Like many other cities in developing nations, the urban periphery of Buenos Aires, Argentina, has long been a site of high poverty and precarious living conditions. Many neighborhoods lack potable water and sewage systems, residents survive on informal employment, and occupants build their own houses, often alongside landfills or in other hazardous locations. These areas suffered enormously during Argentina's 2001 economic crisis, creating unemployment levels of up to 50 percent in some areas and causing many people to lose access to basic services, including electricity and running water. This doctoral dissertation research project will examine grassroots responses in the urban periphery to the economic crisis, especially the organization of the Movements of Unemployed Workers (Movimientos de Trabajadores Desocupados -- MTDs), which were created to provide alternative social and economic opportunities in the wake of the 2001 economic crisis. The doctoral student will address the following questions: (1) How have the MTDs used territorial organizational strategies to respond to the specific conditions in the urban periphery? (2) What are the alternative economic practices of the MTD and what effects have these practices had in terms of meeting the basic needs of participants and producing new social relations? The project will focus on three MTDs in different parts of the urban periphery that employ different strategies and practices in order to sustain the livelihoods of their members and challenge the increasing paucity of predictability or stability of everyday life. The student will use a variety of qualitative methods in order to answer these questions, including in-depth interviews, participant-observation, and participatory mapping with each MTD.

This project will take an interdisciplinary approach to understanding changing labor relations in the global economy. By starting from the perspective of the unemployed, the project will explore the effects of contemporary capitalism on marginalized populations and the responses of those people. The project will contributes to work in geography, development studies, and anthropology on diverse and alternative economies, exploring the different ways in which people form economic, social and spatial relations. The project will provide insights from the perspective of unemployed movements, enhancing capabilities to glimpse how those most affected by economic downturns experience them and create their own means of survival in times of crisis. As a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award, this award also will provide support to enable a promising student to establish a strong independent research career.

Project Report

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE The project studies how social movements in Argentina responded to the economic crisis of 2001 and how they have created alternative methods for their members to maintain their livelihoods. The investigation specifically addresses the following questions: 1) How do the movements of the unemployed organize territorially to respond to social and economic problems in the urban periphery, and 2) What are the alternative economic practices of these movements and what effects have these practices had in terms of meeting the basic needs of participants and producing new social relations? I conducted six months of ethnographic research with two organizations of the unemployed in the periphery of Buenos Aires, participated in organizational meetings and other activities, conducted interviews with 50 participants and led a participatory-mapping workshop. Findings: The organizations of the unemployed in Argentina are engaged in a wide-range of activities to ensure the livelihoods of their members. These include the creation of alternative forms of production and labor, most notably worker-controlled cooperatives, and community-controlled forms of childcare, education and health care. Women and youth are the primary participants in these projects as they continue to have the least access to the formal labor market. While originally forming as movements of the unemployed and making demands around employment, the organizations I studied have moved away from the identification as unemployed and the focus on jobs to neighborhood organizing around issues of care, education, and food justice. While seeking to be self-sufficient, most of these projects depend on a delicate balance of state support and funding from non-governmental and non-profit organizations. This dependence makes it difficult for participants to plan the projects' long-term stability as they are constantly seeking additional support from outside sources. The expansion of government programs over the past seven years has allowed these projects to grow and manage some level of stability, however. Overall, these projects provide valuable resources to participants that are not provided through state welfare programs alone and allow the poor to have greater decision-making power in the processes that affect them. Intellectual Merit: My project provides important contributions to the study of human geography, as well as the fields of anthropology, sociology and development studies. The research contributes to the understanding of the effects of neoliberal economic policies in a specific place, looking at the effects of high unemployment and lack of public services in the urban periphery. I show how marginalized communities survive outside of the formal labor market and self-organize this activity in order to create more fair and dignified forms of economic activity in order to meet their needs. My work forms part of an effort to recognize the labor that takes place in different places and parts of life, especially the care and domestic work largely carried out by women. The research contributes to the study of social movements, challenging much of the sociological work on social movements that assumes that movements organize to make demands on the state but showing how the movements of the unemployed instead organize to directly meet their needs and resolve their own problems, with their relationship to the state relegated to a secondary concern.It focuses on the spatial strategies of the movements in question, showing how the organizations of the unemployed explicitly organize on a territorial basis, aiming to establish a physical presence in specific neighborhoods and organizing residents of that neighborhood. Yet, they maintain relationships with organizations in other neighborhoods and often mobilize for issues beyond the neighborhood, demonstrating how movements engage in multi-scalar approaches to political action. The research contributes to the interdisciplinary field of development studies by showing how communities self-organize to meet their own needs and examining the relationship between these organizations and more conventional development actors, such as government agencies and NGOs. It shows that communities' goals and values often differ from those of development institutions, with many participants not desiring integration into the formal labor market, but rather, are more concerned about meeting basic needs, questions of care and education, and being able to exercise more control over their daily life. Broader Impacts: The study provides valuable insight into how marginalized populations are able to organize to meet their needs in times of economic crisis and high unemployment levels. It highlights the importance of local organizing that takes into account the different forms of livelihood maintenance already in practice, and how social movements can work with government agencies and other organizations. Studying grassroots responses to crisis in Argentina and the ways in which local communities were able to survive the crisis is increasingly useful as economic crisis affects ever more countries around the world.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Thomas Baerwald
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University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill
United States
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