In DepthColumnsDissecting the notion of place in society


Posted on Monday, 09 July 2012 09:40

Dissecting the notion of place in society

Sarah Bracking

Are you living in the place to be, 'displaced in place' or within the confines of a social category? These are some of the questions that Sarah Bracking's conversation with *Jim Igoe yearn to dissect.

What does it mean to actually live in a place? Or to use a geographers' term, to do the opposite, to be 'displaced in place'? The answer is not as obvious as it seems but is important to how people view their quality of life and well-being, particularly since much of the development industry seem obsessed with the notion of 'inclusion' and 'exclusion'. In development speak we have policies to secure 'inclusive growth' and 'inclusive development' while 'social exclusion' is seen to be a very bad thing indeed. But how has such a counter-intuitive concept as 'social exclusion' become so widely ascribed to poor people who often live in the type of corporeal poverty which gives no spatial or cultural choice of 'aloneness' or solitude? In shacks families forgo physical exclusion in practise, sometimes sharing beds with multiple relatives. But beyond the obvious way of seeing exclusion and inclusion there is something worth commenting on here, because poverty does 'red-line', as James Ferguson put it, some people as abjected and worth less than others (2006).

in Qatar the poor are not allowed in shopping malls to even look at what is for sale

Obviously in the politics of consumption poor people are excluded – in fact in Qatar they are not allowed in shopping malls to even look at what is for sale. In much of rural Africa the out of pocket travel expenses prevent looking in the shops, excepting the local hardware shop and beer hall. In South Africa new malls are built on motorways and are virtually impossible to access if you don't own a car, thus effectively excluding the bulk of the population. Such features of everyday life frame and shape what it is to experience poverty. Thus economic deprivation is not, as Mbembe reminds us, a simple story for contemporary poor people, but involves

"an economy of desired goods that are known, that may sometimes be seen, that one wants to enjoy, but to which one will never have material access". (Mbembe, 2002: 271)

Of course exclusion in terms of consumption goes well beyond things that are desired and also includes things that are needed. Every day 800 million people are without the necessary calories and nutrients, while there are about 15,000 unnecessary deaths from preventable diseases each day in Africa alone. Thus 'exclusion' can be understood as a meaningful term in relation to a lack of access, entitlement or ability to consume goods, even if it is not so good at explaining social context.

But it is not the aggregate 'under $1 a day' income statistics that give these numbers of chronically poor people meaning, because they don't explain how they happen. What actually produces categories of expendable people who it is OK for everyone else to allow to die, or to live in situations where death is a likely risk? Failure to address this crucial question is why the global development agenda on poverty has run into the sand and now has very little traction. Indeed it is rapidly being replaced by the inclusive growth agenda, the climate change agenda, and the 'be like China agenda' (actually I made the last one up but it could be true from the way African political elites are courting Africa, or European governments are funding research agendas such as 'BRICS' – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). If we are to take the poverty agenda seriously, then we must look to geographic and cultural practises to explain how these patterns of poverty and exclusion are legitimated and allowed, because culture plays the role of producing a hierarchical ranking of inclusion signified using commercial brands, creating 'meaning' in place.

The place to be

As my colleague Jim Igoe recently summarised to me, being 'in a place' under capitalism, "sets up life as mundane or interesting depending on where you are", thus "compartmentalising" the experience and signification of a life's value. Thus teenagers in Europe tell each other to 'get a life' as a form of opprobrium and insult, as if some peoples' lives are worthless while others are glorified. Indeed lives themselves are partially commodified and seen as exchangeable, as my colleague Barry Winter once illustrated to me, with songs such as Bugsy Malone's "we could have been anything that we wanted to be" suggesting ultimate choice. And as commodities you can have one or many, as long as you can afford them. A street trader in Harare once commented to me, "We Zimbabweans are different from the English: we get just one life, but you can have many, maybe 5 or 6", meaning that someone with privilege can change jobs, place, partner, persona many times.

