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May 28th, 2014

Book Review: Underground Sociabilities: Identity, Culture, and Resistance in Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas, by Sandra Jovchelovitch and Jacqueline Priego-Hernandez


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Blog Admin

May 28th, 2014

Book Review: Underground Sociabilities: Identity, Culture, and Resistance in Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas, by Sandra Jovchelovitch and Jacqueline Priego-Hernandez


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Vinicius-de-Carvalho-Cropped-223x175Dedicated to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, to their people and their history, Underground Sociabilities showcases research into how Rio’s favelas are using cultural activities, identity, and the imagination in an attempt to regenerate public spheres and construct positive futures for young people at risk of drugs, violence and drug trafficking wars. Interspersed with quotes from the research interviews, beautiful photography, and pleasantly presented data and tables, this book has the potential to serve as real inspiration to those interested in social inclusion and the arts, writes Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho. 

Underground Sociabilities: Identity, Culture, and Resistance in Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas. Sandra Jovchelovitch and Jacqueline Priego-Hernandez. UNESCO Publications. 2013.

Underground Sociabilities coverDownload this book for free in English and Portuguese.

Underground Sociabilities offers a comprehensive analysis of a very complex phenomenon within Brazilian society: the world of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Together with the widespread images of carnival, samba, beaches, and football, favelas are recognised the world over as another strong image of Rio de Janeiro. Alongside increased media coverage, academics are engaged in trying to understand and explain this particular aspect of the so-called “marvelous city”. Within this context, this book by Sandra Jovchelovitch and Jacqueline Priego- Hernandez, both at the London School of Economics, is another important contribution on this under-studied topic.

The book forms the report from a research project developed by the authors in a partnership between UNESCO Office in Brazil, Itaú Cultural and Fundação Itaú Social (both sponsored by Banco Itaú), the Brazilian Ministry of  Culture, Central Única das Favelas – CUFA, and Grupo Cultural AfroReggae. The main focus of the research investigates how segregated and poor neighbourhoods inside the complex and fragmented metropolis that is Rio de Janeiro – normally identified as violent and dangerous – develop alternative forms of sociability in order to resist exclusion. These “underground sociabilities” are defined by the authors as “subterranean forms of social life that are made invisible to mainstream society by geographical, economic, symbolic, behavioural and cultural barriers” (p. 21).

The research, which spans a period from 2009 to 2011 in four of Rio de Janeiro’s neighbourhoods (Cantagalo, Cidade de Deus, Vigário Geral and Madureira), first studies the lifeworld of these communities in order to capture the perceptions that the dwellers have about themselves and how they see their lives in the favelas and in the city. Secondly, the focus turns to CUFA and AfroReggae (a hybrid of NGO, social movement, business, and culture entrepreneur), recognized as mediators between the world of favelas and mainstream society. Both organisations are favela-based and use the arts, sports, and civic engagement to “transform favela environments and establish lines of communication and exchange between marginalised communities and mainstream society” (p.21). Readers may also know AfroReggae from the documentary film Favela Rising.

The book is organized into seven chapters, each ordered in a way that allows the reader to follow the foundations of the research, the analyses, and the interpretation of the data. Working with a phrase that those in Brazil often use about Rio, the authors take the concept of the “broken city”, or “cidade partida”, and describe in detail the geographical and symbolical division of the city and provide a comprehensive picture of the life in favelas, pointing out how questions of poverty and race are based on the basis of this division. Arguing against the widespread assumption that Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are a social problem that ought to be solved by external agents, the authors demonstrate with this research that positive bottom-up responses to exclusion and violence, such as those of CUFA and Afro Reggae, have a strong influence on these communities and can be considered as a counterpart to subaltern conditions imposed on the favela dwellers.

Boy in the Complexo do Alemão favela region in Rio. Credit: Joao Lima CC BY-NC 2.0

Using AfroReggae and CUFA as case studies, the authors describe how these “play a central role in providing psychosocial scaffoldings and developing new pathways to citizenship and integration between favelas and the city” (p. 208). Through their core aims of building support and self-esteem, these organisations build a family-like support for those in the favelas, and help to foster “a new set of positive representations about the favelas and about the city”. Included on page 119 is a quote from a partner at the UNESCO Office in Brazil, which is worth repeating here:

“…These groups are the favelas; these groups are the very expression of the genuine and true strength of the favelas, of what is beautiful, diverse, original in the favelas of Rio, in the communities of Rio de Janeiro.”

Together with a detailed account of the differences among the favelas and the work of AfroReggae and CUFA in these communities, the authors also give space to the perspective of the Military Police, who usually represent the state’s only presence in the favelas. Interview participants in all communities studied were recorded as expressing fear of the police, with some seeing it as an “unruly and aggressive force” (p.62). Traditionally seen as violent and repressive, the Military Police are now beginning a process of change in attitude after the introduction of the Pacification Police Units (UPPs) in the favelas.

The book has the quality of being accessible to a reader with no prior specialist knowledge on the world of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, but will also provide fresh insights for those already familiar with this complex and vibrant subject. The combination of oral testimony, quantitative data, and a solid theoretical framework supports the central discussion around how underground sociabilities creatively produce their own responses to social exclusion with bottom-up organizations and the arts. The book will additionally appeal to and inspire academics, activists, and others working with social projects.

However, the book fails to problematize what the authors call the “phenomenology of the ‘broken city’” (p.28). The division between the favelas in the hills and the elegant neighbourhoods in the asphalted areas (the morro-asfalto division, p.39) is assumed rather than questioned and the developed academic debate around this representation of the city is not discussed in the book.

