Gilberto Velho – A Utopia Urbana – Um Estudo de Antropologia Social – English Translation


I was reading this anthropology book by Gilberto Velho – A Utopia Urbana – Um Estudo de Antropologia Social about people who want to move to, by any means necessary, the Estrela Building in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It’s in Portuguese and I couldn’t find any English versions of the book, so I wanted to write up a translation of it in case someone else wanted to read it in English someday. I only did the Conclusion section, though. It’s not a very long book, but I’m not sure when I’ll have time to do the rest.

Velho recently passed away. During his career he was an influential Brazilian anthropologist.

Chapter 5. Conclusions

“Whoever has experienced Copacabana doesn’t want to live anywhere else.” – A Neighborhood Resident

Up to what point can Social Anthropology be useful to research of the urban environment, especially of the large metropolises? This obviously can bring a number of challenges, but, in principal, to me it seems essential to say that this greater or lesser effectiveness will depend on your methodological flexibility, in other words, it is not possible under the name of “traditional” anthropology to study the 450 residents of the Estrela Building as if they made up an isolated indigenous tribe. This is one of the reasons that forces me to consider the problem of ideology and social stratification. The characterization of the behavior and of the system of representations of this investigated universe can only be made in a more consequential way, as the fact is clear that inserting oneself into a complex society is to be made a part of, and relating oneself with, other groups, sectors, etc., of the society. The concept of white collar, to me, as an occupation characterization, seems adequate as a starting place for the investigation. In this way, choosing white collar professionals would ensure that the interviewed people all made up part of a specific social stratum. They do not make up the entire stratum, which includes, in the city of Rio de Janeiro and in Brazilian society, hundreds of thousands, or millions, of individuals, obviously not all residents of Copacabana or the South Zone (Zona Sul). This stratum is related, in some way or another, with other social stratums: a relationship of superiority, equality, inferiority, or subordination, in various levels and domains of the social life—economic, political, cultural, ideological, etc. Ergo, it is obvious that the existential experience of the interviewees cannot be reduced, at the risk of methodological simplicity, to the fact of living in the Estrela Building in Copacabana. Not only was the type of participation in other groups or domains seen and examined, but also the experiences before their becoming residents of the Estrela or of becoming “Copacabanese.”

I was concerned with the representations of the interviewed. How they viewed themselves, where they fit in the world, how they organized and classified their society. Once again it is necessary to emphasize their non-autonomy as a group. They are not, necessarily, the exclusive generators of the symbols and aspirations that guide their life strategies and existential decisions. According to Mills, a white collar “is collectively more often pitiful than tragic, fighting impersonal inflation, living out in slow misery his yearning for the quick American climb. He is pushed by forces beyond his control, pulled into movements he does not understand; he gets into situations in which he is the most helpless position. The white-collar man is the hero as victim, the small creature who is acted upon but who does not act, who works along unnoticed in somebody’s office or store, never talking loud, never talking back, never taking a stand.”

Mills’ definition was checked with the interviewees and, with few exceptions, they do not view themselves in this way. They believe they have ascended, or are ascending, they consider themselves actors in their lives and central to these ideas is the fact that they have arrived at Copacabana. In just a few sentences, one can see some indication of this spirit: “The reason I came was a question of status” (said a member of the reserve military), “It was the style, the ‘hotness’” (high school teacher), “If I hadn’t come, I would have had a complex” (banker), etc.

A few things can be said with respect to the specific case of Copacabana. Truly living in the neighborhood, starting at some point in time, came to be defined as a symbol of social prestige. Around the neighborhood, they remembered a real estate development publicity campaign in the past. These types of campaigns are made through the public channels, the press, radio, television. Often they are coordinated by contracted advertising agencies by the large civil construction companies. These become updates to the aspirations of social groups—altering them or emphasizing them. To me it seems apt to examine a few words to this effect by Chombart de Lauwe:

[From French]:
“The genesis of aspirations operates in relation with an economic system and a society’s own culture. It depends on an historic evolution marked by technological and economic transformations. It is equally linked to the images and the representations of the human itself, the social structures, the culture, and the transformations of. In the race for consumption of industrial societies, whichever they are, where information, advertising, and propaganda all play a more and more important role, aspirations are never satisfied because new aspirations are aroused before the previous ones can be attained. This process has been clearly evidenced in various surveys of working families, especially in regards to social mobility. This dissatisfaction shows itself in different ways depending on the economic systems, and the degrees of industrialization, but it tends to spread around the entire planet. It remains to be seen what are the effects, good or bad, for the affected populations.”

