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UNITING THEORY AND PRACTICE IN THE ETHNOGRAPHY OF SOCIAL MOVEMENTS: NOTES

TOWARD A HOPEFUL REALISM


Author(s): John Burdick
Source: Dialectical Anthropology, Vol. 20, No. 3/4 (November 1995), pp. 361-385
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/29790412
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UNITING THEORY AND PRACTICE INTHE ETHNOGRAPHY
OF SOCIAL MOVEMENTS: NOTES TOWARD A HOPEFUL
REALISM

John Burdick

John Burdick isAssistant Professor ofAnthropology at Syracuse University, Syracuse,


New York.

The "return" to social movements

A generation ago, Richard Clemmer, writing in the pages of


Reinventing Anthropology, declared that a sustained commitment by
anthropologists to the study of organized popular attempts to bring
about social change would "provide anthropologywith a much more
balanced and useful body of theory."1 That was the year of Eric
Wolfs Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century? the following half
decade saw a flurry of related work on peasant organization and
rebellion, including thatof Stavenhagen,3Huizer,4 and Paige.5 Yet by
the late 1970s, although some anthropologists continued to till the
vineyard of peasant movements, Clemmer's call was fading, and
writers on grassroots political movements became easier to find in
sociology, political science, and history than in anthropology
departments. By the early 1980s, a variety of factors, including
anthropology's perennial penchant for the slow-moving and
microscopic, Foucault's pessimistic "power-is-everywhere" model,
and general skepticism as to the efficacy of organized popular action,
conspired to make "everyday" (unorganized, non-collective)
resistance, rather than collective struggles for social justice, a central
research focus of the discipline.6
The pendulum seems to be swinging back once again: the last ten
years have seen a growing number of high-quality works on social
movements.7 But it is a trend that is fragile, and in need of
consolidation. We lack edited volumes on the subject, and the little
work we do is not cited by sociologists. The key problem, I suggest,
is that the study of social movements remains in anthropology

Dialectical Anthropology20: 361-385, 1995.


? 1995Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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362

generally derivative from sociology. Consolidating the trend back


toward studying social movements calls, then, for a clarification of the
specific theoretical and practical contributions anthropology can make
to that study.This essay is an effort to outline what I take to be those
potential contributions.
First, theory.Theoretically, I will argue, anthropology can deepen
understanding of social movements by viewing them in lightof one of
thekey (postwar) insightsof our discipline: thatculture, rather than a
seamless whole, is best understood as an arena in which multiple,
differently empowered actors and groups generate and employ
discourses that compete with each other for dominance, while other
social groups perceive, know, and relate to those discourses inways
connected to their social position.8 The relevance of this view of
culture here is that it focuses our attention on a dimension of social
movements thathas been all too often glossed over by sociology,9 but
which is essential to understandingwhy movements grow and decline:
that is, the social and ideological heterogeneity of theirmobilized and
unmobilized constituencies. Indeed, I want to suggest that the power
of ethnography, anthropology's key methodology, lies precisely in its
ability to reveal and explore local patterns of social heterogeneity. By
exploring heterogeneity in the social composition, cultural practices,
and political positions of both mobilized and unmobilized social
movement constituencies, ethnography has thepotential to illuminate
theprocesses of the growth, shrinkage, rupture, and disintegration of
social movements.
Now practice. We cannot rest content with theorizing and
representing social movements. We need a vision that allows
ethnographic analyses of social movements to be useful tomovement
a
organizers themselves. In fashioning thisvision, I submit that linkage
already exists between understanding social movements as internally
heterogeneous and contested fields, andmaking a positive contribution
to social movement practice. That linkage is the realization that
a a
exploring heterogeneity and contestation is key step in revealing
social movement's potential fordynamism and change. In thehands of
can thus play a
sympathetic, committed critics, thiskind of analysis
useful role in theprocess of social movement evolution and growth.

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363

The obvious place to turnfor guidance in furtherclarifying the link


between analysis and practice is applied anthropology.The problem is
thatmost applied anthropologists have focused on ethnography's
relation to agency- or state-initiatedprojects of social change,10with
far less work devoted to how ethnographymight be of direct service
to grassroots social movements. The littlework thathas gone in this
direction has not posed what I take to be themore useful question:
might a social movement benefit from ethnographicwork that strove
to represent themovement to itself?Advocacy work, for example,
tends to use ethnography primarily to transmitknowledge of social
movements to outsiders.11Collaborative action research,12meanwhile,
has tended to maintain a fairly narrow purview, limiting itself to
improving specific tactics,while removing itselffrom debates about
composition and goals. And the participatory actionmethod of Fals
Borda and others,13 although potentially capable of serving as a means
of ongoing movement self-evaluation, has a strong stake in limiting
itselfto initiating social movements, then to "getting out of theway"
as soon as possible. What these approaches fail to explore is the extent
to which certain kinds of claims to ethnographic knowledge may be
able to help refinedebates and self-critiqueswithin social movements.
The writers who come closest towhat I have inmind are Gail Omvedt
and Faye Harrison,14 who have suggested in a fairlygeneral way that
ethnography can communicate tomovement leaders thevarious levels
of receptivity, both actual and potential, to theirmessage.
In the spirit of relating theory to practice, I organize this essay
around three practical puzzles thatpresented themselves to different
sets of leaders of social movement while I was engaged in fieldwork
inBrazil in 1987-1988. After identifyingthepuzzles, I will develop in
greater detail the analytical approach hinted at above, and suggest how
ithelps clarify them. I will thendiscuss my own effort to introduce
into the process the self-critique of social movements ethnographic
knowledge connected to one of thepuzzles. As I strove to negotiatemy
identityas committed critic, trickydilemmas emerged along my way,
and I do my best to give some sense of these. I do not, however, claim
to have negotiated these dilemmas "successfully." In fact, the account
may make me look like something of a muddler. All I can hope for is
that, submitted in good faith, the story I tellmay stimulate others to

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364

richer thoughtand discussion. I conclude by suggestinghow my views


may help relate the "everyday resistance" literatureto a larger project
of contributing to social change.

