How having no electricity became a problem (on social problems and the urban)

This note is a summary of a presentation I gave on the 23rd of September 2016 at Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture’s symposium “Spatial Articulations of Collective Identities in the Context of Middle Eastern Cities”. The talk was included in the panel “Between Loss and Presence” and chaired by Hannah Baumann.

Alleyway in Shatila

Alleyway in Shatila


We tend to think of local/urban social problems in a contradictive way: first we consider them as self-evident and directly lived by people, and second as used almost as “pretexts” for broad, structural critique of the social order. The first point follows a perspective of “the local” as something “closed, coherent, integrated as authentic, as ‘home’, a secure retreat” (2005: 6). The second is particularly present in the literature as it constitutes one of the key elements of the idea of urban social movements (Castells 1983). I believe that this approach can considerably benefit from the sociology of social problems and its non-reifying perspective on social and political problems. Indeed, as remarked by Javier Auyero and Debora Swistun (2009), environmental suffering is never something entirely self-evident, nor is it merely the result of a narrative which would simply “float up in the air”, but in between. On this point I follow Daniel Cefaï who explains that public problems are “Neither pure and hard facts, nor inventions of the mind” (1996).

This connects particularly to the topic of my PhD, which is people mobilising on issues like electricity, water, and other urban amenities: for a part of the literature (Allan 2014 in particular) the rise in importance of problems anchored in the everyday in the camps is a way for people to voice the injustice they experience daily while constructing an alternate realm of politics to the one proposed by the political parties. There would be an opposition between “real people politics” and “party politics”, the first being more “self-obvious”. I think it is important to consider what it means that the people on the ground describe it that way while considering how exactly something as electricity came to become a public problem. This I think will allow us understanding a great deal about politics in the camps.

The “problems of the camps” between obviousness and investigation

The “web of cables” which hangs above the streets has become a truism in studies as well as movies, reports, and documentaries about the Beirut camps. Connected to a number of anecdotes and dramatic stories (generally revolving around younger camp dwellers being shocked by the electricity because of the unsafe-ness of the network), the electricity cables, and more generally the urban state of the camps (under the broad category of “problems of the camps”) was often used in interviews as a way to denounce the general state of the groups living in them. When asked about his recent arrival from Syria in Shatila, a refugee originally from Syria made this point clearly by systematically showing how the cables were an “evident problem” and pointing at them so that his claim that the situation was poorly handled was clear and uncontestable. But the cables themselves do not say anything about responsibility, solutions, and do not conceive a common story, three elements present in his discourse.

The empirical, daily, repeated experience of urban problems in the camps presented in the actors’ discourses accounts partly, but not entirely, for the shape they give to the problems, especially when it comes to asserting responsibility, proposing solutions, or presenting these problems in a specific manner. Indeed postulating a straightforward relationship between the experience of a personal trouble, its identification as something which can be acted upon, its putting in relation with other issues, the identification of a particular responsible, of certain solutions, is unfair when we look at what the people actually do around these issues. To do so I rely on one among many examples.

Politicising space in the camps: political injustice on trial by space

In a 2003 article, John Guidry proposes the concept of trial by space to describe “a process in which spaces and spatial relationships become concrete standards by which to evaluate the effectiveness of citizenship and its connotations of political and social equality” (2003). his process takes place through the development of an investigation through which “The contrast between the everyday life in the neighbourhood and the constitution’s language was used to put citizenship on “trial by space,” as residents noted the absence of schools, public transportation, policing, garbage collection, and other amenities of urban life enjoyed in the wealthier neighbourhoods of the city centre” (id.). By putting the concept of citizenship on trial by space, Guidry argues, the activists managed to overcome the neighbourhood’s inhabitants’ original lack of interest for public engagement and to realise a “raise in generality” and publicise what would otherwise appear as a succession of personal issues.

This phenomenon was particularly observable in the mobilisations around the “problems of the camps”. In 2015, a series of consultations was organised by one of the organisations I was following, around the question of the “problems of the camp”. In a small common room lent by a friendly association, a group of twelve inhabitants who had been previously approached by members of the organisation were invited to debate by a member whoassumed a role of facilitator, starting with the question “What are the main problems of the camp?”. To justify the demarche, the organiser added: “In the Arabic language, we have seven interrogations: what, where, when, who, why, how much, and how. If we answer that we have a solution”. This was followed by discussions generally focused around typical anecdotes and lists of issues, on which the facilitator would encourage naming the authority or institution officially in charge of each service, generally the Palestinian Popular Committee or UNRWA. These meetings were associated to the recurrent leading by the same group of investigations on access to urban services in each camp of Lebanon, opinion polls, and diffusion of these results through placards and public meetings, but also by encouraging its members to maintain daily discussions about the problems, photographying them and diffusing them on Facebook and Whatsapp groups, and interventions about these problems in meetings planned about other issues, such as collective commemorations and conferences organised on more “classical” themes of engagement in the camps, such as resistance culture. Eventually they led not only to confronting the authorities directly in a number of actions, but also to establishing projects of “self-help” which saw the development of “model streets” which put in return an alternative to the current political (mis)management on trial by space itself. As one of the members said:

We did it because it was possible, and because people came to us asking to help. And also we wanted to say to the popular committee, you see it is possible. If you are not going to do it, we can, there is a solution, it’s just that you are doing nothing.


This short presentation aimed at describing the emergence of spatially-anchored problems while taking a step back from a perspective which tends to reduce them to the mere question of experience. If the daily experience of spatial injustice is essential to the formulation and emergence of such problems, taking a perspective inspired by the sociology of social problems and looking at the process of emergence of these problems is the occasion to raise a number of themes which must be considered seriously. Urban problems are never self-evident, but they are never pure stories as well. One of the implications of this argument is that considering an urban policy in terms of “needs” which would be the same everywhere and every time is very abstract and generally leads to organisations “discovering” the needs they are looking for.


Allan, Diana. 2014. Refugees of the revolution: experiences of Palestinian exile. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Castells, Manuel. 1983. The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cefaï, Daniel. 1996. « La construction des problèmes publics. Définitions de situations dans des arènes publiques ». Réseaux 14(75):43–66.

Guidry, John. 2003. « Trial by Space: The Spatial Politcs Of Citizenship And Social Movements In Urban Brazil ». Mobilization: An International Quarterly 8(2):189–204.

Massey, Doreen B. 2005. For Space. London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *