Joint PARI – GCRO Seminar – Embedded Cohesion: Governing Public Goods in São Paulo, 1989-2016

Embedded Cohesion: Governing Public Goods in São Paulo, 1989-2016

Seminar presented by Benjamin Bradlow

Wednesday 4 July, 11:00-12:30

GCRO Boardroom


Dominant theories of urban political economy predict convergence in material and institutional outcomes in large cities across the globe: growing inequalities of income, wealth, and standards of living, and the political dominance of business elites in real estate, construction, and finance. If there are limits to the convergence of urban inequalities and governance across cities, then we need tractable concepts for comparative analysis of this variation. I draw on nine months of fieldwork in São Paulo in 2016 and 2017, to construct a historical explanation of why relationships between state and society in São Paulo’s recent democratic era have made it possible to generate surprisingly effective redistribution of public goods across multiple policy spheres — housing and public transportation. Dominant explanations of the social bases of state action have focused on the autonomy of single bureaucratic agencies to achieve their goals, and degrees of “embeddedness” of the state in other social sectors, such as business elites and working class organizations. The distribution of public goods at the city scale is conditioned by unique conditions for which these explanations do not suffice. In particular, the city is a subsidiary institutional authority and institutional action at this scale therefore requires coordination across multiple scales of bureaucratic agencies. Furthermore, the distribution of public goods in cities often involves coordination across multiple line agencies at the municipal level. Finally, because public goods often rely on networks of infrastructure across space, coordination across the geography of the city is required. In order to capture these unique dynamics of institutional intervention in the case of São Paulo, I introduce a new pathway for how states achieve redistributive outcomes: “embedded cohesion”.


Benjamin H. Bradlow is a PhD candidate in sociology and an NSF-IGERT fellow in development and inequality at Brown University. His current research compares urban governance of public goods (housing, public transportation, and sanitation) in São Paulo and Johannesburg after transitions to democracy. This dissertation is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, Fulbright, and the Brazilian Studies Association. He has been a visiting researcher at the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the University of São Paulo and the Public Affairs Research Institute at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. His research interests are in political economy of globalization and development, comparative urban sociology, and state-society relations. He holds a Masters in City Planning from MIT and a BA in history from Swarthmore College.

Photo by Jonathan Olsson.