Lage inkomenswijk in Latijns-Amerika
Lage inkomenswijk in Latijns-Amerika

What does a year of research in favelas teach us about politics?

Is building more housing the solution to the housing shortage? Can poverty be solved by increasing social assistance? Can distrust in the government be solved by more participation? According to Martijn Koster, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Development Sociology at Radboud University, we still too often view such social issues from the perspective of the government. That is both unjust and unjustified, he argues: "Recognition of other, often marginalised, perspectives on society is essential to do more justice to the situation of disadvantaged residents".

That is why he and a team of PhD students and postdocs are going to Medellín (Colombia), Santiago de Cuba (Cuba) and Recife (Brazil) to spend over a year conducting field research on issues of housing, politics and the role of the state in Latin America. In doing so, they do not put the state but the residents of favelas, comunas and barrios populares at the centre: the low-income neighbourhoods of the cities. They do this not from behind their desks but by living in the neighbourhoods and actively engaging with the residents and their civic initiatives, meetings and protests. It is part of a five-year study, starting in January 2024. How does this give us a new perspective on politics? We asked Martijn Koster some questions about this.

Can you tell us what your research is about? 

Sure! I am researching the political situation in low-income neighbourhoods of Latin American cities, where residents are often excluded and discriminated against by the government. A major and urgent problem that exposes structural inequalities is housing. There is a shortage of good-quality housing, and residents often don't have the right papers and titles, leading to constant threats of evictions and demolition. Government programmes actually lead to dissatisfaction among residents because they don't feel taken seriously. It often seems as if residents can contribute ideas, but in practice, they are presented with choices in which none of the options are really beneficial to them, but which mainly serve the interests of the rich or the government itself. 

Why do you think this research is so important? 

The existing research literature on politics and citizenship in the urban periphery of Latin America mainly sees these as deviating from the norm. 

What is that norm?

Even in much critical research, the norm is originally based on European ideas about the state, politics and citizenship. However, for most residents of low-income neighbourhoods, the concept of citizenship has little practical value. Citizenship rights, such as the right to decent housing, often exist on paper, but in practice, residents cannot assert these rights. As a result, a concept like citizenship loses its value when we want to understand how residents perceive and relate to the government. 

Is there already research on this? What makes your research unique? 

Other scholars are currently challenging the use of dominant European concepts to describe Latin American society. However, they mainly focus on indigenous populations in rural areas and pay little attention to urban populations. I am breaking new ground with my research by focusing precisely on the marginalised urban population and making their perspectives central to new theorising about politics. 

It seems difficult to carry out such research; how will you approach it? 

So, I am going to put together a team of three PhD students and two postdocs. We will, among other things, conduct interviews with residents and with key figures in governance, political parties, NGOs and social movements. The PhD students will mainly do research in the neighbourhoods, while the postdocs and I will investigate the connections between the neighbourhoods and other people and organisations. Together, we will explore what we call the 'politics of the periphery'.

Do you expect resistance from residents when participating in your research? 

No, we don't expect that. After all, we are doing ethnographic research. That is research in which the researchers live in or close to the areas where the research is being conducted. That's how you show involvement. We participate in activities such as protests or citizen participation meetings to stay in touch with residents and get to know the dynamics from the inside. After all, it is very important that you don't fly in and out as a researcher. You cannot arrive with the idea of, "well, I have to do my interviews, who can I talk to" and then leave.  

You are also a lecturer. Will you apply the new insights from the research in your lectures?  

Indeed, I always try to integrate my research and teaching. For example, I give lectures on Latin America and discuss my own experiences and research findings with students. In the Contemporary Debates course, where we focus on citizenship, I pay attention to citizenship in Brazil and why this term often falls short in research in the favelas and other low-income neighbourhoods.  

Finally, what do you hope to ultimately achieve with the research? 

I want to contribute to a theory of politics that does more justice to the perspectives and practices of residents of the urban periphery so that we can better understand their situation and contribute to countering exclusion and solving concrete problems, such as the housing shortage. 

Martijn Koster received a €2 million Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for his research 'Politics of the Periphery in Urban Latin America: Reconceptualising Politics from the Margins'.