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Brazilian academics, once known for their fierce criticism of the state and Brazilian politics, now express tempered optimism. This post explores the dual role of social scientist and nation-builder. 

This is the second post in a series about framework and positionality when researching or working in Rio de Janeiro’s favels. The introductory post presented a conflict between community-activists from different NGOs and a Brazilian researcher whose current research project evaluates the new process of ‘securing’ Rio’s favelas through military invasion and occupation followed by the installment of a heavily armed community police force, the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP). While the researcher presented analysis that positively evaluated a new state security paradigm, the activists incredulously responded with a scathing critique of a state-led militarization of favelas social space.

In this post, I want to further explore the perspectives of local researchers in Rio de Janeiro. I am interested in what seems to indicate a shift in the tone of some social scientists. Many of the researchers who are now positively evaluating the favela-integration programs were once intensely critical of the state as an instrument of socioeconomic inequality. Almost universally, the academic and political left requires suspicion of the state and its various institutions. Indeed many left-leaning academics from the global north are already scrutinizing the push for liberty through security in Rio de Janeiro as a political spectacle prior to the upcoming FIFA Men’s World Cup and Summer Olympics. So how do we then explain the optimism expressed by those from whom we would normally expect skepticism?

In 2010 I attended a seminar-lecture by Marco Antonio da Silva Mello and Neiva Viera da Cunha at the University of Buenos Aires. Both are researchers at the Le Metro–Laboratório de Etnografía Metropolitana (Laboratory of Metropolitan Ethnography) in Rio de Janeiro. They were presenting an overview of new research in Rio’s favelas to their Argentine counterparts, and their analysis was unabashedly optimistic. More important than their data or conclusions in this conversation is that optimism: where does it come from? For whom are they optimistic? When they spoke of the integration of the favelas, they spoke of progress. It was as if they spoke of nation building rescaled to the metropolitan area. To an audience of Argentine anthropologists and sociologists, many of whom are involved in debates concerning Buenos Aires’ own slum-settlements (commonly referred to as villas, or villas miserables), they shared knowledge about how to make a better, more equitable city. This implies that the researchers share a vision with the state, a shared ideology with clear objectives and methodology.

I do not mean to criticize these ‘native ethnographers’ from Rio; rather I seek to make explicit their positionality as researchers. Returning to questions of optimism, we may be certain of their concern for the rights and wellbeing of those carioca citizens who live in Rio’s favelas. But beyond abstract liberal ideals, these two ethnographers, and the UERJ sociologist referenced in my last post, are indeed participating in a form of urban nation building.

The celebrated anthropologist Teresa Caldeira says that nation building is a common framework from which to operate in the Brazilian academy and other postcolonial nations. Writing of her own circumstances—that of a ‘native ethnographer’ writing about São Paulo as a US-trained anthropologist and US university professor—she says that she considered publishing two books based on the same data and analysis: one for the Brazilian audience asking questions of current political relevance and one for the US and international audience asking questions that appeal to a small subgroup of academic specialists. She writes: ‘Nation-building engages anthropologists in paradoxical ways. One dimension of this engagement is the role of the intellectual. In Brazil, as in other postcolonial countries, intellectuals have a prominent role in public life. They think of themselves first as public intellectuals, working to influence public debates, and only second as academics. […] Moreover, most public intellectuals (including anthropologists) conceive of their work as a civic responsibility. […] Theirs is only one perspective in a public debate, although it is usually a powerful one’ [1].

As an aside, I do not think that the role of the public intellectual and nation builder, is constructed solely within the researcher’s native country. When I was applying to PhD programs in the United Kingdom, a common application question directed to foreign applicants asked how the proposed research would benefit the students native country. The nation-building framework is not just postcolonial, as Caldeira suggests, but also constructed by benevolent agents of neocolonialism: elite universities of the Global North.

Returning to the question about ‘native positionality’ while researching favelas and the state-led integration paradigm in Rio de Janeiro, is the optimism expressed by the previously mentioned academics explained by Caldeira’s suggestion of the public intellectual as a nation builder? Such a role may lead academics to seize opportunities to affect change. And a government that currently champions human rights and participatory democracy not only through discourse but also through investments totaling tens of millions of dollars certainly seems like an opportunity to seize.

Faith and hope are not concepts that are often discussed by researchers. But I believe that that a central issue is whether or not one has faith that the state (and in this case the police) are capable of affecting any type of positive change. If one believes that state institutions are fundamentally corrupt, that they are beyond redemption stemming from any type of internal reform, then one would summarily dismiss any new police initiatives and view the UPP and the ‘community policing’ paradigm with suspicion and contempt. We won’t see any radical activists or Marxist scholars endorsing the UPP any time soon. On the other hand, if one is open to working ‘within the system’, it necessarily means that they have faith in existing democratic institutions and hope that by momentarily aligning themselves with the state, they may affect some form of liberal progressive change.

I do not offer these concluding remarks as answers to the above questions. The model of the public intellectual engaged with a progressive state ideology does not wholly explain the research of Brazilian social scientists (to suggest as much would be both uninformed and patronizing). And I have not even considered the role of research funding, which may explain as much about research design and framework as does political ideology. I view this as an open discussion with other young researchers, especially those of us looking to situate our own work in relation to our Brazilian colleagues. We must think critically about our own roles, our own ideologies, and our own alliances as foreign researchers. In particular, universities in The United States demand policy relevant research that purports impartiality. We are expected to write research questions that are critical yet somehow above current political frays. If we aren’t nation builders, if we aren’t public intellectuals, then what are we? What purpose does out work have other than to stimulate debate within small groups of specialists studying foreign cultures in distance lands?

1. Teresa P. R. Caldeira. 2000 City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo. University of California Press: Berkeley.


Follow me on twitter for more on politics, academia, and urbanism: @yosoytucker

3 thoughts on “Questions of perspective: research as nation-building

  1. This is a great question to be thinking about and you have done much to explore it. Congratulations! As an American who’s lived here for three decades and in different social circles during that time, I will add that the optimism comes largely from having experienced times so much worse than now. I am increasingly shocked at just how primitive the actions of the state were in Rio (and in Brazil as a whole) until the political alignment of 2007 began to open the door to more accountability, transparency and professionalism. (See my last post for more on this) Locals also fear losing the ground that has been gained by being overly critical. The outside researchers and “radicals” et al have key roles to play however, in constantly reminding us jaded insiders how much ground is yet to be covered. A comment from a young founder of Meu Rio sticks in my mind: “Everyone keeps telling me how much better things are now than they used to be. But I wasn’t alive (or aware ) in the old days. I only know how I want things to be”.

    • Thanks Julia! I agree with you, and your ending quote I think is exactly why youth are so important to social change.

  2. Hello to you both! Thank you equally for a quality blog and excellent resource, and for this series of posts that have eloquently elucidated many and more issues I have been researching and thinking about. My name is Mary. The research began for a proposal but comes built on experiences as an artist in squats, and architecture student in Liverpool since the Capital of Culture catalyst. As such it has continued independent of confirmation and led to participation with Newham Monitoring Project, present at the youth conference here in London, who are organising a volunteer police motoring project instigated by the Olympic effect in their area. I am heading to Brazil this week
    for a month and would value greatly the opportunity to talk to both of you. I would like to understand better, ask some questions and share some ideas! Please let me know if that might be possible!

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