précis Interview: Diane Davis

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  • Fall 2010

Diane Davis, a member of CIS, is professor of political sociology in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Her current research is focused on cities in conflict and, within that area, police corruption and police violence.

USAID is providing $385,000 for 8 case studies of urban resilience in situations of chronic violence. Through this grant, Davis and John Tirman (executive director and principal research scientist at CIS) will explore how cities from Brazil to Pakistan cope with violence, and inform policymakers of promising practices. 

November 1, 2010

précis: You recently stepped down as the head of the International Development Group (IDG) in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). How would you characterize the work of the IDG and what would you say were its major accomplishments under your leadership?

DD: The IDG, which is a program group within DUSP, exists in order to provide a sub-community within DUSP for students and faculty that work on developing countries. We work as a group to ensure that our students are offered the research and internship opportunities that will make them good international development planners. I saw myself as an enabler of these activities, a task consistent with my strong commitment to the interdisciplinary opportunities at CIS.  For instance, I try to link our students in DUSP to the international discussion and debate on the developing world that occurs at CIS.


précis: CIS is a truly interdisciplinary research institute, as demonstrated in your self-description as a “political sociologist.” What is the research orientation of political sociology as a field, as distinct from either political science or sociology more generally?

DD: One general distinction is that sociologists do not work exclusively within the domain of the state, understanding instead that politics can occur in society as well. In my own writings, I look at both the state and society, focusing on the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, or between citizens and states—I have written about social movements and political parties from this perspective. I also am an urbanist, and I look at movements and politics within the context of cities. So when I examine sociological phenomena like state formation and political party development, I am very interested in the role that the city and urban populations play in both local and national political trajectories. As a sociologist, I am engaged with questions that complement much of the work in political science, to be sure; but I use a slightly different approach. For example, many political scientists take the national state as point of departure, whereas I am interested in how states get formed in the first place, and my focus is as likely to be sub-national and transnational governance structures and processes, and how they may impact national-states.


précis: In a prize-winning article published in Contemporary Security Policy in 2009, you argue that our traditional categories for understanding non-state armed actors are not sufficient for analyzing emerging forms of violence in the developing world. What kind of non-state behaviors should scholars be paying more attention to and why are they important?

DD: Political scientists have studied non-state armed actors for years, although their focus tends to be groups whose main objective is to challenge the state, like guerilla movements and rebel movements. What I have tried to do in my own research is widen our analytical understanding of what constitutes a non-state armed actor. I am particularly interested in those armed forces that are not working in or for the state, and are a threat to the state, but are not necessarily trying to undermine or seize state power. I originally started to study this category of armed actors by examining mafias, drug traffickers, and other organized criminals who are destabilizing politics and society in countries of Latin America. These actors have become increasingly relevant for those of us interested in political systems, because their actions can reduce social stability without directly challenging government authority. What also is interesting is how these more “economically motivated” non-state actors work with or join hands with other more politically-motivated non-state actors, such as terrorists, to de-stabilize, de-legitimize, and undermine state sovereignty. 

Organized criminals, mafias, and other non-state armed groups need more attention because they are growing in number and influence, and are increasingly successful at destabilizing political systems and international relations, in no small part because they of ten operate on a transnational scale. As someone who studies politics and society in Latin America, I can attest to the ubiquity and importance of transnational organized crime in this region, even in the economically successful countries. In Mexico, a country I have studied for several decades, these actors are delegitimizing the government and calling into question the democratic ideals of the nation.  Other countries of Central and Latin America also face similar problems with non-state armed actors whose use of violence has become socially and political de-stabilizing. The rise of violence entrepreneurs and organized criminal actors in countries that not that long ago struggled over democratic transition is one of the most critical problems throughout Latin America, Africa, and other parts of the developing world, and it needs serious scholarly and policy attention.


