American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
June-August 2019

2019 ASA Award Recipients

The ASA will present the 2019 awards at this year’s Annual Meeting in New York City on August 11. Congratulations to all of our distinguished winners.

W.E.B. Du Bois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award

Harvey L. Molotch

Harvey L. Molotch

Harvey L. Molotch, New York University

The W.E.B. Du Bois Award recognizes an ASA member whose cumulative body of work has significantly advanced the discipline. This year’s awardee, Harvey Molotch, embodies this criterion. As his 10 nominators eloquently expressed in their letters of support for him, he is a giant in the discipline who has helped to move established fields in new directions and develop new fields at the same time, all while giving back through committed and extensive teaching and service. In the words of nominator Craig Calhoun, “Harvey Molotch is one of the most wonderful, distinguished, original sociologists of the last half century of so.”

A 1968 PhD from the University of Chicago who has spent his career at the University of California-Santa Barbara and New York University, Dr. Molotch’s work is grounded in urban and community sociology. His pioneering research on such hot-button issues as white flight and urban growth introduced a deeply sociological perspective to heated debates, emphasizing power and inequality but also the divergent ways that people from different strata of society value space. This work is exemplified by such books as Managed Integration: Dilemmas of Doing Good in the City and Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place (with John Logan) that truly changed how scholars view modern urban life.

As much as Molotch has contributed to urban and community sociology, he has also taken the insights he developed within this field into new areas with equal impact. Consider his research in the sociology of the environment. It helped to link macro- and micro-level perspectives by considering the tensions between local communities and national actors over environmental issues, such as the interplay of local mobilization efforts and national bureaucracies after an environmental disaster. Such a sociological take on the environment also advanced new ways of thinking about media narratives of major events—how they are constructed and consumed. In recent years, he moved into newer areas, such as the design and use of material objects, as described in the truly original Where Stuff Comes From: How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers and Many Other Things Come to Be as They Are, and collective responses to anxiety about safety in the timely Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger. This intellectual curiosity and engagement with an array of topics are reasons why one nominator, Christena Nippert-Eng, wrote that “If there was a poster child for the sociological imagination, Harvey would be it.”

Throughout this distinguished career of scholarship, Molotch has been dedicated to developing new generations of scholars. The many students he has trained and young scholars he has invested in speak passionately of him. As one nominator, James Elliot, wrote, “I suspect that there are many more stories like mine out there – distinguished contributions by way of personal interactions with a giant in the field who cared not only about sociology and the world, but those trying to make sense of both.” Notably, they have gone on to become leaders of many different fields of sociology, carrying his ideas, perspectives, and approaches with them into new areas.

For this broad impact on sociology, ASA has recognized Molotch many times. Among his many accolades are the Robert Park Book of the Year Award and distinguished career awards from multiple sections of the organization. He now receives the highest honor from ASA for a distinguished career, and it is well deserved.

Distinguished Scholarly Book Award

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve

Nicole Van Cleve

Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court by Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, University of Delaware

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve’s Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court (Stanford University Press) offers new insight into the processes of everyday “colorblind racism” within one of the largest court systems in the United States. This well-written and engaging book offers a remarkably relevant and important analysis of the U.S. criminal justice system by focusing on attorneys, judges, and the courtrooms in which they practice and adjudicate the law. While more attention has been focused on race and policing, criminal courts are a central actor in perpetuating the racialized outcomes evident in U.S. jails and prisons. Gonzalez Van Cleve documents and analyzes how powerful, disproportionately white male decisionmakers create and shape an extraordinarily corrupt and systemically racist system.

Crook County is based on over 1,000 hours of ethnographic observations of court proceedings, as well as interviews with judges and lawyers, giving the reader a truly original and path-breaking sense of how racism is embedded in the “inside” of the criminal justice system. The findings reveal a frankly heartbreaking account of a complicated habitus where race and class are continually reinforced in the negative assumptions about the poor and people of color that lawyers and judges make, and how the treatment of these accused individuals affirms “racialized rules” and colorblind racism.

What sets Gonzalez Van Cleve’s work apart from numerous accounts of racial inequality in arrests, sentencing, and treatment of the poor and people of color is her analysis of the everyday workings of the criminal justice system. Her research reveals everyday racial microaggressions articulated and practiced by lawyers and judges before a judgement is even rendered through racialized rules and scripts that routinely disorient and subjugate low-income people of color. Throughout the book, Gonzalez Van Cleve cracks open the door not only of courtrooms, but also of judge’s chambers and attorney’s offices, to show how prosecutors, judges, and public defendants regularly engage in racist practices that abuse both defendants and their families.

