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Urban Suffering Studies Center



Describing reality but also changing it

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Benedetto Saraceno



In left-wing politics, now stripped of both a fundamental illusion of reference and a practical action of serious social-democratic reformism, building sites for the processing of political, strategic thinking have obviously become rarefied and weakened; the effect of this impoverishment has also been transmitted to the opposing camp: the potentiality of free thinking to produce political and strategic thought has become more fragile.
The ones who have definitely gained from this fragility are the systems of thought based on over simplified and persecutory translations of reality, thus strengthening explicitly conservative, cultural drifts, the religious inspiration of many political confrontations and, in general, all movements characterized by strong populist thrusts, centered on the dual protection of identity-paranoia towards the foreigner (be it the immigrant, the Muslims or even only the Brussels bureaucrat who promotes a currency that threatens national identity).
These phenomena have occurred not only in many countries of western culture where nationalism, fascism and xenophobia are growing but also in the islamic culture (which in a time that now seems very far off, was characterized up to thirty years ago by mostly moderate positions) and even in the hindu culture where irrationality of identity takes on increasingly violent forms. Rational secular thinking and spiritual thinking of christian origin are substituted by a frenetic support of identity that finds solutions in populism and in religion, that basically perpetuate the many and profound inequalities, exclusions and social and economic injustices.
As a result, even in economic, social and political fields these phenomena of impoverishment of strategic processes can be felt and so marxist or keynesian economic thought has been gradually replaced by extremely impoverished forms of neoliberal thought characterized by a massive expansion of "management cultures": namely economic-political thought is being substituted by financial and managerial thought as can be clearly seen in the severe decline in the role also of the intellectual elite of the west who have ceased to develop thought and the formation of the ruling class to produce managers or more often, to simply produce consent.
Political thought has been replaced by political theatre, citizen organizations that are followers of a certain model of government by "political parties" have become audiences made up of followers of a certain leader. In this gloomy, cultural and moral climate, to persist in thinking of a more just and better society seems to have remained the patrimony of visionaries, infants or potential terrorists. The ideas of a just society, of a real democracy, of widespread freedom are excluded from thought that is deemed "adult"or by thought that presumes that reality is unchangeable. That is to say, the idea prevails that being an adult means accepting to live without the possibility of a transformation of reality and therefore we consider realistic cynicism a "sign" of mature thinking. All the rest is relegated to a dimension of infantile thinking that is thought without words (in-fans comes from the verb "fari" i.e. to speak, the prefix "in" has a negative function). Therefore, the thought of christian hope or secular utopia as well as the thought of christian charity or of secular solidarity do not seem to have legitimacy any more, in "adult" political thinking.
So, paradoxically: on one hand there is a stirring up of a violent flare of protest, of a demand for solutions both certain, immediate and tough where religious fundamentalism and fascist identity-ism grow in an exponential way, on the other hand going down hill, there is drained political thinking, dramatic absence of value and theoretical references that generate childish and irresponsible "managerial" thought that claims to manage complexity with recipes of business management, as if the planet was only a slightly larger company. Static, atheoretical, cynicism of the world opposes irrational and violent revolt (most of the time originating from real injustice) as the management of the apartment block.
An "ancillary" function of these phenomena of intellectual and moral impoverishment has been provided by real and tangible "disciplinary perversions" (namely the systematic misrepresentations of the aims of several disciplines) that have developed extreme forms of purely descriptive skills (even if increasingly refined): in this sense, psychology and sociology have been victims but also partners in crime of these disciplinary perversions. Like hyperrealist painters, more and more often psychology and sociology create "words" that describe and classify what already exists with extraordinary evocative and suggestive abilities, so that it is implictly assumed to be immutable. The world becomes a sort of increasingly detailed map while being progressively less interested in representing reality. In the years 2000-2003, there was a heated debate between a brilliant group of healthcare epidemiologists and statisticians led by the american, Christopher Murray and several representatives of governments who complained of the fact that the epidemiological "measures" created by Murray had led the World Health Organization to "describe" the reality of the health situation of the countries and the spread of disease in a distorted form, compared to reality. When questioned by me on the degree of coherence between reality and the measures used to describe it, Murray told me literally: "the mathematical models that we use are nearer reality than reality itself, which in fact will become an increasingly confounding factor". Of course it was a provocative statement used to affirm the level of sophistication of the mathematical models used, but this provocation says a lot about the fact that the capacity to describe reality can give the illusion of being able to do without reality that in this way remains a fixed image to be described but certainly not to be changed because, as is obvious, a photograph is immutable. And in this regard it is interesting to observe that the DSM, the american diagnostic manual (the universal Bible of psychiatric diseases) has passed from classifying 40 mental illnesses in the fifties to 200 in the nineties. Obviously in nature, diseases haven't increased in number but those abstract entities, the descriptors, have. Every day sociology defines and classifies a piece of the "social fabric" contributing to the illusion that the rise in the ability to name phenomena corresponds to an increase in comprehending them and not, as seems more likely, in the lack of understanding the same.
A drop-down result of these processes of theoretical impoverishment (from economic thinking to the culture of management; from the effort to understand psycho social phenomena to the hypertrophy of describing and naming the same) is that of the divorce between intellectual cognitive processes and ethical transformative processes. In other words, the weakness of theoretical thought (often replaced by descriptive functions) causes the loss of any possible utopia for transforming what already exists in order to make it better, more beautiful and more real. There is a tragic fall in tension for change, resulting in the loss of the ethical dimension as a constitutive element of the processes of knowledge.
