Course Descriptions


Participatory Democracy in Latin America

From the Occupy Movement to the indignados in Spain, recent social mobilizations have called into question the capacity of representative democracy to address grievances such as income inequality, corporate power, and political corruption. These citizen movements have enacted forms of direct democracy to make decisions regarding protest strategy and to experiment with modes of political engagement that might replace the status quo. Latin America offers a plethora of examples of participatory democratic institutions and thus offers a unique perspective on their possibilities and limits. This course will critically examine over two decades of innovations in democratic politics across the region, from the first participatory budget process established by the Workers' Party in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 to more recent proliferation of citizens' councils in Venezuela and indigenous community consultations on development projects in Guatemala, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Our study will comprise both formal institutions established by constitutional and ordinary law, as well as the social movement proposals and practices that were often — but not always — the origins and models of these reforms. For each empirical case we review, we will interrogate the institution's history, its functioning, and the degree to which it complements or disrupts existing forms of democratic representation. Ultimately, each case will offer an opportunity to rethink our assumptions regarding the nature of democratic citizenship, the content of democratic participation, and the potential for enacting socio- economic transformations through democratic institutions.

The course will begin with an overview of contemporary democratic political thought with the aim of providing students with a conceptual vocabulary for analyzing the empirical cases, focusing on issues such as deliberative democracy and constituent power. Next, we will historically situate our study of participatory democracy in the context of the broader challenge of democratic consolidation in the region. We will examine scholarship on the history of weak institutions and political exclusion dating to the colonial period, the coincidence of democratic transitions and neoliberal economic reforms, and the uneven territorial distribution of democratic norms, resulting in pockets of authoritarianism. By the early 1990s, these historic trajectories culminated in what has been referred to as a crisis of representation and democratic accountability, setting the stage for proposals for new forms of democratic decision-making and even wholesale redesigns of the polity via constituent assemblies. We will take a close look at the social movement critiques of representative democracy as well as the new symbolic salience of indigenous modes of deliberation and governance. Next, we will delve into the case studies of institutional reforms: the evolution of participatory budgets at the local and national level in Brazil, the experiences of indigenous parties elected at the local level in Bolivia and Ecuador, community consultations on development and extractive projects in Guatemala, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and the citizens' councils of Venezuela. We will conclude by evaluating recent work on the fate of participatory democracy in postneoliberal Latin America: has the rise of the new left deepened democracy and led to more substantive understandings of citizenship and forms of participation — or not?


The Contentious Politics of Resource Extraction in Latin America

Around the world, we continue to rely on hydrocarbon resources. These resources are increasingly extracted from harder to reach and more ecologically sensitive locales. The growing demand for primary commodities on the part of emerging economic powers and industrialized nations alike has renewed concerns about the “curse” of resource dependence as well as its socio-environmental consequences. Meanwhile, resource-related conflicts, both local and international, appear to be intractable. This course examines resource extraction in Latin America as a process at once political, economic, cultural, and environmental. Drawing on a range of disciplinary perspectives from cultural anthropology to sociology to political science, we will examine case studies of policymaking around and resistance to the extraction of oil, minerals, and natural gas. We will see how resource extraction is bound up with processes of state-making, democratization, and the construction of national identity, as well as the mobilization of indigenous movements and the demobilization of polluted communities. We will also analyze extraction from an institutional perspective by investigating how resource dependence structures the relationship between political and economic actors. Finally, we will see how the concept of “nature” is itself contested in these processes, and how distinct actors lay claim to different forms of expertise regarding the environment and its resources.

This course will open with a review of the canonical literature on dependency theory, rentier state theory, and the resource curse, familiarizing students with key terms such as “enclave economy” and “petrostate”. We will then proceed to evaluate these works in light of the recent empirical literature on the political economy of resource dependency as well as the critiques of rentier state theory. Next, we will read a series of historical and ethnographic case studies of resource extraction, each addressing a different key theme of the course: state- and nation-making (Coronil's The Magical State), indigenous mobilization (Sawyer's Crude Chronicles), environmental toxicity and demobilization (Auyero and Switsun's Flammable), and citizenship (Shever's Resources for Reform). Finally, we will conclude the course by examining recent scholarship on the contested expansion of resource extraction in postneoliberal Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, as well as the new role of Brazil and China in extractive sectors throughout the region. In particular, we will study attempts to recuperate national control over natural resources, the response from indigenous and environmental social movements, and the emergent geopolitical structure of the resource economy.


Contemporary Latin American Politics

Political-economic transformations have swept across Latin America from the 1980s to the present. This course explores these transformations as processes that are made and unmade from below (the mobilization of marginalized groups) and from above (the political projects of elites). We will critically engage a range of theoretical assumptions and social scientific methodologies in the study of the region. Finally, we will bring our knowledge of the past three decades to bear on the recent rise of the Latin American left.

The course begins with an in-depth historical contextualization of contemporary contentious politics, focusing on state-formation, nation-making, economic dependency and development, authoritarianism, and democratic transition. Next, we will consider the wave of structural adjustment programs that swept the region in the mid 1980s through the 1990s, with the aim of analytically conceptualizing neoliberalism, and attending to the diversity in the politics and content of reform across cases. Since neoliberal reforms accompanied or immediately followed processes of democratic transition, we will proceed by examining the challenge of democratic consolidation. Neoliberal economic policies and the deficit of democratic accountability set the stage for our next three topics: the emergence of anti-neoliberal protest, the rise of the indigenous movement, and new social movements (with a focus on the case of environmental politics), which are all key to understanding the rise of the new left. We will consider a range of explanations for the rise of left-wing parties at the national and local level. We conclude with a detailed look at how they have governed once in power: has the new left deepened democracy and reversed the long-standing patterns of socio-economic inequality that have historically marked the region?


Making and Unmaking Social Life

Social institutions such as gender, language, and nationality appear to us as fixed and objective realities rather than the emergent outcome of collective labor. Rather than reproduce this fetishized view, this course examines the making and unmaking of social life by analyzing the relationship between meaning and institutions. Specifically, we will investigate the conditions under which practices of meaning- making crystallize into predictable patterns of behavior and, alternately, the processes of re- signification, improvisation, and problematization that enable the transformation of those patterns. Over the course of the semester, we will critically interrogate the conceptual divides that dichotomize social life — structure and agency, objective and subjective, material and symbolic, macro and micro —  and learn how these categories are produced through meaningful social action. We will draw on an array of disciplinary approaches to orient our study, including sociology, anthropology, hermeneutic philosophy, literary theory, and political science from the 19th century to the present, reading select texts by Marx, Durkheim, Simmel, Weber, Foucault, Bourdieu, Taylor, Ricoeur, Geertz, Sahlins, Anderson, Butler, Silverstein, Glaeser, and Wedeen. We will challenge the conceptual architectures of social theory by bringing them into conversation with historical and ethnographic research. Conversely, the social theory texts we read will give us analytic leverage on the empirical studies, revealing unexplored facets or unexamined assumptions. Ultimately, we will ask: how can the study of meaning-making practices produce new theories about the world?