All SaintsDay

On All Saint's Day in 1987, two thousand people congregated in


frontof theCatholic Church of Duque de Caxias, a suburb of nearly
a million inhabitantsnear Rio de Janeiro.Bishop Dom Mauro Morelli
had put out a call to the hundred-odd grassroots Christian Base
Communities (CEBs) of thediocese to come thatday to demonstrate
against police violence. Ascending the dais and speaking through a
microphone, the bishop called upon the communities, inspired by the
example of Jesus' commitment to thepoor, to struggle for justice and
liberation. The crowd, made up primarily of poor, working-class
women, thundered applause.
This mobilization, like thousands of others throughoutBrazil and
Latin America, is an example of the Catholic social movement
variously referred to as the liberationistChurch, thePopular Pastoral,
or thePeople's Church. Conceived thirtyyears ago in thewomb of the
Second Vatican Council, thePeople's Church ismade up of hundreds
of thousands of working-class congregations, re-named
"communities," in which members, inspired in part by liberation
theology, have striven to intepretand apply theGospel as a call for
social justice and theempowerment of thepoor.15 Participants nurture
the values of fraternity, self-valorization, and the commitment to
struggle.The movement may thusbe regarded as an example of what
Melucci has called a "submerged network," a collectivity of people
linkedby common practices and values, such that,when circumstances
are rightand the call comes, theyare prepared to translate their latent
potential intomobilizations.16 And indeed, inpractice, theCEBs have
often mobilized in solidarity with labor and infrastructural
(neighborhood improvement) struggles.17
So far, I have been describing the liberationistCatholic movement
in its own dominant idiom as a triumphant tale of self-sacrificing
leaders and followers struggling to change theworld. This idiom is

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true?in part. I want to suggest, however, that significant counter


currents complicate this picture, and that the astute political activist
ignores these at themovement's peril.
Let me return to thatAll Saint's Day. I was chanting happily and
feeling a rush of excitement as the crowd roared its approval of
Morelli's discourse. At one point I went to get coffee at a littlebar.
"Great crowd!" I said to theman behind thecounter. "Not really," he
replied. "You should have been here a few years ago. They used to fill
this square with people. Now it's not even half full."
At the time I attributed this remark to a simple lack of political
sympathywith the liberationistChurch. A few days later, however,
when I mentioned the remark to a Catholic leader, she commented,
"Yes, isn't ita shame?"What did shemean, I asked? "How apathetic
people are." "But, Dona Maria," I insisted, "there were so many

people there!" "No, John,you haven't seen themarches to the square,


theway theyused to be, before Dom Mauro startedmaking everyone
do all this new stuff.You could hardly move." In themonths that
followed, I began to listenmore closely as insiders expressed concern
and bewilderment about thedecline of participation in theChurch since
the advent of the liberationistmodel. On theoutside, numerous people
confirmed they had ceased to participate since the innovations
introducedby Dom Mauro. This, then,was my firstpuzzle: why was
it that, as Brandao has put it, "The Church that theologians and
pastoral agents call 'a church that is being born of the people' is
strugglingwith great difficulty to be accepted by thepeople itself."18

The Brotherhood Campaign

A similar puzzle emerged when I turned to the Brazilian black


consciousness movement, in particular as manifested through the
liberationist Church. In the early 1980s, a group of self-identified
black priests, nuns and seminarians started to call upon clergy
throughoutBrazil to incorporateconsciousness-raising about race into
theirpastoral work. This project culminated in the late 1980s, when
the Association of Black Religious and Seminarians succeeded in
convincing the national bishops' conference to declare race relations

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theofficial themeof the 1988 Brotherhood Campaign, the three-month


long exercise, during the Easter cycle, of ritual, reading, and
reflection. (The yearmarked thehundreth anniversary of the aboliton
of slavery.)
Now here was the second puzzle: throughoutthe threemonths of the
Campaign, blacks?people who identified themselves as "negro"
before theCampaign?stayed away from it in droves. In orientation
meetings, pastoral agents called on Bible group leaders tomake a
special effort to invite their black neighbors. Yet in the several
communities I studied, the only blacks who attended regularlywere
those fewwho already participated in the community. The others who
visited the groups remained silent and soon desisted. Movement
organizers could do littlemore about this than lament "the low level
of consciousness" of local blacks.

The neighborhood association

The last puzzle involves a neighborhood association in which


members of theCatholic movement had, in 1986, become directors,
therebyexemplifying the ideal translationof "liberated" consciousness
into action. Yet after two years in office, a challenge to their
incumbency was mounted by local activists from the leftist Workers
Party. In the spring of 1988, the CEB directorate was defeated in a
widely attended election.What is significantabout this is not somuch
that a CEB directorate was defeated, but thatdozens of rank-and-file
as long as CEB
participants in the association who had been mobilized
leaders remained in the directorate, became demobilized as soon as
leadership passed into other hands?despite the fact that those "other
hands" were committed to a long-termvision of democracy and social
justice.

Approaching the puzzles

Current writing on social movements tends to assume thatthey strive


to mobilize whole constituencies?"women," "middle peasants,"
"cannery workers," and so on. Maria Teresa Findji, for instance,
refers to the indigenous rightsmovement of Colombia as mobilizing

