Home » 50 years, 50 ideas » 14. Citizens building cities: Bryan Roberts and the urban poor in Latin American cities

 
 

14. Citizens building cities: Bryan Roberts and the urban poor in Latin American cities

 
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Bryan R Roberts’ book, Cities of Peasants (1978) explores the challenges faced by the urban poor in Latin American cities. Roberts used new sociological methods to understand how these people initially helped make the cities they lived in, building their own houses and creating their own jobs.

Roberts was one of the first Sociologists at the University of Manchester, joining us as Assistant Lecturer in 1964 fresh from his PhD in educational sociology at University of Chicago. This was a period of intense and lively exchanges across the joint Department of Anthropology and Sociology focusing mainly on qualitative approaches to social structure such as social network analysis, situational analysis and the extended case study method, approaches that were being applied to schools and factories in the Manchester area as well as to understanding social change in Africa, the Middle East and India. Influenced by the work of the Manchester anthropologists and sociologists on urbanization in Africa, such as Bill Epstein, Valdo Pons and Clyde Mitchell, Bryan decided to work on urbanization, but chose Latin America for field research. In his research in Guatemala City and later in Peru where he worked with Manchester anthropologist Norman Long, Bryan focused on how the poor, caught up in dramatic structural changes in economy and society, organise  on the basis of family, community of origin and destination, and at times, ethnicity to make the best use of difficult situations over which they have little control.

This combination of actor oriented and social structural perspectives became the basis of Cities of Peasants, which draws on historical accounts, surveys, censuses and ethnography to elucidate the meanings for participants of the challenges of making a living and finding shelter in cities. Bryan analysed historically the uneven capitalist growth of Latin America and its consequences for urban development, highlighting the extent to which the urban poor in Latin America, natives and migrants, unlike those of the developed world, initially ‘made’ the cities, building their own housing and creating their own jobs.  Their skills and social movements contributed considerably to urbanization, creating a degree of social mobility despite entrenched structures of inequality. The informal pattern of urbanization had mixed results for the development of citizen rights, often favouring clientelism (where services were exchanged for political support), but the experiences and memories of participation remain  factors that limit the authoritarian economic and political practices of the region.

View Bryan Roberts discussing his work with David Morgan in our video interview.

Further reading

Bryan Roberts (1978) Cities of Peasants: The Political Economy of Urbanization in the Third World, Edward Arnold, London.

 

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