Anti-Mining Politics in Colombia: A Visual Interview with Ángela Castillo

Ángela Castillo

What can the battle around a new mine in Colombia tell us about the past and future of environmentalist organizing in Latin America? Matrix Postdoc Julia Sizek interviewed Ángela Castillo, who is a recent PhD graduate from UC Berkeley’s Anthropology Department, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Pitzer College in Southern California, and a member of the editorial team of Engagement, the blog of the Anthropology and Environment Society. Castillo studies environmental politics and struggles over natural resource extraction with an emphasis on Latin America, particularly Colombia. Her scholarly work explores how environmental and territorial disputes give rise to new forms of political action. 

What is the Colosa gold project, and why is it controversial?

I think of the Colosa project not as a specific mining site or a corporation, but as a concentrated effort to industrially exploit one of Colombia’s largest subterranean gold deposits through an open-pit mine. From this perspective, the Colosa project is a set of operations, actors, relations, and capital arranged to extract Andean highland underground gold and transform it into a mineral resource that is sold and bought in the market. While the open-pit site has not been built as of 2024, some of the operations fundamental to bringing the Colosa project to life have included a geological exploration of Colombia’s Andean ranges, which was funded by the corporation between 2003 and 2007. This expedition put more than 100 geologists and fieldworkers to work exploring Colombia’s underground and identifying mineral deposits. After that, the corporation secured mining titles over approximately 22,000 acres in the region and started exploration activities, such as drilling and sampling, in the municipality where the deposit was located (Cajamarca, Tolima). All of these components constitute the Colosa project.

The Colosa project is unique: it was going to be one of the first montane industrialized mining sites in Colombia. Until the end of the 20th century, industrial mining had been limited to lowland areas and semi-flat areas. 

La Colosa is controversial for several reasons. First, elevated areas in tropical regions harbor unique ecosystems, such as Andean tropical forests (cloud forests), páramos (high tropical ecosystems above the treeline), and tropical glaciers, and the project could impact these ecosystems. These ecosystems are biodiversity hotspots, and many rivers originate there.

Second, the project is controversial because these mountains are home to communities of small farmers, or campesinos, practicing semi-intensive agriculture with cash crops. An open-pit mine is one in which layers of the mountain are blasted and removed. Eliminating the tree coverage and different layers of soil would thus make agriculture impossible and endanger endemic animals and plants. The project was very poorly received by small farmers, people living in nearby towns, in the regional capital, and in other parts of the country. The Colosa was controversial because it was associated with the destruction of water, biodiversity, and food. 

A third reason the project is controversial is the relationship between this mountain range (not specifically the zone of the Colosa, but the broader area) and the history of Colombia’s political violence and internal conflict. The mountain range has been home to both armed and non-armed revolutionary and reformist movements (some of which turned into guerrillas, while others did not). What I want to flag is that these are spaces where state territorialization has always been contested and, therefore, conspicuously incomplete. Of course, the interest in transforming the high Andes into a new mining landscape would bring all these elements into a complicated interaction.

In your research, you followed an anti-mining coalition and groups like the Environmental Committee for the Defense of Life. How did the group conceptualize their project as one of defending life? 

I followed a coalition formed by different organizations, including groups like the Environmental Committee for the Defense of Life. I also track other groups in nearby towns. This coalition isn’t formal; it lacks a name and people don’t refer to it as “our coalition,” but they come together to act, which is what I consider the coalition. The Environmental Committee for the Defense of Life played a pivotal role in shaping the terms and material conditions for this type of political action. Using concepts from Black scholars like Berenice Johnson (1983)1, I describe the work that these organizations do as “coalitional,” meaning that relations and interactions are maintained and flourish despite differences, mistrust, potential harm, and disagreements among people.

Since starting my fieldwork, I have been interested in unpacking and ethnographically elaborating the concepts this coalition uses to frame their political work. They refer to their actions as “territorial, water, and life defense.” What underpins and signals these terms? Why opt for these rather than “environmental activists”? Why have these notions gained so much traction globally?

The concept of life is particularly fascinating; my research indicates that it derives from a situated reflection of Colombia’s political history and a reflection of what is human and more-than-human life.2 However, it is also a term that invites potential links and comparisons with other movements that foreground life and vitality, such as Black Lives Matter in the US or Ni Una Más in Latin America. 

To understand what they mean by life, I want to mention that during fieldwork, I constantly hear from Committee members the expression, “against a politics based on death, we put forward a politics of life” (contra una política de muerte, nosotros avanzamos una política de la vida). What is being articulated here is a concrete theorization of how Colombian politics (both state and counter-state) have been defined by the use of violent means to either exterminate the politically different “other” (see the Patriotic Union Political Party state-sponsored genocide, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Decision July 27th, 2022), or to force a recalibration of political forces to promote resource redistribution or political rights, as well as to end exploitation, domination, or exclusion. When defenders invoke “life,” I identify an ongoing reflection on the role of violence in politics. However, it is not necessarily a Global North liberal perspective on violence.

Another thread in their use of the concept of life relates to a situated discussion of what constitutes human life and what defines a dignified human life. Another expression that I often hear in Tolima and other parts of Colombia is “until dignity becomes customary” or “until we are completely accustomed to dignity” (hasta que la dignidad se haga costumbre). Here, they theorize that human life is considered worthy and that it commands respect. They argue that forms of human life cannot be replaced or radically transformed merely for the purpose of converting areas into extractive sites.

A final thread in their use of the concept is how they consider the relationship between human life and more-than-human life. “In defense of life” does not necessarily center human life as unique, but acknowledges that human life occurs alongside and depends on other forms of life. It is also very interesting how, for example, these defenders seldom mention the planet, the globe, or humankind. Those are notions that are not underpinning their political action, although they are up-to-date in understanding global warming and the climate crisis. However, I think the concept of life, in some ways, levels the status between who defends and who is defended, which is not necessarily present in articulations where environmentalists protect the planet.

This leads us to one of the central concepts that the movement uses to think about itself: as a proceso. What is the proceso, and how does the concept of the proceso shape their advocacy?

a group of people gathered in a meeting
In the image, we see a Facebook post by the Colectivo Socioambiental Juvenil de Cajamarca-COSAJUCA (Cajamarca’s Youth Socioenvironmental Collective) featuring a photo from one of their workshops with small farmers. The caption in the social media post, “the territorial defense process continues,” suggests that these gatherings represent the ongoing struggle and mobilization against the mining corporation. Image taken from Cosajuca’s Facebook Page, May 14, 2017.

In the image above, we see an example of the use of the notion of “proceso,” which translates as “the process.” In the image, we see a picture of an organizing event with Cajamarca’s  farmers, indicating that this action is one way in which the “proceso” remains alive. A simple way to define “proceso” is that it is the local term for both the coalition they created, and also the term they use to theorize about a social movement. I never heard them talking about “our coalition” or “our social movement,” although technically, this is an example of what some literature would call new social movements oriented to environmental issues. I am still thinking through the relevance of “proceso,” and by that, I mean the theoretical, political, and affective affordances and foreclosures the term allows for defenders, allies, and outsiders. The term underscores something that is made of moving pieces, that unfolds in time, and that is goal-oriented. It is not a term that refers to formal and bounded organization, so I have the idea that when they use “proceso,” they are emphasizing three different aspects: coalitional practices to refuse the project, mutability, and post-extractive futures.

I think that “proceso” shapes their advocacy by allowing them to somewhat detach and separate from more formal organizations, and instead focus on the broad political goal. If we want to reference scholars who have thought about time, like Reinhart Koselleck (2004), we can say that “proceso” speaks to situated spaces of experience and horizons of expectation that define this coalition and its activities.

How did the proceso begin?

The proceso began in 2007 when the Colosa project was publicly announced. People recalled that they had seen white SUVs, machines, and workers going around Cajamarca (the town where the gold deposit is located). However, since Cajamarca is also crossed by one of Colombia’s most important highways, many local dwellers thought those machines were related to a road tunnel that several Colombian governments have been promising for decades. However, in 2007, former president Alvaro Uribe announced the Colosa as one of the most important mining projects in Colombia’s history and as an engine of economic development. Small farmers in Cajamarca realized that a mine was going to be built in the mountain. That was a huge shock for many of them.

In my research, I show that the initial shock was important to ignite the proceso, but there were two historical conditions that came together to bring the proceso to life. The first one is that these campesinos had been participating in different projects aimed at rethinking farming in the mountain. Although agriculture was done by smallholders, it was an intensive form of agriculture that, since the late 1980s, had been using more plots of land, water, fertilizers, and pesticides. On one hand, farmers were aware of their reliance on fertilizers and pesticides. They complained about the prices and also about the difficulties of sustaining permanent cash crops. On the other hand, environmental conservation NGOs were concerned about how these practices could impact biodiversity, the forests, and the páramos (mountain ecosystem above the treeline). In the early 1990s, NGOs arrived with different projects and initiatives, including private reserves and agro-ecological projects. Agro-ecology emphasized organic fertilizers and pesticides, better use of the soils, crop combinations, and different waste management, among other things. When the Colosa project arrived, campesinos and local NGOs had been working together for more than 20 years in a theoretical and practical critique of economic development through intensive agriculture and agricultural experiments. Small farmers in these projects were the first to protest against the Colosa and looked for allies.

The second historical condition was the presence of a group of students, professors, and researchers in the schools of biology, agronomy, and social sciences in Ibagué, the regional capital. They had been trained under professors who applied the principles of collaboration, Research-Active Participation (Investigación-Acción Participativa, a form of research created by a Colombian sociologist during the 1960s), and liberation theology. All of these emphasized a form of research based upon collaborating with communities. It implied both concrete projects and a personal disposition on how to be a scholar. When small farmers started to contact students and faculty, many of those trained in these principles openly listened to small farmers and started attending meetings and organizing events. This was the beginning of the “proceso.” 

In sum, on one level, it was the articulation of small farmers and working-class members of the public regional university. On another level, it was the articulation of two traditions defined by critiques of intensive agricultural production and of apolitical scholarly research.

How does the concept of the proceso fit into the broader history of popular environmentalism, or ambientalismo popular, in Colombia? 

Throughout the 20th century, Colombian public universities have been a space for scholarly traditions that embraced collaboration and shared political goals with different sectors of society. 

In particular, Colombian public universities were the settings where  the concept of popular classes (clases populares) emerged in the 1960s.This was an alternative theorization done by political leaders who were also researchers, professors, liberation theology activists, and even revolutionaries. They challenged theterm “working class” because, for them, it did not fully encompass sectors such as the unemployed and small farmers. They started to use popular classes and call for united fronts (frentes unidos), a sort of space that brings together different social sectors. One can see them as proto-coalitional spaces. 

Many students were trained in this tradition. Relevant to the Colosa case is Professor Gonzalo Palomino, an agronomist who was deeply interested in environmental issues. When he arrived at Tolima’s public university to be a professor in the late 1970s after being trained in collaborative action research, he applied all these principles and adapted them to do research and advocacy about agriculture and environmental matters. 

In doing so, he nourished a specific type of environmental advocacy and action in Colombia. Over three decades, he organized a group of students and faculty to explore environmental problems and their impacts on the popular classes, using the conceptualization coined by his mentors during the 1960s. The fieldwork and writing that resulted from these activities gave form to one of the first examples of popular environmentalism in Colombia. 

Popular environmentalism took place outside of the urban and political centers, like Bogota. It was an environmentalism not performed by white Colombians doing conservation, but a kind of environmentalism practiced by low-income researchers and communities, in which ecological phenomena were thought about and explored in relation to the humans living there. The relationship of this tradition of popular environmentalism to the proceso against the Colosa is direct. Many of the students and faculty who established alliances with small farmers and who then formed organizations, such as the Committee, were directly trained by Professor Palomino in the principles of popular environmentalism. Without their involvement in this tradition, I think it would be hard for them to sustain the coalition. 

This part of the research is relevant because it reveals how different sedimented histories underpin the resistance against the Colosa project. Examining the connections among these various traditions broadens our understanding of the anti-mining politics that have emerged in central Colombia. This approach moves beyond the narrow focus of some studies that highlight only a few legal actions taken by defenders against the mining company as the sole significant events in this dispute. (2024). Of course, the popular consultations or local referendums— binding legal tools that were used to ask citizens of Cajamarca and Piedras about their opinion on industrialized mining, and through which voters rejected industrialized mining — were legally consequential events. But the forms of life and political action that these defenders configured over two decades cannot be reduced to these events. My research excavates these different critical traditions cultivated amidst violence and how their articulation is fundamental for the type of coalitional action that emerged in the context of the Colosa.

How might the lessons from the proceso change how we think about social movements and coalition-building? 

That is what I am trying to think about more. Established theorizations of social movements by both scholars in the North and the Global South draw on fixed notions of what social movements are and how their actions are strictly shaped by windows of opportunity that depend on the state. 

As a researcher, I am halfway situated between the Global South and the Global North, so to avoid flattening this phenomenon by the term “social movement,” I decided to give proceso a conceptual chance. I wanted to see if the word can do the same for a reader that it does for defenders in their different organizing events. 

When I was in the field, proceso was invoked in various settings and occasions. For instance, I heard statements like, “it is great that you want to join and help the proceso,” or “what we have to keep in mind is taking care of the proceso,” or “I’ve learned many things by being part of the proceso.” I think that the term “proceso” helps them make sense of that kind of political and care work to maintain connections between groups and even more-than-human entities, which are not fully captured by the word “social movement.” I don’t think right now that “proceso” could serve to theorize other social movements, but it could help shed light on how to theorize social movements by taking seriously the terms these coalitions use to make sense of their political labor.

What is the status of the Colosa project today, and how has the opposition to the project continued over time? 

As of April 2024,, the corporation has not been able to advance the project. There are no consistent exploration activities, drilling, platforms, or sampling. The corporation still holds some mining titles, so there are billboards in the area, sometimes protected by security guards. The physical signs are marking their contested territorial claims. But there is no project currently. 

However, I don’t want to suggest  that the dispute ended and the mining corporation abandoned their endeavours to exploit the area; this would be naïve. Since the last popular consultation took place in 2017, the corporation has initiated dozens of legal actions to undermine the results. They have lobbied to change the members of Colombia’s Supreme Court. In 2018, a new Constitutional Court ruled against using popular consultations to intervene in the authorization of mining projects. This questioned the legitimacy of the consultation processes in Piedras (2013) and Cajamarca (2017) that stopped the Colosa project. However, the decision was not enough to legally overturn the results in Cajamarca.  A very particular and contentious legal situation is currently unfolding.

Amidst that situation, the work of defending territory, water, and life has evolved into different practices: actualizing post-extractive futures via projects that ensure small farmers can produce crops in alternative ways, and defending the popular consultation results. Defending or taking care of the popular consultations’ results entails establishing alliances with lawyers to intercept or respond to the corporation’s legal actions, advocating for new legislation (such as the Environmental Democracy Law), and connecting with other procesos against the same corporation elsewhere in Colombia.


 1. “Coalitional Politics: Turning the Century” by Black scholar, activist, and artist Berenice Johnson was published in 1983 in a volume titled Home Girls. A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith. It was based on a public presentation that Johnson gave in 1981 at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival in Yosemite National Park, California.

2. Within the field of multispecies ethnography, the concept of “more-than-human” life refers to all elements of the environment that are not human but play a fundamental role in ecological and social interactions. More-than-human entities can include plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, elements, and more. Multispecies approaches in anthropology and ethnography examine and highlight the interconnected relationships between humans and other life forms.


The Emotions of Dyadic Relationships: An Interview with Jenna Wells and Felicia Zerwas

Zerwas and Wells

This episode of the Matrix Podcast features an interview with Jenna Wells and Felicia Zerwas, who at the time of the interview were Ph.D. candidates in the UC Berkeley Department of Psychology. The interview was conducted by Julia Sizek, Matrix Postdoctoral Fellow.

Jenna Wells is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. At the time of the interview, she was a Ph.D. candidate in the clinical science area at the University of California, Berkeley and a clinical psychology intern at the University of California, San Francisco, specializing in neuropsychological assessment of older adults. Her research examines interpersonal emotional phenomena in connection with aging and mental and physical health, with a focus on dementia caregiving relationships. She is interested in identifying factors that are associated with individual differences in caregivers’ health and well-being, and ultimately, hopes this work will inform the development of targeted, evidence-based interventions for caregivers of people with dementia.

Felicia Zerwas is currently a postdoctoral researcher working with a team at New York University on the community science initiative, MindHive. At the time of the interview, she was a Ph.D. candidate in the social-personality psychology area at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work focuses on understanding the role that emotions play in the formation and maintenance of close relationships. Since we rarely experience emotions in isolation, she examines how individuals experience and express their emotions in the presence of others, like a friend or romantic partner. Ultimately, she is interested in how those emotion related processes influence measures of relationship quality such as intimacy, perceived support, and conflict.

Listen to the interview below or on Apple Podcasts.


Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Julia Sizek: Hello, and welcome to the Matrix Podcast. I’m your host, Julia Sizek, and we’re recording in the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio. Our guests today are Jenna Wells and Felicia Zerwas, who are both Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Psychology at Berkeley.

Jenna is a clinical psychologist who studies emotion in close, older-adult relationships. Her research examines aspects of emotional functioning that are associated with health and well-being in later life. She’s particularly interested in identifying risk and resilience factors in individuals providing care for a loved one with dementia. Ultimately, she hopes that this work will lead to interventions that promote healthy aging in the face of adversity.

Felicia is a social personality psychologist whose work focuses on understanding the role that emotions play in the formation and maintenance of close relationships. She examines how individuals experience and express their emotions in the presence of others, like a friend or a romantic partner. Ultimately, she is interested in how those emotion-related processes influence measures of relationship quality, such as intimacy, perceived support, and conflict.

Welcome to the podcast, and thanks for coming today.

Jenna Wells: Thanks for inviting us.

Felicia Zerwas: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.

Sizek: So both of you study the dyadic form — that is, relationships between two people. How does studying two people together differ from studying one person alone?

Wells: That’s a great question. So Felicia and I both study emotions. And emotions are inherently social. They often occur in social contexts and interaction. And so much of the work in the field of affective science, or emotion science, has really focused on studying emotions in individuals. And this is missing a big piece of the puzzle, where emotions often occur in social contexts.

So we can learn a lot about studying people in their close relationships, in dyads, in groups. And so that’s, I think, a really important area for the field to head.

Zerwas: Yeah, I agree completely with Jenna’s answer. And I also just think it’s worth noting that, like she said, emotions rarely happen without people around us. And so they are inherently social phenomena. And if we’re not capturing that social context, we’re losing a lot of the nuance that can take place.

Sizek: So as we think about this, there are different emotions and different ways that people transfer their emotions between each other. How does emotional transfer happen in these different settings that you study, like friendships or caregiving relationships or romantic partnerships?

Zerwas: So it’s interesting. There are many different ways that this can happen. And so I bring couples into the lab typically to have conversations with one another. And one common process that we see is mimicry. So if you’re interacting with somebody and you see that they’re expressing certain behaviors, you might start to mimic them, because that can actually make the process or the interaction go a bit smoother. And so that’s one process I’m familiar with. Jenna I don’t know if there are others that you—

Wells: Yeah, definitely. So building on this idea of mimicry, or sometimes people call it “emotion contagion” — this idea that like, “I catch your feelings.” I think there’s also deeper levels of that that include different forms of empathy. So there’s cognitive empathy, where I know what you’re feeling, I can understand and accurately label the emotions that you’re having.

And then there’s also an emotional empathy where I feel what you’re feeling. I feel compassion or sympathy or kind of offshoots of this. And so there’s different ways in which we share and experience and mimic other people’s emotions. And those are all important facets of how emotions occur in these social contexts.

Sizek: But it’s not always the case that people are always expressing their emotions to each other. And one of the things that you both have looked at a little bit is this question of suppression or emotion regulation. So what is emotion regulation? And how is it commonly understood?

Zerwas: Yeah, I’m happy to take a stab at that one. So emotion regulation is the way that we try to manage or change our emotions. And there are many ways that we can do this. Suppression is one that you just mentioned, which involves concealing the behavior associated with an emotion. So, for example, I might be feeling sadness. On the inside. I can label that I’m feeling it, but I might not be showing any tears or any facial expressions of sadness.

And there are many other types of emotion regulation like reappraisal, which involves trying to think about the emotional experience in a different way. So, for example, I might try to tell myself something that will make me feel better about the emotion. I’m experiencing. And then another common one that at least I’m familiar with is acceptance, which is just accepting the emotional experience and not trying to change it.

And that’s typically associated with good things, because it’s not always advantageous to try to change your emotions.

Wells: Yeah, the different types of strategies that Felicia mentioned are really big ones in the field of emotion regulation. You can think about the process of an emotion happening, being generated. And at different points in the process. You might intervene either consciously or unconsciously, to change either the way you experience your emotion or you express your emotion.

James Gross is process model is the standard in the field for understanding these different avenues for employing an emotion regulation strategy. And so like Felicia said, suppression is one that happens at the end of the emotion generative process where you, consciously or unconsciously choose to inhibit your emotional response. Either expressively, or you could even suppress thoughts or feelings or attempt to.

Sizek: And how do these different strategies differ across different people? So let’s say that you’re a person who has a lot of social power or social prestige. How might you regulate your emotions differently? Or how might gender differences change how people think about regulating their emotions?

Wells: Felicia, you’re the expert on social power.

Zerwas: Yeah. Yeah. So I do have some recent work looking at how self-reports of social power, which is different than a role that’s associated with power. So this is, my perceived social power does actually influence the way that we think about emotions. And which in turn relates to the strategies that we use. So in our paper, we actually found that people who perceive themselves as higher in social power believe that they should not have to control their emotions.

And they also believed, interestingly, that they can control their emotions. And that was associated with them using less suppression, more acceptance and more reappraisal as well.

Sizek: So what does this mean on a practical level? Like give us an example of what someone would do if they were in this high position of social power.

Zerwas: Yeah, so I think the way that we interpreted it is that if someone is higher in social power, at least they perceive that they are. It seems like they feel like they can use emotion regulation if they want to, but they don’t think that they have to or should. So it’s basically this idea that they feel like they can do what they want, which makes sense when you think about this playing out in our lives.

And especially when you consider the flip side an– or someone that’s lower in social power has to be a bit more careful about how they’re expressing their emotions or managing their emotions. And so that’s– yeah.

Wells: Yeah. Just to jump in, I think that Felicia is hitting on a really important point, which is our beliefs about our emotion, regulation, abilities or capacity really play a role in how we use or don’t use these different strategies. And so suppression is one strategy that has typically gotten a pretty bad rap in the literature. You know, people have often found associations between using expressive suppression.

So hiding or inhibiting your emotional expressions or emotional behavior that that’s typically associated with bad outcomes like more depression, and anxiety and things like that. And we recently did a study where we looked at people’s ability to use expressive suppression on command. So we told people, you’re going to see something we want you to hide how you’re feeling.

And so someone looking at you wouldn’t know what you’re feeling. And we found that those who were better at using suppression actually had better mental health. They had less anxiety. And so that goes against what we typically think about with suppression being a bad thing.

But I think it connects to what Felicia was saying, which is perhaps it’s those people who believe they can use suppression on command or they know they have this ability or talent to employ a specific emotion regulation strategy on command in the moment, that they are adapting better and potentially just faring better more broadly.

Zerwas: I completely agree with that point. And I find this point– this point to be really fascinating. Actually, I was talking to some colleagues about the fact that so many people still use suppression, even though we know in the literature it’s been categorized as this very broadly terrible emotion, regulation strategy. And so all of us were like, why? Why are people still using it so much?

And it’s because it is adaptive actually in certain contexts. But if we don’t take context into account, we lose that nuance. So I completely agree with Jenna that it’s– a big take away from the emotion regulation literature is when and how you use these strategies. Not, it’s all bad or it’s all good. It’s about can you use them in ways that help, you know, better outcomes in the situation.

Wells: Exactly, I mean, you can think of some examples, I’m sure, from your own life in which you want to hide how you’re feeling. Like if you’re at a funeral and something funny happens, you want to suppress that response, to laugh or smile in the moment, or if you’re in a social situation in which you’re really proud about something and everyone else lost.

And you need to hide how excited you are about whatever it is that happened to you. These are just a couple of examples of times in which it’s actually very adaptive and probably socially. The nuance of the situation, it’s just shows that you’re more skilled to use those suppression in those moments.

Zerwas: I see this with couples a lot, too. You can imagine having an argument with someone you’re close to. And I study mostly romantic relationships, so that’s where my mind goes to. There are certain moments where bringing up a critique, for example, is useful and constructive because for example, you might both have capacity to deal with it.

But if you’re trying to bring up the anger that you’re feeling when your partner’s having– they’re upset or sad, that might not go as well. So I do really think that there’s a time and place to express certain emotions, and it’s not always the best to just let it out.

Sizek: Yeah, so turning to this question of emotional regulation in relationships, how does that work? And what are some of the common strategies that you have seen in your research on emotion regulation in these– either caregiving relationships or romantic partnerships?

Wells: Yeah, so interpersonal emotion regulation is a whole offshoot field of this idea of emotion, regulation. And kind of getting back to the question you first asked us about studying people in dyads. I think studying interpersonal emotion regulation is so rich and important because we do lean on others to help us regulate our emotions.

Like venting to somebody is one such example. Even reappraisal, which Felicia mentioned earlier, is something that you can lean on others to help them change how you’re thinking about the emotions that you’re having and reframe things in a way that’s more adaptive or palatable to you.

So I haven’t studied this explicitly, but I think it’s fascinating, especially, when we think about– I study caregivers, so usually family members– often I’ve studied spouses who are caring for their loved one with dementia or another neurodegenerative disease. And there’s a lot of intrapersonal emotion regulation. The caregivers have to regulate themselves to keep them in a headspace where they’re able to provide care.

But I also think about this in the context of someone who you’re losing. You’re losing a loved one who may be used to be a source of interpersonal emotion, regulation for you, someone that you could bounce ideas off of. And so, I haven’t looked at specifically how this changes over time.

I think that’s fascinating. But I do have this idea or this hunch that losing a loved one for whom you used to really seek out as a source of to help you regulate your emotions can be a pretty devastating loss for caregivers.

Zerwas: Yeah, I don’t have the take of the caregiver relationship, but I do have some work that looks at how we can help our partners regulate their emotions. And we study the same three strategies that I mentioned in the intrapersonal, which is within the self. We also study those interpersonal. So how can I use those to help my partner. So there’s interpersonal suppression, which as you can imagine, not great.

If you’re trying to basically make your partner keep their emotions to themselves. That’s just overall, not a great strategy. Interpersonal reappraisal like Jenna was hinting on, it’s actually really interesting. We see that it’s not that great, actually. But it depends. It depends, though. It’s very complex. Because what can happen is if you’re trying to reappraise something which I mentioned involves reframing it to reduce the emotional impact, people can actually see it as invalidating.

It’s like, well, you don’t know what I’m going through. Or you don’t know what I’m experiencing. And so I think it really depends on the type of relationship. I think when you’ve been with someone for a long time and they understand where you’re at and what you’re going through, reappraisal can be really effective. But if you’re in a new friendship and you try to start reappraising their emotions, they might be like, whoa, wait a minute.

So typically, acceptance is a great strategy. Like Jenna was saying, validation and just allowing someone to vent and just being with them with their emotions can be really helpful.

Sizek: So this also gets us to the question of having both parties not be on the same page. We talked a lot about how there might be some contagion of the emotions between different people. If someone’s feeling really happy or someone’s feeling really sad, that is something that gets transferred relatively easily. But rather what happens when we don’t have that on the same pageness. And how does how do you study this?

Zerwas: Yeah, I don’t study the not on the same pageness as much. I will say just anecdotally, when I have participants come into the lab and discuss conflict, they generally aren’t on the same page if they’re not communicating well. And so I think one thing, again, this is anecdotal, but just from watching these experiences, if you’re not on the same page, the communication really helps.

And I think in those situations where you’re not on the same page, for example, thinking back to suppression, because we’ve been highlighting that strategy a bit, that can hurt that. And kind contribute to not being on the same page. So I think that would be my take.

Wells: Yeah, I– it’s interesting. So one way I’m thinking about how we might quantify being on the same page is sharing emotions, like having the same emotions or same type of emotions at the same time. So feeling positive together or feeling negative together. And some of the work I’ve done, we also bring couples to the lab and have them engage in a conflict conversation.

So we ask them to talk about an area of disagreement in their relationship for 10 or 15 minutes. And we have looked– So after the conversation, we have them rate from with a rating dial of how positive to negative they’re feeling moment to moment. It’s a 9 point scale. And so we can quantify the number of seconds in which both partners are saying they felt positive or negative.

And also the number of seconds in which one person was feeling positive while the other person was feeling negative. So that, I think, would be a proxy for not being on the same page, right. One person’s feeling good, the other person’s feeling bad. And we do see that these shared emotional states, both positive and negative, are very important in predicting outcomes like relationship satisfaction.

And in particular, sharing positive emotion with both partners said they were feeling positive that the accumulation, the number of seconds in which that is the case is usually predictive of better relationship or marital satisfaction. And so I think being on the same page can look different in different ways depending on how you define that.

We’re not saying that they’re necessarily feeling the exact same emotion, but that they’re both feeling positive can be pretty powerful, especially in the context of a conflict conversation where they’re not necessarily seeing eye to eye.

Sizek: This also raises a question about the different strategies we have to measure people’s emotions. So in this case, you recorded a conversation and then you had them go back and revisit the conversation in order to measure their feelings. How does this differ? And what are some of the other strategies that we have for studying people’s emotional states over time?

Wells: Yeah, so that is a big one. So that rating dial I mentioned, I think we both have looked at those data, both Felicia and I. And that’s a really interesting one, because it’s dynamic. And so it is the closest we can really get to getting people’s moment to moment emotions without stopping them every second and saying, what are you feeling now? What are you feeling now?

That would totally interrupt the flow of, of a real conversation. So videotaping it and having them watch it back and give these continuous ratings is a very useful way to get at that. Another method that I really love is behavioral coding. And so again, we videotape the conversations and then based on whatever it is that we’re interested in, there are different systems for measuring different behaviors.

So you could quantify the number of times people smiled or the number of different expressions that people do. And so that’s another– more third party way of getting at an aspect of emotional functioning, which is emotional expression and emotional behavior. Whereas the rating dial is more subjective experience. How do you say you were feeling?

Behavior is a independent way of measuring emotion in the lab.

Zerwas: Yeah, I think I agree completely with both of those and use those same approaches. The only thing I’ll add is that I don’t use this approach very often, but you can also do a daily diaries to track emotion over a longer period of time. So for example, some studies look at two week periods where couples will fill out a daily diary every night and some people will even do it two days– or two times a day.

And this can be really interesting to track things over time as well, because like Jenna was saying, typically when we’re using the rating dial in the lab, we have to do shorter time frames. We’re looking within a very specific conversation, whereas daily diaries can capture more nuanced contexts over time.

Sizek: And this gets us also to this question of how to match up these ratings of these 15 minute periods where you might have someone talking about a conflict that they have with their partner. And matching that up to longer term consequences or longer term relationships that they have, which is precisely what Jenna is studying and looking at these older adult couples.

Can you tell us a little bit more about how you try to figure out the match between short conversations that you have and then these longer term impacts?

Wells: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, we brought couples into the lab. This was actually like 20, 30 years ago, where couples came into the lab and they had this conflict conversation for 15 minutes and we measured their behavior, like I mentioned, their subjective experience using that rating dial. And we also measured their physiology.

And it’s pretty amazing when you think about how much information we can glean from just a 15 minute conversation. We developed– so in the year– the last couple of years, we developed different ways of looking at that data and measuring things that we were interested in. And we were really interested in this idea of positivity resonance, which I can elaborate on.

Positivity resonance is a term that we use to refer to brief moments of interpersonal connection that are defined by 3 characteristics. So one, they both people or all people, if it’s a group, are feeling positive together, even mild levels of positivity. Both are all people are feeling positive. They are syncing up in their physiology.

So, your heart rates are increasing or decreasing at the same time. And they have what’s called caring, nonverbal synchrony. And so this is really just we are mirroring each other’s behavioral expressions. Doesn’t have to be the same exact expression. We might be moving at the same rhythm. And often these gestures or expressions are things that signal affiliation and care.

So leaning forward, nodding, head tilts, things– making eye contact or all important ingredients of caring, nonverbal synchrony. So these three ingredients, we think are defined what is a very potent, powerful moment of positivity resonance or positive emotional connection. But basically, the extent to which both partners in the couple are sharing positive emotion, they’re feeling positive together, they’re syncing up and their behavior and their physiology.

And so we measured all these different– we came up with five different ways of quantifying this. And I came in as a graduate student and we were interested in the long term health outcomes of this concept of positivity resonance. And so we actually had an elaborate way of recontacting folks from contact information they’ve given us a long time ago, looking people up in databases, going on to find mortality, death records and things like that.

And so once we had pretty much collected, we were able to find information from folks on their mortality, whether they were living or had passed away. And when they had passed away for about 90% of the sample, which was the sample was like 300 people. And so from all these people, we were able to measure like when they had died or if they were still alive.

And we found that couples who had more of these moments of positivity resonance, more shared, positive emotion in the lab, 30 years earlier, that predicted longer lives, increased longevity. And so I think it just speaks to the utility of this approach, which is, you know, bringing people into the laboratory under well controlled conditions and eliciting emotion.