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367

"communities," "theGuambiano people," "the indigenous people of


theCauca valley."19 The problem is that thispeculiar use of language
renders invisible the fact that in virtually all cases, themajority of
people who belong to a movement's potential constituency remain
unmobilized. The evidence for this is abundant. A recent study of a
seasonal workers'union in Chile found that only one out of five
workers were members.20 In a Mexican community large enough to
have a tourist industry,thewomen's movement could depend on only
ten to twentywomen.21 InMadrid in the late 1970s, only a littlemore
than one per cent of the population was involved in its neigborhood
associations.22 Such examples could be enumerated indefinitely,and
are no surprise to local organizers themselves,who confront the gap
between the mobilized and unmobilized segments of targeted
constituencies every day. How can one understand this gap in a way
thatmight lead tomore effectivemobilizing strategies?
A common answer, articulated primarily by movement leaders
themselves (but also by outsiders), is thatunmobilized constituencies
may be characterized by one or more "lacks" or "failures": for
example, fear, indifference, inertia, ignorance, false consciousness,
alienation, laziness, or failure to participate in local civic life.23All of
these terms do, of course, describe some aspect of the social and
political situation inwhich a movement develops. Fear, for example,
is certainly a real force capable of demobilizing people inmany
situations, especially those involving repression. At the same time, a
"laundry list" such as the one I have presented here has the distinct
feel of a second-order level of explanation, a series of re-descriptions
of more complex?if you will, "structural"?causes. For each item on
the list one may still reasonably ask: who tends to be more fearful,
more indifferent,more "ignorant," more "falsely conscious," more
peripheral to organizational networks? Posing the issue thisway also
improves political effectiveness, for it shifts the focus away from
individual toward collective patterns. And as soon as one does this,
one is ready to pose thehighly constructivepolitical question: not why
do people fail to come to themovement; but why is themovement
failing to reachmore people?
The ability of ethnography to capture social and ideological
heterogeneity both outside and inside social movements, I want to

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suggest, goes a long way toward answering this question. We must


begin by regarding the constituency targetedby the social movement
as composed of a series of sub-constituencies,each with specific needs,
experiences, interpretationsof the struggleat hand, and understandings
of the leadership's framingof that struggle.Knowledge of thenature
and scope of the sub-constituencies can only emerge through
fieldwork,but certainly one would want to be alert to such sources of
differentiation as age, generation, gender, racial or ethnic self
identifications, class, and so on.
In this way, non-participation amongst themovement's general
constituency may be conceived in terms of the extent to which the
movement's framingof theproblem includes the experiences of some
sub-constituencies while marginalizing those of others.24 Angela
Davis's remarks on the antirapemovement illustratesthiscrucial point:
"[T]he failure of the antirapemovement of the early 1970s," she has
observed, "to develop an analysis of rape thatacknowledged the social
conditions thatfoster sexual violence as well as the centralityof racism
indetermining those social conditions, resulted in the initial reluctance
of Black, Latina, and Native American women to involve themselves
"25
in thatmovement.
This perspective on social movements defines a new research
strategy.Rather thandevote oneself primarily to interviewingpeople
who already are actively committed to themovement,26 it becomes
essential to interviewpeople whom the social movement would like to
mobilize, but has not. The voices, visions, understandings, emotions
and experiences of such people must not be glossed over or explained
away with facile labels such as "false conciousness," nor cast into that
vast homogenizing category of "fear." For as soon as we do either of
these things,we rob ourselves and themovement of precisely thekind
of nuanced understanding necessary to deepen mobilizing, outreach,
and coalition-building efforts.
Neglect by researchers of heterogeneity within targeted
constituencies is paralleled by an avoidance of differentiationamong
thatpart of the constituency that is actuallymobilized. This avoidance
is clear in one of the chief current sociological definitions of a social
movement as a collectivity of actors "sharing the same beliefs and
sense of belongingness."27 Startingwith definitions such as this, it is

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not surprising that,as Douglas McCadam has recentlyadmitted, "very


little research attentionhas been paid to differences between activists
witin the same movement."28 But in fact no matter how seemingly
compelling the movement's ideology, it rarely if ever creates a
perfectly consensual group. Social movement ideologies might be
understood as fields of meaning, which different sub-constituencies
appropriate, interpretand reshape in theirown ways. Becoming aware
of this is crucial to understanding variations in behavior among
movement participants. In particular, itoffers clues as towhy under
some conditions some people desist from socialmovement participation
altogether. Furthermore, developing a richer sense of the diversity
within themovement helps clarify thedirections inwhich movement
discourse, "framings" and objectives are moving. As Tarrow has
noted, "new frames ofmeaning resultfrom the strugglesovermeaning
within social movements."29
Now letme returnto thepuzzles, and see how theperspective I have
just sketched out may help observers both within and outside the
movement to grasp them better.

Applying the approach

Understanding thedecline inparticipation in the liberationistChurch


is a complex matter, involving a range of factors.Generally thedecline
has been attributed to external forces: Protestant competition, the
shiftingpolicy of theVatican, and redemocratization.30 Indeed these
forces have been powerful shapers of the liberationist
Catholics'environment. Yet external forces such as these have
influenced thewaxing and waning of themovement at least inpart by
reinforcingpreexisting, internalprocesses of attrition.To get at some
of these processes, it is essential to speak to people who either once
participated and then left,or who express thedesire to participate, but
do not.

Many scholars, impressed by theCEBs'renewed emphasis on the


Bible, have argued that this emphasis appeals powerfully to thepoor
because itempowers them.31 What this intepretationneglects is that in
practice this emphasis shifts authority and status among non
leaders?for the Catholic arena, in an unprecedented fashion?to

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literatepeople. With the liberationistChurch, printedmatter began to


