I recently reviewed a research proposal for an ethnographic study of the dynamics of violence and the responses by local actors in a low-income barrio in Guatemala City. The methodology was focused on seeing violence through the eyes of neighborhood residents by means of observation and interviews. The proposal made some mention of examining the macro-social contextual factors that affected the area as well, such as economic and political marginalization, which are generally understood to be drivers of violence in such communities.
In my comments, I suggested that the researchers focus much more on this last element. I mentioned that there existed a number of studies such as the one they were proposing, oriented towards understanding the character of violence in vulnerable neighborhoods in Latin America. Researchers have also studied the types of responses local actors have carried out in these situations. However, the linkage between underlying structures of economic, political and social exclusion, on the one hand, and local dynamics of violence, on the other, have not been as fully explored, at least not empirically. This, I argued, would be the most policy-relevant area of potential investigation: understanding the relationship between macro-structures and micro-dynamics.
As long as the linkages between structural exclusion and neighborhood violence remain murky, efforts to promote citizen security will continue to focus on the violence itself as the cause of security problems, rather than a symptom of an underlying cause. Efforts to address violence often treat violence as a characteristic of an individual, or possibly group, rather than an element of the structures in which those actors are imbedded. If we could better understand the relationship between structural exclusion and violence, we could better address the underlying issues that were making individuals and communities more prone to violence. That would be a step forward in the journey towards addressing spiraling levels of violence in many cities throughout Latin America.
In my own research on vulnerable urban communities in Guatemala, I have attempted to delve into this connection between macro and micro, particularly concerning political dynamics. In Guatemala, the nature of political clientelism, a much-studied phenomenon in Latin America, is more short-term and transactional, better described as vote buying. Political parties are too weak and fragmented to build and sustain the durable forms of clientelism associated with parties like Mexico’s PRI and Argentina’s Peronist Party, which have endured for generations. Rather, parties focus their resources on more simple and direct exchanges of material goods for votes.
On the ground, I found that parties interfaced with community leaders in an attempt to secure votes. They deployed promises, both of future benefits for the neighborhood and for special consideration for local leaders (often cash or a commitment to provide a government job), building materials such as bags of cement or corrugated metal sheets, or a tangible physical project in the community. This last option was actually quite rare, as the cost to the party often outweighed the benefit. Voting is secret and there were over a dozen parties to choose from, so political operatives were hesitant to commit significant resources in an uncertain exchange.
The impacts of the macro-political context were several. First and most importantly, the interchange between community leaders and political parties, given the total lack of credibility of the later, weakened the position of those leaders in the community. Association with a party opened local leaders up to charges of corruption and manipulation. Second, political parties did not build any lasting machinery or affiliates on the ground; they simply disappeared once the elections were finished. Thus, political parties remained weak and were not a mechanism to channel the interests of citizens to the government. Vote buying is a substitute for a more programmatic basis for party identity, and a means of marginalizing citizens, by exchanging political rights (a citizen’s vote) for a material good at the time of election, rather than responsive service throughout the elected official’s term in office. The absence of credible political parties and the presence of vote buying practices sustained the political marginalization of poor urban communities, leaving them systematically ignored by elected politicians.
Studying the link between broader structural factors and local dynamics can be challenging, as the relationships are often complex and indirect. Isolating relevant contextual elements can be difficult, as can the search for causal linkages. Yet such research can yield promising policy recommendations to long-standing and challenging problems. Specifically, it can allow decision-makers to differentiate symptoms and causes, and thus channel resources to the most effective leverage points to promote positive change.