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The field of residential affairs (2)

December 3, 2008

This is the third in a series of posts on my work-in-progress paper “Local leadership and personal media: a practice-theoretical approach”. It follows from a recent post entitled “A fourth question for practice theory”.

Before I present the ethnographic materials, I would like to sketch the model of local politics and personal media that I am currently working with. As said earlier, this model rests on the proposition that every locale in which humans reside (every village, hamlet, neighbourhood, ward, suburb, borough, mining town, and so on) must by necessity have a domain of practice and interaction in which interested parties compete and cooperate over matters of concern to local residents. I call this domain ‘the field of residential affairs’ in order to capture within a single analytical framework both state and non-state agents whilst eschewing existing notions which either come with tacit normative assumptions that I wish to avoid (e.g. local governance, community activism, community development)  or are too broad (local politics) or too narrow (local activism, residential activism) for the question at hand.

Of course, exactly who the various interested parties are in any given locale, and to what extent they each belong to the broad ‘state’ vs. ‘non-state’ agent categories, is a matter for empirical investigation on the ground. For instance, in a 1950s mining town in Northern Rhodesia, the main parties encountered by the ethnographer in the field of residential affairs were the colonial district officer, the mine authorities and the workers’ representatives (Epstein 1958). By contrast, in a 1960s Achehnese village in Indonesia, the field action at a specific point in time was dominated by a modernist ulama, his Sufi antagonists, the village headman, and a local police sergeant (Jayawardena 1987, in Gledhill 2000: 132-3). Finally, in a mid-1980s conflict over a water pump studied by Gledhill in a Mexican village, the main players in the field of residential affairs were the former water supply administrator, the local Catholic priest, his largely female followers, and a ‘male faction’ alarmed by the women’s political assertiveness (Gledhill 2000).

Whatever the local circumstances, we will need to pay heed both to enduring structural cleavages within the field of residential affairs and to micro-historical contingencies (Gledhill 2000). We will also have to place the field in the context of wider translocal relationships and processes – and in most locales today, within the multitiered administrative and political structure of the nation-state. To use Bourdieuan terminology, this will entail paying close attention to the relative autonomy (or lack thereof, i.e. heteronomy) of the field of residential affairs from the fields of local government and local party politics -themselves fields that exist in a dynamic power relationship to other fields, both at the local level (local business, local religion, etc.) and at higher administrative levels (state or province, nation-state). In most contemporary locales the field of residential affairs will be divided into two main sectors: a governmental sector led by civil servants and politicians, and a non-governmental sector led by prominent residents, with a number of other agents operating across these sectors (e.g. journalists, researchers, business and religious leaders). These two sectors can be regarded as subfields exhibiting their own internal and external dynamics,  with leading residents typically struggling to assert their subfield’s (and their own) autonomy from the governmental subfield, and elected politicians typically striving to demonstrate their subfield’s (and their own) tireless devotion to the residents.

In addition to having two or more main sectors, the field of residential affairs has both ‘stations’ and ‘arenas’. Adapting Giddens’ (1984: 119) notion of time-geographical ‘stations’ that social agents traverse and reproduce in the course of their day-to-day activities (e.g. homes, nurseries, schools, workplaces, restaurants, etc.), I will define field stations as those ‘stopping places’ in which local leaders interact with other agents, ideas, technologies, etc. on a regular basis, an interaction that in turn (re)produces the station. Examples of such stations would include a leading resident’s daily posting of news and/or commentary on a local issues Web forum, an elected politician’s weekly surgery with her constituents, or the regular public meetings of a parish council. For a local leader, the regular presence in such settings is an essential part of the work of maintaining good working relations with allies and supporters. By the same token, a prolongued absence from such stations is likely to undermine a leader’s position within the field of residential affairs, a field suffused with metaphors of co-presence, collaboration and rootedness.  Remarks such as “X is aloof, she never comes down to the ground” or “He calls himself a community leader? When was the last time he mucked in like the rest of us?” – and their equivalents in other languages – do not bode well for a local leader.

So far the picture of the field of residential affairs I have presented is one of Giddensian routinisation and recursivity – the predictable cycles of modern agents who coordinate their activities and (re)produce their practices in clock-and-calendar time (Postill 2002).  But to complete the picture we also need to consider those irregular, often unpredictable patterns of social action that disrupt the regular schedules of a field of practice. The now classic political anthropology of Victor Turner (1974) is particularly pertinent here. Following Turner, I define a field arena as ‘a bounded spatial unit in which precise, visible antagonists, individual or corporate, contend with one another for prizes and/or honour’ (1974: 132-3). Field arenas are  ‘explicit frames’ in which leading practitioners take major decisions in public view and ‘nothing is left merely implied’ (1974: 134). Arenas are often stations that have temporarily morphed from being convivial settings to sites of conflict in which individual leaders must state clearly where they stand in an unresolved dispute. It is common for these disputes to centre on a leader’s perceived breach of the field’s existing moral order, a type of political turmoil known as ‘social drama’ that will only be solved after appropriate ‘redressive action’ has been taken by the offending party  (Turner 1974).  Private doubts about a leader’s ability or commitment to a residential cause may surface onto the public realm in these increasingly digitally mediated arenas, e.g. through SMS texts to the leader demanding that they declare their unambiguous, public support for a given cause via a campaign blog.

Continued here


Epstein, A. L. 1958 Politics in an Urban African Community. Manchester, Manchester University Press

Giddens, A. 1984 The Constitution of Society. Cambridge: Polity.

Gledhill, J. 2000 Power and its Disguises: Anthropological Perspectives on Politics. London: Pluto.

Jayawardena, C. 1987 ‘Analysis of a social situation in Acheh Besar: an exploration of micro-history’, Social Analysis, Special Issue series, no. 22: 30-46.

Postill, J. 2002 ‘Clock and calendar time: a missing anthropological problem.” In Time and Society, pp. 251-270.

Turner, V.W. 1974 Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


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