CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Theoretical and political reflection around participationism, developed from the 1970s, was initially couched within a perspective critical of the representative system. In contrast to a minimalist democracy, associated with elections, which is said to encourage passivity among citizens, participatory democracy should ensure their politicization and involvement in civic life. [1] It supposedly permits the exercise of active citizenship, rather than simply delegating the voice of those governed to a political elite.

2This theoretical and political opposition initially guided analysis of participatory models. Although the examples studied in France and other countries have very often been judged unsuccessful, according to a view of participatory democracy associated with the transfer of decision-making power to citizens, [2] certain models have been elevated to the status of an “ideal-type” of this form of politics. This particularly applies to the participatory budgeting of Porto Alegre, set up in 1989. It has become a model because of the nature of its public and its perceived effects. The involvement of the working classes and of women seems to corroborate the potential to include weaker groups through participatory procedures. The deliberation concerning the allocation of public resources has also been seen as a factor for change in institutionalized, clientelistic political practices. [3] The example of Porto Alegre seemed to suggest that the ills of the representative system could be alleviated by participatory democracy.

3However, the opposition between participation and representation, as well as the virtuous circle supposed to arise from combining the two, has progressively become more nuanced. Although the disadvantaged are involved in Brazilian participatory models, the individuals most committed in the long-term have greater educational and activist resources than those of the average participant. [4] In Porto Alegre, the renewal rate for participants has fallen steadily, which certain authors see as proof of the consolidation of a participatory elite. [5] As for the models, although they do embody the principles of direct participation and deliberation, they are also based on selection mechanisms for citizens authorized to intervene in the name of others, leading to the consolidation of “representatives”. [6]

4These nuances have coincided with the emerging reflection on the nature of the representation embodied by the Brazilian participatory models, primarily analyzed in light of the procedures and meaning encapsulated by this set of instruments. This is the perspective adopted by Leonardo Avritzer, for example, who distinguishes between election, which he sees as individual consent to delegate to an elected representative, and participatory mechanisms, in which representing means defending ideas and experiences. [7]

5In taking an institutional approach – which, as we shall see, is relatively common in the analysis of participatory democracy – to analyze the activity of representation, what tends to be left out is what is (at) the basis of representation: the connections between a claim maker and the groups in whose name he or she acts. Thus, Michael Saward invites us to distinguish representation (which he defines as a performative process of defining claims) from the institutions that embody it. [8] Saward believes that if we want to understand what representation is, we need to examine the process by which certain actors construct subjects for whom they propose to speak to a wider audience. Representation is above all a claim formulated by an actor. It may or may not be recognized by citizens, and it varies in form according to the contexts in which it is produced.

6This article proposes to analyze the process by which certain actors construct and consolidate a position as a representative in Brazilian participative mechanisms. It is based on the study of a particular model: women’s conferences in Recife, which bring together actors normally underrepresented in the political field, namely, women from the working classes. The argument developed here is that constructing a position as a representative takes place in multiple arenas (including the participatory system), and is based on transforming personalized relationships into a social claim group.

7More specifically, the representatives who emerge from participatory models construct their position as spokesperson by bringing together individuals who are actors in distinct social, professional, and activist spheres, but who all maintain individualized and territorialized connections with the candidate for representative. The recognition of spokesperson status also depends on the claimant’s capacity to act as a mediator with the public institutions for the benefit of the mobilized group. By mediation, I mean translating “understanding, knowledge, and registers of legitimacy between organizational and social universes which must (or which want to) work together, but which do not use the same registers of intelligibility”. [9]

8In the first section of this article, I will explain my chosen approach to analyzing the representative phenomenon in participatory models, i.e., the study of the social anchoring of these institutions. I will then look at the individualized connections which unite representatives and the represented in women’s conferences. Finally, I will show that the capacity to mediate between local citizens and the public service authorities is what confers legitimacy on representatives.

Women’s conferences in Recife

Recife is the capital of the state of Pernambuco in Brazil. The municipality is known for the strength of public involvement in the participatory models set up in the 1960s. In 2000, the “Recife Left Front” coalition, [10] represented by Workers’ Party mayor, João Paulo Lima e Silva, won the elections. It introduced women’s conferences in 2001. These conferences submit municipal policy regarding male-female equality to collective deliberation. They take place every two years, in three stages. In a first cycle of assemblies (“pre-conferences”), citizens are invited to make public policy proposals. After each assembly, the representatives (“delegates”) are elected. In 2006, sixteen assemblies were held in the “regiões politico-administrativas” [districts]. At the same time, a pre-conference devoted to “social movement organizations” took place.
During a second stage – a plenary assembly – delegates deliberate all the proposals made during the first cycle. In theory, the result of the deliberations constitutes the municipal government program for policies on equality between men and women. Following these deliberations, the members of the Municipal Council of Women are elected from among the representatives, for a two-year mandate. This Council had 24 members in 2006. Six of them were members of the municipal government, twelve were representatives of “civil society”, and six were elected from among municipal civil servants, with each elected by her peers.
My seven-month field study involved two visits, made in 2006 and 2007. It consisted of an ethnographic observation of the model, 32 semi-structured interviews with participants and political/administrative actors, and documentary research. During the assemblies, I used a questionnaire to identify the social characteristics of the participants, particularly their age, level of education, individual and family income, and membership of a social movement, organization, or political party. Out of the 1,126 participants in the assemblies “by district”, 253 people answered the questionnaire, or 22% of the target group. In the assembly devoted to organizations, 53 of the 203 participants responded (25%).