In the investigated case, there was the problem of residential aspirations, defined as fundamental by the interviewed. Once the process of occupying Copacabana had been, practically, finished, until what point would the aspiration of living in another place, such as Ipanema or Barra (Barra da Tijuca), not arise? The upper middle class interviewees revealed that living in Copacabana had been their aspiration, but it was no longer. But new aspirations had been generated because there would always be a better location where it would be worth it to buy or rent a residence. How much time would it take for Copacabana to stop being a paradise, or some “arrival point” for this interviewed universe? The fact is that the hierarchical view of neighborhoods and of society remains a stimulating factor for special displacement, new expenses, and investments.

I insist that I don’t mean to defend a conspiracy theory of the growth of Copacabana. The creation of the myth of Copacabana, just like that of Ipanema or Barra, is only possible in the type of society in which there exists an identification between neighborhood and social prestige, in such a way that the simple act of moving to a new neighborhood would be interpreted as social ascension, even without having changed occupations or income. I am not saying that this isn’t encountered in other societies in addition to Brazil, contextualized with the white collar universe in Rio de Janeiro. It is about knowing how these residential aspirations gain or lose value and how they are determined in concrete cases. It seems clear that this residential-social mobility problem gives emphasis to a view of a society at least relatively open, where the people can change their stratum if “they aren’t scared of working hard,” or “if they truly strive,” etc.

Regardless of the acceptance of the importance of the concept of “alienation,” to me it does not seem very operational as a starting point or hypothesis of an anthropological study even if there is an emphasis on the study of ideology. My objective in this case is much more to measure and relate a system of classification and representations with stratification without making other types of judgements. This does not preclude other social scientists with the same material from taking other routes. But to me it seems a fundamental stage to find the logic and internal coherences in the discussion of the investigated universe. Without this, one would run the risk of giving emphasis to possibly circumstantial content, thus relegating to the background principal classifications. Hence the importance of field work, with participant observation and interviews which should, in principal, allow the investigator to go beyond “appearances” and identify “codes” that aren’t always explicit.

The fact of not insisting on “alienation” does not impede the crucial verification of the relationship between the investigated universe and other sectors of the society. Relating to the question of residential prestige, built atop an image of a hierarchical society with a certain degree of fluidness, there is the problem of understanding the greater or lesser equality of access to the manipulation of symbols between different groups, strata, and social classes. I do not need to write a history of half a dozen evil corrupt businessmen to make clear, in the examined example, the relatively passive character of the studied white collars. In other words, the fact of being a capitalistic society, where profit is an indispensable element of the system, underlines the propagation of the “material and non-material standards” that accompany urbanization. Obviously, there is a manipulation of the “culture of the masses,” creating or emphasizing specific patterns of consumption. The investigated universe transforms these patterns into fundamental criteria for the evaluation of social position and an individual’s degree of power. There is an emphasis on the location of residence but, it is clear, that wardrobe, car, and electric appliances also make up part of the prestige scale.

