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.

Ethan Tupelo

September 2022

Ethan Tupelo is Visiting Assistant Professor of Critical Social Thought at Hampshire College. His work is at the interdisciplinary intersection of environmental politics, political theory, and social movements. Using a multi-sited, ethnographically-grounded approach, Tupelo draws connections between local waste practices and transnational environmental destruction, challenging dominant narratives about technological progress and sustainability. Contrasting work that emphasizes technical solutions to ecological crises, his work urges recognition of their underlying political sources, how those forms of domination and inequality can be effectively challenged, and envisioning an ecologically just society.

Tupelo’s book manuscript, entitled Debris of Progress: A Political Ethnography of Critical Infrastructure, focuses on Pedal People, a twenty year-old worker cooperative based in Northampton, Massachusetts. The cooperative is one of the main waste haulers in the city, but does all of its work by bicycle. While working with them as a participant-observer and worker-owner for five years (while he worked on his graduate degree), hauling eight-foot long trailers filled with over 300 pounds of waste across a total distance of over 9000 miles, he shows how they challenge the destructiveness of waste infrastructure in their community in multiple dimensions: eliminating the use of fossil fuels, providing worker ownership and control, and reclaiming the value of dirty work. This kind of hauling is more common in the Global South, but done as a successful business in the context of the ‘developed’ world, projects like these challenge common narratives of economic development and technological progress, where it would seem ‘obvious’ and ‘inevitable’ that more advanced machinery will displace human-powered work, and that such ‘progress’ would be beneficial and desirable to all involved.

Instead of overworked and low-paid truck drivers, rushing between pickups, belching exhaust, and disrupting sleep with early morning pickups, residents see highly-paid workers, hauling the same materials without fossil fuels, using simple equipment that can be easily and locally repaired.   However, like other similar local challenges, they are plugged into larger regional and global infrastructures, the effects of which are largely outside their influence. Tupelo followed the waste as it travelled through these infrastructures, from households, to transfer stations, to regional recycling facilities, to the sanitary landfill for most of the regional waste hundreds of miles away. In doing so, he shows how these complex systems are affected by local residents, waste haulers, state regulators, and foreign governments. He argues that local initiatives like these provide openings for solving some of the most dire political and environmental problems of our time, while they simultaneously obscure and even reinforce the very problems they set out to solve. Despite all the real gains made in terms of social and ecological justice, ultimately the waste is going to the same place.

In interviews, customers express trust that the cooperative is ‘doing something good’ with the waste, even though virtually none know what actually happens to it. Others even share sentiments of feeling positive about the items they leave out, since they are being dealt with in what appears to be an ecologically sound way. This ambivalence of the effects of infrastructural challenges, seeming to improve some aspects, while exacerbating others, can be seen in even more complex systems, such as similar transformational projects in food or energy infrastructures.

While generated through a political ethnography of one specific case, Tupelo uses this study to develop a theory of critical infrastructure, as a way of analyzing the power relations within infrastructure that normalize human destructiveness to the biosphere. Tupelo conceptualizes infrastructure as the material and discursive ‘background’ of everyday life, in which and through which ‘normal’ activity occurs. He uses “critical” infrastructure in three senses: 1) denoting the most important forms of infrastructure that are widely seen as necessary for present-day urban civilization to function; 2) as programs of resistance undertaken by particular actors embedded within infrastructural projects, who understand themselves to be challenging or otherwise transforming dominant forms of power relations; and 3) in the sense of Critical Theory, to connote an approach to the study of infrastructure that prioritizes analysis of the practices and ideologies of domination with an orientation towards liberation. Analyzing infrastructure in this explicitly political way allows us to better understand the power dynamics embedded within these complex systems, and how they can be effectively challenged.

Tupelo’s future work will build on the critical infrastructure theory developed in his book manuscript by examining the political implications of large-scale, top-down attempts to address the climate disaster, exemplified by the Green New Deal. Like other similar programs launched throughout the Global North, the fixation of such programs on technological solutions ignores the importance of local participation and decision-making, reinforces the trade imbalances that increase global inequality, and remains dependent on forms of ecological destruction like mineral mining. Tupelo contrasts these with several key cases of smaller-scale forms of mitigation, which increase local control, autonomy, and resiliency. This project highlights the entanglement of the ecological crisis with state power and democratic practices, often ignored when focusing only on technological solutions.

In conjunction with his academic work, Tupelo has been involved in a range of social movements. While an undergraduate in Washington, DC, he was an organizer in the Global Justice Movement, during which he branched out to anti-war and union organizing. He co-operated an egalitarian rural commune in Virginia for several years, and recently has been involved in regional worker cooperatives beyond Pedal People through the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives. Tupelo holds his academic work and commitment towards social justice as inexorably linked, each making the other more effective.

This also informs Tupelo’s teaching methodologies, which help students develop skills to analyze and challenge systems of domination. For four years at UMass, he taught an introductory Comparative Politics course to first semester students, structured to cover the historical evolution of core inequalities that have shaped our contemporary world, from the rise of modern states, through the colonial and decolonial eras, ending with potentials for addressing these legacies. At Hampshire, his course on Waste, Politics, and the Environmental Crisis draws together many of the above themes, where students will investigate their own waste practices, the politics and inequalities that revolves around waste, where is this ‘away’ to which we throw all this unwanted matter, and what is existence like for those who live there. Students in Social Movements: Theory, Practice, Strategy will develop a collective strategy guide, based on theory and practice from social movement scholars and practitioners, and then apply that guide to an issue of their choosing, designing a phase of a movement campaign.

