James Holston

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James Holston

303 Kroeber
510 642-3392
Office Hours
On sabbatical Spring 2018
Sign-up for office hours at this link: https://www.wejoinin.com/jholston@berkeley.edu

Current/Future Courses

Anthropology of Politics

Fall 2017 |Graduate

Politics and Anthropology

Spring 2017 |Undergraduate

Special Interests

Cities and citizenship; political theory; new forms of direct democracy using digital technologies; planning and architecture; Brazil, the Americas. Director, Social Apps Lab at CITRIS


My current research examines the worldwide insurgence of democratic citizenships in the context of global urbanization. Three considerations frame this work: those of analysis, critique, and experiment.

I analyze insurgent citizenship movements in relation to modernist projects of state that aim to produce the nation and manage the social by imposing a future embodied in plans – projects of city planning, development, law, and government. By insurgent, I refer to practices through which people problematize such projects and transform, derail, and reconstitute them. These insurgent practices include social movements, land struggles, illegal housing, gender conflicts, violence, and the formulation of new public spheres of citizenship. I describe these practices as insurgent when they work against established conditions of belonging in society and provide alternative sources for rights, ethics, and politics.  My theoretical work focuses especially on the need to rethink classic conceptions of citizenship, democracy, and politics in light of contemporary global engagements of modernism, capitalism, insurgence, and urbanization. The concepts I have developed to do so include insurgent citizenship, differentiated citizenship, disjunctive democracy, misrule of law, and peripheral urbanization. 

Much of my work focuses on the production of peripheral urbanization in cities of the Global South.  I investigate the social and material practices residents develop as they build the urban peripheries, and I argue that these practices and the repressions they encounter have unsettled national citizenships worldwide in unprecedented ways.  They have made the development of urban citizenship and related initiatives of direct democracy among the most compelling issues of our times.  My publications consider these issues not only in terms of a new "commoning" of the city at the intersections of city-making, city-occupying, and rights-claiming.  They also consider the new forms of illegality, violence, inequality, and segregation that arise in response and that simultaneously erode citizenship, democracy, and belonging.

I also frame my research in terms of the proposition that as a social science, anthropology entails a combination of critical and experimental studies.  The anthropology of politics to which I am committed therefore has two dimensions:  a critical inquiry of present and past configurations of political life and an experimentation with its contemporary problems for the purposes of testing and inventing new politics – in Aristotle’s sense of politics as a “practical art and science” of governing.  By critical I refer to the use of analytic and ethnographic methods to demonstrate the force of unexamined givens and unsolved problems in the self-understanding of what I study and to indicate the “immanence” of what could be but is not – for example, in a legal system of property or an urban plan.  The experimental entails identifying and evaluating contemporary cases of experiments in politics, such as new forms of democratic assembly and participation.  In addition, it means that I also actually create and test alternatives to the problems at hand that my ethnography reveals.  For instance, I helped develop a counter-plan to modernist Brasília, and I formulated a conception of right to the city that does not depend on national citizenship or supposedly universal human rights.

To give new directions to this combination of critique and experiment, I co-founded the Social Apps Lab at CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society) in 2010. By bringing anthropology into collaboration with the sciences of information technology, our purpose at the Lab is to investigate the kinds of social problems that are “appable” and then to make the apps. The Lab uses collaborative ethnographic research and anthropological analysis to identify social resources and political processes pertinent to a particular problem, which are then articulated as software architecture. This challenge has meant that I both investigate existing use of the internet and software for political purposes and experiment with making new software platforms to promote innovations in democratic citizenship through new scales and assemblies of deliberation, urban knowledge, and civic engagement. As director of the Social Apps Lab, I sponsor research, teaching, and interdisciplinary collaboration, providing research and production opportunities for students, visiting scholars, faculty, and outside clients.

The Social Apps Lab has produced two internationally recognized software platforms. DengueChat (denguechat.org) is a web and cellphone platform that promotes community-based arbovirus (mosquito) vector control for the prevention of dengue, Zika, and chikungunya. It is currently implemented in Nicaragua, Colombia, and Paraguay.  For the project in Nicaragua, we received the Clinton Global Initiative award. AppCivist (appcivist.org) is a software platform for democratic assembly, participatory planning, proposal development, and civic action that lets users design and build their own assemblies with modular components. The cities of Vallejo in California and Dieppe in Canada are currently using it as the platform for their annual direct democratic process of participatory budgeting. The Federal University of São Paulo in Brazil is also using AppCivist to develop a new master plan for its 6 campuses through direct decision-making among its population of 25,000 faculty, staff, and students.  AppCivist won the 2016 Chancellor’s Award for Public Service in the Category of Campus-Community Partnership.

Representative Publications


2008. Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

-- 2013 revised edition and translation, Cidadania Insurgente: Disjunções da Democracia e da Modernidade no Brasil.  São Paulo: Companhia das Letras. 

1999. Cities and Citizenship, edited by James Holston. Durham: Duke University Press.

1989. The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

-- 1993 revised edition and translation, A Cidade Modernista: Uma Crítica de Brasília e Sua Utopia.  São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.


2016. Filtering dissent: social media and land struggles in Brazil. (Rodrigo Ochigame and James Holston). New Left Review 99: 85-108.

2016. Engineering software assemblies for participatory democracy: the participatory budgeting use case. (James Holston, Valérie Issarny, and Cristhian Parra).  In Proceedings of the 38th International Conference on Software Engineering, Companion (ICSE ’16),  573-582. Piscataway, NJ: IEEE Press.  DOI: 10.1145/2889160.2889221

2015. Participatory urban planning in Brazil.  (Teresa Caldeira and James Holston). Urban Studies 52(11): 2001-2017.

2014. Come to the street: urban protest, Brazil 2013. Anthropological Quarterly 87(3): 889-902.

2011. The civility of inegalitarian citizenships.  In The Fundamentalist City?: Religiosity and Remaking of Urban Space, 51-71. Nezar AlSayyad and Mejgan Massoumi, editors. London: Routledge.   

2011. Contesting privilege with right: the transformation of differentiated citizenship in Brazil. Citizenship Studies 15(3-4): 335-352.2009. Insurgent citizenship in an era of global urban peripheries. Cities and Society 21(2): 253-277.

2009. Insurgent citizenship in an era of global urban peripheries. Cities and Society21(2): 253-277.

2006. Citizenship in disjunctive democracies. In Citizenship in Latin America, 75-94. Joseph S. Tulchin and Meg Ruthenburg, editors. Boulder: Lynne Reinner.

2005. State and urban space in Brazil: from modernist planning to democratic interventions. (Teresa P. R. Caldeira and James Holston). In Global Anthropology: Technology, Governmentality, Ethics, 393-416. Aihwa Ong and Stephen J. Collier, editors. London: Blackwell.

2001. Urban citizenship and globalization. In Global City-Regions, 325-348. Allen J. Scott, editor. New York: Oxford University Press.

1999. Democracy and violence in Brazil. (Teresa P. R. Caldeira and James Holston). Comparative Studies in Society and History 41(4): 691-729.

1999. Alternative modernities: statecraft and religious imagination in the Valley of the Dawn. American Ethnologist 26(3): 605-631

1996. Cities and citizenship. (James Holston and Arjun Appadurai). Public Culture 8(2): 187-204.

1995. Spaces of insurgent citizenship. Planning Theory 13: 35-51.

1991. Autoconstruction in working-class Brazil. Cultural Anthropology 6(4): 447-465.

1991. The misrule of law: land and usurpation in Brazil. Comparative Studies in Society and History 33(4): 695-725.