Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Brodwyn Fischer ─ The Right to the City in Theory and Practice: An Uneasy History of Brazil’s Urban Social Movements

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

McKinney Conference Room

Brodwyn Fischer is Professor of Latin American History and the College, and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago. She is a historian of Brazil and Latin America, especially interested in cities, citizenship, law, migration, race, and social inequality. Her first book, A Poverty of Rights (Stanford, 2008), examined how weak citizenship rights and residential informality came to define urban poverty, popular social struggles, and the political dynamics of inequality in modern Brazil. It received book awards from the Social Science History Association, the Urban History Association, the Conference on Latin American History, and the Brazilian Studies Association.

She coedited Cities from Scratch (Duke University Press, 2014), with Bryan McCann and Javier Auyero, which explores the many ways in which poverty and informality have shaped the Latin American urban experience. Her essay for the volume, "A Century in the Present Tense," argues that the historical dynamics of Brazilian urban poverty have been obscured by a marked tendency to see informal cities as symptoms of current crises rather than historically dynamic phenomena in their own right. In various other essays and ongoing research, she has focused on the historical dynamics of Brazilian racial inequalities, criminal law, Brazil’s twentieth-century great migrations, and the relationship between the urban poor and Brazil’s political left.

Her current project, Understanding Inequality in Post-Abolition Brazil, asks when—and if—social inequality came to be defined as Brazil’s central sociopolitical problem. Drastic inequalities have always defined Brazilian society, and the struggle against inequality has long shaped the political left. But in Brazil’s late nineteenth century, issues of hunger, disease, landlessness, and freedom often loomed larger for the very poor than inequality per se, and the combination of weak public institutions and private monopolization of power and resources rendered access to vertical social networks vital. In such a context, inequality was often the root cause of social misery, but access to one’s unequals was often the only way to survive it. This tension endured throughout the twentieth century, becoming a defining feature of Brazilian modernity. In tracing inequality’s confounding history, this project illuminates the sinuous logic of poor people’s political mobilization in Brazil, often revealing significant agency in actions once regarded as symptoms of false consciousness or ignorant dependence. Yet Understanding Inequality also indicates some of the paradoxical ways in which struggles for survival and social mobility have historically reinforced rather than disrupted larger inequalities.

Development and Governance Seminar