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 Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts. An edited transcript of the interview is included below.


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 topic today is 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 for policymakers and beyond. For example, does the regime type of the government, such as whether it is a democracy or autocracy, matter in how it responds? Does the ideology of the government matter? Does it matter what resources the government has? 

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 that 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 to be here and to share my research a little bit.  

Barker: 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. Can you speak a little bit about the origins of these interventions from foreign governments in general, and how HIV/AIDS became a big focus for these interventions?

Long: This is actually a quite complicated question. The foreign interventions in China happened as global health took the stage and entered the political agenda of international relations in the late 1990s. There were three things happening at this time. 

One of the things is that, since the 1980s, there has been an increase in transnational governing rules and norms that really forbid, permit, or require particular kinds of government regulations or governing arrangements in different areas. Nations no longer enjoy the ultimate authority in certain areas, such as finance, security, food, urban development, labor, gender, and human rights. That has been a general trend outside health. Even till the 1980s, however, global health was so marginal. People did not think of health as important. 

At the time, there was also another very important shift, which is that development banks like the World Bank started to think that global health was important. It’s important that financial institutions started saying that health is actually really important for development. If you want to establish overseas markets, if you want economic development, you need to have health first. 

When it comes to HIV/AIDS, it wasn’t until the late 1990s when the United States started to take an interest. This began under the Clinton administration who eventually became convinced that HIV/AIDS was a security threat, although it had been going on in Africa for a long time. The US government was convinced that this required intervention. It began to lead this campaign to put HIV/AIDS into the Millennium Development Goals. HIV/AIDS was the first disease that was put on the political agenda. China and Russia were very much against this politicization of a disease, but the US had made up its mind. This continued with the Bush administration, which started the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). This was when the US government began to assume the leadership in global health. 

A third thing was happening in the background. In America, many of you probably know that San Francisco was the center of HIV/AIDS activism in the 1980s, when the US government was not going to intervene in the “gay” disease. American activists, especially gay activists, came to play a very important role in global HIV/AIDS activism. They were also the ones who worked with activists in the Global South, such as those in South Africa, to really put HIV/AIDS on to the political agenda. This is very important. It wasn’t just the US government suddenly saying that HIV/AIDS was important. There was a decade of bottom-up efforts from activists to push it on to the political agenda. 

Barker: Thank you so much untangling that complicated question I asked you. As you document in your book, foreign interventions in China focused particularly on HIV/AIDS activism. Why did China become such a focal point for this type of activism, and this type of intervention? 

Long: I’m going to tell a very cynical version of this story. First of all, AIDS activism didn’t originate from inside China. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were some sporadic efforts in China to push for HIV/AIDS activism, but they were not successful. Things took a turn in 1999 when the US Embassy in China began to investigate the HIV/AIDS pandemic in China. China’s largest HIV/AIDS outbreak had taken place in the early 1990s. The outbreak was very specific to China because it was caused by blood contamination in the commercial blood donation sector. The outside world certainly knew about that outbreak, but nobody really took an interest until the US Embassy began its investigation and launched a campaign shaming the Chinese government for not taking any measure against HIV/AIDS. 

Another development at the time was a fear that China and India could experience an HIV/AIDS outbreak similar to that in Africa. It was viewed as a major security threat to the world. There were also new organizations, such as UNAIDS, that really needed a target. They needed to demonstrate that HIV/AIDS is very important and that China was not doing anything. There was an agenda, so they did exaggerate the sort of scope of the impact of the blood contamination issue in China. China provided the target. The SARS outbreak in 2003 certainly also emphasized the kind of crisis around public health in China. It’s reasonable to think that it would be a disaster if the HIV/AIDS pandemic happened in China because of the huge population. There were a lot of organizational and political interests behind these kinds of interventions. 

Barker: What were some of the changes that these foreign actors wanted to see in China in terms of its public health and how it was approaching the HIV/AIDS epidemic?

Long: In terms of particular strategies, various international organizations and Western governments used typical blaming and shaming strategies. Foreign media began to blast China, mostly the central government, for not taking any measure against the HIV/AIDS epidemic – rightfully so. China had a long history of public health policy as part of the socialist legacy before the 1970s. However, during the 1980s, China pretty much gave up on public health. Compared to economic development, it was no longer important. Public health was pushed to the margin of the policy agenda. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was a collapse of public health institutions in China. So HIV/AIDS was just one part of a lack of infectious disease control. 

In China, there was denial of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It was actually very similar to what we observed during the early phases of the outbreak of COVID-19. Not just China but also many other countries denied the existence of the pandemic. Similarly, China did not want to inform the people who were infected by HIV/AIDS. Many, many people in my research didn’t find out about their HIV-positive status until 10 years later. There was no effort put into HIV/AIDS. 

In the early stages, the major target of foreign actors was to get the Chinese government to invest in public health, the need for which was amplified by the SARS crisis. These actors called for the government to pay attention to public health, but they also provided technical expertise and funding to help China. So there was definitely socialization but also substantial help to assist China in this area.

Barker: As you note in the book, this new mode of public health through foreign interventions really clashed with how public health was traditionally dealt with. In most states, including in China, the government was the main actor in setting the public health agenda. Can you explain this clash?

Long: When the concept of public health was proposed back in the 18th century, the idea was that public health was the responsibility of the state. In this view, health, disease surveillance, and prevention usually are considered to be things that help the state to exercise and expand its power over people and their bodies. It is really an exercise of control. This is why we saw a lot of debates around mask mandates and quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is the freedom of the people versus control of the state. Public health is also a domain to establish social contract between the state and its citizens. When the state delivers public health goods, it is supposed to be the foundation of citizens’ rights claims. 

Foreign interventions into public health can then be seen as a breach of the social contract between the government and the people. For example, in my research, one security officer wondered that if China allowed international foundations to come, or if foreigners gave money and delivered all the public health goods to the people, then they’re going to listen to them instead of the Chinese government. What is at stake, I would say, is sovereignty. It is a concern of national security. This is fundamental about foreign interventions in public health. I think a lot of political scientists have already discussed how these kinds of public health projects in Africa would damage the authority and capacity of national governments. 

Additionally, there is a difference between what the Western world considers a public health intervention versus the Chinese tradition. These types of clashes also exist. China certainly had its own socialist tradition. As I already mentioned, in the 1980s and 1990s, public health was very much marginalized. At the time, China created what I call the “socialist contagious model,” which pretty much relegated infectious diseases to the realm of defending socialist moral boundaries. Infectious disease was viewed as a morality problem rather than a welfare problem. Health departments would just improvise emergency measures, rather than develop systematic expertise and technical knowledge of public health responses. There was a lot of anti-professionalism in public health at the time; departments relied on grassroots mass-mobilization. 

Then there is the Western model. First, the model emphasizes decentralization; the central government no longer has the ultimate authority. It also emphasizes equal partnership between the state and non-state actors, mostly nonprofit organizations or civil society groups. It also emphasizes the delivery of technical intervention, and measures of quality or performance became really critical. 

A major difference not just in China, but also in a lot of Latin American and African countries, is that public health interventions were delivered as a set of projects. There were many campaigns. It was no longer a coherent system of public health defense; it became a rather very fragmented patchwork of projects aimed at supposedly achieving very specific short-term goals. There was an emphasis on the return on financial investment poured into the project. So there were two sorts of clashes: one about the sovereignty of the state and the other about the actual content of the interventions into public health. 

Barker: I think this is the great puzzle in your book. There are other states such as Russia that really resisted this type of intervention from foreign actors into their public health sector, particularly with their response to HIV/AIDS. Like some of these states, China has a strong government. So why didn’t China resist this foreign pressure? Why didn’t China take the path that Russia took? Why were there these profound changes in public health administration in China as a result of these HIV/AIDS interventions?

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

There are several reasons why China didn’t resist. First of all, again going back to the SARS crisis in 2003, China definitely faced much more international pressure compared to any other authoritarian regimes. That’s one thing. But why not just window dressing? Why not just make some temporary measures and afterwards go back to the prior way of doing things? 

There are two factors I highlight in my book. One is that transnational health organizations were very successful in cultivating social movements in China. They put in a lot of funding and training into Chinese HIV/AIDS activism. They also worked a lot to remove 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 when the Chinese government didn’t want to respond to HIV/AIDS, but, at the same time, people who were infected didn’t want to acknowledge that they were, either. There was silence on both ends. These international interventions really helped to encourage people to rise up because of the problems they were facing and assert their rights and claims. The international dimension provided the impetus to sustain the pressure on the Chinese government. That didn’t happen in many other countries. 

Then the second thing is that, although people tend to think that China’s government is wealthy, this is not the case for everybody, especially specific bureaucrats. Public health officials and their pursuit of a professional identity were a driving force in China embracing foreign interventions into HIV/AIDS. When we think about a state’s reaction to foreign pressure, we tend to think of it as coherent, for example that Iran would have a certain reaction or North Korea would have a certain reaction. In reality, when you look beneath the regime, there are different departments and organizational agencies that have very different ways of pursuing their goals and getting resources. The Communist Party in China did have this vigilance against foreign influence in the 2000s, especially because of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the other color revolutions in Europe. The party was very unhappy with interventions, but the public health departments in China really welcomed the material resources, the legitimacy, and most importantly, the technical knowledge and professional training from these interventions. 

People probably do not know that the Chinese Center for Disease Control (CDC) was not founded until 2002, and it was modeled after the US CDC. Chinese public health professionals really worshiped the US model for a very long time, at least until 2013. The marginal position of public health within the bureaucratic system in China made those officials particularly interested in the material rewards as well as symbolic capital of being accepted into this global public health professional community. They were really the driving force in terms of welcoming and embracing foreign money and models. 

One thing that has shifted since 2013 is that the Chinese government began to realize that China was actually quite good in public health interventions. It became an area associated with international power and prestige. In the beginning, it was the United States who was telling China that HIV/AIDS was important, but after 2013, the Chinese government was saying that HIV/AIDS is important. It has become part of its political identity, which you can see very clearly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The government wanted to show that it was powerful and a responsible superpower that is much better than the US because it can do a better job in countering infectious diseases. Infectious disease control, including of HIV/AIDS, has become part of the political status of China and something that can show its high standing in the world. Infectious disease control has also been a part of the Belt and Road development project; China has begun to export its own HIV/AIDS intervention model into Africa. It has come full circle. 

Barker: Coming from a political science background, what you’ve just said makes me think of the research that came out about vaccine diplomacy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw countries such as China and Cuba that were developing their vaccines as a way to demonstrate the strength and capability of their public health system.

Long: Exactly. 

Barker: As you just very thoroughly discussed, China did engage with these international actors on HIV/AIDS quite deeply. These foreign actors, including Western governments and organizations, expected that these interventions could bring about a more liberal population. But that didn’t exactly happen in China. You develop a term for this in your book, which is “authoritarian absorption.” What does authoritarian absorption mean, and how did it play out here with the HIV/AIDS interventions?

Long: Usually when we look at international interventions, we scholars tend to think they often fail, and this happens a lot. What happened in China was a surprise to many people, including me. The democratic interventions were very critical from the very beginning. For a very long time, HIV/AIDS was seen by many people as an area where you could cultivate democratic behaviors in China, such as participating in elections or community mobilization. However, these types of democratic intervention techniques can be absorbed by government agencies into the state apparatus for different purposes. 

By using the term authoritarian absorption, I’m emphasizing two factors. One is that intervenors can train and cultivate social movements to carry the transnational materials, symbols, and various practices into a domestic context. But then, secondly, the government could have the skills to channel the same social movements in ways that basically repurpose those elements for authoritarian goals. 

Because I am a Star Wars fan, I often use this analogy. I think this is pretty similar to how the Jedi trained Anakin Skywalker, and then he became Darth Vader. This is authoritarian absorption. 

I do want to emphasize that although international interventions often failed to strengthen public health systems in places in Africa, they were very successful in China. Even though eventually the public health system has come to serve the political purposes of amplifying authoritarian control, I would still consider these international interventions to be successful in many ways.  

Barker: Yeah, definitely. To some degree, this absorption of these interventions was brought about by the Chinese government and by the local health agencies. In your book, you also discuss how this absorption was enabled by the practices of these foreign intervenors. You have a great quote about the attitudes of these organizations: they would always say can we get the same results for less money? This was a huge focus of these organizations that were giving resources and funding to local health agencies in China. Can you explain how these foreign actors enabled this process of absorption?

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

International organizations often rely on two types of authority, especially in the area of public health. One is what we call principled authority, which is using political morals and values, such as freedom, democracy, and human rights. However, international organizations have decreasingly relied on this type of authority. They have turned to another type of authority, which is expert authority based on specialized knowledge of managerial science and epidemiologic engineering. This is when quantitative measures of quality come into play; you must have a good return on your financial investment. 

