Spotlight Scholars

The Spotlight Scholar webpage highlights outstanding early-career scholars whose work showcases or advances interpretive approaches to the study of politics. To nominate an early-career scholar for the Spotlight Scholar webpage, please use the following form. Self-nominations are also welcome.

Yuna Blajer de la Garza

February 2021

Yuna Blajer de la Garza is a political theorist studying inequalities and oppression in democratic societies by focusing on the interactions between formal political institutions, the ideals that undergird them, and everyday practices and norms. Normatively, her work is driven by a commitment to equality, and specifically to the pursuit of a society in which individuals relate to one another as equals. Substantively, she focuses on the interplay between formal institutions and the everyday practices, norms, and narratives of ordinary citizens. Methodologically and to generate insights attuned both to the institutional and the everyday, she combines political theory with interpretive methods and ethnographic tools, when possible drawing from her own ethnographic fieldwork. While the ethnographic component of her work has put her in conversation with political scientists more empirically inclined, the centrality of equality in her work has led her to engage with debates of political philosophers invested in relational egalitarianism.

In her first book manuscript, provisionally titled A House Is Not A Home: Citizenship and Belonging in Contemporary Democracies, Blajer addresses the interplay between the institutional and the everyday by examining the tension between citizenship and belonging in 21st-century democracies through the figure of the citizen who does not belong —for instance, one construed by others (and at times self-described) as “American, but not a real American” or “French, but not really French.”

The main contribution of the manuscript is to offer “belonging” as a category of analysis for democratic theory—a category currently undertheorized in political science. On one hand, belonging captures membership in a political community in a manner close to how ordinary citizens make sense of it. On the other hand, belonging offers a more demanding gauge of equal membership than citizenship, making it helpful in articulating the requirements of a political community juridically defined and undergirded by equality. Blajer argues that it is on democratic belonging, and not democratic citizenship, that political theorists should set their eyes as the better measure of equal standing.

Belonging draws from a formal status (citizenship) but is also an affective experience inferred from social exchanges with others. Blajer refers to the former as “formal inclusion” and to the latter as “informal inclusion.” Both formal and informal inclusion are political and required for belonging. Belonging is an intersubjective experience that draws from shared norms and a sociopolitical background that makes the experience of an individual legible to others.

There are, of course, many ways in which someone may not belong or feel like she does not belong and Blajer’s discussion of belonging is not about the general psychological experience of feeling unwelcomed. Instead, she focuses on belonging or failing to belong in a political community juridically defined in which one enjoys equal formal membership.

The manuscript draws from insights gleaned through ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Paris and Mexico City between 2015 and 2017. Mexico and France illustrate two incomplete pathways toward democratic belonging. Although both Mexico and France share a discourse of civic nationalism, a commitment to secularism and public education, and a revolutionary past, France boasts a strong state with a reliable bureaucracy that secures legal rights, while Mexico’s is beset by corruption, inequality, and inefficiency. The literature on state strength and democratization would expect France to fare better than Mexico in guaranteeing the equal standing of its members—and thus their equal belonging. Counterintuitively, Blajer finds that not to be the case. In France, formal inclusion takes precedence in determining membership and shaping belonging. In Mexico, by contrast, the state’s underperformance creates a reliance on social bonds that nurture informal inclusion. Informal inclusion thus takes precedence over formal inclusion. In both countries, democratic belonging is incomplete. Although political scientists are well aware of the many ways in which a place such as Mexico could benefit from being a little more like France, the book manuscript highlights how France could learn a lesson from Mexico.

More tangibly, however, Blajer proposes that public space encounters often brushed off as trivial, epiphenomenal to formal institutions, or anecdotal are worth celebrating and approached as spaces for intervention to foster equality. They are crucial in the pursuit of democratic equality and relational egalitarianism.