I think that why– the reason why it was so powerful is because we brought them in as dyads. We measured their actual lives, people, how they interact with each other. These are couples discussing a conflict. This is something that probably happens every day, if not every week. And so that snapshot that we capture from the 15 minute conversation is very telling as to what their regular lives actually look like.

And so that’s, I think, why we were able to find these long term health outcomes, both in terms of health as well as longevity.

Zerwas: I have a quick follow up on that. Did you manipulate anything in the lab? Or was it more of a naturalistic conversation between them. It was a naturalistic conversation. So just, please discuss a topic about that you disagree upon for 15 minutes.

Wells: Yeah, so I just think that’s a really important point, too. When you’re thinking about trying to predict longer term outcomes for couples as well. I think I would argue that it would be difficult to find the same effects if you manipulated something in the lab. So what I mean by that is, if you had one partner use suppression but they don’t typically use suppression, it might be difficult to generalize that to what’s happening in their everyday lives.

Whereas when we bring people into the lab, like Jenna said, we are creating a more controlled environment. But we’re not, in some cases, the approaches we use, we don’t force them to behave in ways that they don’t typically. And so I think that’s why it’s more generalizable to predict these longer term outcomes over time, because it’s what they typically do in their relationship.

Wells: Exactly, yeah. It’s like a window into their everyday lives, which is pretty fascinating.

Sizek: Yeah and this also for me, this raises a question, too, about the way that, obviously, you can control a little bit in the lab. You’re not trying to control a ton, but you can’t control the rest of their lives. So how did you try to control for other aspects, for example, the economic status of the different couples who are in this study? Or other health risks that they may have come into the study with?

Wells: Yeah, that’s a great question. So we used everything that we have at our disposal to try to account for all those different aspects that people bring to the table. So we accounted for you– we had them fill out a– we had them fill out a questionnaire about their health. So we controlled in the analysis– we controlled for their sort of initial number of health symptoms.

We also asked them questions about health related behaviors. So smoking, alcohol consumption, caffeine consumption, frequency of exercise, those are all things we control for as well. Age, income, education. You know, those are all really important things to control for, because we know there’s a long literature showing that those are all very powerful predictors of health.

So all of those health related variables, we tried our best to control for. Of course, it’s not perfect. And we also looked at things that were of interest to us scientifically. So we controlled for the number of moments that they felt positive by themselves, right. To show that this is really something that’s happening at the level of the dyad, the extent to which they’re both sharing positive emotion.

That’s what’s predicting their long term health, not just having, you know, a lot of positive emotions by yourself. Similarly, we also controlled for their marital satisfaction at level at the first time point. And that’s another thing in the literature that is a pretty robust predictor of long term health. And again, we found that the effect of positivity resonance, or shared positive emotion, withstood controlling for.

Marital satisfaction in terms of predicting their longevity over the 30 years. And so we do our best as scientists to try to think of all the different confounds. But of course, I think there’s probably things we left out or things that we didn’t measure that would be useful to control for in a future study. I’m curious what you control for, Felicia, when you look at these couple related outcomes.

Zerwas: Yeah, I don’t do as much of the long-term work, because you’re working with older couples. My work typically focuses on newer romantic relationships. And so, yeah, less of the aging related type things, but we do– so for example, in the lab, we will control for the intensity of the negative emotion. To make sure that it’s– the reason that they’re reporting these worse outcomes is not just because they’re feeling more negative emotion in general, but because of the strategy that they’re using, for example.

Because I tend to focus on the strategies that people use and how that relates to how the conversation goes. So usually it’s about controlling for confound in the emotion sense.

Sizek: So obviously as people age, there’s also a likelihood that people might get dementia or have other aging related diseases, which is also something that you’ve looked at in your research, Jenna, can you tell us a little bit about how this changes these dyadic relationships that you look at and what this means for folks who are caregiving for people with dementia.

Wells: Yeah, so this is a big part of the research that I do. I’m really interested in individuals who are providing what’s called informal care, so not professional or paid caregivers, but people who are providing care for their loved one with dementia, which is an umbrella term for different types of neurodegenerative diseases that occur in later life.

And we know that dementia caregiving can be a highly meaningful experience to provide care for a loved one. And at the same time, it’s extremely challenging in a number of ways. It’s just time consuming. It’s emotionally and financially burdensome, and it’s also very devastating to watch your loved one get sick. These are neurodegenerative diseases refer to diseases that are progressive.

So it gets worse, and there isn’t a cure for these diseases. So it is just a very devastating experience. And so when we think about the ways that this impacts caregivers, I think a lot of the research has focused on different aspects of caregiving, the burdens of caregiving that are impacting caregivers, health and well-being.

And one of the really interesting and devastating changes in dementia is that people often think about Alzheimer’s disease and losing your memory. And that is the most common form of dementia. But there’s other ways in which dementia can manifest. And so one of those is that it impacts the emotional functioning, the emotions of the person with the disease.

And this can happen in a variety of different ways. Sometimes individuals who have dementia lose their ability to empathize or have empathy for other people. It can also lead to people having different displays of emotion or being disinhibited in the way that they display their emotion. Sometimes with dementia, for example, frontotemporal dementia is associated with lower disgust reactivity. And so it can lead people with the disease to behave in ways that others would find disgusting.

And so, as you can imagine, losing your loved one to this illness is not just– it’s not just sad because you’re losing somebody that you care about, and you’re having to really put your life on hold for a bit to take care of them. But you’re also seeing the person that you love and that you knew potentially for a long time really transform in front of your eyes.

And I think that can be really, really hard for, for people. And so a lot of the research I’ve done looks at spousal caregiving relationships. So caring for your partner. And so theoretically you’ve had a long relationship or you’ve had some relationship with this person before that is changing. And one thing I haven’t looked at, but I think is really fascinating is adult children, caring for their parents with dementia.

And whereas, in a spousal context in a marriage, you might think I signed up for this, in sickness and in health, but there’s a lot more role conflict, I think, for adult children, caring for their parents that they aren’t necessarily prepared for or have agreed to. And so that’s a whole other interesting area I think, that we don’t know as much about.

Sizek: Yeah, so you mentioned how often people with dementia no longer have those sorts of emotional responses that are normal. They might not notice that they do something that is perceived normally by people to be disgusting, for example. How does this affect the caregivers? And what are some of the strategies that you found are effective for caregivers, for people with dementia?

Yeah, I think that this is a big one for caregivers, because in particular, when patients – when people with dementia — are behaving in ways that are others would find disgusting, that can be really shocking and upsetting, especially when you’re in public or around strangers. And so I think it often leads caregivers to feeling embarrassed or ashamed and withdrawing from their social environments.

It’s harder to leave the house because you don’t really want to deal with an incident related to the person with dementia acting in a way that’s embarrassing or socially inappropriate. And so that can lead caregivers to be really, really isolated. And that’s something we hear about a lot, is that it can be very lonely to be a caregiver, especially later on in the disease.

And so I think, you know, in terms of strategies, it is at first, we’ve been talking about, I think acceptance is a really big one. This is a situation that is in large part out of your control. And so it’s really important to accept the things that you are feeling, accept what you can change and what you can’t change. And then secondly, like I mentioned, it’s a very lonely and isolated environment for caregivers.

And so I find that being able to call on people that you love, people you really trust, other family members, other friends to support you during this time is so, so important. Social support is really a key factor in having better outcomes for caregivers of people with dementia. And so, I think it’s helpful probably to talk to the people you love early on in the disease.

So that before it gets to the point where it feels overwhelming, you’ve arranged to have people be there for you. Either in an instrumental way, like helping you get rides to the doctor’s office or delivering groceries. But also just having someone who can be there help you with that interpersonal emotion regulation and probably just be, validating and accepting of what you’re going through.

Zerwas: I’m curious, is there any work looking at reappraisal in caregivers. Because the reason for this is because reappraisal is typically more helpful in situations that we can’t control. Whereas if there is something that we can do about the situation, usually reappraisal is not that helpful because we should actually take a more problem focused approach and try to do something about it.

But in this case, just from what you were saying, it’s so much is out of their control. So I’m just curious if there’s any work on reappraisal in that context?

Wells: There’s not a lot of work looking at specific emotion, regulation, strategies and caregivers. In fact, very few people take the approach that we take in our lab or we bring people into the lab and measure their emotion regulation under these controlled laboratory conditions. There are some works– some studies that use the method you mentioned earlier, like experience sampling or daily diary studies that look at different emotion regulation strategies.

Some of this work finds that caregivers who experience more anger, for example, have harder– have a harder time, have more mental health problems. But I think that the reappraisal is a potential strategy is something that would be really useful for future researchers in this area, especially in dementia caregiving.

Sizek: So as we wrap up, obviously both of your research has a lot to do with our daily lives. And thinking about how emotions play a role in how we live. And so what are some of the most useful things that you’ve found from your research, either from your own– from your own life? You don’t have to provide any specific examples or just generally in thinking about the role that emotions play in our everyday lives.

Zerwas: Yeah, I think a big one that I’ve taken away from just reading the literature and also the work that I’ve done is that context really does matter. I think when I came to graduate school, I was, making broad, sweeping generalizations about this is good, this is bad. And I know I already alluded to this earlier, but I truly stand by that statement that nothing really is all good or bad.

I think there’s a time and place to use different strategies, and my recent work shows that suppression can be bad for the self, but actually not for the relationship dynamic. So it’s really complex. And so I think picking your battles is actually a very appropriate phrase. There are some moments where I think it might be better to hold something in too for the sake of the social setting.

Whereas if you do that all the time, that’s not great either, because then you don’t get to feel authentic or get your voice heard. So not– I don’t know if this is helpful concrete advice because it’s like, well, I don’t know. But really, the big takeaway is I think learning to use things flexibly will be really helpful in the long term.

Wells: I totally echo that advice. Context matters. And yeah, I think one of the things that I’ve really been thinking about since doing this work, looking at positivity resonance in couples. And so this idea that the more that we’re sharing, even just a very brief moment of positive connection with other people, that there’s these long term downstream effects for health and well being.

We don’t have data to support this yet, but the theorizing suggests that these moments are powerful, also in what’s called weaker ties. So having moments where you connect over a positive emotion or a positive feeling with people in your day to day life, that is good for your health, that is a positive health behavior. Like exercising or eating healthy, doing this is something that’s good for you.

And so I find myself trying to be more open to those moments in my day to day life. I’m slightly extroverted, so it’s probably a little bit easier for me. But I think that even for introverts, this is true. And actually there’s some work that suggests that introverts can be surprised by how much they enjoy an interaction with other people.

But practical things you can do is just making eye contact with other people in your day to day life. If you’re on a run, you can maybe smile at other runners that are going past you. Or even like making eye contact with the baby in line at the grocery store. And making a silly face, or laughing with somebody, laughing with a coworker.

All these little things are actually very good for your health. And so I think that of course, it’s great to study them in our close relationships because those are the people that we interact with the most, our family members, our spouses. But I think that there’s good reason to think that those moments are also accessible to us in our entire environments and social worlds.

And so I think I would recommend folks to be more open to having those very, very brief micro moments of connection with other people because it actually can be beneficial for your health.

Sizek: Great well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and teaching us a lot about emotions.

Zerwas: Yeah, thank you so much.

Wells: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit


Sugar and the Transformation of the American West: An Interview with Bernadette Pérez

Bernadette Perez

For this episode of the Matrix Podcast, J.T. Jamieson, a 2022-2023 Matrix Communications Scholar, interviewed Bernadette Pérez, Assistant Professor of History at UC Berkeley. Pérez is a historian of the United States who specializes in the histories of Latinx and Indigenous peoples in the West. Her current research focuses on migrant sugar beet workers in Colorado, and explores intersections between race, environment, labor, migration, and colonialism in the post-Civil-War era.

Before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley, Pérez was the Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in Race and Ethnicity Studies at the Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts , where she taught courses in History and American Studies. She has received fellowships and awards from the Mellon Foundation, the Council on Library and Information Resources, the Organization of American Historians, and the Western History Association. In 2018, her dissertation won the W. Turrentine Jackson Dissertation Award from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association and the Outstanding Dissertation Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society.

Listen to the interview below or on Apple Podcasts. A transcript of the interview is provided below.


Podcast Transcript

Woman’s voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

J.T. Jamieson: Hello, and welcome to the Matrix Podcast. I’m J.T. Jamieson, your host, coming to you from the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio, our recording partner on UC Berkeley’s campus. Our guest today is Bernadette Pérez, an assistant professor of history at UC Berkeley. She’s a historian of the United States and specializes in the histories of Latinx and Indigenous peoples in the West. Her current research, on migrant sugar beet workers and corporate sugar in Colorado, explores intersections between race, environment, labor, migration, and colonialism in the post-Civil-War United States. Professor Pérez, thank you for joining us today.

Bernadette Pérez: Thank you, J.T. I’m excited to be here.

J.T. Jamieson: So the production of sugar and the history of sugar as a commodity has occupied scholars across different disciplinary fields. So what makes sugar so interesting to scholars, and what first drew you to research sugar beets?

Bernadette Pérez: I think there are a lot of reasons why scholars have thought about sugar, and thought about how to historicize it or how to understand it as a substance and what kinds of qualities it has, and the ways in which it has been used to both flavor food and preserve it — but also, during the Industrial Revolution in Europe, to really account for a lot of European workers caloric needs, right? And so I think people have come to sugar from a lot of perspectives. Whether it’s nutritional aspects, or thinking about its complicated histories in European transatlantic colonial systems, and in the history of slavery, and really also in the history of plantation agriculture.

Especially when we think about sugar cane as being something that came with some of those first Spanish military expeditions in the late 1400s, and was part of that Spanish Imperial and colonial project in the Caribbean and the Greater Americas, I think a lot of people have been really curious about, what is that relationship between any particular commodity and imperialism and slavery? And then also, why is it that this one particular commodity has had such a powerful role in the centuries that followed, even today? And I know in the context of U.S. history, when you teach, like I do, Latinx histories, or when you teach U.S. history, particularly post-Civil-War U.S. history, you can’t talk about those histories without taking into account how the U.S. in the late 19th century really started flexing its offshore imperial muscle around that commodity of sugar in Cuba, and Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and Hawaii. And so I think sugar becomes something that is so fascinating and complicated and difficult, because of all of the different histories that it’s bound up in, and the way that it continues to be a pretty powerful industry globally today.

J.T. Jamieson: So as you say, sugar is really significant to histories of plantation labor, of slavery, of empire. And as such, a lot of the history of sugar production is identified with places like the American South or Louisiana, the Pacific world, Hawaii, the Caribbean. But your research shifts the geographical focus. So what was it that brought sugar production to the American West, and more specifically for you, to Colorado?

Bernadette Pérez: This actually gets back to the second part of the question you last asked, which was about what brought me to this project. And I think that what brought me to this project is in many ways bound up with that story of, how did sugar end up in the U.S. West — and not just as something you could buy at the store, but something that was produced in the U.S. West.

So just quickly, I came to this project initially as a master’s student in Latin American Studies. So I was not thinking historically at that time, but I was more interested in — and this would have been the late 2000s — this wave of anti-immigration bills that were being passed by state legislatures in the U.S. And there had been one in Colorado in 2006 called “Defend Colorado Now” that was passed. And it was really meant to be symbolic, because states don’t have the power to regulate immigration — that is the domain of the federal government, and more particularly of Congress. But they can make the lives of immigrants and undocumented people more difficult, and frustrating, and scary and vulnerable. And so that was what these policies were intending to do.

And at the time, before I started my master’s program, I had been working at a women’s clinic and I had seen how that set of policies was asking us to interact with our clients in a new way, particularly for those programs that were state-funded. So things like breast exams and other reproductive health care programs that the clinic had. And so I saw how difficult of a position that put those of us who had to start taking these policies into account and were interacting with people, and then also just how scary it made a lot of people’s lives in Colorado. And so that experience came with me into my master’s program.

And after taking, you know, a year and a half of coursework, I started to think about actually what I wanted to do my thesis on was something that was closer to home and to my own experience, having grown up in Colorado myself, and to think about that set of policies that were being passed and how it affected people. And at that point, I started going around Colorado and interviewing people who worked with immigrant organizations. I interviewed farmers. I interviewed people from immigrant communities. And one of the things that I kept hearing about — because at that time, this was a movement that was very explicitly anti-Mexican — was that if I wanted to understand anti-Mexican racism in Colorado, I needed to go back to the sugar beet industry. And that was a kind of funny, pivotal moment for me, because I was like, sugar beet industry, what is that? And I had never heard of the sugar beet industry, even though I had grown up in Colorado and my own family had migrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1920s, the same set of years when a lot of people who came to the U.S. from Mexico ended up working in the sugar beet fields across the West. But it wasn’t something that I knew about. And so I think at that point, I started to think, oh, this seems like something that is very important to the history and to the experiences of peoples that I’m trying to understand and to be able to speak more about, and that it was a history that most people didn’t know.

So even now, when I give talks on my work, I often have to start with, “okay, let me first introduce you to the sugar beet industry and sugar beets in general.” They are a crop, a very important crop. Most sugar produced in the United States today is produced from beets, not cane. And that has been the case for a little while now, and since the 1890s has increasingly been the case, in that that’s the moment when you started to see U.S. producers producing more and more sugar from beets rather than cane.

And so yeah, it felt important to me to be able to make that history more known and more visible. And for me to understand, how was it that this industry that, you know, when we think about it, and we learn about it, is much more associated with the South, particularly the antebellum period — Cuba and Hawaii and the Pacific world. And so I wanted to understand how was it that sugar came to the West and how that even happened. And that brought me on a long journey of trying to figure that out, how it was. And this is part of what my dissertation did. And part of what I’m now working into my first book.

But I decided to get at that question by following one sugar family: the Oxnards. Oxnard, California is named after the Oxnard family, actually. But the Oxnards were a kind of interesting family in that one branch of the family came from Boston, and, you know, in the 1700s and 1800s were merchants. And then the other half of the family made their money in Louisiana sugar in the antebellum period. And right before the Civil War, they ended up leaving the South and abandoning or selling their investments there, right before the war started, and ultimately ended up in the Northeast — so returning home to where some of them had been living in Boston and New York, and getting into refining Cuban cane sugar, which at that time was still slave-produced, because slavery was still legal for at least a decade after the Civil War in the United States.

And from there, I learned a bit about the corporatization of the industry and the formation of the sugar monopoly, the Sugar Trust, and how it was that middling sugar capitalists like the Oxnards, who weren’t the largest, most powerful, most wealthy sugar producers in the U.S., were really thinking about, oh, how do we get in on this if we are not a part of that baron class, right? And they were wealthy, and they were white, and they had a long history of making their money as capitalists, either as merchants or as sugar producers in Louisiana, but they were still middling.

And so I follow how they ended up going to Germany, taking a look at how German sugar producers were starting to industrialize and grow this new way of mass producing white sugar from beets. And that project, then, of bringing the industry to the West — which a lot of white settlers in the West had been interested in doing, but they didn’t have the expertise or the capital that was needed in order to make that industry successful.

And so I really look at how, when some of these sugar capitalists got invested in that industry and making it a success, that’s the point at which you start to see factories popping up, first in California, then in Nebraska, then Colorado, Utah, then across the West. And there was this whole hope for the industry that it was going to replace cane sugar, and that also it was going to help rejuvenate a number of white settler towns that had only recently been established, but that, particularly in agricultural areas, were really struggling in the 1880s and 1890s. And so the hope was that sugar beets were going to save the West.

The story is much more complicated than that. But I think how sugar comes to the West really has a lot to do with some of the internal politics within the capitalist class, and with what at that moment was a project of the federal government, taking land that it had recently acquired in what’s now the U.S. West, and making it or transforming it around white settlements, and settlements that ideally would last longer than a decade or two. And so I locate the industry at that intersection of U.S. capitalist imperialism, but also settler colonialism, and the way that the sugar industry after the Civil War was trying to reinvent itself, sometimes by changing its geography, and other times by changing some of its production practices and systems.

J.T. Jamieson: So it’s a very complex, many-sided story. We’re thinking about the growth of corporate sugar elites, growing agrobusiness, the importance of the growth of a settler empire in the American West, and then of course the workers, many of them migrant workers, who are often racialized in all different kinds of ways by these corporate sugar barons, or those people who are aspiring to be corporate sugar barons. So maybe let’s break some of these perspectives down.

So with the the corporate capitalist elite side of things, for families like the Oxnards, how much does their growing sugar empire depend on the support or assistance of the federal government or the American state? What is the relationship between growing agrobusiness in this period — the late 19th century and the early 20th century — and the growing state bureaucracy? Is the government supporting the growth of the beet industry? If they are, how so, and why?

Bernadette Pérez: That’s a great question. And I think, you know, this was a family and an industry that had long been supported by the federal government, or by state governments — so even before emancipation, in the legalization of slavery and upholding that institution, and preserving that institution, and then also through trade policy through the sugar tariff, right? So this was an industry and a family that was used to receiving support from the state for their business. When they went to the West, part of that was about following in those steps.

So this was a moment when the U.S. was getting much more interested in and invested in Hawaii, and in 1876 passed a treaty with Hawaii called the Hawaiian Reciprocity Treaty. And that was very much about reducing the cost of bringing in raw materials from Hawaii to San Franciscan ports and turning them into manufactured goods. And in this instance, it was about sugar, so bringing raw sugar from Hawaii to San Francisco’s industrial district, which was around Potrero today, and turning that into white refined sugar. And so there was the lure of that trade agreement that brought a lot of sugar capitalists and sugar workers to California.

But because of some of that competition within this group of sugar producers, and because of the fact that many who got involved in the industry, either as factory workers and then those who own sugar companies, were ethnically German, they had familiarity with beet sugar. You started to see people like Claus Spreckels in San Francisco, wondering how he might bring European beet sugar to the West, and really capitalizing on the fact that there were a lot of Mexican ranchos — these huge estates that had been carved out of the missions, and then granted in some instances to elite wealthy Mexican citizens before the U.S.-Mexico war in 1848, and in other instances had been sold. The 1870s to 1880s is a moment when those large estates are oftentimes going into foreclosure, and the landowners are going bankrupt and losing those estates. And so what you saw was this new class of settler-capitalists who saw that there was land very cheap, and were acquiring it, and often acquiring huge tracts of land. So it’s not like they were just buying 160 acres; they were buying tens of thousands of acres, sometimes more than that.

And so, that is something that Claus Spreckels did. And he was thinking about how to bring plantation-style agriculture, because he was somebody who by that point, the late 1880s, had monopolized the sugar industry in Hawaii. And he was thinking, how do I bring that kind of production to California? And so you see him starting in the mid-1880s, and really until 1890, thinking about how to make that a reality, and to adapt that Hawaiian plantation model to California. He was also somebody who brought in some of his own Japanese and Chinese workers on his steam shipping company, right? So he facilitated labor migration of Asian workers from Hawaii to California. And then you also have to think about these Mexican ranchos as not just being estates owned or lived on by a single wealthy family. These were often estates that many, many people lived on, including resident workers. And then also many people who had been Mexican citizens and also California Indigenous people, who didn’t necessarily respect the lines of property, in that they lived where they were able. And they had, in some instances, creative working relationships with the estate owners, and others kind of disregarded whoever the landowning family was.

And so when those big estates were bought by people like Claus Spreckels, a lot of people who had been living on those huge expanses of land were now suddenly dispossessed and having to find new ways to survive and to create livelihoods. And so that’s the moment where you start to see the kind of emergence of this Asian, Mexican, and Indigenous migrant labor force — not just in sugar, but in a lot of industries — the citrus industry, for example, and in railroads and lumber camps, right?

So there were a lot of industries that relied upon these communities as workers. But the sugar industry was also one. And and that was very much what also brought sugar producers not only to the West, but then from California, brought them to start looking inland, away from the coast, towards inland California, or Nebraska, or — in the case of my research, I focused more particularly on Colorado — towards Colorado, and thinking about how to adapt some of these existing production systems, from Hawaii or from the Caribbean or from Eastern Europe, to places that were recently in the middle of massive dispossession of Indigenous peoples and former Mexican citizens. And so this all happens around that time. And that’s how you come to see a very kind of racialized and differently racialized migrant working class.

J.T. Jamieson: So the working class that you’re examining, as you say, was often a migrant working class, involving dispossessed Indigenous people, Mexican workers, later Japanese workers, and sometimes also white or Western European workers. What is the relationship that these corporate capitalist elites build with this workforce? Are they trying to implement some kind of disciplinary regime over them? Are they trying to control their labor in any particular ways? How do they interact with their workforce?

Bernadette Pérez: The Oxnards, as an example, build their first — well, actually, they build two factories around the same time. And the first one, they start to build in what is now Chino, California. But they halted in the middle of the planning process and decide instead to build that first Oxnard factory in Nebraska, in Grand Island. And, you know, within a year or two, they have two factories in two very different locations. And part of the rationale for that has to do with labor, and also has to do with the power — or the growing power — of white farmers at that time. In Chino, Henry Oxnard went into business with a man named Richard Gird, who owned what had once been Rancho Chino, this big, former Mexican ranch. And he was trying to recruit white farmers to settle it and to create this new town of Chino, but was finding settlement to be pretty slow. And he was also experimenting with other ways of making the land profitable. So first, it was run as a ranch. But the 1880s is a moment where the meat market really kind of takes a dip. And so there was an effort on his part to rethink what to do with Rancho Chino. And that’s part of how Henry Oxnard ends up there.

The problem, from their perspective, was that at that time, there was a pretty violent anti-Chinese movement in California. And so the question was, how do you create a labor-intensive new industry in a way that doesn’t draw the attention of new white settlers, and doesn’t bring a kind of violent mob attack on their part? Because that was happening across the state. And so they were thinking about, okay, how do we maybe rent the land to tenant farmers? Maybe we find sharecroppers, whether these are European immigrants, whether these are white American settlers from more Eastern places. Maybe we farm it ourselves using company managers. And Oxnard’s first sugar companies took all of these approaches.

I think that context of anti-Chinese violence in California led him and his investors to think about building that first factory in Nebraska instead. And it’s not because they thought, oh, maybe we are going to be able to refigure this industry around white farmers and eliminate the need for a lot of agricultural labor at very particular moments of the crops’ cultivation. That just wasn’t possible, because the reality was that cultivating sugar beets — while different from cultivating sugar cane — was very labor-intensive, and there was no getting around that. But because the Oxnards had recruited a lot of sugar experts in Europe, from Germany, and from that area where Germany and Poland and Russia borderlands intersected, a lot of his agricultural workers had experience with an ethnic community called German-Russians, who were ethnic Germans who had gone to Russia in the 1700s, invited to colonize and create agricultural communities in the Volga region, as well as in the Black Sea region. And by the 1880s, and even before that, they were facing persecution in Russia. And so a lot of people from those communities ended up leaving, either returning to Germany or going to other places around the world, oftentimes to white settler nations like the United States.

So there were a lot of German-Russians living in Nebraska at that time. This is the late 1880s, early 1890s. And these were rural people. They were agricultural people. They were often communities that had very large families. And so part of the draw of bringing Oxnard and his investors to Nebraska was how to capitalize on some of the federal infrastructure, and these new administrative entities like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and land-grant colleges that had these new research capacities to help troubleshoot growing new crops in the West, how to capitalize on that whole scientific and state infrastructure, while also addressing the labor question. And that’s exactly what they did, in that the rhetoric that they used as they were building that first factory in Grand Island was all about white farmers and what the industry was going to do for white farmers, at a time when white farmers were in revolt. This is the moment of the populist movement, where white farmers were very much building a third party, and were thinking about how to force capitalism and the U.S. federal government to listen to their needs and concerns, and to restructure the economy and the nation’s infrastructure in ways that would benefit them, and not just the baron class.

So that was the rhetoric — “we’re going to Nebraska to help white farmers” — but the reality was that they were interested in drawing upon that infrastructure, and then hiring migrant workers from a community that in Nebraska was looked down upon in very discriminatory ways. German-Russians in Nebraska were considered to be lesser whites. They were seen as being undesirable. And they were confronting barriers around their own social mobility into jobs that would give them a better quality of life. And so they were oftentimes restricted to some of the more poorly paid positions. That was part of what brought the company to Nebraska.

And so it was very much about the support of the federal government in terms of its research capacity, and also that there were immigrant communities that the industry could bring in to a fairly coercive labor system, where there was a lot of effort on the part of this company — and really the industry at large — to separate out and control different communities within the industry, whether it was white farmers, whether it was diverse immigrant workers, or Indigenous workers. In Nebraska, for instance, almost immediately, Oxnard’s labor manager started recruiting at Indigenous, Native American boarding schools that were federally run at that time. Same in California. And thinking about how to use these different communities against one another, so that you wouldn’t see any particular one starting to organize in order to gain ground against the company. And so there was a very kind of conscious effort to racialize different parts of production, from the field work, to the the position of the farmer, to the people who carried out different jobs in the factories, and so on. And I can talk more about some of the systems that develop over the 20th century around different communities as the industry expanded later on, if you like.

J.T. Jamieson: Well, so as the industry does expand, later in your story, you also begin to talk about labor movements and civil rights movements and coalition-building across all of these different populations of workers. So how do those labor movements form? At what point do they form? At what point, from the perspective of workers, do they start to agitate for labor and civil rights?

Bernadette Pérez: So some of the first movements that form very early on have a lot to do with populist and nativist politics in California, Nebraska, and Colorado. In Nebraska, you saw white mob actions against Chinese workers who were hired to work on Rancho Chino. In Nebraska, you saw the Knights of Labor and the Farmers Alliance turning on the sugar industry because of its hiring in Eastern European immigrant communities, and also its hiring of Indigenous workers from the Indian School and also from reservations in Nebraska. And then in Colorado, you saw from the very first year that the first factory in Colorado opened, this movement against the company’s practice of recruiting agricultural workers from Mexican and Indigenous communities. Those non-white agricultural workers, also from the very beginning, engaged in their own forms of resistance politics, or of movement-building politics. But they often looked different than what we often associate with agricultural labor movements today, which are often talked about in relation to the United Farm Worker movement, and strikes and boycotts.

In some of the early years, and particularly in the Colorado context in the first few years, there were a lot of people recruited to come work in the industry from the Pueblos and from the Navajo Nation. And the conditions that these native workers found themselves in Colorado did not reflect what they had been promised. And so their response to that did not look like a collective labor movement, in that everybody who was working in the fields made a move towards building some kind of collectivity or union. But you did see, particularly along lines of community, efforts to stage acts of resistance, to pull the Office of Indian Affairs and Indian agents into their working conditions, and try to get the Office of Indian Affairs to involve themselves in their efforts to, say, reclaim wages that they had not been paid, or to make farmers or the company provide better access to food and water.

And then in other instances, it was just people deserting — so leaving. And I think that there’s a way to think about those as an important part of the history of labor politics, and in this case, how it intersected with sovereignty politics, the right of Indigenous nations and workers to accept work on their own terms, and to leave work on their own terms. And then you started to see, particularly in ethnic Mexican communities during the Mexican Revolution, a growing move toward some kind of worker collectivity. Because in the region that I study in Colorado, the southeastern part of the state, the Arkansas Valley, it wasn’t that far from the coal mining fields. And a lot of the workers who worked in the industry were not always a part of the IWW or other labor organizations, like miners unions, but they knew people who were, or there had been outreach efforts on the part of those labor organizations to try to organize and bring agricultural workers into the IWW (the International Workers of the World) union.

So the Mexican Revolution was really important for that shift. And by the 1920s, you started to see a growing push for creating a beet workers union, which workers started to do in 1927 and 1928. And over the next few decades, you saw that unionization effort intersecting with a lot of other communities in Colorado and across the West’s efforts to reform or reimagine what the role of the state should be, and also to reform the relationship between workers and capital, or to change that relationship, or in some instances, depending on the organization, abolish that relationship, right? And so in the 1930s, for example, you saw social reformers who were not super radical, but they were invested in ending child labor practices, for example, and improving conditions for agricultural workers in Colorado, collaborating with other organizations and beet workers themselves, and having a larger conversation around what it would mean to do this work in a way that these workers and their families could live lives of dignity and what would that take, and what needed to be done.

And this was a really interesting moment, the 1920s and 1930s, because there were a lot of different radical and social progressives, basically, who were interested in thinking about how to work across their differences. And so you did start to see some multiracial coalitions and collectives coming out of that moment in the industry in the 1920s and 30s. And that goes into the 1940s. But in the 1940s, you really saw a kind of violent response on the part of farmers and sugar companies, and then also the federal government, to disempower agricultural workers and unions. And a lot of this was done under the cover of the Red Scare.

But I think that this is important because, when we talk about the Civil Rights Movement — people often talk about it as a movement, rather than a set of movements, but I think that there’s a way to think about it as a set of movements, many of which had much longer histories — and that in Colorado, and in the West, really goes back to this earlier period. And some of the coalitions and ideas that were coming out of the Mexican Revolution, the workers’ internationalism of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, and that we can’t understand what happened in the 1960s and 70s without going back to that earlier period, and that they set really important precedents, or also laid the groundwork for some of these later movements. And just to give you an example, the Chicano movement was a set of movements that all came together in the 1960s. But one part of that movement came out of Denver, and the Colorado Crusade for Justice was this organization that was headed by a man named Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez in Denver, and was really important to the emergence of one part of the Chicano movement, in that the National Chicano Youth Conference was held in Denver in 1969.

