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Why the word ‘slum’ should not be used in geography classrooms

Taking a lead from low income urban dwellers themselves


The term ‘slum’ conjures images of densely populated urban environments characterised by disease, poor sanitation and waste management as well as high levels of deprivation. It also brings to mind images of a growing industry, ‘slum tourism’, through which the affluent traveller can seek to experience the hardships of urban poverty in the hope that they might develop empathy for those living in such places. Teachers may have shown documentaries such as Kevin McCloud’s Slumming it, or extracts from Danny Boyle’s movie Slumdog Millionaire. However, as this article will show, the term ‘slum’ in fact has a charged political history, and is one that ought not to be used lightly in a classroom context. Understanding the politicised nature of the term – and its ongoing and deeply problematic presence in geography classrooms and curricula – requires that we begin by reconstructing something of its historic emergence and circulation.

Historical origins of the term ‘slum’

In his book Slums: The History of a Global Injustice, Alan Mayne (2017: 16) has suggested that the term ‘slum’ “first entered the English language during the early nineteenth century, emerging from the idiom of everyday slang talk in London”. From here, it spread to be applied first in other British cities, then to urban areas around the British empire. As Mayne puts it, “Thus a London slang word was adopted in hitherto non-English speaking societies to describe diverse social conditions in terms that were comprehensible to the new ruling culture” (ibid: 16).

When geography teachers in schools teach about concepts, we tend not to consider the ways in which they travel. This is odd, given that the academic discipline of geography – and especially those working within the sub-discipline of the history of geographical knowledge – has itself been increasingly interested in the mobility of knowledge and of concepts. Edward Said (1984), in an important essay in his book The World, The Text and the Critic, wrote of what he called “travelling theories”. Said suggested that concepts, ideas and theories change their meanings as they move from one context to another, and that any attempt to grapple seriously with a particular concept or theory needs to be attentive to the ways in which its meaning shifts as it moves between contexts.

How, then, has the concept of the ‘slum’ travelled? Mayne suggests that having originated in London, the word travelled to colonial contexts but then returned to be used as a term of comparison, often fixing colonial urban areas as ‘backward’ in comparison to Britain. For example, he quotes modern historians writing of London in the 1880s that ‘large areas of Europe’s most populated city resembled the slums of Calcutta’, by extension fixing modern Calcutta as being equivalent to the London of the 1880s. From here it was an easy move for the term ‘slum’ to develop its contemporary use, with its “almost exclusive application to Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America” (Mayne, 2017: 17). This move was driven as much by post-colonial governments in the wake of decolonisation as it was by policy-makers and academics from Europe. Institutions of global governance got in on the act too, with the UN playing a crucial role in the take-up and translation of the term, incorporating it into numerous reports and giving it pride of place in both the Millennium Development Goals and the more recent Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 11 of which includes the target to ‘upgrade slums’ by 2030. Such widespread use of the term has meant that it has now been taken up and deployed to describe urban areas “in nations that English-speakers had never mastered or colonized” (ibid: 17).

In an important essay from 2007, geographer Alan Gilbert (2007) was especially critical of the take-up of the term ‘slum’ in the Millennium Development Goals. As he put it, “After decades when most prudent academics and practitioners had avoided using it, the United Nations thrust the word ‘slum’ into full focus as the target of their main shelter campaign” (Gilbert, 2007: 697). Gilbert was particularly concerned that “use of the word slum will recreate many of the old stereotypes about poor people that years of careful research has discredited” (ibid: 710). Mayne, though, is less charitable to other urban scholars, arguing that the use of the term ‘slum’ by the UN was based on the work of a whole range of urban thinkers, writers, planners and architects who had themselves normalised its usage (Mayne, 2017:19).

What work has the term ‘slum’ done as it has travelled? Mayne (2017: 24) suggests that is has “reshaped the meaning” of a host of other words that had emerged in particular circumstances: banlieue and bidonville in France and French-colonized Africa, favela in Brazil, villa miseria in Argentina, kampung in Indonesia, barriada in Spain and Peru and quartieri periferici in Italy, to name only a few. The term ‘slum’ also brought with itself a new social practice and social type, namely the ‘slummer’ who ‘slums’. Initially, in nineteenth century London, the ‘slummer’ was embodied by a “gentleman observer of city ‘low life” such as Henry Mayhew, author of London’s Labour and the London Poor. The social practice of slumming, Mayne argues, “shifted gear in the late twentieth century with the emergence in the cities of the developing world of what has been variously called ‘slum tourism’, ‘reality tourism’, ‘poverty tourism’, ‘poorism’ and ‘dark tourism’” (ibid: 24).

