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Constructing Otherness, Strategies of Sameness

Constructing Otherness, Strategies of Sameness


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Published by imhehenkamp
An award winning thesis of strategies of invisibility of African immigrants in Alexandra township, South Africa. Ilja Hehenkamp lived and conducted research in Alexandra for 5 months. Research was conducted in the context of the xenophobic riots of May 2008.
An award winning thesis of strategies of invisibility of African immigrants in Alexandra township, South Africa. Ilja Hehenkamp lived and conducted research in Alexandra for 5 months. Research was conducted in the context of the xenophobic riots of May 2008.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: imhehenkamp on Dec 05, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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As this chapter will foreground creative strategies1

immigrants were able to em-

ploy in order to renegotiate their foreignness in their daily interactions with South

Africans in Alexandra’s public spaces, it is necessary to consider the parameters that

delineate the possibilities for creative action. The concept of habitus, which refers

to a general disposition that operates at a level below consciousness and allows for

intelligent and strategic action within the context it is practiced, is a useful concept

in order to explore the limits of human agency. For, although “creativity is an essen-

tial element of all activity that deserves to be placed at the center of theorizing about

human agency” (Dalton 2004), creative actions are always restricted sets of strategies

embedded both within the agent’s bodily hexis and the logics of his or hers habitus.

In other words, although individuals are able to make their own choices, both the

(im)permanency of their identity-signifiers and the specific cultural and social set-

tings in which social agents operate shape the principles of their choices and restrict

what types of innovation can occur. Such dispositions that suggest practical actions

for social agents are inherited from the active construction of differences among so-

cial groups out of which individuals can choose from a variety of possibilities for

strategic action (ibid.). Simultaneously individuals are distinguished in their vari-

ous choices of action by the their very own subjective “modes of perception, affect,

thought, desire, fear, and so forth” that animates the ways they act (Ortner 2005).


The reason that I am using the term strategy as opposed to tactics or practices is that my infor-

mants were consciously acting with a specific goal in mind: to render themselves invisible within

Alexandra’s public spaces in order to avoid possible harassment



While many of my informants employed particular strategies to deal with their hos-

tile environment, the decision to employ them or not and in which form, were al-

ways shaped by their own subjectivities. With these shapers of creativity in mind

this chapter will analyse and describe the ways immigrants were employing strate-

gies of invisibility in order to deal with their exclusion within daily life by means of

the disclosure or appropriation of the particular signifiers South Africans considered

meaningful within Alexandra in order to identify foreign bodies.

Two types of “strategies of invisibility” can be distinguished out of the variety

of repertoires my informants employed in order to conceal their foreignness or to

“pass” as South African. The first type can be defined in terms of what is coined

as “stigma management”, the second type as “performances of misrepresentation”

(Goffman 1986; Goffman 1959). The main difference between the two is that stigma

management is merely concerned with the managing of one’s discreditable stigma

signums in order to conceal one’s personal identity, while performances of misrepre-

sentation are additionally concerned with the appropriation of attributes that are as-

sociated with the identity category one is trying to “pass” into (Goffman 1986; Goff-

man 1959). When individuals are actively pretending what one is not, these strate-

gies of misrepresentation can be understood as a form of theatre play in which they

(un)intentionally convey and/or conceal information in order to give way a certain

impression of the self towards their audiences (Goffman 1959). A ‘person’, from this

point of view, is in its first meaning a mask, recognized by the fact that “everyone

is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role” (ibid.)2

. When

individuals intentionally convey misinformation their expressive equipment can be

classified within to different kinds of sign activity:

The expressiveness of the individual appears to involve two radically different

kind of sign activity: the expression that he gives, and the expression that he

gives off. The first involves verbal symbols or their substitutes which he uses ad-

mittedly and solely to convey the information that he and the others are known

to attach to these symbols [...] The second involves a wide range of action that


Although the theory seems to be primarily concerned with daily personal and professional rou-

tines employed in a society that seems to function in its ‘normal’ harmonious mode –in opposition to

a setting where intersubjective routines, relationships, and are disrupted by violence (Green 1999)– it

is stressed that it seems to apply everywhere in social life (Goffman 1959)



others can treat as symptomatic to the actor [...] The individual does of course

intentionally convey misinformation by means of both these types of communi-

cation, the first involving deceit, the second feigning (ibid.)

In other words, in order to deceive their audience individuals need to manage

stigma-attributes that may disclose their discreditable identity, while performance of

otherness is highly dependent on the appropriation of identity signifiers that enable

them to feign another identity. Some items of expressive equipment for conveying

signs in order to perform a particular appearance, such as racial characteristics, sex

and age, are relatively fixed, whereas vehicles for conveying signs as clothing, fa-

cial expressions, bodily gestures and the likes can vary during a performance from

one moment to the next (ibid.). While physical characteristics are not easily hidden

or appropriated, impermanent signums, like clothing-style, can relatively easily be

changed in order to ‘pass’ as same. Both strategies are comparable to the “juggling

with identities” to “unmark” oneself as a stranger that Rwandan town refugees in

Tanzania employed in order to deal with the possible consequences of being iden-

tified as a refugee in their daily interactions with Rwandan citizens and officials

(Malkki 1995a). But in a similar vein, homeless women in England often employ

strategies of invisibility by ‘looking like everyone else’ and disguising inappropriate

activities, such as sleeping, in public places (Casey, Goudie, and Reeve 2008).

Being conscious of the ways South Africans read personal attributes in order

to distinguish between fellow nationals and strangers, African immigrants actively

manage “undisclosed discrediting information about self” (Goffman 1986). In or-

der to employ strategies of invisibility they particularly need to draw on the wide

variety of culturally and contextually specific signifiers of foreignness in order to

mask their difference. The tendency of audiences to accept signs of performances

as (dis)creditable attributes of identity, this sign-accepting tendency simultaneously

puts the audience in a postion to be deceived by the performer, “for there are few

signs that cannot be used to attest to the presence of something that is not really

there” (Goffman 1959). Their habitus, in other words, provides culturally dictated

scripts which immigrants can utilize in order to negate their difference and simulta-

neously establish their sameness to successfully pass as South Africans (Einwohner

2008). In this way, their strivings to become invisible and the ways immigrants try

to do so, seems to be a direct response to the South African construction of the Mak-



werekwere which mobilizes exclusionary praxis in Alexandra’s public spaces. As the

previous chapter already analysed these various identity signifiers that define for-

eignness within the context of Alexandra, this chapter will draw on these classifica-

tory signums in order to delineate the possibilities of strategies my informants could

employ. Ofcourse,thequestionof“todisplayornottodisplay; totellornottotell, to

let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, tho whom, how, when and

where” (Goffman 1986), depends on the congeniality and visibility of the particular

stigmata and the extent to which creditable attributes can be appropriated. More-

over, the strategies they employ are simultaneously shaped by the settings in which

they occur and the audiences immigrants were performing identity to. Before I will

analyze the ways the violence has transformed their movement in public spaces and

their interactions with particular others, I will first consider how the subjective (fear

of) hostility that immigrants receive within South African society animates the need

for them to employ these strategies in the first place.

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