David Nugent

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Alternative Democracies: The Evolution of the Public Sphere in 20th Century Peru

David Nugent's current project originated when he was finishing the research for his 1997 book, Modernity at the Edge of Empire, in Chachapoyas, Peru. "People were talking about democracy in ways I did not recognize," Nugent recalls. "I realized later that I was unconsciously immersed in our own model of 'normative' democracy. Exposure to a radically different democracy made me wonder why local people's definition was so different from our own, and what the social conditions were that produced it." The resulting book, Alternative Democracies: The Evolution of the Public Sphere in 20th Century Peru, traces the emergence of a transnational movement of participatory democracy that arose in Chachapoyas in the 1920s to challenge both the state and the ruling elite.

During this period the central government and local elites collaborated to exclude much of the population from political life, and to systematically violate the rights and protections granted them in Peru's constitution. In response, a political movement called APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana, or the Popular Revolutionary American Alliance) established an intricate, subterranean political structure to offer the justice, order, and protection generally associated with 'the state' but sorely lacking in northern Peru. APRA's interpretation of 'rule by the people' paid scant attention to political rituals associated with procedural democracy, such as voting, elections, and representation. Instead, APRA asserted that a society was democratic only to the extent that all members of the community were guaranteed an equal and active voice in day-to-day decisions regarding economic, social, political, and cultural life.

The underground political structure created by APRA sought to provide people with what the state and the elite had long denied them—the ability to have a direct and powerful voice in their everyday affairs. Although many of the organizing techniques used by APRA such as peer surveillance, underground courts, and a rigidly-enforced discipline and moral code seem counter to normative definitions of democracy, they were designed to help realize APRA's interpretation of popular rule.

"Democracies everywhere refer to 'rule by the people,' but how people interpret popular rule varies enormously. Our habit of referring to European democracy as normative is shortsighted and ethnocentric, for it privileges one particular expression of democracy over all others and prevents us from recognizing that the world has produced a broad range of democracies. All are worthy of the attention and analysis of social scientists," said Nugent.

Affiliation at time of award:
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Colby College

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