Political Sociology in Latin America

  • Simón EscoffierEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_3329-1



Political sociology is far from enjoying a fixed, univocal definition. Not only are political sociologists using the most varied approaches in their analyses, but also they often outline the field with very diffuse boundaries. In broad terms, however, political sociology should be understood as “the social bases of politics.” In other words, political sociology avoids conceiving the pacts, tensions, and negotiations between political agents in a vacuum. Instead it sees those agents as closely interconnected with social institutions (i.e., education, family, religion, and others) (Orum 1978). Social movements, democracy, elite circulation, and clientelism have been fields of study traditionally addressed by political sociologists.

Additionally, current political sociology should be conceived as a tension between two broad approaches. Firstly, a traditional approach sees politics from a more positivistic, analytical, and explanatory perspective. It has focused on the social and political role of the state and has prioritized the framework of the nation-state. This mainstream view conceives politics as a system of struggles seeking to influence power distributions within the state or between states (Evans et al. 1999; Weber 1946). This perspective interacts more naturally with political scientists and economists.

Secondly, in the past couple of decades, a new approach has complemented sociological studies with a cultural perspective to political phenomena. It highlighted the current erosion of traditional institutions as well as people’s diminished sense of community This view changed its focus on the nation-state to studying people’s novel constructions of community and identity. Consequently, this approach studies the processes of politicization by which collectives build alternative forms of power and incorporation (Nash 2010; Taylor 2010).


This chapter provides an overview of how political sociologists have explained Latin American societies. The chapter looks at how social factors influence political developments in the region through three traditional fields within political sociology: elite circulation, political clientelism, and social movements. In each one of these fields, the chapter begins by addressing how traditional political sociologists have understood the region. Then, it explains how new perspectives of political sociology have addressed each of those fields of study. This general analysis on the political sociology of Latin America unveils the dynamics by which inequality and exclusion undermine democracy.

The processes by which elites circulate in their access to the state in Latin America have been generally determined by the entrenched social structure that dominated almost three centuries of colonial rule. Based on the oligarchic concentration of power, this structure was only partially challenged by the populist governments that emerged after the 1930s and by democratic transitions in the 1980s and 1990s. More recent, cultural approaches have highlighted the influence of external institutions – especially the Catholic Church – in explaining Latin American symbolic systems of elite reproduction.

Weak institutions and highly unequal societies have made Latin America a fertile soil for political clientelism. Latin American clientelism often involves highly authoritative, violent, and controlling interactions between local leaders and citizens. More cultural perspectives provide evidence of the empowering potential of clientelism.

In a context of readjustment policies that have pushed governments to scrap social rights and sustain inequality over time, Latin American social movements have reacted with diverse, innovative strategies. In most cases, these strategies have involved coconstructing collective action with other, institutional efforts. Political sociologists have, for example, shown how contentious mobilization can in some cases combine with clientelism to reach more effective results. Alternative approaches to Latin American social movements underline their potential to construct novel political identities and build broader political communities at the urban or the global levels.

Political Sociology in Latin America

The social structure that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a result of colonial rule has defined norms of exclusion across Latin America (Jara and Magana 1982). Based on ideals of race, ethnicity, and class, Latin American states have systematically disregarded the rights of indigenous population, afro-descendant groups, and the urban and rural poor. Latin America is currently the most unequal region worldwide and the poverty rate in many of its countries is over 20% (The World Bank 2016). Simultaneously, since the late 1960s, Latin American nations have developed economies based on foreign debt. Under the pressure of the IMF and the World Bank, the region has increasingly lost economic autonomy. Latin American countries have increasingly opened their economies through free-trade agreements and have abandoning policies that substituted imports with local industrial production. Foreign states and international agencies have pushed Latin American nations to privatize companies and implement structural adjustments that include budget cuts to crucial public services – i.e., education, health, housing, employment, transportation, and others. In several Latin American nations, the vulnerability that large sections of the population experience, in contexts of weak institutions, has resulted in corruption, criminality, and violence (Almeida and Cordero 2015).

While critics will correctly argue that many civil society initiatives, social policies, and redistributive programs have advanced the incorporation of the underprivileged in Latin America, a general overview from the standpoint of political sociology underscores the regional imbalances of power. The following sections focus on three traditionally substantive areas of study: elite circulation, political clientelism, and social movements.