flood intopoor communities, and thosewho read and spoke haltingly
began to be assigned a dependent, second-rate status. In a fairly
common pattern, a less-than literatewoman distanced herself from the
Church once reading became a central activity. "There in thegroups,"
she said, "they only like people who can respond prettily, according
towhat's written there in theirbooks. They no longer value faith, just
reading."
The new Church model has also made it increasingly difficult for
people with heavy and inflexible labor schedules to participate. The
ideology of thenew Church demands a level of participation formerly
confined to leaders. Now to be a good Catholic means attending
numerous pastoral, catechism, and Bible-circle meetings each week.
Interviews with non-participants revealed thatmany women who
wished to participate at a low level were discouraged from
participating at all. Many of thesewere women who worked outside
thehome, and youngerwomen with small children, two social clusters
hard-pressed to participate at the level expected by liberation ideology.
Furthermore, I spoke with men who, due to overtime, second jobs,
night-time shifts,or Sunday work, were obliged to participate at a low
level and consequently were discouraged by full-timeparticipantsfrom
attending any activities at all.
A further component in the decline in participation has been the
more general failure of the new liberationist discourse to address
women's issues, inparticular theproblem of domestic conflict.As one
pastoral agent explained, "if there's somethingwrong at home, it's
because the husband is unemployed. But why is he unemployed?
That's thequestion we want people to thinkabout." "Consciousness"
in this view means an understanding, not of inequality in the
household, but rather of the extradomestic realm of "politics and
one ex-participant complained, "they say 'struggle,
production."32 As
struggle, struggle!' But they mean unions, and neighborhood
associations, and political parties, things like that.But I struggle here
inmy own home every day. They don't speak about that."
What about the Brotherhood Campaign? The leaders of the
movement had their own explanations for the low level of black
were simply "too alienated;"
participation. Non-participating blacks

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they had been brainwashed into believing Brazil's myth of racial


democracy; theywere afraid of repercussions. In thisview, therewas
no need to change tactics or strategyin order to reach them; itwas up
to them, in an act of courage, to come join themovement.
Over the course of the Campaign's threemonths, and beyond, I
carried out long ethnographic interviews with at least thirtynon
participating blacks, tryingtounderstand the range of theirreasons for
remaining unmobilized. To make a rather long, complex story short,
the more I spoke with black non-participants, themore I became
skeptical that simple inertia, or subservience, or a generic acceptance
of the "mythof racial democracy" could adequately account for their
lack of participation. Indeed, again and again people toldme they
agreed with much of what theCampaign was saying, and had in fact
held these beliefs for a long time. It also became clear that a simple
networkmodel had limitedexplanatory power: thesemen and women
were neighbors, friends, even close relatives of participants. In
general, theywere not as tightly tied to the institutionalChurch as
those (few) blacks who did participate; but to point to this fact as the
primary factor in their behavior turned them into one-dimensional
actors, glossing over theirown complex understandingsof theiraction.
A key pattern among non-participants was the choice not to
participate because ofwhat theyperceived as problems internal to the
Campaign itself. Three principal sets of concerns emerged,
corresponding to three prospective sub-constituencies of the
Brotherhood Campaign. First, because theCampaign was carried out
by preexisting CEB institutions,such as theBible reflectiongroups, it
is not surprising that a large proportion of the participants were the
usual white and light-skinnedmulato participants in those institutions.
Indeed, several black informants cited the racial makeup of the
Brotherhood Campaign as a key to theirnon-participation. One black
woman startedattendingmeetings and then stopped. How, she asked,
was she to be expected to listen towhites'claims to fraternalfeelings
in the groups, but "you pass one of them on the street, theywon't
greet you?"
Secondly, the leaders of theCampaign tended,not surprisingly,not
to be black themselves, but rather lighter-skinned mulattoes.
Mulattoes, given greater opportunities than their darker-skinned

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brothers and sisters, had achieved positions of power in theChurch,


but thenoften found themselves treatedas second-class citizens within
it. These men and women now expected to return to their black
identities in the role of leader. One black resented mulato leaders'
efforts to claim "a common culture" with him. "Look," he said,
"mulatos have always tried to run away from us. How could theyhave
our culture?" Another commented, "We don't feel at ease among
them, themovement is just thesemulatos . . . [who] still thinktheyare
better than us. They think the black still needs to look to them as
masters."

Finally, many blacks had no sympathywith the effort to introduce


"Africanisms" into theCatholic liturgy.Some feared theChurch was
trying to taint them, reminding everyone of their stereotyped
association with what was generally regarded as Devil-worship. One
black woman noted: "that sent a shiver, a fear that in themidst of us,
everythingwas going to startover, thattherewould be a vicious circle,
thatwe were all going to turn intomacumbeiros ,"33For ex-umbanda
practitioners, "Africanisms" represented an evil theyhad just escaped.
"They don't understand," one woman observed, "thatyou can't start
so easily, because you'll never see the end of it." Current practitioners
of umbanda, meanwhile, expressed a deep mistrust of theChurch's
new liberality; some even saw itas a snare to get them to come out of
the closet.

What, finally,of the storyof thedemobilization of theneighborhood


associations? By looking for internal heterogeneity, I found that a
sizeable contingent of participants in the local CEB were relatively
economically stable men and women who had been active in the
Church before the arrival of liberationist discourse. Such people, it
turned out, tended to interpret "liberation" not as this-worldly
emancipation, but as thepractice of charity and the seeking of other?
worldly salvation. "Struggling," one woman explained, "means
helping others.We in theChurch have always done this. I understand
the new Church thisway: helping others outmore, helping a hungry
person, giving to theperson who needs medicine, or a friendlyword,
sometimes there's a sad person, depressed: you smile at them, give
them a word."

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373

When such Catholics participated in theneighborhood association,


their option was rooted less in a self-conscious effort to realize the
liberationistproject than in thedesire to extend the traditionalCatholic
project of charity.One non-leading Catholic inher late forties said the
neighborhood association was "not a socialmovement" but ratherwas
"the same thing as our charity work." When I asked her why she
participated in the association, she replied, "it's the Church that's
doing it. I go because they announce it inChurch. I am a member of
theChurch." This kind of testimonyhelps us, I think, to understand
better the relative fragility of some CEB members'activist
commitment. As long as these CEB members view neighborhood
organizations as primarily a "Church activity," theyhave littlereason
to remain in them as soon as the activities are no longer under the
control of theChurch.