The social anchoring of participatory and representative activity

9The analysis of institutional rules and their meaning runs through studies of participatory democracy in both Brazil and France. This perspective has allowed us to understand the nature and evolutions of the representative connection generated or revealed by procedural changes on both sides of the Atlantic. However, it is not sufficient to explain how certain actors acquire a position as a representative in participatory models, in that it tends to sidestep relationships between representatives and those they represent. Consequently, in order to grasp the representative phenomenon in participatory institutions, I prioritize the study of their social anchoring, taking inspiration from works of political anthropology on electoral representation.

Challenging the frontiers of participatory systems

10In their 2011 overview of analysis of participatory democracy, Loïc Blondiaux and Jean-Michel Fourniau emphasize that the literature tends to focus on procedures. Consequently, researchers attempt to “identify the effects of these procedures on a variety of actors and phenomena”. [11] Several studies in Brazil and France are in fact guided by the idea that “‘participation’ is essentially a question of method and model”. [12] To a certain extent, this idea is enlisted in order to consider what participating and representing mean in participatory experiences. To understand the limits of such an approach for studying representation in participatory systems, we need to review its initial ambitions and its analytical consequences.

11The approach via procedures is part of a reflection on the “instrumentation” of public action in France, or “institutional novelties” in Brazil. For France, Pierre Lascoumes shows that contemporary methods of public action are characterized by the growth of “procedural policies”, which involve implementing territorialized models to organize interactions and joint initiatives, and allow the formulation of collective agreements. According to him, “the decisions that they objectify and the choices of instruments they enact are more about procedures than about defining substantial content”. [13] These policies are based on selecting an instrument of public action, defined as “a simultaneously technical and social process, which organizes specific social connections between public authorities and the beneficiaries, according to its underlying conceptions and representations”. [14] The analysis of the instrumentation of public action revolves around two issues: the first is understanding “the reasons which drive us to choose one instrument over another”, while the second envisages “the effects produced by these choices”. [15] In Brazil, the “new [participatory] institutions” have been designed as a renewal of the relationship between the “state” and “civil societies”, leading to a “de-differentiation” of political institutions, in contrast to their relative autonomy under the military regime. [16] As is the case for the approach in terms of instruments, the study of the causes of their emergence and their individual effects has influenced the perception of these institutions.

12This line of research has coincided with the close attention paid to the “internal” dynamics of participatory systems. In order to move beyond the dichotomy between idealization and demonization, which guided initial research on the issue, researchers have opened the black box of the models to analyze the social relationships they contain. [17] Deliberations and forms of expression have been closely analyzed, with studies on the diversity of registers of expression according to participants’ trajectories; [18] the need for them to respect the “grammar” of the institution; [19] and the multiple effects of the participation of the actors involved. [20] For Brazil, certain work on participatory budgets has shown that the recognition of justice criteria by the participants has allowed them to move beyond individual interests. [21] Others evoke the renewal of clientelistic practices within participatory institutions. [22] The internalist approach has thus made it possible to examine participatory models afresh, moving away from simply evaluating the objectives announced by those who promote them.

13However, the internalist approach has sometimes led to models becoming isolated from from their social and political environment. Such an abstraction of models from their environment has led researchers to underestimate the fact that they are not set in stone and that they cannot be defined on the basis of their institutional limits alone, unless we consider that juridical categories are also scholarly categories. [23] When participatory experiences are held up as a symbol of a change in power, as shown by Alice Mazeaud for the Poitou-Charentes region, [24] where they have been mobilized to reassert a communist identity [25] or to negotiate powers from the authorities, [26] this is not done, strictly speaking, from within the models, but such actions are conducted on the basis of or in the name of these models. The boundaries of the participatory institutions are not a given; they are shaped by practical and symbolic confrontations.

14Challenging the boundaries of participatory models is even more pertinent for the analysis of representation within these institutions because spokespeople generally occupy multiple positions. Participation is often merely one of many moments in a set of activist, social, or professional activities. The effects of representatives’ multiple anchorings on the internal logics of the models must also be taken seriously, in that this partly conditions how such models develop.

15Consequently, we need to pay greater attention to how participatory models are connected with other areas of social life. It is by taking into account the entanglement of the “participatory game” with the social game that we can understand the meaning of representation in participatory models. My analysis in this respect echoes anthropological approaches – which emphasize the interweaving of the social and the political – concerning the importance of the relational fabric underlying political representation in France and Brazil. I now turn to a consideration of the main contributions of these approaches.

