Social psychologists at the London School of Economics partner with Brazilian researchers and challenge us to consider grassroots struggles for social inclusion rather than focus solely on marginality and exclusion.
Researchers in the social sciences have long examined how certain groups and populations miss out on the societal benefits afforded to the majority of citizens. They use terms such as exclusion, marginalization, and stigmatization, to refer to social processes that leave individuals and marked groups vulnerable, at-risk, or invisible. In the urban context, academics have persistently debated theories of the ‘culture of poverty’; socioeconomic marginality, the myth of marginality, and more recently advanced marginality; territorial stigma and so on. All the jargon represents different social theories meant to explain systemic oppression of identifiable population groups, or, quite simply, the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.
While theories abound to explain social separation and segregation in cities and to understand processes of dispossession and exclusion, researchers have been far less prolific in explaining how so-called marginalized or excluded groups actively struggle to be included, to challenge the mainstream social representations that signify them as other and less than by promoting positive cultural images. This is what a team of researchers set out to study over the course of a year in Rio de Janeiro.
The project is titled “Underground Sociabilities: Identity, Culture and Resistance in Rio’s favelas”, and the project was headed by the Brazilian researcher Sandra Jovchelovitch, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The project was funded by the non-profit arm of the Itaú Bank and UNESCO with considerable cooperation from the Rio de Janeiro municipal government. Needless to say, the findings were launched to much fanfare first in Rio de Janeiro and then again in London this past year.
The basic premise of the research is that sociability—that is the enjoyable aspects of humans spending time together in a society—within the favelas is rendered invisible because any enjoyable aspects of favela culture and life are overshadowed and obscured by mainstream social representations of crime, violence, poverty and drugs. That is to say, people who don’t live or spend time in favelas aren’t aware of any positive social interactions or cultural activities that happen within them. In response, certain grassroots organizations offer competing social representations of favela life and culture, mainly through art, creative performance and sport. The research then seeks to identify and ‘map out’ the ways that make these grassroots inclusive organizations successful, with the goal of funnelling state and private funding into replicating their activities throughout the city.
While the report at times seems to ignore decades of research by geographers, sociologists and anthropologists studying similar themes, the researchers do offer some novel concepts into the debate over the divided city and ‘pathways’ towards social inclusion, which fits nicely into the current discourses of urban ‘integration’ with regards to slums and informal urban development.
The full report (or the executive summary) is available for download from the Underground Sociabilities website. I would be particularly interested in hearing reactions from others before offering my own critique. Is the framework provided by social psychology useful? How might urban planners and those concerned with urban governance incorporate the findings into their work? Is there anything truly new about these conclusions or is it simply new academic jargon from a discipline a little late joining the fray?