"Neither the United States nor Mexico has been able to put a dent in the flow of drug-trafficking activities that move across their common border, not only because of the fluidity of the border but also because of the limited powers available to nation-states in an increasingly globalized world."

précis: In another recent publication, you extend the state-formation framework of your late colleague Charles Tilly to analyze the behavior of some of the groups you just mentioned. How do such actors compare to conventional states, and how do they challenge the power and legitimacy of the modern nation-state?

DD: In the piece you mention, I wanted to build on the work of both Charles Tilly and Benedict Anderson, and their respective writings on state formation and nationalism. Both were concerned with the loyalties and reciprocities that help link the rulers and the ruled. While Tilly approached this subject by identifying how connections forged by such activities as war-making, taxation, and social policy drove processes of state-formation, Anderson’s approach built on the idea of an “imagined community” of sentiments that tied people together in a common political imaginary. Both scholars were concerned with the shared sentiments that bind citizens to each other and to the nation-state. In my article, I was interested in exploring the extent to which non-state armed actors also cultivated similar forms of loyalty. In particular, I hypothesized that reciprocities among them and within the communities in which they operated helped create an alternative “imagined community” of political reciprocities. I also sought to understand the conditions under which these new imagined communities emerged and strengthened. This led me to examine the extent to which the existent government is not doing a good job of providing public services, employment, or other conditions that contribute to political stability and state legitimacy. In such conditions, citizens are more likely to limit their loyalty to the formal nation state, turning instead to non-state armed actors who have increasing political and economic power. These non-state armed actors often offer what some might identify as a parallel “stateness,” not just because they have developed considerable control over the means of coercion, but also because they sometimes provide welfare and other key services demanded by citizens. Through these and other measures, non-state armed actors challenge the legitimacy and coercive power of the existent nation-state; but rather than fully undermining these states they contribute to what I call a situation of “fragmented sovereignty,” where divergent state and non-state forces compete seek to insure their own legitimacy and relatively autonomous control over the means of coercion. 

To the extent that alternative imagined communities rely on transnational activities and sub-national allegiances to undermine state sovereignty and buttress their own authority, they further reveal the limits of the contemporary nation-state. Neither the United States nor Mexico has been able to put a dent in the flow of drug-trafficking activities that move across their common border, not only because of the fluidity of the border but also because of the limited powers available to nation-states in an increasingly globalized world. The United States has had to be very careful with what it can do for fear of violating Mexican sovereignty, and vice-versa, while the problems necessarily need some coordination. It is hard for a single nation-state to solve problems that are transnational in nature.


précis: Some of your current research focuses on “Urban Resilience in Situations of Chronic Violence.” What exactly is “urban resilience,” and how do you hope to advance your research on the concept?

DD: John Tirman and I are connected to a larger group of scholars who have been debating how to define and develop the concept of “resiliency.” Usually people think of resilience as a very positive concept, a very hopeful concept, which is obviously attractive to those scholars and policymakers who are trying to reverse the very terrible conditions of violence facing far too many people around the world. But we have identified this concept as our starting point not just because it is hopeful, but also because it allows us to examine what types of adaptations are actually being undertaken in situations of chronic violence. We fully understand that these adaptations could be both positive and negative, with the former leading out of violence and the latter reproducing or reinforcing violence. As such, our larger research aim is to systematically understand what form adaptations take, and whether by reinforcing or reducing urban violence they also contribute to resilience. In doing so, we hope to build on the considerable work that has been undertaken in the study of violence already. But rather than focusing our efforts on the sources of violence, we are interested in examining how individuals and institutions deal with or adapt to violence. That is what we mean by resilience. 

Resilience in a very general sense is about whether and how people continue to make meaning and keep on with their everyday lives and livelihoods. Resilience is about survival, and about trying to make sense of one’s world and one’s family, work, and community connections despite the fact that violence has become a part of daily life. The analytical challenge is that resilience can take many forms. If we think about it in terms of Hirschman’s notions of “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty” one possible form of resilience might be “exit,” although the longer term implications of this might be very negative for the city and the individuals left behind. Another form might be “voice”—a way that citizens actively respond or mobilize against the deteriorating conditions. A third form might be “loyalty,” with citizens working with state actors and institutions—or possibly even violence perpetrators themselves—to manage or accommodate to conditions of violence. Which of these responses will reinforce or reduce violence, and in what ways and why, is still not entirely clear. That is what we are trying to find out in this project.


précis: What kinds of urban adaptations have been most successful? What adaptations are more negative?