Political representation: a relational activity

16Studies done on the social anchoring of representative activity on both sides of the Atlantic offer interesting leads for understanding how, in the context of the electoral system, certain actors are recognized as legitimate representatives. They reiterate that beyond the professionalization of politics, how rooted a candidate or party is in a certain place at a certain time depends on their involvement in relational networks and in a range of activities which may go beyond the political. [27]

17First, several works emphasize the collective and social character of electoral representation. The figure of the representative symbolizes a wider social group, and membership of this group allows them either to access eligibility, or to obtain votes which express not so much an ideological choice as membership of the group. Thus, in his study on a rural community in the Yonne department of France, Marc Abelès shows that a candidate’s eligibility is conditioned by integration into relational networks, which allows a voter to situate candidates in the local space and identify their position within the political dynasties. [28] For Brazil, Beatriz de Heredia and Moacir Palmeira emphasize that in certain rural areas of the country, particularly in the northeast, voting is an undertaking which involves not only the individual, but also their family, or any other social unit relevant for the individual. [29] In the eyes of these authors, the individualist philosophy generally adopted to understand the electoral act and embodied by the representative institutions – symbolized by the expression “one man, one vote” – does not take into account a practice which assumes a collective meaning: that of “situating oneself” in local society. The vote is a family decision, generally made by the head of the family.

18Second, it is by considering the entanglement of social, professional, and political relations that the longevity of certain actors or parties can be understood. Jean-Noël Retière’s study on the Communist Party in Lanester suggests that everyday social and professional practices are indissociable from the vote for the French Communist Party; the former fueled support for the latter. The motivations for this support were not necessarily ideological, but were based on interpersonal relationships between activists and local people. These connections were consolidated by a set of services and social activities offered to the citizens by the activists. [30]

19Drawing on very specific cases, several Brazilian studies on the everyday activities of professional politicians show the importance of “services rendered” to voters in the process of political anchoring. Such practices are conducted in several arenas, and their most symbolic expression is seen in representatives’ many personalized responses to voters’ everyday problems. Focusing on the study of a family of local and national parliamentarians in Rio de Janeiro, Karina Kuschnir studies political representation as a form of mediation between public institutions and those they represent, who call upon the elected representative to resolve individual or collective problems. It is by meeting immediate needs that political players acquire legitimacy among the voters, which can be converted into a human or material contribution by citizens to the organization of electoral campaigns. Moreover, mediation is at the heart of elected representatives’ ideas of politics: “Doing politics means obtaining privileged access to public institutions, and thereby meeting the needs of a community.” [31]

20It should be noted that such intermediation is not unique to political representation in Brazil. Pierre Grémion and Cesare Mattina emphasize that interventions involving matters of “access” are perceived as normal and widespread by local elected representatives in France. [32] However, these practices acquire another dimension in Latin America because of the precarious nature of public services. [33] Thus, in Brazil, the requests most frequently made of municipal elected representatives concern access to health care services, which are structurally saturated. [34] Some private reception centers offering various free services (in health care, education, etc.) are managed by elected representatives and made available to citizens, who must contact the representative’s political entourage to gain access to them. [35] The redistributive nature of the activity of representation fuels a series of debates concerning its clientelistic nature. However, its potential subjectification effects on the people governed [36] or the underlying moral economy [37] have so far received little attention in studies. Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that personalized mediation between representatives and those represented is often defined as an obstacle to the politicization of individuals, particularly the poorest. It is said to strengthen the elitist nature of the Brazilian political system. [38]

21All the works cited above therefore demonstrate two aspects that I will focus on in examining representation in women’s conferences and analyzing its potential specificity in relation to the practices of electoral representation. On the one hand, the construction of representation is not a dyadic process between a spokesperson and a support group. It involves wider relationship networks, embodied and unified by the representative. Moreover, in Brazil, the legitimation of representation relies partly on satisfying requests for access to public services.

22This process allows elected representatives to prove their commitment to their support groups.

Becoming a women’s representative: the individualized mobilization of acquaintance networks

23The construction of a position as a representative in women’s conferences precedes the formal opening of the process. In fact, it is before the first cycle of assemblies that the positions of spokeswomen and ordinary participants are defined. Some political actors rally people in their neighborhood to ensure their “election” in the assemblies. This mobilization activity essentially relies on bringing together individualized relational networks around the figure of the candidate. It also helps to consolidate a view of participation among the local inhabitants, who associate it with delegation.

Soliciting “friends” to get elected

24The procedures of women’s conferences combine deliberation and representation, and the second must follow on from the first. According to the model’s design, it is after the discussions in the assemblies that women are elected, in order to represent the participants and defend the proposals they have formulated. Therefore, the office of delegate formally assumes a mandatory nature. However, the way the procedures are used by participants leads to a certain disconnect between deliberation and election. The delegates are primarily identified before the conferences, within acquaintance groups. Moreover, they are not so much selected by the participants as they are the initiators of their own position. Before the first cycle of assemblies, the vast majority of them play a role as participation entrepreneurs. This notion, developed by analogy with the concept of the political entrepreneur, designates individuals who initiate participation by accumulating resources – such as time or knowledge of governmental programs – that are required to enter the models. [39]

25These entrepreneurs solicit support from networks of acquaintances, whose main point in common is that they live in the district where the assembly takes place. In doing so, they construct collectives which did not necessarily exist beforehand. Nevertheless, their capacity to mobilize depends on their social, professional, or activist position. Consequently, we can distinguish two types of entrepreneurs. The first includes the leaders of neighborhood associations: women occupying a position as spokesperson for a group, prior to their participatory engagement. The collectives that they represent may be defined based on professional criteria (many women’s associations are organized around the production and sale of craft objects), or territorial criteria (neighborhood associations, associations within a specific building, etc.).

