The power of distance: Re-theorizing social movements
in Latin America
DIANE E. DAVIS
New School for Social Research
Most scholars who work on Latin American social movements borrow
frameworks developed by those who study Europe and North America.
Little e¡ort has been made to formulate alternative models deliberately
sensitive to the unique political, social, cultural, and economic develop-
ments in Latin America. Furthermore, the two models most frequently
utilized, mainly the political opportunity structure (POS) and new
social movement (NSM) approaches, are limited in their explanatory
potential and scope because they are built on ‘‘western’’ assumptions
about state formation and state-society relations that do not hold in
the Latin American context. In what follows, I o¡er a new and more
historically speci¢c framework for the study of social movements, built
around a phenomenological understanding of space conceived as both
a material and a social construct. By encouraging a sensitivity to space
and how it articulates with historically given patterns of state forma-
tion, class formation, and citizenship, as well as racial, ethnic, and
gender-speci¢c identity politics, my larger aim is to provide a new way
of understanding and theorizing the origins, nature, and consequences
of social movements in di¡erent comparative and historical contexts.
I argue that once we more conscientiously develop what Anthony
Giddens, Doreen Massey, and Alan Pred, among others, call the
‘‘space/time’’ dimension of our theorizing,
we can better understand
social movements in Latin America and elsewhere, not just who joins
them and the role that meaning and stragegy play in these decisions,
but also their larger implications for political and social change.
The article is divided into two main sections. In the ¢rst, I examine and
account for an intellectual gridlock in the study of Latin American
social movements. In the second, I seek to transcend the stalemate by
proposing a new theoretical framework built around the concept of
distance or, better said, citizens’ distance from the state, understood
Theory and Society
: 585^638, 1999.
Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.