But he himself had a relationship to the sugar beet industry, in that different family members of his had worked in the fields. I think he himself had. And if you look at some of his writings, he references that experience of being a beet worker, and the injustice and violence of that experience being a really important motivating experience for his activism later. And so I think you can think about that at a larger scale, in that those communities who worked in the beet fields, they were not individual workers. By the 1910s, it was largely whole families working together. And so this was a labor experience that whole families — men, women, and children — all experienced together through generations, and was a series of really difficult and violent contexts that then was really important to the kinds of demands that they were making later on in the century.

J.T. Jamieson: You tell a history of race, of empire, of capitalism, and of labor, but you’re also telling an environmental history and a history of the land itself. So maybe we can conclude with thinking about the beet and what the environmental challenges or consequences were in Colorado for planting beets. So what was the ideal beet? And what challenges did workers or corporations face when trying to cultivate it?

Bernadette Pérez: So sugar beets were a crop that were developed from common garden beets, like the beets that you eat in your salad, right? But that over a kind of process of hybridization and agricultural research and development were separated from garden beets and deemed to be their own separate kind of beet, the sugar beet, which is a much larger beet and is a much more sugarful beet, and was a crop and still — well, now it’s different in that sugar beets are genetically modified, and they’ve been adapted in all kinds of ways. But at that time, they required pretty significant amounts of water, they needed a lot of labor, and part of the labor had to do with the nature of beet seeds, in that they were multi-germ seed balls. And so when you plant one of these seed balls, you would get a lot of sprouts all at once. But in order to produce a single beet that was easy to process into sugar, workers had to, on their hands and knees, pull out all of these little sprouts, so that there would only be one single sprout that seemed to be the strongest sprout standing. And so that required a lot of work called “thinning” that happened early on in the season. And there was also a lot of work as the beets grew throughout the season — to weed them, and to make sure that they had all of the nutrients and environmental conditions that they needed in order to grow as best they could. So there was a lot that companies and their government allies put into reshaping the land around the needs of beets.

And the thing about Colorado and the high plains is that it’s a really arid environment where there’s not a lot of water. And so it required expansion of irrigated agriculture. And it also was built on the premise or the hope that you could forecast what each season was going to look like, right? And that ideally, each season and its weather and its water and precipitation would ideally fit the needs of the crop. But the reality, on the high plains, was that there were huge extremes in temperature. There were often long periods of drought, and then sometimes drought would be interrupted by deluges that would cause floods. And so there was a lot of environmental contingency involved in producing agriculture in that part of the plains.

And growing beets on the plains was actually pretty complicated. And it’s interesting, because nobody ever asked the question of whether this was the most appropriate agricultural system to be devising for that particular environment. The idea was more, this is a great idea. It’s going to create a lot of wealth. It’s going to root white settler communities on the plains. And it is going to develop the West’s agricultural infrastructure. And the reality was that what the outcome fell short of expectations, and it was actually very hard to produce beets in the ways that factories and companies wanted them, in the amount that factories and companies wanted, in a way to sustain the growth that they had prophesized. And this was also an industry that put a lot of risk, or built a lot of risk, into farmers contracts. And so farmers had to bear a lot of the risk of agricultural production. And that became a really political question about who was responsible for what got framed as the shortcomings of nature, those ways in which nature or the land intervened in unproductive ways or disrupted production, or killed acres and acres of beets, whether it was because of drought, or floods, or pests or diseases. And the question became, who was responsible when nature didn’t behave in the way it was supposed to?

And so you saw the response to that happening in ways that were highly racialized, in that some communities were able to go to the federal government or state governments and receive support when things failed. And other communities — and in this instance, agricultural migrant workers — were often made to bear the burden of what got termed nature’s failings, but I think we can really think about as being the failings of capitalism and of aspirations for what the land was going to do for white Americans and ideas of how the land was supposed to just behave, or that it could be transformed and improved in ways to make it behave and act the way that white farming communities wanted, which really was contrary to the actual nature of the land, and particularly in that place in that it was highly unpredictable.

And there was a lot environmentally that made growing beets in that region very difficult. And the way that that conflict was, in a sense, resolved between white farmers and companies was often by placing then the risks and the burdens of production, and really the failures of the industry, on to Indigenous and Asian and ethnic Mexican agricultural working communities in ways that had pretty serious consequences in terms of those communities’ welfare, and also, really profound consequences or outcomes in terms of what those communities started to organize around in terms of what they deserved, and what kinds of lives, in terms of like creating working lives that mattered to them, right? Or creating community structures and institutions that spoke to their own needs, or in the instance of Indigenous workers in the southwest, how to create economic lives in ways that supported community needs and Indigenous Nations’ needs, as opposed to enriching non-Indigenous communities at their expense. And so those became the kind of social and political questions that came out of this industry, and some of the expectations that sugar companies and farmers had for what the land was going to do for them.

J.T. Jamieson: Well, Professor Pérez, thank you so much for sharing your fascinating, complex research with us today.

Bernadette Pérez: Well, thank you, J.T. It’s been a pleasure.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit



Confiscated Objects of the Cultural Revolution: A Visual Interview with Puck Engman

Puck Engman

China’s Cultural Revolution aimed to reshape the social and political order of China by purging elements of feudalist and bourgeois society, including through confiscating property. In 1966, millions of objects were taken from homes by independently organized and unofficial groups associated with Red Guards, a student-led paramilitary movement that supported the revolution. But what happened to the objects after they were seized? 

Puck Engman, Assistant Professor in History at UC Berkeley and a historian of China in the postwar era, talked with Julia Sizek about the lives of these objects. More broadly, his research concerns the reorganization of state and society in the first 30 years of the People’s Republic of China, and the transition from command economy to market economy at the end of the 20th century.

This interview is based on Engman’s publication, “What Right to Property When Rebellion is Justified?: Revolution and Restitution in Shanghai,” which is published in Justice After Mao: The Politics of Historical Truth in the People’s Republic of China. 

During the Cultural Revolution, China’s Red Guards confiscated so-called “feudal” and “bourgeois” property from private citizens. Your research shows how this confiscation happened in practice. What did this seizure look like on the ground? 

Two men rummaging through property in a person's house.

A group of men on the back of a truck with confiscated property.
Images from the “Cultural revolution video collection.” Courtesy of the H.C. Fung Library, Harvard.

The late summer of 1966 is known among historians of China as “Red August” due to widespread violence and vandalism. This involved Red Guards raiding and ransacking hundreds of thousands of homes across China. “Red Guards” was the name used by the youth organizations that had formed at universities and schools around the country to join a new political movement: the Cultural Revolution. In August, they began entering private homes, often humiliating, threatening, and even beating up residents in the process. While their primary aim was to uncover evidence of counterrevolutionary plots, they more often came across items such as bronzes, books, watches, pianos, and rugs. They seized such items all the same on the grounds that they were vestiges of feudal tradition or bourgeois lifestyle.

I became curious about what happened to all these confiscated belongings. We are talking about literally tons of gold and silver, and millions of books and antiques. Where did it all end up? This question had me follow a paper trail that led away from the street-level politics that we picture when we think of the Cultural Revolution, into storage rooms and warehouses where the objects were stored. Here, I discovered the other side of looting, the bureaucratic side, where the concerns were with logistics, storage space, and ultimately restitution.

The shift of perspective to the bureaucratic side made it clear to me that party and state played an active role in the looting. In fact, when the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee set up a new government in the city, in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, one of its first priorities was to set up a group dedicated to the handling of confiscated belongings.

What were some of the practical challenges that came with seizing private property? 

The Mahavira Hall in the Jade Buddha Temple
The Mahavira Hall in the Jade Buddha Temple


list of confiscated possessions in Tianjin
A sealed suitcase containing seized possessions.

I should start by pointing out that the confiscation of personal belongings during the Cultural Revolution was a major departure from the established script for mass movements. If there was such a thing as a normal operating procedure in Maoist politics, this was not it. This made it easy, in the years after Mao’s death in 1976, for the new political leadership to declare the house raids illegitimate, one of many excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

This would not have been possible before Mao’s death. Mao was the main author of the Cultural Revolution and an enthusiastic and public supporter of the Red Guards.     

From day one, however, the sheer amount of confiscated items presented a logistical problem that local governments could not ignore.

In the city of Tianjin, the loot was enough to fill 52 warehouses, or the equivalent of about 60,000 square meters of storage space. The situation was even worse in Shanghai, where there had been over 10 times the number of house raids that had been reported in Tianjin.

Officials in Shanghai had to get creative to solve the storage crisis. They were able to take advantage of the shutdown of places of worship in the Cultural Revolution: churches and temples became makeshift warehouses, as did a colonial-era entertainment complex in downtown Shanghai. The entire east wing of the Jade Buddha Temple, measuring over a thousand square meters, became a storage space for seized antiquities.

Many seized items remained in such impromptu storage sites for years. When owners were finally able to retrieve their belongings, they would sometimes find that an elegant dress had been ruined by rainwater leaking in from the ceiling or that a scroll painting had been ruined by mildew. The political leadership was aware of this problem. In fact, only months after the raids, concerns about the upcoming rainy season prompted the very first Communist Party directive on the handling of confiscated goods, “which was primarily an order to hand over the loot to the proper authorities, but also opened for limited restitution for working-class household. This was, however, a problem without a quick fix.

What were some of the common paths for these objects to take after they were confiscated, and what are the traces of objects that you have found in the archives?

A coupon used for the procurement of confiscated goods
A coupon used for the procurement of confiscated goods.

In Shanghai and other major cities, the Red Guards delivered their loot to local factories, schools, and government offices by truckloads. Responsibility for processing all these objects was shared across several arms of the local administration.  

All contraband had to be handed over to the police. This included the firearms that Red Guards would display, proudly, as evidence of the counterrevolutionary plots they had thwarted. Much more common, judging from the documentation  I have seen, were mahjong sets. Gambling was illegal in China at the time, but remained widespread and a low priority for the police. But for the Red Guards, gambling symbolized that reactionary attitudes were still prevalent in Chinese society. The movement was possibly the most extensive clampdown on gambling in Chinese history.    

A unique challenge was presented by the confiscation of rare books and antiques. Historian Denise Ho has studied how cultural workers committed themselves to cultural preservation in the midst of the movement’s iconoclasm. Building on her work, I have looked at the decisions that went into separating common trinkets from cultural heritage. Lesser antiquities, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, were approved for export. In addition to lessening the burden for museums and libraries in China, such exports promised to generate foreign exchange, a rare and highly coveted resource for a country that had been cut off from much international trade. A great deal remained in the warehouses, but the artwork that made its way to Hong Kong was enough to shake up the local art market in Hong Kong, which was suddenly flooded with new items.

Chinese documents show that rare antiques were sometimes recovered by the Shanghai Museum from Hong Kong. Other objects likely remain in poorly documented private collections in Hong Kong or have become part of collections around the world. It is hard to say. Today, art museums are expected to investigate how objects looted by the Nazis were acquired and, increasingly, objects taken under colonialism. As far as I know, there is no provenance research related to looting in the Cultural Revolution

Most items were uninteresting to libraries, museums, or art collectors in China. Such items might instead have ended up in resale stores. The terms and conditions of the trade in confiscated goods were set by local governments. A rationing coupon from Tianjin reads:

  1. Can only be used for the purchase of commercial items from the handling of confiscated goods;
  2. Cannot be tampered with;
  3. Cannot be copied, resold; offenders will be punished according to the law;
  4. Keep safe, will not be replaced if lost;
  5. Take note of the validity period, invalid upon expiration.

The coupon was issued by the Tianjin Confiscated Goods Commercial Acquisition Group. This and other similar groups were responsible not only for setting the terms of trade in confiscated goods, but also for deciding how the items should be priced.

Strong similarities of procedure from one city to another suggest a high degree of coordination in the handling of confiscated goods from the start. As for the trade of seized items, the best we can do at this point is to say that it occurred. What the scope of this trade was, domestically and internationally, is still to be determined. 

In some of the cases, possessions that were confiscated ended up being returned to their original owners, which is known as restitution. What did this process look like?

List of confiscated property, Chuansha County
List of confiscated property, Chuansha County


Form used for compensation for wrongfully confiscated possessions
Form used for compensation for wrongfully confiscated possessions.

There has been very little research on restitution in the context of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. One of the primary reasons is that historians have assumed that restitution did not begin until after Mao’s death in 1976, when the Chinese Communist Party declared that the Cultural Revolution had been an error.

I have found instead that restitution began very soon after the raids, although it was limited. A form for approving the return of confiscated belongings, used in Shanghai in 1967, allows the owner to be identified not just by name and address, but also by their class status. The box for “class status” is significant because at this time, the Chinese Communist Party restricted restitution to those with a “good” class background, like workers and poor peasants. In one example from 1967, a Shanghai woman of “bourgeois” class was allowed access to her confiscated savings, but only because she was ill with cancer and needed to pay for her medicines. When bank officials discovered that she had also been given access to foreign currency, they determined that the request had been part of an enemy plot. Occurrences like this one were probably not common, but as long as restitution was framed in the language of class struggle, there was a certain risk associated with claiming one’s belongings. Over the next few years, the evaluation of who was — and who wasn’t — entitled to restitution changed. 

How did the categories of who was entitled to restitution change? 

Broadly speaking, we can identify two moments that expanded the scope of restitution. At both moments, the key question was who belonged among the People of the People’s Republic of China, by which I mean the members of the political community as opposed to the enemies of the revolution.

The first expansion began in 1969. This was when the mass mobilization phase of the Cultural Revolution ended. The Communist Party switched into a corrective mode, restoring some of the institutions and principles that had been disrupted in the earlier stage of the movement.

Around 1969, local governments began to extend restitution to members of the old elites:  former government officials, religious leaders, capitalists, and intellectuals. These groups had enjoyed some protection from the Communist Party before 1966 but had become targets for the Red Guard attacks. A further push in this direction came in 1971, when Mao Zedong approved a recommendation to expand restitution to the old elites. This was a signal from the highest authority that these groups were no longer to be treated as enemies. Two years later, Shanghai had returned 56 percent of belongings seized from capitalist households. By 1975, this had increased to 70 percent — more than 33,000 households. 

The second expansion came in 1978, at the beginning of the post-Mao reforms. Anyone who is familiar with the history of the People’s Republic of China will recognize this year as a watershed for class politics. The Communist Party ended most forms of class discrimination and described class as a historical category rather than a political label. 

For restitution, this meant that anyone who had been affected by the house raids was, technically, eligible for restitution, regardless of class background. In practice, things were more complicated, as many belongings had been lost or damaged. Trickiest of all was the return of families to homes from which they had been evicted. Many disputes over housing continued well into the 2000s, and grew increasingly fraught when the price of real estate took off. 

Foreign students visit a Red Guard exhibit in Beijing, 1966
Foreign students visit a Red Guard exhibit in Beijing, 1966

As you mentioned, this is a different way of thinking about restitution. How does this narrative of restitution processes change how we think about the Cultural Revolution and the period that came after it? 

I would highlight two takeaways. The first is that we need to rethink the chronology of the Cultural Revolution, which is still thought of as a 10-year period starting with the Red Guard movement in 1966 and ending with Mao’s death in 1976.

Looting and restitution does not fit this framework. The ransacking of private homes only lasted for a few weeks in late summer of 1966. The loot remained in warehouses as the Cultural Revolution took a different direction, shifting focus from reactionary objects to revisionist tendencies within the Communist Party. But the loot did not stay there until 1976. My research shows how renewed efforts to reunite belongings with their owners after Mao’s death followed considerable initiatives at an earlier stage. Here, the watershed moment was not 1976 or 1978, but 1969, when the Cultural Revolution entered a less radical phase, and China started to improve relations with Japan, Hong Kong, and the United States. 

The second has to do with our tendency to associate successful restitution efforts with strong property rights. I’m not sure how strong the connection really is. In the Chinese case, restitution seems to have been relatively successful, despite private property rights being virtually irrelevant both before and after Mao’s death. In 1987, the Supreme People’s Court issued an opinion stating that any case related to compensation for Cultural Revolution house raids should not be handled like an ordinary civil case, and should not be handled in court. In other words, the basis for restitution was not a legal right, but party policy. This meant that individuals had little recourse if the party denied their claim, yet the lack of property rights did not have a major impact on the overall scope or expediency of restitution. Logistics and politics were far more important. 


Authoritarian Absorption: An Interview with Yan Long

Yan Long

This episode of the Matrix Podcast features an interview with Yan Long, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley who focuses on the politics of public health in China. She was formerly an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Indiana University and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Stanford Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society. She obtained her PhD at the University of Michigan and her master’s and bachelor’s degrees at Beijing University. 

Matrix Social Science Communications Scholar Jennie Barker spoke with Long about her forthcoming book, Authoritarian Absorption: The Transnational Remaking of Infectious Disease Politics in China. In the book, she examines how foreign interventions aimed at tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in China in the 1990s and 2000s affected the Chinese public health system, government, and society both in ways that the interventions did and did not intend. 

Listen below, or on Apple Podcasts. An edited transcript of the interview is included below.

Podcast Transcript

Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jennie Barker: Hello, and welcome to The Matrix Podcast. I’m Jennie Barker, your host, coming to you from the Matrix office on UC Berkeley’s campus. Our broad topic today is on public health in China. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, what affects when and how a government responds or does not respond to public health crises has been a pressing question in the news and beyond.

Some questions that people are interested in are if the regime type of the government matters, such as is it a democracy or autocracy? Does the ideology of the government matter? Does it matter what resources the government has? So this big question is one that our guest today, Yan Long, is addressing in her forthcoming book, Authoritarian Absorption– The Transnational Remaking of Infectious Disease Politics in China.

In the book, she examines how foreign interventions aimed at tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in China in the 1990s and 2000s affected the Chinese public health system, government and society, both in ways the interventions did and did not intend.

Yan Long is an Assistant Professor in the sociology department here at UC Berkeley. She is coming to us from Indiana University, where she was an Assistant Professor, and the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, where she was a postdoctoral fellow. She holds a joint PhD in Sociology and Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan, and a master’s and bachelor’s degree from Beijing University. Welcome, and thank you for coming to our podcast.

Yan Long: Thank you very much for this opportunity. I’m very happy to be here to share my research.

Barker: So let’s start our conversation today by getting into the developments in global politics that set the stage for your study of public health in China. In your book, there are two parallel developments that you focus on, the first being the rise of foreign aid from Western governments, and the second being HIV/AIDS activism going global. So can you speak a little bit about the beginnings of these interventions from foreign governments in general and how HIV/AIDS became a big focus for these interventions?

Long: OK, this is actually a quite complicated question. So let me see if I can simplify the historical setting. So what I study about the foreign intervention in China, it happened in a background where global health has really taken the stage and entered the political agenda of international relations. And that did not happen until the late 1990s.

So there are several things, I would say three things happening at the time. So one of the thing is that since the 1980s that all international relations scholars are very familiar with is that the world has watched the rise of transnational governing rules and norms that really forbid, permit, or require particular kinds of government regulations or governing arrangements in different areas, such as finance, security, food, urban development, labor, gender, human rights, et cetera.

So nation state no longer enjoys the ultimate authority in those areas. So that has been the general trend outside health. But we would say that actually in the 90– even until the 1980s, health was so marginal. I mean, people did not think of health as important.

But at the time, there was also a very important shift, which is people start to think– I’m talking about people. I’m talking about the World Bank. We’re talking about development or development banks, those kind of important financial institutes start to think that health is actually really important for development. If you want to establish oversea markets, if you want economic development, you need to have health first. So that’s a major thing.

But then when it comes to HIV/AIDS, especially health, in the time, I’ll just say it wasn’t until the late 1990s when the United States started to take interest in HIV/AIDS. That was started in the Clinton administration. And America was convinced that, OK, HIV/AIDS, that was going on in Africa actually for a long time.

But then it became a security threat. So the US government was convinced, OK, this is something we need to intervene. So it began to lead this campaign to push HIV/AIDS into, for example, the Millennium Development Goals. So HIV/AIDS was the first disease that was put on political agenda.

China and Russia were very much against it, the sort of politicization of the disease, they were very much against it. But the US had made up its mind. And then you would see the Bush administration started the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

So that was the time when American government began to say, OK, we are going to assume the leadership in global health. That was a very important term. Then the third sort of background I would emphasize is that, again, going back to America, many of you probably know that San Francisco was the horrible center of AIDS activism in the 1980s when the government was not going to intervene in the sort of gay disease.

So American activists, especially gay activists, had to play a very important role in terms of the AIDS activism, how to do it. And then they were also the ones who worked with activists in the global south, such as those in South Africa, to really push HIV/AIDS onto the political agenda. So that’s very important to keep in mind.

It wasn’t just the US government suddenly began to say, hey, HIV/AIDS is important. No, there was a decade of efforts from the activists from the bottom up to push it onto the political agenda. So those were the three, I would say, three background I would emphasize.

Barker: So thank you so much for untangling that complicated question I asked you. And I think we saw and as you document in your book that this focus on HIV/AIDS activism was particularly strong in the case of China. So you had these foreign interveners coming in, and HIV/AIDS was a big focus. So why did China become such a focal point for this type of activism and this type of intervention? So why was China where a lot of this focus was?

Long: OK, I’m going to tell a very cynical version of the story. So, first of all, AIDS activism didn’t start just bottom-up in China. It didn’t originate from inside China. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were some sporadic sort of efforts in China to push for AIDS activism. It was not successful.

But things took a turn in 1999 when US embassy in China began to investigate the HIV/AIDS pandemic in China. So one of the things I want to say is that so China’s largest HIV/AIDS outbreak took place in early 1990s. So it was already– it was taking place. Nobody was taking interest in it.

The outside world certainly knew about that epidemic, which was very specific to China because it occurred among commercial blood donors. So it was caused by blood contamination. So the outside world knew about it, but nobody took interest.

However, as I mentioned, till the late 1990s because of United States, interests have shifted. So the US embassy began to take interest in it. So that started this whole campaign about blaming and shaming Chinese government for not taking any measure against HIV/AIDS.

At the time, it was another development, which was because HIV/AIDS was becoming a political issue. And at the time, there was this kind of fear about how maybe China and India would become the next Africa, OK? So that became a major sort of security threat to the whole world. And also because of all the rising interest and also organizations, a lot of organizations, such as UNAID that was funded for not very long, they really needed a target.

They needed something to say that HIV/AIDS is very important, that China is not doing anything. There was this agenda. So they did exaggerate the scope of an impact of the blood contamination issue in China and all those things. So China provided a target. That was very much so and also because of SARS in 2003. That certainly also emphasized this kind of crisis around public health in China.

So that was when all kinds of interests began to emerge. Like Asia would– I mean, reasonably, you would think because of the huge population, obviously, if HIV/AIDS pandemic happened, that would be a disaster. So there was a lot of organizational and political sort of agenda going on behind those kind of interventions.

Barker: What were some of the changes that they wanted to see in China in terms of their public health and how they were approaching the HIV/AIDS epidemic?

Long: In terms of the particular kind of strategies, it was very typical blaming and shaming basically various international organizations, different Western governments. Also foreign, the media began to blast China, mostly the central government for not taking any measure or intervention in HIV/AIDS epidemic, very rightfully so.

So China had a long history in public health. It was part of the socialist legacy before 1970s. However, after since the 1980s, China pretty much just gave up on public health. It was compared to economic development. It was no longer something important. It had pretty much abandoned the public health and push it to the margin of its political and policy agenda.

So throughout the 1980s and 1990s, you would see the crumbling like really just whole collapse of public health institution in China. So HIV/AIDS was just one part of it in terms of infectious disease control. So they just pretty much denied, OK, we have AIDS epidemic.

It was very similar to what we observe during the early sort of outbreak of COVID-19, not just in China but also in many other countries is this denialism. OK, we do not have this pandemic. We don’t want to inform the people who were infected.

Many people in my research, they didn’t find out about their HIV positive status until like 10 years later. So there was no effort put into it. So that was a major sort of target in the early stage, which was pretty much amplified by the source crisis as the government did not want to invest in public health.

So at the beginning, the sort of foreign intervention was really to call for the government’s attention to public health but also provide technical and funding sort of support to help China. So there was definitely socialization but also like substantial help to assist China in this area.

Barker: And as you note in the book, this new mode of public health, so through foreign interventions, they had these targets, they were providing this assistance, this really clashed with how public health was traditionally dealt with in most states, including in China, where the government was the main actor. The government set the public health policies. That was how it was done. But this was very different. So can you explain what this clash was?

Long: OK, so public health when the concept was proposed back in the 18th century, the idea was public health was really part of the state responsibility. That was very the beginning was set up. So how disease surveillance and prevention usually is considered as something that help the state to exercise and expand its power over people and their bodies. It’s really exercise of control.

This is why you would see a lot of debates around, for example, mask mandates or, you know, quarantine, that type of thing, lockdown during the COVID. That was really the sort of freedom of the people versus control of the state. And then public health is also a domain to establish social contract between the state and its citizen.

So when the state really deliver public health goods, it’s supposed to be the foundation of citizen right claims. So, for example, one security officer in my research, he was saying, OK, if we allow all the foundations to come in or the foreigners who give money and deliver all the things to the local people, then they’re going to listen to them instead of our government, OK?

So it is supposed to be a breach of social contract between the government and the people. So, in many ways, what we are seeing here is that foreign intervention, the problem here is really at stake I would say it’s a sovereignty. It is a national security that type of concern. So that is fundamentally foreign interventions in that kind of area.

For example, I think a lot of political scientists have already commented about how that kind of project in Africa would really damage the sort of national government’s authority and their capacity and so on. But then in the case of public health, there is also the content of what the Western world consider as public health intervention versus the Chinese tradition. So those type of clashes also exist.

So in China, it certainly has its own socialist sort of tradition. But as I mentioned, in the 1980s and 1990s, public health was very much marginalized. So, at the time, they created what I call the socialist contagious model, which pretty much relegate infectious disease to defending socialist moral boundaries.

So it was supposed to be a morality problem rather than welfare and a life problem. So health department would just improvise emergency measures for such a kind of defense rather than developing systematic expertise and technical knowledge of public health responses.

So one of the things about public health measures in China at the time was it was very much antiprofessionalism. So it was very much grassroots, mass mobilization, and so on. But then here comes the Western model. The Western model would emphasize decentralization. So government or nation state does not have the ultimate authority.

It also emphasizes equal partnership between the state and nonstate actors. Mostly it’s nonprofits or civil society groups. It also emphasizes the delivery of technical intervention. So quantitative measures or performance became really critical.

And a major difference is that you can see that not just in China but also in a lot of Latin America or African countries is that public health interventions are delivered in a set of projects. There’s a lot of campaigns. So it’s no longer just a coherent sort of system of, you know, public health defense.

It was rather very fragmented of projects. It’s very a patchwork of project that supposedly to achieve very specific short-term goals and emphasize the sort of return on your investment in terms of the financial investment poured into the project. So that certainly created a lot of clashes, I think, in terms of just the sovereignty but also in terms of the content of public health interventions.

Barker: Yeah, you know, I think this is the great puzzle in your book, which is, you know, there are other states like Russia that really resisted this type of intervention from foreign actors and to their public health, particularly with HIV/AIDS.

But in China, it has a lot of capacity. The government is a strong government. So the puzzle that I think you put forth is why didn’t China resist this foreign pressure? Why didn’t you see China sort of going the path that Russia took? Why did we end up seeing these profound changes in public health administration as a result of these HIV/AIDS interventions in China?

Long: OK, that’s a great question. One thing I want to emphasize is that it was not a calculated decision made at the very beginning. People tend to think that Chinese government is so smart, you know, sophisticated. And that’s no, it was not decided at the very beginning.

So there are several things I would emphasize why China didn’t resist. First of all, obviously, there was, again, going back to SARS in 2003. So China definitely faced much more international pressure compared to any other authoritarian regimes. That’s one thing.

But then you would also say, OK, why not just window dressing, OK? Many people will say, yeah, you take some temporary measures afterwards, then you go back to your normal way. So what’s so different about China? There are two factors I highlight in my book. One is that transnational organizations were very successful in cultivating social movements.

So it put a lot of funding and training into Chinese AIDS activism at the time. And then it also worked a lot in terms of removing the stigma around HIV/AIDS, which was very effective in terms of mobilizing people infected with HIV/AIDS.

As I mentioned, there was a time period, it wasn’t just the Chinese government didn’t want to respond to AIDS, but also people who were infected didn’t want to acknowledge that fact neither. So there was a silence on both end. But international interventions really helped to say, no, you guys should rise up. You’re facing all these problems. You should assert your rights, your claim.

So foreign sort of foreign intervention provided a lot of the ammunitions. It provides this impetus, I think, to sustain the kind of pressure on the Chinese government. I think that’s one thing that didn’t happen in many other countries. Then the second thing is that people tend to think that, yes, Chinese government is wealthy, but it’s not everybody, especially not the specific bureaucrats.

So another thing we need to look at is public health officials pursuit of professional identity. It was a driving force in embracing foreign interventions. When we think about state reaction to external pressure, we tend to think of it as coherent, OK? Iran would have a certain reaction. North Korea has a certain reaction.

But in reality, when you look at beneath the regime, then you will see different departments, different organizational agency, they have very different pursuit, their goals, their resources, and so on. So even though the Communist Party in China had this elevated actually vigilance against the foreign influence since 2000, especially because of the Orange Revolution in Europe, so it was very unhappy about foreign intervention.

However, guess what? Public Health Department in China really welcomed the material resources, the legitimacy, and most importantly, the technical knowledge and professional training. People probably do not know that US CDC– so the China CDC was not funded until 2002. And it was modeled after the US model.

Chinese public health professionals really worshiped the US model for a very long time, say, at least a decade until 2013. So public health marginal position within the bureaucratic system in China made those officials particularly interested in the kind of material rewards as well as symbolic capital attached being accepted into this global health professional community.

So they were really the driving force in terms of welcoming and embracing all kinds of foreign money and models and all those things. But one thing that has shifted since the 2013 was that government became– the Chinese party began to realize that China was actually really good in public health intervention.

It became an area that associated with international power and prestige. So mind you, at the beginning, it was United States who was telling China, oh, HIV/AIDS was important. But then after 2013, it was Chinese government was like, oh, yes, HIV is important.

So it has become part of its political identity, which you can see very clearly during the COVID-19. It’s like, OK, we are this powerful. We are this responsible superpower. We are much better than the US because we can do a much better job in countering infectious disease.

So, at that point, infectious disease control or HIV/AIDS has already become part of the political status to prove China’s high standing in the world. It was also part of the Belt and Road development project that China began to export its own HIV prevention model into Africa and so on. So it has come to a full circle.

Barker: So, as you just very thoroughly discussed, China did engage with these international actors on HIV/AIDS quite deeply, right? But the results that these interventions were expected to bring, probably expected by these foreign actors like these Western governments, these Western organizations, they expected that these interventions might bring like a more liberal population, right?

But that didn’t exactly happen to the public health system in China. And you develop a term for this in your book, which is authoritarian absorption. So what is that? What is that term? What does it mean? And how did you see it play out here with the HIV/AIDS interventions?

Long: OK, so let me start with usually when we look at international interventions, we scholar tend to think it often fail because it happens a lot. So what happened in China, it’s more of a surprise to many people, including me. So here, the Democratic intervention was very critical from the very beginning.

So HIV/AIDS in China for a very long time was seen by many people as a sort of area where you can cultivate the Democratics or behavior, such as election, such as community, mobilization, and so on. However, those type of Democratic intervention techniques can be absorbed by the government agencies into the state apparatus for different purposes.

So by authoritarian absorption, I’m emphasizing two factors. One is that interveners shall train and cultivate social movements to carry the transnational materials symbolic and various practices into a domestic context. But then secondly, the government organizations could have the skills to channel the same movement in ways that basically repurpose those elements for authoritarian purpose.

Because I’m a Star Wars fan, so I actually think this is pretty much it. If you think about how Jedi actually gave Skywalker the training for him to become the Darth Vader, that’s pretty much how it describes the authoritarian sort of absorption in some ways. So I would still emphasize in many ways, international interventions mean to strengthen China’s public health in general.

That goal had failed in Africa in most countries, but it was very successful in China. So that I must emphasize, even though eventually then public health serves the political purpose of amplifying the authoritarian control. But I would still say it was– I would consider it as a success in many ways.

So, to some degree, this absorption was brought about by the Chinese government and by the health agencies, the local health agencies, right? But you also discuss in your book how it was enabled by the practices of these foreign interveners, right?

Barker: And you have sort of a great line, I think, about this, about the attitudes of these organizations. So you quote where you say, can we get the same results for less money? So this was this huge focus of these organizations that were giving resources, money into local health agencies in China, right? And so can you explain why or how these foreign actors sort of enabled this process?

Long: I really love this question because when people think about the expansion of authoritarian world, we tend to think of terms, such as authoritarian resistance. We tend to think it always comes from the authoritarian side. But the fact is that the game, especially when it comes to international development, the game was set up by the Westerners.

So I think there is a general trend, which is manifested, especially in public health, which is international organizations often rely on two sets of authority. One is what we call principled authority, which is political morals and values. That’s when we talk about freedom, democracy, human rights, and et cetera.

