Skip to main content

The Difference Ethnography Can Make: Understanding Social Mobilization and Development in the Brazilian Northeast


Ethnographic research is invaluable for social movement research. Ethnographies of everyday participation in mobilization help to counter the popular image of social movements as coherent, well-bounded entities consisting of individuals committed to the goals of the collective. In this study of the Movimento Sem Terra (the Landless Movement, or the MST) in northeastern Brazil, I establish a more complete continuum of movement membership by analyzing two interviews (one conducted in 1999, the other in 2003) with a former plantation worker named Cicero who considered himself a member of the MST in 1999 but “didn't even know what to say about the movement” three years later. Cicero's interviews are noteworthy because he is not the sort of person typically featured in studies of social mobilization: he did not join the MST because of a passionate commitment (more because the movement showed up and he couldn't see a reason not to), and he was never convinced of the MST's primary ideals or methods. Cicero's interviews provide what Lila Abu-Lughod calls a “counter-discourse,” in which people make decisions that are contradictory, and incomplete, often made without explicit articulation or even understanding. Ultimately, I argue that incorporating this broader continuum will help us better explain movement personalities and trajectories.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Spatial location was a very good indicator of occupational position on the plantation. At one end of the hierarchical spectrum were the plantation owners who lived in the Casa Grande (Big House) and had the run of the plantation (Freyre, 1978). At the other end were the moradores (common laborers) who lived in row houses on the plantation, and the clandestinos (illegal workers) who occupied the most insecure positions because they were forced to reside in town and look for work on a daily or seasonal basis (Sigaud, 1979).

  2. I do not use real names in this paper, unless they are political figures who spoke “on the record.” Research was conducted in the region in 1999, 2001, and 2003.

  3. The renter still lived on the settlement because his wife and grown son had both accepted plots of land from the government, being eligible according to the government law that gave priority to people with some (any) former association to the land. As extraordinary as it seems, the renter—a well-off man in his late fifties—would also have received a plot if he had not been actively renting out another mill down the road. The renter was almost universally hated, even by people who had liked previous renters (one worker had worked for three renters since he arrived on the plantation in 1962).

  4. Between 1992 and 2000, 12 former plantations in the municipality were expropriated and distributed among 926 families.

  5. In 2001, an official report written by the Mayor's office (of Água Preta) listed the municipality's Human Development Index at .354, less than half the HDI for Brazil as a whole (with an HDI of .742 in 2001) and significantly lower than Pernambuco (with an HDI of .572).

  6. Over the course of fourteen months (in 1998–1999), I worked in the southern state of Santa Catarina (SC) and the northeastern state of Pernambuco (PE). In both regions, I interviewed settlers on three different settlements according to the following criteria: one MST settlement with a history of collective production, one MST settlement with no history of collective production, and one non-MST settlement. In all of the settlements, I interviewed at least one representative from each family, for a total of roughly 200 interviews with rural settlers. In both regions, I asked MST leaders beforehand where I should work. I did this for four main logistical, strategic and political reasons: (a) I am not a member of the MST, and I was dependent on the leaders’ goodwill for access to the settlements; (b) I believe in the right of social movements to limit or manipulate access to their activities: representation is their most important asset and they need to control it in certain ways; (c) the leaders were asked to suggest settlements as research sites, they did not control who I talked to, what people told me, or what I wrote; (d) finally, knowing that I was on settlements that MST leaders considered successful constituted an important part of my research: it enabled me to ask, how does the MST evaluate success and why?

  7. Because of the strong relationship between agrarian reform and social movements in Brazil, settlements created after 1985 are usually affiliated with a political representative: a social movement, trade union, or religious organization. These political organizations help to lead the settlements’ association and mediate the relationship between settlers and the state. In 2001, numbers issued by the Mayor's office for settlements created in the 1990s listed five settlements with the MST (including Flora), three with the state federation of agricultural workers (FETAPE), four with a non-governmental organization, and one autonomous settlement.

  8. The Brazilian currency is the real (R$). In October 1999, one real was equivalent to roughly 50 cents and in October 2003, one real was equivalent to roughly 34 cents (from the Brazil currency exchange calculator:

  9. Elisabeth Wood's (2003) insightful study of insurgents in El Salvador stresses the causal power of what she calls the “pleasure of agency,” where agency is defined as acting purposefully to change life's circumstances. Jasper (2004) argues for more attention to agency, defined as or through strategic choice-making in social movement settings.