We Zimbabweans are different from the English: we get just one life, but you can have many, maybe 5 or 6

Exceptional lives are generally lived in globally exotic places. For example, New York is a globalised exceptionalism, a product sold through CSI and Sex in the City, and a raft of songs from Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and the more recent Jay-Z and Alicia Key's Empire State of Mind "In New York/ concrete jungle where dreams are made of/there's nothing you can't do/now you're in New York/these streets will make you feel brand new/these lights will inspire you/Let's hear it for New York'. New York, as cultural product, has contemporary webcams so anyone, anywhere in the world (with electricity) can 'be' in Times Square coevally. And the exotic place of the Northern city is combined with a pattern of consumption and lifestyle to give the 'perfect life'. For Drake in his song Successful this is "money and the cars/cars and the clothes/and the hos/I suppose/ I just wanna be/I just wanna be successful", which is a good summary of urban success for many in southern Africa too. In Egoli/Jo'burg, the city of gold, in Harare, translated to the city that never sleeps, or on the 'funsunzi' coast of KwaZulu-Natal the urban is preferred to the rural.

Thus being 'in a place' is an interesting proposition. A teenager in Senegal and one from Oman can be in the same chat room or playing the same game. Meanwhile, millions of people pretend sociability on Facebook with a rarified proximity but no intimacy, while many Northern women, in particular but not exclusively, live in real social exclusion as mothers and single parents. The most modern 'advanced' people from the North, mostly men but not exclusively, live in airport space and write global emails to their friends to show how they have achieved the ultimate 'displacement in place' – the one of choice, where wireless devices twitter and splutter messages and images from the sterilised 'non-place' to the universalising non-place of their recipients. They are displaced because they have no rootedness and no local, but are travelling through space deliberately without context, having many lives but no life in particular with any depth. Even the Disney children's channel has joined in to suggest that 'non-place' is an elite place of choice, in their programme Suite Life on Deck, where rich children sail around permanently in a cruise ship, notionally attending school.

What is interesting here is not just that 'the place to be' is assigned predominantly to Northern cities, or to the global 'non-place' of airport lounges, teleconferencing and the tax evading, boat riding 'permanent tourist' (and the Disney child equivalents), but that 'the place to be' is also experienced in a post colonial form. In Africa cultural representations in the global media of 'the place to be' are mostly securitised exotic places where cultural 'tradition' has been ossified and preserved in ecotourist resorts, or where modernity is represented by faux houses from English tudor times surrounded by a self imposed prison perimeter.

Displacement in place

From 'the place to be', to the 'non-place' we arrive at what it means to be 'displaced in place'. Jim Igoe summarises 'displacement in place' brilliantly: "development, and capitalism more generally, frames people and our experiences. Displacement depends on how and where you live your life vis-a-vis capitalism. There are people who experience the severing of ecological and social bonds as a kind of death. There are people who don't believe that ecological and social bonds actually exist or matter, because we have lived our life in their absence". I don't think the modern Man of the executive airport lounge knows he is missing something, despite the fact that he leaves home so early in the morning and returns so late at night that he has no idea what clothes his children wear as he only sees them when they are asleep. Jim Igoe recommends we read Becoming Good Ancestors by David Ehrenfeld, as "in it, he notes the ways in which we have abandoned the ethic of belonging somewhere and with a particular group of people as quaint and out dated at best. Truth is, it seems, we who have learned to accommodate displacement have come to see ourselves as more important and insightful than people who have not learned, or will not learn, to accommodate displacement. They then become the targets of development, and we [academics and development industry personnel] study the results".

That's insightfully put. So the modern 'advanced' people live in airport space and write global emails to their friends from hot spots drinking costa coffee, to show they have achieved the ultimate displacement. But for the poor, displacement in place is not so much of a choice as a coerced disturbance of life world, or at least that is the mainstream geographer's definition. Thus when crisis hits a community relying on largely subsistence economics the historical coping mechanism was flight migration sometimes of massive numbers as in the Horn of Africa famines of the 1980s. But now the securitisation of the globe and the control of movement mean that distress must more often be experienced 'in place' as flight has become prohibited. People who have their citizenship removed, their ethnicity or religion outlawed, or who are subjected to stigma and shame, become 'displaced in place'. They are placed outside and excluded from the political and cultural community, while remaining in the same place, or dying in it. Indeed, stigma and shame are the bedfellows of poverty, poverty is feminised, and social exclusion here is enacted institutionally and culturally.