However, international organizations have decreasingly relied on those authority because they turn to another set of authority, which is expert authority based on specialized knowledge confined to managerial science and epidemiologic engineering. So that’s when the quantitative measures come into play.

That’s when the idea of the model of you must have good return on your financial investment that come into play. So even on the international aspects or on the international side, you always have this kind of tension between do we want to promote democracy versus how many interventions can we conduct to just given this amount of money?

Can we just achieve short-term goals as fast as we can? And I think this type of shift is especially beneficial to players, such as China. I think authoritarian governments are very good at playing the number game. If you want a number, if you want quantitative measures, they’re incredibly good at manufacturing good numbers. They have super sort of mobilization capacity.

So that kind of game plan would help authoritarian government to rise to the top because the game is set up for them. It is partially is Chinese government’s agencies are very good at adapting, but it is also– it also originate from the fact that the game is set up this way, so you cannot blame them for playing it.

Barker: Yeah, and I think as I was reading the book, some of the same effects of this push for quantification, push for results, I think you can see in a lot of different areas as well. So the area that I’m most familiar with is sort of democracy aid, right? So aid given to these civil society organizations. And you can see also the push to have results, privileges, some organizations over others.

And the ones that may be most effective at actually doing the things that the sort of donors want are the ones that may not have the same capacity to take advantage of quantifying or like, you know, really pushing for these measurable outcomes, right? So it’s super fascinating. And I think, you know, there’s a lot of soul searching that maybe these organizations might need to do.

So I think one of the impacts of this push for quantification and on social movements in China that you talk about are sort of urban gay men’s groups. So one of the primary beneficiaries of these interventions aimed at HIV/AIDS were these urban gay men’s groups. And this is also a puzzle that you put forth in your book.

So why would these urban gay men’s groups be the main beneficiaries, even though sort of male to male HIV transmission is actually quite low relative to other forms of transmission, as you note, and also given the long history of homophobia in the country? Why were they the actors that became more– I don’t want to say empowered but more like they were able to expand their activism?

Long: It was really very long-term sort of a historical process. When I first started my fieldwork in 2007, at that time, victims of blood contamination were certainly at the center of the movement, as you can imagine, because they were also the ones who attracted foreign interventions from the very get go. So their deaths, their suffering at the time were supposed to be the evidence of human rights violation in China, et cetera.

However, as you mentioned, because of the push for quantification, that began– activists in the urban areas– we’re talking about because of blood contamination that happened in the rural areas. And so we’re talking about the people who already had a lot of suffering. They were struggling with disease and all those things.

They were not very good at producing quantitative index or achieving the kind of performance compared to the HIV negative gay men activists in the urban areas. So in the urban areas, not only did gay men groups very effective at producing the quantitative results, they were also at a much more advantageous sort of position to collaborate with the government.

So I mentioned that China became really good at public health intervention largely also because of the assistance provided by gay men groups, OK? So they helped China to consistently sort of put forward higher and higher index and all those things and then which helped the Chinese government to secure more international projects to project this kind of very successful sort of image of public health intervention.

So that certainly helped them to gain favors in terms of providing this model of civil society and the government collaborative model, which they suppose they call it harmonious civil society intervention model as a way to counter against the Western sort of civil society model because the Western model is supposed to be the opposition between the civil society and the government.

But the gay men somehow helped the government to say, no, no, no, we can work together and in a very harmonious way. And this model was then further exported to Africa, OK? So it’s very different. That certainly helped the gay men organizations. But that also gave the government a leverage to repressing the rural activists without the political backlash because now you look at us, OK, we’re so liberal.

We’re supporting gay men organizations. We still have civil society here. I have a separate paper, published at American Journal of Sociology that talks specifically about how this kind of divide and conquer strategy really helped the authoritarian governments to shield their own actions from international attention and international pressure. So that worked out in a way. That was not intended or anticipated by anybody at the beginning.

Barker: Right, yeah. I think you open the book with a very illustrative case about these different trajectories of the two groups you’ve just talked about. One of the activists who you knew sort of at the beginning was a member of one of these urban gay men’s groups, and the other was this member or leader of a rural blood contamination group.

And so, as you note, they both sort of benefited from the space sort of brought by these interventions at the beginning, right? They ended up in quite different places. And I think this is helpful to illustrate what you just explained that on the one hand, you had these groups that were working in a harmonious way, and on the other hand, you had these groups that were sort of repressed and pushed to the side. So could you tell a little bit about these two activists and sort of their different– where they ended up and sort of their different end points?

Long: OK, maybe I should walk back a little bit and talk about gay men groups versus victims of blood contamination. So, as I mentioned earlier, China’s largest HIV/AIDS pandemic really took place because of blood contamination.

So gay men did not attract any attention from public health department for a very long time. In fact, homosexuality was– some researchers had to commit suicide because they were trying to do some research among this group with regard to HIV/AIDS in the 1990s. So for a very long time, it was very strong homophobia among public health officials.

So when I started doing research in 2007, so I met several groups of activists. One group was the victims of blood contamination. So that group has two components. One was like people, Gordon. He was a farmers who used to sell his blood in the 90– he started selling blood in 1994 and then ended in 1995.

And his whole village, probably about 70% of the male adults in his village were selling blood for money. So he got infected. He didn’t find out about his HIV positive status until the end of 1990s when people in his village started to die. So eventually, 30% of people who were infected actually either died of AIDS or other infections or committed suicide.

So there was a wave of just death in the village while the government pretty much denied the pandemic even existed. Another group of blood contamination victims were mostly women because they were using blood products or actually they were encouraged by doctors to use blood products mostly during reproductive surgeries.

So one woman I met, her name is May. So she got infected at the hospital in 1995. Then she infected her baby during breastfeeding. They never realized what’s wrong with the baby. She just went to hospital again and again like so many times until 2004 when the virus infected her brain. That was the girl’s nine years birthday. Just two months after that, she passed away.

So May found out she was HIV positive. Her daughter was positive and then died. That was when they found out. At the time, she already had her second daughter, who was also infected during all those time. So those are the main components of that victim group. Then you have gay men activists. Most gay men activists at the time were HIV negative.

They were using HIV/AIDS mostly as a way to come out and do activism because it was super dangerous. And they didn’t have the space to really just press their claims about their rights simply around homosexuality. But at the time, they were super marginalized. However, as I track those two groups in the following 11 years– I cannot believe it was 11 years– then you would see the divergence.

They used to work together between 2007 and 2009, but then you would see more and more fights and conflict between both groups, especially as the gay men groups became endorsed not only by the Chinese government but also by foundations, Western media and also. By 2002– 2000– no, 2012 and 2013, you would see the gay men had already become the face of AIDS activism. They were publicly endorsed and met by the Chinese government.

And they became this, you know, part of this model of harmonious civil society collaboration versus [INAUDIBLE] and may became just– their activism became– they didn’t have enough support from other parties. And so their movement began to die and pretty much ceased to exist in 2015. But gay men groups are still very active up to this day. So those are the sort of divergence in terms of their different path.

Barker: One of the points that you make in your book and that I kind of wanted to maybe draw out a little bit here is that, you know, social movements or sort of supporting civil society, it’s not just a whole, you know, like a wholesale good, right?

There are the ways that you can see the inequality kind of be reproduced. At least you know you have these urban groups where people are maybe more of the middle class. You know, even if they are, you know, there’s a lot of homophobia in the country, they still are able to sort of– they’re maybe educated, they’re middle class.

They may be able to take advantage of these opportunities in a different way than people who are more rural, maybe less educated, you know, women, whatever, all these different inequalities that you saw kind of part in your research. And so I wanted to draw that out a little bit. And I think you refer to this as the dark side of collective action, right? So just something I think was really fascinating.

Long: Thank you.

Barker: And I mean, just to sort of, you know, maybe conclude on this particular section, I mean, did you see, as you were following these gay men’s groups, any sort of, I don’t know, like what they thought about the fact that they became the face of the movement and these other people who were, you know, also suffering from HIV/AIDS that they sort of fell away? I mean, did they think about it at all or was it just sort of like we have to make do with what we have?

Long: I think a coalition is always difficult for social movements around the world. It doesn’t matter what you do. It takes effort to build. And there was a time, as I mentioned, pretty much in the early 2000, even mid-2000, that there were a lot of funding, Western funding to help to cultivate that kind of coalition and solidarity.

Again, I don’t think this was sort of intended. It was not planned out as one activist, you know, activist group wanted to push another one to the side. It was really a process. One thing I want to emphasize is that both groups from the very beginning, there was a division in terms of their relationship with the government and how they approached different activism exactly because they were using different sources of Western funding.

So, for example, the Western NGOs tend to collaborate much more closely with the victims of contaminated blood, OK? The US government were much more involved with that group compared to the gay activists. The gay activists mostly were working through the public health route in terms of participating in projects.

They worked also much closely with the UN entity. So I think that from the very beginning had created a lot of division. But then because of the quantification trend, quantification trend make many activists to believe that it’s not– like how do you showcase your success, your performance?

They also accepted this kind of idea of if I can push out more quantitative results, I’m just better. I perform very well. They accepted this type of language and discourse, which makes them think, OK, since I can produce more result, that must mean I’m much better than those patterns.

And there must be something wrong with them when they cannot just show the return on the financial investment. So naturally, it creates this kind of hierarchy and which masks a lot of the factors you mentioned, such as class, such as the sort of space, especially in terms of the interaction between different groups.

Like who have the advantage to interact with Western organizations, for example? Must be the urban one. The rural ones, it takes forever to even go to the city. But when you think your success is only built on your own performance, you only think other people’s failure is due to their poor performance. You don’t think of it as something else.

And also, one of the beauty of longitudinal ethnography, which I conducted is that at the time, you really don’t know. You really do not realize a lot of the consequences often show up and appear several years later. Some of the fight or some of the struggle, you just didn’t know. At the time, you were very much concerned with different fights among activists.

You didn’t realize, oh, there is corruption going on. There was the state intervention going on. You did not realize that until several years later. But by that time, the coalition was already damaged. So I don’t think it was intentional. It was– no.

Barker: So I think to shift gears a bit to the takeaways from your book, and I think, you know, what we just discussed, right, which is that, you know, it wasn’t intentional but sort of like the over time sort of impacts of all these different actors. And I think one important contribution of your book is sort of offering a much more nuanced view of these transnational interventions, right? It’s not just a static one-off thing that happens, right?

There’s these downstream effects that you might not have even seen happening or intended to happen or even could have foreseen at all several years later. So I think, you know, thinking about what your book has to offer for this type of research, I mean, where would you like or where do you see the field of research on transnational interventions going in the– like, where would you like it to go? What issues do you think are important to keep in mind for scholars who are interested in this type of work?

Long: I think this is probably a very dark time for us because we’re not talking about global engagement. We’re talking about disengagement. So I would say first of all, this might sound– I think many of my colleagues might not agree with me. But first of all, I do think foreign interventions need to keep going.

I think China is actually– despite of my focus on the side effects, one of the major takeaway is that the intervention was pretty successful. Just imagine without all the infrastructure capacity that HIV/AIDS intervention had put in place, what could have happened during COVID-19?

I mean, it could have just run through 1.4 billion population. That would be a huge disaster to the world. So in that kind of light, nowadays, actually, China is becoming very much excluded from the public health discussion in the United States. I think the disengagement is very disheartening.

So from that angle, I would say just transnational advocacy is great, even though it has problems. But secondly, I do think we need to pay more attention to the organizational sort of dynamics on the ground as the research moves forward.

I think in the past, we paid a lot of attention to the political ideology aspects, the politics, economic aspects, but we haven’t paid enough attention to the fact that all the actors on the ground, their organizations, they have their limitations. They have their resources. They have their goals.

So you need to think about those type of factors and then think about, OK, does it make sense? So, for example, nowadays, if you look at UNAIDS, 20 years ago, there was a bigger critique of China. But nowadays, they’re just praising China left and right. And you got to understand, it’s not just politically motivated. There are many reasons behind that. So how to understand that is very important.

But then thirdly, I think this is also an exciting time, I guess, for transnational advocacy study because in the past, we were very used to how the Western world was providing the help to the poor activists in the Global South.

Nowadays, as you can see, you have Brazil. You have India. You have China, who are very invested in the new term, which is like development diplomacy. So there are new actors on the horizon. And how are they going to affect the landscape, affect the future? I think that would be really exciting to see.

But of course, I’m also worried because in the past, it was much easier to just criticize, you know, the Western imperialism. You can criticize the liberal hypocrisy. Nowadays, you have different actors who are authoritarian on the horizon. So what’s going to happen next? I think it would be a much more complicated thing down the road.

Barker: Yeah, and I think we can conclude, I think, with the question that you just briefly even touched on in your response there, which is what would have happened had this infrastructure not been put in place to help with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in COVID-19?

So, you know, let’s talk about the COVID-19 of it all, right? So how can we use what we’ve just discussed and what your book has sort of, you know, the conclusions of your book, how can that help us understand how China sort of approached and how China fared during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is sort of the question still on everyone’s minds?

Long: Yeah, I mean, I think COVID-19 has posted a lot of challenges to me because I had to really think very hard and deep about, OK, the conclusions argument I put forward in the book and whether it still stands. I would say actually, when you look at COVID-19, you can see a lot of the technique that China had learned through HIV/AIDS programs were certainly had been working really well.

One of the major factor, for example, like Dr. Zunyou, who was the Director of National Center for AIDS, STD Control and Prevention I think from 2005 to 2017, I’m not so sure about ending point, then he became the chief epidemiologist of China’s CDC. And then he became the Chinese version of Anthony Fauci during COVID.

OK, so that gives you some sense about how important HIV/AIDS intervention, the whole program, how does that helped COVID-19 intervention. People sometimes complain about– even at the very beginning of the pandemic when China was performing really terribly, it was so many mistakes. And people were complaining. I totally understand that.

But again, we’re talking about China [INAUDIBLE] did not even exist until 2002. During my research, it was even until 2007, a lot of public health officials did not even have a basic sense of project management, accounting, like really basic managerial practices, OK?

So we’re talking about a bureaucracy that had been learning actually rather fast during this whole time, actually less than two decades. So from that aspect, I would say China had come really a long way. But then there was also the element of, for example, community mobilization that was a big component of HIV/AIDS intervention that was also imported into China, OK?

Then that during COVID-19, you would see the traditional socialist mass mobilization model had been replaced by community mobilization. So that’s why you would see a lot of emphasis on the volunteers, community organizations who were playing critical role in surveillance, basically. So that part is also, I would say, one of the kind of heritage from the HIV/AIDS era.

But overall, I would say COVID was a time that you would see China has really come a long way in terms of building up its bureaucratic infrastructure, building up its professional sort of force in terms of dealing with infectious disease. From that aspect, I would say foreign intervention had done an incredible job. And of course, China has also performed really well because the similar process didn’t have the same result in many other countries, yeah.

Barker: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. This was, I think, a tremendous discussion about, I think, a really important topic. And, you know, I speak for myself, but I’m very glad we have people like you working on these important questions. So thanks again. And yeah, that’s it for today.

Long: Thank you.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit



Racial and Ethnic Difference in South Africa and the USSR: An Interview with Hilary Lynd

Hilary Lynd

How did South Africans and Soviets think about how to manage difference — in their home contexts and in decades of conversation with one another? In this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Julia Sizek, Matrix Postdoctoral Scholar, interviews Hilary Lynd, a PhD Candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of History, about the changing relationship between South Africa and the USSR from the 1960s through the 1980s. Lynd discusses how anti-apartheid activists were initially inspired by a Soviet model for a multinational society before a surprising about-face toward the end of apartheid and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Listen to the podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

An edited transcript of the interview is below.

Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Julia Sizek: Hello. And welcome to the Matrix Podcast. I’m Julia Sizek, your host. And today we’re recording across continents to talk with Hilary Lynd, a PhD candidate in history at UC Berkeley. Hilary’s work focuses on the former Soviet Union in South Africa, exploring the social history of ideas about race and ethnicity.

She has published articles on Blackness and Africanness in the Soviet Union as well as the land deal that secured Zulu nationalist participation in South Africa’s first democratic elections. Hilary’s dissertation project compares and connects the histories of difference in both places, centering the perspectives of Soviet and South African citizens who engaged each other as they moved back and forth. Hilary, thanks for coming on the podcast.

Hilary Lynd: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Sizek: So let’s jump into understand this relationship that you’re examining that is maybe not necessarily that well known between South Africa and the USSR during the second half of the 20th century. Can you tell us just a little bit about the broad scope of this relationship and also how you came to learn about it?

Lynd: Yeah. So we’ll start on the South African side of things. From 1948 to the early 1990s, South Africa was governed under a system called apartheid, which means separateness in Afrikaans. And apartheid in South Africa, as people may likely know, was the most brutally racist society of its time.

And one important thing that makes it different from racism in the US is that white people here where I am in South Africa were a small minority, around 20% of the population or less throughout that period. So to dominate a Black majority required a great deal of force.

And the picture shifts with different eras and organizations. But there’s always different forms of resistance. And my work focuses especially on one strand of antiapartheid resistance, which happens to be the strand that got involved with the Soviet Union.

So I look at the African National Congress, the ANC, as well as its ally, the South African Communist Party. And the ANC was banned in South Africa in 1960. And by 1963, most of the leadership, including Nelson Mandela, was arrested.

So what was left of the ANC pretty much went underground or abroad. And the ANC found itself in the situation of looking for help wherever they could find it, so in Tanzania and Zambia, Angola, also in Britain and Sweden in Europe, and then in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe.

So the question is why? Why did they end up in Eastern Europe. And the most important country in that sphere is the Soviet Union, which was the world’s first socialist state, and during the Cold War, one of the two superpowers.

So from this period in the early 1960s onwards, the Soviet Union became a particularly important sponsor for the ANC, which meant providing educational scholarships, military training, medicine, weapons, funds, and lots of different kinds of assistance.

Parts of this story have been told before and really shaped what I thought I was looking for going into the project. I thought I might tell a story about a lost socialist alternative in South Africa, which is frankly a pretty standard angle to take. But through fieldwork, combing through archives, personal collections, talking to people, interviewing people, what I found was something different and surprising and to me pretty interesting.

So the premise of the project is that we’re used to thinking of the Cold War as an ideological competition between the Soviet Union and the US. It’s communism versus capitalism. And I’m telling a different kind of story. And at the center of that is how national and ethnic and racial difference were organized.

So what I came to see is that South Africans and the ANC, they weren’t just looking at the Soviet Union as an example of a non capitalist economy. But they were also paying attention to how the Soviet multinational society worked and sometimes how it didn’t work, although that was often harder to see from the outside.

What I’ve come to understand is that it’s an underacknowledged part of the story of this relationship that when South Africans were trying to imagine what their country would look like after apartheid, one place that they drew inspiration was from Soviet policies for managing an incredibly diverse population.

Sizek: So what were those policies for managing ethnic difference in the Soviet Union? What were the operating models that these two different countries were using to understand ethnic difference and how to combine them into a single state?

Lynd: So both of these– both apartheid and Soviet nationalities policy were structured as ethnoterritorial federations. And all that means is that ethnicity and land were correlated. People were divided up and parceled into ethnic homelands where the idea was that ethnic elites would exercise a limited form of self government.

It’s a particular take on political legitimacy that says that self determination means being governed by people who are like you. So in the Soviet Union, Georgians should be governed by Georgians. And in South Africa, Zulus should be governed by Zulus. And those homelands existed in the hierarchical relationship to the center.

So in these homelands where you have limited forms of self government among a group of ethnically similar people, how did the states imagine these homelands supporting the broader state project?

So in the USSR, how did they imagine these groups coming together to support the broader socialist project?

So this is one way that the two systems are quite different from each other, that in the Soviet Union, the premise was that by letting ethnic nationalism flourish in the presence, you would provide the conditions for it ultimately to become politically irrelevant and to disappear somewhere in a communist future where national divisions would no longer exist.

So the Soviet state was simultaneously pursuing a project of deepening ethnic identities and also trying to transcend them at the same time, which leads to all kinds of interesting contradictions and shifts throughout the Soviet period.

On the other side of things in South Africa, ethnic homelands only existed for Black Africans who were classified as inferior in the apartheid racial hierarchy. There were no homelands for other racial groups as seen by the apartheid state. So white, colored, and Indian South Africans didn’t exist under that kind of model.

And the point of homelands in South Africa was to ultimately strip black South Africans of citizenship and make them into foreigners who would no longer have rights in a South Africa that would become whiter and whiter.

And so the emphasis is really different in both places, that the Soviet Union has a contradictory and complicated commitment to mixing and merging, whereas apartheid means separateness. And the commitment here, particularly in cultural terms, certainly more than economic terms, is to keeping people as separate as possible.

Sizek: So it seems like the systems are quite different. And at the same time, the ANC, which, as you mentioned, was outlawed in South Africa and many of its members were exiled to different locations, including the Soviet Union, they are thinking that they should go to the Soviet Union for inspiration.

So what do they find inspiring about the Soviet model during this time when apartheid in South Africa is so challenging because it effectively creates this horrible hierarchy in which they’re trying to live?

Lynd: So one thing that’s really important about the timing of all of this is that apartheid comes into its own at precisely the same moment as decolonization across the African continent. And as that process was unfolding in the late 1950s and the early ’60s, there were a lot of visions for what decolonization might mean that involved some kind of federation that would include the colonizer and the colonized, particularly in French West Africa.

And those visions ultimately amounted to nothing. And the model across the African continent became partition into nation states. So the meaning of decolonization got narrowed down to this one outcome of independence for the colonized population.

And the ANC was always committed to something quite different in South Africa where the idea was that because of the particular history of colonialism and capitalism in South Africa, populations had become interdependent in a way that made them impossible to unscramble. And ultimately, a postapartheid future was going to include the colonizers and the colonized as part of a South African population.

There were very few models in the world at the time for trying something like that. And the Soviet Union was really one of the only places to look to for an example of a place that’s marked by legacies of empire, by the types of inequality and histories of conquest that have some similarities to what happened in South Africa. And yet the Soviet project was to try to dissolve those historical inequalities in a system that incorporated.

For example, affirmative action for previously colonized populations and developmental subsidies for parts of– for regions of the Soviet Union that had been excluded from the benefits of European modernity and a variety of policies promoting the cultures of peoples other than Russians who dominated the state.

And this package of policies that were aimed towards integration and undoing historical inequalities but in the context of one shared society is a really unusual model that I think I think meant a lot to South Africans looking around for inspiration as to what kind of world they wanted to build after apartheid.

Sizek: I think that’s really fascinating because it points to the limits of models of multiethnic and multiracial states at this time that folks from South Africa feel like there are so few viable options for understanding how to undo the structures of apartheid.

How did these folks, the different ANC members and other people from South Africa, how did they interact with the Soviet state? Did they go to Russia? What are the practical day-to-day interactions between ANC members and Soviet officials looking like?

Lynd: So the answer is there’s a lot of different things. And South Africans came to the Soviet Union for quite a few different reasons starting in the early 1960s and continuing up until the late 1980s. So one category of people who went is students, someone like Sindiso Mfenyana, who went to University in Kyiv.

And they spent several years living in the Soviet Union. They learned Russian. And the idea was to develop technical expertise that they could ultimately bring home and put to use in whatever order was constructed after apartheid.

There were also soldiers, people like Chris Hani and Joe Modise, who came for military training. Some of them went to Moscow. Some of them went to Odessa. Some of them went to Crimea. They stayed for shorter periods of time. They either didn’t learn Russian or learned very little Russian. And they had much, much more limited exposure to their surroundings in the Soviet Union.

So there’s students. There’s soldiers. There’s also a cohort of bright young elite intellectuals who came for advanced ideological training at a place called the Lenin School. And some of the Lenin School alumni ended up in very powerful positions in postapartheid South Africa. So among them are Thabo Mbeki, who became the president eventually, and someone like Essop Pahad, who was a very powerful figure in Mbeki’s presidency.

And then beyond these kinds of formal programs that had people in the Soviet Union for a longer time, top ANC leaders were passing through Moscow quite frequently for political consultations. Many of them came for medical treatment.

And there were a few that spent their last years in the Soviet Union. So famously, Moses Kotane and J.B. Marks were buried there, and, to my understanding, are the only Black Africans in the most prestigious cemetery in Moscow. You can go visit their graves.

Sizek: So one of the things that seems potentially obvious from a methodological point here is that you’re trying to track all of these people who are really traveling across multiple continents and who are, to some extent, elites but also somewhat, I guess, attending like normal institutions. So they might be attending this school. How did you track them down and find the traces of these people across all of these different institutions?

Lynd: The picture is different for those different groups. And I’ve tried to work with casting as broad of a methodological net as I can. So people who are still alive and people who are willing to speak, I’ve tried to interview. That runs into some problems because many of these people are still quite active in politics in South Africa and have reasons to be a little cautious about talking to an American researcher.

And there’s more and more crop of memoirs that have been useful for me, less in terms of establishing hard facts and more on the realm of perceptions and attitudes. And then I’ve worked extensively in archives both in Russia and in South Africa, which operate really, really differently in both contexts.

In South Africa, a lot of the most important archival collections end up at universities. And they’re quite open and easy to access. And you can take photographs and go home and read your PDFs later. And in Russia, there’s restrictions all over the place in terms of what you can see.

And then once you have a document in front of you, you’re not allowed to photograph it. So you end up transcribing everything that you might think is important. And then if later you have a question about what was there or what you didn’t write down, that’s just your bad luck. You can’t go back in and find it.

So I’ve worked also with– there’s different published sources related to institutional actors who were involved on the Soviet side. Yeah, my approach has been to rule out nothing as a way to try to access very complicated stories of people moving back and forth.

Sizek: Yeah, so you said that you use these sorts of memoirs and unconventional sources. What have those been able to show you about the relationship, both perceived and real between South African exiles and USSR ideals?

Lynd: So the traditional telling of the story relies or has relied a lot on writings by a small cohort of highly educated white South Africans who were involved. And I’ve always been a little cautious about that and wondered what other kinds of stories there were to tell. And so seeking out– let’s see.

Part of what that does is it replicates the inequality of the apartheid system itself where white people had much, much better access to education than Black Africans. That’s one of the principal ways that inequality worked. And that became part of the liberation movement, both in terms of how it functioned internally and especially in terms of how its story has been told.

So I tried to circumvent that in whatever ways I could. But that often means going outside of more formal and obvious sources and trying to pick up scraps of experience wherever I could. And that’s meant more interviews, to some degree memoirs, although it’s only been much more recently that more of the Black South Africans who were involved have been publishing memoirs that came out as a later cohort.

And then picking up whatever I could– whatever traces I could find in the Russian archives as well, which often point to types of questions and interactions and experiences that don’t show up in the memoirs of these highly educated white South Africans who have, in my view, had probably disproportionate influence on the way this story has been told.

Sizek: What were some of the specific interactions that happened between these Russian folks and South African people socially– or, I guess, what were their interactions beyond these sorts of formal trainings or formal institutional settings that they were in? How did they get along socially? How did they envision themselves as being involved in a similar process at the microscale?

Lynd: So this is also an answer that really depends based on who you’re talking about because, for example, the elites when they went, they went on highly curated visits where they were set up to have really, really positive experiences. And most of them did and remember the Soviet Union as a really wonderful place where they were treated with utmost generosity.

Students who were there for longer, we can say that there’s archival traces that make it clear that students faced a great deal of racism in their immediate surroundings. I have found that in interviewing people, it’s something they’re very hesitant to talk about for the most part.

There’s a pretty strong commitment to keeping a positive image of the Soviet Union alive. And remembering the negative aspects comes as more of a challenge to a lot of people. But the story ultimately is mixed.

There are people who fell in love and got married and had children and they’re Soviet families came with them. There were people who made lifelong friends that they still visit. There are people who felt incredibly alienated by their surroundings.

It’s a very complicated patchwork of experiences. And there’s been a really strong desire, I think, from Western observers all the way back into the Cold War and the propaganda war to decide that the Soviet Union was one thing and that it was racist. And this is opening a whole other can of worms. But my interviewees have definitely taught me that there’s a more complicated picture than that.

Sizek: This raises a question about the relationship between ideas of the USSR and the project of the USSR, and then its reality specifically for the project of Soviet internationalism. So listeners might be familiar with how the Soviet state supported a lot of projects in what became known as the Second World, the Soviet world. How was the relationship with South Africa considered to be different from these other projects of Soviet internationalism?

Lynd: So there’s two main eras of socialist internationalism. The earliest one is in the ’20s and ’30s, run through the Communist International, the Comintern. And my work touches on that. But I’m mostly focused on the later era in the Cold War.

And for that era, there’s a huge explosion of Soviet interest in the third world in general and Africa in particular from the late 1950s, which is the era of African decolonization. And Ghana became independent in 1957.

And then most African countries had become independent by the mid-1960s. And in that first flush of optimism about the prospects for postcolonial countries, the Soviet Union got involved, particularly in the role of advising on economic strategy.

So they had a theory of noncapitalist development as a kind of path to prosperity for postcolonial societies. And their main types of involvement were developmental aid, technical assistance, university scholarships, things like that.

And that emphasis changed over time. So by the mid-1970s, basically development assistance wasn’t going very well. The noncapitalist road to development didn’t particularly look like it was going anywhere. And many of those leftist governments had been overthrown in coups.

And there’s no one document that you can point to prove this shift. But if you spend enough time in the archives, there’s– you can’t help but notice that there’s a change in emphasis away from economic development and towards especially arms, which also came with a geographical shift away from West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa and towards the south.

So South Africa, in particular, started out as a pretty minor priority for the Soviets. But by the ’70s– by the mid-1970s, supporting the antiapartheid struggle became a much more important selling point for Soviet foreign policy in the Global South.

And at that point, South Africa was still under white minority rule, which made it quite an exception. It’s a different kind of project and a different type of involvement to develop ties with a national liberation movement that is trying to overthrow a state as opposed to an independent government.

And my sense is that particularly– an important turning point in South African history is the Soweto uprising in June of 1976, which inaugurated a new era of popular revolt that more or less never stopped until apartheid was overthrown.

And particularly after that and after a renewed international outrage about the brutality of apartheid, the Soviet Union had quite a lot of reputational dividend that it could get from being a primary international supporter of the antiapartheid movement. And that became, I think, if anything, more important through the 1980s as a lot of the rest of Soviet foreign policy projects were not going so well.

Sizek: Yeah, so let’s talk a little bit about the 1980s because this is both a really pivotal time in South Africa in the lead up to the end of apartheid as well as in the USSR, which is slowly crumbling. What happens to the relationship as both of these state building projects, to a certain extent, are falling apart?

Lynd: This is initially what drew me into this project I stumbled across a set of primary sources from precisely this moment and found that something really strange had happened that I didn’t know and didn’t have the tools to understand at the time.

So in the late 1980s, it’s a moment when both societies were changing in big and really unpredictable ways. Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and launched reform programs of glasnost, or openness, and perestroika restructuring.

And on the South African side, the White government spent the 1980s trying to reform on the one hand and repress on the other as a way to get out ahead of popular revolt. But it never really worked.

As both of these changes are happening internally within the societies, the relationship got turned completely topsy-turvy. The national party that was in power in South Africa had for a very long time had the Soviet Union as its main bogeyman, the obsessive incarnation of evil.

And the idea was that Moscow couldn’t wait to get its hands on South Africa and its mineral riches, and that the Soviet Union stood for everything that the apartheid government was against. So it was like godless and atheist and hated the family and definitely was opposed to white prosperity.

And given this background where the Soviet Union had been not only the bogeyman but also a governmental excuse for why political reforms were impossible. The premise was that if you gave Black South Africans political rights very quickly, South Africa would be manipulated and turned into a Soviet satellite state.

Given that background, what happened in the late 1980s is really weird, that the National Party went from hating the Soviet government to flirting with it in the late 1980s. And from about 1989 to ’90, there’s a real fascination and admiration that developed between the dying apartheid state on the one hand and the dying Soviet state on the other.

Sizek: It just seems very bizarre that this relationship developed. So can you explain what it looks like and how they became infatuated with each other and also how you could see this infatuation in the archives and in the oral histories you did?

Lynd: I think there are many dimensions and a lot of things that feed into this. But one of them is a growing consciousness within at least some parts of the National Party that the Soviet model for managing diversity through ethnic homelands had some weird parallels with what the apartheid project was trying to do.

And once that awareness dawned on people, that the Soviet Union wasn’t the same thing as Russia and actually had quite a diverse population and that diverse population was segmented off into these little territorial units where they were supposed to have limited self government, there were light bulbs that went off for a lot of National Party politicians and thinking, huh, that sounds maybe a little bit like what we’re trying to do.

And it became a kind of way of justifying the apartheid project as it was running out of all remaining justifications for its existence. There’s also a kind of– there’s quite a pragmatic element, as both of these governments were looking for friends and allies in a hostile world, coming out of an experience of being more or less pariah states and trying to shed that status.

But there’s a particularly close affinity between the national– between Afrikaner nationalists and Russians in particular. I think part of that is premised on what I’m calling frontier masculinity, which is a sense that Russians, unlike Westerners, knew what it was to be tough at the edges of civilization and to be brutal when the situation called for it. And there’s a kind of alcohol-fueled, deeply masculine bonding that I have heard a great deal about in interviews.

One of the most interesting interviews to shed light on this has been with Niel Barnard who was the head of the National Intelligence Service in South Africa at the time. Dr. Barnard, as he likes to be called, is best known for being the person who conducted secret negotiations with Nelson Mandela in prison in the late 1980s and brokering– to some degree, being part of brokering Mandela’s release in 1990.

