In Harm’s Way: Violence at the Urban Margins in Contemporary Argentina

Javier Auyero, Sociology Department, University of Texas, Austin

Research Grant, 2013

In Argentina, and elsewhere in Latin America, members of the middle and upper-middle classes tend to be the main spokespeople in public debates around the issue of citizens’public safety (seguridad). Public discourse about urban violence tends to be dominated by those occupying privileged positions in the social structure. They talk most about the issue because, presumably, they are the ones most affected by it. And yet, any cursory count of the victims of urban violence in the subregion tells us that those who are suffering the most from it live (and die) at the bottom of the socio-symbolic order. As a result, the experience of interpersonal violence among the urban poor becomes something unspeakable, and the everyday fear and trauma lived in relegated territories is constantly muted and denied. The urban violence among those who suffer from it the most is absent from public debate.

In Harm’s Way is about the collective trauma created by the constant and implacable interpersonal violence in a marginalized neighborhood in the outskirts of the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. We subject the experience of violence to social scientific analysis to render it visible and make it a subject of debate.

The book makes four interrelated arguments: First, much of the violence we place under the ethnographic microscope resembles that which has been dissected by students of street violence in the United States, i.e., it is the product of interpersonal retaliation and remains encapsulated in dyadic exchanges. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The violence at the urban margins of Buenos Aires resembles that pervading daily life in the most dangerous U.S. ghettos, Brazilian favelas, Colombian comunas, and other relegated zones throughout the Americas. However, including other forms of physical aggression (sexual, domestic, and intimate) that take place inside and outside the home and shape the course of residents’ daily lives, we begin to see that violence serves more than just retaliatory purposes and that its several forms are often linked beyond dyadic relationships.

While sociological and journalistic accounts of life in dangerous communities point to some of the more spectacular ways in which people respond to danger, we still know little about the less public practices that residents under siege devise to prevent violence and protect their loved ones.

Violence does not always remain confined to reciprocal exchange. It sometimes spreads throughout the social fabric of the community, resembling a chain that connects different types of physical harm. Part of our task was to reconstruct this concatenation of events and show that what looks like an isolated incident is, in fact, part of a larger interactional sequence. Thus, we talk about concatenated violences—in plural.

Second, we argue that violence in these communities is a routine way of dealing with everyday life issues inside and outside the home. Physical aggression is part of a local repertoire of action,a habitual way of acting on individual and collective interests. Residents rely on violence to address individual and collective problems (from disciplining a misbehaving child to establishing authority in the neighborhood or at home). Violence is a repertoire, an establishedknow-how, a familiar practice useful in dealing with the difficulties daily life presents to residents of poor city neighborhoods—a rape threat, a robbery, an out-of-control child, etc.

Third, contrary to descriptions of destitute urban areas in the Americas as eithergovernance voids deserted by the state or militarized spaces firmly controlled by the state’s iron fist, we argue that law enforcement at the urban margins is intermittent, selective, and contradictory. This fractured presence of the state perpetuates the violence it is presumed to prevent.

Fourth, residents of dangerous communities are acutely aware of the hazards that chronic exposure to violence poses, expressing a deep desire to protect their loved ones from harm and making active efforts to do so, despite the many constraints they face. However, while sociological and journalistic accounts of life in dangerous communities point to some of the more spectacular ways in which people respond to danger, such as direct retaliation, collective organizing, and lynching and/or vigilantism, we still know little about the less-public practices and routines that residents under siege devise to prevent violence and protect their loved ones. The book examines the ways—some mundane and some not, some of which involve the perpetration of physical damage, others of which do not—that residents of the urban periphery cope with the constant but unpredictable danger.

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