Current Institutional Affiliation
Doctoral Candidate, University of California / Berkeley

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2015
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Sociology, University of California / Berkeley
Organizing in the Informal Economy: Recycler Movements in Brazil and Colombia

Flouting 150 years of scholarship on their political impotence, millions of informal workers have recently begun organizing for labor rights. In order to deepen our understanding of this unexpected development, I will conduct dissertation research on informal recycler movements in Colombia and Brazil. Recyclers—who eke out a living by salvaging materials from the waste stream—are a "least likely" case for successful mobilization due to their extreme marginality and atomization. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of recyclers have begun collectively organizing to increase their social standing, economic leverage, and political might. Colombia and Brazil are key sites for understanding this development, as the former country is home to the world's oldest recycler organizations, while the latter hosts its largest and most powerful ones. Differences between them offer leverage for analyzing interactions between movement contexts, strategies, and outcomes. For example, while Brazilian recycler leaders ally themselves with a range of radical movements and propose a militant agenda for contesting capitalism, their Colombian counterparts shun association with radical politics and often frame recyclers as "entrepreneurs" rather than as "workers." My research centers on three questions: 1.) What structural shifts enabled the emergence of powerful recycler movements in Colombia and Brazil over the past 25-years? 2.) Why do the Brazilian and Colombian recycler movements, which share many similar goals, differ so greatly in discourse and alliances? 3.) What are the outcomes, constraints, and potentials of recycler organizing in each country? Building on a Bourdieusian framework, I argue that vulnerable workers such as recyclers may be especially well positioned to cultivate "symbolic power"—that is, leverage created through moral appeals for justice made to broad communities. Sanctioned and legitimate forms of such appeals are contingent on local sociopolitical contexts.