Countdown to an impasse: Expertise and the mediation of inequality at Brazil’s Alcântara launch center

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This paper examines the conflicts surrounding Brazil’s Alcântara spaceport through an ethnographic analysis of an important meeting, and it advances some arguments about the use of expertise in social conflict. Conceived at the end of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime, the spaceport has long been at the center of social conflict. Today it is utilized by Brazil’s civilian and military space programs, often at odds with each other. When the base was built, some 1,500 villagers were removed from their land; other villages surrounding the base have resisted expropriation, assisted by a wide network of allies. During decades of conflict, villagers have increasingly come to mobilize around a contemporary ethnoracial identity, quilombola (escaped-slave descendant), prompted in part by a clause in Brazil’s 1988 constitution that requires that the state grant land rights to quilombo-descended communities. I argue that: 1) participants in Alcântara’s conflicts often frame their arguments by placing boundaries around technical, natural, and social domains-that is, by making claims about ontology; 2) such framing privileges varied forms of expertise; and 3) examining deployments of expertise is important for understanding relations of inequality in situations where globally dispersed technologies are significant (everywhere) and, also, when ambiguous, group-specific rights are involved (such as those of the quilombolas). In my consideration of the ontological character of some political claims, I briefly consider the so-called ontological turn in anthropological theory in order to argue against the construal of social differences as ontological ones.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalWorking Paper of the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies
Issue number413
StatePublished - Oct 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development


  • Brazil
  • Ethnography
  • Expertise
  • Governance
  • Inequality
  • Race
  • Technoscience


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