Economy and beliefs among the Cairo poor

Kanawati, Marlene Michel

Anthropology; Folklore; Sociology; Human services
April 1983

Thesis or dissertation

© 1983 Marlene Michel Kanawati. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Through a phenomenological approach and the adoption of an ethnographic methodology, this thesis is a study of a poor community in a residential slum quarter of Cairo. Both objective and subjective aspects of the poor’s everyday life were studied with a view to giving a rounded picture of their life-world, life-style, problems, coping responses and the social construction of their reality. In the process, slum daily life, occupation structure, housing, diet, clothing, education, health and recreation were described and the economic problems and budgets related to them were examined and described. Models were drawn wherever Possible. Institutions used by the poor to cope with their economic problems were revealed and distinguished into formal and informal institutions. The former were largely established through government policy, while the latter were either devised by the poor, or devised by others to service them.# In the process of this study, non-economic mechanisms were revealed, mainly cultural ones, among which religion was by far the most important. It was supported and reinforced by the Egyptian cultural heritage in the form of various aspects of folklore, and cultural beliefs and typifications. Part of the aims of this study was to obtain a definition by the poor of their own situation. Thus, the study reveals the poor’s own definition of their poverty in their own terms. This allowed typifications of themselves as poor and of their life-style to emerge. These typifications formed the conceptual tools with which their reality was socially constructed. In the process of their definition, important aspects of their world-view were revealed, which acted as psychological coping mechanisms in preserving a dignified self-image, in conditions which contributed to impose on them serious limitations and humiliations.

Research in six other areas of Cairo confirmed these findings. Both Moslems and Christians were found to share this view of the poor's life-world, which led to the conclusion that their view was deeply anchored not only in notions embedded in the Heavenly religions, but also in the Ancient Egyptian cultural heritage. Two long accounts of these views by a poor woman and man illustrated the use of these conceptions and typifications through their elaboration of a philosophy of life that was used as a rationale and a coping mechanism to accept their harsh reality.

Major factors that affect this social construction of poverty were examined and their relative influence evaluated. The conclusions drawn define a tentative model of the "levels of poverty" and "characteristics of the poor". The findings of this research are related to the body of literature on poverty both in Western countries and in Egypt. They also help show the relationship between policy and economies at the macro level to the micro level of individuals and group. Finally, recommendations for policy and reform are drawn and suggestions for future research on poverty are advanced.

Department of Sociology, The University of Hull
Francis, Ray
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