Defying Expectations: Associational Participation and Democratization in Poor Communities in Argentina

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Sacouman, Natasha
Korzeniewicz, Roberto P.
Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the key to democracy is "knowledge of how to combine." This dissertation focuses on the following question: Can participation in associations facilitate democracy within the communities in which they exist even if such associations are not democratically organized - i.e., vertical, hierarchical organizations. To consider this question, this dissertation explores a poor community's transition from a sparse to a highly developed associational space, and examines the impact of this process of democratization on social relations at both the associational and the personal levels (between leaders, participants, and non-participants). Specifically, I compare three different associational settings in a barrio in Greater Buenos Aires, Argentina -- i.e., a non-governmental organization, a religious network, and a political party network -- to assess whether democratization can occur with the construction and communication of symbolic meaning and objective practices by vertically structured, hierarchical organizations. I analyze the interplays between inclusion and exclusion; solidarity and generalized distrust; and inequality and protagonism. Ultimately, this dissertation demonstrates how the configuration of social relations serves to legitimate and reproduce civic life in poor communities. This dissertation is based upon extensive ethnographic observations in three different associations and the community itself, as well as upon qualitative interviews with community leaders, participants, nonparticipants, politicians and academics.