Communicative performances of social identity in an Algerian-French neighborhood in Paris

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Tetreault, Chantal Marie

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This dissertation examines cultural and communicative practices occurring in French cités (low-income housing projects) as part of an ethnographic inquiry into the relationship among subcultural style, social stigmatization, and expressive culture. Based upon ethnographic fieldwork in a cité located fifteen kilometers west of Paris, the dissertation argues that performances of social identity among individuals growing up both French and Arab are articulated in relation to widely circulating discourses related to ethnicity, spatial affiliation, and gender. In this regard, the author analyzes everyday verbal performances of social identity as creative responses to widely circulating discourses that alternately stigmatize and valorize Arabs and la cité. Particularly central to these performances are French discourses regarding immigration and intégration that measure racialized national subjects against a white, bourgeois norm. The dissertation analyzes speech genres, such as ritualized teasing and verbal play, to understand the ways that individuals articulate social identity through collaborative verbal performances. In this regard, local discourses and codes of behavior associated with le respect (‘respect’) alternately overlap and compete with a code of behavior termed ‘reputation’. The author defines le respect as a social code that prescribes adherence to behavioral standards including showing deference for one’s elders and that is loosely based upon an age and gender hierarchy typical of Algeria and the Mediterranean more generally. In contrast to le respect, ‘reputation’ refers, in part, to the public display of verbal prowess that contributes to the presentation and management of personal identity among one’s peers. Much like “respect,” however, reputation was differently ordered or conceived for young men and women in Chemin de l'Ile. Whereas male speakers are expected to physically defend themselves and their reputations through physical fighting, female speakers attempt to emphasize their tough verbal styles and a public image that they are sexually unavailable and inactive (thus also preserving le respect). In verbal exchanges that blend cultural and linguistic expectations from traditional North African age and gender hierarchy with those that correspond to ideals about personal reputation, speakers elaborate their relationship, on the one hand, to their immigrant origins, and other the other, to an emergent urban subculture.