Elite Circulation

Political elites can be defined as “persons who are able, by virtue of their strategic positions in powerful organizations, to affect national political outcomes regularly and substantially” (Burton et al. 1992, p. 8). Traditional analyses on elites in Latin America can be traced to the early nineteenth century. The processes of independence in that period gave local elites the opportunity to struggle for their access to the state in each new nation.

Latin American emancipatory processes restructured the local arrangements of colonial power. Enjoying the highest power in the colonies, the Spanish-born were always in conflict with the local Creoles. The Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808 questioned the authority of the Spanish crown and gave Creoles the opportunity of seeking new social positions. Unlike European emancipatory movements that enjoyed strong popular engagement, Latin American independency processes resulted from these rearrangements within local elites. The independence gave rise to a set of autonomous warlords that filled the power void resulting from the decline of imperial elites by controlling territories through force. This period after the independence has been known as the “era of caudillos” (local, personalist leaders exercising military and political power) (Chevalier 1999).

Where elites were more fragmented, such as Argentina and Mexico, caudillos became more prevalent. The lack of elite integration resulted in loss of land for these nations. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the whole region had built and oligarchic regime based on commodity exports and international lending. Mainly based on rural land exploitation, oligarchic elites reached sustainable levels of horizontal integration, which allowed them to access, shape, and expand the state without substantial efforts to reach the masses. Soon, social, political, and economic changes eroded the oligarchic regime (Rovira Kaltwasser 2009).

Seeking protection from regional and global enemies, Latin American countries – such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico – modernized their military. Modern weaponry was imported and new official academies professionalized the military personnel. A novel military elite rose to challenge entrenched oligarchic privileges. Additionally, the export-based liberal economy that enriched the oligarchy built differentiation and facilitated the movement of people. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Latin America experienced a strong wave of immigration from abroad combined with increasing rural-urban migration. Urban actors became more important and threatened the power of the rural oligarchic elite. This resulted in a cleavage between the oligarchic elite and the new emerging counter-elite.

After the Great Depression (1930s), the new elite increased its power and sought to put the state in the center of national development. Different military interventions, elite coalitions, and populist governments characterized the following decades. Argentina’s elite fragmentation and regular military interventions, for example, resulted in a precarious political system that could not deal with the gradual incorporation of the lower classes. This set the conditions for the election of Perón’s populist government in 1946, whose friend-and-foe dynamics made it impossible to expand party representation and to avoid elite–counter-elite conflicts. Chile and Brazil had a more gradual erosion of elite hegemony. Conversely, two civil conflicts – the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) and the Cristero War (1926–1929) – settled the Mexican elites. Taking power in 1929, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) embodied a cohesive, hegemonic elite that exercised effective civil control over the military (Rovira Kaltwasser 2009). These different developments led to also different results. In countries of the Southern cone, partial or failed elite settlements led to coups and recent dictatorships – e.g., in Argentina (1976–1983), Chile (1973–1990), Uruguay (1973–1985), Paraguay (1964–1989), and Brazil (1964–1985). These countries built what became known as bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes. Military dictatorships persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, killed, and exiled thousands of political opponents. Instead, governed by the PRI through 1989, Mexico became a semiauthoritarian regime. Its political system dealt efficiently with conflicting political minorities and secured the reproduction of the ruling elites (Garrido 2005; O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986).

In countries suffering dictatorships, the heads of the ruling military conducted negotiations with the leaders from the major opposing political forces in order to carry out democratic transitions (Przeworski 1986). To a certain extent, these transitions enjoyed stability because elites implemented amnesty laws to perpetrators of human rights abuses and provided a relative political autonomy to the military. The democratic regimes that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s combined that special treatment to the military with a stable cooperation between groups in their national economic and intellectual elites. While countries such as Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina have advanced in their processes of transitional justice – by partially delivering reparation to victims and holding some perpetrators to account – they still have substantial progress to make in restoring the dignity of victims of human rights abuses (Olsen et al. 2010).

