• Francesco Montagnani

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis draws on ethnographic fieldwork I conducted in Palermo, southern Italy, between November 2016 and January 2018. It focuses on the inner-workings and activism of a public assembly: SOS Ballarò. During my fieldwork I became a member of the assembly and gathered data on the methods activists use to tackle issues of population disenfranchisement, urban degradation, and political marginality in Ballarò, a quarter of Palermo’s city centre. I will discuss how the assembly fosters democratic participation in the quarter’s population in an attempt to decide how a portion of the city considered marginal and overlooked by the state should attain much awaited and desirable change. Through an exploration of processes of legitimate knowledge production, strive for political representation, and direct impacts on the Ballarò area, I will examine how this change is envisioned by the quarter through the works of the assembly, and how ideas thusly produced are brought to the municipality to be put into practice. I will clarify these processes through two case studies of two adjacent if separate marketplaces: the San Saverio market and the historical market of Ballarò. San Saverio is a completely illegal second-hand market and source of harsh conflicts between vendors, residents in the area, and municipal institutions. I will describe how SOS Ballarò brought these conflicts to a manageable level and created a field of possibilities for political discussion about how to make the market more orderly and functional, while retaining its features of safety-net for vendors and customers, without employing practices of removal through police intervention. The second case study revolves around the historical market of Ballarò. I will describe how infrastructural intervention in the form of the construction of a covered market created the premise for marketers to establish themselves as a legitimate political subject that, through the help of SOS Ballarò, was able to decide how the cover should look like and what purposes it should serve. In my thesis I will explore concepts of political legitimacy and democratic practices, urban re-qualification as opposed to gentrification, and rearguard theory as a way to balance political discussions in favour of those perceived as more marginal and less influential in the political cityscape. I will argue that SOS Ballarò’s activism is plausible and productive thanks to those concepts and to an idea of politics that is deeply rooted in the ordinary lives of those who build it piece by piece without suspending any of their everyday activities.
Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAngela De Souza Torresan (Supervisor) & Stefaan Jansen (Supervisor)


  • Ethnographic Activism
  • Democracy
  • Gentrification
  • Activism
  • Assembly
  • Urban requalification

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