Applying a coat of paint to crime: Urban poverty in the Dominican media

February 25th 2013

Over the last two or three decades, rising crime levels have become a major concern in Santo Domingo. Media reports on urban gangs, robberies and violent crimes reflect a climate of fear that has invaded public life. Taking these at face value, an outsider would be forgiven for assuming that Santo Domingo has become another Kingston or Port of Spain.

However, one does not have to spend long in the Dominican capital to realise that these reports overstate the case for danger. Crime has certainly increased markedly, especially opportunistic muggings, but Santo Domingo has a long way to go to catch up with its Caribbean cousins. Why, then, these fear-inducing representations?

When humanity trumps race: Changing relationships in fieldwork

February 14th 2013

"Look, the white girl's carting water!" exclaimed a middle-aged woman in surprise as I carried two buckets full of water up the street to the house where I was living. The water mains had broken, so my neighbors and I had been fetching water from two blocks away for the past three days.

I had been living in La Ciénaga, a barrio of Santo Domingo, for a couple of months. In the Dominican Republic, as in many sites around the world, light-skinned people tend to be wealthy and occupy a place of privilege, and dark-skinned people occupy the lower social strata and supply their manual labor to the wealthy. White foreigners are particularly viewed as privileged, since they come from wealthy countries and tienen la manera [have the means] to do as they wish.

A reluctant locality

February 4th 2013

In 2005 I was living in a squatter settlement in Santo Domingo for my doctoral research. I asked one of my neighbours for advice about a community survey I was designing. He took issue with one particular question I had framed: "Would you move away from La Ciénaga if you had the opportunity?"

My neighbour argued that this question was redundant, because every single resident would answer "yes." If they answered "no" they would be lying, because no sane person would choose to reside in La Ciénaga voluntarily.

My neighbour was not far off the truth. When I collated the results of the survey, 96 percent of the 300 respondents reported that they would leave La Ciénaga if they had a choice. Who, they argued, would want to live in a barrio marginado (marginalized neighborhood) characterised by delinquency, pollution and poor housing?

Is poverty a state of mind?

January 24th 2013

What is the psychology of poverty? This question has been a contentious one in anthropology, particularly during the last half a century. In La Vida (1966), a study of poor Puerto Rican families, Oscar Lewis argued that poverty produces certain psychological traits and social behaviours that become enculturated.

His ideas caused an uproar because they were widely interpreted to imply that so-called poor people are not capable of escaping poverty. Critics lamented that his book was being misappropriated by the U.S. Government to implement paternalistic, “blame the victim” policies among poor African-American communities that stripped them of their agency, treating them like hopeless cases that needed to be disciplined rather than assisted.