Mayne suggests that the term ‘slum’ persists today because:

“We, mainstream society, use and embrace it … Sometimes we embrace it in order to do nothing: in our contempt for ‘losers’ and ‘users’ we feel righteously justified in neglecting the ‘underclass’. Sometimes we embrace it in the name of humanitarian action … For the most part, however, we perpetuate slum stereotypes because they help us define (and congratulate) ourselves in juxtaposition to our imagined opposite … Meanwhile, in the developing world today, slum stereotypes are used by the elite and the rapidly expanding middle classes” (ibid: 38).

Mayne roundly condemns the continued use of the term ‘slum’, but it remains a staple part of popular debate and policy-making discourses around urban issues. The term can also be found in geography exam specifications, textbooks and resources, meaning that it will inevitably find its way into classrooms as well.

The ‘slum’ in British geography curricula

Exam specifications play a crucial role in shaping what terms get used in classrooms. If a concept is used in an exam specification, then teachers are likely to use it in a classroom context in order to ensure that students are familiar with its meaning should it be used in an exam question.

Several English GCSE geography exam specifications use the term ‘slum’. In the AQA specification, slums are categorised as a ‘”challenge” in need of being “managed”. The word is only used in the context of studying urban experience in low income countries or so-called ‘newly emerging economies’. When it comes to teaching about urban issues in the UK, the AQA specification asks instead that teachers cover “urban deprivation, inequalities in housing, education, health and employment”. Meanwhile, Edexcel’s B specification also uses the term slum in the context of the study of a megacity in a “developing” or “emerging” economy.

Similarly, Scottish geography exam boards continue to use the term uncritically in exam questions and mark schemes, perpetuating its presence in classrooms as a consequence. For example, in one paper a photograph is labelled as showing ‘Mumbai slum’, and the associated mark scheme refers to ‘slum rehabilitation’ projects in a solely positive light, something which we will go on to show does not match the reality of such programmes. Another SQA mark scheme marks students down “if no specific city/slum is referred to”. Meanwhile, SQA’s specification for their Higher qualification offers advice to teachers on how to teach about “developments in a slum region of the developing world”, refers to “slum housing” in Mumbai, and even suggests that teachers consider showing “recent television programmes on slum developments” to support their teaching.

Not all exam specifications use the term ‘slum’, showing that it is perfectly possible to teach without this fundamentally flawed term. Edexcel’s A specification refers to “housing shortages” and “squatter settlements” when studying urban issues in a “developing” or an “emerging” economy context. No explanation is given as to why the term ‘slum’ appears in Edexcel’s B specification, but not in its A specification. The term is also not used in either the OCR A or the OCR B specifications.

At A Level, the term slum is not included in either the Edexcel or AQA specifications. However, it does appear in some textbooks. To take one example, Hodder’s substantial A Level textbook (Skinner et al, 2016) draws on reports by UN HABITAT to write about “people living in slum conditions” (ibid: 382). The book does note that “the term ‘slum housing’ has been criticised by those who see it as a political label”, marking a rare occasion where critical thinking about the term ‘slum’ sneaks into an educational resource for school and college students. Nevertheless, the very next paragraph in the book proceeds to use the term ‘slum’ uncritically no fewer than 5 times, and the paragraph following that uses the term on 6 further occasions. When the book then later offers a case study of Mumbai an entire sub-section is entitled “the Dharavi slum” (ibid: 441). This continued and repeated use of the term ‘slum’ makes a mockery of the brief allusions to critical thought on the concept elsewhere in the book.

Why is the term ‘slum’ problematic?

Mayne suggests 6 main ways in which the term ‘slum’ is misleading and potentially dangerous:

1. The term “is merely a stereotype, a fantasy of its’ users imaginations, that generalizes into one abstraction a diversity of settlement types and human conditions. Urban poverty is real and so are disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but slums are not” (Mayne, 2017: 9-10).

2. The term “misrepresents poor neighbourhoods and their residents as being deficient, disordered and unchanging, whereas disadvantaged households and communities actually display strategy, energy and resilience in the face of hardship and constrained livelihood choices” (ibid: 10).

3. “Slums are said to have their own separate existence, and yet to draw parasitically upon their host societies”, whereas “in reality, the labour of poor communities contributes significantly to urban, regional and national economies” (ibid: 10).

