American University
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Identity, informality, and liminality in Nairobi's informal settlements

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posted on 2023-08-04, 11:53 authored by Cherie Saulter

What explains variation in cooperation and collective action to meet community needs in Nairobi’s multi-ethnic informal settlements? While elites have often politicized ethnicity in Kenya, and elections tend to heighten ethnic salience, in the times between elections, residents of informal settlements regularly engage in collective action with non-coethnic neighbors, including protecting their communities from demolition, subversively accessing services the state fails to provide, and contributing to mutual aid. Based on original data from 230 interviews in eight of Nairobi’s informal settlements, I develop a conceptual model for cross-ethnic cooperation. This model applies an intersectional lens (Crenshaw 1991) to the study of ethnic cooperation, whereby shared identities beyond ethnicity, such as place and class, permit people to find points of connection with neighbors of different tribes. The model also builds from contact theory (Allport 1954) such that spatial patterns of informal settlements, including residential integration and density, lead to high levels of interaction between non-coethnics, which builds trust across tribes and facilitates formation of bonds tied to shared vulnerabilities. Together, these factors create a foundation from which residents can work together to provide for their needs in the absence of a responsive state and access to formal institutions. My dissertation makes three key contributions. First, it bolsters recent literature on ethnic cooperation, demonstrating that social contact helps overcome ethnic differences, especially when people share other identities, and that place identity in particular brings non-coethnic residents of informal settlements together in pursuit of common goals. Second, it adds to our understanding of the factors that inhibit claim-making, indicating that informality both excludes residents from the right to the city and creates expectations that the state will treat them negatively. Finally, it shows how the liminality of informal settlements, as opposed to just their precarity, actually forges community ties and strengthens place identity.





Degree Awarded: Ph.D. School of International Service. American University


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