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Accepted Paper:

Individuality and the making of urban communities  
Judith Beyer (University of Konstanz)

Paper 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.

Paper 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.

Panel P120
Individuality and the making of urban lives
  Session 1