Beginning with her entrance into the Gang Crimes Unit where the white state attorneys bore such names as “Beast-Man Miller,” the author entered a world that denies the humanity of African American and Latinos through racialized cultural practices that demean the defendants and facilitate wrongful convictions. The ethnography provides numerous examples of how this system operates, such as when an elderly African American woman, leaning on her oxygen tank for support appeared before the judge to plead for her life saying she did not mean to kill her husband who had abused her for years. She was berated by the judge for being a “bad person” with little reference to the crime for which she was charged. Using Garfinkel’s work as a point of departure alongside of research on colorblind racism, Gonzalez Van Cleve argues this is but one example of racial degradation ceremonies pervasive in the courtroom that focus on judgments of immorality directed at defendants of color and the poor.

Such stories are analyzed in dialogue with relevant research but with a level of detail that is rarely found in other work on the topic and reflects the countless hours of ethnographic observation and interviews she and her research assistants undertook. Throughout this book, Gonzalez Van Cleve gives additional breadth and depth to Malcolm Feeley’s notion that the “process is the punishment.” This book is impressive for the rigor of the data collection and analysis, poignancy of the narratives, and beautifully written observations that deepen our understanding of the ways in which racialized punishment operates in our legal system.

Distinguished Contributions to Teaching Award

William Frey

William Frey

William Frey, Brookings Institute and University of Michigan

William H. Frey, Research Professor at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, is the 2019 recipient of the ASA Distinguished Contributions of Teaching Award.

Dr. Frey is a strong advocate of the teacher-scholar model and one of the most visible figures in the discipline promoting hands-on-research, in particular Quantitative Reasoning (QR) instruction, across the sociology curriculum.

Most notably, Frey has developed several websites that promote the use of primary data analysis in teaching. Most widely used among his curriculum development projects is the Social Science Data Analysis Network (SSDAN). This platform promotes the use of Census Data by students, as well as the general public. This website is designed to make data accessible and includes resources from user guides to hands-on computer classroom materials. He is also the creator of CensusScope, a website designed for generalists as well as specialists. This is a user-friendly environment that enables the investigation of demographic trends and includes visually appealing graphics as well as exportable Census trend data.

Frey’s commitment to and impact on spreading best-teaching practices is further attested by the over dozen grants and contracts he’s received on curriculum development, including Sloan Foundation Awards, and several NICHD and NSF grants. Most prominently has been his collaboration with the American Sociological Association that established the Integrating Data Analysis Throughout the Curriculum (IDA) initiative with support from the NSF. This project’s goal was to close the QR gap in sociology via a variety of curriculum developments, such as encouraging research experiences in the undergraduate curriculum beyond research methods and statistics courses. The initiative focused on the training of instructors from across the country who received training in best practices for QR instruction at his institute at the University of Michigan. As Frey’s nominator, Esther I Wilder, wrote, “As a result of Dr. Frey’s workshops, a wide range of institutions have made data analysis central to their curricula, not just in sociology but across all subject areas.”

Letters of support of his nomination also attest to Frey’s broad influence and impact on teaching throughout the discipline. One letter writer, for instance, identified nearly 1,000 individuals who have participated in SSDAN workshops organized by Frey, a number that attests to the wide-reaching impact on teaching that he has had in the ways sociology is taught across multiple institutions.

Another letter writer further attests to why Frey’s work is not just impactful, but important for the key issue of inequality that is a central concern to the discipline of sociology: “As much as sociologists purport to want to change systems of inequality, our own connections, research agendas, and funding opportunities often reward those at the most prestigious and well-funded institutions. Dr. Frey’s approach has been radically different. He has intentionally reached out to faculty ‘in the trenches,’ those of us teaching at non-elite schools, serving some of the most disadvantaged students.”

