Making the City: Agency, Urbanity and Urbanisation in Ordinary Cities

SNF Research Project
2016–2019

Manuel Herz, Till Förster, Maren Larsen, Lotte Knakkergaard Nielsen, Barbara Heer, Silke Oldenburg

Current research on urbanisation in the Global South lingers between complaints about the ungovernability of mushrooming cities and the appraisal of urban inventiveness. Comparative approaches that consider and reflect both the agency of the actors and the city as a structured setting are still rare and almost non-existent in urban anthropology. This project aims at over- coming this impasse by comparatively looking at actors and their agency in four cities. It asks:

The project adopts a comparative perspective. It asks how and in what contexts urbanites encounter or distance themselves from others; how they engage in the formation of social spaces across cityscapes; and how these cities are transformed by such practices. It presumes that the formation of urbanity is a dialectical process that is equally based on the agency of the actors; their perception and conception of urban space and their imagination of the social, as well as on the structured social and material environment that is simultaneously shaped by them.

At an empirical level, the project compares the formation of urbanity in four cities in the Global South: Goma, DR Congo; Cartagena de Indias, Colombia; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Yaoundé, Cameroon. Each case study identifies and juxtaposes settings that are more likely to produce distanciation and social difference to processes that foster encounter and inclusion. Leisure and security are transversal themes that link all four case studies.

At a practical level, the choice of field sites is a selection of four cities, based on the presumption that the formation of urbanity and urbanisation becomes more visible in an unbiased comparative perspective across different cultural and social backgrounds. Our choice also reflects feasibility of empirical research and the competences of the researchers. Long term field research is conducted by two senior scholars at the University of Basel, Profs. Till Förster and Manuel Herz, two postdoc researchers, Dr. des. Barbara Heer and Dr. Silke Oldenburg and two PhD students (funded by SNSF) conjointly with partners and MA students from Basel and our partner institutions. The findings will contribute to an understanding of urbanity and urbanisation in these cities and serve as basis for further comparisons and analyses.

Border between Gisenyi, Rwanda and Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.
© David Meffe