....And (re)placing in social category

Colin Hay (1996) can help us understand how this displacement and devaluation of a life occur. He said that the modern state has three boundaries to politically manage: the physical and geographical (the integrity of the border); the institutional (who is a citizen and who has access to paperwork, birth/death/marriage and passports); and lastly, but certainly not the least important, the cultural and discursive framing of 'the nation', who is included and excluded, by a national anthem, songs, rugby matches, colours, maybe a national culinery dish and so forth. In managing the poverty of the South through 'development' this latter boundary could just as critically mean the framing of the social categories that delimit who are the deserving and undeserving poor. This is because to join 'the nation', and to make ones paperwork effective, it is critically important to be a member of a social category that is attached to a development expenditure pipeline. This could be the 'orphaned and vulnerable child' (OVC), the HIV/AIDS affected person, a resident of the 'conflict affected area', or the 'remote rural area' or the 'export processing zone' or the 'micro finanace catchment area' or the 'under fives' of the MDGs as in some places it is extremely life threatening to be six when all measurement is focussed on the under fives.

It is culture and place which police and frame these social categories, giving them a life of their own as a neoliberal governanace technology in which the politics is removed and the development industry expert decides who will live and who will die because of their privilege in making these categories from the scientific 'non-place'. In other words, the chosen 'displacement in place' of the Northern expert, where arrogance and superego reign, is dangerous to the life world of the coerced 'displacement in place' of the Southern destitute person, who has escaped inclusion in a category of the former's framing. The passage from Holman's Last Orders in Harrods comes to mind, as the development workers sit in the café at the edge of a Nairobi slum and play 'spot the social category' [we have an expenditure line for] in a similar way as they would spot the 'Big Five' in a game park.

Jim Igoe calls up Mbembe's Necropolitics to explain all this. Are you wondering why, or not heard of it yet? So was I. Jim cites the critical passage:

"Colonial occupation itself was a matter of seizing, delimiting, and asserting control over a physical geographical area of writing on the ground a new set of social and spatial relations. The writing of new spatial relations was, ultimately, tantamount to the production of boundaries and hierarchies, zones and enclaves; the subversion of existing property arrangements; the classification of people according to different categories; resource extraction; and finally the manufacturing of a large reservoir of cultural imaginaries. These imaginaries gave meaning to the enactment of differential rights to differing categories of people for different purposes within the same space" (Mbembe, 2003: 25-26).

Igoe summarises that Mbembe then goes on to suggest that we are living in a world made up of circuits/circuitry that variously connect and bypass different zones and enclaves, rather like the Wood Between the Worlds in C.S Lewis's Magician's Nephew only much less benign - the airport space, the sanitised mall, the duplicitous subjectivities of neoliberal non-space. Outside are the other spaces where the poor exist, as people captured by social categories to live in cages in the zoo of development.

There you have it. If you are a bit bored on a bus or a train, or want to face off your facebook addiction in an airport lounge, then you can try this game. Pick up a newspaper and see which social categories apply to you and whether they are 'good' or 'bad'. I can assure you that 1) if you are female they will mostly be bad, think 'single parent', 'welfare dependent', owner of 'feral' or 'out of control children', someone who dared to have a child out of wedlock, get a divorce or an abortion; that 2) whatever your gender, if you are poor, they will mostly be bad. You will be a scrounger, a shack dweller, an itinerant, a welfare dependent, lazy, alcoholic and defintely not that icon of modern neoliberalism, an 'honest tax payer'. Of course if you are really rich, you will probably also not be an honest tax payer, but hey, who said capitalism's categories were coherently framed? And you have no roots or social obligations right? Last call for American airways flight 101 to New York, now boarding, gate 42....

*Jim Igoe is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College (Hanover, New Hampshire, USA). His work, broadly defined, engages with struggles of being and belonging in Tanzania, South Dakota, and New Orleans. He himself also struggles with being and belonging. He is currently exploring possibilities for an anthropology of non-capitalist alternatives. Details of his work can be found at Here.


Ferguson, J (2006) Global Shadows, Duke University Press

Hay, C (1996) Re-stating Social and Political Change, (Open University)

Mbembe, A (2003), "Necropolitics", Public Culture, 15, 1, ps. 11-40, available Here

Last Updated on Monday, 09 July 2012 19:20

Sarah Bracking

Sarah Bracking

Professor Sarah Bracking is the current holder of the South African Research Chair in Applied Poverty Reduction Assessment at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Research Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, University of Manchester. She is editor of Corruption and Development (Palgrave, 2007), author of Money and Power (Pluto, 2009) and The Financialisation of Power in Africa (Routledge, 2012).

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