My research focuses on citizenship participation, state-society relations and community and labor organizing in cities in the US and Latin America. Using ethnography, interviews and comparative historical methods I have explored ways that ordinary people can exert more control over the forces shaping their lives through protest, participatory institutions, union organizing, voting, economic boycotts, identity politics, discursive struggles and more.
Dissertation: Making Democracy Real: Participatory Governance in Urban Latin America
A growing body of literature shows that experiments with participatory governance, which most often occur at the urban level, can help make democracy more real by establishing institutional mechanisms that effectively link what citizens want and what governments deliver. Within this literature there is broad agreement that successful participatory governance is most likely when two conditions are present: a left-of-center party with an ideological commitment to participatory democracy is in local office and local civil society is strong and autonomous. This dissertation shows that neither of these conditions is necessary for successful participatory governance by demonstrating that participatory reform can succeed in making democracy more real in cities run by right-of-center parties and when local civil society lacks autonomy vis-à-vis the national state and ruling party. These claims are based on nineteen months of ethnographic fieldwork comparing participatory reform in four cities in Venezuela and Bolivia, with research conducted on a city governed by a Left and a Right party in each country.
To explain the unexpected findings generated by this research I develop a novel framework for understanding participatory governance centered on the concept of an urban political regime, which refers to the overall pattern of state-society relations prevailing in a given city. Data from the four cities researched shows that the importance and effectiveness of participatory decision-making varies markedly across different urban political regimes: in some regimes participatory decision-making is central and effective, in others it is practically non-existent and ineffective and in still others it is in-between. To explain the emergence of particular urban political regimes in particular cities, and transitions from one regime to another within a given city, this study examines the interaction between socioeconomic structure, historical legacies of past regimes and national political change. This framework facilitates analysis of participatory governance that goes beyond binary distinctions between success and failure. It also draws attention to two sets of relationships that have received little attention from other scholars of participation: between the past and present, and between local and national politics. Finally it highlights the mutability and dynamic nature of political processes. In so doing this study shows that democracy is not a finished product but an ongoing process.
I have published material based on this research in Qualitative Sociology (an article which won awards from the ASA and LASA), Latin American Perspectives, NACLA and The Nation, a book chapter on socialist hegemony in Venezuela, and papers on the Latin American Right, Hugo Chávez’s legacy and participation in urban Bolivia.
In other publications I explore how social movements shape and are shaped by the social, political and economic contexts in which they are embedded. I co-wrote a book chapter with Jeff Goodwin (as equal co-authors) showing that scholars have increasingly ignored how capitalism shapes movements, ironically at a moment when capitalism’s global ascendance makes it more relevant than ever. Another chapter (written with Peter Evans, who is second author, for Global Latin America, with UC Press) unpacks lessons that policymakers, scholars and citizens around the world can learn from the innovative social policies (e.g. participatory budgeting) and social movement strategies that have recently emerged in Latin America. My master’s thesis, which was recently published in Work, Employment and Society and won Best Graduate Student Paper (Honorable Mention) from the ASA’s Labor and Labor Movements section, uses ethnographic and interview data to examine the revitalization of the US labor movement. By examining the promise and pitfalls of a community-labor alliance and the contradictions of the neoliberal state, this article unsettles commonsense views of community, labor and the state.