Tinashe Chimbidzikai, (Re)production and imagination of urban social space by Pentecostal Christian migrants in South Africa: A narrative ethnography

The proposed study is at the intersection of transnational migration, religion and urbanity. It seeks to contribute to scholarship on the shaping of urban social space and religious identity construction by Pentecostal immigrants through mundane social practices. Scholarship on global/ised African cities such as Johannesburg depicts mainly the civic and shared aspects of urban reality, neglecting myriad other dynamics that are just as relevant for analysing urbanity, particularly mundane interactions within intimate and private spaces. In a recent monograph titled, Cities of Entanglements, Heer (2019:81) succinctly argues that approaching African urbanity primarily in the public sphere like Simone (2006), Murray (2006)  and others have done, ignores the contradictions, ambivalences, interconnections and invisibilities characterising African urbanity; the entanglements between locality and mobility, between strangeness and intimacy, and between public and private. The research contributes to scholarly debates bestriding the binaries of urban social space, unmasking the fluidities of imaginary/ed boundaries between the public on one hand, and private and intimate spaces on the other, obfuscating the already complex relationship between these two domains.

The point of departure for this study is the notion that space and identity are brought about by social practices (Wille and Reckinger 2016) at the intersection of structure and agency, where structure is reflected in the religious and institutional forces that shape the individual migrants. In what ways does Pentecostalism mediate the production and imagination of intimate space by immigrants living in Johannesburg? The ancillary questions are: (a) How do Pentecostal immigrants perceive/ make sense of the fluid boundary/ies between public and private spaces in their everyday lives? (b) How do the immigrants’ narrative experiences help us understand the intersections of spatiality, diversity and lived religion? (c) In what ways does private space liberate or constrain and what sorts of resistances and negotiations does it embrace? These questions explore two important aspects of immigrants’ lives: the space and identity constructions through everyday sociocultural practices and space and identity constructions through institutional practices (Wille, et.al 2016). For the former aspect, the study examines how the migrants perceive and organise their lives by asking, what are their living arrangements and what are their social relationships both within and outside the church? How is their religious, spiritual and recreational life outside the church? For the latter aspect, it will explore what type of engagement they do with fellow churchgoers and other non-church goers, what benefits (both economically and socially) do their Pentecostal belongingness bring them?

In finding answers to these questions, the study will improve our understanding of how space, both in material and symbolic sense is imagined and produced, through a variety of socio-cultural processes and interactions. The purpose is therefore to obtain detailed understanding and ‘‘thick description’’ (Geertz, 1973) of the lives and practices of Pentecostal immigrants and the expression of agency in the production of private spaces, and not to test any a priori or predetermined hypothesis. The ethnographic study will observe and documents the narratives of Zimbabwean immigrants, particularly how the production and imagination of intimate space and everyday social practices are influenced and constrained by material, economic and individual dimensions of urban diversity. The twelve months ethnographic fieldwork in Johannesburg will culminate in collection of ‘thick’ data through participant observation, narrative stories, in-depth interviews and visual materials.

Researcher supervising: 
Other supervisor(s): 
Prof.Dr. Steven Vertovec, Max-Planck-Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany
Project status: 
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