I emphasize that I am not defending a theory of social stratification based on residence, nor do I equate social prestige with real power. But this is what arises, clearly, in the academic discourse. There is a series of implications throughout diverse levels. For example, there is sharp political conformism. There is a belief in a system of excellence and that people can rely on their personal virtues to “move up.” But there is also clear ambiguity in the discourse. In many interviews, there were strong traces of mysticism and fatalism. Many people attribute their recurring successes and failures to God, good luck, bad luck, to the Pomba Gira [from Wikipedia: an Afro-Brazilian spirit evoked by practitioners of Umbanda and Quimbanda], the evil eye, etc. It is with difficulty that someone criticizes the system, though, frequently, exceptions are made for individuals: Fulano was more competent than Sicrano. Beltrano is corrupt, etc. Sometimes, observations came up about innate qualities and characteristics of people or of Brazilians in general: “the Brazilian people are just like that. They don’t really like to work.”; “Brazilians only like soccer.”; “the paulista is more of a worker and the carioca is more content.” etc. In this way, there is a somewhat unanimous acceptance of the rules of the system. The interviewees know that they don’t have control over all of the decisions made about their destinies, but they accept this as a natural fact: “I don’t know these things. The government will figure it out.”; “I am not interested in politics. I just want to work in peace.”; “We just have to take care of our responsibilities. There are other people more prepared to solve Rio’s problems.”; etc. There seems to be a division into “two worlds;” on one side, daily life, where people work, take care of their responsibilities, ascend in life, head to Copacabana, buy televisions, go to mass or the movie theater, acquire more prestige, become “better;” the other side is the sphere in which things that are important but, by natural fact, are distant and inaccessible occur—“politics.” There are two types of power: one that carries the possibility of moving to Copacabana, Ipanema, etc.; consume more and more clothing, amusements, goods, in a general sense; the other isn’t part of the existential experience of the investigated universe and is referred to as “political” and “government” categories. It would be, in a certain manner, outside of “real” known society. The smallest ideological units examined that make up this ideology create the options and representations of the investigated universe: giving limits and content to their aspirations and represent this view of the distribution of power within society.

My problem was to escape from a reifying analysis of the lives of different groups, especially those in a large metropolis. To try to break up the individual components of these groups into, for example, purely “urban” or “rural” traits would simply require, perhaps, that one define or better explain what would be urban or rural, but it would not help one perceive the totality of the experience of these individuals and groups. It is possible, that one would lose something at the outset by generalizing the studied behaviors, but gain something in the representation of the complexity of the social relations and of their ideology.

The decision to begin with the individual’s discourse implicitly “accepts” their existential experience expressed in their own words. This includes not having to compare, immediately, the interviewees’ responses with an “objective reality” defined a priori. The complexification of the Social Sciences leads, necessarily, to the acceptance of different “realities” or “levels of reality” corresponding to different understandings by individuals or groups of a series of “raw” data. The ethnographic description, in the case a single building in a single neighborhood of a large city, makes up the backdrop for the responses and interviews of the researched universe. These responses are as “real” as the road on which the Estrela Building sits.

As was already said, the concept of alienation is extremely ambiguous and controversial as a starting point for this type of research. This implies the acceptance that a certain ideological attitude corresponds to the “real” needs of a certain social group. Other ideological attitudes would correspond, to a greater or lesser degree, to distortions or alienations. The definition of “real” would be extremely limited as it would establish a dichotomy between “objective reality” and ideology, to the point of having, accordingly, a glimmering and phantasmagorical character. This does not ignore, of course, the relations between different “realities” or “levels of reality.” There is, however, the concern with avoiding the privileging of certain phenomenon, an aprioristic choice, as more crucial than other. One can only reach conclusions about this after passing a series of many stages of scientific investigation. This, obviously, does not mean a rejection of the hypothesis of the work. The important part is that they are really hypotheses and not dogmas.

In this case, there was objective fact – the immense demographic growth of Copacabana and all of the resulting technical problems: housing, traffic, transportation, hygiene, etc. Purely and simply, the universe was asked: Why come to live in Copacabana? The lone reply, from the beginning of the interviews, was that living in Copacabana, in a general way, was very important for the Copacabanese. They responded how, when, and why. The search was then to classify the types of responses and to discover their logic. This presented itself through certain common principals at the level of the response, that is, it wasn’t necessary to leave the “reality” of the responses to find a logic. It was not necessary to go to other levels. I am emphasizing this to show that relatively independent stages of work can be distinguished in the analysis of the interviewees’ discourse. I am not defending, specifically, the autonomy of the representations and ideology, but only proposing the importance of facing them as an object of the specific study.

In the end, I hope that this book may also suggest the importance of interdisciplinary work. The quantity and complexity of the problems that arise in these interviews shows, clearly, that just one specialist or one type of approach would not be anywhere near enough to take advantage of, consequently, all of the data. In this research, it seems to me, that, in particular, a psychologist would offer helpful material. The problems that were touched upon, some much more superficially than others, suggest the possibility that sociologists, political scientists, etc., would also take into account this type of research that is not solely the property of anthropologists.

[The following Annex includes parts of the interviews taken during the research. Not all of the material could be included due to concerns about space. It is possible that other researchers could find some utility in these interviews. I do not add any comment to those that were already made within the text itself.]


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