But he also had this other project of wooing the Soviet Union and trying to break the tie between the ANC and their Soviet sponsors. And I think what started out for him as, again, quite a pragmatic foreign policy type of project turned into a very deep and powerful affinity that he didn’t know he was looking for and relates in quite stark terms.

So there are stories of– in July 1991, he went with his deputy to the Soviet Union. And they went to the circus and got drunk in the banya and sang Afrikaner nationalist ballads to their hosts. They went to Stalin’s dacha and took photographs in his bathtub. And there’s a general alcohol-soaked male bonding exercise that repeats itself over and over again in these stories.

Sizek: And so it seems like there’s a form of, I guess, a social relationship that forms between the Russians, and then Afrikaners who are going to Russia during this time based in a shared form of masculinity, and then also potentially feeling like they should be on top of a multiethnic hierarchy. How did they start implementing or think about this relationship between the USSR and South Africa at a policy level in addition to at the social level?

Lynd: So the kind of connections that I was just describing were very unpopular in some circles as they started to develop in 1989 and 1990 and particularly within the Communist Party and the conservative parts of the Communist Party that were loyal to the old way of doing things.

But ultimately, they were run out of power in 1991 after the attempted coup in August. And by the end of that year, the Soviet Union didn’t exist anymore. And so post-Soviet Russia under Boris Yeltsin is a completely different operating environment.

And in that space, support for the ANC was basically cut down to nil. And there was a really strong preference for working with the National Party white government. The Soviet Union and South Africa had broken off diplomatic relations in 1956, and from 1991, started working to establish them again, and by June of 1992 had embassies in either place again.

And there was a real expectation or hope that the payoff from all of this would come in economic terms to rescue– either side was hoping that the other one would rescue them from a dire economic situation with very, very unrealistic aspirations in both directions.

And ultimately, nothing really ever came of those hopes. There was a big deal with De Beers in 1990 that caused a lot of controversy. And then there’s some interesting stories of arms connections that began in the early 1990s and then actually continue.

They have complicated and maybe unsavory afterlives after 1994 until the postapartheid world. But those end up becoming the types of connections that result as opening of diplomatic relations and a real search for economic connections that ultimately didn’t really go anywhere.

Sizek: So it seems like rather than coming up with meaningful solutions or technical support, that everything just falls apart between them, by which I mean South Africans generally and the USSR at the end of apartheid and the Soviet Union.

What do you think we can learn from this crumbling relationship and this wild trajectory of the relationship, in which it starts out where the Soviet Union is supporting this radical exiled party, and then eventually they become buddy-buddy with the ruling apartheid regime.

Lynd: I would answer in different ways for both of the different contexts. And one thing that happened in post-Soviet Russia is there was a really strong appetite in the late 1980s to withdraw from Soviet entanglements and obligations all across the Global South.

And ultimately, one outcome of that withdrawal was a collapse in Russia’s status as a global power. And certainly beginning in the 1990s but we see it much, much stronger in the present day, there’s a lot of resentment and nostalgia about having lost that status and going from the Soviet Union being a place that was looked to by people all over the world with admiration and potentially fear, respect as a model as an enemy, any of the above.

But the Soviet Union was a really key player in international politics in a way that no longer described Russia’s position in the world in the 1990s. And I think that loss is felt pretty keenly, at least in some political circles in post-Soviet Russia.

On the South African side, it’s pretty common to cite the collapse of the Soviet Union as a closing of possibilities for some more socialist path in postapartheid South Africa. And the tragic coincidence of circumstances is that the ANC came to power at a time when its longtime sponsor no longer existed.

And the world was no longer divided into communist and capitalist blocs. But there was one game in town. And it was neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus and that kind of same old story. And so there’s definitely a sense– maybe was a sense in the South African left that the collapse of the Soviet Union cut short the potential to transform South Africa’s economic situation after apartheid.

Sizek: So as everything is falling apart between the fall of the USSR as well as the end of the apartheid regime, what happens to these ethnic homelands that the USSR and South Africa were talking about in the ’50s and ’60s?

So to put it simply, these places were moving in opposite directions. South Africa opted for integration. And the Soviet Union went towards disintegration. South Africa took 10 Black ethnic homelands and 4 white provinces and smashed them together into a unitary nonracial state.

And the Soviet Union decomposed into the Russian Federation and 14 basically ethnically defined sovereign states. So in South Africa, they threw out the idea of national independence. And in post-Soviet space, ethnonational independence is pretty much the defining political principle.

Sizek: Given that South Africa decides that they are going to try to create this multiethnic state and then Russia separates from the rest of the Soviet bloc into the different states, how do we think about these projects today that Russia has, for example, in the invasion of Ukraine with trying to create a new kind of multiethnic federation on the part of the Russian government?

Lynd: What happened in the early 1990s seemed like natural and good solutions at the time. And part of what intrigues me about those parallel processes of decomposition and integration happening alongside each other is that 30 years later, they don’t look like as clean solutions as they did then. And the complicated legacies look different in either place.

But in post-Soviet space, the part of the challenge has been that for more or less all of the 14 independent states, with Russia as their neighbor, they all have in common a kind of anti-Russian orientation and a geopolitical position of either not wanting to antagonize or worrying about the consequences of antagonizing their Russian neighbor.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to that question. So in the last year since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there’s been a big push within the field towards what people are calling decolonization. And what they mean by decolonization tends to be doubling down on ethnonational independence.

And part of what I’m trying to do in my work is to excavate other alternatives and things that were tried in Soviet space. Ethnonational independence has had a long history of admirers in that part of the world. But also it’s a place that has been home to a lot of interesting experimentation with living together and trying to undo empire.

So within the field in some places, there’s been a real desire to look at Russia and see a history of empire and domination all the way down, that all Russia has ever done is to oppress the peoples of Eurasia.

And I’m interested in experimentation during the Soviet period that pointed to other ways of approaching the problem of living together and egalitarian ways and progressive ways of thinking about how a multinational society would be organized.

That is not Putin’s vision, obviously. And so there’s a lot of careful work to be done about sorting out difference and hierarchy and where power ultimately lies and what self determination means.

And I think it’s part of the thrust of my work to try to recognize That those things are really tricky and complicated, and that, for example, different parts of the Soviet Union were governed differently and had different attitudes towards ethnonational independence as the ultimate fate of the Union.

Sizek: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast and telling us more about this complex history of these multinational states.

Lynd: Thanks for having me.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit




Mapping the Los Angeles Ethnoburbs: An Interview with Margaret Crawford

Margaret Crawford

In this interview, Aidan Lee, a PhD student in the UC Berkeley Department of History and a 2022-2023 Matrix Communications Scholar, interviewed Margaret Crawford (shown above), Director of Urban Design, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design in the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design.

Professor Crawford holds degrees in architectural history, housing, and urban planning. Before coming to Berkeley, Crawford chaired the History, Theory, and Humanities Program at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles and, from 2000–2009, was professor of urban design and planning theory at the Harvard GSD, teaching history and design workshops and studios. Her scholarly work includes Building the Workingman’s Paradise: The History of American Company Towns, The Car and the City: The Automobile, the Built Environment and Daily Urban Life, and two editions of Everyday Urbanism, along with numerous articles and book chapters on immigrant spatial practices, shopping malls, public space, and other issues in the American built environment. In 2008, Doug Kelbaugh called Everyday Urbanism “one of the three leading paradigms today in urban design.” Since 2003, Crawford has been investigating the effects of rapid physical and social changes on villages in China’s Pearl River Delta. She recently co-edited Critical Texts in Chinese Urbanization, a four- volume collection of English-language studies of Chinese urban development. She is currently working on regional design projects in the Salinas Valley.

A defining feature of the state of California has been its diverse ethnic makeup. For many California residents, the images in this interview may appear to be mundane features of a daily commute or routine: 99 Ranch Market is a familiar landmark in many a Californian suburb, and Boba tea cafes have become mainstream. But by situating California’s ethnic suburbs in historical context, this interview seeks to bring to light the contingent factors that led to the rise (and characteristic shape) of the “ethnoburbs,” and why they are now permanent features of America’s built landscape.

This interview draws from Professor Crawford’s chapter, “The Fung Bros Rep the Ethnoburb,” in Van Damme et al eds. Creativity from Suburban Nowheres: Rethinking Cultural and Creative Practices(University of Toronto Press, 2023), as well as her recent presentation, “The Rise and Fall of the Mini-Mall,” given at the Society of Architectural Historians 76th Annual International Conference in Montreal, April 13, 2023.

(Please note that the interview was lightly edited).

99 Ranch Supermarket
99 Ranch Supermarket

Aidan Lee: The first image featured here depicts the Asian supermarket chain 99 Ranch, a staple institution of what you refer to as the “ethnoburb” in your research on Asian American communities in the San Gabriel Valley. Can you describe the “ethnoburb” and say more about the methods that inform your research?

I’m in the field of built environment studies, which encompasses the entire built environment in the world. It draws from architectural history and urban history, combining both. My particular approach involves reading the built environment and exploring significant issues through ordinary things. I examine how people live and adapt in their built environments, and what the built environments mean for their own daily practices. I examine completely ordinary aspects of everyday life, seemingly mundane issues that shape people’s lives in ordinary ways.

It’s great that you start off with this picture of the 99 Ranch supermarket, because that’s the kind of everyday environment that interests me. In fact, in my work on the San Gabriel Valley, the supermarket plays an important role. I feel that looking deeply at very ordinary places and practices can tell you a lot about much more serious and important issues. Towns with a 99 Ranch supermarket, for example, have in recent years functioned as hubs that attract Asian immigrants from neighboring communities that have traditionally been less diverse, suggesting that the establishment of ethnic retail centers is not just a symptom of broader demographic changes in the San Gabriel Valley, but also a catalyst for further change.

The largest ethnoburb in the US is in the San Gabriel Valley, which is east of downtown Los Angeles. There are around 11 suburban towns in the greater Los Angeles area that have Asian majorities, so this is a very new condition. These are not Chinatowns, which were created through a process of exclusion. Ethnoburbs are places that immigrants have voluntarily and very positively chosen to live in. For example, Fred Hsieh, a local real estate agent, started advertising Monterey Park as the “Chinese Beverly Hills” to buyers from Hong Kong and Taiwan, though it’s actually more middle-class than upper-class.

The ethnoburbs are mostly Californian; the only other state where you can really find something similar (but not identical, and on a smaller scale) is New Jersey. In the decades after World War II, geopolitical and economic issues drove a lot of immigration from Hong Kong and Taiwan to California. A particularly important factor in the rise of the Californian ethnoburbs was the 1965 Immigration Act, which opened the doors to many different groups of people who had not been coming before. The act privileged those with higher education, so you saw a lot of well-educated people, especially from Taiwan, immigrating to the US during this period. Many of them started to settle in Monterey Park and eventually crossed over to all other suburban towns nearby, creating these massive Asian suburbs.

Often in the literature, ethnoburbs are just referred to in a generic way – simply as “Chinese,” for example. But in fact, their populations show a broad range across the economic spectrum, from San Marino, the most expensive and wealthy town in the entire Los Angeles County, to El Monte, which is one of the poorest cities in the county. So it’s a very complex demographic, ethnic, and economic geography. And of course, none of these towns is 100 percent Asian. There are complicated mixtures with other ethnic groups. For example, in San Marino, you basically have Chinese and white. In El Monte, you have a lot of Latinos, Vietnamese, and Chinese, but very few white people. So every town has a unique mixture of different groups; it is not a unitary phenomenon, but actually quite complex.

Considering where many of these migrants come from (e.g., Taiwan, Hong Kong, southern China), it seems like a very urban population that is moving into the suburbs. Can you see unique patterns of urban life (including structures or local institutions) in these ethnoburbs?

No, I would say that this place remains resolutely suburban, and that almost all of these immigrants ended up living the car-oriented suburban lifestyle in single-family houses or small apartment buildings, shopping in strip malls. But while the suburban form is the same, the content is dramatically changed. The content of the mini malls is very Asian: for example, you will see a huge number of all kinds of Asian restaurants. On Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel, there are something like 300 restaurants. It has really become the center of Chinese food in the United States. Queens, New York might be a competitor, but most people would say that if you want really good Chinese food, Valley Boulevard is the place to go. It’s been featured in a lot of food magazines, because there is an incredible breadth of Asian food, but you can also find everything Asian there. So, if you move to the San Gabriel Valley and only speak Cantonese, you will not have any problems. But you’re still going to have to live a different lifestyle. I think that has been difficult for many, especially for the elderly population. People often move as multi-generational families, so the seniors have a hard time because they don’t drive. This is a very spread out, totally car-dependent society with very little public transportation. And so this is one of the issues that urban planners have to deal with. Recently city planners have proposed funding paratransit vans and similar solutions to allow seniors to have more mobility.

Map of the 626 Area Code, East of Los Angeles
The 626 Area Code, East of Los Angeles

This is a map of the 626 area code, the San Gabriel Valley (SGV). Your research explores depictions of everyday life in this area, especially through the work of the YouTube comedian-musician duo, the Fung Brothers.

There are a lot of differences among the first-generation immigrants. The earliest immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan, for example, don’t even speak the same dialect. And then when mainland Chinese started moving in, a whole other set of (social and political) conflicts emerged. But all that vanished in the second generation, which essentially became Asian American. There are a host of stereotypes about Asian American kids, according to which they are supposed to be very nerdy and studious, get good grades, be well behaved, and do what their parents want. In other words, kind of boring. And so that has been the predominant stereotype. But in reality (and as has been seen through the Fung Brothers’ work), there is an incredibly dynamic teenage and youth lifestyle in the SGV. For example, many kids go to different boba tea cafes in the evenings and on weekends. These cafes offer a variety of games and other activities, and people hang out there for hours. This kind of thing has become an identifier that young SGV natives like the Fung Bros recognize.

Another feature of SGV identity involves an overwhelming interest in Asian food. Given all the variety of Asian restaurants, I think we can say that they’re not these typical teenagers going to fast food restaurants like McDonald’s. They’re actually really indulging in Asian food. And part of the reason that there are so many Asian restaurants is because young people are patronizing them. Obviously, they get a lot of information and ideas about food from their parents, so that became one of the strongest markers of Asian American identity. The Fung Brothers encapsulated this new kind of SGV, 626 identity in their videos, and they became super popular, reaching a million YouTube subscribers very quickly. And so that helped to create a very distinctive Southern California, Asian American identity.

I also think the Fung Brothers understood the nuances of the built environment. In their video, they talk about these long boulevards that exist in Southern California, and how each one has a distinctive identity. They list the neighborhoods from south to north from the working-class areas to the most elite, and talk about the kind of different permutations of Asians in each of these places. I think this 3-minute video tells us a lot about what life in the San Gabriel Valley is like, and almost represents a kind of sociological analysis in its detailed breakdown of different regional populations.

One urban feature that appears frequently in the Fung Brothers’ music videos is the “mini mall.” Could you outline the history of the mini malls? What is the connection between the mini mall and the ethnoburb? Who first developed these spaces and what were they used for?

The interesting thing about the mini mall is that it also emerged at the confluence of two geopolitical issues. One was the 1970s gas crisis, which began when OPEC countries started boycotting any country that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. This was the beginning of the energy crisis, which we’re still dealing with today. The energy crisis, and the economic crisis that happened alongside it, led to a lot of gas stations going out of business, leaving empty gas station sites. Los Angeles has always been a car-centric city, so there were way more gas stations than in most places. Low-end developers noticed this condition, and they started buying up these corner sites. The lots were small, leading them to unwittingly create the typology of the mini mall, which is a simple L shaped corner, a one-story (sometimes two-story) shopping center with parking in front. They built them as cheaply as possible. There were no regulations or zoning issues because they were already commercial sites. After they started, oil companies contacted developers when they had lots to sell. So over the course of only 20 years, Los Angeles saw the development of 3000 mini malls.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Shopping Centers in Broadacre City, 1935-50
Frank Lloyd Wright, Shopping Centers in Broadacre City, 1935-50

What kinds of businesses moved into these mini malls? The 1965 Immigration Act opened doors for a lot of immigrants, and many of them came to Los Angeles. Los Angeles was the new Ellis Island, a major magnet for immigrants. A lot of immigrants had language problems. They didn’t have work histories in the U.S., so they became entrepreneurs, starting small businesses. In fact, even today, 50 percent of small businesses in Los Angeles are owned by people who were not born in this country. So there was a huge boom in immigrant businesses located in the cheap space of the mini mall. And a lot of developers worked with them to build their businesses and tried to better understand immigrants and their neighborhoods. They encouraged successful businesses to become chains and locate themselves in the other mini malls that they were building. The building of mini malls thus became a very immigrant-driven process. And in fact, I think everyone who lives in Los Angeles now knows that if you want a good ethnic restaurant, you will find it in a mini mall.

Tian Ho, Possible Configurations of Mini-malls
Tian Ho, Possible Configurations of Mini-malls

And did these real estate developers often come from a similar ethnic background as the mini mall small business owners?

Not at all. I think they just saw a good business opportunity. In Los Angeles during the 1970s, 1980s, and even 1990s, there was a lot of conflict about the city’s identity. David Rieff wrote a book titled Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World. The crisis was rooted in Los Angeles becoming a “majority minority” city. And I think that the speed with which these different ethnic groups began setting up their businesses in LA’s mini malls (with their non-English signage) really unsettled the traditional urban elites and older residents of these areas.

Mini-mall signs in various languages
Mini-mall signage reflected the diversity of surrounding communities

Was there any movement back, in the sense that too many malls were built and had to be converted back into gas stations? Or did mini malls become a permanent mark on the suburban landscape?

The number of gas stations has continued to decrease. Real estate developers favor the “highest and best use” for any site, so most of these properties could never go back to being gas stations, which bring less revenue and accommodate fewer businesses. But again, mini mall sites are small, and they’re still making money for the people who own them and the people who have stores there. So they are not being redeveloped as much as you might think. They’re still, I would say, successful.

Of course, there was pushback from local communities and planners from the very beginning, when mini malls were considered to be one of the most degraded kinds of buildings in the city. Urban planners, architects, and city officials all tried to stop them unsuccessfully through regulation. Finally, economic forces slowed down mini mall construction, although in the eastern San Gabriel Valley, which still qualifies as an “ethnoburb,” they are still being developed.

Can you say more about the critics of the mini malls? What were the kinds of architectural or planning standards that they subscribed to?

It’s interesting. The American Institute of Architects (AIA), a professional organization, was a major critic, although almost every mini mall development had an architect involved with it. In the 1980s and 1990s, even architecture critics for the LA Times argued that a number of mini malls were well-designed

From the beginning, there were many criticisms, but a major one was simply that these were cheap, low-end buildings. Critics talked about curb cuts (depressed curbs which allow for pedestrian and vehicle access), which were seen as visually offensive and potential causes of flooding. But certainly the gas stations had just as many, if not more, curb cuts. There was either too much parking or too little parking. Basically, though, the criticisms were aesthetic. Critics just thought mini malls were ugly, a crime ambiguously referred to as “visual blight,” which is obviously a subjective interpretation. Although, if you look back at what was there before, it’s hard to maintain that criticism because certainly gas stations were much more unsightly.

burning mini-malls in LA
A burning mini-mall during the 1992 Los Angeles riots

But also, around this time, there was a change in urban perceptions about Los Angeles, particularly after the 1992 social unrest. Many people wanted to reconceptualize Los Angeles to be more like other cities. Instead of thinking of the city as a car-dependent, sprawling place, they envisioned LA as a more urbane environment that had buildings coming right up to the sidewalk. Obviously, mini malls are the exact opposite of this ideal. One way the mini-mall exemplifies this is the empty corner, which goes against conventional urban design principles, which emphasize building up corners. The mini mall is also set back from the street by its parking lot. This destroys any possibility of creating a “street wall,” where the front of the building comes straight down to the sidewalk, as is typical in Manhattan and most European cities. Thus the mini-mall became a symbol of the car-centric city that needed to be eliminated.

Professional architects and planners did not like the malls, and neither did citizens. In 1989, roughly 10 percent of respondents to a quality-of-life poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times cited mini malls as their biggest pet peeve. I think this also had to do with the number of immigrant businesses in the San Gabriel Valley. As recently as 2013, the town of Monterey Park even attempted to ban retail signs that did not have an English translation, a throwback to 1980s city regulations that required English signage. Much of this had to do with the alarm that these massive demographic changes had created among prior residents, especially people who were involved in city governments in the greater LA region. The mini malls did not align with the image that they wanted for their city, but now this may have changed.

Today, there are a huge number of people who love mini malls and who celebrate Los Angeles’ extreme diversity. But that took a long time to achieve. There was a lot of struggle over the image of the city: was it going to be the capital of the Third World? Or was it going to be a much more traditional city? The city actually has since developed better public transportation, including a subway system and light rail; in some ways, it has actually become more like a “typical” or desirable city. At the same time, the diversity of its residents has become one of LA’s biggest assets.

“Visual blight” is also interesting because it is a global phenomenon. In East Asian cities like Taipei, there are similar debates about street signs, for example, which over the past couple of decades have become far more standardized and regulated. Some of your research has touched on East Asian built environments, specifically in southern China. Can we see similar concerns in urbanizing regions there, in terms of the aesthetic and functional criticisms of urban space?

Definitely. In Taipei, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou, for example, there is definitely a policing of the built environment away from the extremely lively visual assault that formerly characterized Asian cities. In Hong Kong, when you look at pictures from the 1960s, the signs protrude into the street. It’s an incredibly vivid and colorful environment. And now when you look, it’s much more controlled. This is the constant struggle of urban planners, who use planning restrictions and planning codes to control the city, because somehow visual blight is seen as, I believe, a symptom of political, cultural, and social confusion. There is an idea that if you have a coherent built environment, it means you have a coherent society, even though that is absolutely not true. In addition, the globalization of building types (such as shopping malls), development practices, and architectural design has produced a more generic urban landscape.

street signs in hong kong in the 1960s
1960s Hong Kong. Note the non-uniform signage hanging over the street.

But certainly, the debates over visual blight are really a struggle over taste, a struggle that is happening everywhere. Who determines taste? Often, the coherence of the European built environment has been the role model everywhere. And so, in almost every city, including the city I live in, Berkeley, there are planners who undertake streetscape projects where they convince store owners to paint their buildings a uniform gray, then place restrictions on the size of the signs. You see it everywhere because it is intended to create a “tasteful” or, let’s face it, upper middle-class environment.

Ultimately, the control over things like visual blight is really about people with power trying to exert control over urban space, but also constantly being threatened by new forms of urban vitality or informality that come up. In Singapore, for example, street vendors were relocated into hawker centers (these are contained, often indoor, spaces that facilitate better regulation). While the food is still great, the relocation is really a form of control, and obviously the impetus is rooted in images of what constitutes a “developed city” or a “developed country.” So, when mini mall critics saw non-English signage in LA, they thought it looked like the city was going “backwards,” or turning into the “capital of the Third World.” To some extent, this kind of urban cleansing is a perennial concern and a continuous process in urban planning as a discipline. I would argue that, in fact, this is the very history of urban planning.

1960s hong kong
1960s Hong Kong. Neon signage in both English and Chinese is largely considered an iconic feature of Hong Kong’s urban environment. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in the removal of signage due to new building regulations.

What are some of the emerging trends in the present-day ethnoburbs, whether broad demographic shifts or new urban planning policies? Are you noticing certain patterns that are emerging today that are really distinct from the pre-Covid years?

Physically, the San Gabriel Valley has been migrating East. And in a way, some of the issues and struggles that went on in the past are now going on in the eastern part of the San Gabriel Valley, in places like Diamond Bar and Hacienda Heights. Many new Chinese restaurants are located there, so it is becoming a new epicenter. There are a few interesting dynamics at work in this growing region. Typically, wealthier people will move to the eastern part of the San Gabriel Valley, which has larger houses on bigger lots. Urban historian James Zarsadiaz has written an excellent book on this topic called Resisting Change in Suburbia, in which he discusses how Asian immigrants, especially Chinese immigrants, have bought into very American frontier imagery when they buy houses there. Demographically speaking, there’s been an interesting phenomenon of Chinese immigrants moving into expansive suburban regions that are traditionally less diverse, and yet they are still able to make a short and easy trip to a neighboring town to shop at ethnic supermarkets like 99 Ranch.

The conclusion from my investigation of the San Gabriel Valley is that generally this demographic shift (the growth of the Asian population) has concluded in a peaceful way. After an initial period of strong resistance, currently there is very little social tension. I conducted interviews with white, Latino, and Asian residents, and found very few of the kinds of social struggles that you might expect. For example, going back to supermarkets, in San Gabriel, there are no American supermarkets anymore. There are only Asian supermarkets. Yet non-Asian residents I spoke to are not resentful about some sort of perceived loss. One of the reasons for this may be the car-centric nature of the San Gabriel Valley. If you don’t have a Ralphs or Vons supermarket near you, you can just drive five or ten minutes to the next town and find one. You are not confined to your immediate neighborhood.

A large mini-mall complex in the San Gabriel Valley
A large mini-mall complex in the San Gabriel Valley

This is true not only for groceries, but for other essential services. When I interviewed a white student here at Berkeley who was from the SGV, I learned that she commuted by car to La Cañada each day to go to school, a common experience for many young people in the Los Angeles area: high schools, both public and private, are located all over the region. That is also one way in which some people bypass the problem of overly competitive high schools (with predominantly Asian student bodies). In other regions, such as Fremont in the Bay Area, this situation has contributed to substantial white flight from otherwise very desirable neighborhoods, as Willow Lung-Amam has shown. (See chapter 2 in Lung-Amam’s book, Trespassers: Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia, for more detail on the school situation in Fremont.) Many families felt that their kids just could not compete academically with the students of Asian ethnic background in their neighborhood. To some extent, that phenomenon is visible at the University of California, which has a predominantly Asian undergraduate student body. Moving away, however, is not a viable option for many families, especially those that have been living in San Gabriel for multiple generations. so, in a way, driving solves the problem.

The idea of the San Gabriel Valley as a bounded space is thus simply not true. Many of my interviews involved stories of people driving elsewhere. When young people like the Fung Brothers move to their own place, where do they move? Downtown LA. So the idea of mobility is really something that allows what has been a rapid demographic shift to have settled down into a relatively painless process. Obviously, there’s still a lot of inequality here. But one of the questions I wanted to ask is: what happens when a minority group becomes the majority? And how does that play out economically, socially, and culturally?

One of the other major factors in recent decades has been mainland Chinese money, which has been responsible for much of the built environment of the San Gabriel Valley. But after COVID and certain political changes in China, I think that this investment has become much less prevalent. COVID obviously led to a substantial decline in immigration: it stopped visits back and forth between countries, and it stopped the “yo-yo” residence patterns (where people move regularly between China or Taiwan and California), which many families did consistently. Many people had to decide where to settle long-term. The age of massive Chinese real estate investment is ending;  clearly, it’s not a politically expedient thing to do anymore. Ultimately, what the result of this will be, nobody knows. What is clear, though, is that the San Gabriel Valley will stabilize as an Asian American environment.


War, Diaspora, Bureaucracy: An Interview with Sherine Ebadi

Sherine Ibadi

How does international conflict shape immigration bureaucracy? Sherine Ebadi, a PhD Candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of Geography, researches the impact of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) and employment-based visa programs on Afghan nationals who worked with the U.S. military. For Ebadi, visa programs like the SIV are crucial lenses for understanding imperialism as well as social relations within the Afghan diaspora.

In this podcast interview, J.T. Jamieson, a recent PhD graduate from the UC Berkeley Department of History and a 2022-2023 Matrix Communications Scholar, spoke with Ebadi about the relationships between humanitarianism, foreign intervention, war, and immigration, as well as the lived experiences of Afghans navigating the SIV process, especially those in the diasporic community in Northern California.

An edited transcript of the interview is included below.

Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

J.T. Jamieson: Hello, and welcome to the Matrix Podcast. I’m J. T. Jamieson, your host, coming to you from the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio, our recording partner on UC Berkeley’s campus.

Our guest today is Sherine Ebadi, a PhD candidate in the Geography Department at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the politics of US immigration bureaucracy during times of humanitarian conflict.

Her dissertation explores historical and contemporary usages of employment-based visas, such as the Special Immigrant Visa offered to Iraqi and Afghan translators and the role of contractual labor in precipitating refugee adjacent immigration categories. Sherine, thank you for joining us today.

Sherine Ebadi: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to talk with you about this.

Jamieson: So much of your work analyzes the bureaucracy behind the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, but what is it exactly, and what makes it unique in modern immigration bureaucracy?

Ebadi: So the SIV has a not very long history in contemporary and modern immigration history. It’s kind of been used as an exemption category, let’s say. So that’s how I would frame my answer and how I would like people to think about the SIV.

The very first time that the SIV came into being in existence was actually in 1965, and there was an Immigration and Nationality Act that put the SIV as a permanent employment-based visa category.

Of course, that’s not the very first time that the idea of something like an SIV existed. So it actually came out of a whole series of debates throughout the 1900s that were really about national origins quotas and who deserved and belonged to be a citizen in the United States.

So we can definitely talk more about that. But in a lot of ways, the history of the SIV supports a certain type of ethical consideration in the face of racial exclusions that really defined a lot of the US immigration history of the 1900s.

Jamieson: So it’s related to other categories, which have long histories of refugees or asylum seekers. How exactly does the category of the SIV relate to those other legal categories, and how have those categories maybe shaped the SIV over the course of the 20th century?

Ebadi: Yeah, I mean, it’s a very broad and catch-all category. So let’s start with that in terms of, yes, it does have a lot of similarity to refugee and asylum categories, but it’s also used for a host of other things, too, that are very much, like I said, employment-based.

In terms of what it’s been used for with the refugee side of things, it’s very interconnected with three types of visas, humanitarian parole, number one, refugee visas, number two, and asylum visas, number three.

So in the case of Afghans, a lot of people coming in first through humanitarian parole. What humanitarian parole means is that it’s a presidential power essentially to designate a category of people or person to be able to come into the United States for fear of persecution. That doesn’t require very much congressional oversight. And so that’s the big difference between a parole power versus a refugee versus asylum power.

Refugee and asylum, often used interchangeably, but they’re actually different things. So refugee means that somebody has been displaced from their country and they’re applying to the United States to come to live as a permanent resident in the United States for fear of persecution. However, they’re not yet in the United states.

And asylum means that the person is in the United States either in status or with no status, and they are applying for permanent residency. So those are three things that we see.

And the ways that Afghans have been able post-2001 to move to the United States would be from those three categories. But the path to long-term residency would be through the SIV and through the qualification of having worked with the US government, therefore qualifying for a Special Immigration Visa.

Jamieson: So this is really about the war on terror. So we’re talking a post-9/11 world, we’re talking US involvement in Iraq and in Afghanistan. How does the SIV, how does it come out of this conflict, and what exactly are people who are eligible for the SIV, what are they doing for the US military? Why does the US military depend on them?

Ebadi: Yeah, such an interesting question because we see so much in the news and in terms of broader awareness about, let’s say, like Afghan translators with the military and there’s been a ton of focus on these people.

There’s also a large Afghan diaspora that came before the war on terror. And so I think a good way to think about that question is let’s look at what the immigration pathways were for Afghans before the war on terror and what happened after the war on terror, and what are we seeing now. And that’s a good way that we can trace the politics of the immigration system and see how it interacts with conflicts.

So Afghans, let’s say, like the first major kind of cohort of Afghans to arrive in the US came throughout the 1980s and the 1990s. They came as mostly refugees. Most of them had fled to Pakistan, were living in Pakistan, in India, in Tajikistan surrounding areas, and then applied for visas to come to the United States.

So this was very much a Cold War kind of humanitarian policy of saying these people are fleeing communism because the Soviet Union invaded Kabul in 1979. And so those were the visas that were available to them, were actually refugee visas. It’s very clear in that instance that we’re saying Afghans are refugees.

Now post-2001, we no longer have the word refugee, at least in political discourse, attached to Afghans, despite us all knowing that fleeing persecution is a common thread in all of these cohorts of diaspora.

Post-2001, of course, there’s been a lot. A lot of people have said that the US doesn’t want to call Afghans refugees because it would invalidate the political project of the war on terror, making Afghanistan a safer place.

But I mean, that might be true in one regard. It’s also a little bit more complex than that because the geopolitics, the complications of area and also the lack of, quite frankly, knowledge of the US generally and the military more specifically of really subtle and internal dynamics that were required in order to conduct the war on terror were lacking.

And so in order to make that project possible, they needed 100% almost an entire military that was comprised of Afghans. And what’s also interesting in this case is that a lot of Afghans really supported the US interventions and really wanted the kinds of rights and type of democracy and peace that the war on terror provided.

So the SIV really recruited and created allies to the US cause both in an immigration sense and in an embodied sense.

Jamieson: There’s a lot of clearly complex layers here of thinking of the SIV as it relates to some kind of humanitarian project from the perspective of some Afghans, some kind of state building project, and from the perspective of the United States. a political military project.

So how in your project do you analyze the relationships between all these things of humanitarian interest, the interests of Afghans who are working for the US military or with the US military, and the political and military interests of the United States abroad?

