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Centre of Latin American Studies


Dr Fraya Frehse


How do social categories of difference contribute to the physical-material and social setting of urban public spaces in post-Covid Latin America? The hypothesis of my British Academy Visiting Fellowship project is that intersectional asymmetries play a ‘situational’ role in the production of streets and squares as the most publicly accessible instances of urban space – whether in legal, physical-material or informational terms – in the region. The management of these inequalities within the spatial boundaries of face-to-face interaction moulds public space, physical-materially and socially.

My BA research takes place in the wake of more than one decade-long ethnographic work. I worked on the everyday uses of the São Paulo downtown streets and squares by homeless people and other socioeconomically poor pedestrians at different historical moments from the early 19th to the 21st century. My overall objective has been to contribute to urban theory by highlighting what the daily patterns of social inequality in Latin America’s urban public spaces – in their temporally fleeting, bodily and materially mediated ways – disclose about the present-day urbanization process amidst globalization.

Between 2007 and 2014, in the twilight of Brazil’s last period of economic growth combined with redistributive social policies (2003-2015), I conducted participant observation and in-depth semi-structured interviews with homeless people and other types of non-passers-by (street vendors, preachers, craftsmen, artists, etc.) in the main squares of the city’s historic centre and their surrounding streets during weekday afternoons. From November 2020 to April 2022, in turn, I coordinated an ethnographic research-practice project on the social-reproductive everyday spatialities of homelessness in Covid-19 São Paulo in the framework of my role as coordinator of the Global Center of Spatial Methods for Urban Sustainability (SMUS) at my home University. The research comprised participant observation and semi-structured go-along interviews, which were visually supported by mapping via drawings and/or photographs by (cis and/or trans) homeless men and women, some of whom alongside dependent children in the institutional framework of what I in my British Academy project term ‘women-headed homeless families’. In the course of that project I also recorded two documentary films on the issue: ‘The Masked Street – São Paulo, 5 November 2020’ (2020) and ‘Street Architecture in Covid-19 São Paulo’ (2021). While the first film was produced within the framework of the forementioned SMUS project, the second one was

commissioned by the Architekturmuseum of the Technische Universität München for the exhibition ‘Who’s Next? Homelessness, Architecture and Cities’ (2021-2022).

My longstanding research career on São Paulo’s ‘ethnographic present’ has developed in the wake of an almost whole previous decade (1997-2004) of ethnographically-driven documentary research. This focused on the historicity of 19th-century Western ‘modernity’ in the everyday of pedestrians in the São Paulo streets and squares between the early 19th and the early 20th century. That experience took place in the framework of my MA and my PhD in Social Anthropology at my home University, which included a six-month Visiting PhD student period at the then Centre of Brazilian Studies of the University of Oxford.

Besides being a British Academy Visiting Fellow, I am an alumna of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, a research fellow of the Brazilian National Research Council and Life Member of Clare Hall College. I previously was a visiting fellow at the three Berlin universities (Freie, Humboldt- and Technische Universität) alongside Paris Diderot, Vienna and Cambridge. Furthermore, I held visiting professorships at Universidad Nacional de Cuyo and Freie Universität Berlin.

Research Interests

  • urban theory
  • body, public space and urbanization
  • urban inequality/poverty
  • intersectionality and space
  • space and time in sociology
  • urban sustainability und public space
  • homelessness
  • cultural heritage
  • urban visual culture
  • sociology of everyday knowledge

Given the objectives of my BA research project, I hope that my collaboration with CLAS will strengthen one specific trend of the Centre’s interdisciplinary commitment to promoting thought and practice from Latin America. The purpose is to further worldwide research on the sociospatial dimension of daily intersectional inequalities from the viewpoint of conceptual issues that emerge from Latin American empirical reality. Space matters in the lived experience of intersectional oppressions in Latin America. The historically relatively recent ‘spatial turn’ in the social sciences has come to stay. It has a unique analytical and conceptual relevance for understanding the social impact of spatially poignant phenomena such as the global digitalization process and the Covid-19 pandemic.

To this end, I plan two events at CLAS in the framework of my BA Visiting Fellowship:

  • Workshop on ‘Spatial Analysis (Digital + Ethnographic)’ on Wednesday 17 May 2023 (2:00-6:00 pm):

Methodological workshop for members of the Cambridge Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) on the use of spatial analysis tools (digital + ethnographic) in research projects which deal with qualitative data regarding the everyday uses of space - whether for housing, mobility, social-reproductive purposes etc. The workshop foresees GIS Technical training for POLIS members.

  • One-Day International Conference on ‘Intersectional Inequalities in post-Covid Urban Public Spaces’ from Tuesday 20 (at 4:00 pm) to Wednesday 21 June (at 4:00 pm):

Gathering of CLAS members and non-Cambridge facilitators for a focused academic exchange on the relationship between intersectional inequalities and urban public space.

Moreover, I look forward to mentoring CLAS PhD and MPhil students, and will be available for consultations by students whose work touches my overall research interests, and in particular the everyday experience of intersectional inequalities in Latin America’s public spaces, the production of urban space in the region, ethnographic and documentary research, spatial methods and sustainability in urban public spaces. If there is interest, I am also willing to discuss these issues with the CLAS students in the framework of online sessions that bring them and students from my home University together.