How Democracy Works: An Ethnographic Theory of Politics

As the title of Marcio Goldman’s newly translated monograph How Democracy Works: An Ethnographic Theory of Politics suggests, this book strives to develop an understanding of democracy and politics that is fundamentally grounded in ethnographic research. Goldman’s study proposes an anthropological model for the study of politics that is not only ethnographically informed but that also seeks to account for the inherently contingent character of political processes and relationships. He draws upon ethnographic material gathered by tracing the various ways in which a group of Afro-Brazilian musicians and cultural activists engaged with and sought to insert themselves in electoral politics in the small town of Ilhéus in Bahia, Brazil between 1996 and 2004. The book promises a thought-provoking read for a range of audiences from Brazilianists interested in small town electoral politics, Afro-Brazilian cultural movements and activism, and the North-East of Brazil, to non-Brazilianist anthropologists interested in local engagements with representative democracy and the relationship between ethnographic research and theory-building.

The book’s analysis revolves around a bloco afro, an Afro-Brazilian Carnaval group of percussionists and dancers called Dilazenze, and the group’s changing relationships with local politicians and political projects across several electoral cycles. As Goldman demonstrates, electoral politics in Ilhéus operate according to a logic of political exchange where political favors and appointments are traded for performances of support as well as votes. As a consequence, the town’s residents see electoral politics as a dirty game where everyone is motivated by self-interest rather than particular political ideals. This is a political field where voting patterns are ordered by pledges of political support for particular candidates and the political bargains and alliances they develop with other candidates. Indeed, as Goldman’s examination of political campaigns and shifting allegiances shows, politicians and voters in Ilhéus transit continuously between overtly oppositional political camps as alliances take new forms. Accordingly, the voting patterns of individuals and social groupings reflect careful calculations over the rewards of casting votes and political support for specific politicians more than commitments to particular parties or political ideologies.

The book’s chapters are organized thematically rather than chronologically, which helps to highlight the contingent nature of political processes This structure draws the reader’s attention to the specifics of Goldman’s ethnography in productive ways, although at times his broader arguments threaten to get lost in the details. Nevertheless, for the careful reader, the ethnography provides a rich perspective on the ways in which politicians engage with and negotiate their relationships to locally influential activist groups in small town Brazil.  Chapter one explores local politicians’ efforts to bring Ilhéus’ Afro-Brazilian population together as a coherent voting block by promising to construct an Afro-Brazilian cultural center in the town. Chapter two examines how one of Goldman’s research assistants, a middle-class Ilhéus native trained in Rio de Janeiro as an anthropologist, gets involved in the politics being studied. A cautionary tale for scholars engaged in ethnographic research, the research assistant fails to understand Dilazenze’s members’ political efforts due to his own ideological commitments and understandings of properly political action. In addition, he also unwittingly pits individual activists against each other. Chapter three delves deeper into the question of why people continue to vote for politicians who fail to fulfill political promises. Chapter four traces the manner in which members of the bloco afro Dilazenze endeavor to split their votes and political activities between variously deserving candidates. Chapter five shifts the book’s focus to Dilazenze’s activities as a Carnaval group and its struggle to win a municipal competition for best bloco afro in Carnaval 1999. Finally, chapter six concludes the book with an analysis of the challenges political candidacy poses for Ilhéus’ Afro-Brazilian cultural activists.

Unfortunately, considering the ethnographic and theoretical richness of this book, its translation into English appears to have been completed in haste. The translation itself is poorly realized, frequently clunky, and at times ungrammatical. Moreover, the decision to not update the book and contextualize its analysis for an English-speaking readership seems a lost opportunity. Indeed, non-Brazilianist readers of the English translation would have benefited significantly from the addition of some further context on the Brazilian political actors and processes as well as the academic debates Goldman addresses. For example, a more explicit engagement with the extensive English language scholarship on the anthropology of democracy would have added much to the book. Not only would this have worked to highlight the connections between Goldman’s analysis and this body of literature, but it could also have provided a foundation for bridging the gulf between what appear to be parallel but nonetheless distinct conversations in Brazilian and U.S political anthropology. In a similar vein, for a non-Brazilianist audience, the book’s contributions to scholarship on Brazil could have been spelled out a bit more explicitly in this English translation. There are now classic analyses of race and politics in Brazil which would have provided especially relevant context for Goldman’s study, books such as Blackness without Ethnicity by Lívio Sansone, Afro-Brazilian Culture and Politics, Bahia, 1790s to 1990s edited by Hendrik Kraay, and Racial Politics in Contemporary Brazil edited by Michael Hanchard. Moreover, the field has seen a number of new important additions since the publication of Goldman’s book in Portuguese that the republication of the study in English could have engaged in productive ways. Especially worthy of engagement would have been the recent work by James Holston and Aaron Ansell on Brazilian democracy, and Jocélio Teles dos Santos, Jan Hoffman French, Keisha Khan Perry, Stephen Selka, and Patricia de Santana Pinho on the politics of race and culture in contemporary Brazil.

Nevertheless, despite these problems of translation, the dedicated reader interested in electoral politics and the workings of representative democracy, the politics of race and culture, Brazil or ethnography will certainly find this book rewarding and thought provoking.

Elina I. Hartikainen, University of Chicago

Goldman, Marcio. How Democracy Works: An Ethnographic Theory of Politics. Sean Kingston Publishing, 2013. Read more at Sean Kingston Publishing.

Original in Portuguese published 2005: Como funciona a democracia: Uma teoria etnográfica da política.

English translation by Max Bondi & Cristina Musso Meirelles Santos.


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