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Social Movement Mobility

Network analysis of organizations in civil society challenges the theory of “NGO-ization”

ilustraçao_org_sociais_1.jpgNARA ISODASocial movements have played active roles in the democratization of Latin America that took place in the final decades of the 20th century. Since then, many of them have experienced an evolution that has been amply covered in the literature of the social sciences, especially in writings dedicated to the study of civil society in this region. One aspect on which there is nearly complete consensus among researchers of the subject is that starting in the 1990s, there has been a renovation of civil society and that it occurred in a substitutive way—i.e., with certain types of actors taking the place of others. This is said to have culminated, starting in the 1990s, in a situation in which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) became predominant, a shift that became known among those who study such phenomena in Brazil (where ONG is the Portuguese equivalent of the acronym NGO), as the onguização – NGO ization of the social movements.

In short, the “people’s” movements formed by individuals who were personally interested in the demands for change are said to have ceded space to organizations that also advocate change, but on behalf of groups whose members are not their constituents (an activity known in the social sciences as advocacy). Those activities are believed to have resulted in a de-politicization of civil society.

Political scientist Adrian Gurza Lavalle, of the University of São Paulo Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLECH-USP), a researcher at the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), however, has been conducting studies that contradict this theory of “NGO-ization.” His mapping of the organizations in two of the largest urban conglomerations in Latin America, São Paulo and Mexico City, which shape the “organizational ecologies” of the cities of the region, demonstrated that although NGOs have won and been able to maintain their role as protagonists, the social movements are also holding onto a position of centrality, despite predictions to the contrary. “Our research counters the skeptics’ diagnoses that portray a civil society of organizations oriented primarily to the provision of services and work with public affairs in a rootless fashion, with very little focus on the low-income population,” says Gurza Lavalle, who is also a researcher at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap). “Furthermore: we show that civil society has modernized, diversified, and is now functionally specialized, making the organizational ecologies of this region more complex, yet without replacing one type of actor with another.”

Mara isodaThose conclusions come from a series of studies headed by Gurza Lavalle in recent years. The most recent ones are co-authored by Natália Bueno at the CEM, one of the 17 Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) financed by FAPESP. Researchers invited to participate in the project were Ernesto Isunza Vera (Center for Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology, in Xalapa, Mexico) and Elisa Reis (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). The research focuses primarily on the role of civil organizations and the composition of the organizational ecologies in the civil societies of various cities in Mexico and Brazil.

What Gurza Lavalle presents in his network studies may help decision-makers become more familiar with the heterogeneity of civil organizations. “There are clear implications for the regulation of the third sector of the economy, to the extent that the body of rules becomes less of a straitjacket and more of a framework that offers legal security to the various types of organizations in civil society that receive public funds or perform public functions,” the researcher says.

“The work being done by Gurza Lavalle and his students and collaborators is especially valuable because, through network analysis, we obtain a more accurate and refined mapping of the relationships among social movements,” says Marisa von Bülow, a professor at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Brasília (UnB) and a specialist in the study of Latin American civil societies. “Network analysis is not necessarily the best method, but it nicely complements methods such as qualitative and field-based research, interviews, etc. It enables us to see things that could not be read with such clarity by traditional means. In the case of the Gurza Lavalle studies, they conclude by showing that the civil societies in Latin America are more diverse and pluralistic than was initially thought.”

“The analyses we had before were usually impressionist readings or data from which inferences could not be drawn,” Gurza Lavalle says. From local literature he extracted the evolution of the social actors in the region, and using as a plane for comparison the traditional organizations such as the charitable entities or neighborhood associations, identified two distinct waves of innovation in social mobilization: the new wave of actors that arose in the 1960s, 1970s, and first half of the 1980s and the very newest wave of actors that gained strength in the 1990s.

The first wave was characterized by organizations that had been created because of social demands from broad segments of the Brazilian population during the military regime. This was the case of the pastoral organizations encouraged by the Catholic Church and the movements for housing and health care, and against rising prices. The second-wave organizations are customarily grouped under the heading of NGOs, which, in turn, gave rise to articuladoras (coordinating entities), those that work for other organizations rather than for individuals, segments of the population, or localized movements. Examples are the Brazilian Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (Abong) or the Brazilian Agroforestry Network (Rebraf).