Thus on the international side, there is this tension between promoting democracy and focusing on how many interventions can be done given this amount of money or how short term goals can be met as quickly as possible. This type of shift is especially beneficial to players such as China. Authoritarian governments are very good at playing the numbers game. If you want a number or quantitative measures, these types of governments are incredibly good at manufacturing good numbers; they have a strong capacity for mobilization. This type of game plan helps authoritarian governments rise to the top because the game is set up for them. It is partially because Chinese governmental agencies are very good at adapting. But it is also because the game is set up in this way, so you cannot blame them for playing it.

Barker: As I was reading, I was thinking that we can see this push for quantification of results in a lot of different areas as well. The area that I am most familiar with is democracy aid given to civil society organizations. You can also see there the push to have results privileges some organizations over others, and the organizations that may be most effective at actually doing the things that the donors want are the ones that may not have the same capacity to adapt to having these measurable outcomes. There may be a lot of soul-searching that these international organizations need to do. 

One of the impacts of this push for quantification in the HIV/AIDS movement in China is that urban gay men’s groups became the primary beneficiaries of these interventions. This is also a puzzle that you put forth in your book. Why would these urban gay men’s groups be the main beneficiaries, even though male-to-male HIV transmission is actually quite low relative to other forms of transmission in China and, as you note, there is also a long history of homophobia in the country? Why were these groups able to become so active? 

Long: It was really a very long-term, historical process. When I first started my fieldwork in 2007, victims of blood contamination were certainly at the center of the movement against HIV/AIDS because they were also the ones who attracted foreign interventions from the get-go. Their death and suffering at the time provided evidence of human rights violations in China for these foreign interventions. 

However, victims of blood contamination struggled amid the push for quantification. These victims, who came from rural areas as that was where blood contamination occurred, already experienced a lot of suffering and struggling with the disease and were not very good at producing quantitative measures or achieving the kind of performance compared to the HIV-negative gay men activists in urban areas. In the urban areas, not only were gay men’s groups very effective at producing quantitative results, they were also at an advantage to collaborate with the government. 

China became really successful at public health interventions with HIV/AIDS, largely because of the assistance provided by gay men’s groups. These groups helped China to consistently put forward better and better results, which helped the Chinese government to secure more international projects and to project this very successful image of public health intervention. China was able to provide this collaborative model of civil society and the government, which they call the harmonious civil society intervention model. This serves as a counter to the Western civil society model, which entails opposition between civil society and government. Working with these gay men’s groups helped the government to say, no, we can work together. And then this model was exported to Africa. This has certainly helped the gay men’s organizations.

This has also given the government real leverage to repress rural activist groups without political backlash. With their support of gay men’s organizations, they seem more liberal and can show that there is an active civil society in China. 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 authoritarian governments to shield their own actions from international attention and pressure. This process worked out in a way that was not initially intended or anticipated by anyone. 

Barker: You open the book with an illustrative case about these different trajectories of the two groups. One of the activists who you met at the beginning was a member of one of these urban gay men’s groups, and another activist was a leader of a rural blood contamination group. They both benefited from the space that was brought by these foreign interventions, but they ended up in quite different places. I think this is helpful to illustrate what you just explained. 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 repressed and pushed to the side. So could you talk a little bit about these two activists and their different endpoints?

Long: I should go back a little bit and talk about the history of these gay men groups versus victims of blood contamination. As I mentioned earlier, the largest HIV/AIDS outbreak in China took place because of blood contamination. Gay men did not attract any attention from public health departments for a very long time because of strong homophobia among public health officials. 

When I started doing this research in 2007, I met several groups of activists. One group was the victims of blood contamination. This group has two components. The first are people who sold their blood. For example, I met a farmer who used to sell his blood in the 1990s. He started selling blood in 1994 and stopped in 1995. Around 70% of the male adult population in his village were selling their blood for money. He got infected, but he didn’t find out about his HIV-positive status until the end of the 1990s when people in his village started to die. Eventually, 30% of people who were infected died of AIDS or other infections or committed suicide. There was a wave of deaths in his village while the government pretty much denied the pandemic even existed. 

The second group of blood contamination victims were mostly women, who had been encouraged by doctors to use blood products, mostly during reproductive surgeries. One woman I met named May got infected at a hospital in 1995. She then infected her baby daughter during breastfeeding, but they never realized what was wrong with the baby. She went to the hospital again and again until 2004, when the virus infected her daughter’s brain. This was the girl’s ninth birthday, and two months after that, she passed away. May found out she was HIV-positive and that her daughter was HIV-positive, and then her daughter died. By the time she found out, she had already infected her second daughter.

Then you have gay men activists. Most gay men’s activists at the time were HIV-negative. They were using HIV/AIDS mostly as a way to come out and to do activism because it was super dangerous, and they did not have the space to really just push for their claims and for their rights around homosexuality. They were super marginalized. 

I tracked those two groups in the following 11 years and began to see a divergence. They used to work together between 2007 and 2009, but then there was more and more conflict between both groups, especially as gay men’s groups became endorsed not only by the Chinese government but also by Western foundations and media. By 2012 and 2013, gay men had already become the face of HIV/AIDS activism. They were publicly endorsed by the Chinese government. They became part of this model of harmonious civil society collaboration. Blood contamination groups didn’t have enough support from other parties, and so their movement began to die out and pretty much ceased to exist in 2015. But gay men’s groups are still very active up to this day. These are the different paths of these two groups. 

Barker: One of the points that you make in your book that I want to draw out here is that supporting social movements and civil society is not a wholesale good. There are ways that inequalities can be reproduced. In this case, there were these urban groups where people are maybe more middle-class and educated. Even if there’s a lot of homophobia in the country, they may be able to take advantage of these opportunities in a different way than people who are more rural, maybe less educated, and facing gender-based inequalities. You refer to this as the dark side of collective action, which I think is really fascinating.

Long: Thank you.

Barker: To conclude our discussion on this particular topic, as you were following these gay men’s groups, were you able to see what they thought about the fact that they had become the face of the movement, while these other people who were also suffering from HIV/AIDS had fallen away? Did they worry about it at all, or were their attitudes more about the need to make do with what they had?

Long: Coalitions are always difficult for social movements around the world. It doesn’t matter what you do. It takes effort to build. 

There was a time in the early to even the mid-2000s where there was a lot of Western funding to help cultivate a coalition and solidarity. I do not think this divergence was intended or planned out with one activist group pushing another one to the side. It was really a process. From the very beginning, there was a division in terms of their relationship with the Chinese government and how they approached their activism because they were using different sources of Western funding. For example, Western NGOs tended to collaborate much more with the victims of contaminated blood. The US government was much more involved with that group compared to the gay activists. Gay activists were mostly working through the public health route in terms of participating in projects, particularly with UNAIDS. 

The trend towards quantification made many activists in gay men’s groups accept the idea that if they can push out more quantitative results, they were just better; they could perform very well. They accepted this type of language and discourse. It made them think that, since they could produce more results, that must mean they are better than those peasant groups and that there must be something wrong with them when they cannot just show the return on the financial investment. It created this kind of a hierarchy, which masked a lot of other factors you mentioned, such as class and who had the advantage when interacting with Western organizations. Urban organizations do; it takes rural organizations forever to even go to the city where these Western organizations are. However, when you think your success is only viewed by your own performance, you think other people’s failure is due to their poor performance; you don’t think of it as something else. 

The beauty of longitudinal ethnography, which I conducted, is that at a time, you really do not realize a lot of the consequences often show up and appear several years later. I was very much consumed with the different fights among activists and didn’t realize that there was corruption going on and there was state intervention going on. I did not realize that until several years later, but by that time, the coalition was already damaged. But I do not think it was intentional.

Barker: I want to shift gears a bit to the takeaways from your book. What we just discussed was that this coalition breakdown was not intentional, but impacted by all of these different actors over time. One important contribution of your book is offering a much more nuanced view of these transnational interventions. It’s not just a static, one-off thing that happens. There are these downstream effects that you might not have even seen happening, or intended to happen, or even could have foreseen at all. Where do you see the field of research on transnational interventions going? 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. 

I think many of my colleagues might not agree with me, but I do think foreign interventions need to keep happening. Despite my focus on these side effects of interventions into HIV/AIDS, one of the major takeaways from my book is that these interventions were pretty successful. Just imagine what could have happened in China during COVID-19 without all of the public health infrastructure and capacity that these HIV/AIDS interventions had put in place. COVID-19 could have gone through a population of 1.4 billion people, a huge disaster for the world. However, now China is becoming very much excluded from the public health discussion in the United States. I think this disengagement is very disheartening. From that angle, I will just say that transnational advocacy is great, even though it has problems.

The second takeaway is that I do think we need to pay more attention to the organizational dynamics on the ground as research moves forward. In the past, we paid a lot of attention to political ideology, other political aspects, and economic aspects, but we haven’t paid enough attention to the fact that all the actors on the ground are organizations: they have their limitations, they have their resources, and they have their goals. We need to think about those types of factors and then think about whether it makes sense. For example, if you look at UNAIDS, they were the biggest critic of China twenty years ago, but nowadays, they’re just praising China left and right. What you need to understand is this is not just politically motivated. There are many reasons behind that. 

The third takeaway is that this is also an exciting time for transnational advocacy study. In the past, we were very used to the story of how the Western world was providing assistance to the poor activists in the Global South. Nowadays, Brazil, India, and China are very invested in the new term of “development diplomacy.” There are new actors on the horizon: how are they going to affect the landscape and the future of transnational advocacy? I think this is really exciting. But of course, I’m also worried because in the past, it was much easier to just criticize this advocacy as Western imperialism or liberal hypocrisy. Now there are different actors who are authoritarian. What’s going to happen next? I think it will be much more complicated down the road.

Barker: I’d like to conclude with a question that you just briefly touched on in your response there, which is what would have happened during COVID-19 had this infrastructure not been put in place to help with the HIV/AIDS epidemic? Let’s talk about the COVID-19 of it all. How can your book help us understand how China fared during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a question still at the top of everyone’s mind?

Long: COVID-19 has posed a lot of challenges for me. I had to really think very deeply about whether the argument I put forward in the book still stands. I would say that when you look at COVID-19, you can see a lot of the techniques that China had learned through HIV/AIDS programs worked really well. One of the major factors was Dr. Wu Zunyou. He was the Director of the National Center for AIDS, STD Control and Prevention from 2005 to around 2017, and then he became the chief epidemiologist of China’s CDC and thus the Chinese version of Anthony Fauci during COVID. That gives you some sense of how important the HIV/AIDS interventions were to China’s response. 

I totally understand why people complain about China’s response at the very beginning of the pandemic when China was performing really terribly and made so many mistakes. But again, China’s CDC did not even exist until 2002. In my research, I saw that a lot of public health officials did not even have a basic sense of project management or accounting – really basic managerial practices. We’re talking about a bureaucracy that has been learning actually rather quickly over a period of less than two decades. From that aspect, I would say China has really come a long way. 

We also saw community mobilization during COVID-19, which was imported into China as a big component of the HIV/AIDS interventions. During COVID-19, the traditional socialist mass mobilization model was replaced with community mobilization; volunteers and community organizations played critical roles in COVID-19 surveillance. This is another legacy of the HIV/AIDS era. 

Overall, I would say COVID-19 showed that China has really come a long way in terms of building up bureaucratic infrastructure and a professional force capable of dealing with infectious diseases. In that aspect, I would say that foreign interventions into HIV/AIDS have done an incredible job. And of course, China has also performed really well because a similar process occurred in many other countries, but didn’t have the same result.

Barker: Thank you so much for joining us today. This was a tremendous discussion about a really important topic. Speaking for myself, I’m very glad we have people like you working on these important questions. So thanks again. That’s it for today.

Long: Thank you.



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.

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 in to 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 let’s 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. Apartheid in South Africa, as people may likely know, was the most brutally racist society of its time. 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. 

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 anti-apartheid resistance, which happens to be the strand that got involved with the Soviet Union. I look at the African National Congress, the ANC, as well as its ally, the South African Communist Party. 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. The ANC found itself in the situation of looking for help wherever they could find it – in Tanzania, Zambia, Angola, Britain, and also in Sweden and Europe, and then in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. So the question is, 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. 

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, many 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 kind of lost socialist alternative in South Africa, which is frankly a pretty standard angle to take. 

But through fieldwork, combing through archives and personal collections, and interviewing people, what I found was something different, kind of surprising, and, to me, pretty interesting. 

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. But I’m telling a different kind of story, and at the center of that is how national, ethnic, and racial differences were organized. What I came to see is that Africans in the ANC, they weren’t just looking at the Soviet Union as an example of a noncapitalist economy. 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: 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 differences, and how to combine them into a  single state?

Lynd: Both of them 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, Georgia should be governed by Georgians. And in South Africa, Zulus should be governed by Zulus. Those homelands existed in the hierarchical relationship to the center. 

Sizek: 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? In the USSR, how do they imagine these groups coming together to support the broader socialist project?

Lynd: This is one way that the two systems are quite different from each other. In the Soviet Union, the premise was that by letting ethnic nationalisms flourish in the present, you would provide conditions for them to ultimately become politically relevant 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. And there were no homelands for other racial groups, as seen by the apartheid state. So white, Coloured, 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.

The emphasis is really different in both places. The Soviet Union has a kind of 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, was 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. What do they find inspiring about the Soviet model during this time when apartheid in South Africa is so challenging? Because apartheid effectively creates this horrible hierarchy in which they are trying to live.

Lynd: 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 early 1960s, 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. 

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 have become interdependent in a way that made them impossible to unscramble. And ultimately, a post-apartheid 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. 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 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. This kind of package of policies that were aimed towards integration and undoing historical inequalities, but in the context of one shared society, was a really unusual model that 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, 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: The answer is there were a lot of different things. 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. One category of people who went is students, someone like Sindiso Mfenyana, who went to university in Kyiv. They spent several years living in the Soviet Union, they learned Russian. 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. Usually they stayed for shorter periods of time. They 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 post-apartheid 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. 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; it’s fascinating.

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

Lynd: The picture is different for those different groups. I’ve tried to cast 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. There’s more and more a crop of memoirs that have been useful for me, less in terms of establishing hard facts and more in the realm of perceptions and attitudes. And 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, what you didn’t write down, that’s just your bad luck, you can’t go back and find it. So I’ve worked also with different published sources related to institutional actors who were involved on the Soviet side. My approach has kind of 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, 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. I wondered what other kinds of stories there were to tell. 

Part of what that does is it replicates the inequality of the apartheid system itself, where white people had 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. 

I tried to circumvent that in whatever ways I could, but that often means going outside of more formal and obvious sources. I’m trying to pick up scraps of experience wherever I could. 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. They 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 a 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? What were their interactions beyond the 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: This is also an answer that really depends on who you’re talking about. Because, for example, the elites 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. 

For students who were there for longer, 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 their Soviet families came with them. There are people who made lifelong friends that they still visit; there are people who felt incredibly alienated by their surroundings. It’s a really 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 realities specifically for the project of Soviet internationalism. 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 (Comintern). And my work touches on that, but I’m mostly focused on the later era and 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. Ghana became independent in 1957. 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. The Soviets had a theory of noncapitalist development as a kind of path to prosperity for postcolonial societies. Their main types of involvement were developmental aid, technical assistance, university scholarships, and things like that. 

That emphasis changed over time. By the mid 1970s, 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 by coups. And there’s no one document that you can point to prove this shift. But if you spend enough time in the archives, you can’t help but notice that there’s a change in emphasis away from economic development and towards arms, which also came with a geographical shift away from West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and towards the south. 

South Africa, in particular, started out as a pretty minor priority for the Soviets. But by the mid-1970s, supporting the anti-apartheid 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. 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 kind of 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 anti-apartheid 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 doing so well.

Sizek: 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. The late 1980s is 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. 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 between them 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, a kind of the obsessive incarnation of evil. The idea was that Moscow couldn’t wait to get its hands on South Africa and its mineral riches, and the Soviet Union stood for everything that the apartheid government was against. The Soviets were godless, atheist, hated the family, and definitely were opposed to white prosperity. And given this background, where the Soviet Union had been not only the bogeyman, but also a kind of 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. The National Party went from hating the Soviet government to flirting with it in the late 1980s. And from about 1989 to 1990, there’s a real kind of 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. 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: 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. Once that awareness dawned on people — that the Soviet Union wasn’t the same thing as Russia and actually had 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 — light bulbs went off for a lot of National Party politicians, thinking, “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 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 shun that status. But there’s a particularly close affinity 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 a situation called for it. 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 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 is, 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. There’s 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: So, it seems like there’s a form of 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 thinking 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. 

Post Soviet Russia, under Boris Yeltsin, was 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. 

There was a real expectation or hope that the payoff from all of this would come in economic terms, to rescue them. Both  sides were 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 1990s and then continue. They have complicated and maybe unsavory afterlives after 1994 into the post-apartheid world. But those ended up becoming the types of connections that result in an 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 sort of 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 the 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. One thing that happened in post-Soviet Russia is that 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 is 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, fear, or respect — as a model, as an enemy, any of the above. 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. 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 post-apartheid South Africa. And the somewhat tragic coincidence of circumstances is that the ANC came to power at a time when its longtime sponsor no longer existed. 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 same old story. So there’s a sense on 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: 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 1950s and 1960s?

Lynd: 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 four 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 ethnonational 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 create 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. 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. 

In post-Soviet space, 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. And I don’t pretend to have a solution to that question. 

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. 

Within the field, and 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.


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.

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 U.S. 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: 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 been used as an exemption category, let’s say. The very first time the SIV came into being and existence was actually in 1965. There was an Immigration and Nationality Act that included 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. It actually came out of a whole series of debates throughout the 1900s that were really about national origins, quotas, and who deserved 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 U.S. immigration history of the 1900s.

Jamieson: Right, 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 shaped the SIV over the course of the 20th century?

Ebadi: Yeah, it has. I mean, it’s a very broad and catch-all category. So, let’s start with that – 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 employment-based. 

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 you have 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. So that’s the big difference between a parole power, versus a refugee, versus asylum power. 

Refugee and asylum are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually different things. 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 the three things that we see and the ways that Afghans have been able, post-2001, to move to the United States. But the path to long-term residency would be through the SIV and through the qualification of having worked with the U.S. government, therefore qualifying for a special immigrant visa.

Jamieson: So, this is really about the War on Terror, right? We’re talking about a post-9/11 world, we’re talking U.S. involvement in Iraq and in Afghanistan. How does the SIV come out of this conflict? And what exactly are people who are eligible for the SIV doing for the U.S. military? Why does the U.S. military depend on them?

Ebadi: Yeah, it’s such an interesting question, because we see so much in the news. And in terms of broader awareness about, let’s say, Afghan translators with the military, there’s been a ton of focus on these people. There’s also a large Afghan diaspora that came before the War on Terror. A good way to think about that question is, let’s look at what the emigration 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 to trace the politics of the immigration system, and see how it interacts with conflicts.

So the first major cohort of Afghans to arrive in the U.S. came throughout the 1980s and the 1990s. They came mostly as refugees. Most of them had fled to Pakistan, were living in Pakistan and India and Tajikistan and 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 the visas that were available to them were actually on a refugee basis. It is very clear in that instance, that [the U.S. government] is 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. Of course, a lot of people have said that the U.S. doesn’t want to call Afghans refugees, because it would invalidate the political project of the War on Terror – making Afghanistan a safer place.

I mean, that might be true, in one regard. It’s also a little bit more complex than that because of the geopolitics, the kind of complications of the area, and also the lack of, quite frankly, knowledge by the U.S. generally, and the military more specifically, of really subtle and internal dynamics that were required in order to conduct the War on Terror. In order to make that project possible, the U.S. would need 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 U.S., 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 U.S. cause, both in an immigration sense and in an embodied sense.

Jamieson: There’s a lot of clearly complex layers here – thinking about the SIV as it relates to some kind of humanitarian or state building project from the perspective of some Afghans, and a political, military project from the perspective of the United States. So how in your research do you analyze the relationships between all of these things: humanitarian interest, the interest of Afghans who are working for the U.S. military or with the U.S. 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 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 U.S. was doing, should be doing, and what their responsibilities 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 lot of academia that has critiqued humanitarianism, the kind of benevolent humanitarian, group aid dynamic, that can be very colonial 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, let’s say, a Western standpoint. And I 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, where you just basically want an education, where you’re scared for your family. And these are the kinds of situations that Afghans really live in. And it’s complicated to be in an academic situation, talking with interlocutors, with this critique of humanitarianism, when what I hear a lot from Afghans that have come to the U.S. 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 U.S. imperialism but from within. As to humanitarianism, it’s more to say, 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, more specifically, during and after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. 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 has changed before and after U.S. withdrawal?

Ebadi: I think this is just speaking off of anecdotal experience that I’ve had in research. But before the U.S. withdrawal, there seemed to be a lot more feelings of opposition towards the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan. Like, what are we doing there? Shouldn’t Afghans be able to govern and secure their own nation? There was  a lot of thought about U.S. empire, new forms of warfare, and endless occupation.

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

So, I feel like it’s complicated. The question shifted from being the US is bad, or imperial to 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 recipients of Special Immigrant Visas. But I do think that focus on Special Immigrant Visas at the very least has represented that as a broader question for Afghanistan, writ large.

Jamieson: 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 discussed?

Ebadi: So there are actually two different Afghanistan SIV programs. What’s interesting is that what’s mostly focused on, and even when I write my work, is Afghan SIVs who were translators with the U.S. military. So that’s actually only one very small part of who Afghan SIVs really are. That program is tiny. Over the span of the sixteen years that the Afghan SIV program existed, only about 750 principal applicants came in through this program.

The other part of the SIV program is way larger, around 21,000 people have come in on it, or nearly 75,000 Afghans if you count dependents and families. And it’s for people that have contracted with the U.S. 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 any number of little tasks that goes into the day-to-day operations of the U.S. military. So, a lot of those jobs were just jobs of a functioning economy, 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 was supported by the US military. And like I said, a lot of people felt neutral or even maybe pro [U.S. intervention] in the then post-Taliban era. And so, this was just a basic sense of livelihood for most of these people, whereas I would say the moral complexities of it came in 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-U.S. 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 Afghan SIVs actually 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 U.S. 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 into this history?

Ebadi: It’s important to think about 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 U.S. and capitalism and democracy. A lot of Afghans that came throughout the 1980s, even though they came to the United States, were still very critical, very critical of the United States, very critical of the Soviet Union as well, very critical of these big ideas of geopolitical powers that dominate their certain ideologies. Afghanistan also was very involved in certain postcolonial movements in South Asia, and Central Asia. So 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, you know, there’s still this long-running joke of, you know, tensions between Afghans and Russians.) So that was the context in which they immigrated to the U.S. 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, little Kabul. That’s one community. The other community in the United States is in Northern Virginia. 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, and that’s been really kept up and maintained in the Afghan diaspora.

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 acceptance into the community of SIVs. Even though the politics of whether or not the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 show of support to help these people integrate into new lives here. And that gives me a lot of hope for them, too.

Jamieson: How do you investigate these communities? It seems like the direction of your research is, in part, archival, but also you’re doing fieldwork within these 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 of this out? What forms do your research or your fieldwork take? How do you build a source base for a project like this?

Ebadi: I’m just fascinated by history. I just have this mind that, when I see something that doesn’t make sense, I want to know, where does this come from? What did this seem like 10 years ago? That’s where I go to. When I was thinking about the Special Immigrant Visa at first, I was 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? 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. 

So what I’ve done a lot is look back into Congressional archives. And I’m really interested in the tiny little stories: that little thing that the President said, or the statement and the research report that was commissioned by so-and-so senator that really swayed the vote to make this certain type of category that became legible. What I’ve done is really look into archives and mostly use government and congressional archives. They look a lot into the dailies and the speeches, and what committees were meeting on what day, based around a general framework of knowledge of major immigration reform laws. So I make a skeleton in a certain way. Like, I know that national origins quotas were really important in the early 1900s. Okay, well, from there, who was against it? Who was for it? Why, what was the headline of the news around that time? Really trying to contextualize and in some ways understand the psychology behind the politics – maybe that’s not the right word, but the reason and the feeling and the sentiment and the motivation. And that really fascinates me.

There’s still this human and embodied aspect of my archival work. It’s not just reading a legal document. And that’s what I really look for. It’s easier obviously, hopefully, to find the embodied element when you’re talking with people, but I try to make those two things come into conversation. Even if I’m having conversations with interlocutors, I will say, “did you know that this visa that you had, it was actually, it was created at this time? What do you think about that?” Really bringing participants into conversation, so that I’m not coming into something as, “I’m the expert, and I know XY 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. 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 SIV, because I felt like 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 culturally sensitive and knowledgeable way. I know a lot about the community, its dynamics, what the 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: It’s fascinating how you approach your scholarship here, between high politics and embodied history and fieldwork within communities. You say that there are times where you discuss immigration bureaucracy or broader history of immigration policy in your fieldwork. 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 U.S. policy, part of some bigger story of 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, are also trying to understand them?

Ebadi: Such a good question. Yeah, I think that it 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. 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 this 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 entry into the U.S. 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 military. 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.

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. 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, okay, 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 U.S. 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 saying, “I’m scared of going back because of this, or because of that,” and trying to convince 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, this Special Immigrant and people that we left behind,” and that’s not even the visa that we’re using for Afghans now.

So people, in that sense, are interested, but more in the self-preservation of, “well, could I get, how can 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 broader view, versus, these people need to figure this out now. 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 people who are on humanitarian parole, and who are being left out of these broader public discourses about the SIV and Afghan resettlement, what kind of resources do they have to help them navigate these crises? What tools do they have, as they try to figure all of this out in what clearly 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, that means you can have authorization to work.  Needless to say, these people don’t have much of their money 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: some of the first refugee legislation started around the 1950s, maybe just a little before, and then really started to solidify in around the 1980s. And since then, unsurprisingly, funding for refugees and refugee adjacent services has just gone down and down. Whereas there used to be, I believe, two years of support, for people who are recently resettling now it’s gone down to just a few months. So they have very little.