Translating knowledge claims into practice

I want now to offer an analysis ofmy own practice, as I strove to


introduce thekind of knowledge claims just discussed into theprocess
ofmovement self-evaluation. The model that seems to be implied in
my "praxis" is that of "anthropologist as bringer of bad news." A
more analyticway of puttingmy view is that the ethnographer is in a
position to serve as a conduit and representerof a range of stances and
sentimentsabout themovement, thatotherwisemight remain obscure
to themovement's leaders andmembers themselves.Representing such
ranges may help, among other things, to corrode facile dismissals of
non-participants as simply "lazy," "ignorant," or "fearful," and
contribute to greater awareness of thekinds of obstacles themovement
may itselfbe placing in the path ofmore effectivemobilization of its
own targetedconstituencies. The effortto represent is never politically
neutral, especially inside themovement itself. In any kind of research
setting, discussing ethnographic findings with subjects requires the
ethnographer to consider his or her own sympathies with one or
another faction at work in the studied situation. These issues become
especially acute in highly politicized settings.

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Relativizing the ethnographer's voice

I presentedmyself to all movement activists as the person I was: an


outsider deeply committed to their struggles for greater social justice
and equality. This commitment, I explained, emerged frommy own
longtime involvement in the U.S./Latin American solidarity
movement. I hoped, I told them, not only thatmy work would be
directly useful to them, but also to other researchers and social
movement activists. They were well aware thatthework was inpartial
completion of a university degree.
There were two key elements inmy approach to the activists. The
first was an imperfect, rough, but sustained commitment to be as
explicit as I could about what I took to be the nature and role ofmy
"voice" in relation to movement activity. My structural privilege
allowed me, I said, to carry the storyof the radical Catholic movement
to theUnited States, and made itpossible forme to try to contribute
to the process of social movements benefitting internationally from
each other's experiences. (I was ready to point to this "greater good"
ifany activist had insistedmy findings remain under exclusive control
of the movement. None ever did.) At the same time, I let my
interlocutors know in every conversation that I regarded my
observations and collations of others' testimonies as eminently
contestable, and invited themconstantly to challenge my intepretations
with their own counter-arguments, based upon theirown?obviously
inmany ways deeper?local knowledge.
What I leftunstatedwas my own awareness thatI was never dealing
with "activists" as an ideologically or socially unified group, but rather
was faced, as in any political situation, with an array of stances,
positions, and orientations. Just as I urged my interlocutors to
challenge me, then, I always allowed myself to interpretthe talk of
activists in light of my best reading of their particular political
situation.Consequently I always remained critical of both criticism and
approval ofmy own interpretations.
To illustrate, I will focus on the specific example of the 1988
Brotherhood Campaign. The activists generally aligned with one or the
other of two chief political factions. On the one hand, themost vocal
and articulate grouping within theAssociation of Black Seminarians

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was what I will call "the radicals." They argued that theCampaign
should be regarded as an all-out effort to instill views quickly and
clearly that they identified as the highest possible level of
consciousness about race relations inBrazil. The other faction,which
I will call the "moderates," while agreeing about ultimate ends, had
reservations about means. This was a group which had in common,
among other things, a history of participation in theWorker's Party.
In contrast to the radicals, they entertained doubts about how
confrontational theCampaign should be, whether, for example, some
language might alienate more than teach, whether theywere asking
people to move too fast, and so on.
An important flashpoint of this concern was this faction's
reservation about introducing theAfro-mass into theCatholic liturgy.
The radicals argued thatAfro-Brazilian religion should be legitimated
by calling upon parishioners to dance in church and sing toAfrican
gods. The moderates averred that layCatholics were not ready for this.
The radicals replied that itwas precisely thepresumption that "people
were not ready" that perpetuated an alienated, false consciousness
among blacks. Black Catholics, the radicals claimed, would respond
to thenew liturgy,would feel "their spirit" finallyaccepted inChurch,
and would return to it, away from other religions, such as
pentecostalism and umbanda which, afterall, recognized theirneed to
dance and sing.

The contexts and the political meaning of ethnography

While learning of this internal debate, I was also carrying out


interviewswith non-participants in theCampaign. At the end of each
interview, I asked for permission to pass on to the leaders of the
movement the main points of our discussion. The response was
emphatic and unanimous: the "people of Church" should hear about
these things?that is, about the range of opinion discussed above.
Let me now turn to the concrete contexts in which I tried to
introduce the informationI learned frommy informantsinto the local
political process. The first andmost common contextwas the informal
one-on-one or small-group conversationwith leaders. These talkswere
frequent, taking place at the height of theCampaign virtually every

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day, in a host of informal settings.When my interlocutorsbelonged to


the "moderates," my comments were rarely challenged or contested.
Many moderates nodded in apparent recognition ofwhat I was finding,
and some even retold stories of their own personal encounters with
non-participants that, they said, theyhad not fullyunderstood until our
present conversation. Moderates could not, however, accept as
legitimate the complaint thatmulatos dominated leadership roles. This,
they toldme, was a misunderstanding on my part; I had spoken to
some curmudgeon who wanted tomake trouble; whoever said this
didn't know themovement well enough; and so on. These counter?
arguments helped me refinemy interview schedule and expand the
number of people I spoke to. Yet I also found it significant thatwhile
theycould accept criticism levelled at thewhites, and at Africanisms,
the issue of mulato identitypresented an absolute barrier for them.
As I spoke tomoderates, I realized theyaccepted most readily those
of my remarks that helped them build a sturdier critique of the
radicals. This was fine with me, for I foundmyself, at least at times,
feeling quite clear about my greater sympathy with the
moderates?which generally accorded withmy own philosophy of step
by-step, processual pedagogy. At the same time, I was always
ambivalent about these conversations, because I could never be certain
about how my own views would be re-shaped, re-used, and re?
presented by them. I had switched from the role of ethnographer to
informant,with all the loss of control over my words and ideas that
entailed.
Resistance to what I was reportingwas, not surprisingly, greater
among the radicals. Inmy one-on-ones or small group discussions with
them,much of what I had to saywas simply dismissed out of hand, as
revealing no more than thedepth of alienation and false consciousness
on the part of themass of Brazilian blacks; or sometimes peppered
a comment
(especially if I referred to the mulato issue) with
on the subject at all.
questioning my right,authorityor ability to speak
Challenges of this sort were extremely painful tome, and continue
are
today to provoke me to questionmy own motives and rights.These
far from resolved issues. At the same time,what struckme was how
my authority/right was only brought intoquestion when what I had to
say was, at least at first glance, unwelcome. Returning for a moment

