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CEDLA Research Programme

Reshaping Society and the Commons in Latin America

Latin America entered the twenty-first century with new hopes for change. However, following a period of bonanza, the region is now facing a new wave of economic, social and political crises. Growth, poverty reduction, social inclusion and consolidation of democratic institutions have given way to economic recession, social dissatisfaction, dismantling of social policies and intensifying conflicts. Although such a cyclical trend is not new in the region’s history, a new context of closely interconnected local, national and global developments is leading to a variety of societal consequences. Recent trends aggravate problems of inequality, insecurity, corruption and unsustainability; yet some groups within Latin America’s societies have experienced positive transformations ranging from empowerment and recognition, to a new presence in the public space and the development of different forms of cultural and political expressions. As CEDLA’s previous research programme on the use of natural and cultural resources has shown, such diverse, complex and contradictory changes lead to hybrid outcomes.

CEDLA’s current research programme aims to produce new knowledge on the reshaping of Latin American society within the context of crisis and transformation. The region has long been disproportionately characterized by an unequal development that fuelled academic paradigms focused on dependency, inequality, informality and violence. However, this prevailing image of a region with failing states and fragmented societies has obscured powerful creative and constructive processes. In addition to structural elements, we are looking into the agency of new expressions, identities, initiatives, policies and daily realities on the ground that drive social interaction and innovation. This creativity is reshaping Latin American societies, not by ignoring the past but by dealing with and re-interpreting historical lessons and legacies.

Covering a large range of research activities (individual and with external partners), CEDLA’s researchers jointly analyse the dialectical relations between old and new forms of social organization through an innovative, interdisciplinary perspective. This endeavour is built on three analytical pillars. First, we look beyond standardized categories of actors (e.g. public sector, private sector and civil society), spaces (e.g. urban and rural), and processes (e.g. top-down and bottom-up) and engage in a constructivist perspective in order to better understand how identities and territories are reshaped in the region. Second, we focus on relevant experiments and experiences that have emerged since the 2000s, including political reforms, social learning, and cultural and territorial changes. Third, as the region has recently entered a phase of aggravated economic, social and political conditions, we conceptualize crisis both as a barrier and a driver of transformation. Problems, tensions and polarization may enhance (latent) conflicts and power relations as much as they can trigger new forms of resistance, adaptation and collaboration, according to the social, institutional and spatial context.

In these new research activities, CEDLA researchers aim to balance out macro-level scholarly attention for changes, actions, discourses and images with empirical evidence of the many micro-level dynamics stemming from everyday life practices, initiatives, struggles and resistances through which citizens employ their agency, individually or collectively. Studies on both levels and from various countries constitute building blocks for observing the multiple forms of societal change in Latin America. Empirical and theoretical contributions are made to two particular interrelated domains of inquiry: the reshaping of identities and the reshaping of territories. Both domains cross geographic and cultural divides by combining tangible and intangible resources.

While this research programme is based on multiple theoretical perspectives that have traditionally been used and developed by CEDLA researchers, the commons approach also plays an important role as a connecting analytical device in understanding a range of processes, actors and contexts. In addition to their importance in the region’s history and imaginary, the concepts of territory and identity will be used to apply the plural perspective of the commons to Latin America. In this way, our research programme facilitates the comprehension of processes that are reshaping Latin American society today, and at the same time, engages with key social science and humanities approaches to the region’s particular trajectory of development. In all, it aims to critically engage with various recent lines of the commons research, exploring synergistic analytical power by the combination of plural perspectives.


Summary and results of CEDLA Research Programme 2009-2016 ‘Natural and Cultural Resource Use in Contemporary Latin America’


CEDLA Researchers


Current PhD candidates at CEDLA


CEDLA fellows


“Xela Stories of Transformation”

For the first time in CEDLA’s history, seven of its researchers conducted fieldwork together. This blog reflects this collective endeavour to explore recent social transformations in the Guatemalan city of Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango) and its immediate (peri-urban) vicinity. Using the notions of ‘commons’ and ‘commoning’ as point of departure, the project seeks to understand processes of commoning that shape patterns of access, resource use and reproduction.

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