Favela justice : a study of social control and dispute resolution in a Brazilian shantytown



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This study examined the mechanisms of social control in one shantytown in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil through the observation of the process of dispute resolution. While all types of disputes were observed, observations were concentrated on the resolution of property disputes because of the availability of multiple means of resolution for these disputes. It specifically sought to understand the factors that influence a person’s choice of one means of dispute resolution as opposed to another and process of dispute resolution of each of the chosen means. Extensive participant observation, interviews and focus groups over a period of seventeen months were used to examine the use of four distinct means of dispute resolution in the field site, a small claims court, a legal aid project, the city government office and organized drug gangs operating in the shantytown. These were chosen in order to compare the use and effectiveness of legal and non-legal means of dispute resolution. The study found that residents sought out a third party based on their perceptions of the seriousness of the dispute, defined most often by the way in which the other party attended to the original grievance. Choice of a particular third party was a factor of the relationship between the disputants, their social networks, perceptions of the legitimacy or effectiveness of the third party and the ease of disputant access of the third party. Success in the resolution of the dispute was dependant on the relationship between the disputants and the degree of authoritative intervention of the third party. In disputes where disputants were unwilling to mediate, only those third parties with greater degrees of authoritative intervention, either through community influence, technical knowledge or threat of the use of force, were successful at resolving disputes. Understanding the successes and failures of dispute resolution by both legal and non-legal means contributed to the better understanding of the social process as a whole.