This PhD project in comparative urban anthropology addresses the question of how urban dwellers in cities shaped by sharp social and spatial boundaries deal with social difference in physical proximity. The study takes four unequal, yet adjacent neighbourhoods (Polana Caniço and Sommerschield II, Alexandra and Linbro Park) in two African cities (Maputo and Johannesburg) as starting points and follows the urban dwellers to spaces of encounter, meaning spaces where urban dwellers from these neighbourhoods come to deal with each other.

The study focuses on social differentiation within neighbourhoods (urban milieus), it compares social spaces within neighbourhoods, it studies domestic work, it analyses local spatial politics and attempts by urban elites to create enclaves, it analyses religious spaces (Islamic prayer places and a charismatic church) as well as shopping malls. The PhD thesis provides a micro-perspective on the agency of urban dwellers in dealing with, reproducing, adjusting and negotiating space and difference through practices of boundary drawing and connecting.

The data for the project was collected during 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted with the multi-sited neighbourhood approach (a combination of neighbourhood study, 'following the people' and analysis of spaces of encounter). The case studies were compared with a style of comparison coined interpretive, post-'crisis' comparison, a reflexive, procedural approach which compares urban practices in their respective context. Based on a conceptualisation of space and difference as constituted by a perceived, conceived and lived dimension (Lefebvre) the PhD thesis argues that we need to pay more attention to the agency of urban dwellers in appropriating urban spaces. Less powerful urban dwellers prove to be able to transform spaces like shopping malls and enclaves of the elite into lived spaces with manifold uses and meanings in ways which are often not seen by powerful actors and academics.

Project duration



Prof. Dr. Till Förster (University of Basel)
Prof. em. Dr. Ulf Hannerz (University of Stockholm)
Prof. Dr. Elísio Macamo (University of Basel)


2010          Janggen-Pöhn Foundation
2010-2013 Humer Foundation
2013-2014 Forschungsfond University of Basel