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to themoderates: theyhad no troublewith my authority?built, one of


them said, from the fact that I had "spoken to so many
people"?except when I reported to them theconcerns of some people
about mulatos. Then my authority vanished. I point this out, not to
reinforcemy own claim to authority (although,undoubtedly, I am also
doing that), but to underline how the issue of my right to speak
authoritativelywas itselfalways politically constructed.
At the same time, the resistance of the radicals had an important
impact on me: it forcedme to ask even tougher questions about my
method: was I speaking to too few people? Was my sample too self
selecting?Was I influencingmy interlocutors in some way to say
things I wanted to hear? Was I giving too great a weight to spoken
discourse? The answer to all of these questions?as is inevitable in
fieldwork?was "of course." The radicals keptme, somemight say,
on my methodological toes. Yet to some extent, at least in
conversations with me, I knew that little I could say would satisfy
them. I had a growing certainty that,ultimately,whatever I brought to
themwould be either fitted in or excluded from a hermetically sealed
explanatory framework.
Yet therewere moments when I felt I had penetrated the armor. In
one case, I was recounting to a radical how a number of people who
worshipped Anastasia, an eighteenth-centuryslave saint, believed that
she had not been born a queen inAfrica, as theCampaign portrayed
her, but rather that she had been born inBrazil, a simple, non-royal,
poor slave. "You see how theycannot conceive of a black as a king or
queen?" he responded. "You see how little they respect themselves?"
Then I remembered how one ofmy informantshad spoken resentfully
of the Campaign's insistence thatAnastasia be of royal blood. I
reportedhis words: "You know what he said?" I asked. "Why do they
say she was royal? Do theymean thatonly those of royal blood have
thewill to resist?Can itbe thatwe should respectAnastasia only if she
were a queen?" My interlocutor fell silent for a moment. "He said
that?" "Yes." "That," he concluded, "is interesting." Our
conversation then turned to other things.
Naturally, I sometimes foundmyself in small-group discussions that
included bothmoderates and radicals. The dynamic of thesemeetings
became clear early on, and indeed became an importantpiece of

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evidence about the overall balance between moderates and radicals in


the Association of Black Seminarians. In such meetings, while
remaining fairlyundemonstrative, themoderates through subtleword
and gesture would assent to the significance of what I was saying; in
one case, a moderate ventured, "I thinkwe should know more about
this." In another case, a moderate referred in debate tomy findings as
supportinghis call to desist from asking followers to sing inChurch.
In effect,while I was farfrom providing ammunition for an overthrow
of the radicals (something I had no desire to do anyway), I was
offeringmoderates empirical grounds to call for a reassessment of
mobilizing methods.
Up to this point I have been focusing on small, informalmeetings
because thosewere the ones thatmade up my everyday world. I also
participated, however, in a series of largermeetings with movement
leaders, which I found frustrating.The subtle process of posturing and
self-silencing at work in small-group meetings became quite
pronounced in the large ones. I also noticed that in larger groups I
tended to become more resistant to self-critique, partly because it
seemed in such settings that I was up against pure ideology, partly
because I was afraid to lose face by admitting thatmy interpretations
could be so easily revised.
There was an important exception to the overall greater rigidity
associated with public contexts. I had had several private conversations
with an especially respected radical, who for reasons thatmay ormay
not have included those conversations, had begun to entertaindoubts
about the wisdom of mentioning African gods in Church. In an
evaluation when I volunteered some observations about non
meeting,
participation in a nearby town, thisman repeated it and acknowledged
that,yes, there seemed to be a problem over there.He had, it seems,
been seaching for an opportunity for rapprochement with the
moderates, and I, the outsider, had provided it.34
There are two last face-to-face contexts to comment on, if only
briefly. These were contexts inwhich I deliberately refrainedfrom
repeating any of the remarks I was hearing frommy non-participating
informants. The activists had not requested that I remain silent; I
simply did. They were, first, conversations with local non-black
outsiders. In this context, I keptmy silence because I did not want to

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reinforce any possible negative interpretationtheymight have been


forming of the movement. I also remained quiet in all-member
assessment meetings, where not only leaders, but also participants
were present. It seemed tome thatI was walking a fineenough line in
communicating with leaders; and that itwould be up to that grand
abstraction, thepolitical process, to transmitwhatever I was learning
to non-leaders. To this day I continue to feel uncertain about this
judgment,which smacks of elitism and paternalism. It is an especially
troublingjudgment because at one point I published some ofmy views
in a small Rio-based reseach instituteconnected to the radical Catholic
Church. My (excruciating) assumption was that thispublication was
sufficientlyremoved from the locale thatno one, except the leaders to
whom I passed italong, would read it.At the same time,making this
judgment drove home to me once again the inevitability that any
judgment Imade, one way or another,would embodymy own political
stance.

Where do we go from here?

In this essay I have argued that a perspective that views social


movements and their constituencies as social fields characterized by
social and ideological heterogeneity can advance both understanding
and political action. Let me conclude by suggesting how itmight also
contribute to moving the whole "resistance" literature to a more
fruitfulplane.
Great potential lies inworking toward an interdisciplinarysynthesis
of the resistance literature with the best in recent sociological
theorizing on social movements.35 Arturo Escobar's view, in
particular, is that the anthropologist is well-situated to explore how
specific "cultural practices/texts" are related to the redistributionof
social power,36 and, by implication, theextent towhich such practices
can serve as a kind of resource or springboard for community
organizing and collective action. Escobar points, as an example, to
Orin Starn's work on peasant rondas in highland Peru.37 There,
peasants have appropriated and reshaped a traditional social
form?crews of local vigilante enforcers?to grapple with the growing
need to fight theftand resolve local disputes. In its renovated form, the

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ronda has, in turn,become an arena inwhich peasants have been able


to empower themselves and practice popular democracy. In the longer
run, organizations such as the rondas have often entered into regional
or national coordinating projects. Voila! Everyday resistance has
become a social movement.

