal de-regulation as intertwined processes

Author: Marta Lobato (Autonomous University of Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

Current socio-economic transformations in Spain are resulting in the reaffirmation of people's individuality and self-mind throughout the creation of life projects that are equally, if not more precarious, yet firmly based on the naturalization of their own moral and personal inclinations

Long Abstract

The burst of the 2008 economic crisis in Spain has set up a peculiar social scenery in which tensions, contradictions, and new cultural dynamics converge. In such setting, external changes have not created entirely new socio-cultural dynamics, but "hybrids" within the already-existing ones. Within such framework, the following article seeks to show how the process of indivualization informants are undergoing interwines with anthropological perspectives on value and morality in an urban context. Capitalism urges actors to reduce uncertainty, while naturalizing their individuality and sense of free choice. Crisis, then, becomes a creative space where instability and precariousness (re)define subjectivities.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.