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From social gaze to bureaucratic standards: Doing race in affirmative action practices in Brazil



Förderung: DFG - Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

Laufzeit: Oktober 2018 - März 2024

Projektleitung: Prof. Dr. Katharina Schramm

Mitarbeiterin: Sarah Lempp, M.A.


The project analyzes racial classification processes in the context of Brazilian affirmative action policies. Focusing on recently established assessment practices for job selection processes in the public service, we ask how race as a category of difference is established and made relevant in the course of bureaucratic, administrative and legal action. To this end, we examine how race is articulated in three distinct settings: in assessment practices in which quota candidates’ self-classification is 'verified', in governmental institutions that are responsible for the setting of the respective standards, and in legal cases in which quota candidates appeal to negative assessments of their self-classification as 'black'.

Instead of asking whether candidates are classified 'correctly' in these procedures, we are interested in the workings of the so-called 'social gaze', which is assumed to structure Brazilians’ perception of race and with which the assessment commissions are supposed to look at the candidates. Our study therefore is guided by the following research questions:

  • How is the 'social gaze' enacted and operationalized in the assessment procedures? 
  • How do governmental and quasi-state institutions translate this 'social gaze' into bureaucratic standards and indicators?
  • How is evidence for the commissions’ decisions produced? What counts as evidence?

Using theoretical approaches which emphasize that objects only become relevant through concrete practices that produce, stabilize and maintain them, the project’s main objective is to gain an ethnographically grounded understanding of how race is done in affirmative action practices in Brazil. Methodologically, the primary strategies consist of a) silent observation of assessment commissions, b) interviews as well as socializing with and shadowing of commission members and staff at the respective institutions, c) participant observation in trainings and workshops for members of assessment commissions, d) documental analysis of legal cases and governmental guidelines. The overall research aim of this close accompaniment is to learn how the different actors carry out and describe the assessment practices and the classification of race, not to judge this work politically or morally.

Linking postcolonial approaches within Science and Technology Studies with the research fields of classificatory practices, the anthropology of bureaucracy and citizenship studies, the project makes an important contribution to the anthropological study of race. In addition, we offer a new take on the question of affirmative action in Brazil (and comparatively in other settings as well) by focusing on the very practices of categorization and by ethnographically analyzing bureaucratic action and assessment practices in this field – an aspect that until now has received little attention.

Verantwortlich für die Redaktion: Nadja Bscherer

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