If this is Democracy...
If This Is Democracy: An Ethnographic Study of Economic, Political, and Cultural Restructuring in North Carolina, 1994-1998: Dorothy Holland, Catherine Lutz, Donald Nonini, Lesley Bartlett, Marla Fredericks, Thadeus Gulbrandsen, and Enrique Murillo.
This interdisciplinary project funded by the National Science Foundation studied the impact of economic restructuring on local democratic practices in five North Carolina communities. The study entailed a multi-site, comparative ethnography. We studied local politics focusing on how people were drawn in or excluded from democratic participation and on how these democratic processes were being influenced by the processes of globalization, economic restructuring and governmental reorganization that have taken place in the last twenty years.
(1) Neoliberalism is a major framework by which many local residents, particularly elites, in our five sites conceptualize the ideal relationship between the market and government. By "neoliberalism" we mean a discourse in which unregulated or "free" markets operated by entrepreneurial individuals are regarded as the optimal solution not only to economic, but also to social and political problems. This framework structures ideas about and the goals set for community development, definitions of the public good, and definitions of citizenship that create wider distinctions than before between the "deserving" or "super-" citizen, and the undeserving or "sub-" citizen. However, we also discovered powerful alternative definitions of what community development should consist of in our five sites, some of which involve critiques of individualism that one person we spoke likened to "crabs in a basket" as well as aspirations for new forms of community.
(2) In all of the "dramas of contestation" (issues attracting contentious public attention) we studied, we found important involvement by "public-private partnerships," a hallmark of local politics based on neoliberal discourse. These partnerships were also prominent especially in recent activist activities recounted for us in the lifetime participation interviews. Increasingly, local political participants have been drawn into these partnerships.
We noted that such partnerships with local governments range from for-profit, or market-oriented partnerships that apply profit-centered criteria to the solution of problems they define to non-profit, or community-oriented partnerships many of which are oriented to community-based social criteria for judging and addressing social problems. Both types of partnership address local political issues that previously were more firmly associated with the public sphere and resolved by local government. These new formats, which we refer to in our book manuscript, as "government by proxy," have both perils and promises. The former include a new lack of transparency of these institutional efforts and the absence of any guarantees that partnerships will emerge from segments of the population that have the most problems to solve. The promises of these partnerships include the encouragement of community- and movement-oriented groups, which provide important experiences with participatory democracy.
(3) The activist groups we studied were adapting to the new conditions for political participation by taking up increased opportunities for designing and providing services including health services, economic development, and monitoring of environmental quality. While some of these groups were engaged in protest activities, they were also expending considerable energy on providing public services and carrying out the bureaucratic tasks (e.g., filing 501©3 reports) that being partners with the government entails. Thus, we documented a face of activism quite dissimilar from the popular images of 1960s activism. As already mentioned, contemporary groups enact powerful definitions of what community development should consist of as well as aspirations for new forms of community and so constitute alternatives to the for-profit visions of the business-oriented partnerships prescribed by neoliberal thought.
(4) Given the rising importance of "public-private partnerships" in local governance, we paid as much attention to citizen participation in these groups and the activities they provide as to voting. Our survey in Chatham County, not completely analyzed as yet, gives some indication of the number of people involved in groups likely to have 501©3 status. To give the figures for the highest level of participation in a particular kind of group, 18 % of our sample report membership in local environmental groups. We intend to analyze the results further for the percentage of the population participating in any local activist group listed on the survey.
(5) The economic and political changes of the last 20 years have entailed increased rates of individual geographical mobility and several consequences were observed in our one hundred in-depth interviews including frustration over the transience, impersonality and fragility of social relationships that result and that have negative consequences for the political life of a community. The labor influxes associated with these changes have produced unaccounted and publicly unaddressed costs (e.g. in housing, schools, and health), as well as encounters between "natives" and "newcomers" which have engendered local political divisions and controversies. We found public relations campaigns and local elites celebrating corporate hyper-mobility and emphasizing only its positive consequences while public debate meanwhile confronted the challenges arising from the new demands on the local infrastructure. At the same time, neoliberal thought further holds that public funding of infrastructure is inappropriate.
(6) Through the interviews and the participant observation, we found both social-structural and individual barriers to participation in governmental decision making. Structural barriers included the difficulties of entry and input into the increasing number of hybrid institutions-the public-private partnerships mentioned in (2) above and the "task force," as well as the continuation of older tactics such as exclusive networking, agenda-setting, and interpersonal intimidation to exclude persons from participation. Individual barriers to participation include fear (of shaming and violence), the use of a an individual-centered psychological paradigm for understanding pressing problems individuals face, as well as time constraints in individual lives related to the socioeconomic changes we focused on, particularly for the poor whose jobs often involve considerable physical challenges or even permanent debilitation. Both kinds of barriers are especially dense in cases of racialist and nationalist discrimination, which continue to be a fundamental barrier to full local citizenship, from elected officialdom through private citizens, and through the devices of subtle and unsubtle racism and nationalism as well as the economic disenfranchisement just mentioned.
(7) Methodologically, we confirmed the fruitfulness of multi-sited, comparative ethnographic research and noted the importance of our organization of training (two months preliminary training), ongoing discussion (six full team meetings during the ethnographic phase of the research plus onsite visits, email and phone discussion and supervision of field notes), the use of NUD*IST software for storage and retrieval of field material, and several months of analytic work following the end of the ethnographic phase. The organization enabled us to pool efforts of analysis and insight and as a result, we have a book manuscript fully co-authored by the co-PIs and the research associates.
As already stated, our combination of Lifetime Participation Interviews and the studies of dramas of contestation allowed us to research issues and participants of the public good that were 1) publicly debated and addressed in some fashion, 2) never publicly recognized or addressed, and 3) addressed, but in non-public venues. It was valuable to ask why, in these cases, a more fully democratic outcome did not occur. Finally, we found participant observation research to be especially useful for unearthing barriers to participation that were subtle and unlikely to be recounted in interviews.
Local Democracy...an uncertain future: a public workshop
This is the site for the public workshop we organized, "Local democracy…an uncertain future?," held the 2nd and 3rd March, 2001, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The site contains the workshop announcement and rationale, the workshop papers, bios for the workshop participants including reference to other work on democracy they have done, and links to other web sites related to the topic.
Holland, D., C. Lutz and D. Nonini, L. Bartlett, M. Frederick, T. Guldbrandsen, and E. Murillo. under review. If This is
Democracy: Local Democracy in an Age of Neoliberalism.
Bartlett, Lesley, Marla Frederick, Thadeus Gulbrandsen, and Enrique Murillo. in press. Marketing Schools: Public
Education for Private Ends. Anthropology and Education Quarterly.
Murillo, Jr., E.G. (2001). “How Does it Feel to Be a Problem?: Disciplining the Transnational Subject in the American
South.” In S. Wortham, E.G. Murillo, Jr., & E.T. Hamann (Editors) Education in the New Latino Diaspora: Policy and
the Politics of Identity, Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing, 2001.