Gecekondus of Istanbul

18 Dec 2018

This is a part of the PhD application I prepared for the “Collective action in Istanbul’s informal neighborhoods” project at University of Amsterdam. My application did not result positively but I really  enjoyed doing the research about it. Reading Mike Davis' Planet of Slums book on the subject was especially great. This proposal would be an interdisciplinary approach to analyze the gecekondus of Istanbul. So please read all the "I will"s as "I would"s since probably someone else has already started doing something similar at the moment.

Istanbul map of squatter settlements in 1960


Research question: How does collective action in Istanbul’s informal neighborhoods affect the making and unmaking of the residents’ civilizing process?


Elias’ scope was to analyze the civilizing process since the Middle Ages and it covers centuries of social conduct. The civilizing process encompasses years and years of social interaction between the society’s high and lower classes. However, we want to apply his concept to the collective development of residents in the gecekondu areas in the last half-century. This is a timeframe in which human rights are already defined, yet these people’s right to the city was restricted. Therefore it is not surprising to see an accelerated growth towards the “civilization” among the gecekondu residents that Elias was referring to.


I will begin the investigation by doing historical research on the urbanization of Istanbul in the twentieth century. There will be a discussion on the changing definition of gecekondu from 1950s to present. This will involve the aspects of economic and social marginality. Also the changing meaning of periphery will be added in connection to Elias’ lower/outsider social strata in the context of Istanbul. I will relate it to the dichotomy of nation state versus outsider strata. As a sidetrack, here I propose the option of adding Derrida’s deconstructive approach to the identity of gecekondu residents. Later I will define collective action in the form of civilized conduct. Followed by historical information on the civilizing process of informal neighborhoods in Istanbul. In terms of Elias’ description, I will portray the gecekondu residents’ collective action to seek their rights as the outsider strata pressing from below. It is their right to live in the city and get the infrastructure of clean water, sewerage, gas, electricity, roads and public space as well as the services of security, healthcare, education and employment. At this point, I will relate it to the role of Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE), commissioned by the UN, starting in 2009; the reasons why it was necessary to observe Istanbul and the myth of public-housing due to high subsidies.


The next chapter will be in the form of a psychogenetic investigation on collective action. I will follow the methodology of Ethnography and/or Oral History analysis. With the urban renewal projects as the historical background, I will interview the (former) residents and/or witnesses of the neighborhoods visited by AGFE. My aim will be to identify and analyze the social networks of collective action based on how they started, evolved and got strong, or why they didn’t. The study of self-organization will be helpful at this point. I will relate self-organization to Elias’ understanding of controlling individual agency and self-constraint, as well as interdependence. I will also try to distinguish the stages of the eviction and demolition processes of ongoing projects. Then I will relate my findings to AGFE’s report in 2012. Regarding urban policy, the disputes between the residents and state policy of urban renewal will be elaborated. I will connect this to Elias’ explanation on the monopoly of force. Since the gecekondu houses are evicted by the state, I will introduce the authoritarian policy of Turkish Republic Prime Ministry Housing Development Administration (TOKI) as an ideological state apparatus since 1980s. The residents being forced to change their location will be interpreted as the politics of fear exercised by the state. There will be a brief flashback to the trauma of 1999 Izmit earthquake as the reasoning of TOKI’s rebuilding activities. Additionally, the emergence of gated communities will be articulated in connection to the unmaking of the civilizing process, as it is an example of social segregation between the rich and the poor.


A chapter on sociogenetic investigation on the state’s relationship with the informal neighborhoods will follow. I’d like to propose at this point adding Foucault’s “discursive practices” approach to the analysis of state policy. In the main course of the study, the methodology will be historical research on the state’s urban policy, and geographical analysis by using GIS. This will cover the laws, news, documentaries, memoirs, interviews with scholars specialized in the field, books and articles. I will be mapping the expansion of gecekondu formation since 1950s, layer by layer per decade. There will be the layers of settlements, reception of infrastructure and services, and political influence. Then I will relate these layers to the following political, social and legislative reactions:


  • 1950s Marshall Plan aid,

  • 1960 coup d’état,

  • 1970s the unofficial civil war between the right and left wing supporters,

  • 1980 coup d’état,

  • 1980s neoliberal policies,

  • 2013 Gezi Park movement, and

  • 2016 coup d’état attempt.


I will try to correctly place the contemporary collective action of the gecekondu residents in each major event and analyze it according to Elias’ conceptualization.


In conclusion I will make a connection to the upcoming urban renewal projects in Istanbul and how it may affect the future of the civilizing process of the gecekondu residents.



Resources of interest


Azem, Imre. 2011. Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits. Documentary, <>.

Cabannes, Y, with Uzuncarsili Baysal, C and Arif Hasan (coll). 2009. Forced Evictions in Istanbul. 

Report from the Advisory Group on forced evictions to the Executive Director of UN Habitat (AGFE), London. Also available at <>.

Davis, Mike. 2017. Planet of Slums, Verso, London.

Elias, Norbert. 2000. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, Blackwell

Publishers Inc, Oxford.

Norbert Elias Foundation. “Concepts and Principles of Figurational research,” Norbert Elias Foundation

Website, <>. Retrieved on 14 November 2018.

Tuzcu, Nil. Istanbul Urban Database Website <>.


Possible fiction works related to gecekondu culture and history


Tekin, Latife. 1996. Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills, London (published in Turkey in 1984).

Izgu, Muzaffer. 2010. Gecekondu. Bilgi Yayınevi, Ankara (published in Turkey in 1970).

Pamuk, Orhan. 2015. A Strangeness in My Mind. E-Penguin (published in Turkey in 2014).


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