Naturally I find such analysis appealing. At the same time, I remain


skeptical of any project that involves placing popular practices on a
scale of inherent liberatorypotential, as long as the actors who enact
and intrepretthepopular practice at the local level remain themselves
socially heterogeneous. Any given practice?such as the rondas?is
undoubtedly subject to a range of understandings, each embodying a
particular politico-ideological stance. These stances may include not
only being swept up into themovement, but also remaining indifferent
or rejecting it.At firstglance, a ronda may appear the very ideal of
local autonomy and empowerment.Whom, however, does it exclude?
Who remainsmarginalized from it, and why? Do men and women, old
and young, better-offand less well-off peasants experience the rondas
in differentways?
To his credit, Starn has himself engaged in asking such tough, de
romanticizing questions. There are questions thatmust be made central
to the ethnographic analysis and practice of social movements because
they allow us to begin to understand popular practices and the
movements with which theyarticulate at a number of different levels.
At themost local level, the analysis of heteogeneity allows us to begin
grappling with how a movement's internalvariations and exclusions
are rooted in popular practices and in themeanings these carry from
thepast.Who, for example, stays away from the ronda because of its
past association with settling vendettas? Such an analysis allows us,
too, to startdistinguishing, in the stratigraphyof a movement, more
recent layers ofmeaning accreted by current struggles and conflicts.
Have some rondas, due perhaps to new pressures from women, begun
to create more space for them? How soon will it be before that
innovation is presented as if ithad always existed?
At a more general level, paying attention to the heterogeneous
meanings of a popular practice forces into the open a key question: to
what extent should participation in themovement under study be
regarded as privileged action, in contrast to involvement in a variety

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of non-movement social practices? This is, of course, the question of


everyday versus non-everyday resistance to oppression and power.
Which woman is engaged inmore "liberatory" action, the one who
attends a (non-everyday?) grassroots neighborhood association or the
one who attends a (everyday?) pentecostal church? The former chips
away a littleat thepower ofmunicipal officials to neglect theirduty;
the latter chips away at the power of her husband to dominate her.
How does one go about comparing the "historicities" of these two
activities?38
As posed, thequestion is undoubtedly off themark. For thewhole
discussion of either everyday or organized resistance tends to reduce
action to one-dimensional gestures, and human beings to one
dimensional actors. Every act, of course, has multiple dimensions; and
every person is engaged inmultiple arenas of action. The path toward
a richer,more humane understanding of social movements and praxis
lies in recuperating, and seeking to represent, the complex arenas of
action, themultiple tracks, as itwere, on which people run theirlives.
Ultimately, it cannot be a question of choosing between organized or
non-organized resistance. It is not, I submit, even just a question of
showing how non-organized resistance eventuates into organized
resistance. In the long run, our taskmust be to recuperate all forms of
social action in a given arena, to reveal how the various forms are
related (or unrelated!) to each other, and what kinds of short-and long
termpolitical consequences flow from each form of action.
Thomas Kuhn once asked, What does theworld have to be like in
order forhumanity to know it?39The question remains pertinenttoday,
despite the dismissive argument from some quarters that theworld is
inherentlyunknowable. To Thomas Kuhn's question, I would append
another:What does theworld have to be like in order for humanity to
transformit?This pair of questions remains, I submit, thegreat agenda
for thehuman sciences as we enter the twenty-first century. If people
immersed in local knowledge cannot comment in an illuminatingway
on this agenda, nobody can.

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Notes

1. Richard Clemmer, "Resistance and Revitalization of Anthropologists: A New


Perspective on Cultural Change and Resistance," in Dell Hymes, ed.,
Reinventing Anthropology (New York: Random House, 1969), p. 243.
2. Eric Wolf, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper and
Row, 1969).
3. Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Social Classes inAgrarian Societies (Garden City:
Anchor Books, 1975).
4. Gerrit Huizer, Peasant Rebellion in Latin America (Harmondsworth:
Penguin, 1973).
5. Jeffery Paige, Agrarian Revolution: Social Movements and Export
Agriculture in the Underdeveloped World (New York: Free Press, 1973).
6. For example, Aihwa Ong, Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987); Michael Taussig, The
Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1980); Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism,
and theWild Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); James
Scott, Weapons of theWeak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); James Scott, Domination and theArt
of Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).
7. Orin Stara, "'I Dreamed of Foxes and Hawks': Reflections on Peasant
Protest, New Social Movements and theRondos Campesinas of Northern
Peru," inA. Escobar and S. Alvarez, eds., The Making of Social Movements
in Latin America (Boulder: Westview, 1992a) pp. 62-58; JulieM. Peteet,
Gender in Crisis: Women and the Palestinian Resistance Movement (New
York: Columbia, 1991); Karen B. Sacks, Caring by theHour (Urbana:
University of Illinois, 1988); Faye Ginsberg, Contested Lives (Berkeley,
University of California Press, 1989); Carlos G.Velez-Ibanez, Rituals of
Marginality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Gail
Landsman, Sovereignty and Symbol: Indian-White Conflict at Ganienkeh
(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988); Louise Krasniewicz,
Nuclear Summer: The Clash of Communities at the Seneca Women's Peace
Encampment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992); Arturo Escobar,
"Culture, Economics, and Politics in Latin American Social Movements
Theory and Research," In A. Escobar and S. Alvarez, eds., The Making of
Social Movements inLatin America (Boulder: Westview, 1992a)pp. 62-58.
8. Although the figures usually connected with this view are Michel Foucault,
Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1980), and Mikhail Bakhtin,
Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press,
1986), we must not foreget thatanthropology has carried on a critique of the
holistic culture concept for at least the past two generations. For example,
Roger Keesing "Kwaio Women Speak: The Micropolitics of Autobiography
in a Solomon Island Society," inAmerican Anthropologist, Vol. 87, No. 1