Finally, another letter writer sums up why Frey was enthusiastically chosen by the Distinguished Contributions of Teaching Award Committee: “[V]ery few people within our discipline will have the breadth and depth of influence on teaching sociology as Dr. William Frey. I would argue that there is no other ‘scholar’ within the field of sociology that has done as much to improve the teaching of sociology at all levels as much as Dr. William Frey. He has influenced countless numbers of high school teachers, community college teachers, college and university teachers, and students around the world with his tireless efforts to introduce students to data analysis early and often in the sociology curriculum. He is truly deserving of this award.”

Distinguished Career Award for the Practice of Sociology

Eric Wanner

Eric Wanner

Eric Wanner, Russell Sage Foundation

The Career Award for the Practice of Sociology recognizes work by someone who has spent at least a decade as a researcher, administrator, or consultant to a public or private organization, agency, or association. The award winner’s work must have significantly advanced the utility of one or more fields of sociology; elevated the professional status and public image of sociology; and have been honored or widely recognized outside the discipline for its significant impacts in advancing human welfare. This year’s winner of the award is Eric Wanner, Past-President of the Russell Sage Foundation, which was founded in 1907 “to promote “the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States,” surely a mission relevant to the practice of sociology.In his 27 years as Russell Sage Foundation President, Wanner’s steadfast support guaranteed a constant stream of funding for the study of topics central to sociology. Critical funding kept the topics of immigration, race, work, and inequality on the academic agenda even when federal funding grew scarce. Residential fellowships awarded to more than 90 sociologists produced 130 sociological research monographs that have won 14 ASA Awards, including books by 11 former ASA Presidents and 16 volumes in the ASA’s Rose Series. It is therefore a great honor for the Selection Committee to present the 2019 Career Award for the Practice of Sociology to Eric Wanner for his work on behalf of the field at the Russell Sage Foundation.

Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award

Sandra Barnes

Sandra Barnes

Sandra Barnes, Vanderbilt University

The Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award is given to an individual or individuals for their work in the intellectual traditions of the work of Oliver Cox, Charles S. Johnson, and E. Franklin Frazier, three African American scholars. Sandra L. Barnes is the winner of the 2019 Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award. She holds joint faculty appointments as Sociology Professor in the Department of Human and Organizational Development in Peabody College of Education and the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. Additionally, she is an affiliate faculty member with the African American and Diaspora Studies and Research Center at the university. In July 2016, she joined the Vanderbilt University Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion as Assistant Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Prior to joining Vanderbilt, Dr. Barnes was an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Case Western Reserve University (2007-2008) and an Assistant and [subsequently] Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the African American Studies Research Center at Purdue University (2000-2007). As an urban sociologist, Barnes’ research has historically focused on adaptability and resiliency of poor, near-poor, and working-class individuals, providing counternarratives to negative descriptions about these persons. This work is informed by her interest in inequality and stratification with the impetus of this interest being rooted in her personal experiences in urban settings. She transitioned to research on the Black church with a focus on how this institution empowers people and, sometimes, routinizes attitudes and behaviors. In addition to her teaching and research responsibilities, Barnes recently completed the creation of a one-hour documentary, titled Gary, Indiana: A Tale of Two Cities. This documentary examines how faith-based communities in Gary, IN, empower and equip residents. This project is especially dear to her heart because she is a native of Gary. It was her goal to provide a balanced assessment of the city – its past, present, and future.Additionally, she was interested in tapping into audiences that may not read an academic book or journal article yet still desire to be informed about lived experiences in contemporary urban spaces. In 2015, Vanderbilt University was awarded a $1.5 million five-year grant from the Department of Health and Human Services: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) to study HIV/hepatitis prevention. The title of the research project is “Capacity Building Innovations: Substance Abuse and HIV Prevention Services for African American Young Men Who Sleep with Men.” Barnes serves as Principal Investigator of this project. In partnership with Fisk University, the program focuses on community-relationship building with participation of individuals in a prevention program targeted at enhancing existing strengths, knowledge and skills already possessed by the men. Barnes has authored several books and numerous journal articles. She is editor of Issues in Race & Society: An Interdisciplinary Global Journal. She earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Mathematics and Economics from Fisk University (1986), Master of Science Degree in Operations Research from Georgia Institute of Technology (1989), Master of Science Degree in Sociology of Religion and Christian Education from the Interdenominational Theological Center, and her PhD in Sociology from Georgia State University (1999).

