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Dissertation / thesis Dissertation / thesis
Title:Between Respect and Desire: On being young, pious and modern in an East African Muslim town
Author:Hillewaert, S.M.
Type of thesis:Ph.D. thesis
Publisher:University of Michigan
Geographic term:Kenya
Discipline:Anthropology & Ethnology
Subjects:Lamu - town
Abstract:This dissertation offers a new approach to academic conversations on youth in Africa by presenting an ethnographic investigation of young people's day-to-day interactional practices. It pays specific attention to the creativity young people can exert in renegotiating personhood and agency in reference to altering norms of propriety and respectability as well as new sets of social and economic relationships. Taking a linguistic anthropological approach, I demonstrate how linguistic and material practices and their ideological evaluation mediate the formation of social groups, relations, and subject positions in contexts of rapid change. This topic is productively approached within the context of Lamu, an island town off the coast of Kenya. Previously a cosmopolitan center for trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu's current marginal position within the Kenyan nation leaves little of its former glory. Not only have political and economic pressures come to redefine the town's social structure, (moral) discourses on modernity also increasingly challenge local values, norms of interaction, and notions of ideal conduct. This dissertation is about young people's attempts to navigate different, sometimes incompatible, orientations and loyalties to development, modernity, religion, heritage, and tradition. It explores how processes of change can create opportunities for youth to negotiate new social niches in a socially stratified, culturally diverse, and economically marginalized Muslim community. Specifically, it looks at how such shifts are tied to, reflected in, and negotiated through language use and through altered ideological understandings of languages' loading of social, political, and moral interests. Through the analysis of public discourse, interactional practices as well as the occupation of physical space, the dissertation then conceptualizes a notion of young people's agency with respect to the larger social reality of which they form part. Rather than leaving norms of propriety behind, I argue that Lamu youth are concerned with what it means to be a virtuous person in a rapidly changing society. I propose they endeavor to negotiate subject positions that accommodate societal expectations toward conduct, encounters, and social relations, respect for norms and values, and desire for opportunities, change and development. (Thesis Abstract).