  10. See Javier Auyero (2003) for an excellent example of this.

  11. See Ann Swidler's 1986 article on “Culture in Action,” where she argues that ideology can be defined as highly articulated, self-conscious aspects of culture, tradition as the articulated cultural beliefs and practices, and common sense as the set of unselfconscious assumptions that are taken for granted or seen as natural (p. 279). Clifford Geertz also outlines the ways in which ideology, religion, and common sense form a cultural whole. Antônio Gramsci of course suggests that common sense (as opposed to ideology, philosophy, and good sense) is the un-critical, perhaps immediate, sense that people make of events, ideas, and social relations.

  12. In a well-argued paper, Charles Kurzman (2004) suggests that understanding why people do things will ultimately undermine our ability to build post hoc explanations. He focuses on events characterized by what he calls “confusion” (to differentiate it from simple uncertainty), such as the 1979 Iranian Revolution: “In this case, and by extension in other cases like it, explanation aspires to make actions expected, after the fact, that even the actors did not expect at the time” (p. 332). In this paper, instead, I argue that a close understanding of why people joined the MST in Água Preta is necessary to explaining the movement's subsequent trajectories, both local and national.

  13. This parallels a Foucauldian appreciation for contradiction and contingency in building genealogies instead of neat, linear histories (also see Gupta & Ferguson, 1997 on the need to incorporate contradiction into studies of governmentality). Diani and McAdam (2003) who argue that qualitative analyses can—and is needed to—explain some of the issues or problems raised by the significant quantitative (and structural) work already done over the past thirty years.

  14. In the collected volume of essays edited by Bourdieu (1991), researchers present interviews with minimal introduction and ask readers to “see [the interviewees’] lives as necessary through their reading” (1).

  15. Brazilian currency, approximately one to two US dollars at the time.

  16. The MST's “agrarian populism,” as I call it in other work (after Gupta, 1998, see Wolford, 2005), is less evident in political discourse than it is on the ground, in the settlements.


  • Abu-Lughod, L. (2000). Locating ethnography. Ethnography, 1, 261–267.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Auyero, J. (2003). Contentious Lives: Two Argentine Women, Two Protests, and the Quest for Recognition. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Bourdieu, P. (1991). The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, translated by Pricilla Parkhurst Ferguson. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  • Branford, S., & Rocha, J. (2002). Cutting the Wire: The Story of the Landless Movement in Brazil. London: Latin American Bureau.

  • Buarque, S. C. (1997). Proposta de reestruturação do setor sucro-alcooleiro e negociação de divida por terra para assentamentos de reforma agrária. Paper prepared for the workshop, Reestruturação do Setor Sucro-Alcooleiro e Reforma Agrária na Zona da Mata de Pernambuco, Recife.

  • Burdick, J. (1995). Uniting theory and practice in the ethnography of social movements: Notes toward a hopeful realism. Dialectical Anthropology, 20, 361–385.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cazella, A. A. (1992). Assentamentos Rurais e Cooperação Agrícola: Políticas Conflitantes. Master's Thesis in the Center for Research in Agriculture and Development with the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro.

  • de Andrade, M. C. (1988). Área Do Sistema Canavieiro. Recife: Superintendencia do Desenvolvimento do Nordeste.

  • de Andrade, M. C., & de Andrade, S. C. (2001). As usinas de pernambuco e a crise atual. Recife: UNTEPPE.

  • De Soto, H. (1989). The Other Path: The Invisible Revolution in the Third World. I.B. Tauris and Company Ltd.

  • Diani, M., & McAdam, D. (2003). Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approach to Collective Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Edelman, M. (2001). Social movements: Changing paradigms and forms of politics. Annual Review of Anthropology, 30, 285–318.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eisenberg, P. (1974). The Sugar Industry in São Paulo: Modernization Without Change, 1840–1910. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Fernandes, B. M. (1999). MST, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra: Formação e Territorialização. São Paulo: Editora Hucitec.

  • Freyre, G. (1978). The Masters and the Slaves. New York: Knopf.

  • Goodwin, G., & Jasper, J. (1999). Caught in a winding, snarling vine: The structural bias of political process theory. Sociological Forum, 14, 27–54.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gupta, A. (1998). Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Gupta, A., & Ferguson, J. (1997). Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Jasper, J. (2004). A strategic approach to collective action: Looking for agency in social movement choices. Mobilization, 9.

