Becoming a minority. Experiencing precarity in ethnically diverse societies
fundamental research project
Over 20 years after the transition to a democratic dispensation, South Africa still faces many challenges related to the legacy of Apartheid. As the recent wide-spread protests at South African universities demonstrate, the formal accord to end Apartheid did not bring an end to the use of racial and ethnic population categories, both among members of the population majority and among members of minorities. Employing a multi-site ethnographic approach, this project studies the post-Apartheid transformation processes at South African universities with a particular focus on student residences. Student residences in South Africa offer a unique opportunity to study a process of wider global significance, namely how historically advantaged population segments experience the process of becoming less powerful and less privileged-and how these experiences shape their use and perception of (politicised) ethnicity. Constituting a central part of local university cultures, these residences are composed of students from an increasingly diverse range of backgrounds. Life in these sharply bounded groups warrants intensive participation: students are immersed in an encompassing life-world in which they practice communal life in autonomous and self-organized ways. Within these ‘tiny publics’, South African society and its manifold social positions and relations are manifested, represented, affirmed, and contested at the same time. It is within these residences that white and particularly white Afrikaans-speaking students experience the process of becoming a minority. Yet, as highly sensitive and contested terrain, these student residences are hard to access and remain largely unstudied.Based on the preliminary findings of an ethnographic pilot study of such residences (funded by the University of St.?Gallen), this project pursues the overall objective to study how historically advantaged population segments experience the process of becoming less powerful and less privileged. Focussing on white students and on how they negotiate forms of belonging and participation, the more specific aim is to analyse how they cope with the associated experiences of precarity and what forms of (politicised) ethnicity structure their perception, self-understanding, and practices. Situated within an interpretive theoretical framework, mainly two qualitative research methodologies will be employed: While in-depth interviews are used to reconstruct and analyse the students’ experiences, perceptions and self-understandings, participant observation and ethnographic interviews will provide a thick ethnographic description of the residences, i.e. of their symbolic, cultural, interactional, and material infrastructure in the context of which belonging and participation are negotiated. The study focusses on two historically white Afrikaans universities.Informed by the preliminary fieldwork, the project will contribute to two strands of research and their intersectional relatedness: studies on race and ethnicity and on precarity. Situated within the growing field of constructivist scholarship on race, ethnicity and nationalism, the study focuses on how ethnic and racial categories intersect with local (non-ethnic, non-racial) categorizations and on how local group-forming processes along both categorical infrastructures shape race- and ethnicity-related perceptions. The resulting ‘group relations’, however, are less shaped by a (racial) ‘threat’; rather, they appear to be underpinned by a broader sense of precarity that goes beyond economic concerns such as labour market conditions and may inter alia entail ethnocultural and symbolic precarisation. Initial evidence indicates that this seems to be experienced by individuals from all socio-economic backgrounds, and that these experiences are rather based on perceptions (and not on ‘objective’ conditions). The project aims to contribute empirically and analytically to a new, more extensive understanding of precarity and its relation to race and ethnicity in the context of becoming a minority. Its manifestation in the residences speaks to a less radical but nonetheless significant transformation of North American and European societies, namely the increase in ethnocultural diversity and the growth of population segments that are at once relatively privileged yet increasingly precarious and downwardly mobile. Conventionally claimed yet empirically understudied, these population segments are said to develop affectively underpinned ressentiments against ethnic or racial ‘others’ and to support (right-wing) populist parties and movements. The broader significance of the project lies in contributing to an empirical investigation of these claims.
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PublicationType: conference contribution