4. “Slum people are always characterized – sometimes with patronizing good intent, sometimes in contempt – as what the dominant culture regards as being the deficient ‘Other’” (ibid: 10).

5. When it comes to policy-making and attempts to reduce urban poverty and inequality, “the unhelpful meanings embedded in the concept of slums always compromise the good intentions and short change the urban poor” (ibid: 10).

6. “All the talk about slums originates with outsiders … by and large ‘slum’ dwellers do not use the word themselves, if they do so they parody its meanings or attempt to mobilize support for strategies that reject of reformulate outsiders’ assumptions about slums “ (ibid: 13).

Mayne mounts a persuasive case, and we would urge geography teachers and educators to read and think hard about his book and the implications of his argument. However, there is another reason that ought to be added to Mayne’s list here – and, it should be said, it is one that he shows clear awareness of throughout his book. In her writings on urban life in India, Pushpa Arabindoo has drawn attention to the physical violence and displacement with which the term ‘slum’ has often been bound up. She highlights, for example, the actions of Maharashtra State’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority in early 21st century Mumbai, and the wider National Urban Poverty Reduction Policy launched in India in 2009, with its commitment to making Indian cities ‘slum free’ by 2020. These policies, Arabindoo (2011) argues, have amounted to little more than an attempt at the “freeing up of inner-city slumland to the speculative exuberance of private capital”, and the eviction of people from ‘slums’ has been used in order to further a “calculated plan to recapture valuable land for real-estate development”, though the plan itself was often “couched in a nobler discourse”. Arabindoo drives home the point about the true violence entailed in these attempts at ‘urban reform’:

“Since the beginning of the 21st century, major Indian cities have officially launched at an unprecedented scale massive and often brutal eviction drives amidst a national commitment to a ‘slum-free’ urban India. An estimated 300,000–450,000 people were evicted in Mumbai between October 2004 and January 2005, with 200,000 more facing displacement … In Delhi, at least 200,000 of the city's 3 million slum dwellers have been evicted since 2004 to facilitate the city's preparation for the (much-maligned) 2010 Commonwealth Games … In Chennai, the scenario is worse where alongside the 200,000 already displaced there are plans to evict an additional 300,000. Given the city's 1 million-plus slum population, this comprises a worrying 50%.” (ibid: 637)

Nor is such violence contained to India. As Trevor Ngwane has catalogued, evictions and violence have have become part of daily life for shack dwellers in South African cities (Ngwane, 2021). This violence has a long history , but in the South African context a key moment was the passing of a Slums Act in 1934 that was, as Kerry Ryan Chance (2018: 94) describes it in her book Living Politics in South Africa’s Urban Shacklands, “a colonial precursor to apartheid-era law” (pg 94). As Chance continues, “by proclaiming black communities ‘slums’, land was appropriated by apartheid agents, particularly on the desirable urban city center and immediate periphery”. Chance’s scholarship has shown how the term slum “is still a pejorative” in post-apartheid South Africa, but that simultaneously political declarations in favour of a “tomorrow that is free from slums” have been mobilised to support evictions and to justify violence against South African shack-dwellers “under a liberal logic of citizen rights” (ibid: 94-95).

So, the travels of the term ‘slum’ continue, as it shifts it’s meaning from a racialised tool for securing colonial land-grabs to a liberal-humanist justification for ‘slum upgrading’ or eradication. Wherever it travels, though, the term seems to bring with it epistemic and/or physical violence and displacement.

