Gripping scholarship

Owners of the Sidewalk: Security and Survival in the Informal City
Daniel M Goldstein
2016, Duke University Press
334 pages, plates, paperback

IF EVERY book pushed into the suspension file marked “cultural anthropology” within the rigid cabinet of disciplinary classification were as well written and entertaining as Owners of the Sidewalk, it would make academia far less bureaucratic and far more exciting. From the very first word, Daniel Goldstein’s examination of informal market vendors who sell in Cochabamba’s Cancha outdoor market is a treat that challenges the traditional way in which quality research is communicated. First and foremost, the writer creates an atmosphere in describing the environment that he is researching and those who populate it that is genuinely gripping. This helps to draw in the reader and maintain their attention. Second, he has opted to provide a large number of short chapters that examine different dimensions of the theme as opposed to a small number of lengthy, weighty and frankly dull mini-essays that are common in so many other academic works. Third, and perhaps most importantly for his discipline, Goldstein has conducted his ethnographic research in close and sympathetic collaboration with his subjects, and this is apparent from his richly descriptive opening chapter. He describes his encounter with “Don Silvio” – Silvio Mamani, the president of the trade federation representing the street vendors or ambulantes of Cochabamba – to ask for his help in the project. Goldstein writes: “He wears a beaten brown fedora bearing the stains of many years selling juice on the streets of the city. Beneath it his hair is receding and wiry, not straight, full, and shiny black like that of most Bolivians. It is a contrast to his face, which is a caricature of the classically Andean: rich brown skin, sharply angled brow, hooked nose, protruding chin … He looks like a man with deep damage, like a case of fruit tossed from the back of a delivery truck.” The damage that the author refers to is undoubtedly a product of the illegality in which so many participants in Bolivia’s huge informal economy spend their lives, and is the main motive for this book. Owners of the Sidewalk is aimed at exploring how market vendors survive amid many perils in what Goldstein refers to as the “underground system of bullying and selling” that parallels the official economy. It is a timely topic, for the securitisation of poverty is becoming an increasingly prominent aspect of public security approaches from Mexico to Chile. As Goldstein asks, in a post-9/11 world obsessed with security and controlling threats to it, how do the urban poor survive in conditions of unrelenting insecurity? Brimming with colourful trinkets not unlike those on sale at the Cancha, this book explores the past and present of Bolivia’s informal economy in a novel but highly accessible way that would do justice to Hunter Thompson and will be warmly welcomed by many students. – GO’T