This ethnographic research project investigates the role of brokerage – the social mechanism of mediation between different groups or levels in society – in participatory urban governance, and its implications for state-citizenship engagement, political representation and decision making. It does so at a moment in which brokers, identified as citizens who officially ‘speak for’ and ‘act on behalf of’ their fellow citizens vis-à-vis the state, have become a persistent presence in democratic urban governance across the globe. Through their political representation, brokers impact state-citizen relations and decision-making processes regarding the allocation of resources such as housing, infrastructure, security, social care and healthcare. As brokerage in governance always consists of both formal/official and informal/personal actions and transactions, this study investigates how brokers intertwine practices, discourses, and networks both inside and outside officially sanctioned channels and institutions. It asks: what is the role of brokerage in participatory urban governance, in both its formal and informal dimensions, and what is its impact on state-citizen engagement, political representation and decision making regarding the distribution of resources?
This research focuses on participatory programs that seek to address the needs of underprivileged neighbourhoods, which are the most common sites for such programs. The neighbourhoods are particularly relevant to this research as their low-income residents most directly experience changes in governance and its resource flows, be they direct or via brokers.
This project compares brokerage in four different cities, two in the Global North and two in the Global South, in order to develop a new theoretical framework for understanding the role and impact of brokerage in participatory urban governance. These cities are Rotterdam (the Netherlands), Manchester (UK), Medellín (Colombia) and Recife (Brazil). In these cities, particular citizens operate as brokers; some develop their own initiatives, while others are invited by the authorities to act as representatives of other citizens. Studies of brokers’ impact on democracy are divided: some scholars see brokers as impeding democracy while others see them as facilitating it. The first point of view argues that brokerage elevates personal interests over the common interest; the second asserts that brokerage lubricates bureaucracy or solves democratic deficits, as brokers have knowledge of the population’s needs. Further informing this scholarly debate are two distinct literatures: the first, on neoliberal deregulation and the self-responsibilization of citizens, mainly based on research in the Global North, and the second, on modernization, social inclusion and government transparency, mainly based on studies in the Global South. In practice, however, brokers’ activities and the participatory programs in which they work always contain elements of both frameworks, giving rise to analytical contradictions and ambiguities.
Combining research from these divergent schools of thought, this project approaches brokers as ‘assemblers’, connective agents who actively bring together different government and citizen actors, institutions and resources and who combine formal and informal politics. In so doing, this approach combines recent theories on assemblages – which view urban governance as an amalgam of different actors, institutions and resources – with an anthropological actor orientation.
The research (2016-2021) is carried out by a project team consisting of five researchers (three PhDs, a Postdoc and Dr. Koster).