Blajer has investigated the relationship between formal arrangements and everyday practices in other recent work. In her 2019 Politics and Society article, “Leaving your Car with Strangers: Informal Car Parkers and Improbable Trust in Mexico City,” she explored the case of informal car parkers in Mexico City to whom drivers entrust their unlocked vehiclesIn contrast to the literature on social trust that expects institutional and interpersonal trust to support one another, she shows that interpersonal trust improbably arises in the context of corrupt and inefficient institutions. Moreover, she argues that deep class cleavages provide the framework for familiar forms of interaction that coalesce with classist tropes, becoming formulaic enough to appear safe. Interpersonal trust becomes possible, not only despite class cleavages and low institutional trust but, paradoxically, because of them. She has also co-authored a piece on judicial reforms and socioeconomic vulnerabilities in Mexico speaking to the instrumentalization of indigenous and economic minorities in creating the fiction of a modern Mexican democratic state.

Her second book project addresses the role of emotions in creating and reproducing power hierarchies and oppressive systems. Blajer published an initial foray into this topic in the European Journal of Political Theory in 2020. “The Meek and the Mighty: Two Models of Oppression” distills two emotional discourses undergirding narratives that support systems of oppression: pity and fear. In that article, she distinguishes pity from compassion and then argues that narratives that draw upon pity prevail when those in power perceive limited threats to their power structure, in turn inducing low-intensity charitable state action. Conversely, narratives that deploy fear emerge when the power structure is perceived to be under threat, in turn eliciting high-intensity punitive state action. Pity narratives tend to infantilize members of oppressed groups, while fear narratives animalize them. The project, which is still in early stages, will draw from newspaper articles, speeches, novels, and memoirs to discuss how affect is mobilized, stoked, and shaped to justify oppressive systems.

This second book project is in conversation with literatures on oppression, sociopolitical inequalities, and the significance of emotions, all key dimensions of the interaction between institutional frameworks and everyday practices that motivate the questions at the heart of Blajer’s research.

Blajer holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Chicago and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University. She was born and raised in Mexico City.

Yuna Blajer de la Garza can be reached at yunablajer@gmail.com. An updated overview of her research as well as information on working pieces and teaching can be found at https://www.yunablajer.com.


Kevin Funk

June 2020

Kevin Funk is an interdisciplinary political economist and Latin Americanist whose research sheds light on how the region’s cultural geographies and built spaces are both shaped by, and give shape to, various kinds of global flows. In so doing, his writings contribute to important debates relating to theories of global capitalism, socio-spatial transformation, and Latin American political economy.

Funk’s forthcoming book, which is entitled Rooted Globalism: Arab-Latin American Elite Consciousness and the Politics of Alternative Imaginaries and is under contract with Indiana University Press, interrogates the oft-repeated claim that global capitalists have developed a shared, cosmopolitan class consciousness. This study presents an innovative, interpretivist analysis of the dozens of ethnographic interviews that the author conducted with leaders from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile’s prominent Arab-descendant economic elite and illuminates how they navigate between their Arab ancestry, Latin American host cultures, and roles as protagonists of globalization.

His principal finding is that while capitalist globalization is indeed strengthening border-crossing connections between economic elites, it is simultaneously reinforcing certain localized cultural practices, identities, and imaginaries, rather than obliterating them. As he carefully documents, global capitalism in fact relies on particularistic identities, as it is precisely those with the requisite cultural capital—in this case, Arab- Latin Americans—who are best situated to identify opportunities for, facilitate, participate in, and profit from economic exchange between these two far-flung yet increasingly connected regions.

This text makes significant contributions to vibrant, multidisciplinary debates on global class formation, global imaginaries, and transnationalism, as well as to literatures on Arab-Latin Americans and other diaspora communities, and to the advancement of interpretivist methods. Funk puts into dialogue the diverse works of political scientists ranging from Robert Cox to Samuel Huntington, along with sociologists such as Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells, and anthropologists like Aihwa Ong and Nina Glick Schiller, all of whom argue that simultaneous embeddedness in multiple spaces, and the concomitant waning of state sovereignty, are constituent features of our global age.