Climate displacements and ongoing urban inequalities

None of this is to neglect the issues of urban poverty and inequality, or the structural forces driving them. The total number of people living in deprived urban areas across the world is expected to triple by 2030 (Walia 2021: 154). Urban changes are highly dynamic, and today climate change is a major cause of migration to cities. The example of Bangladesh is instructive. Despite being one of the lowest carbon emitters, Bangladesh is projected to have one in seven people displaced by climate change by 2050 (ibid: 35). Like other low-lying countries, Bangladesh already has swathes of land submerged due to sea-level rise and the anticipated three-foot rise in sea levels will cover one fifth of the country (Glennon, 2017). Yet climate change is never a singular factor pushing people to move. In the case of Bangladesh, it combines with poverty, the destruction of forests and the salinity intrusion generated by monocultural rice production and shrimp farming to cause indebted farmers to lose their land (Walia 2021: 153). Dispossessed farmers move to the capital city to escape environmental destruction and many women find work in the polluting garment industry. It is no wonder that Dhaka is amongst the world’s most crowded cities, with thousands of new arrivals every day. Meanwhile, workplace disasters continue to devastate lives and livelihoods. Yet while the poor are forced into overcrowded living conditions, the global real estate market sits at $217 trillion. Urban poverty and its current spatial distribution is not an inevitable consequence of climate change, but is produced by multiple socio-economic and political processes and decisions (ibid: 254). Gita Dewan Verma suggests that “the root cause of urban slumming seems to lie not in urban poverty but in urban wealth” (Verma, 2002: xix; Davis, 2006). In Walia’s terms, “real estate capital accumulation is yet another means of dispossession” whereby private property segregates the wealthy from the impoverished with gated communities situated next to low quality housing, creating a class ordering of urban space (Walia, 2021: 155). Looking at urban poverty in Dhaka, we can see that this class ordering of urban space is not an inevitable feature of urban life in low-income countries but is instead globally produced by multiple factors, including real estate markets, CO2 emissions, and the operations of large agribusinesses.

Conclusion: Refusing ‘slum’ stereotypes

As educators we can and we should refuse the material and epistemic violence encoded into the term ‘slum’. In doing so, we would be following the lead of low income urban dwellers themselves. As Chance (2018: 95) makes clear, “residents in Cape Town and other cities have resisted … using “slum” to refer to their communities, especially because the term so often has been used in the service of forced relocations to less desirable areas, and also because it suggests impermanence to long-standing residency.” In her book, she quotes at length from Abahlali baseMjondolo, an inspirational social movement that has been organising residents in South African shack settlements to resist evictions and campaign politically for their rights:

“The word ‘slum’ … makes it sound like places where poor people live are a problem … because there is something wrong with poor people … but it does not admit that … places where poor people live often lack infrastructure and toilets because of the failure of … the government to provide these things. The solution to the fact that we often don’t have toilets in our communities is to provide toilets where we live and not to destroy our communities and move us out of the city” (Abahlali baseMjondolo, quoted in Chance, 2018: 95).

In reminding us recently that “the production of space itself has become key to capitalist accumulation”, AbdouMaliq Simone (2019: 23) has suggested that urban rent remains “one of the most valued commodities” and that, as a consequence, a host of “familiar tools for making space uninhabitable” have been deployed against the urban poor. Against such tools and strategies of violence and marginalisation, Simone invokes a strategy of refusal premised on “non-reductionism” (22). Simone suggests this strategy of refusal must involve “a refusal to participate in institutions which function largely to attribute failure to the behavior [sic] of their constituents” (pg 23). It is precisely such a strategy of refusal that Abahlali’s call to abandon the term ‘slum’ is involved in. As geography educators, we have a responsibility to join them in this refusal.

The violence done against the urban poor in the name of ‘slum reform’ should be all we need to agree with Mayne when he insists that “the time has come to ban this deceitful word from today’s reform agendas as well as from rigorous research” (pg 12). And, we would argue, from geography specifications and textbooks, curricula and classrooms, too.

Reference list

Arabindoo, P. (2011), ‘Rhetoric of the slum: Rethinking urban poverty’, City15: 6: pg 636-646

Chance, K.R. (2018), Living politics in South Africa’s urban shackland London: University of Chicago Press

Davis, M. (2006), Planet of Slums London: Verso

Gilbert, A. (2007), ‘The return of the slum: Does language matter?’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research31: 4: pg 697-713

Glennon, R. (2017) ‘The Unfolding Tragedy of Climate Change in Bangladesh’, Scientific American, 4th August 2021

Mayne, A. (2017) Slums: The history of a global injustice London: Reaktion Books

Ngwane, T. (2021), Amakomiti: Grassroots democracy in South African shack settlements (London: Pluto Press)

Said, E. (1983), The World, the Text, and the Critic Harvard University Press

Simone, A. (2019). Improvised lives: Rhythms of endurance in an urban south London: Polity

Skinner, M., Abbiss, P., Banks, P., Fyfe, H., and Whittaker, I. (2016), Geography for A-level and AS 4th Edition London: Hodder

Verma, G. (2002), Slumming India: A chronicle of slums and their saviours Penguin Books India

Walia, H. (2021). Border and Rule: Global migration, capitalism, and the rise of racist nationalism. Haymarket Books.