The Retreat to Method: the Aftermath of Elite Concession to Civil Society in India and Mexico

  • Trina VithayathilEmail author
  • Diana Graizbord
  • Cedric de Leon


The literature on democratic accountability assumes that alternative institutions can make state practices more transparent and thus enhance accountability. In this paper, we problematize the celebration of alternative institutions by comparing the cases of Mexico and India. Why, we ask, given the popular support for a caste census and a rights-based approach to poverty alleviation in India and Mexico, respectively, did these initiatives lose steam soon after political elites conceded to civil society demands? In answer, we argue that alternative institutions may become conduits to undercut accountability under the guise of expertise through a mechanism that we call the “retreat to method,” in which political elites channel substantive public debate into abstruse disputes over methodology. As the task of measuring poverty and caste retreats into backrooms, vertical accountability between the state and civil society in our two cases has weakened. Horizontal accountability mechanisms—in which one arm of the state (e.g., the bureaucracy) provides checks and balances on another (e.g., the legislature)—may be exploited to undercut vertical accountability in cases where expertise is valued over democratic deliberation.


Democratic accountability Alternative institutions Expertise India Mexico 



Trina Vithayathil received funding from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (DGE-0228243) and Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (1303274), Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Program, and the National Institutes of Health Training Program (T32HD007338) while completing her graduate work at Brown University. Diana Graizbord received funding from the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (1303560) and the NSF-Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship in Development and Inequality in the Global South. We are grateful to Aisalkyn Botoeva, Kara Cebulko, Orly Clergé, and Zophia Edwards for their constructive feedback on earlier drafts. We are also grateful to the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their detailed comments and suggestions.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Global StudiesProvidence CollegeProvidenceUSA
  2. 2.Department of Sociology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies InstituteUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA
  3. 3.Department of SociologyTufts UniversityMedfordUSA

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