The materiality of poverty II: Squatting as an enabling constraint in the Dominican Republic

In my last post I argued that the material culture of poor people is not reducible to their poverty, and gave the example of Haiti's rich cultural traditions, including their art and religious artefacts.

In this post I want to discuss how living in a squatter settlement can affect the relationship of poor people with their material culture.  When people are living in conditions of abject poverty, to what extent can we really say that their material culture can be analyzed separately to their poverty?

To explore this question I examine the environment of squatter settlement residents in Santo Domingo as an 'enabling constraint,[1] a situation in which the presence of a certain constraint allows you to do something that would otherwise be impossible.

Take the human elbow, for example. We have a hard limit on how far back we can bend it before we break it. This is a constraint on movement, but without it, we wouldn't be able to lift things. Computer scientists have suggested that viewing space as an enabling constraint 'could help us to better deal with problems concering a wide range of spatially embedded complex systems' (Bullock and Geard 2010).

Based on my observations in Santo Domingo, I agree: I think we can view human culture and society in the same way.

A street in a Santo Domingo Barrio. Photo by Erin Taylor
A street in a Santo Domingo barrio

At first glance, it seems weird and perverse to suggest that living in a squatter settlement enables anyone to do anything. Without a land title residents have few rights, they often live in abject conditions, lack regular services and are stigmatized by outsiders. They face a massive amount of constraints in their everyday lives, including spatial, social and economic mobility.

In Brazil, the anthropologist James Hoston (1991)  argues that while 'autoconstruction' (building one's own home without permission or title) improves the skill sets of the poor and helps outsiders view them as productive and moral beings, it also reinforces their place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Thus suggests that the efforts of poor people to literally construct their houses and communities is far more of a constraint than an advantage.

However, I have two problems with this argument. The first is that it is a short-term view that ignores the fact that many squatter settlements  evolve over time into regularized neighbourhoods, largely because of the work that residents undertake over decades to improve their own homes, thus resulting in socioeconomic mobility.

My second objection is that Holston underplays the extent to which the squatter settlement, by virtue of its non-ideal and otherwise constraining physical properties and its illegality, enables a level of sociality that generates conditions for support and often also transformation.

In the Dominican Republic I have observed the following circumstances under which sociality is enabled and helps residents work around, or transform, constraints:

  • The land: Because settlement is illegal, it is cheaper and easier to get hold of land in a squatter settlement than elsewhere, and residents are not subject to construction laws so they can live in a low-standard house and improve it slowly over many years. This allows residents to escape paying rent and put the money they have saved to other purposes, such as investing in a micro-enterprise or a child's education.
  • The house: Due to limited materials and high demand for land, houses are small and close to the street. People tend to socialize on the street and therefore interact daily with their neighbours.
  • The family: Because access to land is easy (at least in the early days), entire families can settle near each other and provide mutual assistance, such as sharing food and labour, childminding services, and general socialization and entertainment.
  • The community: Despite a great deal of politicking, the barrios have in fact transformed enormously in just a few short decades. This is partly due to economic growth and government intervention, but also the agitation of the community to receive services and maintenance. The barrio's institutions (church, neighbourhood organizations) and street life have both been integral to this community action.

Interestingly, barrio residents often told me that they maintain a level of sociality that is highly valued in the Dominican Republic but which is disappearing elsewhere in the city as people lock themselves behind bars and gates.

This is not just a question of utility (they depend upon each other), but moreso an outcome of their legal and spatial marginalization and the physical architecture of the barrio itself. Hence factors that are highly constraining turn out to also bestow the ability to continue to live their lives according to certain national values.

The ultimate proof in this pudding will whether rising socioeconomic mobility (lifting of constraints) will result in decreased sociality, as socioeconomic mobility prompts people to move into better, more private, neighbourhoods.

[1] Thanks to Jason Tampake for this insight!