Rethinking encounter through parochial meaning-making on the urban margins in South Africa

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Originating in normative interventions aiming to remedy segregation through contact with difference, the notion of ‘meaningful encounter’ has become a portmanteau for contact that results in greater respect and tolerance. This article questions the epistemic justice of such a value-laden concept by presenting four examples of parochial meaning-making around encounters in a South African informal settlement. Drawing on secondary interviews conducted after ‘xenophobic’ expulsions of foreign-born newcomers from the settlement in 2008, as well as primary ethnographic fieldwork conducted four years later, the article highlights the meaningfulness of four encounters that did not lead to increased tolerance or respect for difference—encounters with affluence; with social mobility; with hardship in conditions of poverty and marginality; and with seemingly uncommitted newcomers against a backdrop of contentious politics. In each case, the article illustrates both the meaningfulness of the encounter, and its effect of producing tensions rather than mediating them. The article uses these examples to problematise the assumptions implicit in received notions of ‘meaningful encounter’: that tension necessarily pre-exist encounter, that established/newcomer boundaries are based on prejudice, and that encounters are not meaningful unless they advance a predetermined normative position. Along the way, it highlights the importance of embodiment, materiality, inequality, and space in the production of difference. Having made the case for a conceptual sharpening in the light of these seldom-studied encounters in the urban margins of South Africa, the article concludes by urging scholars to adopt a value-free conception of the meaningfulness of encounter.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)(In-Press)
JournalMigration Studies
Early online date25 Jul 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Jul 2023


  • meaningful encounter
  • epistemic justice
  • materiality of difference
  • xenophobia
  • prejudice
  • South Africa
  • Informal settlements

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Urban Studies
  • Geography, Planning and Development


  • Migration, Displacement and Belonging
  • Equality and Inclusion


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