Funk’s is the first in-depth analysis of global identity formation within a particular community of economic elites. Contrary to received wisdom, he reveals the persistence as opposed to the death of national imaginaries even among assumed “globalists.” In turn, he develops the novel concept of “rooted globalism” to capture how global identities are slowly rising, but without erasing existing attachments. Instead, what are being generated are mixed, palimpsest-like imaginaries and “classed” intersectional identities that are simultaneously local, national, transnational, and global.

This research has also served as the basis for articles that have been published in the Journal of Cultural Economy, New Political Science, and The Latin Americanist, as well as book chapters in The Global Citizenship Nexus: Critical Studies and Latin American Foreign Policies towards the Middle East: Actors, Contexts, and Trends 

His current research and subsequent book project—tentatively entitled, Making Neoliberal Places: A Social, Spatial, and Temporal Analysis of Urban Change in Rio de Janeiro—continues to analyze how mental and physical spaces in and beyond Latin America are being transformed by globalizing processes. With funding from the American Political Science Association and other sources, Funk spent six months in Rio conducting interviews for this study, along with carrying out a “walking ethnography” and compiling photographic evidence.

As Funk argues, Rio is a particularly apt site from which to theorize socio-spatial transformation, given that its world-famous built environment is very much in flux due to recent megaprojects and post-Olympics struggles over who has the right to inhabit this extremely unequal and increasingly privatized city. Particularly suggestive of Rio’s “regeneration” is the upmarket, public-private Porto Maravilha (Marvelous Port) development along its long-neglected harbor. Its newly opened spaces include futuristic, “starchitect”-designed museums and South America’s biggest aquarium. Yet Rio’s local experience is also emblematic of a broader trend, as urban waterfronts the world over are being “revitalized” by culture-led development schemes and the construction of “iconic” spaces.

Drawing from the case of Rio, this study analyzes the meanings embedded in these projects, reveals how they engender a class-based and racialized form of citizenship, and delineates their promotion of market values over democratic ones. Putting Nancy Fraser’s notion of “progressive neoliberalism” into dialogue with the voluminous literature on “neoliberal urbanism,” Funk develops the concept of “progressive neoliberal place-making” to explain how these privatizing projects seek legitimacy by adopting and appropriating social-justice discourses.

Museu do Amanhã, Rio de Janeiro. Photograph by Kevin Funk, 2018

This dynamic is especially evident vis-à-vis the new and above-pictured Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow), which is the most spectacular addition to central Rio’s waterfront. As Funk argues in a soon-to-be-submitted article manuscript, while this “iconic” site invokes a utopian futurism based on addressing climate change and other environmental challenges, the Museum is in fact unable to disentangle itself from the corporate and environmentally unsustainable logic of the larger Porto Maravilha project. Further, embedded in the Museum’s futuristic ontology is a disregarding of the “revitalized” port area’s past role in the slave trade and the difficult social conditions that affect its present residents, who are among Rio’s poorest.

In addition to these topics, Funk is also interested in the broader Latin American experience with neoliberalism (Journal of Politics in Latin America), and is currently tracing the diffusion of Chilean-style neoliberal policies—such as the country’s pathbreaking system of privatized pensions—to Brazil and other countries both within and beyond the region.

Finally, Funk conducts research on the sociology of academic knowledge production, with a focus on the status of Marxism (International Studies Perspectives; Teaching Marx & Critical Theory in the 21st Century; PS: Political Science & Politics [forthcoming]) and interpretivism (PS: Political Science & Politics) within political science and the social sciences more broadly.

He is a regular invited speaker on Latin American politics at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. He has also received the Hayward R. Alker Award from the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) Interpretive Methodologies and Methods Group, the Stephen Eric Bronner Dissertation Award from APSA’s Caucus for a New Political Science, and the Edward H. Moseley Award from the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies, and previously served on the executive committee of the International Studies Association’s Global South Caucus.

Kevin Funk can be reached at kevin.funk@gmail.com and followed at @KevinBFunk. His writings can be accessed via https://independent.academia.edu/KevinBFunk.

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