Let's take as an example the growing awareness based on epidemiological studies, of health economics and public health on connections having a contributory cause between social determinants and health-disease dynamics; this greater awareness does not seem to have generated any sort of transformation. In 2007 and 2008 two fundamental reports were published by the Committee on Social Determinants of Health. The first, in 2007, was a Report (KNUS-WHO, 2007) that outlined the role of urbanization and the urban setting as social determinants of health and disease. The emphasis of the Report was on the multiple aspects of environmental disease generated by the City and the impact that this condition has on vulnerable groups. The Report offered a broad and radical spectrum of possible correctives both directly connected to a different planification of urban health services, and (this is perhaps the most innovative part of the Report) on possible innovations in governance processes of the city and on forms of participation from the bottom up in the programming and management of the services by vulnerable groups. A part of the Report was dedicated to the experience of micro-finance and local investment. In 2008 another even more important Report (CSDH-WHO, 2008), collected and sorted out the scientific evidence on the social determinants of health and noted the links between injustice and inequalities related to the state of health/illness of populations and individuals. The aim of the Report was to create a global movement capable of promoting justice in the field of health. The Report presents an accurate and well-documented picture of social, economic, cultural and political variables related to inequalities in the field of health. The Report makes several recommendations structured around three areas of action: the urgent need to improve the daily living conditions of the populations with special emphasis on children and women; the urgency to deal with the problem of the unjust distribution of Power, Money and Resources; the urgent need to create mechanisms of "surveillance" of injustice focused on injustice in the field of health and access to health services for the most poor and vulnerable populations.
Well this immense wealth of knowledge based on the intelligent and accurate description of the links between poverty, inequality, injustice, social exclusion and disease has not generated any transformation in the politics of the countries. There were of course some countries that had already taken the road of some very important reforms in public policy (Brasil for example) but the knowledge generated by the Report only confirmed previous political choices. In fact no country has actually changed their public policies based on evidence generated by the Report almost as if the divorce between knowing and transforming is inevitable and that transformations are carried out through different paths from those generated by knowledge and that knowledge and expertise do not have the strength to generate ways of transformation.
Therefore it seems that there is an urgent need for laboratories in economic, political and social thinking, that challenge the theoretical and moral poverty that characterizes the present. This implies that laboratories of thought should be constructed, starting by overcoming exclusively descriptive functions with the aim of facilitating instead the encounter, combination and cross-fertilization between disciplines that aspire to know by transforming and to transform by knowing. The philosophy of law, anthropological sciences, ethics must fertilize the political-economic thought breaking the accepted truth that thinking of bread is incompatible with thoughts of spring, that making fair societies doesn't allow them to be perfectly free and, therefore, that who ever drives the train doesn't have time to sing and who sings cannot drive a train.
Therefore there is a growing need of "high level" places for training that create "a governing class" capable of economic-political ethical, idealistic and trasformative thinking. Also it seems essential for this training exercise to become an opportunity for a meeting between european thought and the thought that is being formed in the countries that are currently experimenting great economic and political transition processes inventing new forms of democracy certainly very imperfect but also certainly very new (just think of a few of the BRICS countries such as Brazil, India and South Africa).
Therefore, we need a workshop for reflection and Social, Economic and Political action, that produces innovative social, economic and political thinking, characterized by radical, ethical guidelines, capable of reading the processes of social and economic development.
In this country where there is an alarming profusion of verbal violence in politics, the violence of xenophobia, the violence of racism, the violence of exclusion and inequality, the violence of being poor among the rich, excluded from those included, the violence of the theatre of politics as a substitute for politics... it is in this country today, that it particularly makes sense to talk about the creation of disciplinary links, of dialogue between disciplines but also between differing viewpoints, in order to seek peace but not surrender, discussion but with firmness and awareness of rights. This is an emergency, a moral and political urgency, of an indispensable and impending transaction.
The Centre for Studies on Urban Suffering (SOUQ) as already mentioned and written many times in various circumstances proposes to study the phenomenon of Urban Suffering, which is the suffering that occurs in large cities. Urban Suffering is a political, ethical, anthropological and social category that interprets the meeting between the suffering of individuals and the "social fabric" they inhabit. The study of Urban Suffering allows us to understand and transform the psychological and institutional quality of the intersection between subjects and contexts with the moral and political ambition of building citizenship namely communities of citizens. Social exclusion, marginalization, absolute and relative poverty, unemployment, discrimination, immigration represent different axes often intersected by the psychosocial vulnerability of many minorities who together actually represent the majority of the citizens of the great cities of the world: a nation that is transversal to the official Nations united by a weak point that reduces and debilitates social and psychological forms of full citizenship and the possible aspiration to happiness of women, men, adolescents, the elderly and children who live in the city.
So today after more than four years of work I am looking for friends (and among them, firstly but not only, the members of the scientific committee) and work groups (we are thinking, among others, of the group of Social Updates of Milan) with which to build a hypothesis of "high" education for professionals, decision-makers, operators, managers and managerial staff of Welfare, Healthcare, Education, Culture and the world of the Cooperatives and private social enterprises with the scope of contributing to their formation and the design, organization and delivery of right and rational "replies" to urban suffering.