The neoliberal policies prescribed by the IMF and the World Bank that most Latin American countries implemented in the 1980s and 1990s stabilized growth for most countries. However, they also built simpler, extractive economies. Simultaneously, middle classes across the region strengthened by growing in number and by increasing their levels of consumption. Lower and working classes built new movements that opposed inequality and political exclusion (Almeida and Cordero 2015). As a result, new counter-elites defending redistributive policies and social rights saw their projects democratically validated in the 2000s. Lula Da Silva’s and Rafael Correa’s presidential victories – in Brazil (2003) and Ecuador (2006), respectively – are prime examples of how rearrangements in the distributions of power allowed new elites reaching the government through agendas that combined populist, state-centered policies with a neoliberal, export-oriented extractive economy. The entrenched stability of horizontal integration among posttransitional elite sections progressively disappointed the middle and lower classes in Chile. Consequently, since the early 2000s, the Chilean political elite has progressively lost credibility. In regional comparative terms, Chile shows particularly high levels of popular disengagement from institutional politics (Joignant et al. 2017).

Besides focusing on how Latin American political elites seek to reach the state, political sociologists have also paid attention to their cultural practices of incorporation. These analyses have gone beyond the nation state to highlight the symbolic forces that culturally shape groups in positions of power. These studies have argued that Latin American elites are highly influenced by external institutions – i.e., the Catholic Church as well as European and North American ideas. These institutions define the set of symbolic rules by which influential and powerful groups within the elite exercise incorporation and exclusion. The Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ, for example, have become highly influential on how elites counter pluralism and reproduce in Latin American societies (Thumala Olave 2010).

Trained in prestigious schools of business and economics in the United States – especially at Chicago University – the group of Latin American economists known as the “Chicago Boys” are another example of how elite culture has been externally shaped. Strongly adhering to Friedman’s and Harberger’s liberal, market-oriented economic policy model, the Chicago Boys returned to their countries of origin – Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Perú, Colombia, Costa Rica, and others – after completing their graduate studies in the United States to take high positions in the government and relevant companies. They not only influenced the policies implemented in their countries – especially in Chile – but they also shaped the economics departments in the most prestigious universities in the region. By effectively transmitting their highly liberal economic models to local Latin American elites, the Chicago Boys contributed to culturally smoothing the way to the set of neoliberal reforms implemented in the region between the 1970s and 1990s (Biglaiser 2002).


Clientelism is defined as “the distribution of resources (or promise of) by political office holders or political candidates in exchange for political support, primarily – although not exclusively – in the form of vote” (Gay 1990, p. 648). Students of clientelism call “patrons” those actors that withhold and manage power and resources (i.e., a political representative). “Clients” are those potential voters that benefit from the patron’s discretional distribution of resources. “Brokers” are often figures within a specific community that act as connecting actors between patron and clients.

Latin America is often seen as one of the most prolific grounds for the development of clientelism worldwide. Focused on whether vulnerable citizens in a specific nation are able to influence state decisions, social and political analyses have regularly deemed clientelism as an impediment to full democracy. Analysts suggest that in impoverished areas patrons exercise power over clients curtailing their ability to freely choose their representatives. Additionally, by discretionally targeting benefit delivery to supportive groups, clientelism leaves many people in need with no access to resources.

The roots of clientelism in the region can be traced to 1912, when Argentina declared universal suffrage for men. Most other countries also did so in the mid-nineteenth century. Since then, political elites have strategically boosted electoral turnout. Newly created nations struggled to build centralized, powerful, and stable states in which systems of incorporation of the masses were not defined. Initially, leaders used the networks that they had created in their institutional positions as clients – within the military, the police, or even local government staff. Initially, clientelism worked mainly as the exchange of jobs for political loyalty. This was especially prevalent among municipality employees. But also land and company owners aligned their workers to support particular candidates. In the nineteenth century, voting polls were usually associated with violence. States had not yet implemented secret ballot and patrons brought their clients to control churches and other voting buildings. Often, voting resulted in confrontations between rival groups. In consequence, a very partial fraction of the population voted. For example, in 1890s Argentina 50% of the men were inscribed in the electoral registry and, among them, only half actually voted. In the early twentieth century nations began regulating voting more strictly to secure more democratic processes and avoid confrontations (Vommaro and Combes 2016).