There’s also been a lot of privatizing in terms of supporting immigrants. If you look at immigration websites, and at the U.S. government, and look at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, you can see that they are actually saying, “hey, we’re recruiting private sponsors,” meaning that private sponsors, could be a community, could be a person, put down money and say “we will host and support this refugee until they’re resettled, they have a job, etcetera.” So a lot of that isn’t even happening through federal channels and state channels.

Adjusting for status, hiring an immigration lawyer is completely out of reach for these people. So a lot will look towards nonprofit organizations or community service organizations. 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 complicated thing that I barely understand in English and submit all of this. So they really are reliant on these informal networks of being able to find some sort of community organization that happens to help Afghans, which obviously vary in quality.

I wanted to talk a little bit, also, about the 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’d be a program that humanitarian parolees are granted, pretty much guaranteed barring background checks and things like that, permanent status; there has been a bill that’s been proposed but 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 this is possible, because we’ve seen it done in the case, for example, of Ukraine, and for Ukrainian refugees. 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, 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 comparing the Afghan and Ukraine parole programs. This is between July 1st 2021, and May 1st 2022: Afghan humanitarian parole program has received over 66,000 applications. And 123 of those have been approved. And nearly $20 million dollars 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 [don’t] 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 U.S. military.

Jamieson: Well, Sherine, thank you for sharing your work. It’s fascinating work, and it’s clearly extremely timely, pressing, and significant.

Ebadi: Thank you so much.


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.

Jennie Barker: Let’s talk about why voter turnout has become such a focus for social science and legal research. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of states implement more restrictive voting laws. At the same time, we’ve also seen social scientists and lawyers become really interested in this topic in their research and in their litigation. Why is this happening?

Emily Rong Zhang: In political science, there’s always been an interest in voter turnout. Whether people vote or not has long been the dependent variable of interest. But historically, that interest has been much more at the personal level of explaining differences in why Person A votes and Person B doesn’t by looking at the effects that various socioeconomic factors have had, such as age, education, and other factors.

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 was the preclearance regime, which subjected certain localities to the regime based on historical rates of racial discrimination and voting. If you were one of these localities that had historical racial discrimination in voting, you would have to subject changes in your voting laws to the Department of Justice in Washington, DC for preclearance before they could be implemented. That prevented the implementation of many of the kinds of state laws that we’re currently worried about. 

The decision of the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 held that the way we put localities under preclearance was invalid. It basically nullified preclearance. Without preclearance, folks were very concerned about what would happen to various localities and the kinds of laws they would choose to implement, voter ID laws being only one among many other possibilities. The other possibilities include things like changing polling locations without a lot of prior notice, removing early voting opportunities, removing other opportunities to vote, eliminating the ability to register to vote on the same day, and the like.

Barker: In your recently published paper, you focused specifically on voter ID laws, examining the effects of voter ID laws on voter turnout. Can you tell us why you examined voter ID laws specifically, and how people have historically thought about voter ID laws and why they might affect voter turnout?

Zhang: Voter ID laws actually predate the removal of preclearance. You can think of them as the OG voter suppression laws. They had gained notoriety way before 2013. For example, they were very controversial in the passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002. They have been around for a long time, and there’s a very large academic literature assessing their effects. 

It may be more accurate to characterize my paper as focusing on the studies of voter ID laws. Basically, these studies find that these laws have had no effect on voter turnout, which is a surprising finding from everyone’s perspective, including the researchers who did these studies in the first place. And of course, this was a surprising finding to those of us who are concerned about the cost that voting laws can impose on voting. This is what prompted the paper.

Barker: In this paper, you look at the standard approaches to studying vote suppression in the social sciences, but your research takes a different approach to understanding this topic. Could you explain what the standard approaches are to understanding vote suppression? How does your research differ from those?

Zhang: Most of the social science studies are trying to estimate the number of marginal voters — that is, the number of people who would have voted but for the law. I characterize this 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. 

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 costs 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 does not begin to capture the kind of costs that these type of voters have incurred. 

There’s a second group of folks that I’m even more worried about. These are people who would not have voted, even if the law had not been in place. The reason I’m worried about these folks is that 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, it may still be 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: The distinction you make in your work is that there’s a difference between focusing on vote suppression and voter suppression. What is this concept of voter suppression and how does it differ? Why are these other groups of people you’re worried about missed when focusing on only the broader vote totals? 

Zhang: What it reflects is a difference in your perspective and what you care about. I can see why a political campaign working on behalf of a candidate is interested in how many votes they might lose for the candidate, given the imposition of the law. The perspective I’m advocating for is to assess what the voting landscape looks like for voters and think about the role that these laws play for individuals, especially those who have not historically participated at very high rates. They already face an immense number of obstacles. We know this from various other parts of the literature. For voting laws to play an additional role in preventing them from voting is something that’s really worth worrying about. 

I think it’s a matter of asking the question from all perspectives. Instead of only the aggregate perspective — of how this has affected our results — it’s also looking from the perspective of how this has affected the consumer, ground-level experience of voting.

Barker: It seems to me that the social science literature takes a very narrow view on what democracy is. They think of it as people turning out to vote and exercising their voices and opinions, rather than the broader experience of what it means to have barriers when you are trying to vote, or to have unequal access in exercising your voice in the country. That’s a really interesting distinction that you’re getting at with your work.

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

Barker: I am glad that I could try. I also study political science, so I am steeped in a lot of these questions. Something you discussed in your paper is that there has been a surprising, if worrying development in that justices in state and federal courts are beginning to focus on just the numbers of votes. They are looking at vote suppression, rather than voter suppression. As someone who is always thinking about how social scientists can bridge the gap to the policy world, I think you highlight the negative side effects of this. Why do you think that this tendency to focus on vote suppression has transcended the social science studies that are really focused on studying causal effects, to the work of justices when they are hearing cases? They are engaging in and citing this research and referencing it in their opinions. Why do you think you’ve seen this happen in recent years?

Zhang: I have two primary concerns about courts and the way they engage with social science evidence. Generally, there’s a lot of interest from the judiciary about 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 inferences that can often be made by judges that are “social science-y” but not terribly rigorous. Let me give you a prime example. Judges are always interested in what happens to voter turnout after the voter suppression law in question has been put into effect. That is a very incorrect inference to make. There are lots of other 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 voter turnout 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. But this is something that judges are sometimes tempted to do in their kind of 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 they are 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. This is especially true in the context of voter ID laws. The literature has found no effect, but it is not a null effect that is very well estimated. The best study that I cite in the paper is still consistent with almost a -2% decrease to 2% increase in voter turnout. Simply reading the headline findings of the paper finding no effect is not actually going to peel back that particular precision issue and necessarily lead to the right inferences by courts. 

These issues are what I really worry about as we begin to see more thirst for social science evidence from the courts. We should make sure that they are interpreting that evidence in the right way and relying on it for the right things.

Barker: Another consequence of this is the title of your paper, which is “Questioning the Questions.” It seems that justices have become less interested in asking these bigger questions that you have brought up already and that you’re concerned with in your work, which are: why are these laws happening, what are they actually like, and what is the purpose behind these laws? Instead, they are instead simply asking if these laws are affecting turnout. I think we would hope that the judiciary is interested in those bigger questions as well. In your work, have you seen a neglect or perhaps not as careful study of these questions?

Zhang: You’re absolutely right. 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 imposing this particular restriction? We do lots of things in election administration that impose lots of costs on voters that we accept because they are 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, and it allows for the state to ensure that they’re not disenfranchised if the state has a disenfranchisement law. 

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. With voter ID laws in particular, I think that is a real shame. Voter ID laws are meant to address in-person voter fraud, which is showing up to a polling location and claiming to be someone else. The incidence of voter fraud is just exceedingly rare. You might ask why the courts do not spend more time interrogating the empirical evidence behind that. I think that is a very fair question.

Barker: So far, we’ve talked a lot about how studies and courts tend to focus on how various policies affect registered voters. There is less of a focus on the particular state’s rationale or even thinking about these populations that you mentioned being really worried about. Here I am referring to the non-voting eligible citizens (people who could vote, but don’t), as well as people who do vote but 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 they have to overcome. 

In some of your forthcoming work, you focus specifically on voter turnout among system-impacted individuals, or people who have been impacted by the incarceration system in some way. I’d like to talk about who these individuals are and why voting rates are still so low for them. We have seen a spate of laws here in California aimed at restoring voting rights. In California, I believe there is even a law under consideration that would allow people who are currently in prison to vote. In other states, people who have felony convictions have also had their voting rights restored. Even still, their voting rates, as you’ve documented, are still pretty low. Why? I think this connects a little bit with our discussion of the barriers that people face that we might not see in a lot of the social science research.

Zhang: These felon disenfranchisement laws have been around a very, very long time, and they are one of the remaining vestiges of Jim Crow laws in the South. They’ve been tremendously durable. Back in my days of working with voting rights attorneys, I would chat with them and ask them what the one thing they would do to change the voting landscape in the country. The answer would be to get rid of the felon disenfranchisement laws because they disenfranchise large numbers of individuals just based on their bare application. 

There has been a tremendous amount of reform in this area, especially in some of the toughest states. Virginia, Florida, and a couple of others used to have lifetime disenfranchisement: if you committed a crime, you lose your right to vote forever. For a long time, it was thought that there was nothing much that anyone could do about it. Recently, however, 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. Other states have also made more individuals with convictions eligible to vote. In California, there was the proposition that gave the right to vote to folks on parole, which passed. The legal landscape is rapidly shifting. 

And yet, even in states that have relatively liberal (and I mean here purely descriptively liberal) felon disenfranchisement laws, we know that voting participation rates are really low. The question is, will these reforms actually have any impact if folks don’t know about it? In California, if people have the right to vote following a criminal conviction but are not voting, why would we expect the change, for instance in Florida, to have any effect? Understanding more the experiences that system-impacted folks have with the election system seems vitally important to analyzing the effect these legal changes are going to have.

Barker: In your research, you’ve done some focus groups and interviews. What have you found? How have system-impacted individuals described their experience and whether they have voted or not?

Zhang: This is a joint project with Dr. Naomi Sugie at UC Irvine and a fantastic set of graduate students at UC Irvine and one at Stanford. The big thing that I’ve taken away from the project is that we typically 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. When we think about felon disenfranchisement laws, we always think about the varieties. There are some really strict states, like Florida, Iowa, and Virginia, and then there are more liberal states, where even voting from prison or from jail is a goal of the reform movement. 

However, the interview and the focus group data suggest to me that there was much less federalism going on in the lived experiences of folks than the laws would suggest. In these experiences, it seems there is actually one felon disenfranchisement law, and the contours of that law are unspecified, very unclear, and blurry to most folks at the retail level. What we have 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, but that has no implication for voters in California. But a Californian hears that and thinks, if she can’t vote, then I can’t. 

This has been a big realization of mine. I thought of this in relatively formalistic terms: what is the law in Texas and what is the law in California? I now think much more that there is some amorphous force that people refer to and have some experience with. This is what they go by, rather than the letter of the particular statute in their state.

Barker: I found that story so impactful. It seems that the way researchers approach this issue is focusing on specific states and what is happening there. In social science, we’re always thinking about the unit of analysis, and we’re not really thinking about what’s going on outside of that. In this case, what has been the role of media coverage? Even I remember that story about the woman in Texas. It seems like people are hearing about cases like this in the news, but then it isn’t counteracted by actual information that says, no, this isn’t actually what’s going on in the state in which you live. Why is there this gap? Why is the media filling in a lot of the space where you should see actual information that could help people?

Zhang: That’s a great point. There’s a huge information vacuum for this particular population. For folks who have been a part of the criminal legal system from a young age, there was no time between when they became eligible to vote and the point of reentry. They lack a prior history with voting and any base level of knowledge. Plus, there is a lack of official sources to obtain this information. This is not a part of what people are told by anyone, typically, in the process of reentry. Even if they receive this information, it is at a time when they need it least. Upon reentry, people are worried about making ends meet. 

The other piece of it is extreme risk aversion in this population 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. I think all of these forces combine to create an inclination to disbelieve that you are eligible to vote when you actually are eligible to vote.

Barker: A bright spot that you and your co-authors discussed in the paper is that these individuals can, in fact, be brought successfully into the electorate. Can you speak a bit about what has helped these individuals access their right to vote?

Zhang: The literature is very clear on this. If you tell people they are eligible to vote, some of them will vote. This suggests that the problem people face is really one of misinformation. But 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 the 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 is drawing on this area of work on what motivates people. There may be something in particular about being system-impacted that may be motivational for folks to participate. This is a very active area of work that our team and others are working on.

Barker: In your research, you worked with community organizations. What role can these types of organizations play in helping overcome this vast information gap that people are facing?

Zhang: At the baseline level, as you’ve referenced already, we know a ton about people who are registered to vote and who regularly vote. This is because they are in a database provided by the state, which can be obtained through public information requests in many states. Campaigns regularly do this. That’s why you and I get text messages, emails, mailers, and the like, because we’re known to participate. We are 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 in voting at high rates. 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. This is just because it is infinitely harder to know about their situation. Thus, there are many, many reasons to work with community organizations. At the baseline level, we’re actually getting to hear from people you wouldn’t otherwise get to hear from. This is enormously important because it allows research to shed light on something that we don’t know that much about already. 

