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The unequivocal all-encompassing “slum”: reflecting on the politics and geographies behind the lexicons for urban self-built settlements

March 24, 2022 @ 2:00 pm - 2:30 pm

By Daniela Beltrame, Joaquin Benitez, Karenna Groff, and Amelia Seabold (University of Buenos Aires) |

Most of the literature in development and urban studies relies uncomfortably on an English lexicon to refer to neighborhoods with substandard built environments and insecure forms of tenure in the Global South. Practitioners and researchers alike have pointed to the genealogies of colonialism and stigmatization behind concepts like “slum” and “shanty town”, while also noting that seemingly more aseptic wording like “informal settlement”, “urban informality” or “human settlements” may be technically inappropriate or one-dimensional. International exchanges have failed to create consensus to renovate these lexicons: time and again they have fallen back to referring to these neighborhoods as “slums” and “informal settlements”.3: 3: rtThis article presents a critical reflection on the loci of enunciation and associated politics around the English lexicon we use to refer to communities living in substandard built environments and/or lacking formal ownership in the Global South. We do not aim to propose an alternative idiom but to question the existing one and account for how it was shaped by politics, esthetics and geographies of colonial development. If slum characteristics are highly heterogeneous across geographies, is the word slum a universal signifier for anything that does not match the hegemonic standard for housing? Has the word ‘slum’ lost its meaning and become an empty signifier in development studies? What images, feelings and ideas are cast when the lexeme slum is used? Ultimately, this piece calls on practitioners and academics to critically reflect on the politics of language and the geographies of knowledge behind their concepts.


March 24, 2022
2:00 pm - 2:30 pm
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Arbeitskreis Geographische Stadtforschung im Entwicklungskontext


Transient Spaces and Societies