Public Understanding of Sociology Award 

Joe Feagin

Joe Feagin

Joe Feagin, Texas A&M University

Joe R. Feagin is the recipient of the 2019 Public Understanding of Sociology Award. This award honors ASA members who have brought sociological scholarship to the forefront, addressing a larger audience, and encouraging critical public engagement with sociology. Feagin is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University, and a preeminent scholar in the field with an outstanding record of scholarship including of over 70 books and more than 200 articles. His work on race and racism has shaped generations of scholars both in and outside of sociology, and his contributions to understanding the underpinnings of racial discrimination have had far broader reach outside of academia.

Feagin’s work documents how racism functions in our society, creating theoretical paradigms to explain the complex processes that undergird racial disparities and exploring how to counter such racist ideology. His work is widely read and cited, and his theories have provided a framework for many sociological studies. Among Feagin’s many books are titles such as: Ghetto Revolts: The Politics of Violence in American Cities; Living With Racism: The Black Middle Class Experience; White Racism: The Basics; Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations; Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression; The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism; and The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counterframing. Additionally, his bestselling textbook, Racial and Ethnic Relations, currently in its 9th edition, manages to distill an incredibly complicated subject matter in an accessible, engaging, and transformative textbook that has changed the way many young people think about race.

Indeed, in addition to his prolific scholarship, Feagin has worked diligently to expand the reach of his ideas to a larger audience. He has given numerous public talks translating his work to non-academic venues. Moreover, he founded, a website that promotes racial justice scholarship and activism.

Within the field of sociology, Feagin has served as a leader, including such prestigious positions as President of the American Sociological Association and Vice-President of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. He has also served on numerous editorial boards. Beyond formal positions, his mentorship of faculty and students in the field has been exceptional.

Feagin’s scholarship, mentorship, and service has been recognized with numerous awards from ASA including the Oliver C. Cox Book Award, the Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities’ Founder’s Award for Scholarship and Service, the Robert and Helen Lynd Award for Contribution to Community and Urban Sociology, the W.E.B Du Bois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award, and the Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award. Moreover, Feagin has received numerous awards from outside the academy recognizing the influence of his work, including the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Outstanding Book Award and the Arthur Fletcher Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association for Affirmative Action.

For decades, Feagin’s work has extended beyond the academy highlighting the origins and impact of racism and working towards racial justice. His exemplary career as a public sociologist makes him an ideal recipient of ASA’s Public Understanding of Sociology Award.

Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues Award

Eric Deggans

Eric Deggans

Eric Deggans, NPR

Deggans is a television and film critic who integrates a sociological vision and critique of race relations and diversity in all his work. His writing has appeared in mainstream publications such as The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Salon, and Rolling Stone. He wrote about popular culture for the award-winning Tampa Bay News for 20 years, before joining National Public Radio (NPR) as a contributor and then its first full-time television critic. He is also a contributor to NBC News and MSNBC, has an impressive presence on social media, and gives talks at colleges, conferences, and universities across the United States—including a 2013 TEDx talk, titled “How to Talk about Race Across Race Lines” that has been viewed over 30,000 times. Deggans is also the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation (Palgrave Macmillan 2012). In that book he argues that prejudice and structural racism fuel modern media depictions in ways that cement existing inequalities. With an eye on the biases of news outlets, Race-Baiter anticipated many of the current dynamics and discussions of media polarization, niche markets, and “fake news” with interviews and evidence-based accounts of how the news media skews facts and uses inflamed and inflammatory images to reinforce stereotypes and social divisions.His nominators see Deggans on “the front lines” of translating and disseminating sociological concepts such as colorblindness and systemic racism to the masses. His use of detailed case studies, in-depth interviews, and other research aligns neatly with sociology’s own methodological traditions and commitment to empirical research. They believe Deggans and his work “can not only educate laypeople, but can send them searching for sociological texts to learn…and debate sensitive issues [such as] race, sexuality, gender, and poverty.” As one of his nominators summarized: “[Deggans’] work is a valuable means of disseminating information about sociology as he brings a sociological perspective to discussions of popular culture in order to stimulate debate and promote best practices of inclusion.”