Of course, there are lots of other incredible things these organizations do. In this project, we are partnering with the Alliance for Safety and Justice. They are a tremendous community organization that provides all sorts of wraparound services for folks in reentry, and they come with a tremendous amount of expertise about the particular barriers folks face. We have just learned a tremendous amount from working with them.

Barker: That makes me think a bit about the trade-offs of doing research. I’m currently a grad student, and you’re encouraged to do very innovative research, but then you have limited time and resources; you have to get data. I can see why people tend to take advantage of the high-quality data we do have on people who regularly vote. As you’ve mentioned, there are the startup costs associated with getting to these other populations, even if you work with community organizations. Obviously it’s not a great thing, but I can understand why there has been this tremendous focus on analyzing the information on regular voters. Besides finding out that, people are often thinking about disenfranchisement laws in relation to what is happening to people who I relate to, even if they’re outside the state, what are other surprising findings that you’ve had from doing this research about people whose stories do not typically make it into the literature? 

Zhang: The first thing I’m always surprised by is the number of people we talked to who learned something about their state’s felon disenfranchisement regime. There is almost always someone who says, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” This reaffirms the kind of misinformation landscape that people are typically in. 

The other thing that I have spent some time thinking about more recently is the mental transition for people who go from being a non-voter to a voter. What is the mental process that someone goes through? It’s interesting hearing the way people talk about this. Something that has occurred to me as I have been going through the data is that people who become voters tend to see themselves as a constituent. 

I was very struck by one person who said, “I never voted or participated before, but there are maggots coming out of the showerhead 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?” 

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

Barker: That’s super interesting. I am excited to see what you come up with! From our discussion today, it seems like a challenge in the fields that you’re in is bridging the gap between focusing on voter turnout and how to bring new voters into the electorate. Campaigns, social scientists, and judges, as we have said, are interested in voter turnout. But it is also important to think about this question that you’ve just so eloquently discussed, which is why some people make this transition to becoming a voter and seeing themselves as having the ability to hold someone to account. How can scholars and practitioners bridge the gap between these two problems and stop talking past each other?

Zhang: That’s a such a good question — and a question that so many people face, even beyond the world that we are in, with political science and law and policy. I am still very much for all of the fancy ways of learning we now have in the world, ChatGPT being only one of many changes. However, I still think talking to people is one of the best ways of learning about things that you do not know as much about than someone else does, and facilitating that dialogue.

I do not mean to make this seem like an individual responsibility issue; I think there are structural ways that academic and other types of institutions can facilitate this dialogue. It should not be on individuals to seek out others. There should be institutional and structural incentives for that kind of dialogue to occur. This is also not without its challenges. People come to these conversations with their backgrounds, their trainings, and their particular way of seeing the world. If you are a social scientist, you come in looking for causal effects; that’s what you’re trained to do. If you are a lawyer, you are trying to bring about a lawsuit. It can be hard to get people to break out of their mold, whatever that might be. 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. This is an ongoing struggle.

Barker: I know this is still early on in the project, but are there communities — such as counties, cities, or states — where you are seeing this dialogue happening more successfully than in other places? Maybe you have seen election administrators, lawyers, or academics take a broader view of voter turnout or seek out these opportunities or perspectives that they might be missing. Are there places where people who may not have ever voted are entering the electorate, or is this an area where there’s still a lot of room for improvement? 

Zhang: Much of this work thus far has been on the convenience voting side. For all of the gloom and doom about how hard it is to vote in certain parts of the country, there is a phenomenon where it has never been easier to vote in other parts of the country. However, the work on this is not as driven by wanting to bring new people into the electorate. Part of this is because it is really, really hard, and we don’t know much about what is good at doing that, apart from election day registration and some other measures. 

There has been a huge amount of evidence-based reform in making voting easier for folks who are already in the habit of participating, whether it’s vote-by-mail ballots or other regimes. Social scientists do not typically get involved until a policy is implemented and they are in a position of evaluating it. For example, ranked choice voting has become 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.

Barker: Thinking about the push for vote by mail in some states during COVID-19 experience, I wonder if there is a realm of opportunity that has opened in some places that we could not imagine five or ten years ago. That’s really interesting. 

I wanted to ask you a bit about the potential broader impacts that restrictive voting laws or the more reform-minded provisions that we just discussed might have. We know, for example, that things like voter ID laws may introduce additional burdens, including from your own research. We know also that felony disenfranchisement, as your research also shows, can have long-lasting effects on access. But I wonder if there are other ways that these restrictive voting laws can impact elections. One of the things I’m really interested in is confidence in election results and institutions. How do you think these voter ID laws or more reform-minded provisions, like implementing new opportunities for people with felonies to vote, are shaping people’s perception of how confident should they should feel in electoral outcomes?

Zhang: That’s an extremely important question, and we know very little about it. There’s the very important question of whether some folks are less confident in the results of the election if there are no voter ID laws in place. Who are these people? And how does that interact with the countervailing potential, that confidence is increased among other populations? 

According to the court, voter confidence was the reason for implementing these voter ID laws. Apart from the in-person voter fraud concern, which we’ve already talked about as being not a particularly strong reason for implementing these laws, the court relied on its empirical assumption that these laws boost voter confidence. There is some evidence on this question, but not much (see here, here, and here). This research is extremely important. 

Vote by mail is the other big question, specifically whether vote by mail reduces confidence in the legitimacy of the result. This is obviously a huge concern, but we just do not know that much about it. Even if there are people whose confidence is reduced, we also need to think about the extent.

Barker: I wonder if there is another layer to this. In your research on felony disenfranchisement and enfranchisement, you found that people are not just hearing about what is going on in their states or their county, they are hearing about the whole landscape in the country. Is that another complication? Are people who are living in California thinking that because there are these voter ID laws in Georgia, they are less confident overall? In your research on voter ID laws, is this something you’ve seen or heard or are thinking about?

Zhang: It’s a nice connection. In the voter ID literature, everyone is moving towards looking within specific states, such as North Carolina, Wisconsin, and the like, and leveraging the difference between people who have and do not have ID and detecting various effects. What I’m learning about the felon disenfranchisement world leads me to think that the discrete way of thinking about these laws and their effects within states may not apply in the voter ID context as well. 

That is, do we expect people who currently do not have an ID to really be asking detailed questions about the particular voter ID regime in their state? Or do we expect them to just have the view that people like us are not allowed to vote? This obviously has not 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. Of course, there are lots of reasons to believe this would not be the case, so that is why I think the empirical tests would really tell us a lot.

Barker: Hopefully you can help contribute to this! We are approaching the end of our time here, so I wanted to turn to your experience as a scholar. This podcast is with Social Science Matrix, which is an organization that’s intended to support cross-disciplinary research across the social sciences. Your research is very much doing this. You have a background as a political scientist but you are also a practicing lawyer, and you draw on both of these traditions. You also examine where these two traditions are speaking to one another and where they are also speaking past each other. Could you talk about your own experience of the challenges and the benefits of doing the kind of work that’s bridging different disciplines, traditions, methods, and understandings of what the causes are?

Zhang: My view on this, as with my view on almost 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 when we talk about this topic, you can see how it all fits in. 

I can be a little more explicit in thinking about the costs. There is no free lunch; I do not have any more hours in my day than you do. Investing in two different sets of skills means a few possible outcomes. You can invest mostly in doing one well and the other poorly, or you can do both poorly. For those costs to make sense, one has to be working on something where it makes sense to take on those costs, because the benefits ultimately outweigh them. 

In many ways, I was very lucky. I happened upon election law, despite having very little background in it. It fit both my professional and personal, temperamental ways that it worked out for me. I do not 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, it comes with immense benefits.

The final thing I’ll say about what I like about having done both of 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 have found personally and professionally satisfying. 

Barker: I think there are ways that you have been able to look at both the legal research and the social science research and say, are we missing something really important? For such an important question such as being able to vote in our democracy, I am glad that you are doing this. 

Zhang: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

Barker: Thank you for joining us today and for this very wide-ranging discussion on voter turnout and on voting rights in general, as well as how we should think about our democracy and who can participate, and who isn’t participating and who should be able to participate. UC Berkeley is very lucky to have you thinking about these questions that are, as I said, so important to our democracy. 

Zhang: Thanks so much, Jennie. 


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.

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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. 




Gender and Political Gatekeepers: A Visual Interview with Melanie Phillips

Melanie Phillips

How do we understand the barriers that women face in becoming political candidates? Melanie L. Phillips, who completed her PhD in the Charles and Louise Travers Political Science Department at Berkeley in 2022 and is currently a Lecturer in the Political Science Department and a Research and Evaluation Associate at School-to-School International, suggests that the problem is more complex than adding more women candidates or increasing the number of women in political power. 

Phillips examines the biases of the “selectorate,” the party gatekeepers who pick each party’s candidate for the general election. Her research analyzes the gendered ways that candidates are judged based on such factors as their family and wealth. Her work shows how women’s political representation in African countries is shaped by the intersection between the rules governing candidate selection and the norms associated with gendered family roles.  

For this Matrix Visual Interview, Julia Sizek, Matrix content curator and postdoctoral scholar, asked Phillips about her research, for which she used a novel dataset from the election process in Zambia between 2015-2019. 

Your research on women’s access to political office focuses on Zambia. What are some of the key issues that you research, and why did you decide to focus your research on Zambia? 

National Assembly Building, Lusaka, 2017. Image by Melanie Phillips.
National Assembly Building, Lusaka, 2017. Image by Melanie Phillips.

I decided to focus my research on women and their experience with candidate selection in Zambia because of an interview I had conducted during a prior research trip with Honorable Josephine Limata, a member of the Zambian Parliament.

In 2015, Limata managed to win the parliamentary seat in Luampa constituency, in Western Province, as an independent candidate — an incredibly difficult feat in Zambia, which has seen the dominance of a two-party majority system since the beginning of multi-party democracy in 1991. Despite clearly being a strong candidate who had the support of the voters, she was not selected as the candidate by either the Patriotic Front (PF), the incumbent party, or the United Party for National Development (UPND), the opposition party.

Her problem was Zambia’s candidate selection process. In order to become a candidate for Member of Parliament in Zambia, aspirants (individuals who want to become politicians) must be selected by a political party. This process of selection is called “candidate selection,” and the individuals in charge of evaluating the aspirants are the “selectorate.” 

When asked about the puzzle between her clear electability and both PF’s and UPND’s decision not to support her candidacy, she stated that “the majority of political parties don’t adopt [select] women. We are undermined by men…. There are plenty of women who stand, but, the way they are chosen, men are the majority who get adopted [selected].” 

Women in Zambia face an array of barriers when attempting to stand for political office, such as gender-based gaps in financial resources, education, household responsibilities, and autonomy. The barrier highlighted most often is financial resources (or lack thereof). Financial resources are key to any successful election campaign, especially in developing countries, and are necessary to mobilize political support. Candidates must often finance and orchestrate their campaigns, and have to mobilize massive amounts of personal support and financial resources to hold popular rallies and travel across the electoral district where they are campaigning. As scholar Dominika Koter showed through her research in in Benin, elections are incredibly expensive due in large part to voters’ expectations that candidates will provide goods such as food, petrol, or cash during their campaign — and Eric Kramon’s research in Kenya from 2016 highlighted how political parties seldom cover the costs of political campaigns.  

My research, however, adds nuance to understanding these barriers. I contend that to truly understand the gendered nature in which party gatekeepers scrutinize women, and how women’s treatment differs from that of men, we must consider how the family unit shapes women’s lives differently in Zambia and around the world. One of the most notable benefits of political families is the collection of resources across generations, as studied by Gary Solon (1992), but women do not benefit equally due to inequalities in inheritance laws and social norms. In my research, I analyze how the perception of access to resources is a major factor in party gatekeepers’ decisions. Women and their ability to compete in elections are heavily moderated by the support and resources of their families.

Drawing on a survey experiment with 1,339 party gatekeepers in Zambia, I show that family backgrounds are one of the strongest predictors of candidate selection for both men and women; they are also the most gendered. I find that women are differentially evaluated. Men are rewarded during candidate selection for being the heads of traditional households. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be rewarded when their families have histories of demonstrated partisan loyalty, which refers to the level of dedication and loyalty an individual has to a particular political party. I also show that the gender of party selectorates does not substantively change how candidates are evaluated: women selectorates show no gender preference for women aspirants, and like men, punish women candidates who deviate from cultural expectations. However, I demonstrate that an individual selectorate’s level of sexist beliefs does condition how they view more masculine candidate attributes. Selectorates with higher levels of sexism favor men and those with lower levels favor women. Contrary to expectation, women selectorates have higher levels than men of ambivalent sexism, which is a measure that includes both hostile and benevolent forms of sexism.

How did you measure how selectorates examine potential candidates for office? What were your research methods, and what did you do during your fieldwork?

My dissertation is rooted in a mixed-methods approach that combines extensive qualitative fieldwork with survey and experimental techniques. Methodologically, it presents a valuable contribution of new data sources. These include candidate recommendation reports written during candidate selection; survey experiments conducted with over 1,300 party members across Zambia; and qualitative evidence from over 90 interviews with candidates, party members, members of parliament, and women’s groups in Zambia. I collected this data in Zambia between 2015 and 2019. 

One of the key contributions of this research is the unique sample I leverage in order to understand the recommendations of gatekeepers, based on the in-person survey I conducted with 1,339 party gatekeepers in both the PF and UPND.  Experimentally, the survey used a vignette design, which presents a description of a candidate profile with randomized changes to the description. Each participant was given a randomized profile of a hypothetical candidate that included their name, gender, family status, financial capacity, party endorsement, and organizational capacity (defined as their ability to mobilize and the strength of their networks). These hypothetical candidate recommendations were based on actual recommendations that I had collected during my field work. Participants of the survey were very familiar with this task, as each level of the party structure writes and submits these kinds of recommendations to the province and the national executive committee after interviewing candidates during the candidate selection period. 

Following the vignette experiment, the surveys asked participants a range of questions to gauge their political experience, candidate preferences, measures of ambivalent sexism, and financial expectations during the multiple phases of candidate selection. 

One of your key arguments hinges on the idea that a woman candidate will be judged based on her role in her family, and that the relationship between her family and the political party that she hopes to represent can also determine whether she’ll be selected. What are some of the aspects of family life that are relevant to party selectorates?

Theoretical Argument Model
Figure 1: Theoretical Argument Model

As Diana O’Brien showed in her research looking at political systems across 11 different countries, political parties are typically built through networks dominated by men that are unreceptive to outsiders — in this case, women who are not connected to those networks. As a result, as Olle Folke et al have showed, women often need to leverage their families’ political connections to get the name recognition, support, and resources necessary to compete electorally. This is especially the case in countries where citizens prioritize traditional family roles, as illustrated by the research of Alexander Baturo and co-authors. Meanwhile, work from Linda Richter has demonstrated that women who do have politically relevant family connections are more likely to access political positions and opportunities that are closed off to the majority of women.

Parties and the selectorate also use those familial ties as a heuristic for a candidate’s qualifications. Political families provide access to formal and informal advantages such as financial and educational resources or personal connections and positive reputations. And as Timothy Besley and co-authors have shown, party gatekeepers infer the qualities of a candidate based on the success of their family as a whole, assuming that qualifications like resources, education, and training will be similar among those within the family. Olle Folke’s work  has demonstrated how these family connections matter more to women, who are at an inherent disadvantage, and show that women can make up for gender-based disadvantages by having dynastic family ties during candidate selection.

In my research, I explain how the family attributes of candidates shape how the selectorate perceives their strengths and weaknesses. To study gendered effects in candidate selection.I specifically distinguish between a family status mechanism (for which I use marital status as a proxy) and a loyalty mechanism, a measure of a candidate’s family political ties.

Family status, or more broadly the composition of one’s family situation, plays a significant role in how political party members evaluate candidates. Through my analysis of the marital status of candidates, I found that members of the selectorate hold a double standard when evaluating candidates based on their family structure. Whereas men benefit from certain family dynamics (for example, when looking at pay gaps, married men are typically paid the most), women are punished for deviating from traditional expectations. Similar mechanisms have been documented by Amanda Clayton and co-authors based on research they conducted in Malawi. This double standard, I argue, is consequential in candidate evaluations. I expect that women are less likely to be rewarded for conforming to normative family expectations than men, while also being penalized more harshly for deviating from them. 

I found a contrasting result when studying the loyalty mechanism, which measures a family’s history of political commitments. Women benefit from a form of benign chauvinism that depicts them as more loyal and devoted than men. Women are perceived to be more loyal, and scholars Zetterberg (2021) and Thames and Rybalko (2010) have found that women are more likely to remain loyal within pre-established family networks, such as those based on political partisanship. This expectation leads party members to believe that women will be less likely than men to defect from their political party. In this respect, party gatekeepers are more likely to reward women for having a family history of partisan loyalty.

Walk us through the results highlighted in Figure 2 (below). What does this reveal about the different ways that men and women are judged by party selectorates? 

Average Marginal Interaction Effects- Gendered Differences. 
Figure 2: Average marginal interaction effects – gendered differences.

Core to my work is the claim that men and women are evaluated differently for the same family-based attributes. Following the analytical approach seen in Teele et al. 2017 and Clayton et al. 2019, I calculate the gender gap: the difference between the treatment of men and women, controlling for other remaining attributes, such as income and experience in politics. Positive coefficients show that an attribute has a gender gap in favor of women, and negative coefficients show a gender gap that favors men.

The results presented in this figure support my claim that party selectorates reward women candidates more than men for familial political loyalty. While both men and women are rewarded for individual invested loyalty, women receive a 4% bonus compared to  men for having a family that is loyal and that has previously mobilized in elections, for example through campaigning, holding rallies, or donating.

The results show that party selectorates reward men for demonstrating traditional family status while punishing women who deviate from the norm. Selectorates disproportionately reward men for being married with two kids, which results in a 3% bonus for candidates who are men compared to women. Additionally, women are penalized severely for being divorced, which results in a 4% bonus for men.  

While this study finds notable gendered effects, it also highlights some null effects where we might expect to find gendered differences. For example, while men are often more likely to be political brokers and dominate local traditional authorities, the selectorate rewards men and women equally for having local connections. 

Individual and family financial attributes also appear to have no gendered effects: they increase and decrease both men’s and women’s evaluations indistinguishably. Still, even though I found a null effect here, women face greater obstacles in obtaining financial independence and/or success in many countries. In research from 2008, Doss,Grown, and Deere showed that women in Latin America and Africa have significantly less access to and ownership of land than do men, and women are also less likely to own or inherit productive forms of livestock. Inequalities in access to financial resources are clear across Zambia. Women and men across numerous interviews highlighted that the role of head of household, and the control of family resources, was specifically restricted to men. So even though women and men may be judged similarly for comparable financial resources, it is often more difficult for women to obtain them.

What needs to be considered here is that the attributes selectorates do evaluate differently for men and women tend to develop or change. One’s family and political history are not an individual choice, nor can a political history be established quickly if an individual decides to enter politics. Therefore, women candidates, regardless of whether they recognize that they have a political advantage, are limited in their ability to act on it: it simply exists as an attribute that is evaluated when they seek office. Further, in new democracies where traditional norms prevail in an individual’s family dynamic, and whether they remain “not divorced,” is often out of a woman’s control. What this tells us is that the number of women in office will not change by focusing on candidate training and increasing the supply of women candidates alone. We must also look toward training the selectorate to eliminate the gendered differences in evaluation practices.

The gender makeup of a selecting committee is often used as a proxy for the committee’s willingness to select a woman candidate. However, in your research, you find that this is not a good means to predict whether a committee will select a woman candidate. What did you find?

Many scholars have suggested that the key to decreasing bias against women during the candidate selection process is to include women in party leadership. But I found that women are not immune from gendered biases. My research finds that an individual’s level of internalized sexist beliefs, measured through ambivalent sexism, determines how gatekeepers evaluate gendered attributes.

To investigate this, I used a modified version of the ambivalent sexism index, which (as described by Peter Glick and Susan T. Fisk) “measures hostile sexism (HS), sexist antipathy toward women, and benevolent sexism (BS), subjectively favorable, yet patronizing, beliefs about women.” I found that an individual’s level of sexist beliefs conditions how they view candidate attributes such as financial resources. Party gatekeepers with higher levels of ambivalent sexism reward men for gendered attributes, whereas those with lower levels reward women.

Average marginal interaction effects
Figure 3: Average marginal interaction effects

Advocates often recommend that more women should be included in decision-making bodies, arguing that this would decrease biases against women candidates. However, my study suggests that adding more women is not enough: women are not immune to gender biases and have their own embedded biases. Women gatekeepers punish women candidates more severely, and do not appear to reward women for demonstrating family political loyalty. Furthermore, when looking at the degree to which individuals hold sexist beliefs, I find that women score significantly higher on the ambivalent sexism measure than men in the sample. Therefore, the solution to decreasing biases against women may not be as simple as increasing the number of women on selection committees. Instead, we should train gatekeepers on unbiased evaluation techniques and strategies to root out implicit gender biases that ultimately affect the institutionalization of democracies around the world.

How might these findings about the role of the family in candidate selection be applied to other contexts, for example, in considering local or municipal elections elsewhere in Africa or in places like the United States?

While the theory presented in my dissertation is rooted in qualitative fieldwork and tested empirically with data from Zambia, the argument is broadly generalizable. It is not necessarily that the findings discussed in this dissertation are unique to Africa or even to newer democracies. However, the strength of these effects is likely moderated by a country’s level of political institutionalization, the strength of their traditional gender norms, and the level of inclusivity and transparency in their candidate selection mechanisms.

The effects outlined in my work are likely stronger in areas with weaker levels of political institutionalization, where rules, processes, and expectations governing political bodies both formally and informally have not been established. Women, in these contexts, must engage with a higher degree of uncertainty when entering the nomination stage. Additionally, the lack of transparency that often comes with lower levels of political institutionalization likely makes room for gender to have a larger effect on evaluation and selection decisions.

Women in electoral democracies throughout the world must compete within societies that have strict gender roles that establish gender norms and expectations. In turn, these norms and expectations influence how party gatekeepers measure a woman’s political qualifications and competitiveness. Additionally, in some form, gender-based socioeconomic inequalities exist in all electoral democracies. These disparities make women’s ability to meet the qualifications necessary to compete for political office more difficult. Moreover, in countries where gender schema and people’s expected adherence to them are stronger, women are more likely to face barriers in evaluations when vying for political office. 

Lastly, in countries where voters are directly in control of candidate selection through primaries, the role of party gatekeepers will be diminished. Nevertheless, voters will continue to evaluate women within and against these gendered expectations, and political parties will still play a role in how candidates navigate this reality.



Language Revitalization in Oakland: A Visual Interview with Tessa Scott

Tessa Scott

Mam, a Mayan language spoken both in the highlands of Guatemala as well as in diaspora communities in Mexico and the US, is rapidly becoming one of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages in the San Francisco East Bay region. Mam-speaking migrants are part of a broader trend of Central American migrants in the United States, but they face unique challenges when they move to the US because they often don’t speak Spanish or English. How can linguists support Indigenous language speakers in the United States, and what does starting Indigenous language revitalization programs look like on the ground? 

We talked with Tessa Scott, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Future of Higher Education program at the University of California, Berkeley. She received her PhD in linguistics from UC Berkeley Department of Linguistics in Spring 2023 with a Designated Emphasis in Indigenous Language Revitalization. We spoke with Scott about her work on researching and teaching Mam. Her work spans both formal linguistic theory in syntax and morphology as well as language and cultural learning programs, and she has worked in partnership with native speakers and activists.

Mam has become one of the top ten most commonly spoken languages spoken in U.S. immigration courts. In the East Bay, Oakland Unified School District reports that 1,130 students in their district speak Mam at home. But while their numbers have been increasing, Mam speakers often face challenges receiving services in the U.S. What are some of the challenges that Mam speakers face when they move here? 

Many Mam speakers who arrive speak no English, and many times not enough Spanish to communicate clearly or fully understand what they are being told. This is a huge challenge, as without language, they struggle to find transportation to the next city, housing, a job, education, as well as legal help that they have the right to access. 

There are three main challenges that Mam speakers face with respect to getting the language services they need. The first is the lack of acknowledgement that a person needs an interpreter to begin with. Indigenous people are often lumped together as a single group with other migrants from Mexico and Central America, and they are often assumed to identify as Latinx and be native Spanish speakers, which are both often not the case. Sometimes Indigenous Guatemalans coming to the US speak very limited Spanish or they are scared and simply say “sí ” (yes) to most questions to avoid potential violence or harm. 

The second challenge lies in finding interpreters who speak Mam. A 2019 article in the New Yorker reported that “Mam was the ninth most common language used in immigration courts, more common than French.” There are far more people needing Mam interpreters than there are Mam interpreters, and most interpreting is done over the phone. The last problem with interpreting is that many times the client and the interpreter speak Mam, but they come from different places. While this may not seem like a big issue, significant differences in the language can be present from one town to another, and this can have enormous consequences when interpreting.

Mam is known as a linguistically diverse language, with many dialects, making it difficult to teach in language classes. How did you approach this when you worked with Mam speakers to teach classes at Laney College, and how did you approach these challenges when putting together your teaching guides? 

Mam is considered to be the most internally diverse Mayan language, according to Nora England (1990, 2017), and has thus been of interest to linguists studying variation. Two dialect surveys were published around the same time in the 1980s — Godfrey and Collins 1987 and Cojti and England 1986 (an unpublished manuscript) — and together these two works established three major dialect regions of Mam: Northern, Southern, and Western. These are shown in Figure 1, which shows a map of Western Guatemala divided into the three dialect regions. 