Ebadi: Yeah, that’s a question that I’m really grappling with right now, and it’s a hard one to answer. Because as somebody– I’m of the Afghan diaspora myself, but I grew up here in the United States. There’s a lot of different opinions and stakes about what the US was doing, should be doing, and what their responsibility to Afghans are and were.

So when I think about humanitarianism, it’s a word that’s really hot and political. There’s been a ton of academia that has critiqued kind of humanitarianism, the kind of benevolent humanitarian group aid dynamic that can be very colonial esque in a certain way, trying to say that these certain types of values are universal and good for everybody, even though those values are from often like, let’s say, a Western standpoint.

And I see, appreciate, and agree for the most part with those critiques. At the same time, it’s easy to critique something when you are not living under extreme circumstances where you’re afraid for your life or you just basically want an education, where you’re scared for your family, where you– and these are the kinds of situations that Afghans really live in.

And it’s complicated to be in an academic kind of situation talking with interlocutors with this sort of critique of humanitarianism, when what I hear a lot from Afghans that have come to the US post-2001 is that they were actually supportive because they were able to get an education, unlike their mothers.

So I think part of what my research is also trying to do is look at, let’s say, like US imperialism, but from within. So it’s not to say that US imperialism is bad and so is humanitarianism. It’s more to say like, how do the people who are supposedly the benefactors of this actually feel about humanitarianism? And those views aren’t necessarily as critical as we might think they would be in an academic setting.

Jamieson: There’s been a lot of discussion about Afghan refugees or immigrants or recipients of the SIV, maybe more specifically during and after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. So it seems there has been a lot of critique of the whole system by a lot of the media in the United States.

How do you feel that the immigration bureaucracy or the experience of recipients of the SIV, how do you feel like any of that has changed before the US withdrawal and after?

Ebadi: Yeah, yeah. I think before the US withdrawal in a big sense, I think– this is just speaking off of kind of anecdotal experience that I’ve had in research, but before the US withdrawal, there seemed to be a lot more kind of feelings of opposition towards the US occupation in Afghanistan.

Like, what are we doing there? Shouldn’t Afghans be able to govern and secure their own nation? These kinds of questions. Like, really a lot of thought about US empire and kind of long-term and new forms of warfare, just kind of endless occupation.

Now, post-2021, obviously images are so, so important in terms of forming political views and political opinion. And I think just like the images from 2021 were extremely powerful and really shifted the narrative a lot to, yeah, Afghans deserve to have independence from foreign occupation. And at the same time, like what is the ethical obligation towards Afghans, and did the US like do them justice in a certain way?

So I feel like it complicated the question from being the US is bad, the US is imperial, to, well, what’s a more nuanced way that we could think about the US obligation, especially given its history of intervention into that region? What is the US obligation towards Afghans and Afghan people?

And that’s really been articulated through the, let’s say, recipients of Special Immigrant Visas. But I do think that focus on Special Immigrant Visas at the very least has kind of represented that as a broader question for Afghanistan kind of writ large.

Jamieson: So you talked a bit about the perspective of Afghans themselves, about the US military project and also about the pathways that the SIV could offer. Can you expand on the motivations and attitudes of the people themselves, either as they seek to work with the American state or try to seek some kind of pathway to legal permanent residence in the United States?

What are their motivations and their desires, and how do they navigate all of this bureaucracy to try to get at these very basic fundamental needs that you’ve already discussed?

Ebadi: Yeah, so there are actually two different Afghan SIV programs. What’s interesting is that what’s mostly focused on– and even when I write out my work, I say this, is I work with Afghan SIVs who were translators with the US military.

So that’s actually only one very small part of who Afghan SIVs really are. That program is tiny. I think it’s only a couple 100 people, let’s say. I can look that up. The other part of the SIV program is way larger, thousands of people have come in on it, and it’s for people that have “contracted,” quote unquote, with the US military.

So most people, when they were working for the US military, it was just a job. It might be being a cashier at the cafeteria, it might be driving supplies from one base to another, it might be cleaning, it might be, I don’t know, any number of little tasks that goes in to the day-to-day operations of the US military.

So a lot of those jobs were just kind of a job of a functioning economy, if we can say a functioning, let’s say, Western kind of economy of military industrial complex.

It wasn’t necessarily a super political decision for most people, but it was a representation of access to a certain type of very formalized employment, whether or not it supported the US military. And like I said, a lot of people felt kind of neutral or even maybe pro in the then post Taliban areas, post Taliban era.

And so this was just like a basic sense of livelihood for most of these people. Where I would say the moral kind of complexities of it came in were with the small group of people who really worked translating.

And this has to do with the fact that they are both insiders to Afghan culture and outsiders to Afghan culture, and needing to mediate, especially in very rural areas, areas that have a very anti-US sentiment.

And those people had more of the job to fit themselves into lines politically about where they wanted to stand, why they were supporting certain things.

But again, that’s kind of the minority of who actually Afghan SIVs are. Most of them are just people that had jobs, that were able to make an income and have some kind of financial security through the US involvement.

Jamieson: So for either group, the majority of SIVs or the minority, where do they fit in in this longer history that you’ve already alluded to of the Afghan diaspora? Where do those diasporic communities form, and how does this influx of people under this different legal category, how do they fit in to this history?

Ebadi: Yeah, so it’s important to think about the context of the geopolitical context, I think, of moments when Afghans are migrating in huge numbers, the first context being in the Cold War. So you have to think about global communism versus the US and capitalism and democracy, let’s say.

A lot of Afghans that came throughout the 1980s, even though they came to the United states, were still very critical of the United states, very critical of the Soviet Union as well, very critical of these big ideas of geopolitical powers that kind of dominate their certain ideologies. So that was the historical context.

Afghanistan also was very involved in amidst certain postcolonial movements. You think about South Asia, and then Central Asia. So I think in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion, there was a lot of sentiment of anti-imperialism, of independence.

And the country had also seen a long period of relative stability. And so there was really the formation of counter movements and the aspirations of what this country could be and how do we provide for people.

And there was a lot of movement and excitement in that, and then the Soviet Union invaded. And there’s still this kind of a long running joke of tensions between Afghans and Russians.

So that was the context in which they immigrated to the US. And these Afghans always thought that they would go back. They didn’t foresee the decades of war that we are seeing now.

And so a lot of them stayed politically active and they formed two diasporas, one in Northern California. Most famously people call Fremont, a suburb of San Francisco. It’s about half an hour to an hour away, depending on traffic, and they call it little Kabul. And that’s kind of one community.

The other community in the United States is in Northern Virginia. So in these– not that the Afghans don’t live in other places, but there have been huge, huge communities there.

And the Bay Area community is pretty interesting because it’s gotten this confluence of leftist type politics because of the area that the San Francisco Bay Area is in. And that’s been really kind of kept up and maintained in the Afghan diaspora, this kind of idea of critique and these things.

So the Afghan diaspora that’s coming now is a little bit different. However, there’s a lot of solidarity still. There’s a lot of cultural identification. One thing I can say is that Afghans have really retained language and culture despite having lived here for decades now.

And I think what I’ve seen is that there is a big feeling of, more than anything, solidarity and kind of acceptance into the community of SIVs, even though the politics of whether or not the US intervention in Afghanistan was a good thing or a bad thing might not completely align.

What you see is a lot of people that are coming into the United States now were maybe more in support of the US intervention in Afghanistan versus Afghans that have lived here for a couple of decades were more against it.

And despite that, there’s been a ton of show of support of helping these people integrate into new lives here. And that gives me a lot of hope for them to.

Jamieson: So how do you investigate these communities? I mean, it seems like the direction of your research is in part archival, but also like you’re doing fieldwork within these kind of communities and trying to figure out what the generational relationships are between immigrants, between the 1980s and now the 2020s.

How do you figure all this out? I mean, what forms does your research take or your fieldwork take? How do you build the source base for a project like this?

Ebadi: I have no idea. No. Well, I’m just fascinated by history. Like, I just have this mind that when I see something that doesn’t make sense, I just want to know, where does this come from? What did this seem like 10 years ago? And so that’s kind of where I go to with my mind.

And so when I was kind of thinking about the Special Immigrant Visa at first, I’m also very fascinated by apparent contradictions. Like, how is it that somebody can be an intermediary for this extremely violent encounter of militarism? How does someone reconcile that? Why do they do that?

And that desire to understand why and also how certain structural issues place people into positions where they have to make certain choices, so that was how I first pieced together this is why I’m interested in the Special Immigrant Visa. Then from there, I was like, when did this visa start, all of these things?

And so what I’ve done a lot of is look back into congressional archives and I’m really interested in the tiny little stories, the little thing that that president said or the statement and the research report that was commissioned by so-and-so senator that really swayed the vote on this to make this a certain type of category that became legible.

And so what I’ve done is really, like I said, look into archives. They mostly use like government and congressional archives. They look a lot into the dailies and the speeches and seeing what committees were meeting on what day, kind of based around a general framework of knowledge of major immigration reform laws.

So I’ve made a skeleton in a certain way. I know that national origins quotas were really important in the early 1900s. OK, well, from there, like, who was against it? Who was for it? Why? What was the headline of the news around that time?

So really trying to contextualize and in some ways understand the psychology behind the politics– not psychology. Maybe that’s not the right word, but the reason and the feeling and the sentiment and the motivation. And that really fascinates me.

And so there’s still this kind of human and embodied aspect of my archival work that’s not just let me read this legal document. And that’s what I really look for.

So it’s easier to obviously, hopefully to find the kind of embodied element when you’re talking with people. But I try to make those two things come into conversation.

Or even if I’m having conversations with interlocutors, I will say, did you know that this visa that you had, it was created at this time. What do you think about that? And so really kind of bringing participants into conversation so that I’m not coming into something as I’m the expert and I know X, Y, and Z things.

I think my work with people, I have to be honest, is greatly facilitated by the fact that I am part of the Afghan diaspora, too. And I mean, I’m proud to say it. No one comes into any sort of research with no bias, with no position. We all bring our full selves into the work that we do, even as much as we try and be impartial.

But that being said, this was a big reason why I did want to work with Afghan SIVs is because I felt kind of in a news outlet setting and all of these other types of ways that we’re finding out about Afghans is not actually in a more embodied and kind of culturally sensitive and knowledgeable way.

So I know a lot about the community. It’s kind of dynamics of what the kind of political tensions are through growing up in a very politically active Afghan family.

And I felt like it was my job as a PhD student to be able to do this work because I didn’t know someone else that could have that kind of rapport and trust and insight. It’s really hard to get the trust of an Afghan.

Jamieson: So I mean, it’s fascinating how you approach your scholarship here between high politics and embodied history and fieldwork within communities.

When you’re working within these communities– I mean, so you say that there are times where you sort of discuss immigration bureaucracy or some kind of broader history of immigration policy.

Do you get the sense that people are interested in learning about that and that they think of themselves as part of some bigger story of US policy, part of some bigger story a diaspora?

Do you get the sense that any of the people you interview or speak with view themselves in the way that you as a scholar, but at the same time kind of an insider in these communities are also trying to understand them?

Ebadi: Such a good question. Yeah, I think that it kind of falls into these lines that we talked about just a little bit ago, where I think a lot of the diaspora that has been here for a decade or more, two decades, three decades even, is able to integrate this political approach and critique and positioning of this is what I’m here to do, this is why I’m here to do it. I’m doing it for this reason.

The people who I work with who are more recently resettled or resettling, as might be expected, are much less invested in that critique and much more focused on just trying to get family to come here, trying to get permanent status.

Another really important and sad thing is that we’ve had so much focus on the Special Immigrant Visa program. But of the people that were evacuated in August 2021, most of them have not been able to adjust to permanent resident status.

So they were granted in on humanitarian parole, and they might have documents that could show that they contracted with the military or they might not because of the circumstances in which they left.

And a lot of times, they might have worked with a contractor of a contractor of the US. I mean, there was so much disarray as might be expected in a huge military complex, such as what happened in Afghanistan. So these people don’t necessarily have the documentation to be able to prove that they qualify for an SIV status.

And so a humanitarian parole visa is good for two years. And after that two years, if you don’t adjust to either a refugee status or an asylum status or some other kind of status, you are no longer legally allowed to be in the United States.

And so there’s a huge crisis that’s going on right now alongside the crisis of what happens to my friends and family that are still there of, wow, OK, my parole status ends August of this year.

So it’s timely to be talking about this now. It’s not just the anniversary of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s also a time when thousands of Afghans don’t know if they will be able to stay in this country or not and trying to. create narratives of asylum, of saying, I’m scared of going back because of this or because of that and trying to convince these immigration officers of that instead of using the SIV.

So the SIV isn’t even being used, and yet here we have all the news outlets still like, oh, the Special Immigrant and people that we left behind and this and that. And it’s like, that’s not even the visa that we’re talking about now.

So people in that sense are interested, but more in the self-preservation of like, well, how could I get an SIV? But at the same time, they are so knowledgeable about the nitty-gritty of how our immigration system works.

And I think the privilege of not having to have your life depend on that can allow one to have a step back in the kind of broader view versus these people need to figure this out now, and then we’ll see. Even though they’re super excited and interested to talk about it, it’s just a different orientation towards it.

Jamieson: So for a lot of these people who are on humanitarian parole and who are kind of being left out of these broader public discourses of the SIV and Afghan resettlement, what kind of resources do they have to help them navigate these kinds of crises? What tools do they have as they try to figure all of this out in clearly what is a very anxious, hectic period right now?

Ebadi: Very little. When you’re on humanitarian parole, you are given certain, let’s say, public benefits that are also afforded to refugees. That means housing stipends, that means food stamps.

And so needless to say, these people don’t have much in the way of their own resources. They are having to pay out of pocket for immigration proceedings, for the applications that they’re submitting.

Another thing that’s been huge is some of the first refugee– legislation started, let’s say, like around the 1950s, maybe just a little before, and then really started to solidify around the 1980s.

And since then, unsurprisingly, funding for refugees and refugee adjacent services has just gone down and down and down and down and down. Whereas there used to be, I believe, two years of support for people who were recently resettling, now it’s gone down to just a few months.

So they have very little. And there’s also been a lot of privatized housing in terms of supporting immigrants. So let’s say the government– actually, if you look at immigration websites at the US government and look at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, you can see that they are actually saying, hey, we’re recruiting private sponsors.

Meaning the private sponsors could be a community, could be a person, but that puts down money and says that we will host and support this refugee until they’re resettled, they have a job, et cetera.

So a lot of that isn’t even happening through, let’s say, like federal channels. And state channels obviously vary. A lot of them are honestly– and especially in terms of adjusting for status, like hiring an immigration lawyer is completely out of reach for these people.

So a lot will look towards non-profit organizations, community service organizations. There are resettlement organizations. So a lot of people are basically piecemealing this together because if you can imagine, many don’t speak English and they’re having to craft an asylum narrative and do this whole, I mean, complicated thing that I barely understand in English and submit all of this.

So they really are relying on these just like informal kind of networks of being able to find some sort of a community organization that happens to help Afghans, which obviously vary in quality.

And it’s– wait, what was your original question? I wanted to talk a little bit also just about the difference between different ways that this could turn out because this is also a political issue where there needs to be a program.

And it’s been proposed that there be a program that humanitarian parolees are granted pretty much guaranteed borrowing background checks and things like that, but permanent status.

And that has been a bill that’s been proposed, has not been passed, but it’s totally possible to do rather than making Afghans go through this long, very bureaucratic legal process that’s totally uncertain.

And we know that this is possible because we’ve seen it done in the case, for example, of Ukraine and for Ukrainian refugees. And so looking at that model, I think a lot of us that are advocates for the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan would hope to see some kind of a program that’s similar paths for Afghans.

There’s this really great immigration advocacy organization called Project ANAR. Anar means pomegranate in Farsi. And they’ve done some research and compiled some data.

And so what they’re saying is that comparing the Afghan and Ukraine parole programs– so this is between July 1, 2021 and MAY 1, 2022, the Afghan humanitarian parole applications have received over 66,000 applications, and 123 of those have been approved. And nearly $20 million has been collected in fees from those applications.

In comparison, the Uniting for Ukraine Program has received 88,000 applications for humanitarian parole, and 68,000 of those have been approved and no fees have been collected from that program.

So that’s not to say Afghans have all the solidarity with Ukrainians. Afghans know what this is like. We’ve been through this history over and over again. And what we hope is to also have some sort of a program that recognizes and acknowledges Afghans, especially those Afghans who are here, who have had connections to supporting the US military.

Jamieson: Well, Sherine, thank you for sharing all of this about your work. It’s fascinating work and it’s clearly extremely timely and pressing and significant. So all I can say is thank you. Thank you for sharing your work.

Ebadi: Thank you so much. This was really fun to talk about.

Jamieson: Great.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit



Voter Turnout in the United States: An Interview with Emily Rong Zhang

Emily Rong Zhang

In this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Jennie Barker, a PhD Candidate in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley — and a Matrix Communications Scholar — spoke with Emily Rong Zhang, Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley Law School, about her research on voter turnout in the United States. 

Voter turnout has been a hot topic in the news. Turnout soared to highs not seen in decades during the 2020 presidential elections and in the 2018 and 2022 midterm elections. Yet at the same time, there has been a new wave of restrictions on voting, including voter ID laws that have been introduced in a number of states. This has led to alarm that these laws could significantly suppress voter turnout. 

Emily Rong Zhang holds a PhD in Political Science and a JD from Stanford University and was a Skadden Fellow at the ACLU Voting Rights Project. She has also litigated voting rights challenges in Ohio, Kansas, and New York. We asked her to help us think through the different factors influencing voter turnout and how we should understand this concept today.

Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jennie Barker: Hello and welcome to The Matrix Podcast. I’m Jennie Barker, your host coming to you from the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio, our recording partner on UC Berkeley’s campus. Our topic today is on voter turnout in the United States. Voter turnout has been a hot topic in the news.

Voter turnout has soared to highs not seen in decades in the 2020 presidential elections and in the 2018 and 2022 midterm elections. Yet at the same time, there has been a new wave of restrictions on voting, including voter ID laws that have been introduced across a number of states. And this has led to alarm that these laws would significantly suppress voter turnout.

To help us think through the different impacts on voter turnout and how we should understand this concept today, we have Emily Rong Zhang, an Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley Law School. She holds a PhD in political science and a JD from Stanford University and was a Skadden fellow at the ACLU Voting Rights Project. She has also litigated voting rights challenges in Ohio, Kansas, and New York. So welcome Emily, and thank you to coming to the podcast.

Emily Rong Zhang: Thanks so much for having me. It’s a delight to be here.

Barker: So to get started today, let’s talk a bit about why voter turnout has become such a focus for social science and legal research in recent years. So we’ve seen a number of states implement more restrictive voting laws and we’ve also seen social scientists and lawyers become really interested in this topic for their research and in their litigation. So help us understand why this is happening?

Zhang: Yeah. So for political science, there’s always been an interest in voter turnout. That’s kind of the dependent variable of interest, whether people vote or not. But historically, that interest has been much more at the personal level explaining differences in why person A votes and person B doesn’t and looking at the effects that various socioeconomic factors have had, for instance, age, other demographic features, education, and the like.

But the recent concern and the focus on election laws in particular has been driven by legal changes. The central piece of the Voting Rights Act is the preclearance regime which subjected certain localities to the regime. These localities were chosen based on historical rates of racial discrimination in voting. And if you were one of these locations that had historical racial discrimination in voting, you would have to subject changes in your voting laws to the Department of Justice in DC for preclearance before they can be implemented.

That prevented a lot of the kind of state laws that we’re currently worried about from being implemented. But because the Supreme Court decided in 2013 [in Shelby County v. Holder] that the way we put localities under preclearance was invalid, it basically nullified preclearance. After preclearance went away, folks were very concerned about what would happen to various localities and the kind of laws they choose to implement, voter ID laws being only one among many other possibilities. The other ones include things like changing polling locations without a lot of prior notice or other things like removing early voting opportunities, removing opportunities to vote and register to vote on the same day, and the like.

Barker: So in your work and in your recently published paper, you focused specifically on voter ID laws. So you examine the effects of voter ID laws on voter turnout. So can you tell us a little bit about why you’ve examined voter ID laws specifically? And how people have thought about voter ID laws and why they might affect voter turnout?

Zhang: Yeah. So voter ID laws actually predate the removal of preclearance. You can think of them as kind of the OG voter suppression law. It gained notoriety way before 2013. It was very controversial in the passage of the Help America Vote Act.

But so the point is that it’s been around for a long time and there’s a very large academic literature assessing its effects. And I think it’s maybe more accurate to characterize my paper as a paper about the studies of voter ID. And basically, the studies find that these laws have had no effect on voter turnout, which is a surprising finding from everyone’s perspective.

Surprising finding from the perspectives of the researchers who did these studies in the first place. And of course, a surprising finding to those of us who may be concerned about the costs that voting laws can impose on voting. And that’s sort of what prompted the paper.

Barker: And I think in this paper you look at the, I would say, standard approaches to studying voter suppression or studying vote suppression in the social sciences. And your research takes a different approach to understanding this topic. So explain a little bit about what the standard approaches to understanding vote suppression are and how does your research differ from those?

Zhang: Yeah. At the very heart of most of the social science studies, they’re trying to estimate the number of marginal voters. That is, the number of people who would have voted but for the law. And that I characterize as counting the kind of number of votes suppressed. But I don’t think that captures the entire picture of what might be going on as a result of one of these laws.

And let me tell you about two sets of people I’m worried about. The first set of people I’m worried about are folks who still vote under the law but experience more cost to voting as a result of the law. That is, their votes are not lost as a result of the law even if the cost of voting and their burdens of voting have increased.

You might think of these as sort of especially resilient voters, voters who are willing to stand in line, who are willing to go get the underlying documentation, and the like. Obviously, calculating the number of votes lost doesn’t begin to capture the kind of costs that they’ve incurred.

There’s a second group of folks that I’m even more worried about and these are people who wouldn’t have voted even if the law had not been in place. And the reason I’m worried about these folks is that I think the law may still be playing quite an important role in preventing them from voting. That is, if these laws need to go away in order for these people to vote even if they otherwise wouldn’t have, I think it may be still playing quite an important and deleterious role in preventing people from voting in this other sort of sense that isn’t captured by the conventional marginal votes approach.

Barker: So the distinction I think that you make in your work is that there’s a difference between focusing on vote suppression and then voter suppression. So what is this concept of voter suppression and how does it differ– I mean, you’ve talked about this a little bit already. But thinking about why these other groups of people who you’re worried about, why they kind of get missed when people are only focusing on the broader vote?

Zhang: Yeah. And I think what it reflects is a kind of difference in your perspective and what you care about. I can see why if you’re a political campaign, certainly if you’re working on behalf of a candidate, what you’re interested in is what votes am I going to lose for my candidate given the imposition of the law.

I think the perspective I’m advocating for is a much more of a, let’s assess what the voting landscape looks like for voters and think about the role that these laws play for individuals, especially those who are not historically– are folks who are not have historically participated in very high rates.

They already face an immense amount of obstacles, we know this from various other parts of the literature. And for voting laws to play an additional role in preventing them from voting I think is something that’s really worth worrying about. And so I think it’s a matter of asking the question from all perspectives as opposed to only from the aggregate how has this affected our results perspective to how has this affected the consumer, ground level experience of voting perspective.

Barker: And I mean, I think it also to me seems like when we’re in the social science literature taking a very narrow view on what democracy is. It’s like the people turning out to vote, exercising their opinions, but not so much thinking about the broader experience of what it means to have barriers when you are trying to vote or to have maybe unequal access in exercising your voice in the country. So I think that that’s also a really interesting distinction that you’re getting out with your work.

Zhang: I appreciate that. You put that better than I would have put myself.

Barker: [CHUCKLES] Well, I’m glad that I could try. I’m also in political science so I am steeped in a lot of these questions. And I think something that in your paper that you discussed is that there has been of surprising, if worrying development that now you’re seeing state and federal courts. So you’re seeing justices who are also beginning to focus on just the numbers, just the vote. Sort of the vote suppression rather than voter suppression.

And as someone who’s always thinking about how can social scientists bridge the gap to the policy world, I think actually you might be seeing the perhaps negative side effects of this. And so why do you think that this focus on vote suppression has transcended from social science studies who are really interested in studying causal effects to now you’re seeing even justices engaging in citing this research, thinking about this in their opinions? So why do you think you’ve seen this focus in recent years?

Zhang: My concern with courts– I have two primary concern about courts and the way they engage with social science evidence with the general view that there’s a lot of interest from the judiciary of what’s going on in the social sciences, which I think is very beneficial. But then there are these two traps that I think that the judiciary can fall into when consuming social science evidence.

The first is there are some facile, I would say, inferences that can often be made by judges that are social science-y but not terribly rigorous. So let me give you the prime example is, judges are always interested in what happens to voter turnout after the voter suppression law in question has been put into effect.

And that is a very incorrect inference to make. There are lots of other causal reasons that may cause turnout to go up or down, the competitiveness of the race the amount of money in the election, and the like. Comparing the before and after is just a very bad idea for all sorts of reasons that you’re very well familiar with from your social science research background. And that’s something that judges are sometimes to do in their armchair social science mode. I think it’s motivated by a good instinct, which is to understand what effect the law has been having in the real world but it’s doing it by asking these questions that are not terribly rigorous.

The second thing I’m worried about with courts is that they’re not terribly good at interpreting the results of studies. And this is especially true in the context of voter ID laws. Now the literature has found no effect. But that is not a null effect that’s very well estimated. So it is still consistent with, for instance, I think in the best study that I cite in the paper, it’s still consistent with almost a negative 2% to 2% increase in voter turnout. And simply reading the headline findings of the paper finding null effect is not actually going to peel back that particular precision issue and lead to necessarily the right inferences by courts.

And so I think those issues specifically are the ones that I’d really worry about as we begin to see more thirst for social science evidence from the courts, is to make sure that they’re interpreting that evidence in the right way and relying on it for the right things.

Barker: I mean and I think another– or a consequence of this, and this is the title of your paper, which I really like, which is “Questioning The Questions.” I think it seems– or I mean, maybe this is not a correct interpretation. But it seems that maybe justices are also not asking these bigger questions that you have brought up already and that you’re concerned with in your work, which is instead of being like, well, are these laws affecting turnout, thinking about why are these laws happening.

What are they actually– what is the purpose behind these laws and actually interrogating that, which I would imagine we’d hope that the judiciary is interested in those questions as well. So I don’t know if you’ve seen in your work the maybe neglect or maybe not as careful study of these questions.

Zhang: No, you’re absolutely right. So conventionally, the legal analysis in assessing voter restrictions is a balancing test. It asks what burdens does this law impose on voters and what is the reason for the state in imposing this particular restriction. Because we do lots of things in election administration that impose lots of costs on voters that we accept because it’s for a good reason.

Voter registration is the biggest one. We require voters to register to vote in advance of voting because it ensures that only eligible folks are participating. It allows for the state to ensure that they’re not disenfranchised if the state has a disenfranchisement law and the like.

What’s interesting is that there’s been such a strong interrogation of the social science evidence on the part of the balancing test asking whether there are burdens on voters and much, much less on questioning the state’s rationale. And with voter ID laws in particular, I think that it’s a real shame because in-person voter fraud, which is the type of voter fraud that voter ID laws prevent, that is showing up to a polling location and claiming to be someone else, that’s the type of fraud it’s meant to address and the incidence of that is just exceedingly rare. So you might ask why the court doesn’t spend more time in interrogating the empirical evidence behind that. And I think that would be a very fair question. [CHUCKLES]

Barker: So so far we’ve sort of talked a little bit about or I would say talked a lot maybe about how studies and how courts tend to focus on how various policies, as you said just now, affect registered voters and not these states’ rationale or even thinking about these populations that you mentioned being really worried about or the non-voting eligible citizens. So people who could vote but don’t or people who do vote but really have to spend numerous hours making sure that they can exercise that right in terms of getting to the polling location, making sure they have all the documentation. All of these different barriers that they have to overcome.

And I know in some of your forthcoming work that you’ve been working on now, you focus specifically on voting turnout and voter turnout among system-impacted individuals. So people who have been impacted by the incarceration system in some way. So I’d like to talk a little bit about who these individuals are and why voting rates are still so low for them despite we’ve seen a spate of laws–

Even in California we’re seeing a law talked about right now that are restoring voting rights. So even of people who are currently in prison, I think that’s what’s happening in California. But in other states you’ve seen people who have felony convictions have their voting rights restored but even still, they’re voting– as you’ve documented, their voting rates are still pretty low. So why are there still– I think this connects a little bit as well with these barriers that people face that we might not see from a lot of the social science research that we have now.

Zhang: Yeah. No, felon disenfranchisement laws have been around a very, very long time. And it’s one of the remaining vestiges of Jim Crow Laws in the South. And they’ve been tremendously durable. And I’m thinking back to my days working with voting rights attorneys. If you chatted with them and asked them if there was one thing you could do to change the voting landscape in the country what would it be, and it would be– I think the answer– sorry. And the answer would be let’s get rid of the felon disenfranchisement laws because they disenfranchise large numbers of individuals just based on their bare application.

There has been tremendous amount of reform in this area, as you had– that you had suggested, especially in some of the toughest states. So Virginia, Florida, and a couple of others used to have lifetime disenfranchisement. You commit a crime and you lose your right to vote forever. And for a long time, it was thought that there was nothing much that anyone could do about it until we got a real landslide of reforms coming from all different sources in Virginia.

The governor used his pardon power to pardon everyone with a particular history. In Florida, a ballot initiative was passed and the like, while you also got other reforms in other states making more individuals with convictions eligible to vote. In California, there was the proposition which passed giving the right to vote to folks on parole.

So there’s a whole spate of laws that are changing. And the legal landscape is rapidly shifting. And yet, even in states that have relatively liberal and liberal here I mean purely descriptively, liberal felon disenfranchisement laws, we know that participation rates are really low. And so the question is, will these reforms actually have any impact if folks don’t know about it, if it wouldn’t have any– if it wouldn’t have made a difference.

That is, if in California you had the right to vote following a criminal conviction but you didn’t vote anyway, why would we expect the change, for instance, in Florida to have any effect there, right? And so understanding more the experiences that system-impacted folks have with the election system seems vitally important in understanding the effect that these legal changes are going to have.

Barker: Yeah. It seems like very critical work to be doing. So in your research and I know you’ve done some focus groups and interviews, what have you found that some of these system-impacted individuals, how have they described their experience? If they have voted or if they haven’t?

Zhang: Yeah, the big thing that I’m walking away with from what we’ve done, and this is a joint project with Dr. Naomi Sugie at UC Irvine, and a fantastic set of graduate students at UCI, and one at Stanford, the thing that I’ve taken away from the project is we think of election law typically in a federalism way. We always talk about election law federalism because election administration and laws are determined at the state level.

And when we think about felon disenfranchisement laws, we always think about the varieties. You’ve got some really strict states like the Floridas, and the Iowas, and the Virginias. And then you’ve got the more liberal states where even voting from prison, for instance or voting from jail is a part of the reform movement.

But my sense from the interview and the focus group data suggest to me that there is much less federalism going on in the lived experiences of folks than the laws would suggest. That there is actually a felon disenfranchisement law and the contours of that law are unspecified, very unclear, blurry to most folks at the retail level.

And so what you get are instances where people in California will point to the example of Crystal Mason in Texas who was prosecuted for having voted with a conviction. She was ineligible to vote under Texas’s felon disenfranchisement statute. And that would have no implication for a Californian. But a Californian hears that and thinks, well, if she can’t vote then I can’t.

And that’s been a big realization of mine having thought of this stuff in relatively formalistic terms and what is the law in Texas and what is the law in California. And thinking much more there’s some amorphous force that people refer to and have some experience with. And that’s what they go by. Not by what the letter of the particular statute in the state is.

Barker: Yeah, I mean, I found that story that you told so impactful because like you said, I mean it seems that the way that a lot of researchers approach this is just focusing on the states and what’s happening. And [CHUCKLES] in social science, we’re always thinking about the unit of analysis. And we have our unit of analysis and we’re not really thinking about what’s going on outside of that.

And so in this experience, what has been the role of media coverage, right? Because I even I remember this story about the woman in Texas. And I think like hearing about– so you can hear about it in the news. And then why that isn’t counteracted by actual information saying, no, this isn’t actually what’s going on in the state in which you live? So why is there this sort of, I don’t know, gap? Or why is media filling in a lot of the space where you don’t see actual information that could help people?

Zhang: Yeah, that’s a great point. And I think it goes to there’s a huge information vacuum for this particular population. For some folks who’ve never voted before and for folks who are a part of the criminal legal system from a young age, there was no time between when they became eligible to vote and at the point of re-entry.

So a lack of a prior history with voting and any base level of knowledge, plus the lack of official sources to obtain this information. So this isn’t a part of what you’re told by anyone, typically in the process of re-entry. And even if you are told that, that information is coming to you at the time when you need it the very least. You are worried about making ends meet at that time.

The other piece of it I think is extreme risk aversion in this population even about doing the wrong thing. Voting illegally with a criminal record is a fear that is very palpable for folks who have spent time in the criminal legal system. And I think all of these forces combine to create an inclination to disbelieve that you’re eligible to vote when you actually are eligible to vote.

Barker: A bright spot that you discuss in the paper is that these individuals can, in fact, be brought successfully into the electorate. So can you speak a bit about what has helped these individuals access their right to vote?