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383

(1985), pp. 27-39; Roger Keesing, "Anthropology as InterpretiveQuest," in


Current Anthropology 28 (1987), pp. 161-176; Roger Keesing, "Theories of
Culture Revisited," in R. Borofsky, ed., Assessing Cultural Anthropology
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), pp. 331-347; Andrew Vayda, "Actions,
Variations, and Change: The Emerging Anti-Essentialist View in
Anthropology," inR. Borofsky, ed., Assessing Cultural Anthropology., pp.
320-329.
9. Steven M. Buechler, Women's Movements in the United States (New
Brunswick: Rutgers, 1990).
10. John Van Willigen, Applied Anthropology: An Introduction (So. Hadley,
MA: Bergin and Garvey, 1986); Wayne Warry, "The Eleventh Thesis:
Applied Anthropology as Praxis," inHuman Organization, Vol. 52, No. 2
(1992), pp. 155-163; Arturo Escobar, "Anthropology and theDevelopment
Encounter: The Making and Marketing of Development Anthropology," in
American Ethnologist (1991), pp. 658-682.
11. For example, Gerrit Huizer, Peasant Rebellion in Latin America
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973); Sheraa Beger Gluck, Advocacy Oral
History: Palestinian Women in Resistance," in Sherna Gluck and Daphne
Patai, eds., Women's Words (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 205-220;
Edmund T. Gordon, "Anthropology and Liberation," inFaye V. Harrison,
ed., Decolonizing Anthropology (Washington, D.C.: American
Anthropological Association, 1991).
12. For example, W. K. Barger and Ernesto Reza, "Community Action and
Social Adaptation: The Farmworker Movement in theMidwest," inDonald
D. Stull and Jean J. Schensul, eds., Collaborative Research and Social
Change: Applied Anthropology inAction (Boulder: Westview, 1987) pp. 55
76.
13. Orlando Fals-Borda, "The Application of Participatory Action-Research in
Latin America, in International Sociology Vol. 4 (1987), pp. 329-347; Alain
Touraine, The Return of theActor (Minneapolis: University ofMinnesota
Press, 1988).
14. Gail Omvedt, "On the Participant Study of Women's Movements:
Methodological, Definitional, and Action Considerations," inGerrit Huizer
and Bruce Manheim, eds., The Politics of Anthropology (The Hague:
Mouton, 1979), pp. 373-394; Faye V. Harrison, "Anthropology as Politics,"
in Faye V. Harrison, ed., Decolonizing Anthropology.
15. See Daniel Levine, Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
16. See Alberto Melucci, "The Symbolic Challenge of Contemporary
Movements," in Social Research, Vol. 52 (1985), pp. 781-816.
17. See Ana Maria Doimo, Movimento social urbano: igreia e participacao
popular Ipetropolis: Vozes, 1984); ScottMainwaring, The Catholic Church
and Politics in Brazil, 1916-1985 (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
1986); Edward L. Cleary and Hannah Stewart-Gambino, eds., Conflict and
Competition (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1992).

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384

18. Carlos Rodrigues Brandao, "Crenca e identidade: campo religioso e mudanca


cultural" (unpublished manuscript, 1988).
19. Maria Teresa Findji, "From Resistance to Social Movement" The Indigenous
Authorities Movement inColombia," inThe Making of Social Movements in
Latin America, pp. 112-133.
20. Lynn Stephen, "Challenging Gender Inequality: Grassroots Organizing
among Women Rural Workers in Brazil and Chile," in Critique of
Anthropology, Vol. 13, No. 1 (1993), pp. 35-55.
21. JoAnn Martin, "Motherhood and Power: The Production of a Women's
Culture inPolitics in a Mexican Community," inAmerican Ethnologist, Vol.
17, No. 3 (1990), pp. 470-490.
22. Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1983).
23. Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1965); Douglas McAdam, "Social Movements," inNeil J.
Smelser, ed., Handbook of Sociology (Sage, 1992), pp. 695-737.
24. David A. Snow and Robert D. Benford, "Ideology, Frame Resonance, and
Participant Mobilization," in Bert Klandermans et al. eds., International
Social Movement Research, Vol. 1 (1988), pp. 197-218.
25. Angela Davis, "We Do Not Consent," inAngela Davis, Women, Culture and
Politics (New York: Random House, 1989).
26. Laura Woliver, From Outrage to Action (Urbana: University of Illinois
Press, 1993).
27. Mario Diani, "The Concept of the Social Movement," in The Sociological
Review (1992), pp. 2-23.
28. McAdam, "Social Movements," p. 1212; Beuchler, Women's Movements in
the United States.
29. Sidney Tarrow, Mentalities, Political Cultures, and Collective Action
Frames: Constructing Meanings throughAction," inAldon D. Morris and
Carol McLurg Mueller, eds., Frontiers in Social Movement Theory (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 197.
30. See, for example, Cleary and Stewart Gambino, Conflict and Competition.
31. Levine, Popular Voices.
32. Sonia Alvarez, Engendering Democracy in Brazil (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1990), p. 65.
33. Delmos J. Jones, in his well-known article, "Toward a Native

Anthropology," inHuman Organization, Vol. 29 (1970), pp. 251-259,


alerted us to the possibility that neither "insiders" nor "outsiders" could
claim inherent superiorityof theirethnographic representations. I would add
that there are contexts in which the very status of outside purveyor of
ethnographic claims is precisely what insiders need to get their own political
work done.

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385

34. Sociologists have finally begun to recognize the importance of situating social
movement discourse in relation to preexisting popular worldviews and social
relations (for example, Snow and Benford, Ideology, "Frame Resonance and
Participant Mobilization."
35. Escobar, "Culture, Economics and Politics in Latin American Social
Movements," p. 77.
36. Orin Starn, "Rethinking the Politics of Anthropology: The Case of the
Andes" (1994), in press.
37. Touraine, The Return of theActor.
38. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: Chicago
University Press, 1962).

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