DD: Maybe we can do another interview a year from now after we have undertaken our field work, and I will have more to share about positive and negative adaptations. What I can say now is that as a general matter, it often is very hard to tell which is which. For instance, I have worked extensively on the development of private police, one adaptation to violence that is seen when citizens hire their own private security forces. This kind of adaptation can protect individuals from the ravages of chronic violence, not only from criminals, but also when violence accelerates because the “public” police are corrupt and untrustworthy. But when individuals hire their own armed security personnel, when these armed forces answer to no-one but their private clients, and when neither the security forces nor their private clients are fully accountable to public or democratic authorities, we might also see a vicious cycle where more people become armed and where violence becomes the currency of daily life. Private security may contribute to the social and physical separation of the rich from the poor, or limit mobility in space, or contribute to unequal access to basic goods and services, all of which can actually drive violence. So we don’t yet know the long-term consequences of adaptations, even those which on the surface look like positive responses.


précis: How did you become interested in these broad questions of political sociology? What are the intellectual origins of your research agenda?

DD: My interest in urban violence began because of my longstanding research on Mexico City, a place I have studied for many years, but which in recent years has suffered from growing rates of violence. I first began studying Mexico City as a doctoral student, when I sought to integrate my interest in the political economy of development with the study of rapid urbanization. Over the years, I have focused on many different themes, ranging from the growth of Mexico City and how it laid the path for national political and economic development, to the emergence of urban social movements and their impact on democratization in Mexico, to the rise of leftist mayoral administrations and their role in re-vitalizing democracy and civil society. Each of these themes reinforced my deep engagement with and love for the history, culture, and politics of Mexico and its capital city. Starting in 1994, however, I started to see that Mexico City was confronting new problems of violence, and that these problems were threatening to undermine all the positive developments in politics, democracy, and civil society that had unfolded in prior years. Today, Mexico has chronic violence, organized crime, alternative imagined communities, an increasingly unstable political system, and a disenfranchised and distressed citizenry. These developments captured my imagination, driving me to the study or urban resilience in situations of chronic violence while also motivating me to ask “big questions” about state formation, governance, and the rule of law.


précis: What would you identify as the major policy prescriptions of your recent work? If you could draw policy-making attention to one or two implications of your research, what would they be?

DD: That is really a hard question for me to answer. In the field of planning, policy prescription and implementation are important parts of professional practice. Still, in the field of planning (and maybe also in political science), I also know that there are two types of people: those who focus on identifying the character and context of pressing social problems, and those whose aim is to solve those problems. While both these tasks inform each other in the best of all worlds, and some of the most renowned planning professionals can do both, I definitely see myself as falling in the former category. I am a scholar by nature, and I am interested in studying the historical roots of problems and specifying their complexity. I think it is important to do this before jumping to policy prescriptions, partly because it is all too easy to fall into the trap of promoting a certain policy without knowing well enough whether that policy will address the particular challenge at hand. I like to call this a solution in search of a problem—and there are lots of examples floating around the policy world today, whether in the form of micro-credit, social capital, decentralization, citizen participation, or what have you. These are policy prescriptions that have become so popular that scholars often try to apply them everywhere, whatever the issue is at hand. I spend a lot of time trying to convince my students that they need to understand the origins and dynamics of problems more deeply, and that every place facing such problems will have peculiarities specific to their local situation. My job is to give students the analytical tools to understand the complexity of the problem and the problem-solving environment, so that they can actually intervene effectively. Policy can become a repertoire of mantras oriented toward general actions that work in a large array of situations. My work lies on the other end of the spectrum, where every problem needs deep, context-specific research. Where the two ends of the spectrum come together, lasting and significant policy innovations are made.