Category Archives: anthropology

Urban Inequality and Social Solidarity

We’re all looking for a little solidarity these days. We have a human desire for mutual respect, dignity, and the comfort of knowing the person next to you understands something of your life. We want to stand together against the inequalities we face as groups. We build communities within our cities, and these communities are based on similar interests and goals. This is how social solidarity develops, and through social solidarity, socioeconomic inequality is reinforced.

Where humans come together, we sort ourselves into groups. In our highly-urbanized modern culture, the most prevalent system of sorting isn’t ethnicity or language. It’s money. Economic status has become the main driver of social status. The nature of economic status as an result of fiscal means, is that those with economic status have power. These economic groupings have inherent social meanings: there is less respect for those in lower economic groups, so there is a direct correlation between social and economic status. As a result, upper classes work to demonstrate their elevated status in ways that visually distinguish them from their lower class counterparts. Walls create physical barriers between the wealthy of São Paulo, Brazil, and mark their homes as the homes of the wealthy (Caldiera 2000:258). Lower class people do two things. One, they imitate the trappings of upper class lifestyles wherever possible. This is evident in the proliferation of fortified enclaves in all but the lowest classes in São Paulo (Caldiera 2000:232). It’s also expressed in the hopes for a better life of the impoverished people of El Barrio, New York City, USA (Bourgois 2003), and of The Park, Cape Town, South Africa (Ross 2010). Two, they create a hierarchy among themselves such that there is always someone worse off than themselves. In the informal settlements in Cape Town, South Africa, there are bergies, bosslapers, and plakkers, all of whom are somehow not formally homed (Ross 2010:18). The variation of degrees of homelessness between these three groups is the basis of the social implications of these groups as labels, and it is a great insult to label someone as being less stably homed than they are (Ross 2010:18).

Urbanization contributes to the integration of ideas and encourages familiarity with the variety of customs encountered in a city, and thus reduces the desirability of segregation between groups of people (Wirth 1938:16). While at the same time, physical segregation by socioeconomic class occurs regardless of the politics of the era (Wirth 1938:15). This happens by way of financial means; neighborhoods tend to have residents who have similar financial means to each other. Yet, city life lacks the social integration associated with rural life. The relationships built between individuals in an urbanized culture are often utilitarian, and secondary relationships are more frequent in this setting than primary relationships (Wirth 1938:12). The social distance created by this situation leaves individuals lacking, in a “state of anomie” Wirth characterizes as pertaining to, among other things, the loss of “the sense of participation that comes with living in an integrated society” (1938:13). We see this in ethnographies of urban life that discuss the segregation of various classes. There is a desire in all classes to live integrated somehow. This is most obvious in ethnographies of poverty, where people’s aspirations for a higher quality of life might echo their simultaneous wish for greater inclusion in the infrastructure of their city. The tensions between classes seem based in the desire of the poor to enjoy the same security and respect as the wealthy. In El Barrio, the poor want to be included in the legal job market without feeling disrespected (Bourgois 2003:114-173). In the Bush, people want to have a home that cannot be taken from them, where they can have the same privacy afforded by those with formal housing, and where they feel farther from being considered a ‘throw-away’ person (Ross 2010:18-27). The wealthy, too, prefer to be farther from poverty. São Paulo’s walls are a testament to this (Caldiera 2000).

The urban lack of social solidarity manifests as more than just the idea that one isn’t fully included in infrastructure. Because the density of an urban population (compared to that of a non-urban population) prohibits inclusive solidarity, it creates the need for social controls that exist beyond the individuals within the population. However, no controlling mechanism can function without at least one individual maintaining it. Thus, the density of an urban population creates a necessary situation in which at least one group of people has power over another group. Those individuals who work within the controlling mechanisms can use their positions to shape the infrastructure of the city, thereby shaping the lives of the inhabitants (Wirth 1938:23). This situation opens up the city mechanisms to corruption, or simple irresponsibility, by the controlling group.

Socioeconomic class differences are inherent in the differences between those who control a city’s social mechanisms, and those who are at the mercy of those mechanisms. The ‘ruling’ class is wealthy; whatever classes exist in between, the poorest class is at their mercy. This creates tension. Tension heightens the emotional need for solidarity, and tension between classes ensures that solidarity will only happen within classes, rather than across classes. That is why, when an individual from El Barrio raises their own socioeconomic status and moves into a more genteel neighborhood, that person speaks carefully to avoid being considered a traitor (Bourgois 2003:173).

Thus, the same social inequality that ensures social solidarity only occurs within class groups, reinforces social inequality. The effect of social solidarity on the classes in power is an intentional distancing from those not in power. That distance decreases empathy and comprehension, creating – through the empowerment of the upper classes – city structures that exclude the lower classes. As individuals across all classes, when we build our communities and encourage social solidarity, it is to some degree at the cost of social equality.