In analysing the communities and their relations with the whole city the authors work with the concept of border porosity (Chapter 6) to represent the way sociability is built up within these communities. It could be argued that employing this very concept makes it necessary to discuss Rio in the frame of a ‘broken’ city, divided between favela and asfalto. The authors missed a trick in not challenging this and connecting it to the results of the actions of AfroReggae and CUFA as a way of questioning this simplified representation of the city as divided in two.

In summary, Underground Sociabilities offers a provocative perspective on the significance of organizations like AfroReggae and CUFA as an example of democratic and innovative bottom-up movements of social inclusion. It certainly has the potential to serve as inspiration to other parts of the world.

Download this book for free in English and Portuguese.

Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho received his Ph.D. degree at Passau University, Germany. He graduated from the University of Juiz de Fora, Brazil, with a BA in Letras and a MA in Religious Studies. From 2008 to 2014 Dr. Carvalho coordinated the Brazilian Studies programme at Aarhus University (AU), in Denmark. He was director of the Latin American Centre at AU, from January 2012 to 2014. Dr. Carvalho has a broad interest within the field of Brazilian Studies. He is the Chief Editor of Brasiliana – Journal for Brazilian Studies. In September 2014 Dr. Carvalho will start as Lecturer at King’s Brazil Institute at King’s College London. Read more reviews by Vinicius.

LSE Review of Books in Brazil: Politics, People, and Petroleum

In this episode, we head inland to the heart of the country’s political life: the capital of Brasília. Authors from the LSE including Francisco Panizza (Senior Lecturer in Latin American Politics), Anthony Hall (Professor of Social Policy), Guy Michaels (Associate Professor of Economics) and Francesco Casselli (Norman Sosnow Professor of Economics), talk to LSE Review of Books about left-of-centre politics and social development in the country. We also find out whether Brazil proves or disproves the “oil curse” theory.

Other guests: André Vitor Singer (Former Press Secretary for the Lula presidency), Armando Simões (Ministry of Social Development and Fight Against Hunger in Brasilia), Antonio Claret Campos Filho (Secretary of State of Social Assistance and Human Rights: Rio de Janeiro State), Marcos Mendes (Legislative Consultant, Brazilian Senate), Fernando Postali and Marislei Nishijima (Department of Economics, University of São Paulo).

Presented by Amy Mollett. Produced by Cheryl Brumley. Music and sound came courtesy of: Groove Gravy Records for “Jazzilicious Sambossa” from their Brazil Remixed album (purchase on iTunes here) with special permission; TVBNR “Em pronunciamento, Dilma do Bolsa Familia” via Youtube (CC BY); DJ Sunho from the album DJ Sunho in Brasil with special permission; and selections from SoulBrigada presents One Note Samba Mixtape Vol.2 (CC BY). Collage image: Oil platform: Håkon Thingstad; Dilma and Lula: Blog do Planalto; Bolsa Familia: Fotos GOVBA. Published 22 July 2014.

LSE Review of Books in Brazil: Favela Life: From Drug Gangs to Drum Beats 

Sandra Jovchelovitch, Director of the Social and Cultural Psychology Programme at the LSE, and researcher Jacqueline Priego-Hernandez, speak about their new book: Underground Sociabilities: Identity, culture and resistance in Rio’s favelas.

Paul Heritage, Professor of Drama and Performance at Queen Mary College in London, also talks about art in the city’s periphery at a circus school in central Rio.

Other guests include: Silvia Ramos,  Public Security expert in Rio and Celso Athayde, founder of CUFA (Central Unicas das Favelas) and more.

Presented by Amy Mollett. Produced by Cheryl Brumley. All contributors in order of appearance: Sandra Jovchelovitch, Jacqueline Priego-Hernandez, Silvia Ramos, Jailson de Souza e Silva, Celso Athayde, Cristal Moniz de Aragão, Angela Arruda, Pedrinho Guareschi, Paul Heritage. Translations by: Sierra Williams (Silvia Ramos), Simon Bastow (Jailson de Souza e Silva), Chris Gilson (Celso Athayde), Eduardo Feteira (Pedrinho Guareschi).  Music and sound came courtesy of: DJ Sunho from the album DJ Sunho in Brasil with special permission; The Prelinger Archives: Brazil: South American Medley (National Geographic, 1948); Banda AfroReggae for their songs:” Capa de Revista” and “Conflitos Urbanos”; CriadaFavela via Soundcloud for “Feito pra favela mast. gravação voz ProDbeats”; Adventure Beats for their song “Jazzilicious Sambossa” on NuJazz Mixtape via Soundcloud; Robinhood: A circus jump via; and Ergo Phizmiz “Music for an Underground Circus” via Free Music Archive. Crescer e Viver photos: © 2013 Catarina Heeckt. Published 2nd April 2014.

LSE Review of Books in Brazil: Rio in transition

This podcast features Ricky Burdett, Director of LSE Cities, and architectural adviser to the London 2012 Olympics; Washington Farjado, Adviser on Urban Affairs to the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro; Dame Tessa Jowell, MP and former UK Minister for the Olympics; Enrique Peñalosa, former Mayor of Bogota; Amanda Burden, Director of the New York City Department of Planning; and many others.

Presented and produced by Cheryl Brumley. All contributors in order of appearance: Ricky Burdett, Antoni Vives, Washington Farjado, Jurgen Bruns-Berentelg, Dame Tessa Jowell, Anthony Williams, Andy Altman, Jailson de Sousa e Silva, Simon Bastow (translation)  Suketu Mehta, Alejandro Echeverri, Edgar Pieterse, Amanda Burden, Silvio Torres. Eduardo Feteira (translation), Maria Olivia Rocart, Enrique Penalosa, Adam Greenfield. Music and sound came courtesy of: DJ Sunho from the album DJ Sunho in Brasil with special permission; The Prelinger Archives: Brazil: South American Medley (National Geographic, 1948).
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This work by LSE Review of Books is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales.