Emergent Public Spheres: Talking Politics in Participatory Governance

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This article addresses the question of whether and how participation in government promotes the conditions for participants to engage in the open-ended and public-minded discussion heralded by democratic theorists. Ethnographic evidence shows how participants in assemblies of the “participatory budget” in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, created open-ended and public-minded discussion in two of the city's poor districts. The urban poor of Latin American have often been treated as unlikely candidates for democratic engagement, but in these meetings participants regularly carved out spaces for civic discourse and deliberation, deploying a language of the commonality of needs as a vocabulary of public interest. In a district with organized networks of civil society, experienced community activists played an important role in curtailing conflict, while in a district without such networks, the assemblies were severely disrupted at times by virtue of being the “only place in the community” that could serve as a staging ground for some participants to manage their reputations. A comparison with a prior period in both districts shows that before the budgeting assemblies were created it was difficult to sustain any kind of regular meeting place beyond individual neighborhoods to carry out these discussions. The notion of the “public sphere” is broadened, calling for a revision of the stark separation of state and civil society in democratic theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)52-74
Number of pages23
JournalAmerican sociological review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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