Bourgois, Philippe
2003  In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Caldeira, Teresa P. R.
2000  City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in Sao Paulo. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ross, Fiona
2010  Raw Life, New Hope: Decency, Housing and Everyday Life in a Post-Apartheid Community. Claremont, South Africa: UCT Press.

Wirth, Louis
1938  Urbanism as a Way of Life. American Journal of Sociology 44(1):1-24.


This essay is formatted in accordance with the American Anthropological Association style guide.

"techniques of interrogation"

I’m reading about Brazil this week in my history class. We’re focused on the human rights violations during the military regime from 1964-1985. One of the books we’ve read from for this section is A Mother’s Cry: A Memoir of Politics, Prison, and Torture under the Brazilian Military Dictatorship, by Lini Penna Sattamini, the mother of a man who was tortured by that dictatorship. And then I read this:

“U.S. policy to Brazil shifted significantly only when President Jimmy Carter (1977-1980) took office and prioritized human rights standards in foreign policy considerations. By then, human rights had become a household term in the United States, and Amnesty International had been recognized as a world leader in the campaign against the use of torture. Lina Penna Sattamini’s call that we must never forget is not merely a convocation to remember the past. It is also an appeal to denounce the ongoing uses of those techniques of interrogation that almost took her son’s life.”

Ok, admittedly, there’s a lot wrong with all that. Like, of course the US didn’t want to distance themselves from Brazil because of human rights violations – we were sponsoring them! Duh. We could start there and talk for hours about how f*ed up that all is. But that’s not what this post is about; I’ll leave that discussion for the essay I have to write for class.

This post is about my personal beef with the above quote.
– Yeah, I’m that important (to myself).

I’ve mentioned this once or thrice in this blog before, but I don’t talk about it a lot. There’s not much to talk about, really, but if you aren’t in on the secret, you might disagree. See, I used to be an interrogator for the US Army. It wasn’t that long ago, and it wasn’t for that long. I was in five years (and one month, twenty days, but who’s counting?), and only did one deployment. I was a Sergeant when I got out, but I was just a Specialist when I was deployed. In civilian-ese, that means I was pretty low-ranking. That worked out in my favor, as I saw it. The way the Army works, the higher you get in rank, the more time you spend behind a desk instead of doing the fun stuff. During my one year in Iraq, I conducted over 300 interrogations. (Whoa! Sounds like a lot of yelling, eh? Not really.) 

So anyway… Whenever I hear interrogation being conflated with torture, I get a little testy.

I’m not going to address specific historical instances of the US’ involvement in or use of torture, because I can only speak for my own experience. I know full well that, historically, we’re not necessarily the good guys. I mean, see above for goodness’ sake – we were teaching the Brazilians how to do it!

What I am going to address is this (repeat after me):
Torture is not a technique of interrogation. 
Torture is torture. 

And if we could just get that through our thick national skulls, it would settle a lot of these pesky “enhanced interrogation techniques” questions that we just can’t seem to figure out.

Interrogation is a methodical questioning of a subject, to get information.
Even the dictionary agrees with me!

There is NOTHING about ‘causing harm for the sake of getting them to say something’ – because, you know, torture doesn’t even work as a form of interrogation (occasionally and in very specific short-term situations, sure, but, just – no, for any number of reasons, it doesn’t work). It works great as a scare tactic, because it’s f*ing scary.

Wanna know what I’ve found works best in an interrogation? Talking to people as though they were actually people. Being honest with them. Being kind. If they come in there thinking you’re an enemy, show them you’re human, too. That works really well. In my book, the “enhanced interrogation techniques” involved me being kind and bringing the subject a fatty cake.*

*Fatty cakes, in civilian-ese, are any of the American delicacies which fall into the “Twinkies & crap” category.

"Even the Rain"

Have you seen this movie? 

It’s about the Water War in Bolivia, which happened exploded in Bolivia in early 2000.

Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it. With any luck, you’re better educated than I am.

I just wrote a brief essay about this, for a class. Now I’m going to proselytize and tell everyone that they should watch it, because it was a) well done, in my opinion, and b) a serious eye-opener for me. I think it might open some other people’s eyes, too.

The movie’s available on Netflix (streaming), or you can buy it on amazon. There’s a crappy version (which happens to not have English subtitles, if – like me – you need those) on youtube, too. Seriously, check it out.

