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Becoming a Population: Seeing the State, Being Seen by the State, and the Politics of Eviction in Cape Town

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While existing literature has amply demonstrated how states may “see” their populations, we know less about which residents are legible to the state as populations. Drawing on extended ethnographic fieldwork and interviews conducted between 2011 and 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa, this paper compares the fate of two large land occupations, one of which was evicted, one of which was not. In doing so, this paper demonstrates how rather than taking “populations” as a given, this status should be understood as an outcome. It suggests that participants in each respective occupation began with different views of the state. In other words, the way residents saw the state impacted each respective organizational outcome, which in turn affected how they were seen by the state. In one occupation, participants saw the state as a partner in obtaining housing, and so they organized themselves as atomized recipients. In the other, they viewed the state as an obstacle, and so they organized themselves collectively. Only in the latter case were residents viewed as a population; in the former, they were all evicted. Ultimately, this paper argues that, by bringing tools from political sociology to bear upon urban ethnography, we can gain insight into a process otherwise overlooked in the literature, allowing us to make sense of a question that is central to understanding urban politics in the global South: how do municipal governments decide which occupations to evict and which to tolerate?

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I want to thank Tad Skotnicki, Sahan Karatasli, Sneha Annavarapu, and the two anonymous reviewers for critical feedback that substantially strengthened this paper. Additional credit goes to Michael Burawoy, Gillian Hart, Dylan Riley, Carter Koppelman, Mara Loveman, and Vinay Gidwani for generative criticism on earlier iterations of this paper.

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Correspondence to Zachary Levenson.

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Levenson, Z. Becoming a Population: Seeing the State, Being Seen by the State, and the Politics of Eviction in Cape Town. Qual Sociol 44, 367–383 (2021).

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