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Doing the City From the Margins: Critical Perspectives on Urban Marginality

Guest editors:

Ana Aceska, Barbara Heer and Andrea Kaiser-Grolimund


Ana Aceska, Barbara Heer and Andrea Kaiser-Grolimund

Wageningen University & Research, Universitat Basel Philosophisch-Historische Fakultat, and Nursing Sciences - Public Health

Doing the City from the Margins: Critical Perspectives on Urban Marginality

pages 1-11

This special issue focuses on urban marginality in diverse contexts across the world (Africa, Latin America, Arab States and Europe) and proposes anthropological perspectives on contemporary urbanity that take into account the complexity of the social positions of those city dwellers that are on the margins. Three aspects of urban margins come to the fore. First, urbanites respond to increasing marginalisation through the production of alternative meanings and narratives about the city. While grand, powerful narratives may present cities as 'divided', 'dual' or 'conflicted', urban dwellers may carve out symbolic space through discourses of the non-spectacular and non-political, emerging out of lived space. Second, the cuts and frictions constituting urban margins do not only limit urban dwellers capacities, but can also provide spaces of agentic possibilities. As it is well known, absence of state control can be turned by versatile urbanites into opportunities of the 'informal' economy. Third, urban dwellers engage in manifold practices that connect and entangle their marginalised position with spaces of power and resources. Through their practices urban margins become a relation to, not a disconnection from the “centre”.  In this special issue we understand “urban margins” not as essence or entities, but as forms of relations between urban dwellers shaped by processes of political, economic, spatial and social marginalisation. Seen in this way, urban margins constitute a perspective on the urban: a lens to entice comparisons of urban agency in the world of cities (Robinson 2011).


Angel Aedo

Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

Politics of Presence at the Urban Margins. Emplacement as a Performative Force Among Migrant-Settlers in Chile

pages 12-29

Drawing from fieldwork conducted in Arica, a northern Chilean city, this paper addresses the process of ‘emplacement from the margins’ as a performative force in which materialities, affective dimensions, and claims are tied together. It analyses how migrants become settlers in unauthorised camps on the fringes of Arica. I argue that in this process a ‘politics of presence’ emerges, intimately imbricated in the material constitution of these settlements. I explore the potential of such politics to break the ‘sensible’ order and open the possibility for ignored actors to become present as legitimate urban interlocutors. I discuss aspects of what Kathleen Stewart describes as ‘ordinary things that matter’ because they shimmer precariously, such as the dynamic contingency derived from the building procedures commonly used in unauthorised camps.


Dorota Woroniecka-Krzyzanowska

University of Lodz, Poland

The Politics of Governance and Urban Marginality: A Camp Studies Perspective

pages 30-46

Designed to provide temporary shelter to the displaced, in protracted refugee situations camps become places of long-term residency and undergo processes of urban change. The complex realities of protracted encampment challenge the dichotomy between the city (as a norm) and the camp (as an exception) that underpins dominant theoretical models of refugee camps. Instead, the theoretical lens of urban margins allows us to circumvent this binary and analyse the camps from the perspective of their relation to the city and the state. Rather than a specific location, this article approaches urban marginality as a condition produced by unequal power relations behind the enforcement of a particular urban order. Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork, it draws on the case of Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank. Unlike the majority of studies on Palestinian camps that focus either on top-down politics of exclusion or political agency of camp residents, the article examines how different actors, interests and modes of exercising power (both formal and informal) intersect in camp space and produce, as well as resist and subvert, the condition of urban marginality.


Ana Aceska and Barbara Heer

Wageningen University & Research, Universitat Basel Philosophisch-Historische Fakultat

Everyday Encounters in the Shopping Mall: (Un)Making Boundaries in the Divided Cities of Johannesburg and Mostar

pages 47-61

The many studies that see shopping malls as places of power, control and exclusion have often neglected the potential of malls as places of encounters. Drawing on ethnographic data from the divided cities of Johannesburg in South Africa and Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we examine the ways in which urban dwellers who enter the mall from a marginalised position – poor black urban dwellers at a regional, middle class and white-dominated mall in Johannesburg and Bosniak city dwellers at a mall located in the Croat part of Mostar – use the mall, what kind of relations they build to others and how they rework boundaries of race, class, religion and ethnicity at the mall. Rather than being spaces that strengthen and reproduce centre-margins relations, urban dwellers appropriate them as places where these relations become reworked.


Karen Lane

University of St Andrews

Not-the-Troubles: Disinterring the Marginalised Stories of the Ordinary and the Everyday

pages 62-76

Urban studies of Belfast, Northern Ireland, thoroughly explore the contested or post-conflict city. However, these ‘grand narratives’ do not necessarily accord with people’s day-to-day experiences. Although the ordinary and everyday is the lifeblood of anthropological inquiry, the mundane in Belfast dwells on the narratorial margin, as academic and political loci predominantly align to the Troubles: to the protagonists, the causes or the peace-building aftermath. Ten by Nine (Tenx9) is a monthly, public storytelling night showcasing ordinary people and their true, personal, everyday stories, juxtaposing the funny, poignant and educational, and celebrating the quotidian. Retelling Belfast at Tenx9 challenges hegemonic discourse by moving the mundane from the margin to the centre, opening up a space for small ‘t’ troubles to be shared. The communitas at Tenx9 promotes a sense of belonging in the city outwith Troubled narratives and storytelling, an ancient Irish oral culture, becomes a new form of symbolic practice.


Sandra Staudacher

University of Basel

Shifting Urban Margins: Accessing Unequal Spaces of Ageing and Care in Zanzibar and Muscat

pages 77-94

Older people constitute a growing proportion of the urban population and are encountered in all kinds of spaces and neighbourhoods across cities. This article argues that urban seniority and elderly care are a fruitful, new lens to study how inhabitants on the social margins create urban space and social cohesion. This article draws on ethnographic research in the cities of Zanzibar, Tanzania, and Muscat, the capital of Oman. Many older inhabitants of cities experience frailty, serious health problems, or even disabilities and are no longer able to work or make a living, which pushes them towards the social margins. The ethnographic examples and reflections in this article illustrate, first, how cities can be investigated from the perspective of social and spatial marginality. Second, they show how urban dwellers’ social positions can shift between the margins and centres of an urban society depending on their health and access to unequal spaces of ageing and care. And third, the paper analyses how some elders respond to marginality by taking up transnational and cosmopolitan agency.


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