James Holston

James Holston’s current research examines the worldwide insurgence of democratic citizenships in the context of global urbanization. Three considerations frame this work: those of theme, method, and critique.

The first analyzes insurgent citizenship movements in relation to projects of state that aim to produce the nation and manage the social by imposing a future embodied in plans – projects of city planning, development, law, and government. By insurgent, I refer to practices through which people problematize such projects – practices that work against established conditions of inequality and provide alternatives for including citizens and distributing rights. My research focuses especially on the generation of insurgent citizenship among the urban working classes in Brazil, as they confront problems of urbanization, land tenure, government regulation, state violence, and misrule of law. My publications consider the unsettling of national and local citizenship this insurgence produces. They emphasize, however, that as dominant regimes of rule destabilize, the insurgent remains entangled with the entrenched. The result is a process of democratization in which new kinds of citizens arise to expand democracy and new forms of violence, illegality, and exclusion simultaneously erode it.

The methodological concerns of my research combine ethnography and history to study the present. I rely on the empirical depth and precision of ethnographic analysis to engage the problems that mobilize people in the places I work: in the poor peripheries and elite neighborhoods of São Paulo, in a new religion on the outskirts of Brasília, in Latino neighborhoods in California. This mapping has always suggested to me that a particular problem encountered in the field takes on a specific expression because its historical formulation continues to structure its present possibilities. For example, the use of law to legalize illegal land seizures in the contemporary peripheries of São Paulo makes sense only in relation to the centuries of land occupation in Brazil that made illegal settlement the norm of residence. Contemporary citizenships are typically volatile mixtures of insurgent and entrenched elements because the dominant historical regimes of citizenship both produce and limit possible counter-formulations. I pursue historical analysis in ethnography to investigate these articulations.

Anthropology’s engagement of ethnography and history also suggests a strategy for critical research. By that, I mean problematizing thoughts and actions that rest on taken-for-granted, unexamined assumptions and demonstrating the consequences that both the unexamination of the familiar and its defamiliarization have for the construction of the present. Thus my research aims to debunk a number of professional practices and presuppositions: to expose modes of urban planning that segregate; to doubt distinctions between the illegal and the legal that ground law systems and the constitution of political powers; to demonstrate how development policies predictably promote conflict because they set the terms by which encroachments are reliably legalized; to argue that political definitions alone are inadequate to evaluate democracy and that political democracies do not necessary produce a democratic rule of law. I encourage collaborative work among students with the aim of building a corpus of research both to ground such critique and to indicate professional practices that foster greater citizen participation and social justice.

Representative Publications

2008. Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1999. Cities and Citizenship, edited by James Holston. Durham: Duke University Press.

1989. The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


2006. Citizenship in disjunctive democracies. In Citizenship in Latin America, 75-94. Joseph S. Tulchin and Meg Ruthenburg, editors. Boulder: Lynne Reinner.

2005. (and Teresa P. R. Caldeira). State and urban space in Brazil: from modernist planning to democratic interventions. In Global Anthropology: Technology, Governmentality, Ethics, 393-416. Aihwa Ong and Stephen J. Collier, editors. London: Blackwell.

2001. Urban citizenship and globalization. In Global City-Regions, 325-348. Allen J. Scott, editor. New York: Oxford University Press.

1999. (and Teresa P. R. Caldeira). Democracy and violence in Brazil. Comparative Studies in Society and History 41(4): 691-729.

1999. Alternative modernities: statecraft and religious imagination in the Valley of the Dawn. American Ethnologist 26(3): 605-631

1995. Spaces of insurgent citizenship. Planning Theory 13: 35-51.

1991. Autoconstruction in working-class Brazil. Cultural Anthropology 6(4): 447-465.

1991. The misrule of law: land and usurpation in Brazil. Comparative Studies in Society and History 33(4): 695-725.