26These leaders solicit members of their neighborhood, as well as their organisation, in order to ensure their election during the process and/or show the strength of their association in a given area. One such example is 67-year-old Dona Vilma, who is president of the Santo Amaro Mothers’ Club. She rallied around 30 people during the 2006 assemblies, and presented herself as the only candidate for the post of delegate, although the rules of the model allow a delegate to be elected by just five people:


Dona Vilma: [For the conferences] I contacted the people from the mothers’ club and the Renascer group, which is an elderly people’s group that I belong to. And the people that I know too.
MH: How many people came with you?
Dona Vilma: Quite a few… 30, 35 […]
MH: And did they stand for delegate too?
Dona Vilma: Well, in general, it’s me who stands and some of the women are assistants. But they’re in the fight… They are mobilized. [40]

28The mobilization undertakem by these leaders broadly reproduces the structure of the neighborhood associations. Several authors have noted their strong individualization and the very often solitary exercise of their leadership. [41] These women activate their associative networks and the hierarchies in their organization, or the interpersonal relationships connecting them to local residents.

29The second type of women entrepreneurs consists of participants with long-term involvement in a local participatory model. These women are sometimes members of an associative or partisan organization, in which they play a secondary role. Others have no organizational attachment prior to their involvement with the participatory model. However, in this second case, they have higher educational capital than the average participant (generally a high school diploma). First, they are invited to participate in a local model, then they reproduce the forms of mobilization that prompted their own participation. Maria Alnice, 37 years old with a secondary school diploma, defines herself as a housewife who did not take part in activist activities until 2003. That year, she joined the women’s conferences, influenced by a neighbor. She then took part in the participatory budgeting, and was elected as delegate at each of the women’s conferences. In 2006, she participated in the women’s conference and was accompanied by friends whom she contacted to support her candidacy:


“I have been a delegate three times. I was a delegate to be councilor, I have been on the Council for the participatory budgeting, I have been in the thematic Forum [of women for the participatory budgeting]… The first time, I brought nobody, I discussed and talked in small meetings. So I went to the small meetings and I ‘connected’ with my colleagues. Then from there, it took off, you see?… I brought women so I could be a candidate. I could have brought many more, but the Women’s Administration should help us with the costs, which would allow us to bring many more women. I talked about it to people I know, in my neighborhood. My neighbors and my friends. The women I meet.” [42]

31Maria Alnice’s participation, initially solitary, became an investment for which she solicited friends. As was the case for the associative leaders, we should note the gendered and local nature of these connections. They are people “whom she knows in her neighborhood”, whom she can direct towards the conferences so she can be a candidate. The neighborhood, which is the main social space for inhabitants, also represents a hotbed of support for these female entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, the activation of friendship or neighborhood networks does not mean that relationships with inhabitants are more horizontal than those that associative leaders maintain with their support groups. As in rural Corsica, as studied by Jean-Louis Briquet, the register of friendship is used to make the relationship between representatives and those represented appear egalitarian, personal, and disinterested. [43]

32However, these two types of entrepreneurs nevertheless describe their mobilization work via a series of expressions which demonstrate that they occupy different positions. While the associative leaders do so in a euphemistic manner, foregrounding the natural character of their leadership (Dona Vilma tells us that in general “she stands and the others are assistants”), the participants regularly involved in a participatory model are more explicit: the local inhabitants are “brought” or “told” to come, in order to guarantee “their candidacy” or “their election”.

33Through their mobilization work, these entrepreneurs contribute to the formation of groups which were not necessarily previously united with a view to collective action, especially when they are based on neighborhood social connections. But whether they rally associative groups or ordinary citizens, [44] these participatory mobilizations remain personalized and focused on the figure of the candidate for the delegation, a process which influences the meaning given to participation.

Participating in order to vote

34During my interviews and observations, among the justifications given by women to account for their presence in the first cycle of the assemblies, “electing a delegate” was the most regularly cited. For the vast majority of women, participating means choosing a representative. However, the meaning given to this practice is ambiguous, and depends on the social characteristics of the women, as well as their connections with the candidate who seeks to be a representative.

35For some of the women taking part in the assemblies, particularly those who have no organizational attachment and/or weak educational and socioeconomic resources, participating signifies delegating without necessarily taking part in the deliberation. Participation is much like the act of voting: it is a one-off activity with a social significance, the aim of which is to select a representative who has competencies they do not.