Jessie Bernard Award

Rhacel Parreñas

Rhacel Parreñas

Rhacel Parrenas, University of Southern California (co-winner)

Rhacel Parrenas, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, has been described as ‘incredibly prolific’. As a young scholar, she has already produced nine books and over 60 peer-reviewed articles, and book chapters. Her work covers the intersections of gender, migration, Southeast Asian Studies, economic globalization, and sexuality. One key focus has been women’s labor migration in the global economy. Here she reveals the impact of Filipina women’s migration on their families, the care of children and gender constructions. She was one of the first to go beyond the emphasis on employer/employee relations to exposing the devastation on family members. Her attention to the lives of children and the impact on mother/child relations has made the topic a classic field of study. This research also draws attention to global hierarchies and the problem of child care deficiency across the globe.

Another focus examines human trafficking and labor migration. Her research on domestic workers in Dubai and Singapore draws attention to how the involvement of different actors (states, recruitment agencies and employers) results in migrant workers becoming ‘unfree laborers’. Domestic workers are situated in specific host countries with laws and policies that highlight broader issues: citizenship options and the marginalization of migrant workers regardless the specifics of the host country.Among her many contributions on human trafficking, the study conducted in Japan has been earmarked as bold, not only because of her fieldwork as a Filipina hostess, but also because she challenges the established narrative that these women are trafficked persons. Taking the Filipina women’s perspectives, she highlights their agency and gives a nuanced understanding of their situation, which involves ‘choice and coercion, opportunity and threat, freedom and servitude’. She crafts the phenomenon as one that goes beyond victimhood. Another dimension of this study focuses on the experiences of transgender Japanese hostesses, the bakla, who, as members of higher socioeconomic classes, do not experience the same stigma as the Filipina women. The study deals with sex work, emotional labor and comparisons regarding sexuality among two groups of workers, highlighting important aspects of gender construction.Given Parrenas’s original approaches to research on gender, labor, migration, and sexuality, it is not surprising that she has coined new concepts in these areas: intimate labor, indentured mobility and intimate industries. These terms have also been taken up by governments and NGOs. Her cumulative impact is that she is very much in demand as a distinguished lecturer in academia, and as a consultant to public agencies/institutions (U.S. Department of Labor, Human Rights Watch, the California State Department, VPRO TV (Netherlands), and the Icelandic Red Cross) that seek constructive ideas on policy, human trafficking, domestic workers and human rights. What is important here is that she brings to the table bold and new perspectives on relationships, experiences, and the struggles of women, sexual minorities, and immigrants in labor markets across the globe. Her work has been translated into at least five languages.It’s no surprise that Parrenas has garnered many awards: The Association for Asian American Studies Social Science Book Award (2008), the ASA-Labor Movements Distinguished Book Award (2012), many Fellowships (Fulbright, Ford, and Rockefeller), as well as Visiting Scholar appointments. In addition to her own graduate students, she has consistently worked with students through institutions like the SSRC and the Mellon and Ford Foundations. She has served as Department Chair (2012-15), has worked on several editorial boards, is Co-Editor for the Stanford University book series on Globalization in Everyday Life and was Vice President for SWS (2016). No doubt Parrenas will continue to break new ground in gender research and inspire others.

Jessie Bernard Award

Bandana Purkayastha

Bandana Purkayastha

Bandana Purkayastha, University of Connecticut (co-winner)