Since those years, Mexico became a regional landmark by developing a highly authoritative kind of clientelism, in which patrons with local dominance exercise a severe control over clients. This clientelism is based on conditional access to resources, informal coercive sanctions, and the use or threat of physical violence against rivals. Often called caciquismo, this type of clientelism grew mainly in the rural areas of Mexico to then reach trade unions, universities, or squatter settlements in cities (Middlebrook 2009).

This sort of clientelism emerged in the early years of the twentieth century. Initially, bosses in many areas of Mexico controlled and protected their territories blocking the influence of national political conflicts in their localities. After 1940, however, the Mexican federal government – ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – relied on those local bosses to incorporate under its domination indigenous and isolated areas that had resisted state power. Those bosses became institutionally recognized local patrons that practiced highly authoritative clientelism and legitimized the state at the local level (Ugalde 1973). This authoritative clientelism reached Mexican cities through politically connected leaders that emerged as patrons in shantytowns imitating the culture of rural bosses.

Argentina has become regionally salient due to the particularly high prevalence and persistence of its clientelism. In 1945, the populist Juan Domingo Peron took power with great support of the working class. His government effectively connected with formal traditional civil society organizations. However, through the Eva Peron Foundation President Peron managed to modernize grassroots social assistance to reach informal, traditionally excluded sections of society – i.e., the poor, unemployed, women, and others. Peron’s government incorporated and created local grassroots organizations that functioned as extensions of the state and whose leaders were loyal to the party in power. Since then, Argentinean political parties have constructed a thick network of grassroots clientelism that supports vulnerable families by providing them with food, medicine, and other basic supplies (Vommaro and Combes 2016).

Brazil presents a different Latin American case in which clientelism often combines with crime, marginality, and political corruption. Brazilian rural powerful landowners traditionally controlled groups of poor workers and negotiated their votes with politicians. In return, these landowners made demands to the state.

Clientelism became common practice in cities between the 1940s and 1960s. In those years, a number of policies sought to socially incorporate the poor living in squatter settlements through social programs. Many local improvements were then channeled through politicians in the form of clientelism. In the mid-1980s, poor urban areas experienced the influx of hard drugs. Traffickers created drug gangs, strengthened their leadership within the neighborhoods, and often provided assistance to neighbors. Crime and violence increased sharply as a result of gang confrontations and brutal police raids. Since the late 1980s, drug gangs increasingly engaged in electoral politics and in providing limited assistance to local residents. Eventually, drug traffickers began acting as authoritative clientelistic brokers in a highly corrupt political environment. In order to sustain safe control of their territory, drug dealers started making agreements with politicians who sought to secure their election in that area. In exchange, those drug traffickers gave limited assistance to residents (Arias 2006).

Going beyond this emphasis on citizens’ access to the state, some analyses of Latin American clientelism have also focused on its potential to construct new community networks and to empower traditionally excluded groups.

Research in Argentina shows, for example, that the decay of industrial production and the expansion of the tertiary and informal sectors during the 1980s and 1990s strongly eroded the traditional collaboration between political parties and trade unions. During the 1990s, Argentinean poor urban dwellers grew poorer and increasingly excluded. Poverty sharply increased in most Latin American countries through the 1990s and early 2000s. High unemployment, vulnerability, and poverty in shantytowns disconnected people from community belonging and undermined local networks of help. Unable to resort to those local informal connections, residents turned to clientelistic networks to obtain food, medicine, basic goods, and services. These new connections promoted community construction and the production of new forms of belonging in marginal Argentinean neighborhoods (Auyero 2001). Evidence also suggests that residents in Uruguayan and Brazilian shantytown dwellers have been able to access urban services and even exercise rights through negotiations with patrons (Alvarez Rivadulla 2012; Gay 1990).

Social Movements

Social movements in Latin America have responded to the democratic challenges that structural adjustments and austerity policies in contexts of high inequality impose. Many social movements have also reacted to the large social disparities that Latin America sustains since colonial rule. Movements have addressed ethnic, racial, class, and gender discrimination (Almeida and Cordero 2015).

For example, the Zapatista uprising in 1994, in Chiapas, Mexico, protested against the exclusion and poor living conditions that indigenous people were experiencing as a result of the government’s economic and social policies. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a “death sentence.” In their view, NAFTA undermines the development of Mexican indigenous communities. Similarly, in December 2001, Argentineans took to the streets marching and pot banging to protest against international pressures by the IMF, local austerity measures, political corruption, and bank freezes.