Zhang: So the literature is very clear on this. If you tell people they are eligible to vote, some of them will vote. And it suggests that the problem people face is really one of misinformation. But that if you correct that misinformation, there are real gains to be had.

What we don’t know beyond that is who is the best messenger for the information. We are still working on best ways to convey that information in terms of timing, the quality of message, and the like. But there’s clearly a lot we can do on that front.

The other frontier, I think in this area of work is what motivates people. Whether there’s anything in particular about being system impacted that may be particularly motivational for folks to participate. And that’s a very active area of work that our team and I’m sure others are working on.

Barker: And I think one of the groups or one of the types of groups that you’ve cited or that you worked with in this research are these community organizations. So what role can they play in helping overcome this very vast information gap that people are facing?

Zhang: I mean, at the very baseline level, something you mentioned already or referenced earlier is we know a ton about people who are registered to vote and regularly vote. And the reason is they are in a database provided by the state that in many states you can obtain through public information requests and that campaigns regularly do. That’s why you and I get text messages, emails, mailers, and the like because we’re known to participate.

And we’re typically the population that campaigns and other political actors are trying to move. We know much, much less about the population of folks who don’t and have not historically participated at higher rates. And there is a way in which the high quality of information available for registered voters has further prevented work to be done about folks who have not historically participated just because it is infinitely harder to know about their situation.

And there are many, many reasons to work with community organizations. But at the baseline level, we’re actually getting to hear from people you wouldn’t otherwise get to hear from. And that’s I think enormously important because it allows research to shed light on something that we don’t know that much about already.

Of course, there are other lots of incredible things the organization has done. We’re partnering with the Alliance for Safety and Justice. And they’re a tremendous community organization that provides all sorts of wraparound services for folks in re-entry and just come with a tremendous amount of expertise about the particular barriers folks face and the like. And yeah, we’ve just learned a tremendous amount from working with them.

Barker: Hearing you in that response, it’s really made me think a little bit about like, I’m currently a grad student. I totally know all of the trade-offs and finding you’re encouraged to do very innovative research but then you have limited time. You’ve got to have the data. And I wonder if in this sort of experience, like you said, you have this high quality data on people who do vote.

And I can see why people would want to. They’re like, well, it’s there. We can really– we can really mobilize this. And I can see also the start up costs of getting to these other populations like you have with reaching out to the community organizations that I can see why– I can understand at least. I mean, it’s not a great thing. But I can understand why there has been this tremendous focus on the information that we– high quality information that we do have.

But what are some of the– what are some of the ways that the information, I mean, besides finding out that the way people are thinking about disenfranchisement is very much like, I heard that this is happening to people who I relate to, even if they’re outside of the state? What are other benefits or really surprises that you’ve had from doing this research where you’ve been trying to bring or trying to establish or find information about people who aren’t otherwise normally– their stories don’t really make it into a lot of the research that we have?

Barker: Well, the first thing I’m always surprised by is the number of people who we talk to who learned something about the state’s felon disenfranchisement regime. There is almost always someone who says, oh, I didn’t know that, which reaffirms the kind of misinformation landscape that people are typically in.

The other thing that I’ve spent some time thinking about more recently is what is the mental transition people make as they go from a non-voter to a voter. What is the mental process that someone goes through.

And it’s interesting hearing the way people talk about this. So something that’s occurred to me in going through the data is people seem– in order to become a voter, people seem to see themselves as a constituent. They say something about how– it’s hard to– sorry, this is such early work.

But I was very struck by one person who said, I never voted before. I didn’t participate. But there are maggots coming out of the shower head in the prison. Someone has to be responsible for this. Who is that person and what role can I play in holding this person to account for this thing that’s happening to me.

And I think there is something that happens to people that causes that transformation at some point and that’s what motivates them to vote. And for me as someone who studies voting, trying to put my finger on that transformation has been a really interesting, fun part of the project. And as you can tell, I don’t have the way of describing it yet. But I do think there is something that occurs that puts it on people to see the role that they as an individual can play. And that’s what matters.

Barker: Yeah, that’s super interesting. And I’m excited to see what you come up with. And I’m hearing our discussion today, it seems like a challenge in the field that you’re in is bridging the gap between focusing on the voter turnout. And there’s these campaigns that are really interested in this. There’s social scientists. There’s judges, as we’ve said, that are interested in this.

But also thinking about this question that you’ve just so eloquently discussed, which is how to bring new voters into the electorate. How to actually figure out why people make this transition. Why do they see themselves as having the ability to hold someone to account. So how do scholars, practitioners, or how can they bridge the gap between these two problems that seem to be talking past each other?

Zhang: Yeah, that’s such a good question and a question that so many people face beyond the world that we’re in with poli sci, and law, and policy. I’m still very much– for all of the fancy ways of learning we now have in the world, ChatGPT being only one of many changes, I still think talking to people is one of the best ways of learning about things that you don’t know as much about than someone else does and kind of facilitating that dialogue.

But I don’t mean to put this as an individual responsibility issue. I think that there are structural ways that academic and other institutions can implement to facilitate that dialogue. It shouldn’t be on individuals to seek out others. There should be institutional and structural incentives for that kind of dialogue to occur.

But I will say, that is also not without its challenges. People come to these conversations with their backgrounds, their trainings, with their particular way of seeing the world. If you’re a social scientist, you’re coming in– you’re looking for causal effects. That’s what you’re trained to do. I mean, we’re all trained to do our thing. If you’re a lawyer, you’re trained to bring a lawsuit. And it can be hard to get people to break out of their mold, whatever that might be.

And I think the trickier question is not just in setting up structures for interactions, but finding ways to make those interactions really meaningful and fruitful for people. I think it’s an ongoing struggle, ongoing problem to solve.

Barker: In your experience working with these community organizations, I know this is still early [CHUCKLES] but are there communities, I don’t know if that means counties, cities, states, where you’re seeing maybe this sort of dialogue happening in more successfully than in other places? Where you’re seeing maybe election administrators, lawyers really take a broader view of– and academics, I’ve got to put us in there. [CHUCKLES]

Where they’re really trying to, as you said, seek out these opportunities or seek out broader perspectives that might be missing? Are there places where you turn and say like, OK, here, you’re really seeing people who may not have ever voted before entering the electorate? Or is this something that’s still maybe not– maybe there’s still a lot of room for improvement? [CHUCKLES]

Zhang: I think much of that work has been on the convenience of voting side. For all of the gloom and doom about how hard it is to vote in certain parts of the country, that’s been paired with a phenomenon where it’s never been easier to vote in other places. And that work is maybe not as driven by work to bring people into the electorate.

Part of it is that it’s really, really hard and apart from election day registration and some other measures, we just don’t really know what’s good at doing that. But for making voting easier for folks who are already in the habit of participating, there has been a huge amount of reform on that, whether it’s vote by mail or other regimes.

So there is a ton that’s happening on the reform side as well that is evidence based. Although I think typically, social scientists don’t get involved until something gets implemented and then they’re in the position of evaluating it. I will give you another example, ranked choice voting has been very prominent in recent years. And there’s going to be a large cohort of social scientists interested in the effects that these regimes will have.

Zhang: And I mean here, just with the COVID-19 experience or with voting by mail, I think there’s maybe the realm of opportunity that we couldn’t imagine maybe 5-10 ago has been opened in some places. So that’s really interesting. I think underlying a lot of our discussion today, I wanted to think a little bit more about maybe the broader impacts of these restrictive voting laws or in the case that we’ve just talked about, these more reform-minded provisions that you’ve seen.

So we know, for example, that a lot of these– including voter ID laws, that they may introduce additional burdens, right? So there’s this research thinking about– or at least your research is thinking about this. And we know also that felony disenfranchisement, as your research also shows, can have long lasting effects on access, right?

But I wonder if there– or how you think about the other ways that these restrictive voting laws can impact elections? So one of the things I’m really interested in is confidence. So confidence in election results and confidence in institutions. And how do you think or how have you seen or maybe speculate, I don’t know. How these voter ID laws or how these more reform-minded provisions like implement new opportunities for people with felonies to vote, how do you think that this is shaping people’s perception of how confident should I feel in these results?

Zhang: No, that’s an extremely important question and we know very, very little about it. There is the very important question of if some folks are less confident in the results of the election because we don’t have voter ID laws, who are these people and how does that interact with the countervailing potential that confidence is increased among other populations.

For voter ID laws, voter confidence was very much the reason that the court credited for implementing these laws, apart from the in-person voter fraud concern, which we had already talked about as being not a particularly strong reason for implementing these laws.

But the court relied on its empirical assumption that these laws boost voter confidence. And there is some evidence on this question but not much [see here, here, and here]. And the evidence suggests that there isn’t. That is, people who are more confident– or sorry people who disagree with voter ID laws, I think, are no less confident or more confident. Actually, I can’t remember exactly what it found. But there is very little evidence on this question. And that’s research that is extremely important.

And there are concerns. For instance, vote by mail is the other big one. Whether vote by mail reduces confidence in the legitimacy of the result and that’s obviously a huge concern. And we just don’t know that much about it. And the question is, even if there are people whose confidence are reduced, what is the extent and the like.

Barker: So I think in hearing your response there, another layer to this is that even in– at least in what you’ve found in your research on felony disenfranchisement and franchisement that people are not just hearing about what’s going on in their states, right? Or people are not just hearing about what’s happening maybe even in their county. They’re hearing about the whole landscape. And so I think that’s another kind of complication.

Even in my experiences, people who are living in California, they’re thinking about because the vote– because there are these voter ID laws in, say, Georgia, how is that– I think that there’s even– in this sort of research, thinking about how people are even hearing about this information. And I think you’re getting at that. But I think it’s just another component and I don’t know if in your research on voter ID laws if this has also been something that you’ve seen, or heard, or are thinking about.

Zhang: No, it’s a nice connection though. I think that does lead me to think– in the voter ID literature, everyone is moving towards looking within states, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and the like, and looking at, for instance, leveraging the difference between people who don’t have ID and detecting various effects.

And that leads me to think– what I’m learning about the felon disenfranchisement world leads me to think that the state discrete way of thinking about these laws may not apply in the voter ID context as well. That is, do we expect people without ID, who currently don’t have it, to really be asking detailed questions about the particular voter ID regime in their state or do we expect them just to have the view that, oh, people like us aren’t allowed to vote.

That obviously hasn’t been empirically tested yet but that is certainly a suspicion that I now have knowing what I know about the way individuals with convictions approach felon disenfranchisement laws. Although, of course, there are lots of reasons to believe that wouldn’t be the case. So that’s why I think the testing would really tell us a lot.

Barker: Well, hopefully [CHUCKLES] you can help contribute to this. So we’re approaching the end of our time here. But I wanted to turn a little bit to your experience as a scholar. So this podcast is With The Matrix, which is an organization that’s intended to support this crossdisciplinary research across the social sciences.

And your research is very much doing this because you have a background as a political scientist, you’re also a practicing lawyer. You draw on both of these traditions. And you also examine where they’re speaking together and where they’re also speaking past each other.

So I wonder if you could talk a little bit in your own experience of the challenges and the benefits of doing this kind of work that’s really kind of bridging, different disciplines, different traditions, different methods, different understanding of what causes– just so many different sort of approaches that we have that I can imagine probably differ from me and your background as a lawyer.

Zhang: Yeah. So my view on this, as with almost my view on everything, is that there are costs and benefits on both sides. I think the benefits are a little easier to highlight in an interview like this because we talk about our topic, my topic, and you can see how it all fits in.

I can be a little more explicit in thinking about the costs actually. And there is no free lunch. I don’t have any more hours in my day than you do. And so investing in two different sets of skills means a couple of possible– well, a few possible outcomes. You can invest mostly in doing one well and the other poorly. Or you can do both poorly.


So I think for that cost to make sense, one has to be working on something where it makes sense to take on those costs because the benefits ultimately outweigh it. And in many ways, I was very lucky. I happened upon election law despite having very little background in it. But it fit in both my professional, and personal, and temperamental ways that it worked out.

But I don’t want to downplay the amount of time it takes to hone one’s skills in any particular area. And having to do that in two fields entails certain sacrifices. On the other hand, of course, it comes with immense benefits.

And the final thing I’ll say about what I like about having done both these things is I really do feel like I have a sense of how the world works in a way that I think I would not have gotten if I’d only honed my skills in one area. That is, I feel like I both have a theoretically driven and a factually accurate view of how things happen that I found just personally and professionally somewhat satisfying. [CHUCKLES] And that I think is– yeah.

Barker: Well, I mean I think from our discussion, I think there are ways that you have been able to look at both the legal research and the social science research and say actually, are we missing something really important. And I think for this case of being able to vote in our democracy, I mean that’s such a critical question. So I’m glad that you’re doing that.

Zhang: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

Barker: So thank you for joining us today, and for your time, and for this very wide-ranging discussion on voter turnout, but also on just voting rights in general, and how we can think about our democracy, and who should be– or who can participate. And who isn’t participating and who should be able to participate.

So we are so lucky here, I mean, at the Matrix to have had this discussion, but also I think UC Berkeley is very lucky to have you thinking about these questions that are, as I said, so important to our democracy. So thanks again.

Zhang: Thanks so much, Jennie. Thanks so much for doing this.


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Private Firms and WTO Dispute Escalation: An Interview with Ryan Brutger

Ryan Brutger

On this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Daniel Lobo, a PhD student in the UC Berkeley Department of Sociology and a 2022-2023 Matrix Communications Scholar, interviewed Ryan Brutger, Associate Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley.

Professor Brutger obtained his PhD in politics at Princeton University and was previously an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He is broadly interested in international relations and foreign policy. His research spans international political economy, international law, international security and political psychology, examining the domestic politics of international negotiations and cooperation.

Lobo spoke with Professor Brutger about his new article, Litigation for Sale: Private Firms and WTO Dispute Escalation, which presents a theory of lobbying by firms for trade liberalization, not through political contributions, but instead through contributions to the litigation process at the World Trade Organization. “In this ‘litigation for sale’ model, firms signal information about the strength and value of potential cases, and the government selects cases based on firms’ signals,” Brutger wrote in the paper’s abstract. “Firms play a key role in monitoring and seeking enforcement of international trade law, which increases a state’s ability to pursue the removal of trade barriers and helps explain the high success rate for WTO complainants. The theory’s implications are consistent with interviews with trade experts and are tested against competing theories of direct political lobbying through an analysis of WTO dispute initiation.”

A transcript of the interview is included below.


Podcast Transcript

Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California Berkeley.

Daniel Lobo: Hello and welcome to the Matrix Podcast. I’m Daniel Lobo, your host coming to you from the Ethnic Studies Changemaker studio, our recording partner on UC Berkeley’s campus. Our guest today is Professor Ryan Brutger, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ryan obtained his PhD in politics at Princeton University and was previously an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He is broadly interested in international relations and foreign policy, his research spans international political economy, international law, international security, and political psychology, examining the domestic politics of international negotiations and cooperation. Thanks for being here, Ryan.

Ryan Brutger: Thanks so much for having me.

Daniel Lobo: So we’re here to discuss your recent publication entitled, “Litigation for Sale, Private Firms and WTO Dispute Escalation.” Before we dig into this piece, I’d like to situate your work for our listeners. As a scholar of international relations and foreign policy, your research examines how domestic politics shapes and is shaped by international negotiations and cooperation. What do you see as the most exciting developments in this field? What contributions do you see your work making?

Ryan Brutger: I think there’s a lot of exciting work being done in these areas. So I’ll just focus on two that I’m particularly interested in. One of those is thinking about how the public’s, the mass public in different countries think about or choose not to think about international relations and foreign policy. And so some of my work contributes to this realm but there’s lots of other great work being done. And I think this is really important at this point in time because we’ve seen that more and more people are questioning the value of globalization of trade, immigration et cetera.

And so I think understanding how individuals react to news about international relations, about trading for example, about immigration is very important. And so some of my work in this area has really focused on how do we build domestic coalitions of support for international cooperation. And I’ve looked at this in security bargaining, in international political economy, so thinking about how do we get support for trade agreements.

I’m also extending some of this to look at support for international climate cooperation, I think one of the most pressing issues facing the world today. And so I think this is an area where lots of people are doing great work and I’m hopeful that my work is one small part contributing to a better understanding in this realm. And then the second area that I think really has made leaps and bounds forward in recent decades is work being done in international political economy that focuses on the role of private firms in shaping foreign policies.

And in particular I think there’s great work being done by the likes of Professor In Song Kim, Professor Ian Osgood, and others that are really looking at how different types of firms can play critical roles in helping shape a wide range of policies, especially when it comes to trade.

And this is an area that the paper that we’ll discuss today I think contributes to. Because I look at the role of private firms in both monitoring and seeking enforcement of international trade law and looking at how there’s variation across these firms because not all firms are going to benefit the same, some might be challenged by increased globalization while others benefit. And so diving into that I think has been really important for understanding the consequences of globalization but also some of the causes of the foreign policies that help facilitate globalization.

Daniel Lobo: Fascinating. Now I love the focus on the firms as an actor in this story. And so I’m excited to dig into this theory that you’ve constructed in this paper. So in your forthcoming article on the dispute litigation process at the World Trade Organization, the WTO, you advance a theory of how private firms lobby for trade liberalization through contributions to the litigation process. So you’ve touched on this a little bit but if you could expand on why the focus on firms in this story.

Ryan Brutger: So I think focusing on the firms is both really important but also just very sensible and logical because if we think about who’s engaging in trade by and large that’s firms and these are typically private firms, of course, there are some exceptions in different countries where there might be state owned enterprises and such. But in general, private firms are the actors who benefit from engaging in trade, they’re the ones who if they face a trade barrier, it’s their profits that are going to be harmed, it might be their workers who suffer.

And so thinking about the perspective of these firms is critical when assessing how they engage and are affected by international law. In addition to that, when we think about international trade law, I argue that firms are uniquely situated to play an important role in monitoring international trade law and seeking enforcement of those laws. And in part, this is because there’s what I call an information asymmetry between the firms and their governments.

And so as I already mentioned, firms are the actors who are most directly affected when they face a trade barrier. So they’re likely to be the first to know when a new trade barrier has arised that is affecting their flow of goods or potentially limiting their trade in services. And this means they’re going to essentially be able to help the government identify these trade barriers because there’s so many policies that are being put in place around the world that might affect trade that governments don’t have the capacity to monitor all of these different changes.

And so they rely on firms to bring them this information and to help them learn about trade barriers. And so that’s part of the reason why I think it’s really important to focus on firms, both because they’re the actors most directly affected but then they also have this informational advantage and can really play an important role in sounding the alarm especially when they’re facing significant trade barriers.

Daniel Lobo: Absolutely. Now after reading this paper, I definitely agree that firms are uniquely positioned in this story of trade dispute litigation. And so digging into this a little bit more specifically, you argue that the private firms monitor WTO compliance and motivate states to seek enforcement of treaty obligations by contributing resources to support the litigation. And as you said, by signaling information regarding the legal strength and the value of potential cases.

And as you note in your paper, this results in a few effects one of which being a greater probability of the complainant country winning the case. What do you see as the main implications of these findings?

Ryan Brutger: So I think these findings have a number of different implications. And I can break these down into maybe four implications that are important to focus on. So number one, if we think about the role of firms in being able to identify and then help governments pursue specific disputes, this means that the firms actually get to shape what types of trade barriers are challenged at the WTO and where we’re most likely to see enforcement.

So in the paper, I then develop both through formalization but also just thinking about collective action problems in general, a theory where we can think about which types of firms are most likely to pursue disputes at the WTO. And I argue that they’ll do so, firms want to challenge barriers that cause a high level of harm to them, that’s very straightforward. But the firms also face a collective action problem.

And so I model this and show that firms that are larger are much more likely to be able to overcome that collective action problem and they’re most likely to not face collective action problems when trade barriers specifically affect a very narrow product line or a narrow maybe even just a single firm or a small set of firms. And so this means you’re most likely to have firms pressuring the government to bring cases on product specific disputes as opposed to trade barriers that affect lots and lots of different products.

And this has a really big effect if you think about it because if the government was able to bring cases that affect lots of different products that might provide a larger public good and it might help increase trade or reduce costs to goods and services for the entire population. But if we think about firms being able to coordinate their activities or overcome collective action problems when they face these narrow product specific barriers, it means we’re much more likely to have disputes that only affect a very small number of products or a single firm.

And so it almost becomes like you’re moving towards private benefits in these disputes. And so that has a big implication for whose voices are represented at the WTO and the types of trade barriers that are challenged. Now we can think about this on another dimension though and that’s which countries are likely to have cases brought? Because part of what the theory also outlines is that governments face what I call a bureaucratic constraint, you can think of this as a budget constraint.

They only have so much money and so especially when we come to the agencies responsible for trade, they tend to focus on negotiating new trade agreements as opposed to enforcing the old ones. And so lots of times they may not be able to allocate resources to fight for their rights being protected by enforcing trade barriers. But firms can step in and contribute their own resources to do so, and this can play an important role in that more disputes can be brought because it brings more resources to the table.

This case, when we think about disputes that’s disputes to open up trade to get back to the agreements that were reached say in the Uruguay Round or other portions of the GATT and WTO negotiations. Importantly, this is likely to have the largest effect where that bureaucratic constraint or the budget constraint is binding and so you can think about countries that don’t have as many resources. So think of lower income countries, they might not from the government side of it have the resources to effectively bring a case to the WTO.

But if a firm, particularly a large firm in their country is affected, that firm could choose to contribute its own resources potentially even hiring private attorneys who have specialized knowledge and thus allow them to have their dispute brought to the WTO. Now importantly, only governments get to bring the dispute to the WTO, but this means you can increase the representation of low income countries and that again, has an effect on whose voices are represented at the WTO.

Now you did mention earlier that the probability of winning a dispute also goes up. And that’s because if we look at this through the formal theory in the paper, it actually shows that there’s essentially a screening mechanism that takes place where firms are only going to contribute to these disputes if they believe there’s a high probability of being won and that’s conditional on some other factors. But essentially it means that only the strongest legal claims are likely to be brought to the WTO.

And so that’s why you end up having this very high percentage of complainants winning their disputes at the WTO, which we can think about that as being potentially relatively efficient. By contrast, we have another type of international law which often comes forward in investment disputes. So we have investor state dispute settlement where investors can directly sue other states.

But without this screening mechanism in play there it turns out lots of cases that are essentially frivolous get brought. And so the complainants lose a lot but that takes up a lot of resources, it takes up government time, and so we don’t see that taking place as much at the WTO.

Finally, what I would say is that there’s also a way in which private firms by hiring specialized attorneys can really help increase the quality of the argumentation and I conducted a number of interviews with elites from around the world and from the WTO secretariat. And they emphasized that especially for countries that don’t participate in WTO disputes that often, this makes a huge difference in improving the quality of their argumentation and the probability that they’re going to win as well.

And so substantively, the role of firms can really help countries advocate for themselves and I think that effect plays out the most in the low income countries that typically don’t bring very many disputes to the WTO.

Daniel Lobo: Fascinating. And a clear justification for the focus on firms, I do want to pick up on this last point you made because this is a unique feature of the paper that you conducted these in-depth interviews with trade experts from around the world to understand dispute escalation patterns at the WTO. I’m curious what was this process like for you? Can you discuss the value of inductive research approaches and political science and in the social sciences more broadly?

Ryan Brutger: Oh, that’s a good question or set of questions. Doing these interviews is probably the most fun part of this entire project. I love getting to talk to the people who have worked on these cases from a wide range of perspectives. In total I ended up interviewing 38 individuals who had engaged in WTO disputes in a wide range of capacities.

Some were in-house counsel for private firms that were trying to make sure that their interests were represented, others were officials working in trade bureaucracies from around the world. I also interviewed private attorneys who worked at major law firms, and as I said before, also the folks at the WTO. And so this really provided a wide range of perspectives that one was just fascinating to learn about and the specific cases that come up.

And secondly, realizing that even in very different environments, we saw some of the same patterns over and over. So you asked about the value of inductive reasoning in political science and the social sciences and I think it has a very important place. So I was lucky enough shortly after I graduated college to end up working in Washington, DC and working in the realm that allowed me to be privy to lots of these disputes and participating in international disputes working on the legal side of them.

And so I essentially got to observe a number of different cases playing out and seeing these patterns and that’s actually what inspired the project in the big picture. So I was able to combine what I learned from these specific cases and then engage in the formalizing of a much broader theory and that led to new implications coming out of the model specifically thinking about the collective action problems and things.

And so I was able to triangulate I think from the bottom up using the inductive approach but then also deductively using the bigger theory to think of additional implications that could be tested and examined both through qualitative interviews and in the quantitative work in the paper. And I think what this really did is also gave me a much better sense of the importance of firms in different situations.

So there are occasionally disputes that go to the WTO where firms don’t play a massive role in lobbying. They’re relatively rare, some of these came up in the early intellectual property rights cases that the United States was bringing in part because they wanted to establish a precedent at the WTO.

But by and large firms do play a really important role and one example of that I learned about when I was interviewing an official who was familiar with a case that arose between Mexico and Costa Rica was that Costa Rica had put in place new regulations on pesticides that could be used on avocados and not just pesticides but the health and safety standards. Mexico was arguing that these were being applied in a discriminatory manner.

But at first it was actually just a consortium of avocado producers who had this complaint and this concern and they brought this concern to their government. And the government initially said this isn’t a case, every country has different health and safety standards. We have similar health and safety standards, it didn’t meet the basic initial level of confidence to even move forward with the case.

What happened then is that this collective of avocado producers actually brought in assistants, began preparing some of the arguments to the case and changed the government’s mind. So this is where the private actors played this pivotal role, they then ended up bringing that dispute to the WTO because the government did realize, hey, the firms are right. There is a case to be made here and the panel ended up ruling in their favor.

And so hearing these stories and really understanding when government officials changed their mind, so in the absence of firms if we hadn’t theorized their involvement, I would have never done these interviews and we might just have assumed that the government always knew there was a case to be had here. But in truth, if firms weren’t engaging that dispute would have likely never been brought.

And so I think engaging in these interviews really highlighted the importance of firms and that was true regardless of whether I was interviewing folks who had the firms perspective or the government’s perspective. For example, one of the international trade officials I interviewed, I can share with you just a little quote from him because this one actually caught me by surprise and he said, “There are two main reasons the government can’t manage the facts, in this case, of a dispute and the first that they just don’t have the facts.

Typically the data of what type of violation has taken place is proprietary. You need to have access to proprietary data so you rely on private businesses to bring the data forward.” Second, the costs and resources to put the facts together and process the dispute. Take the European Commission, they can’t afford to put someone on fact-finding for a case full time. They don’t have those positions and can’t assign someone to do it because there’s no place in the budget for it.

Getting quotes like that and realizing that even government officials who work on these cases know their limitations and know their reliance and where they emphasize like this quote that they need this private proprietary information, really I think helps us understand what happens at the World Trade Organization and especially at a time when the organization is in crisis, when the dispute settlement mechanism has been essentially brought to a halt due to disagreements over the appellate body appointment process.

I think it’s critical that we know how the institution actually works, whose voices are represented in the institution so that we can take those facts into consideration when thinking about also how to reform the system and potentially improve it. And so that’s why I think this type of research is so critical in not only recognizing how international law has worked, but also building the foundation so that we might think about how it can work better in the future.

Daniel Lobo: Fascinating. And I love that quote that you raised and it makes me think how else would you get access to this data on capacity constraints or budgetary constraints without talking directly to the actors involved. So I do think it’s an excellent case in point of the value of an inductive approach.

And so I want to circle back to some of the effects that you mentioned earlier, particularly picking up on this concept of firms bringing additional resources that in ways in which the state might be constrained. Your theory of informal firm lobbying in WTO dispute litigation, challenges conventional wisdom and the literature on compliance with international trade law.

You argue that the ability of firms to help countries overcome resource constraints can level the playing field between developed and developing countries as you said on the one hand, and also enhance the influence of large multinational corporations on the other. So I’m curious, do you see this arrangement as net positive? Are there concerns of private influence in this process?

Ryan Brutger: That’s a great question. I see this process as having mixed effects that can be both concerning and also reassuring. And so I can’t give you a simple yes or no answer on whether this is net positive or not because on one hand, I think it’s critical that we do seek to monitor and enforce international law and help bring countries back into compliance when they’ve deviated.

And so having firms assist governments in that process really makes sense to the extent that firms are the actors most directly affected. And this I think also works in a way that does provide benefits. I mentioned the avocado case and even if we’re worried that it’s a large collective that might have undue influence, they also have lots and lots of workers whose jobs are protected or maintained in part because their interests are represented in these disputes.

On the other hand, when we recognize that the types of trade barriers that are more likely to be challenged with private firms wielding this influence are relatively narrow and closer to providing private goods as opposed to public goods that’s certainly concerning. And so I think there’s benefits in that more countries can have their cases heard that the cases that are heard tend to be important and strong cases.

So we’re not seeing a lot of what we might call misuse of the dispute settlement mechanism because they don’t push for cases when they’re low value or when they think that there’s not a very good chance of winning, of course, there’s going to be occasional exceptions to each of these. But then I think we could also think about what this does to international law in the long run. If large firms, particularly multinational firms are best positions to have their interests represented, we know that actually shapes the progress of international law.

Now technically at the WTO, the law is the law and the rulings don’t change that. But in practice we see interpretation playing out, we see whose voices are represented and that has an effect in the long run. And so I think it can be concerning and so we might want to having recognized that this is taking place, think about this in the reform process.

Now there are efforts already underway to address some of the discrepancies or disparities in WTO law. And so there is an advisory center that helps low income countries prepare cases but that still requires that they know that there’s a trade barrier that they want to dispute in the first place. And so if they lack that information that still creates a problem.

And so I think there’s a real tension between wanting to see international law upheld and also having large corporations wielding much more influence than other companies. That said, large corporations also employ more people but it doesn’t necessarily connect directly to thinking about the public good. These are certainly firms working for their private interest, trying to have those interests represented and indeed that might help their employees, that might help sustain jobs but those benefits are certainly being limited given the nature of the cases that are being brought.

Daniel Lobo: It’s fascinating. It’s a complex arrangement, it’s almost like the idealism of having the state be the one most in charge of this process of providing traded public goods versus the very pragmatic realistic view that firms are on the front lines of these trade disputes and have the resources to signal the strength of these cases to collect the information required to make compelling arguments. Yeah, that’s fascinating.

Ryan Brutger: And on this point, I will say, through my interviews officials noted those officials working for the government that they really do have the public interest at heart. I mean the European Commission officials emphasized this repeatedly, they want to bring cases that provide broad benefits to society. USTR here in the United States emphasizes similar concerns, but then they run up against as you say these very pragmatic concerns of what information do they need to bring cases? What resources do they have to bring cases?

And so there’s a tension between the two and that’s why I think recognizing the role of firms also helps us understand, again, where the actual disputes are playing out and whose interests are represented versus the ideal approach of what the government might want to bring if they had all the information and all the resources.

Daniel Lobo: This conversation has been fascinating. I’m sure our listeners are very interested in digging into this piece more carefully. Can you let us know where they can read this?

Ryan Brutger: So this is being published, it’s forthcoming in the American Political Science Review. They’re also welcome to visit my website for a preprint version of it as well.

Daniel Lobo: Great. And I guess my last question here for you, can you talk about how this research project fits into your broader research agenda? What else do you have coming down the pike and what are you most excited about?

Ryan Brutger: So this fits into my broader research agenda of thinking about how domestic factors interact with international law and cooperation and vice versa. There’s probably too many things on my agenda to talk about all of them, but I will say one project that I’m particularly excited about that relates to some of the points we’ve been talking about today is a project that I’m working on with Professor Amy Pond. And together we’re looking at support for antitrust policies also known as competition policies, both at the domestic level but also international cooperation on this.

And the reason I say this relates is because we are concerned about the increasing concentration of industries, the fact that fewer and fewer companies are making up a larger portion of international trade, a larger portion of the production line, et cetera. And so that has implications for how they wield that economic power, it has implications for again whose voices are represented in democracies and in government.

And so we’re looking at antitrust policy as a tool to potentially curb some of the influence that firms may have or at least ensuring that we have free and fair competition so that they can’t use their size to say bully out other competitors and things like that. And so that’s leading to a number of papers that Pond and I are working on together.

And I think it’s a very exciting line of work but one that I hope more political scientists will also take up and start thinking very seriously about the importance of antitrust and competition policy, especially as large companies, you can think of many of our tech companies not only control in many cases, the flow of information but also have so much private data, et cetera. So I think there’s a lot to be done in this space moving forward.

Daniel Lobo: Excellent. Another timely and important topic to be thinking about. So thank you for your work, and again, thank you for joining us today for the Matrix Podcast. Ryan, it’s been a pleasure.

Ryan Brutger: Thanks so much for inviting me, Daniel.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit



How Student-Athlete Activism Shaped the University: An Interview with Cameron Black

Cameron Black

In the wake of the Varsity Blues scandal and the NCAA’s changes in amateurism rules, the role of student-athletes at universities seems to be changing. This is only one new twist in a long-running question about the role of student-athletes at universities, according to Cameron Black, Assistant Professor of History at the City College of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies. Black, who completed his PhD in history at UC Berkeley in May 2023, studies the history of student-athlete protest movements in the 1960s through the lens of labor and management and the history of capital. In his research, Black has found that student-athletes were conceptualized, managed, and disciplined as labor. Through showing how student-athletes resisted the encroachment of management into their personal and professional lives, Black demonstrates how race, labor, and culture came together at universities in the 1960s. 

