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BLOG: Dr Laurie Denyer Willis on Exclusion, Citizenship, and the Promises of Pentecostalism in Rio de Janeiro's Subúrbios

last modified Feb 15, 2017 01:10 PM

Social exclusion and rival visions of belonging were at the heart of Dr Laurie Denyer Willis's presentation "Life Beside the State: Refusing citizenship in Rio de Janeiro's Pentecostal Subúrbios." Drawing on long-term ethnographic research in Rio's suburban zones, Dr Denyer Willis used individual stories of marginalisation and resilience to highlight the state's troubled relationship with some of its most vulnerable citizens. Alternative support structures offered by Pentecostal communities were a key theme – and much of the session focused on why the promises of Pentecostalism could appear more durable and appealing than those of citizenship.

The term "subúrbio" brings to mind social marginalisation as much as a sense of being on the geographical periphery – and the area researched by Laurie has, like many others, recently seen the impact of government "pacification". While the suburbs tend to be seen as hotbeds of crime or sites of victimisation, Laurie argued that the violence marking those "pacification" efforts has fuelled a sense of alienation from the supposedly benevolent and rational state.

Her previous work has explored the theme of abandonment in modern Brazil, with state structures failing to act as guarantors of individual rights. This was vividly illustrated by two personal stories from a western suburb of Rio. State neglect formed the backdrop to the story of workersat a perfume factory, carrying out toxic waste products to sell them as a "holy fragrance" – a much-needed way of supplementing their income, with their customer base sourced through Pentecostal networks. It was no less evident in the case of a young mother, hastily discharged from a public clinic with premature twins and turned away by her partner. She, too, was able to find solace and community through Pentecostalism. While highlighting the precarity of her informants' situations, and the seemingly tokenistic nature of faith-based "remedies", Laurie elaborated on the concept of abandonment as "more than an endpoint".

Too often, she insisted, we view "abandonment by the state" as a final event, allowing stories of suffering and deprivation to gradually fade from view. Instead, she argued, it should be considered as a series of ongoing processes – an undertaking greatly facilitated by her anthropological approach.

She hinted that Pentecostal communities provided vital support to those seeking to distance themselves from state structures – she gave examples of women refusing to let in health workers or accept federal cash transfers. The reasons for choosing, or being faced with, this "life beside the state" are manifold, with abandonment providing just one salient example.

As a medical anthropologist, Laurie has explored the intersections of urban spaces and places, governance, and the rise of Pentecostalism in Brazil and Lusophone Africa. She is currently a Research Associate at the CGHR, working on a project on radio, epidemics and methodological evaluation in Mozambique and Cape Verde. She has spent over three years living and conducting research in Brazil, and has gained a deeply personal insight into community life in its subúrbios. What stood out during the talk was certainly her ability to gather individual stories and handle sensitive material, while never losing sight of the structural issues at play. Laurie's ongoing research focuses on novel forms of citizenship emerging from religious movements, in particular various forms of Pentecostalism. One question she has grappled with is whether a globalising Pentecostal discourse – concerned with citizenship and belonging, marginalisation, uncertain livelihoods and changing cities – can be thought of as a "social movement", transforming societies as it has been transforming lives. 

Joanna Kozlowska works on the CGHR Student Group as an MPhil candidate in IR and Politics. Sign up for future CGHR talks.