Here’s what I wrote about it, since I know you’re curious:

There is a recurring theme in the history of Bolivia since their colonization by Europeans; it is a theme of racial superiority representative of the hegemonic ideologies of the colonizers. This theme is artfully highlighted in the film Even the Rain (2011), which follows the efforts of a fictional film crew attempting to create a dramatic documentary of Christopher Colombus’ invasion and subjugation of the Taino people. To save on the cost of production, the film crew is working in Bolivia, where a casting decision leads them right into the middle of the Water War, a very real internal political crisis that occurred in Bolivia in early 2000. Using this backdrop, the viewers are led to see the connections between Columbus’ actions, and the actions of the foreign film crew, and the Bolivian government.
The director of this film crew has striven to use Columbus’ exact language (from his journals and letters), so that they might remain as close to the reality of the Spaniards’ actions as possible. Early in the movie, a scene begins (at 0:25:47) in which we see the film crew acting out a speech given by Father Montesinos, who was, as the director says, “the first voice of conscience against an empire (0:29:19).” Father Montesinos railed – against the Spaniards’ treatment of the Native peoples, demanding that the violent and dehumanizing practices (including not just slavery, but the particularly brutal methods of enslavement and debasement for which Columbus’ occupation of the Bahamasis now known. Sandwiching the scene with Father Montesinos’ speech, we see what’s going on in Boliviaat the time: the beginnings of the Water War, when communal wells were being locked against the people who’d dug them, and the first of the public protests.  
In that first protest scene, we find the actor cast as the lead Native role, “Daniel,” leading the protests. Cinegraphically, Daniel is set up as the ‘first voice of conscience’ in the Bolivian Water War.
While Daniel is clearly aligned on the ‘side’ of the Natives, and the Bolivian government – which sought out and supported the privatization of their country’s water – is clearly aligned with Columbus’ ideology, the film crew itself is torn. In their conversations with each other, it’s clear they are sympathetic to Columbus’ victims, and to the impoverished Bolivians (despite the crew’s disagreement over what their involvement should be, their sympathies are nonetheless made clear over the course of the movie). However, the conflict over what their role should actually be comes out early, and in such a way that they are forced to consider how they might be involved on a grander scale, intentionally or not. At 0:32:40, we see the executive producer, “Costa,” helping the actor cast as Columbus to rehearse his lines. The actor’s lines roughly quote a letter from Columbus, written in 1493 from the Bahamas(the difference in the lines and the letter is so slight, that it is likely to be only a difference of translation). He is speaking of the Taino people. “They are so naive and generous with what they have,” say the lines, “that they never refuse anything. Whatever they have, if you ask them for it, they will give it to you, inviting the person to share it with them… With just fifty men, you could subdue them, and make them do whatever you want.”  Then, in the very next scene (beginning at 0:35:05), Costa condescendingly tries to convince Daniel to stay out of the protests, then discusses the low cost of production while on a phone call, saying, “two fucking dollars a day and they feel like kings.” Moments later, the audience it reminded of what Costa has just said when Daniel reiterates Costa’s words back to him: “two fucking dollars, no? And they’re content.” Daniel forces Costa to see his own condescension, by repeating Costa’s words back in English – which Costa had clearly assumed Daniel would not understand. These scenes, and these words, all illuminate the disregard the ruling classes may have for the ruled classes, whether it be Spaniards versus Natives, rich versus poor, or employer versus employee.
The disregard humans hold for ‘others’ is probably more universal than what ‘haves’ hold for the ‘have nots,’ but it is in relations of power that these prejudices are most evident. In Even the Rain, it is the conversation between the film crew and a governing official, who appears to be the Mayor of the city, that the extent and nature of the government’s disregard for its citizens is fully elucidated. The scene begins at 0:51:58 and opens with the chants of protestors echoing in the background. “A little domestic row,” the presumed Mayor says, “Nothing for you to worry about.” One of the actors responds by comparing the scenario to the infamous “let them eat cake” of Marie Antoinette; of course this is an escalation, prompting the Mayor to defend his administration’s actions. His defense, though spoken in various terms, ultimately rests on the supposed racial inferiorities of the “Indians” he blames for causing the unrest – even as he references the “long history of exploitation” of Bolivian Native peoples – and his listeners are intended to share his implied racial superiority. He characterizes them as primitive, stone-throwers in the global economy. “It’s the cult of victim versus modernity,” he says. That statement calls to mind the goals of Columbus and other explorers, who sought to ‘bring civilization to the barbarians’ they encountered. It was thought though, that any Native peoples found were too barbarous, too cognitively ill-equipped, to truly reach ‘civilization’ at the level of the Europeans. The Mayor says as much, saying that if they were allowed, “these Indians [would] drag us back to the Stone Age.”
Even the Rain shows how the behavioral patterns created by the actions of the dominant governing bodies in Bolivia are representative of the same hegemonic ideologies under which European colonizers operated in their ‘discovery’ of the Americas. The overlapping stories keenly illustrated the racial themes which have survived hundreds of years in the histories of Bolivia and much of the Americas. The viewer is forced to ask – what happens next? The dust settled and the government of Boliviawas forced to reconsider privatizing their water, but is this progress? It seems that, given the country’s history (then and since), no real lesson has been learned. The heart of the problems, illustrated so well in Even the Rain, have not yet been acknowledged, and thus will continue to plague Bolivia.
Christopher Columbus: The Untold Story. (n.d.). Retrieved July 16, 2013, from
Bollain, I. (Director). (2011). También la lluvia[Motion picture]. Bolivia: Image Entertainment.