I research participation, populism, and politics, with a focus on Latin America and the US. Since 2015, when I received my PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley, I have been Assistant Professor of Latin American, Caribbean and Latina/o Studies and Sociology (by courtesy) at University at Albany, SUNY. Using ethnography and comparative historical methods I study the forces that enable and constrain the deepening and extension of democracy. This has led me to research on left and right parties, social and labor movements, climate change, and national and urban politics.

My first book, Making Democracy Real: How Leftist Hegemony Reshaped the Right in Latin America’s Left Turn (under contract with Columbia University Press, with expected publication in December 2022), examines a classic question: what are the limits of democracy, and under what conditions can they be expanded? The book challenges the widely held view that democracy is possible only when it is “safe” for elites. The history of the Right in Latin America and elsewhere seems to show this. The Latin American Right has repeatedly deposed elected left governments that threatened elites, and only accepted democracy in the 1980s and 90s when it became safe due to the Left’s defanging and the spread of pro-elite market reforms. The region’s “left turn” raised the question anew: would the Right accept democracy if it became unsafe for elites? Making Democracy Real examines this question where it was posed most starkly, in Venezuela and Bolivia, widely considered the two most radical left turn cases. Using 22 months ethnographic fieldwork I compare participatory reform in a left- and right-governed city in each country at the left turn’s height. In my fieldwork I observed 150 local government, civic association, and political party meetings, assemblies, workshops, protests, and more, and interviewed 200-plus elected officials, bureaucrats, party and civic association leaders and members, and citizens. I began my research expecting to find more success in the left-governed cities and in Bolivia rather than Venezuela due to Bolivia’s “movement-left” and Venezuela’s “left-populist” ruling parties, with scholars viewing the former as more conducive to deepening democracy. Unexpectedly I found success in the left- and right-run Venezuelan cases and failure in both Bolivian cities. The book shows that the key to explaining these doubly puzzling findings is that Venezuela’s ruling party became hegemonic, in the sense of successfully presenting its ideas as the ideas of all, while Bolivia’s ruling party did not. This meant the Right in Venezuela but not Bolivia had to ‘play the game’ of politics on the Left’s terrain. Making Democracy Real contributes to literatures on democracy, participatory governance, and civic engagement. Its key contribution is to show that just as rightwing hegemony can reshape the Left (e.g. Margaret Thatcher calling Tony Blair her “greatest accomplishment”), leftist hegemony can reshape the Right, forcing it to embrace leftist ideas and accept democracy even when it is “unsafe.” In other work I examine the evolution of the party system in contemporary Venezuela, and look at the promises, pitfalls and challenges facing Chavismo.

My work on Venezuela and Latin American politics has been published in scholarly journals, such as Qualitative Sociology, Social Text, Journal of World-Systems Research and Latin American Perspectives, several edited volumes, and numerous popular press outlets, including the Washington Post, The Guardian, The Independent, The NationJacobin, In These Times, and NACLA. 

I have discussed my research on Venezuela, social movements, and capitalism on various television and radio programs, and for print journalism, including Democracy Now, Fox News, Al Jazeera English, ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), The Real News, NPR, and multiple NPR affiliates. I am available to discuss multiple topics including Venezuela, Bolivia, Latin American politics, social/labor movements, and US politics (see media inquiries page).

I have also conducted research on the revitalization of the American labor movement. In 2015  I published an article looking at a rare case of a successful union-worker center alliance in New York City in Work, Employment and Society. An earlier version of this article won the 2009 best graduate student paper award, honorable mention, from the American Sociological Association Labor and Labor Movements section.

I have taught courses on classical and contemporary social theory, international development, introduction to sociology, urban studies, democracy, political economy,  contemporary Latin American politics, and climate change.

In addition to academic research, teaching and writing, I seek to engage with the broader public in a number of ways. These include serving on the advisory board of the Participatory Budgeting Project and the North American Participatory Budgeting Research Board. I have also worked as a research consultant, advisor and process facilitator with participatory budgeting processes (and community activists seeking to initiate such processes) in Vallejo and Oakland, California. Recently I was invited to monitor Venezuela’s parliamentary election and traveled there as part of the National Electoral Council’s International Electoral Accompaniment process. Since 2013 I have served as a member of the American Sociological Association Task Force on Engaging Sociology, helping the discipline to think about how to evaluate (for purposes of hiring and promotion) publicly oriented communication.

My research has been supported by fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Institute of Labor and Employment, the University of California, Berkeley and the University at Albany, SUNY. I have received awards for my research, teaching and public engagement work from the ASA Sociology of Development Section, Labor and Labor Movement Section, the Latin American Studies Association Venezuelan Studies Section, UC Berkeley and UC Berkeley Sociology department.

To contact me please email ghetland@albany.edu.