  • Julião, F. (1972). Cambão—the Yoke: The Hidden Face of Brazil, translated from the Portuguese by John Butt. Hammondsworth: Penguin Press.

  • Hart, G. (2004). Geography and development: Critical ethnographies. Progress in Human Geography, 28, 91–100.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kurzman, C. (2004). Can understanding undermine explanation? Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 34, 328–351.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lins, C. (1996). Programa de Ação Para o Desenvolvimento da Zona da Mata do Nordeste. Recife, PE: Superintendent for the Development of the Northeast.

  • Martins, J. D. S. (1998). O cativeiro da terra. São Paulo: Editora Hucitec.

  • McAdam, D., Tarrow, S., & Tilly, C. (2001). Dynamics of Contention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  • MEPF (Ministério Extraordinário da Política Fundiária). (1998). Programa Integrado de Reforma na Zona da Mata Nordestina. Recife.

  • Navarro, Z. (2000). Breaking new ground: Brazil's MST. NACLA Report on the Americas, 33(5), 36–39.

  • Ortner, S. B. (1995). Resistance and the problem of ethnographic refusal. Comparative Studies of Society and History, 37, 173–193.

    Google Scholar 

  • Paige, J. (1975). Agrarian Revolution: Social Movements and Export Agriculture in the Underdeveloped World. New York: The Free Press.

  • Paulilo, M. (1996). Terra a vista….e ão longe. Florianopolis, SC: Editora da Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina.

  • Pereira, A. (1997). The End of the Peasantry: The Rural Labor Movement in Northeast Brazil, 1961–1988. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

  • Petras, J. (1997). Latin America: The Resurgence of the Left, New Left Review, 223, 17–47.

  • Robles, W. (2001). The landless rural workers movement MST in Brazil. Journal of Peasant Studies, 282, 146–161.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, J. (2004). Meanings and mobilizations: A cultural politics approach to social movements and states. Latin American Research Review, 39.

  • Sigaud, L. (1979). Os clandestinos e os direitos. São Paulo: Editora Duas Cidades.

  • Stedile, J. P., & Fernandes, B. M. (1999). Brava Gente: A trajetória do MST e a Luta Pela Terra no Brasil. São Paulo: Editora Fundação Perseu Abramo.

  • Swidler, A. (1986). Culture in action: Symbols and strategies. American Sociological Review, 51, 273– 286.

    Google Scholar 

  • Watts, M. (2001). Development ethnographies. Ethnography, 2, 283–300.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wolford, W. (2003). Families, fields, and fighting for land: The spatial dynamics of contention in rural Brazil. Mobilization, 8, 201–215.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wolford, W. (2005, January 21). Every monkey has its own head: Rural sugarcane workers and the politics of becoming a peasant in northeastern Brazil. Paper presented at the Yale Agrarian Studies colloquium.

  • Wood, E. (2003). Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • World Bank Report No. 20754-BR. (2002). Growth and poverty reduction in Pernambuco: Developing a sustainable policy framework. Brazil Country Management Unit of the World Bank.

  • Wright, A., & Wolford, W. (2003). To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil. Oakland, CA: Food First! Publications.

Download references


The author would like to thank Javier Auyero, Charlie Kurzman and Jeffrey Rubin for their advice and collegiality as well as the members of the Aspen Collective, particularly Scott Prudham, for their comments on issues relevant to the paper.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wendy Wolford.

Additional information

Wendy Wolford is Assistant Professor of Geography at UNC Chapel Hill. Her work has focused on social mobilization in rural Brazil, with a co-authored book published in 2003, To Inherit the Earth (Food First Press) on the Rural Landless Workers’ Movement in South and Northeast Brazil. She has published several articles in journals such as Environment and Planning A, Mobilization: An International Journal of Sociology, and the Journal of Agrarian Change. Her research interests include social movements, the political economy of development and political ecology. Recent awards include a fellowship at the Yale Program in Agrarian Studies and a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study institutional aspects of land distribution in Brazil.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Wolford, W. The Difference Ethnography Can Make: Understanding Social Mobilization and Development in the Brazilian Northeast. Qual Sociol 29, 335–352 (2006).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Social movements
  • Ethnography
  • Brazil
  • Landless Movement
  • Common sense