How do we conceive the problems we are facing in our everyday space? This question seems a little bit abstract, and thankfully I can give it a little bit of flesh – or, in fact, of steel – with the story of a cup of coffee, and a tap. What follows is a re-written and partial excerpt of one of my fieldwork diaries. It has been written after my first visit to a certain Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon (which is why, for anyone who knows the places, the remarks are very naive). For the information of those who do not know, the Palestinian camps are not made of tents, but of buildings, and look more like informal neighbourhoods than your cliché image of a refugee camp (but, as it happens, in the real world most refugee camps do not look like your cliché image of a refugee camp).
Mr A. brings me to his house. We walk in the streets of the camps. Like in other camps, the streets are very narrow and intricate, I feel lost after a few minutes. The buildings are very close together, the street must be a few meters wide at its largest, and you have to give way when you cross someone. We pass under buildings at certain moments. Even though we are in the middle of the day, the camp is very dark, cool and damp. There are little puddles of water every now and again, the street is made of old asphalt, but it has obviously not been repaired for some time, there are holes in it. We must occasionally bend to avoid the electrical cables that hang just above our heads. Mr A. points at the cables and explains me that they are often installed by the dwellers and not by a service-provider. I also notice, like in previous visits, the quantity of graffiti. Most of those I read are evoking politics or return, but some are a bit less anticipated (jokes, names, phone number…). We also pass in large, public spaces, like a central square in which Mr A. points at a building and explains that a project of water purification has been implemented in it. All the machinery is installed, according to him, but the project is still not working. We press on and arrive at the foot of his building. He shows me a fuse box in the entrance, and explains this is the fuse box for his building. The cables in it have obviously been rigged as more floors were built and have no organisation: the fuse box is a big bundle of cables rather than a fuse box. We reach his apartment. […] Mr A. pours me a cup of instant cappuccino. I drink as he describes a few items in the room, including portraits of leaders of the Palestinian national movement and members of his family. The coffee, or to be specific, the cup, is salty. I knew I had to expect it, but the taste is surprising. […] Mr A. takes me to the bathroom. He says we have to turn off the lights in the living room before turning it on in the bathroom or otherwise it will snap. He shows me the remnants of a tap, eaten by salt: “You see, I change the taps but this one I have kept it. All the taps are eaten by the salt, they rust in a few months.” He picks a part of the tap, that breaks apart easily…
The quote goes on, but this part is enough for my question. I am here facing a problem which can easily be traced: in the Palestinian camp where I am, most of the water comes from pumping and ends up arriving in the taps salty and improper to consumption, as in most parts of Beirut. The question of water, as that of electricity and urban renewal, also present in the excerpt, are part of the “problems of the camps” I have been focusing on during my work.
The question of social and political problems is a classical one in sociology. Without going to details and theoretical discussions, what the study of such problems, for instance seminal studies like Joseph R. Gusfield’s on drinking and driving. This question is, more widely, included in the study of deviance: what is a public or a political problem is not self-evident. It is always the result of a construction. In other words, having a lot of people feeling a trouble in their life is not sufficient to have these people describing what they are facing as either a social problem, or a fortiori a political one (that is, an issue a public organisation should regulate or solve). A part of the story of American sociology has been a multiplication of studies on how specific social problems (such as homelessness, insecurity, unemployment, rape, and so forth) have emerged. The classical definition has of course been discussed and criticised (the most developed one being, as far as I know, Daniel Cefaï’s critique in an unfortunately non-translated article, “La construction des problèmes publics, Définitions de situations dans des arènes publiques”, published in Réseaux in 1996. Cefaï shows how an overly-strategic perception would be misleading, and that not just anything can become a public problem. This appears as a truism, but just as a part of the sociology has worked for a period on problems while taking them for granted, another, by focusing on publicisation, has overlooked the experience of actors. Public problems, as much being constructed (or, as Cefaï puts it, “constituted”) are experienced and lived, tasted, touched, felt, in a very material manner. They are “neither hard and pure facts, nor mind devices”, to quote Cefaï. Which leads me back to Mr A.’s rotten tap.
The rotten tap, the salty cups, the bundled electrical wires, the limited capacity of the electrical wiring in the house are all present in Mr A., just as in most inhabitants of the camps’, daily life. Drinking coffee in a salty cup (which is of course not what everybody does, many people use bottled, and not tap, water to rinse dishes, but it comes at a price) is a constant reminder of the camps’ situation. But if I take a step back, I cannot help but see how I am also in a scene. What could Mr A. have done better than breaking a metal tap rotten by salt in front of me in order to say “Look, the problem is real”? As it appears, an important part of the activity of camp dwellers was precisely to do that, through photos, through devices, through anecdotes, through physical demonstration, such as Mr A.’s tap, that there is indeed a collective problems which is felt through these elements of everyday life. The point here is not to say that there is a “manipulation” to make people feel a problem. This is already acknowledged in their everyday life. What I am really wondering is how space can be turned into a token and used for politicisation of this everyday issue, such as in the case of Mr A.’s rotten tap, to give meaning to the trouble (because knowing that water is salty and that this is an issue tells nothing of the responsible, what to do, and if action should be taken. This relation to space as a token of denunciation is explored by John Guidry (in Mobilization, 2003) who shows how the same phenomenon has occured when activists in Brazil managed to get depoliticised neighbourhoods mobilised by putting citizenship on “trial by space”, that is, by confronting a principle to a material device. Mr A.’s rotten tap is, then, both the physical element through which he lives a certain number of social and political issues, and the device he employs to frame the denunciation of these issues.