NARA ISODANetwork analysis, according to Gurza Lavalle, has made it possible to assess the influence of associations “both within civil society itself and in relation to other social and political actors.” This result was obtained by a set of measurements of centrality that calculate the number of ties within the network—not only the direct or neighborhood ties but, and especially, the indirect ties, or the ties between one organization and those of another organization with which the former interacts but to which it does not have direct access. “When we relate to each other, we are indirectly bound by the ties established by others,” says the researcher.

The political scientist goes on to say that network analysis has experienced accelerated development during the past 20 years and can be applied to various fields of knowledge. “Thanks to the progress made in network analysis, we can detect patterns in the spread of diseases, for example, because it enables us to identify indirect structures that are not available to individuals, but are acting within a larger context. It is a way to overcome extremely abstract and stylized characterizations of the common actors in the social sciences, but without giving up the ability to generalize the results.” According to Gurza Lavalle, one of the main advantages of this method is to complement and go beyond case studies in order to assess the accuracy of statements made by the organizations themselves (self-description) and investigate the objective positions of those actors within the networks, as well as the configuration of ties that condense and condition the logic of their activities.

The sampling method employed to determine the makeup of ties among organizations is known as the “snowball.” Each entity interviewed was asked to name five other organizations that are important in the course of its work. In the city of São Paulo, representatives from 202 civil associations were consulted. This effort generated a total of 827 different actors, 1,368 ties, and 549,081 potential relationships. That network made it possible to clearly identify the vitality of the social movements, similar to that of the NGOs. In addition, the study detected four trends in the organizational ecology of civil society in São Paulo and, to a lesser degree, in Mexico City: expansion, modernization, diversification and, in some cases, functional specialization (ability to carry out complementary functions with other organizations).

What the researcher uses to approximate the “social movements” are popular entities, “entities whose distinctive strategy for action is the mobilization of the general public,” like the Movimento de Moradia do Centro (Downtown Housing Movement), the Unificação de Lutas de Cortiços (United Tenement Struggle), and, on a much smaller scale, the Movimento dos Sem-Terra (Landless Peoples Movement). These, on the network, are on an equal footing with the NGOs and the coordinating entities. In a position of “intermediate centrality” we find pastoral organizations, forums, and charitable associations. Lastly, in a peripheral status, are the traditional organizations such as neighborhood and community associations.

“Civil organizations have begun performing new brokerage functions, sometimes in participative institutions as representatives of certain groups, other times managing some of the policy, and now and then as receivers of public funds for project execution,” says Gurza Lavalle. “The networks of civil organizations that we examined are the product of snowballs that began to be formed in the inner city and that is why they provide information as to the brokerage capabilities of the civil organizations in relation to those social groups.”

Other studies confirm the conclusions of the analysis conducted by Gurza Lavalle, such as research done by Ligia Lüchmann, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Political Science of the Federal University of Santa Catarina, who has been studying the coordinating entities of that state’s capital city of Florianópolis. “I would confirm the idea that civil society today is functionally more diversified that it used to be, with traditional actors coexisting alongside the new ones,” she says. Citing the situation in her own city, she mentions the activities of coordinating entities like the Florianopolitan Union of Community Entities and the Public Policies Forum.

Within the Latin American scenario, Gurza Lavalle and Marisa von Bülow see Brazil as an exceptional case of coordination among social organizations in gaining access to the government, something that does not happen in Mexico. Gurza Lavalle mentions as examples the cases of the City Statute, which originated with the National Urban Reform Forum, and the feminist activism within the Movimento Negro (Black Movement), the history of which is an essential component in the configuration of health care for the Afro-Brazilian population within national health policy, although the work of the movement for health care reform or the activism of civil organizations in the definition of HIV/Aids policy guidelines are better known.

CEM – Center for Metropolitan Studies (No. 2013/07616-7); Grant mechanism: Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC); Principal Investigator: Marta Teresa da Silva Arretche; Investment: R$7,103,665.40 for the entire RIDC (FAPESP).

Scientific Article
GURZA LAVALLE, A. and BUENO, N.S. Waves of change within civil society in Latin America: Mexico City and São Paulo. Politics & Society. vol. 39, pp. 415-50, 2011.