The efficacy of Latin American social movements to effect change often depends on their ability to take advantage of political opportunities. Yet, the distance between movements and political institutions can vary widely.

The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil is one of the many examples of how social movements can coproduce effective social change in their close interaction with political authorities. With its origin in the land takeovers in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in 1979, the MST extended its initiatives in rural areas across the country to demand access to lands and dignity for poor rural workers. Eventually, the movement grew to become the largest in Latin America. In the early 2000s, the MST already organized in 22 states of Brazil. While rural land take overs are their main type of action, they also have a wide range of forms of activism – from carrying out parades in cities and towns, holding office, staging hunger strikes, among others. In addition, the MST participates in public rural schools though training teachers, building community-school connections, organizing teachers and students, contributing in the curricular design, and others. The effectiveness of their work in state local rural schools depends on the activists’ ability to engage in coproduction with local authorities. In fact, Tarlau (2013) shows that engaging in political clientelism increases the movement’s capacity to develop their work in rural schools.

Conversely, that case of the Chilean student movement is evidence of how the distance from political institutions can lead to more effective outcomes. Chilean students carried out massive protests in 2011. They claimed their right to free and public higher education. Students struggled against structural adjustment policies created in the 1980s that increasingly privatize universities and foster students’ indebtedness. This movement carried out the largest marches since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990 gathering around 500,000 people across the country. Hundreds of students painted their faces and danced to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” song in front of the presidential palace. Additionally, student leaders successfully defended their arguments in televised debates with local politicians. After several months of rallies and other collective initiatives, in October of that year the movement showed widespread approval among citizens (81%) (La Tercera 2011).

The Chilean student movement has become one of the most effective in pursuing policy change in Latin America. Analysts suggest that this outcome results from their decision to keep a prudent distance from political authorities (Somma and Medel 2017). In 2014, Bachelet’s newly elected government began designing a group of reforms advancing student demands. Her government passed an ambitious tax reform to fund changes to the educational system. Later, in May 2015, congress approved Bachelet’s Bill on Educational Inclusion, which bans profit making through educational institutions and forbids state-funded schools from assessing and rejecting children’s admissions. She has also progresses to provide 60% of the poorest students with free higher education (Donoso 2016). Currently, other education reform bills inspired in this movement and designed by her government are under discussion in congress.

While several political sociologists explained how these Latin American movements have demanded their rights at the level of the nation state, other analysts have emphasized movements’ ability to claim their rights by referring to other, alternative political communities. Successfully organizing against swindlers that sold them fake land rights, collectively struggling to avoid state eviction and self-building their houses, underprivileged urban dwellers in Sao Paulo claimed their place in the city. Not only were they successful in rejecting eviction. By defending and building their place as urban dwellers, poor residents have gone beyond the idea of the nation state to claim their citizenship rights. Consequently, through their mobilization urban dwellers create a new sense of dignity and belonging at the level of the city (Holston 2008). A similar analysis of squatter movements in central abandoned buildings, also in Sao Paulo, argue that activists rescale their demands of citizenship rights from the national to the urban level. Using transgressive, illegal occupations, Latin American urban dwellers claim their right to belong to the city (Earle 2012).


Political sociology has studied the social determinants impacting political phenomena in Latin America. The descriptive analysis here provided shows the sharp, historically entrenched political inequalities experienced by the Latin American people.

Latin American economies have developed in growing dependence from more wealthy countries that is at the basis of many of its exclusionary policies. The structural adjustments and free trade agreements by which Latin American nations have opened their economies to the world foster vulnerability in the lower sections of their societies. Studies of Latin American elites demonstrate that national social structures have been historically unfit to accommodate the lower sections of society in the development of stable democracies. In consequence, populism and clientelism have prevailed in the relationship between political elites and the masses.

Social movements have reacted to these regional challenges. In the past couple of decades, we have seen a myriad of initiatives that take advantage of local, regional, or global political opportunities to effect social change and influence policies. The increased democratic stability that much of the region has experienced in the past couple of decades is, to a great extent, the result of the slow democratizing progress of civil society.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Instituto Chileno de Estudios MunicipalesUniversidad Autónoma de ChileSantiagoChile