In this interview with Julia Sizek, Black discussed his research and its relevance to today’s university — and to our understanding of UC Berkeley’s radical past. 

Sports don’t take place in a vacuum, as your research clearly shows. How was student-athlete activism – and particularly Black student-athlete activism – linked to Black radicalism in the late 1960s?

Though sport does not take place in a vacuum, many historical and contemporary actors believe it should! Throughout the 20th century, athletic departments carved out a separate regulatory space, which I call “negative space,” that insulated them from university regulations for students, labor protections for workers, and even constitutional protections for American citizens. In this light, it makes sense why some commentators argue that sport should take place in a vacuum. In this space, coaches and athletic directors possessed extreme authority over student-athletes and held autocratic powers to enforce their policies — powers so immense that university presidents and chancellors felt they could not interfere in most department affairs — while remaining unaccountable to legal protections and social or cultural advancements.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black student-athletes often protested as part of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power/Radicalism Movement. Similar to Civil Rights activists, Black athletes demanded full integration and representation within academic and athletic institutions. For instance, Black athletes at Berkeley, led by Bob Smith and John McGaffie Smith, argued that Black athletes deserved academic advising equal to that given to their white counterparts. At Syracuse University, Black athletes demanded the freedom to determine their own major; Clarence McGill, a Black student-athlete at Syracuse, recalled that, in order to take classes that he wanted to take, he had to cross out classes that the coaching staff had recommended for him. Student-athletes at both Syracuse and Berkeley also protested against playing segregated schools in the early 1960s, and argued for integrating student housing at their own institutions.

However, Black student-athletes straddled the line between the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, chronologically and ideologically. While many Civil Rights protestors pushed for integration, the Black Power Movement pushed beyond integration as a core component. To student-athletes who were influenced by the Black Power Movement, athletic departments did not simply oppress them by preventing integration and equitable treatment within their teams. Athletic departments prevented equitable outcomes because their hierarchical structures, fueled by racism, did not allow for Black people to influence policy decisions and denied their ability to express individualism as Black people. To remedy these injustices, Black student-athletes argued for hiring more Black people within and outside athletic departments, including more Black coaches, doctors, and administrators. They also protested for departments to allow unregulated cultural expression. For instance, a central pillar of protestors at Oregon State revolved around their ability to wear the hair, including facial hair, of their choice. Finally, they argued that Black student-athletes within the athletic department, and Black people in the broader university apparatus, should have more control over decisions made by the athletic department, including recruitment, hiring of staff members, and even coaches.

Black student-athletes’ financial demands also fit with national efforts to secure equitable pay for Black workers. Student-athletes at both Syracuse and Berkeley argued for more pay for jobs they worked, and for more equitable working conditions within the athletic department. At Berkeley, student-athletes clamored for scholarships, and, if the department could not provide full scholarships, they demanded more favorable jobs on campus as well as jobs for their wives, if they were married. At Syracuse, student-athletes wanted to be more aligned with students: instead of working a job at the athletic department, they wanted full scholarships like their fellow students received.

What drew you to research these protests, and which archives did you draw upon to research them?

I found many of these protests accidentally! Initially, I was working on a project that looked at how NBA athletes were disciplined and managed under the aegis of racial capitalism. While researching that topic, I stumbled across a small article that reported a protest by student-athletes at Berkeley in 1968. I found it perplexing and fascinating. In the history of Berkeley student activism, I had not heard of student-athlete protests. When I followed up on this particular vein, I discovered why: many Berkeley student protesters thought that the university should manage student-athletes more harshly than regular students. This was a regular occurrence in each of my case studies. When I looked further back, I discovered that, in the late 19th and into the 20th century, many coaches, employers, and social theorists argued that student-athletes needed to be treated not as students, but as labor. They argued that this would make student-athletes into better workers once they graduated.

I used a plethora of source material from archives at Syracuse, UC Berkeley, the University of Wyoming, and Oregon State University — including reports from the offices of the chancellors or presidents, legal briefs, oral histories from the student-athletes themselves, and newspaper articles from student newspapers— to demonstrate how athletic departments across the country, supported by their universities, viewed student-athletes as labor. Though some historians and journalists wrote about student-athlete protests at Wyoming and Syracuse, they did not really talk about how the structure of the university impacted how student-athletes were managed or disciplined. As a result, I wanted my study to deconstruct the institutions involved in these protest movements while unearthing and preserving the voices of student-athlete protest movements. Reports to the chancellors or presidents were particularly interesting because these records simultaneously demonstrated the power of athletic departments to maintain themselves as separate entities, unbeholden to university leaders, as well as universities’ desire to comply with the departments’ demands to manage student-athletes as they saw fit.

At the University of Wyoming, I focused on court records and administrative sources because, out of all my sampled universities, it was the only case where student-athletes took legal action against the university. The legal briefs submitted by the university to the Circuit Court demonstrated that the athletic department, the upper echelon of the university administration — including the president, the Board of Trustees, and even the governor of the state — all thought student-athletes did not, and perhaps more importantly, should not have the same constitutional protections that students did.

At Syracuse, I focused on oral histories from the student-athletes themselves, alongside administrative documents from the university’s archives. The highlight from the archives was a complaint from Black student-athlete protestors to the local Human Rights Commission branch in Syracuse. After numerous complaints to the coaching staff about racist abuse, a lack of jobs, and the complete absence of Black coaches (there weren’t any Black coaches on Syracuse’s staff), the athletes protested at a practice in the spring of 1970. During this protest, they filed their complaint to the Human Rights Commission arguing that the athletic department and the head coach had violated their constitutional rights and human rights. After an investigation, the commission ruled that the athletes’ complaints were valid, and that the football team, in particular head coach Ben Schwartzwalder, should be held accountable for their actions.

At Berkeley, the Office of the President engaged in a spirited debate with the athletic department about how to pay student-athletes, whether scholarships were ethical, and how much authority an athletics department should possess. And at Oregon State, the most notable archival document was a charter of incorporation filed by the athletic department in the late 1920s. This charter helped create a separate space for the athletic department, in which it managed and disciplined student-athletes through a process that was parallel to (but separate from) the university’s broader regulatory processes.

While we often consider student-athletes as labor through the sports that they play, your research underscores how athletes were laboring both on and off the field. How did universities reach into the lives of athletes beyond their time participating in sports? 

This is a bit interesting. In the early 20th century, many coaches and philosophers of sport, most prominently Walter Camp, who was the first person to note that the audience should understand the rules of the game they were watching in order to better understand the moral lessons of sport, argued that coaches needed to have extraordinary amounts of power over student-athletes’ lives off the field to properly train them. In particular, Camp, also known as the father of American football, argued that coaches should control even what student-athletes ate and when they ate, what jobs they worked, which classes they could take, and how they could spend their leisure time. His training manuals, which contained numerous tables and charts delineating how student-athletes should train, eat, and work, were instrumental to how coaching became institutionalized and professionalized at the college and professional levels.

Under the guise of properly preparing athletes for the workforce, universities borrowed tactics that employers had used to manage laborers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The three most important continuities in my mind were how universities systematically underpaid student-athletes to fund other departments, how they prevented student-athletes from transferring to other universities or profiting off work outside of the university, and how athletic departments could claim immense amounts of authority over athletes’ personal lives because coaches were athletes’ “moral stewards.”

From the late-19th century to the mid-20th century, universities paid student-athletes for jobs provided by the athletic department to help subsidize their admission. This was standard practice, and universities systematically underpaid their student-athletes to help fund either the athletic department, or other departments in the university. For instance, Oregon State’s football and basketball teams saved both the university’s student newspaper, The Barometer, and the College of Arts and Sciences from bankruptcy during the Great Depression in part by paying the players on the basketball team a measly $290 for an entire semester. In an investigation into the athletic department’s payment practices in the 1950s, a Berkeley administrator noted that, in a comparison of Berkeley’s and UCLA’s work programs, 45 athletes at UCLA had received a sum that, when divided among them, would amount to $346.94 each as compensation for caring for UCLA’s athletic fields and other areas on campus over the nine-month school year. This work cost UCLA “the equivalent of eight men working full time,”  and was a price that, in his opinion, would destabilize athletics at the UC system because it paid athletes too much money. The administrator recommended a pay reduction to UC President Sproul, and UCLA complied, at least temporarily. Employing student-athletes at various places throughout the university saved universities a lot of money in labor costs. In conjunction, student-athletes could not work on campus outside of their work contracts, nor could they work for corporations outside of the university unless their wages were severely regulated. They were, in many ways, leased employees to the university where they signed. Thus, when student-athlete protestors argued for academic scholarships, they directly pushed against earlier forms of cash payments, which undervalued their contributions to the university and to the athletic department and categorized them as a form of hybrid labor.

Universities treated student-athletes like labor in many other ways that transcended payment. Most prominently, universities employed transfer rules, which mirrored non-compete clauses from the late-19th century, to restrict student-athletes from moving to other universities. Non-compete clauses were specific legal instruments implemented to prevent skilled workers from competing with master craftsmen who trained them, and they applied to a localized geographic area, like a county. The jurisdiction of transfer policies for student-athletes far exceeded non-compete clauses’ jurisdiction. Transfer rules applied across the United States, and in order to transfer, student-athletes required their coaches’ consent. By passing these policies, universities, conferences, and the fledgling NCAA strengthened their hold over student-athlete transfers, who were called athletic “tramps.” This appellation was an intentional reference to the word’s common meaning: in the late-19th century, a growing class of wandering male laborers became known as tramps. Tramps were considered a socio-economic threat to Victorian ideals about work ethic, and many coaches argued that student-athletes who moved away from their home universities posed a similar threat to Victorian ideals.

Universities also provided athletic directors and coaches with enormous latitude pertaining to on-field and off-field matters like housing, student-athlete wages, and disciplinary policies. Thus, by the 1960s, coaches had long established the power to interfere in the lives of student-athletes off the field. For instance, in one particularly dramatic and saddening instance at the University of Wyoming, an assistant coach ordered a Black player to break up with his girlfriend (who was white) or else he would lose his scholarship. The coach did not want any trouble from alumni or conservative groups because of an interracial relationship, and the player complied because he did not want to lose his scholarship.

How did coaches and athletic directors think about the relationship between themselves and the athletes, and how did it relate to the academic mission of the university? 

Coaches’ ideas about the relationship between themselves and the academic mission of the university remained rather consistent throughout the 20th century. Universities from the late-19th into the mid-20th century argued that sport helped reinforce values that would prove useful to the new industrial economy.

In the early-20th century, coaches argued to university presidents that they were best suited to teach athletes and the audiences that watched them how to adapt to the massive shifts that industrialization caused in the labor market. John Heisman’s statement “You play until the whistle blows” eerily mirrors a training pamphlet by the Industrial Harvester Corporation in 1913, which commanded their labor force to spend their time according to the company’s audible signals. The pamphlet depicts such compliance in the first person: “I hear the Whistle. I must hurry. I hear the five-minute whistle. It is time to go to the shop.… The Starting Whistle Blows. I eat my lunch. It is forbidden to eat until then.… I work until the whistle blows to quit.” Student-athletes, coaches argued, needed to learn how to maintain self-discipline and focus, work on a team, obey authority figures, and handle the loss of autonomy in the newly industrial workplace. These values, in the minds of coaches, athletic directors, and many administrators, were essential to a university’s academic mission because they provided forms of training that a traditional classroom could not provide. For instance, timed drills, in the mind of coaches, simulated multiple different types of workplaces; whistles simulated new forms of surveillance and evaluation of work, and the position of the coach itself would mirror that of a manager or foreman.

By the 1960s, the use of language about industrialization had faded, but its impact on the ideology of athletics hadn’t changed much. Instead of industrialization, many coaches argued that sport was a necessary bulwark against growing radicalization throughout the 1960s and 1970s, something that they felt should be an essential piece of a university’s mission. Thus, coaches argued that they should be able to prevent student-athletes from joining clubs that they wanted to join (in particular Black Student Unions, but also other clubs like fraternities were excluded as well), keep them from attending or participating in protests, or restrict the hair styles that they could wear. These actions were all framed as part of fulfilling the university’s mission to protect its students.

Part of your research involves understanding how the university changed during the mid-20th century, and how that impacted not only student-athletes, but students in general. How were the goals of the university changing during this era, and how were the students enrolled in these institutions changing? 

Universities changed rapidly from the late 1940s to the 1960s. From the mid-19th to the early-20th century, universities were less draconian than many spaces in American society, but they were still quite authoritarian. They exerted this power over students because universities adopted a motto of in loco parentis (in place of the parent). This was a traditional responsibility established in the 19th century in which universities took legal and social responsibility for students in the place of their parents, giving universities an enormous amount of power over students’ academic and political lives on campus. From the mid-19th century, universities and other schools possessed numerous ways to exert authority over students. Universities had the power to prevent different sexes from living together, control when students could enter and leave dormitories, and, in some cases, physically discipline students. These are just a few examples of how universities could insert themselves into the lives of students on campus.

The in loco parentis arrangement came under immense strain in the late 1950s, and even greater strain in the 1960s. Across the country, universities were integrating and serving Black, Latino/a, and, particularly at universities in the western United States, Asian students. As a result of the G.I Bill, universities saw a massive increase in veterans who had served in World War II; many administrators found it improper to manage these students under in loco parentis after they had fought in the war. These two integrative forces pushed universities to loosen restrictions placed upon students’ political, academic, and social lives. After the 1960s, students could express socio-political views more freely, restrictive policies like dress codes were largely removed, and undergraduates and graduate students alike were provided with more transparency regarding their grades. As a result, students began to freely express political activism, often at odds with official university positions. Though the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley was the most famous and recognizable student-protest movement, it certainly was not the only one: students upended the status quo throughout the country, and questioned the legality of in loco parentis, as well as the university’s active participation in the United States’ military industrial complex, and they engaged in broader social questions like integration and the Black Power Movement.

In this context, college sport, particularly college coaches, were seen as a conservative bulwark against rapidly encroaching liberalism. The autocratic policies that coaches espoused were actively transformed into a proxy for conservative arguments against liberalism, and athletics’ separation from broader university accountability structures needed to be maintained. Coaches were well aware of how rapidly the university was changing at the time; Ben Schwartzwalder, the head coach at Syracuse University, actively lambasted the liberal tide, and argued that sport was a last haven for students to learn hard-worn American values like obedience, sacrifice, and hard work. At Berkeley, athletic director Pete Newel argued that student radicalism intrinsically damaged the university, and that college sport was a salve for this particular form of unrest. Thus, when coaches and administrators argued that student-athletes could not be managed within this rapidly liberalizing environment, as the lessons about work ethic, citizenship, and masculinity would be swept aside, they were taken very seriously by university chancellors, presidents, and other administrators.

One of the protests that you studied was at Berkeley, where a student refused to cut his Afro hairstyle to be in accordance with his team’s policy. How and why was this seen as a political act at the time? 

This is a really interesting case! On January 19th, 1968, head basketball coach Rene Herrerias suspended Bob Presley for, in his words, lateness to practice. Herrerias argued that Presley needed to be more disciplined to continue playing for the team, notably telling the press that Presley’s suspension was “in the best interest of the player.” But two days later, Herrerias reinstated Presley, stipulating that reinstatement would be for “the best interest of the player.” Therefore, in a two-day period, Herrerias attempted to argue that suspending Presley for the season was beneficial for him, and revoking the suspension was also good for him. On closer examination, it seemed that Herrerias’ problem was with his Afro. As Newell recalled in an oral history, “Herrerias suspended Presley for two reasons: his hairstyle and his lateness to practice. He (Presley) had the Afro and wouldn’t cut it…. Rene’s point was ‘He was always testing me, he’s always doing this, and late for practice….’”

Black hairstyles rapidly became a socio-cultural and political demarcation line for Black students at universities, particularly for Black women. Historians and cultural theorists have argued that aesthetics, like hair, were vital to the construction of Black identity, and contributed to white anxiety about Black people. During the 19th and 20th centuries, cartoons, children’s stories, and advertising often depicted African Americans as beady-eyed and thick-lipped, with wild unkempt hair. White designers often portrayed the hair of the Black subjects as symbols of their supposed disillusionment with modernity, simplicity, or savagery.

By the 1960s and 1970s, the socio-cultural construction of Black hair had fundamentally shifted with the introduction of the Afro. Perhaps most critically, many Black Power philosophers argued that natural Black hair, in particular Afros, symbolized their revolutionary struggle against white oppression, global capitalism, and imperialism.  Finding inspiration in the global struggle of the African Diaspora, activists in the Black Power Movement argued that Black people across the country should eschew European aesthetics; Afros signified defiance against the system and association with the movement, while straight or short hair represented conformity with systems of oppression. Black student-athletes at Berkeley grappled with this intellectual tradition and its larger implications, to the chagrin of the coaching staff.

A case that you studied at the University of Wyoming highlights how the obligations of student-athletes to the university were seen in contradiction to their free speech rights to protest. How were their rights as student-athletes adjudicated in relation to the university? 

Their rights as citizens and students were subsumed by their status as representatives of the university. This was not a normal constitutional arrangement for students. This arrangement worked for universities because student-athletes were encapsulated in a space outside of the law that had been legitimized by legal decisions made throughout the 20th century.

These Wyoming student-athletes, nicknamed the Black 14, were part of a broader movement of college athletes in the western U.S. who decided to bring attention to injustice by protesting when their teams played Brigham Young University, which is owned and operated by the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Until the late 1970s, the LDS Church prevented African Americans from becoming priests or entering into their socio-religious life; in particular, the LDS religious doctrine viewed Black Americans as spiritually inferior. These policies extended into BYU’s socio-religious life. To protest LDS and BYU’s treatment of African Americans, Black students competing for university teams across the West wore black armbands when playing BYU. Black football players at Wyoming had a particularly salient reason to protest. One of their own, Ted Williams, wanted to join the Mormon church. As a result, the 14 Black players approached Lloyd Eaton, their head coach, to ask his permission to wear Black armbands when they played against BYU that season.

Protesting for any reason violated Eaton’s rules for the football team. Though the athletes attempted to meet with Eaton to discuss how they could properly protest, Eaton did not attempt to listen to the athletes’ request; he dismissed the student-athletes unilaterally, without any type of hearing. After their dismissal, the 14 Black football players, led by Joe Williams, appealed to the university administration. They argued that Eaton violated their rights as students and U.S. citizens; in a radical step, some of the players told the university that if Eaton wasn’t fired, they’d never play for the university again. After meeting with the players, the Board of Directors ruled that Eaton was within his right to remove the players from the team. As a result, Joe Williams filed suit in Wyoming District Court, and later appealed the case with the Wyoming Court of Appeals. Their appeal fell on deaf ears, however: none of the Black 14 ever played for the University of Wyoming again.

It certainly appeared as if the athletes’ case had merits. Coach Eaton’s rule that prevented protest for any reason was constitutionally suspect; it violated student-athletes’ First Amendment right to protest prima facie. Eaton’s rule forced the student-athletes on the team to approach him individually, preventing any type of group meeting, which also violated the First Amendment’s freedom of assembly. Finally, the decision conflicted with the University of Wyoming’s disciplinary policies for students. Usually, dismissed students were granted an automatic disciplinary hearing if they were expelled, and students could not be expelled for simply suggesting a protest against a community or organization. However, both the District and Circuit Courts ruled that, as a public university, the University of Wyoming could dismiss the protesting athletes because their protest would have created a First Amendment conflict between student-athletes’ free speech rights and spectator’s freedom of religion. Therefore, the Mormon audience’s public freedom of religion superseded the student-athlete’s freedom of speech and expression in a private setting.

Yet, based on the testimony of the protesting athletes, and a close reading of case law established during the 20th century, I argue that the justices did not rule on the facts at hand. Rather, they imagined a constitutional conflict between the First Amendment rights of Mormon spectators and First Amendment rights of student-athletes, and their final decision stripped the Black athletes’ constitutional protections. I argue that  the justices imagined that the protest occurred in a public setting, in front of Mormon spectators, rather than in the private setting where it actually happened. By reimagining the location, they could create a conflict between First Amendment protections, rather than evaluate how Eaton’s actions violated student-athletes’ First Amendment protections that had been established in various previous decisions, including  Tinker v. De Moines, Pickering v. Board of Education and Cox v. Louisiana. Thus, the judges reframed Eaton’s actions not as suppressing protest, but rather as attempts to protect the spectators’ First Amendment right of religion. As a result, the justices argued that the department was justified to use extraordinary power to prevent this violation of religious freedom from occurring.

Today, the question of freedom of speech is more relevant than ever, especially considering contemporary movements by athletes and teams to support Black Lives Matter (in the case of the WNBA), or to brand playing fields and uniforms with social justice messages (in the case of the NFL). What do you think your research can help us understand about the broader history of social justice and sports? 

I think my research reinforces the fact that sports, politics, and debates over labor are not separate, and that artificially separating them can perpetuate inequities. Though we might think of sports as a form of escapism, its ability to provide an escape is a political and socio-cultural construction with some pretty important stakes. My research also looks at how different power structures, in this case universities, framed sports as apolitical to delegitimize arguments about social justice. Coaches used a variety of strategies, from immediate dismissal to delegitimizing local government rulings, to prevent student-athlete protesters’ demands from being fully realized. Often, coaches and athletic directors argued that they used their power for the student-athlete’s own good, arguments that are often used to delegitimize activism by younger people.

To return to the question of student-athletes as laborers, the NCAA dramatically changed their rules on amateurism in 2021 when they allowed student-athletes to profit from their own likeness. How do you think this fits into a broader history of student-athletes as laborers? 

I think it’s a really interesting and much-needed initial push in the broader history of student-athletes as laborers. In some ways, the new rules did fundamentally transform the socio-cultural and legal status of student-athletes at all levels. The changes, which allow student-athletes to be paid and loosened restrictions on whom student-athletes can work for, are really important changes that benefit student-athletes.

However, I think that these rule changes also are taking place in a context that mirrors industrial capitalism because both universities and athletic conferences operate with a startling lack of regulatory oversight. We can’t separate these changes from NCAA deregulation at the conference level. Universities shift conferences with growing regularity, and coaches are moving despite massive buyout clauses that aim to prevent them from doing so. Perhaps the most poignant example in recent weeks was how the PAC 12 conference nearly disintegrated in a 72-hour timeframe. The lack of regulations and broader protections can potentially allow for greater exploitation of student-athletes. Student-athletes can be recruited and offered image and likeness agreements at younger ages, which drives a sense of professionalization among athletes who have not entered college. Additionally, female athletes, who were generally excluded from the capital/labor nexus in the 20th century, are increasingly a part of these agreements, but with much lower pay and benefits than male athletes. These new rules have further transformed student-athletes into laborers, but I don’t think we have really thought about the short- and long-term ramifications; simply paying student-athletes does not end the inequities they experience.


Untimely Sacrifices: An Interview with Daena Funahashi

Daena Funahashi

For most people, Finland is not the first place that comes to mind when imagining a nation dealing with an epidemic of occupational burnout. American media frequently portrays the country as a near-utopia, with strong social welfare systems and communitarian values. In the World Happiness Report published by the UN, Finland took the number one spot for the sixth year in a row.

In 2006 and 2007, Daena Funahashi, Assistant Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology, conducted ethnographic work in Finnish rehabilitation programs for occupational burnout. Experts at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) see occupational burnout as arising out of a shift in people’s orientation to work that negatively impacts stress coping mechanisms. Rehabilitation programs, sponsored by the Finnish government, allow victims of burnout to take multi-week breaks from work in order to engage in a series of recreational and psychological therapies.

Untimely Sacrifices Book CoverIn her newly published book, Untimely Sacrifices: Work and Death in Finland (Cornell University Press 2023) Funahashi brings classic anthropological scholarship on exchange and sacrifice to bear on contemporary concerns of state welfare, capitalism, and labor’s attrition. Turning to Finland in the early 2000s, when health experts identified occupational burnout as a symptom of Finland’s new economy, Untimely Sacrifices asks what moves individuals to give their time and energy to the point of pathological – and sometimes lethal – levels of stress. 

For this interview, Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya, a Matrix Communications Scholar, asked Professor Funahashi to give readers an overview of her new book. [Responses have been edited.]

How did you get started researching this topic?

Specifically, burnout became a hot topic in Finland in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, both as a new crisis of this new economy, but also as an untimely response to contemporary challenges of the workplace that needed to be diagnosed, prevented, and managed. I became interested in what escapes from this managerial perspective, in the stories – or silences – surrounding burnout and its attendant regimes of excess, sociality, and sacrifice.

The centers themselves were interesting to explore. They had a diverse variety of experts involved. Psychologists definitely played a prominent role but so did physical and occupational therapists. There was a lot of craftwork and an emphasis on making aspirations visible by creating vision boards. There were activities that promoted how to say no and lots of relaxation therapies. A day in the forest. A day of silence. Meditation exercises. Mindfulness exercises. 

Why did you choose Finland as your research site?

Nordic welfare has often been explored via a utopian lens. I wanted to explore further to see what collective regimes of labor do to our ideas about what we owe to others – and how we interact with them. Finland caught my attention because when I was looking for a place to base my project in 2006-2007, the country was in the process of making a collective effort to re-calibrate the responsibility of citizen-workers to the state. 

The economic crisis of the late 1990s really hit Finland hard, as it lost the USSR as its main trading partner. It came at a bad time because Finland had been trying to join the European Union, as well as European Economic and Monetary Union, for a long time. When the economic crisis happened, it was imperative for Finland to get out of the recession quickly. The focus then, was on being “timely,” as in knowing how to act in the here and now not just as Finns, but as “Europeans” – a title with, in the context of the EU, a distinct orientation towards competitiveness. 

As you see in the title of my book, timeliness –being timely – knowing how to be, knowing how to  spend and save your time and energy under the exigencies of the present – became imperative. That’s when “burning out” became a national issue. Burnout came to mark those individuals who were not “timely,” individuals who were not expending themselves in ways that made sense in the workplace today, in a competitive market economy. In the book, I make the point that while Finnish health experts understood burnout as an effect of advanced capitalism, I see the condition instead as a disorder that inaugurates the rules of the economic present rather than as an effect of it. Burnout is not an unintended side effect of advanced capitalism but is part of the nature of work under advanced capitalism. Workers must be timely in order to transact in the market and receive the highest return on their labor. 

When the new economy came into being, it laid out “common sense” for workers. Those who didn’t adapt to the new economy had burnout, and were “sick” workers who needed rehabilitation. This explanation, used by psychologists and economists, tries to make burnout into a coherent medical condition that can be fixed. Rather than making sense of burnout and trying to cure it, I instead use burnout as an entry point to understand the “common sense” assumptions that came with the new economy.

You use this term “martyr worker” throughout your book. Why do you use this term and how do you understand it?

Absolutely. Martyr workers, in short, are workers who fail to make their sacrifice “count” in the self-interested, economic sense. If advanced capitalism is about economic rationalism, doing something because you feel like you should or because you dare not do it, is irrational, right? It doesn’t make any economic sense. Burnout gains currency as the disorder associated with “martyr workers” in Finland, because the presumption is that those experiencing burnout are driven by ideology – the ideology of welfare and of an older work ethic that is defunct in the present. 

The provocation that I’m making in the book is that, contrary to the supposed healthiness and timeliness of expending yourself based on a reasoned calculation of what time and energy you should save or spend, the individuals who attended rehabilitation programs for burnout highlighted instead the very illegibility of sociality, how the self-evident aspects of social exchange can’t be put into words. It was not what you can enumerate and put down like, “Okay, I did this. So I should be getting this back,” this tit-for-tat mentality of exchange, that moved them. It was not that which drove them to work. They revealed to me that there was something beyond what they could name that pushed them to give. In trying to track down what moved them, they found themselves unable to claim their actions as their own. This is what I found that was so different from the discourse of “self-management” that was prevalent in these rehabilitation programs. And, this is where I believe turning to anthropological scholarship on the voluntary and involuntary nature of gift exchange could broaden our understanding of the animus behind work.

We have spoken so much about the Finnish context and things that are in some ways unique, and in some ways not unique, to Finland. What do you think generalizes to other parts of the world, or to other advanced capitalist societies?

Happiness has become part of what counts toward productivity now. Rather than disciplining bodies to work harder and longer hours, we’ve now turned to the management of affect, of happiness. Being healthy is no longer enough; you have to be happy, vibrant, enthusiastic, and empowered. These are all affective words. Under advanced capitalism, what makes us “burn,” what sets us on fire, becomes the very thing that we must bring under calculative control. The demand to be happy affects post-industrial societies everywhere. It’s not enough that you are interviewed and have all the skills. You have to be extra-vibrant, chirpy,  a go-getter. You’ve got to bring that X-factor.

That X-factor leads to conditions like burnout because you have to commit affectively. It’s an experiential commitment. It’s giving your all. How could you not go into overdrive and go into excess? And worse, it’s no longer an external being, an entity saying “You have to do this. You have to do that.” You have to self-start. So you become your worst enemy.

 You’re asked to do two different things. You’re supposed to keep yourself in equilibrium but you’re also supposed to give your all.

Exactly. And if you burn out, you’re a spendthrift. Why couldn’t you save time or spend time in a more managed way? You’re wayward in your self-management. You don’t know yourself. You’ve overcommitted.

It strikes me that a lot of the burden here has moved from society to the individual. Individuals are increasingly tasked with knowing and communicating their own limits within a stressful work environment. Turning burnout into an individual medical condition and treating it as such stops us from considering the social conditions that create it more critically.A lot of countries all over the world are really interested in burnout and are starting to medicalize it, similar to Finland. What do you think the outcome of that will be?

In one rehabilitation program I studied, there were so many different experts involved. They have the psychologist, the social worker, the nutritionist, and the activities leader, because you have to be happy. You must have fun [laughs] – you must. So happiness becomes part of the productive economic process. It’s harnessed into the very mechanisms of capital. But then it’s not happiness anymore though, is it?  

If you only think about well-being in terms of utility and productivity, you are thinking about humanity as a tool of capital. Happiness as a means to an end. If you say that happiness is a resource, you are instrumentalizing affect. That very enigmatic, human, singular condition that gives meaning to life is twisted and perverted for the sake of capital.

Together with this attention to stress and stress-related conditions like burnout, I see a rise in the clinical discourse of “self-management.” For instance, in Finland, rehabilitation for burnout was based on an “empowerment paradigm” that promoted self-awareness. Becoming self-aware was to be a pathway for clients to recognize their untimeliness and to re-conceptualize their personal and professional goals within the limits of the present. While you may not see Finland’s rehabilitative program take root in the US, for instance, we still do share a lot in terms of the growth in “happiness” and “mindfulness” industries all built on the power of the self to control itself. 

How do you think your findings will shake up preconceived notions about stress and stress management?

Remember that my point here is that my interlocutors were those who were convinced that what they felt no longer made sense – what they took as the givens of social reciprocity at work no longer took on the self-evidence they once did. That’s why my focus has been on speechlessness and what focusing on that space of absence allows. In rehabilitation programs, psychologists focus on questions like, why did you do work the way you did? Why did you volunteer to help so much? Why did you do that? And what are your limits? It is as if there is this coherent you-as-a-resource that you can map out. You have the resource of your energy and time that people could translate into some kind of spreadsheet.

What was really interesting ethnographically for me was how people fell speechless exactly at those moments, when asked, “why did you do it?” Not just “why do you do it,” but, “why do you continuously do it?” The seriality of their supposed senseless, energetic waste. That’s the aspect that psychologists would call an illness. It’s ill. It’s sick to be repetitively doing something knowing that it will hurt you, that you are going to burn out from it.

You can’t stop yourself.

Exactly. Like some kind of compulsion to the point where your fire burns out. For me, as an anthropologist, witnessing these individuals in the setting of these rehabilitation centers, I saw it not as an illness but as this space of silence opening up a new question about sociality. I saw it as some kind of negativity at play in the way we engage socially.

That’s why I focused on the question of the name. What is it to confer a diagnosis? What is it to name something as an illness in a way that gives you a handle on that issue? It gives you a technique, a method, a center. And it’s productive, at least in terms of the state and the economy. The state throws money at it, you make use of all these rehabilitation centers, you populate those centers, you give jobs to experts, and you give birth to more expertise. Now you have experts on burnout. It’s very productive!

But I’m saying that such a framing doesn’t really touch upon that space where those who burn out  fall speechless. A psychologist might say, “Hey, you should be doing this. You need to empower yourself. Do this. Do that.” As an anthropologist, I would say “No, we need to learn from these moments.”

This is a testament to what I witnessed. This book is really trying to give significance to these moments where we actually question why we do things. These seem to be simple and fundamental questions, almost silly questions. But I think those are the questions that touch upon philosophical, anthropological examinations of what drives us. Who authors our actions?

Based on what you find in the book, how might we rethink this public health orientation towards occupational burnout?

Rather than think about rehabilitation, we might rehabilitate work. If the problem is that these syndromes – stress and overwork and suicidal ideation – emerge because of shifts in economic policy or shifts in workplace demand, then maybe it is not the people who must be rehabilitated. Maybe we should learn from those who fall speechless, who fall “sick.” I learned from working with them the unreason of reason that tells us how we are to find happiness in an undoubtedly unreasonable world.