The Difference Ethnography Can Make: Understanding Social Mobilization and Development in the Brazilian Northeast

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Ethnographic research is invaluable for social movement research. Ethnographies of everyday participation in mobilization help to counter the popular image of social movements as coherent, well-bounded entities consisting of individuals committed to the goals of the collective. In this study of the Movimento Sem Terra (the Landless Movement, or the MST) in northeastern Brazil, I establish a more complete continuum of movement membership by analyzing two interviews (one conducted in 1999, the other in 2003) with a former plantation worker named Cicero who considered himself a member of the MST in 1999 but “didn't even know what to say about the movement” three years later. Cicero's interviews are noteworthy because he is not the sort of person typically featured in studies of social mobilization: he did not join the MST because of a passionate commitment (more because the movement showed up and he couldn't see a reason not to), and he was never convinced of the MST's primary ideals or methods. Cicero's interviews provide what Lila Abu-Lughod calls a “counter-discourse,” in which people make decisions that are contradictory, and incomplete, often made without explicit articulation or even understanding. Ultimately, I argue that incorporating this broader continuum will help us better explain movement personalities and trajectories.

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