Democracy and Danger on the Beach

James Freeman

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Freeman, J. (1). Democracy and Danger on the Beach. Space and Culture, 5(1), 9–28.

Through an ethnographic study of a stretch of beach in Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana and Ipanema neighborhoods, the author argues that the public space of the city can act as a sort of public sphere where the politics of everyday class and race interaction can be part of larger scale politics, even in a very divided city like Rio de Janeiro. But Rio's beaches only confer a sort of marginal citizenship on their users. They are not the location of discursive democracy idealized by some social theorists, nor are they the egalitarian classless and color-blind spaces mythologized by the Brazilian elite. Rather, they are the site of an unequal, often confrontational politics of class whereby the legitimacy of the social order is challenged, renegotiated, and ultimately reproduced.

Main finding
The theme of democratic space recurred in interviews with the idea that the rich and poor successfully share the beach with markers of class obscured by the bathing suit. However, the author found this democracy to be a myth -partly by the unequal relationship between the barraqueiro’s (informal food/beverage sellers) and their affluent customers. Multiple turmas (social groups) exist along the beach and are associated with specific barraqueiro s and their location. Turmas are defined by lifestyles and class. One can ‘read’ the beach for social demarcations noted by the presence of the turmas. Social delineations like this were also found to be temporal and marked by dress and behavior (and reproduced stereotypes) such as the case with upper class beach goers coming early to avoid lower class people from the north and poorer suburbs or the different classed reactions to the occasional arrastaos (ie. riots, literal meaning is dragnet).

Description of method used in the article
The author used ethnographic methods to study the public beach inclusive of several hundred informal conversation and formal interviews with beach goers and the people who run the barracas (informal tents on the beach where drinks and snacks are sold) over an 18-month period. The specific beach area was chosen for its mix of classes, locals and visitors, and people from favelas and poor suburbs.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Play/Passive Recreation
Field Observations
Physical types
Geographic locations