A map showing the dialect regions in Guatemala
Figure 1: Mam dialect regions (Scott 2023, pg 12, adapted from England 1983, pg 8)

Most recently, in a 2019 paper, Megan Simon argued for a reclassification of Mam varieties on the basis of phonetic distance research (how similar or distinct words sound). Her re-grouping mostly targets the dialect from the town of Todos Santos, Guatemala as distinct from the rest of the Northern Mam varieties, which she renames the Seleguá group. This is important because Todos Santos is very close in distance to San Juan Atitán, and large numbers of speakers from both towns live in Oakland, as well as countless other cities in the US. Although these Guatemalan towns are close to each other geographically, the varieties of Mam spoken within them are very different. 

For us, this variation was something important to consider in our teaching. Both of our native Mam speaking teachers, Henry Sales (former teacher) and Silvia Lucrecia Carrillo Godínez, are from San Juan Atitán. This variety of Mam has some unique characteristics but can largely be understood by speakers from the Seleguá region. Our materials are based on this San Juan Atitán variety of Mam. We always make it clear that we are teaching San Juan Atitán (SJA) Mam, and that if someone is also interacting with speakers of Todos Santos Mam, we encourage them to be curious about the differences, and see it as an opportunity to learn more, thinking of their language learning as additive. While this may slow down the learning process slightly, it is worth it on many levels.

The materials used for our Mam language and culture classes are different from the Mam materials published by the Ministry of Education in Guatemala and the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (ALMG), which are based on a “standardized” Mam that was created for purposes of writing and gaining acknowledgment by the government. So if students want to supplement our course with these materials, or even a course in Guatemala, they should be aware that they will find differences. 

How is SJA Mam different from “standardized” Mam? 

To answer this question, we first need to understand how the grammatical structure of Mam (as a whole) is different from that of English. Let’s start with the order of words. In English, subjects come first in the sentence, followed by verbs, which are followed by nouns. This is illustrated in Figure 2 for the sentence “Silvia saw a bird” in English. 

a structured graph showing the sentence "sylvia saw a bird" as "subject verb object"
Figure 2: English sentence

Mam sentences take on a different word order. In Mam, verbs come first, followed by subjects, followed by objects. This is illustrated in Figure 3 for the same sentence, “Silvia saw a bird,” which in Mam is Ma til Silvia jun ch’it.

chart showing "silvia saw a bird" in Mam, which is ordered verb, subject, object
Figure 3: Mam sentence

The difference between standard Mam and San Juan Atitán Mam is in the treatment of pronouns. In standard Mam, when the object is a pronoun (like “me,” for example), it sneaks in and appears in between the two words that make up the verb in Mam. This is shown in Figure 4 for the sentence “Silvia saw me.” In Standard Mam, this is written as Ma chin til Silvia. This grammatical phenomenon is similar to pronoun objects in Spanish: Silvia me vió. 

a breakdown of "silvia saw me" in standard Mam - Ma Chin Til - pronoun object in the verb, and silvia as the subject
Figure 4: Standard Mam

In San Juan Atitán Mam, pronoun objects do not need to sneak into the verb. Instead, pronoun objects often stay at the right edge of the sentence, just like the object ch’it “bird” in Figure 2. The San Juan Atitán version of “Silvia saw me,” which is Ma til Silvia qini, is shown in Figure 5. 

a breakdown of the sentence in San Juan Atitán Mam - verb, subject, pronoun object
Figure 5: San Juan Atitán Mam

This difference between the two varieties of Mam has major consequences for current understandings of the structure of Mam and other Mayan languages. Virtually all Mayan languages employ the grammar in Figure 4, and the deviation from this structure in San Juan Atitán Mam is the basis of the theoretical syntactic and morphological analyses in my dissertation

While you’re trained as a formal linguist, you also taught Mam classes in the SJA dialect. How did the program to teach Mam classes get started, and what were the goals? 

In Fall 2017, I met Henry Sales, who was the Mam language consultant for our graduate-level field methods class in the Department of Linguistics. The goals of this class are to document and analyze the structure of the language through the methodology of conducting structured and focused interviews, called “elicitation” in the field of linguistics, as well as collecting stories and narratives, often called “texts.” (A KQED article about Henry Sales teaching Mam can be found here.)

We students all quickly got to know Sales and realized how enthusiastic and intuitive he was about Mam, his native language. We recorded word lists and started to figure out the phoneme inventory of Mam, as well as a few other grammar topics. 

During this time, I developed an excitement about studying Mam, partly due to its rich morphology and syntax and its phonology that was challenging to learn, and partly due to Sales’s energy and passion about Mam. In Fall 2018, Sales was inspired by the Nauatl program at Laney College and began talking with Professor Arturo Dávila Sanchez about the possibility of starting Mam classes at Laney. By Spring 2019, Sales invited me to join his Saturday Mam lessons on Laney’s campus, and I joined enthusiastically. 

During this first semester, we met once a week at the Latinx Center on Laney College’s campus, though we eventually upgraded to a medium-sized classroom. The initial audience was small but passionate about learning Mam. Our first students were a few teachers and volunteers in the Oakland community who found themselves in frequent contact with Mam speakers. They wanted to learn Mam as a second (or third) language to connect more deeply with their students and clients and thus were dedicated to learning the language. 

Our initial goals were to equip those students with the basics of Mam – for example, how to greet, how to count, and how to talk about food. This would allow them to show the Mam people in their communities that they care and that the Mam speakers not only have the right to be here, but are joyfully welcomed.

As someone primarily trained in formal linguistics, being a part of these language and culture classes was exciting because I was able to bring my different perspectives on the language to our students. The sounds of Mam and the sentence-level grammar of Mam are so different from English that it can be hard to understand even the simplest of phrases. It was very rewarding to be able to use my research on the structure of Mam to help students learn the language.

Students in a Mam language class at Laney College
Mam language and culture classes, Fall 2020. Photo by Tessa Scott

Your group has been working to provide Mam classes in Oakland and online. Who takes these Mam classes, and what are their goals in learning the language?

Since those first sessions, our class has grown and developed significantly. Many students have returned semester after semester, and this has pushed us to split the class into beginner and intermediate levels, with the latter often splitting into intermediate and advanced learners. Our Mam curriculum has been approved to be used for  an official three-level language and culture course at Laney College. Upon completion of the courses, students will receive a certificate of Mam language and culture proficiency. These classes have not yet been offered at Laney, so in the meantime, we have offered the classes online free to anyone who wants to learn Mam. While these online classes are not currently being offered, they may be offered again in the future; updates and all materials can be found at our website: In the meantime, a new Mam Workshop ran during the summer of 2023 through the UC Berkeley Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS).

One of the things that makes our class unique is our students and their reasons for taking the class. Most of our students are learning Mam as a second or third language. A large majority of our students are lawyers with Mam clients, teachers with Mam students, and healthcare workers with Mam patients. We also have many students with Mam and Mayan heritage who want to reconnect with the language and their knowledge of their ancestors.

One of our students, an elementary school teacher in Washington, encourages her students to speak Mam in the classroom, whether for counting, prayers, or telling stories. Before she took our class, her students tried to teach her words and phrases, but the teacher found it extremely difficult to identify the sounds she was hearing, let alone recreate them or know how to write them. One of the outcomes of taking our class is that now she can more easily hear differences in sounds that we don’t have in English and have a sense of how to pronounce and write them. 

An unexpected positive outcome of moving our classes online is that we were no longer limited to only teaching students who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Students from all across North America and Mexico have taken our Mam classes. Since 2020, students residing in 20 different U.S. states have registered for our classes. This incredible fact reflects the increasing presence of Mam communities across the U.S., and that these communities are spread out across the country, and not confined to one state or region. 

During the pandemic, you’ve had to switch to Zoom teaching in Mam. What have been some of the challenges in switching to the online format from an in-person format? 

screen shot of a Mam class delivered over Zoom
A screenshot from the online Mam class.

One of the incredible upsides of the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus moving our classes online, was the ability to reach more students. Additionally, we were able to expand our teaching team to include Silvia Lucrecia Carrillo Godinez, a native Mam speaker living in San Juan Atitan, Guatemala. Having her perspective on the language and culture in San Juan Atitan, her training in Mam literacy, her perspective on cultural topics, and her lived experiences and knowledge about life as an Indigenous Mam woman was extremely influential to our classes. In addition, her energy, patience, and passion became fundamental to our joyful class environment. In 2022, we also officially welcomed Cristina Méndez, UC Berkeley PhD student in Education, to our teaching team. She has taken our classes for many years and has become an invaluable partner in this project. 

Teaching online does have some challenges, however. For example, it is harder to have one-on-one time with students, practicing pronouncing hard words,  answering their questions about Mam grammar, or simply observing their use of Mam. On Zoom, our options are to go around one-by-one or split into breakout rooms. While this can be seen as a challenge, it has also fostered a sense of community by making sure that everyone has the chance to be heard. As a solution to this, our extensive Quizlet library has many decks with audio so that students can practice on their own with native speaker voices. 

The other challenge lies in teaching land-based language and Indigenous ways of being. For example, the directions that sometimes get translated to “north, south, east, west” exist in a very different way in Mam. Instead of being centered on the poles of the earth (“absolute” directions), the words in Mam are centered around a mountain located nearby the speaker (see Figure 6). Teaching this by standing on a mountain is much easier and better reflects the true nature of these words than simply relying on translations and images. 

a map showing west, south, east, and north as depicted over the city of Oakland
Figure 5: From Mam class materials, “Oakland map”


a diagram showing a mountain as used for directions
Figure 6: From Watanabe (1983): “mountain diagram”


How has the program worked with Mam speakers in Guatemala, and what has that brought to your work in the United States?

The Mam language and culture class meets in San Juan Atitán, Guatemala in June 2022. Photo by Tessa Scott.
The Mam language and culture class meets in San Juan Atitán, Guatemala in June 2022. Photo by Tessa Scott.

In June 2022, we invited our students to join us in traveling to San Juan Atitán, Guatemala to continue learning not only how to speak Mam, but also about the Mam way of life in the Guatemalan context. During the course of the month of June, around 16 students from seven states in the US, as well as parts of Mexico, traveled to San Juan Atitán. 

The main event during our visit was the cultural festival. At this festival, groups were invited from numerous Mam towns to perform traditional songs, dances, and cultural enactments, an act of celebrating diverse traditions and uniting as Indigenous Maya people. The students in our class participated in the festival by giving speeches about the importance of continuing to speak and embody Mam language and culture, as well as highlighting their language abilities by performing short, scripted conversations about why they personally are learning Mam and what they had experienced on their trip so far. (A video of the entire festival can be found here, with our group’s presentation beginning at 3:57:30).

In addition to the festival, while our group was in San Juan Atitán, we held classroom language classes, learned to make Mam food, went on hikes, spent some time learning how to weave, and additionally made connections with other Indigenous peoples from across Guatemala and Mexico, including Nahua, Ñuu Savi, K’iche’, and Kaqchikel. 

This trip to Guatemala, and the opportunity for our students to not only learn Mam on its ancestral land, but also connect with individuals and groups, has strengthened many students’ commitment to learning Mam, and strengthened their individual connections to families, teachers, and other networks in Guatemala. 

Teaching these classes has also allowed you an opportunity to analyze how linguists conceptualize language acquisition. What have you learned from teaching these courses?

San Juan Atitán, Guatemala. Photo by Silvia Lucrecia Carrillo Godínez
San Juan Atitán, Guatemala. Photo by Silvia Lucrecia Carrillo Godínez

The main thing I have learned is the inseparability of learning language and learning the epistemology, land, cultural practices, spiritual beliefs, and history of the people who speak the language. Learning to speak Mam is impossible if it is attempted through translation of non-Indigenous phrases, speaking styles, and ideologies from English or Spanish. It is also impossible to simply study the language alone, removed from culture, traditions, beliefs, and customs. 

I also learned that when students have a deep and meaningful reason in their life to learn a language, they can be extremely dedicated and successful in learning that language, even if it is a very difficult language to learn. Our classes have not yet offered course credit, certificate, monetary benefits, or even grades. Some of our students decided to take our class to reconnect with their heritage and to speak the language of their ancestors, who were robbed of the opportunity to freely pass on their language.

I learned from watching these incredible students that, when the reason for learning is so meaningful, students can overcome any challenge they face in learning, whether staying up for classes between 9-10:30pm for students on the East Coast, or trying to produce voiceless bilabial implosives, a type of whispered sound with no vocal vibration that is made with two lips and requires sucking air in, and not pushing air out. 

I learned that these meaningful reasons were diverse and did not follow a formula. Some students work in the legal field, and they deal every day with the language challenges that Mam immigrants in the US face. By taking our Mam classes, they make the statement that overcoming such a language challenge includes them taking a step toward their clients, and that it is not the sole responsibility of Mam immigrants to learn the widely used Spanish and English. We have a duty to learn Mam, too. 

