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IV ISA Forum of Sociology in Porto Alegre

Women’s Struggle for Urban Housing in Porto Alegre

Priscila Susin looking over the rooftop of a squatted building mostly managed by women, in the city center of Porto Alegre, 2019. Credit: Priscila Susin.

February 21, 2020

The housing deficit in major Brazilian cities affects significant sectors of the impoverished population, having greater impact on black women. The rise of housing social movements (squatting movements) in urban areas has evoked new political repertoires since the 1980s, exposing the high number of properties with no social function by occupying abandoned buildings in city centers. Notably, women are the majority living in these spaces, pointing to the multidimensional segregation they experience in both normative and everyday lives. My PhD research aims at building a temporally grounded dialogue with these women, trying to understand interpretations and lived experiences of their struggle for housing before and after engaging in politically mobilized groups and moving to squatted buildings.

Graffiti saying “the city center belongs to the people” on the wall of a squatted building in the city center of Porto Alegre, 2018. Credit: Priscila Susin.

Interpretative and biographical approach

Field research was carried out between 2015 and 2018 in Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul. Pursuing synchronic and diachronic biographical data, participant observations and biographical interviews were conducted with women living in two squatted buildings in the city center. Empirical work included almost weekly commitment to the social movement agenda in order to uphold a continuous understanding of political and everyday routines.

The applied methodology was epistemologically supported by Alfred Schütz’s sociology, especially his concept of the “relevance system,” and a well-articulated set of notions (drawing also on Berger and Luckmann) regarding how it is possible to have access to the typicality of the mundane social construction of reality. The biographical method as developed by Gabriele Rosenthal provided practical instruments for reconstructing the biographical experiences of the 23 interviewed women in interaction with socially and historically given frames.

Between “traditional” and “politicized” symbolic fields

Among the main findings, an intersectional acknowledgment of the problem between housing and gender was conceived, offering an empirically grounded perspective as a solution for some of the methodological limitations within these studies. Reconstructing the interviewees’ relevance system made it possible to capture elements of constraint, resistance, and coping not usually available from pre-conceived analytical categories.

By addressing hierarchical culture in everyday life, it was found that the nature of the social movements’ organization can also obliterate the chances of equitable political participation of women in the “struggle” processes. The ongoing development of new political performances is, however, fundamentally connected to the recent confrontations and changes in the traditional regulatory principles of gender relations as observed during fieldwork.

The latent interpretational overlapping of “traditional” and “politicized” symbolic fields was also repeatedly present during biographical analyses. In order to justify their staying on the verge of urban illegality, interviewees brought to light recurring conflicts between following expected gender roles (maternity and domestic work) and incorporating emergent political understandings (adequate housing and access to the city as rights). Both types of self-presentation resources were found to be generating moral capital, although the first mostly connected to external and widely legitimized class values, and the second to the internal politics of struggle, resulting in the possible generalization of housing struggle as a “means” and as an “end.”

Priscila Susin, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil <pri.qsusin@gmail.com>

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