Urban Citizenship: Values, Practices and Technologies of the Self in Argentine Public Sector Unions
This research explores cultural understandings and practices of collective citizenship in Argentina. I focus on activists from two unions of state employees, and investigate their experience of political subjectivity and political agency. These civil servants are both the embodiment of the state as state officials, and yet also unionized citizens in a complicated and potentially antagonistic relationship to the state. So their collective organisations are excellent sites for researching understandings of political mobilisation, the state, citizenship and the nature of the public.
Social theory of citizenship has flourished in recent years, and although anthropology has been relatively late to engage with it, its potential contributions are increasingly being recognised. Ethnography enables us to see how citizenship is practiced, beyond making statements about how it should work. It also ensures that political anthropologists engage with concepts that truly mobilise people today, such as the desire for full citizenship, or for citizenship to work normatively, ideas which have been at the heart of political debates in Latin America since the 1990s. Finally, the nature of state employment as a space for union activity is relatively under-studied, even though it has become a significant site of struggle over new understandings of democracy and economic organisation. My research brings an anthropological perspective to the analysis, exploring how kinship relations, values, practices, and subjective, bodily and emotional experiences impact upon political agency among state employees. A significant emergent theme has been the specifically urban nature of this agency, and here I hope to contribute to the development of new understandings of urban activism in the contemporary world.
The material I have gathered during the course of the Gibbs fellowship contributes to a broader book project, which I began in 2009. This year (2012-13) I focussed in particular on two aspects: first, a period of participant observation with a delegation from one of the unions I study, based in the Ministry of Health, and second, a series of in-depth qualitative interviews about family inheritances of political activism, especially Peronism. My earlier period of field research concentrated on the difficult questions of negotiating access and understanding union structures and the political-economic context within which they operate. This fellowship allowed me to deepen my knowledge of some of the more intimate aspects of being a unionist in Argentina today.