Some students are teachers themselves, working with youth who question daily whether to wear their traditional traje to school, whether to speak Mam, whether to learn traditional dances and music, or whether to learn traditional prayers in Mam. Some students are healthcare professionals, working with patients who have the right to receive healthcare that they understand in their native language. Some students work for non-profit organizations providing various types of aid to immigrants. Some students are researchers in linguistics, education, anthropology, environmental studies, and psychology. Some students simply want to better communicate with their Mam-speaking friends and neighbors. 

Each semester, our students do a final project. Each semester, I am blown away by what they create. In the past, students have developed presentations about their families, translated children’s books and poetry, written original stories and poetry, and created videos about a day in their life or a trip to the zoo with Mam-speaking middle school students narrating their experience and observations, and created presentations about Mam-speaking individuals whom they interviewed. (Examples of final projects can be found on the class website.)

The creativity and heart revealed in these projects were undoubtedly impressive and inspiring, and also illustrative of the use of technology to not only learn and study Mam, but to create art and use Mam as a medium of self-expression. These projects embody the students’ commitment to learning not only the Mam language, but Mam ways of being. 



Alumni Interview

How Medical Expertise Shapes Gender-Affirming Health Care: An Interview with Tara Gonsalves

Tara Gonsalves

Increasingly, trans people are seeking out gender-affirming health care, whether counseling, hormone therapy, or surgery. Such care often requires expensive treatments under a health care system that is still figuring out how to respond. How do insurance processes determine who has access to care and under what conditions?

Tara Gonsalves, a recent PhD graduate of UC Berkeley and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, studies how social categories like “transgender” are contested and transformed over time, and the consequences of these transformations. Using quantitative and qualitative tools, she has three primary streams of research: how the term transgender has become an umbrella category for understanding gender variance, how medical experts produce new racialized understandings of gender through surgery and insurance, and how LGBT organizations worldwide emerge and integrate into advocacy networks.

For this interview, Social Science Matrix Content Curator Julia Sizek interviewed Gonsalves about the challenges of the categories of sex, gender, and transgender, and how the term transgender has become an umbrella category for understanding gender variance.

How has the category of trans come to represent gender nonconforming people today? 

There are many different ways of thinking about this question. First, we might think about why this is happening. International human rights groups are tasked with making coherent claims at the global level, so they need a global category. Given the enormous violence that people who are gender and sexually variant face around the world, this seems like a crucial task. And the category that is increasingly being used to articulate diverse forms of gender variance is one that has been used in the United States and Western Europe for some time – “Transgender.” And yet, gender variance takes on different forms, however, from hijra and bakla  (gender variant groups in South and Southeast Asia) to travesti and muxes (gender variant groups in Latin America). Gender variance takes on different forms in different parts of the world, resulting in diverse configurations of gender, sexual desire, and the sexed body. Some of my research looks at how the category “transgender” is coming to articulate these multiple modes of understanding gender variance and its relationship to sex and sexuality.

Answering this question is further complicated by the fact that the groups described by “transgender” are defined not only through gender identity, but also through diverse gender and sexual practices that are not heterosexual or that do not conform to conventional configurations of sex, gender, and sexual desire, as encapsulated by Judith Butler’s metaphor of the heterosexual matrix. While the term bakla is now often interpreted by scholars and activists in the United States as a Filipino version of “transgender,” for instance, the term can encapsulate both gender variant expression and non-normative sex practices. My work is part of a growing body of work in Transgender Studies that looks at the complicated relationship between postcoloniality, representation, and gender and sexuality. (Other scholars working in this space include Aren Aizura, Aniruddha Dutta and Raina Roy, and Christoph Hanssmann). 

In the United States, medical organizations and LGBT rights organizations converged around a three-part definition of transgender, especially in the early 2000s: a gender identity (1) that is different from the sex assigned at birth, (2) that is ontologically distinct from sexual orientation, and (3) that presumes a gender binary. In recent years, this definition is increasingly being contested by trans and gender-nonconforming theorists and activists, though it is still widely used in reports and government documents. My transnational research examines how this category, which comes from a particular place and time, is coming to represent gender variance globally.

When we introduce studies of the social construction of gender in undergraduate courses, we often begin with reproductive organs as a proxy for femininity and masculinity, tracing how early psychology studies influenced our understanding of gender during the mid-20th century. What were those understandings of gender? 

Medical understandings of gender and its relationship to sex have changed rather dramatically over the past half century. 

Sex has historically been defined based on external genitalia and secondary sex characteristics. Gender, which emerged as a social concept distinct from “sex” in the mid-20th century, was primarily understood to derive from external genitalia and secondary sex characteristics (such as breasts). Femininity derived from the female sexed body, and masculinity derived from a male sexed body. Again, this is Judith Butler’s concept of the heterosexual matrix.

Even before the concept of “gender” had been named, sexologists (mostly writing in Europe) had begun to classify variant sex-based practices, such as style of clothing, mannerisms, voice pitch, preference for decor, etc. That is, if someone had a male body but preferred to wear feminine clothing, stand in a feminine way, and be read by others as feminine, this was considered “deviant.” Magnus Hirschfeld coined the term “tranvestism” to distinguish this group from those who had non-normative sexual desires.

How do scientists consider the relationship between sex and gender today?

Later in the 20th century, medical scientists began to define gender as deriving not from external genitalia or secondary sex characteristics, but rather from genes and neurology. That is, gender identity was understood to have a sort of primacy in genes, or to exist “prior” to the development of the sexed body. Rather than attempting to explain “deviant” or non-normative gender identity — i.e., gender that did not correspond to the sexed body — in early childhood socialization, medical scientists have come to accept gender identity as something that can be explained neurologically or genetically. 

Similar to the search for a “gay gene” that has been well-documented (for example, see Conrad 2016, Brookey 2002, and Conrad and Markens 2000), some medical scientists are now searching for the gene that predicts gender identity. “Deviant” gender identity is becoming “normalized” through a turn to genes and brains. In other words, if genes, which some have referred to as the “essence of an individual,” can predict or explain a person’s gender identity, then gender can be understood as “naturally occurring” and therefore deserving of social recognition and rights. In a certain sense, the geneticization of gender identity might help normalize “deviant” gender identity, working as a means to rally around a marker of identity akin to “strategic essentialism,” Gayatri Spivak’s fraught concept that describes how minoritized groups use aspects of their shared identity for their political agendas. 

However, it may not be wise to rely on the concept of a “gay” or “trans” gene for making political claims because it forces gender and sexual minorities to rely on a genetic marker to “prove” themselves rather than believing people’s accounts of their own bodies and desires. Additionally, because gender identity and sexual desire are complex and may change over time, manifest differently in different situations, and emerge differently in different people, I wonder whether isolating a “gay” or “trans” gene is even possible in the first place. 

Today, trans people often seek gender-affirming medical care, which can include a various array of surgeries intended to help people’s bodies fit their gender.  You consider how insurance companies, who often determine access to medical care, have shifted their understanding of what makes a surgery for trans people “medically necessary.” What methods did you use to track the changes in insurance policy over time, and what institutions are responsible for determining the boundaries of medical necessity? 

Trans people are often violently sanctioned for embodied gender that does not match their gender identity and have pushed insurance companies to dramatically expanded coverage for gender-affirming care over the past two decades. My research draws primarily draw from qualitative analysis of national health insurance policies from five large insurers, and reviews of appeals for coverage that were completed by state-appointed reviewers. In some of my other research related to the medical field and gender, I also draw from interviews with experts and from my observation at transgender health conferences in the United States. 

Medical necessity determinations are complicated. Medical necessity is ostensibly determined by medical experts and medical institutions like the American Medical Association, but variation in coverage suggests that insurers also play a role in determining what care is medically necessary. Federal and state governments often publish guidelines that private insurers then follow. In the unusual case of gender-affirming care, however, private insurers developed their own coverage plans in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the federal government allowed public funds to be used for gender-affirming care.

In the broadest sense, social categories like “gender” shape what is seen as medically necessary for particular patients, as can be seen in contemporary studies of gender and care. In the book Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender, Michigan State University professor stef shuster outlines how medical providers, rather than drawing from prior medical knowledge, actually produce expertise when caring for transgender patients. (See also Piper Sledge’s work on non-normative gender and cancer care.) This work shows, in part, how gender shapes the kind of care patients receive. 

For surgeries like facial feminization or masculinization, medical experts have to determine whether and under what conditions these surgeries are necessary. How do they make these decisions, what kinds of evidence can they use, and how are these decisions shaped by beauty standards?

What I have found is that medical experts are drawing on their understandings of what ideal masculinity and femininity are. In other words, medical experts are tasked with creating boundaries that relate to ideal femininity and masculinity — beauty, in a certain sense. So, when deciding whether or not someone needs facial feminization surgery, for instance, they look at photographs of the person applying for insurance coverage, and compare the person’s face to their own interpretation of a feminine face. These understandings of femininity and masculinity, in turn, are structured by race. The ideal feminine nose, according to one of the reviewers, has thin nostrils and an uptilt at the end. Thin nostrils, of course, are associated with white femininity, as is an uptilted nose. (Check out Eric Plemons’ work on facial feminizations surgery and Jules Gill-Peterson’s work on the racialization and gendering of trans bodies.) I find, in other words, that insurer adjudication of medical necessity flattens differences across race and body size. Expansions in coverage, therefore, are bringing people closer to normative gender based on a thin, white, young ideal aesthetic.

One of the things I found most interesting about your research on insurance policies is how older transgender people interact with the medical system, for example, as they petition to have surgeries like facial feminization surgeries covered under insurance. Although many would have been ineligible for surgeries 15 years ago, some applicants are now ruled as ineligible due to their age. Can you explain this phenomenon?

This is such a great question, and something I would like to think about more. It is certainly the case that many trans people who may have wanted to apply for gender-affirming health insurance coverage a few decades ago were not able to, because insurance companies only started providing coverage in the early 2000s, and public coverage came a decade later. And, as you point out, the irony here is that older people are less likely to get insurance coverage for gender-affirming procedures because of the general assumption that older people “lose” gender as they get older. More broadly, older women are assumed to look less feminine, especially if ideal femininity is defined by young women, and older men look less masculine, as defined by ideal masculinity. Perhaps there is a kind of circle, in terms of social assumptions about femininity and masculinity. Babies are less easily distinguishable based on embodied gender than adolescents, for instance. Parents put bows on girl baby heads to distinguish them from boy babies, since it might be hard to gender them otherwise. Similarly embodied gender is perhaps assumed to become less distinguishable as people get older. 

The move toward surgical intervention has been complemented by a turn in in the fields of psychology and biology toward trying to understand gender identity through both genetics and neurology. How has research in these fields changed our understanding of where gender is located in individual bodies and, in turn, how trans people can access medical care?

Genetics has become a subject of enormous interest. We can see this across a variety of social domains, including the number of scholars who are studying the sociology of genetics, and the growth in research institutes on genetics and society. Genetics is coming to be seen as a sort of haven, with endless possibilities for explaining all kinds of human variation. The rising faith in genetic (and neurological) science does not necessarily correspond, however, to increasing evidence that genetics does indeed explain different conditions of illness and wellness. 

Despite a lack of evidence, this increasing faith – and the linking of gender identity to the search for genetic explanations – suggests a belief that gender identity is innate. A belief that gender identity is innate, moreover, is compatible with “born this way” political strategies. These strategies claim access to gender-affirming healthcare coverage and other services on the grounds that people do not choose to be non-binary or trans. The increasing faith in genetic explanations for gender identity points to a belief that gender identity is innate (i.e., explainable by genes or neurology) and therefore requires or necessitates health insurance coverage for the body modifications that will enable people to be socially legible (i.e., to be seen by others as)  men or women, if they so choose.

The trend toward gender-affirming health care is positive, as trans people have better access to care, but also troubling, as it often reinforces gendered stereotypes. What are the implications of gender-affirming health care for trans people, and for the growing non-binary community? 

Legal scholar and activist Dean Spade puts it very well when he writes that saying ‘no’ “to transgender requests for bodily alteration…props up a naturalized version of the sexual binary,” but that saying ‘yes’ “can support and sustain standard forms of gender and embodiment.” My research, echoing Spade, Eric Plemons, and others, has shown that increasing access to and coverage of gender-affirming body modifications brings with it a normalization of particular forms of femininity and masculinity — in this case, white femininity and masculinity. So there are racial implications, in that racialized gender — based on a white, thin-bodied aesthetic — is institutionalized as an ideal form of masculinity or femininity. Some within the growing non-binary community are also seeking body modifications that enable them to be read as non-binary (or, conversely, illegible as “man” or “woman”). As a result, there are a rising number of surgeons who are becoming specialists in non-binary surgery, and with this comes the possibilities for a “normative” non-binary body. Yet there are trans and non-binary people who do not seek body modification and who wish, in the spirit of Sandy Stone’s call over three decades ago, to be recognized as trans and as non-binary, and thereby disrupt conventional understandings of gender and sex with more complex configurations of sex, gender, and the body. A liberatory politics would, perhaps, see both or all of these possibilities, such that people could seek the body modifications they desire (or do not), regardless of the relationship between the sex they were assigned at birth, their current gender identity, or the physical characteristics of their sexed body.