Ethan Shiya Hirsh Tupelo earned his PhD in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2022 and his BA in International Studies from American University (Washington, DC) in 2004. He can be reached at etupelo@pm.me. Current information on research, teaching, and activism can be found at http://ethantupelo.com.  

Osman Balkan

January 2022

Osman Balkan is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College. His research and teaching interests cohere around the politics of global migration, borders, race, ethnicity, identity, and necropolitics. Balkan’s scholarship is informed by his transnational background as a second-generation immigrant who grew up between the United States and Turkey. He studies how migratory experiences shape racialized identities and is broadly interested in how societies grapple with diversity and difference. Inspired by what Stuart Hall famously called “the multicultural question,” his research attends to the ways in which various intersecting axes of identity—such as race, religion, and national heritage—impact the ability of minoritized populations to seek cultural recognition, claim political membership, and feel a sense of belonging in contemporary European societies.

Balkan’s work leverages multiple interpretative and qualitative research methods including ethnography, participant-observation, interviews, and critical discourse analysis of media resources. His fieldwork to date has been centered in Germany and Turkey and his first monograph, Dying Abroad: The Political Afterlives of Migration in Europe, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press as part of its LSE International Studies Series.Dying Abroad is the first book to explore in detail how immigrant communities navigate end-of-life decisions in countries where they face structural barriers to full citizenship and equal social standing—a phenomenon Balkan terms “death out of place.” It argues that states, families, and religious communities all have a vested interest in the fate of dead bodies and illustrates how the quotidian practices attending the death and burial of minoritized groups in migratory settings are structured by deeper political questions about the meaning of home and homeland.  

Drawing on multi-sited fieldwork conducted in Berlin and Istanbul between 2013 – 2017, Dying Abroad builds on extensive and immersive ethnographic research of Germany’s nascent Islamic funeral industry (where Balkan worked as an undertaker) as well as interviews with bereaved families, religious leaders, government officials, death care workers, and representatives of Islamic civil society organizations. Focusing on the experiences of longstanding Turkish and Kurdish origin communities, it demonstrates that burial in Germany is a symbolically powerful means to assert political membership and belonging in the diaspora. Yet the widespread practice of posthumous repatriation to Turkey for burial illustrates the continued importance of transnational ties and serves as an indictment of Germany’s exclusionary socio-political order. In both situations, the corpse is central to grounding political claims for recognition. The act of burial confers a final sense of fixity to identities that are more fluid or ambivalent in life. When the boundaries of the nation and its demos are contested, burial decisions are political acts.

However, end-of-life practices unfold within overlapping and sometimes conflicting political institutions and value systems. As such, they involve a range of formal actors and informal networks. By tracing the actors, networks, and institutions that determine the movement of dead bodies within and across international borders, Dying Abroad offers insight into the processes through which relations between authority, territory, and populations are managed at a transnational level. Engaging with a wide range of theoretical approaches to questions concerning the body, sovereign power, and necropolitics, as well as transnationalism, identity, and diaspora politics, the book illustrates how posthumous practices anchor minority claims for political inclusion and challenge hegemonic ideas about the boundaries of nation-states and the place of immigrants within them.

Balkan is currently at work on a second book manuscript which explores how countries remember and come to terms with acts of political violence and terrorism. Tentatively titled, Unwanted Bodies: Violence, Sovereignty, and the Politics of Memory, this project highlights how the constitution, consolidation, and territorialization of moral, religious, and political communities are underpinned by rituals of public mourning and collective grief. Inspired by Judith Butler’s work on precarity and ungrievable life as well as on-going debates in the field of memory studies, this project offers a comparative analysis of the complex negotiations surrounding the burial and memorialization of victims and perpetrators of political violence in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States.

Case studies include the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, the Boston Marathon Bombing, the aftermath of a failed military coup attempt in Turkey, the exhumation and reburial of Francisco Franco in Spain, and the sea-burial of Osama Bin Laden by the U.S. military. By focusing on the materiality of the body as well as public rituals of collective mourning, this project contributes to on-going debates surrounding the politics of monuments and memorials. It aims to advance scholarly discussions about the organization of collective memory by showing how states and other political actors manage the afterlives of unwanted bodies as they commemorate the past and attempt to shape the future.

Balkan is involved in several cross-disciplinary research networks. In 2017, he co-founded (with Tani Sebro), the American Political Science Association’s Political Ethnography Working Group, a network of scholars of politics whose work employs ethnographic, interpretive, and qualitative research methods. He is a twice elected member of the Executive Council of APSA’s Migration and Citizenship Section and serves on the editorial teams of Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism and International Political Sociology. In the summer of 2021, Balkan co-led a research methodology workshop sponsored by APSA’s Middle East and North Africa Section on visuality and political ethnography.  He is currently chairing the Interpretative Methodologies and Methods Section’s Hayward Alker Award Committee.

Balkan’s work has appeared and is forthcoming in journals such as Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle EastStudies in Ethnicity and NationalismTheory & EventJournal of Intercultural Studies, and Contemporary French Civilization as well as in public facing outlets such as Project on Middle East Political Science and The Immanent Frame. He has published book chapters in edited volumes such as Turkey’s Necropolitical Laboratory: Democracy, Violence, and ResistanceMuslims in the UK and Europe, and The Democratic Arts of Mourning: Political Theory and Loss.

Balkan earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania and his B.A. in Political Science from Reed College. He can be reached at can be reached at obalkan1@swarthmore.edu. His personal website is http://www.osmanbalkan.com and Twitter handle is @osmanchego.

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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