1) KNUS (2007). Our cities, our health, our future: acting on social determinants for health equity in urban settings. Final Report of the Urban Settings Knowledge Network of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health. Geneva, World Health Organization.
2) CSDH (2008). Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the Social Determinants of Health. Final Report of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health. Geneva, World Health Organization.






By the same authors:                Dancing the samba while piloting a jet plane   SouqBiblio: annotated international bibliography*  A Return to the Way leading to Happiness   Aporeia of empowerment  Deconstructing the paradigm of "migrant emergency"  Defend the ways of liberation  Educate in complexity  Empowerment  Global health, local health: a paradigm of the failures of globalization   Health systems are not designed for the needs of citizens  Reject Ferocity, Not Migrants  Souqbiblio (number 1)  SouqBiblio: international annotated bibliography number 8  SouqBiblio: international annotated bibliography*  SouqBiblio: internazional annotated bibliography (number 6)  SouqBiblio: annotated international bibliography  SouqBiblio: annotated international bibliography  SouqBiblio: annotated international bibliography  SouqBiblio: annotated international bibliography  SouqBiblio: international annotated bibliography (number 5)  SouqBiblio: international annotated bibliography (number 3)  SouqBiblio: International annotated bibliography (number 7)  SouqBiblio: internazional annotated bibliography (number 4)  SouqBiblio: References (number 2)  The association Poverty - Mental Disorders and its implications for outcome and care provision   The Confusion to be managed  The paradigm of urban suffering  Time of Siege  Urban Resistance  Verbal violence and social paranoia 

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Center for urban suffering

The study centre wishes to study the phenomenon of urban suffering, in other words the suffering that is specific to the great metropolises. Urban Suffering is a category that describes the meeting of individual suffering with the social fabric that they inhabit. The description, the understanding and the transformation of the psychological and social dynamics that develop from the meeting of ...

Who we are

The Urban Suffering Studies Center - SOUQ - arises from Milan, a place of complexity and economic and social contradictions belonged to global world.Tightly linked to Casa della Carità Foundation, which provides assistance and care to unserved populations in Milan (such as immigrants legal and illegal, homeless, vulnerable minorities), the Urban Suffering Studies Center puts attention on ...


Centro studi Souq Management commitee: Laura Arduini, Virginio Colmegna (presidente), Silvia Landra, Simona Sambati, Benedetto Saraceno ; Scientific commitee: Mario Agostinelli, Angelo Barbato, Maurizio Bonati, Adolfo Ceretti, Giacomo Costa, Ota de Leonardis,  Giulio Ernesti, Sergio Escobar, Luca Formenton, Francesco Maisto, Ambrogio Manenti, Claudia Mazzucato, Daniela ...
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ISSN 2282-5754 Souquaderni [online] by SOUQ - Centro Studi sulla Sofferenza Urbana - CF: 97316770151
Last update: 26/11/2020

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