The scholars who nominated Dr. Bandana Purkayastha were exceptionally enthusiastic about her impact on gender studies across multiple domains and her innovative scholarship, institutional leadership, and mentorship. Purkayastha, Professor of Sociology and Asian & Asian American Studies at the University of Connecticut, has an enviable publishing record of 14 books and over 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. She is a nationally and internationally respected sociologist conducting path-breaking research in gender theory, migration, Asian studies, and human rights. Her work has been translated into several languages, and she is frequently invited for lectures and presentations in the U.S. and abroad.Her work is foundational for making intersectional theory relevant to multi-country realities, and her emphasis on complex hierarchies reveal that any group can be simultaneously privileged and marginalized. She mainstreamed a gender perspective in immigration studies and brought an ethnic perspective to gender studies. She is a pioneer in South Asian Studies in the United States. In Negotiating Ethnicity, for instance, her insights include the gendered racism borne by ‘model minority’ communities and the fact that families are ‘regenerative sites of ethnic identity construction’. This has gained traction among scholars in immigration studies. Further, her ethnographic study, As Leaves Turn Gold, uncovers the gendered experience of aging and caregiving within economically diverse Asian American Communities. Purkayastha has written extensively on women’s human rights. In addition to her own research, she has strategically worked with colleagues and students to develop interdisciplinary and transnational perspectives. Human Rights in Our Backyard turned a much-needed attention to human rights issues within the U.S. and won the 2013 Gordon Hirabayashi book award in the ASA Human Rights section. Her work demands we understand local aspirations and recognize that communities in the Global South construct human rights perspectives from their own local experiences and not merely from imported ideas. Her research in this area has drawn attention to many pressing issues: violence against women, human trafficking (Pakistan), displaced persons (Kenya) and the experiences of Dalit communities in India. A major goal has been to link research to policy and action, which she emphasizes in her publications and in practice.Her leadership skills are legendary. At UCONN, Bandana served as Chair of the Sociology Department from 2011-2016. Through her effort and vision, the outreach of our professional associations has grown. Two notable cases are the International Sociological Association, where she is the ASA’s national representative and Sociologists for Women in Society, where she is a former President (2013). She has worked tirelessly within the American Sociological Association on numerous committees including the Committee on Committees and the Asia and Asian American section, where she received the career award for her contributions, and built a mentoring component into the section. Her editorial activities include deputy editor for Gender and Society as well as work on the Journal of South Asian Diaspora, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity as well as the Frontpage Publications’ Human Rights Series.While Purkayastha has received many national and international honors, her awards for teaching and mentoring are striking. In addition to awards from the ASA, she holds the record of being selected thrice by students as the Best Mentor in Sociology at UCONN. Other teaching and mentoring awards have been given by UCONN alumni Association and the State of Connecticut. Not only do students flourish under her direction and encouragement, she also mentors colleagues.Purkayastha has contributed significantly to national and global scholarship on gender theory she has also worked vigorously to steer feminist organizations though difficult times to stability and growth, while remaining generous to her mentees both near and far. She truly has a diverse and global influence.

2019 Dissertation Award Recipient

Anjuli N. Fahlberg

Anjuli N. Fahlberg

Anjuli N. Fahlberg, Tufts University

Anjuli N. Fahlberg, Lecturer at Tufts University, received the 2019 Dissertation Award for “Activism Under Fire: Violence, Poverty, and Collective Action in Rio de Janeiro.” Fahlberg completed this work at Northeastern University, under the supervision of Liza Weinstein. In Latin America’s struggling democracies, the urban poor suffer from brutal conflicts between the police and the drug trade and are largely excluded from mainstream political, economic, or social institutions, leaving them with few avenues for democratic engagement. Existing research on collective action and social movements suggests that social mobilization is unlikely under such circumstances. Questioning this view, Fahlberg’s dissertation asks whether collective action is indeed possible amid extreme poverty and violence, and what strategies enable it to survive and affect political change.

Fahlberg conducted ethnographic research in the City of God, the infamously violent favela on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Drawing on informal social networks, a position as a volunteer with a charitable organization, and her own deep familiarity with Brazilian culture, Fahlberg was able to move in and out of the community in ways that avoided suspicion from local violent factions. Fahlberg combines participatory observation with in-depth interviews and quantitative analysis. Particularly noteworthy is the thoughtful and reflexive way Fahlberg balances the goals of her research with her obligations to the people she studies.

Fahlberg’s findings reveal the myriad and often subtle democratic practices and strategies for claims-making presence in violent spaces. Within the favela, activist groups subvert violent gangs and their political allies by remaining small, avoiding local political networks, and constructing non-threatening “feminized” narratives around non-violence, social services, and art. At the same time, activists demand change by leveraging political resources outside the favela, including allies in urban and transnational movements and officials in municipal and state governments. The dissertation highlights three models of effective non-violent collective action: (1) transformative assistencialismo, wherein community-based organizations use service provision as a mechanism to politicize local residents; (2) community militancy, in which activists make direct demands on municipal and state actors for neighborhood development; and (3) cultural protest, wherein activists use artistic expression to demand governmental and social reforms.

Fahlberg’s dissertation demonstrates that non-violent collective action is in fact possible under conditions of extreme poverty and violence and sheds light on how activists overcome multiple barriers to make claims for their needs and rights. Her study shows that while violence, poverty, racism, and corruption do in fact constrain organized political action in disadvantaged neighborhoods, these forces also engender organized efforts against violence and for social development, citizenship rights, and racial equality. The dissertation thus expands our understanding of the possibilities for collective action in violent and chaotic democratic states throughout the world.