Current Sociology

Sociologist of the Month, July 2021

Please welcome our Sociologist of the Month for July 2021, Guya Accornero (ISCTE-IUL, Centro de Investigação e Estudos de Sociologia, Portugal). Her Open Access article for Current Sociology, Contentious buildings. The struggle against eviction in NYC’s Lower East Side is promoted here this month.

Guya Accornero

Could you please tell us about yourself? How did you come to your field of study?

G. Accornero: I am Italian, from a city in Piedmont, very close to the Alps. I graduated in contemporary history at the University of Milan. During this period, I was also doing many different student jobs. Particularly, I worked as a socio-cultural youth worker for the Milan’s municipality. This was an experience fundamental to shaping my path of studies, and especially to awakening the sociological curiosity which has characterised all my academic trajectory, even if it has crossed different fields.

In 2005, I moved to Portugal with a PhD grant from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) and I started working on my doctoral project in historical sociology on the role of student movements in breaking down the Portuguese dictatorship and in the 1974-75 Portuguese revolution. From then on, my interest has settled on social movement studies, the area I have been mostly working on until now.

Once finished with my PhD in 2010, I started a new project in political science investigating long-term effects of activism on the attitudes and biographies of activists, focusing on the former Portuguese anti-regime opponents. This study brought my attention to new methodologies, such as life-history analysis, also thanks to the contact with French political sociology and my collaboration with Olivier Fillieule, that began with a research stay at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland in 2011.

At around that time, the effects of the financial crisis and the ensuing austerity policies started being severely felt in Southern European countries, which triggered a rather unexpected increase in political and social mobilization. This led me to move my attention to the new anti-austerity movements, their impact on institutional politics and the use of ICTs for mobilization, an area I have been developing in the following years, in parallel with my teaching activity (which includes many courses on digital activism).

What prompted you to research the area of your article, “Contentious buildings. The struggle against eviction in NYC’s Lower East Side”?

G. Accornero: In 2016, thanks to a generous contract and research funds from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), I could spend some months as a visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, NYC, supervised by James Jasper. I thus had the opportunity to regularly participate in the weekly seminar on Protest and Politics, which, while first created by Charles Tilly in the late 1970s, is still ongoing, even if with different shape and location. This experience has been essential for all my future trajectory. Besides presenting and discussing my work on activists’ trajectories, I built new academic relationships and friendships that deeply impacted the development of my studies and life in general.

The unexpected encounter with the reality of Lower East Side – where I was living in a rent-stabilized apartment during this period – and with its people, associations, spaces of struggles, history, inspired me to explore the large and fascinating field of urban studies, particularly from the point of view of urban ethnography and the ‘right to the city’ struggles.

Entering a new field is always extremely complex and this was the fourth turn in my academic trajectory (coming from contemporary history, I had moved to historical sociology and, later, political science). But the sociological background of my interests, and particularly my interactionist approach, always focused on the continuous relations and reciprocal influence between different players and arenas, contributed to the continuity of my studies (I hope so!). Thus, over the last years, I have dedicated time and energy to immersing in urban studies and especially to elaborating its connections with social movement studies, my “home” discipline, so to speak.

My last project, ‘HOPES - HOusing PErspectives and Struggles. Futures of housing movements, policies and dynamics in Lisbon and beyond’ (funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology in the area of Urban Studies, 2018-2022) is at the same time the result and the beginning of this path. The team I am leading is composed of sociologists, political scientists, geographers, planners, demographers, anthropologists, historians, and we are collaborating in trying to understand the reciprocal influence between changes in the urban fabric, housing policies, and urban conflicts (with a focus on Lisbon). The study of the dynamics of NYC, and particularly of Lower East Side, has been essential to build and develop this new project.

What do you see as the key findings of your article?

G. Accornero: I think that the main findings are related to the complexity of the effects that changes in the urban fabric are bringing about, particularly in terms of the right to the city. In this sense, I see this process, as in general most social processes, from a completely interactionist perspective, in which macro-structural dynamics should always be understood in their concrete expression in interaction with meso and micro processes. The role of people, of their trajectories, networks, and expectations deeply shapes the result. In the specific case analysed in my article, we see how in the macro-wave of urban change we find different actors pulling towards different aims and the result can be unexpected. I think this work, as my work in general, is deeply underlined by the idea of the uncertainty of the results of the processes. In this, I was strongly influenced by Michel Dobry’s work (particularly, his book Sociologie des crises politiques) during my PhD and, I think, my own understanding of socio-political processes has been growing from his reflections, even if with different variants, till now.

What are the wider social implications of your research in the current social climate? How do you think things will change in the future?

G. Accornero: HOPES project engages a broader network of collaborations with housing associations and social movements active in Lisbon. These collaborations not only imply a process of mutual learning, thanks to the action-research dynamics we are building, but they are also able to consolidate the public discourse on housing in the public sphere and in the political agenda. An example of this is the creation of the REDE H (Rede Habitação, Housing Network) in February 2020 on the initiative of different people acting in the field of housing, as, for instance, researchers, experts, activists, public figures. REDE H has been particularly active and it has carried out many interventions and actions in the context of pandemic, in which housing problems have been aggravating even more. Increased protection of tenants and the temporary suspension of evictions adopted by the Portuguese government was also the result of these pressions, similar to what has happened in other countries. The elaboration of reports and policy briefs on housing which have gained room in the national media is another result. I do not want at all to assume the merits of these actions, because I have been very scarcely involved in them and mostly immerged in the research side of the problem. But I hope that what we are doing and the way we are doing it also in terms of research could contribute in some way to this process.

Do you have any links to images, documents or other pieces of research which build on or add to the article? Or a suggested reading list?

G. Accornero: I have many pics of the protests, the associations, the building, the area, and the people, but since I avoided using the real names of the protagonists of the events I studied, I think it is better to not make these images public. In terms of related readings, I surely suggest Matt Desmond’s great book Evicted, and his article on ‘Relational Ethnography’. Overall, works that inspired me during this research, and in general in the last years, are mostly books based on long-lasting and deep urban ethnographies, such as Norman Street: Poverty and Politics in an Urban Neighborhood by Ida Susser, The Digital Street by Jeff Lane, Newcomers. Gentrification and its Discontents by Matthew L. Schuerman, or An Ethnography of the Goodman Building: The Longest Rent Strike by Niccolo Caldararo.