36It is a one-off act because taking part in the conferences is seen as an episodic activity involving no longer-lasting commitment, nor even any presence at the debates. The fleeting character of participation is sometimes reinforced by a lack of knowledge of how the process works, with inhabitants associating it simply with the election of a delegate. Thus, some inhabitants leave immediately, when they realize that they will have to spend a whole afternoon in an assembly. In other cases, they do not attend the debates, and wait for the end of the discussions to take part in the election of the delegates.

37It is a social practice insofar as the mobilization of certain inhabitants essentially depends on their belonging to a family or acquaintance group, and not on the ambitions of deliberation underlying the system. Attending the assemblies serves as a reminder of their involvement in a territorially defined group. Consequently, participation is frequently described in terms of an obligation, or an injunction from an institution or people. The participants say they have been “called” by an associative leader to cast their vote, a family member has “told” them to participate in favor of a candidate, etc. The vocabulary used thus reveals the hierarchy in which they are situated, as well as the interpenetration between social connections and practices of participation. For example, at their mother’s request, Edilma and her sister Rosineide, two young women aged around twenty, with no profession and living with their parents, go to the conferences:


MH: How did you find out that the conference was taking place?
Edilma: My mother told me I should go.
MH: Your mother… How did she find out?
Edilma: Margarida from the neighborhood association told her. Margarida asked us to go with her and I went. I didn’t know what it was, she told me it was to elect a delegate; I didn’t know there would be a discussion.
MH: What did you think it would be?
Edilma: I thought we would just be voting for a delegate. My mother told me, “We’re going to vote for a delegate.” Still, they gave us refreshments. It was good.
MH: What do you understand by electing a delegate?
Edima: [silence]… It’s voting for someone…
MH: What do you expect from the delegates?
Edilma: For them to solve problems… But they’re elected and then we don’t know what happens.
Rosineide: The problem with the women here is that everything goes to their family first. Everything! They give to their family first, and after that, if anything is left, it’s for the people of Santo Amaro. So that’s it. If they receive a gift, it’s for the family first, and then for the people… That’s why we hesitate when it’s time vote. Because people think of themselves first, before thinking of people poorer than them. Me, what I see, is that they think of their family first…
MH: And you didn’t want to be delegates?
Edilma: I thought about it, but… well, I think the delegates do something all the same. At least one of them must do something. But me, I’m very shy, and to be a delegate, you have to speak, and… I’m shy. [45]

39In this extract, the selection of a delegate is seen as a classic electoral practice. The delegates are the target for criticism traditionally directed against elected representatives: the appropriation of the common weal to benefit their family, and the interpenetration between public and private. [46] For a participant like Rosineide, who has only remote connections with the neighborhood leader, the “representatives”, whether they are produced by elections or by participatory models, constitute a homogeneous group, distinct from the “people”, and their action remains independent of the needs expressed by those they represent. Here, delegation resembles political dispossession. However, if despite everything she is mobilized, it is to honor the social connections to which the family group is committed.

40In spite of these reservations, delegation is still perceived as legitimate, because of the delegates’ abilities, such as the capacity to speak in public. When Edilma emphasizes her shyness and nuances her sister’s words, assuming that certain delegates act positively, she validates a principle of competence, which justifies the division between “ordinary” participants and delegates, as well as the ephemeral nature of her own investment in these participatory models.

41For this type of inhabitant, representation in women’s conferences takes on an “exclusive” [47] dimension, in that it is not accompanied by her own empowerment or integration into the decision-making process.

42However, not all participants define the selection of a delegate in the same way. For others, giving their support to a candidate is a way of promoting a specific cause (the creation of professional courses, for example), or more generally the cause of a social group. Candidates for the delegation and ordinary participants act together, but participants entrust the formulation of their claims to the candidates. For example, this is the case of the collective mobilized by Josilene.

43Josilene is 36 years old and lives in the sixth district. She is unemployed when we meet, and was previously executive secretary in an SME. In 2004, she completed the first year of a law degree at a private university. She became involved in the participatory budgeting in 2001, under the influence of her husband, a Workers’ Party activist, and then participated in the 2002 Women’s Conference before being elected to the Women’s Council in 2004. In 2006, she went to the sixth district pre-conference, accompanied by nine people. Three of these were neighbors, whom she meets weekly, and with whom she shares connections of friendship and mutual aid. More precisely, one of her neighbors, who is not employed, regularly helps with household chores at Josilene’s home in exchange for lunches in the company of her children. Another, who is a home-based hairdresser and manicurist, regularly receives Josilene and her husband as customers. The six other participants are “friends” living on streets adjacent to Josilene’s home, but with whom her connections are not as strong. Before the conference, in order to prepare for the assembly of her district, Josilene holds a meeting in her home, to which I am invited. Six people are present, including her three neighbors. There is a double agenda, because the aim is both to determine the position of the “group” in the conferences and to present the issues in the next Workers’ Party electoral campaign in Recife.

