Zachary Levenson

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Zachary Levenson

Curriculum Vitae
Research Interests
urban sociology, political sociology, ethnography, race and ethnicity, social theory, sociology of development

I am an urban sociologist at UC Berkeley who uses ethnographic and archival methods to understand how poor residents’ politics affect urban policy outcomes. In particular, my work analyzes how residents excluded from formal channels of political participation create their own informal organizations. I examine the conditions under which they form these organizations, the claims they make on the state, and the ways their mobilization transforms the geography of the city.

Most social science writing about the urban poor relegates them to the passive status of “populations,” managed from above by governments. My dissertation, The Post-Apartheid State: The Politics of Housing in South Africa, argues the opposite: that the political struggles of the urban poor powerfully shape urban change. Drawing on seventeen months of ethnographic fieldwork, it provides a detailed study of squatters facing eviction in contemporary Cape Town. By putting urban and political sociologies in dialogue, my work explains the constitutive role of subaltern struggles in transforming urban space.

A second body of work addresses the consequences of South Africa’s post-apartheid housing program, which has unintentionally rendered apartheid’s racialized geography permanent. Unable to wait any longer for decent homes, residents make demands for immediate inclusion, fundamentally transforming the nature of the welfare state in the process. I have studied these demands ethnographically both through formal institutional channels and in the form of a citywide social movement engaging in sustained direct action. This research demonstrates that the policy effects of urban struggles extend beyond the legal terrain analyzed in my dissertation. It has appeared in Urban Studies, International Sociology, Contexts, Catalyst, an edited volume in the Mobilization book series, and elsewhere.

PhD Date:
Dissertation Title
The Post-Apartheid State: The Politics of Housing in South Africa
Dissertation Committee
Michael Burawoy (chair), Dylan Riley, Gillian Hart (Geography), Michael Watts (Geography)