44The first item gives rise to a series of interventions regarding what happened at preceding conferences, and their limited influence on the policies implemented. The discussion is particularly animated and neighbors frequently speak over one another. At the end of this discussion, Josilene reasserts that she proposes to “stand up for women from the neighborhoods […] and their specific problems”, without making a more specific proposal. Her intervention earns her several approving comments, with one neighbor indicating “that she [Josilene] is always better at speaking, which allows her to go a bit further”. [48]

45In this scenario, delegation is not necessarily synonymous with dispossession. Rather, it expresses Josilene’s privileged position in a group of acquaintances, united by neighborhood connections and mutual assistance relationships, which “naturally” make her a spokesperson within the group. Nevertheless, the same group is not only solicited for conferences. It is generally called upon to take part in various participatory and political manifestations, such as Worker’s Party electoral campaigns. In this case, the representation claim made by Josilene helps to ensure the existence of a collective which was there prior to the process, but which extends its collective action methods by participating in the assemblies.

46In the women’s conferences, the construction of a representative position is a process which starts in the neighborhoods. It cannot be separated from all of the everyday social networks to which the women entrepreneurs belong. By activating neighborhood relationships, be they activist or friendship-based, these women encourage the presence of a normally underrepresented group, while directing participation in their favor. Such a process may have exclusive effects, in particular when female participants associate their participation only with the “vote” in favor of another person, but it can also be part of a set of more inclusive participatory and activist practices. [49]

Between the neighborhood and the political-administrative sphere

47If women candidates for representative positions solicit individual support to ensure their election within the model, how do they justify their claim to speak for others? What knowledge or expertise do they highlight in order to appear legitimate to the mobilized group? Candidates to be spokeswomen showcase their multiple positions and, in particular, the pivotal position that they occupy between two worlds: a neighborhood or district and the political-administrative sphere. Moreover, it is by mediating between these two spaces that the selected representatives exercise and legitimize their position as spokeswomen.

The importance of multipositionality in self-presentation

48If, upstream of the participatory model, participation entrepreneurs mobilize support in their favor, they must nevertheless justify their candidacy for delegation in the assemblies to a wider audience. To this end, they mobilize principles of both identification with participants, and distinction from them.

49These “two contradictory principles” lie at the heart of electoral representation, [50] but may be organized differently according to the periods and contexts studied. In Brazil, they are a central element of the electoral campaigns in the northeast. The principle of identification is constructed by all the encounters, marches, meetings, and celebratory events, during which the candidates work to build proximity with voters. It is worth noting that because of the combination of an open-list proportional system and a fragmented multi-party system, political actors tend to privilege individualized campaigns, focusing more on the figure of the candidate than on the parties to which they belong. To ensure their eligibility, they attempt to mobilize certain social groups and/or certain territories, claiming that they belong to or identify with them. But these same candidates also highlight their experience and all of the abilities that set them apart from ordinary citizens, which allow them to make a claim to a governing position. [51]

50In women’s conferences, the principles of identification and distinction are mobilized together by the candidates, but they are integrated into a particular discursive framework. This consists in proving both that they know the needs of the inhabitants of a neighborhood, and that they are able to access the local political-administrative services and actors to meet these needs.

51Candidates for the delegation emphasize that they belong to the groups they solicit, which are most often defined by territorial criteria. It is because they live in a neighborhood or because they are members of a given “community” (a notion which designates both working-class neighborhoods and the social group that composes them) that they experience the difficulties encountered by the women they mobilize. They employ a descriptive conception of representation, which relies on evoking the shared experience uniting the representative and the represented. [52] This shared experience supposedly gives them an intimate understanding of the living conditions in their support environment. Based on their “experience-based knowledge”, i.e., their knowledge of their immediate environment, [53] they claim representative status, as indicated by Maria Alnice:


“We know the needs of the deprived communities… and we bring these needs before the public authorities, because only the public authorities can do something. Each of us, who lives in the neighborhood, has a problem, and we present these problems to the public authorities, because… how will they know what our problems are if we’re not there when the time comes to speak?” [54]

53The principle of identification is accompanied by an emphasis on their involvement in several spaces of associative or participatory life. This dimension is particularly explicit in the assemblies when the various candidates introduce themselves. Whereas the majority of “ordinary” citizens generally give only their first name, sometimes stating that they live in a certain neighborhood or belong to a certain association, participation entrepreneurs highlight their connections to multiple organizations in order to legitimize their intervention on behalf of a social group. This is illustrated by the case of Margarida, who evokes her position as president of a neighborhood association and as a participatory budgeting delegate, before concluding that she is “always delighted to speak for [her] community”. [55]

54These women distinguish themselves from their support group by emphasizing their multipositionality, which supposedly proves both a certain virtue and their proximity to the political-administrative field. It first expresses virtue, by recalling certain affiliations and leaving others aside. In fact, when they list their multiple positions, the candidates for representative status all evoke their associative and/or participatory affiliations, while generally glossing over their partisan engagement. These women wish to appear to speak for the “grassroots” and not look like they are relaying the interests of institutionalized political organizations. They claim that these grassroots have concrete and everyday “problems” which are not expressed in general party lines, nor in the action of the political-administrative elites, whose primary characteristic is that they act in an autonomous political field. This opposition reproduces an “ethics” of representation specific to the spokespeople for poor neighborhoods, which consists in differentiating “the politics of the communities” from “the politics of power”. The first is characterized by the unity of citizens in seeking to improve their living conditions, whereas the second is marked by conflict, fighting between individuals, and corruption. [56]

55However, beyond their territorial anchoring, candidates emphasize their capacity to communicate with the political and administrative actors. Thus, Dona Noémia goes to the pre-conferences wearing a participatory budgeting T-shirt, and takes the microphone at the start of the assembly, to “greet [the mayor] João Paulo, who, when he was elected, promised to win her over, as a leader”. [57] Josilene, a Workers’ Party activist and member of the Women’s Council, introduces herself at the third district assembly as follows:


“I have been a member of the Women’s Council since 2004. I represent the third district. The Council exists to voice our demands. We must discuss in order to define what we want; the staff of the administrative cabinets don’t know what our problems are, since they don’t leave their offices. We know that the services give us what we want if we ask them for it.” [58]

57Proximity with political-administrative personnel, due to private involvement in a participatory system or activist trajectory, is a significant element in the discourse of the female figures I met. In an interview, one woman introduces herself by defining herself as a “member of the Women’s Administration”, meaning a member of the authority in charge of gender politics. Another says she “works for the Women’s Administration by mobilizing women”.

58The pivotal position of these female actors between the residents of a locality and the service authorities is emphasized even more strongly because the entrepreneurs see it as a condition for responding to the demands of the groups whose voices they seek to express, because it supposedly either allows them to make these needs known to political-administrative figures (as stated by Josilene), or guarantees those represented a source of individualized access to precarious public services.

Representation legitimized by access to public service institutions

59Access to public actors and services does not solely represent an argumentative resource used as proof of the aptitude to represent a territory. It also constitutes a key element in the legitimation of the representatives selected in the model, in the eyes of their support group. In women’s conferences, the dedicated spokeswomen work to negotiate and accelerate access procedures for public services, particularly health care services, to benefit the groups for whom they speak.

60This specifically applies to the “councilors”, i.e., the women elected following the final assembly, who serve a mandate of two years on the Women’s Council. These representatives are required to respect their institutionally defined role. However, in performing this role, they integrate the expectations of their support network. Thus, their activity as councilor depends both on the rules of the system and on the relational dynamics in which they work, within neighborhoods.

61According to Council regulations, Council members are responsible for ensuring “social control”. This notion emerged at the start of the 1980s in the health care field to designate the integration of users, and more generally of “civil society”, in the formulation and execution of social policies. Civil society participation is thus seen as a way of guaranteeing the universal application of the law via the creation of citizen control mechanisms. However, this administrative and legal dimension is accompanied by a more political dimension: that of “democratizing decisions” [59] by expressing the needs of the population. Imported into the Women’s Council, this notion implies that the representatives “monitor” the effective implementation by the municipal government and all public institutions of the resolutions adopted at the conferences, as well as the existing legislation for women. The councilors are therefore asked to become “representatives of the represented”, an expression which according to Samuel Hayat designates the action of members of a representative institution when they address another representative institution in the name of those represented. [60]

62In practice, the exercise of social control is determined by the councilors’ relationships with local citizens. The idea of universal application of the laws is mobilized to negotiate individualized situations that reveal the real-world limitations in the operation of public services. For example, during Council meetings, councilors frequently evoke an individualized situation which they believe reveals broader malfunctions in the administration of services. The exemplarity of the cases raised supposedly justifies an intervention by public authorities to benefit an individual or group of inhabitants. Neighborhood representatives relay the difficulties experienced in the neighborhood, particularly by women, in accessing certain services. They mobilize Council networks, especially administrative actors, to remedy a personalized situation thought to illustrate the entirely relative application of the law in a particular area. The Council appears as a place for resolving individual problems, as illustrated by the following minutes from the institution:


“Recife, Women’s Council meeting, 17 September 2007. Councilor Vilma says that at the Santo Amaro health care center, there is a very long wait for gynecological examination appointments. Women wait months to be seen. She cites the case of a woman who has been waiting for over six months, and who came to see her for help. Josineide responds that she will contact the Health Secretariat to help this woman.” [61]

64Through their requests for intervention in favor of a third party, neighborhood representatives become active in the execution of social policies. They accelerate access to certain public services, and make it possible for the inhabitants who have contacted them to bypass normal procedures for receiving the public. To combat excessive wait times, they mobilize Council members, especially administrative actors, by arguing for the urgency or severity of an individual situation, particularly in the area of health care. In so doing, the representatives establish a parallel and individualized access route to the service systems which, to an extent, is what they embody in the neighborhoods. This type of intervention is comparable to the services proposed by elected representatives to their support base. Councilors and political players respond to the solicitations of those represented by activating relational and institutional tools, thus reinforcing their legitimacy as representatives. In this way, the councilors become “references” for the inhabitants, as indicated by Agricélia:


“When you participate in the Council, you end up with a kind of… ‘power’. The people see you as a reference. You become a reference for the community. People come to see you. For bureaucratic issues, justice issues. People come to see you for lots of things. Because they think that by being in a certain place, you can find solutions to everything. To benefit from the Bolsa Familia program, for faulty street lighting, for water shortages.” [62]

66Yet this individualized intervention is not necessarily synonymous with clientelistic depoliticization, because the evocation of individual situations allows neighborhood representatives to emphasize that the irregularity of public services accentuates the feeling of social exclusion, and confers a negative identity on inhabitants. In this regard, Nicinha speaks at a Council meeting to say how badly the women in her neighborhood “are mistreated by the dispensary, when they have to wait for hours, days, or years to access their rights”. [63] Wait times, the physical impossibility of getting into certain dispensaries because of the crowds, and the delayed addressing of urgent needs are all problems regularly cited to promote a differentiated administrative reception. The neighborhood representatives make a “state” request, via the extension of the existing public services, but also a request for “another state”, which would accord a distinct place to those who are the worst off, by giving them the dignity they lack in the current system.

67Although the work of representation carried out by the councilors is based on individualized motivations, this does not exclude a move from the particular to the general and a relative politicization of inequalities. More specifically, individual demands are translated using the register of the law. This rhetoric lies at the heart of representatives’ discourse, giving them a common grammar with the administrative institutions and with “community politics”. In fact, the rhetoric of rights allows diverse social requests to be made understandable to administrative interlocutors. It is mobilized to negotiate the everyday operation of administrative services, in order to satisfy individual needs. However, it is also associated with a contestation of social inequalities. The law is the register for reframing the discriminations experienced by those represented.

68* * *

69In women’s conferences, constructing a position as a representative entails an individualized unification of networks of actors with residential, professional, or activist social connections. By mobilizing acquaintance groups and steering them in their favor, certain women, whom I have called participation entrepreneurs, ensure their nomination within the model. Moreover, by relaying individual or collective requests from these scattered networks to political-administrative actors, the representatives elected within the model legitimize and consolidate their position as spokeswomen within their support networks.

70Despite its individualized character, the claim formulated by certain female actors to represent others produces collectives. By drawing on neighborhood social connections and professional and activist networks, entrepreneurs construct or consolidate social groups, which up until then had not necessarily been united in collective action. These groups are not all of the same nature. In some cases, they are merely ephemeral, and reproduce the exclusive dimension of representation. If female inhabitants participate, it is primarily to ensure the election of another woman, without this mobilization representing empowerment or an interest in political life. Conversely, in other cases, the collectives created or solicited survive and intervene in several spaces of social and political life.

71The individualization of the ways of legitimizing representation in conferences also has variable effects. Although such a dynamic may be compared to the strategies used by elected representatives to consolidate their clientele, it does not exclude a general denunciation of social inequalities and the administrative treatment of poverty, which draws on the language of law.

72The case in point therefore allows us to understand the importance of everyday circles of sociability in constructing non-electoral representation. The demonstration of the way in which social and participatory elements are entangled has required a displacement of the usual focus on participatory models and the participation/representation practices within them. Rather than taking the model as a space with its limits defined by procedures, my study has instead tried to understand how the participants use the system, both within it and in the environments they attempt to represent.

73Finally, this analysis calls for a more precise comparison of forms of electoral and participatory representation in Brazil. Representatives’ practices in women’s conferences can to some extent be compared to those of elected representatives: these two types of actors mobilize a common grammar, which consists in favoring issues involving access to public services. However, in the case of women’s conferences, I consider that the notion of clientelism is insufficient to explain a set of practices which, although they rely on individualized motivations, also involve a moral economy and have only limited effects on the electoral positioning of the participants. [64] This observation calls for further research on electoral representation. Beyond the traditional analyses pointing to a generalized recourse to clientelistic practices, does the service relationship proposed by the elected representatives involve a relationship with justice? Do political exchanges between elected representatives and voters lead to a subjectification process within the electorate? More generally, is the notion of clientelism sufficient to understand the practices of electoral representation?

The English version of this article is published thanks to the support of the CNRS.


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How do certain actors construct a position as a representative in Brazilian participatory models? Based on a study of the municipal women’s conferences in Recife, this article analyzes the social anchoring of representation in participatory institutions. It shows that the construction of a representative position rests, first, on the capacity to transform personalized relationships into a support group, and, second, on permanent mediation between local residents and public institutions.


  • participatory democracy
  • representation
  • social anchoring
  • gender studies
  • Brazil
Marie-Hélène Sa Vilas Boas
Marie-Hélène Sa Vilas Boas is a contract research lecturer in Brazilian civilization at the University of French Guyana. Her doctoral research focused on female citizen engagement in women’s conferences in Recife and Londrina. She is currently studying the interpenetration of social connections of sex, race, and class in the participatory systems in French Guyana. She is the author of several articles, including (with Federico Tarragoni) “Le clientélisme résiste-t-il à la participation populaire ? Une comparaison Brésil-Venezuela”, Critique internationale, 68, 2015, 103-24 (University of French Guyana, BP 20792, 97337 Cayenne cedex).
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