Luciana de Souza Leão, "Optics of the State: The Politics of Making Poverty Visible in Brazil and Mexico"

Hybrid: The Graduate Hotel, California Room & via Zoom

Sociological studies stress how state legibility serves as a form of population control. Often overlooked is how states differ in their will to control, and how this variation shapes legibility projects. This research proposes a three-dimensional analytical framework to study legibility from a comparative perspective that seeks to account for this variation. I illustrate the usefulness of this framework through an in-depth analysis of how Brazil and Mexico rendered poor individuals visible in order to implement conditional cash transfer programs (or CCTs). In the mid-1990s, these two states implemented the same policy, facing very similar challenges; yet, they adopted different solutions for governing their respective CCT programs and making poor families visible. Drawing on the analysis of approximately 15,000 pages of official documents, 125 in-depth interviews with bureaucratic and political elites, and 18 months of fieldwork in Brazil and Mexico, this article reveals the political and governance effects of distinct methods of seeing like a state. Specifically, I show that the differences and consequences of legibility projects depended on the politics of legitimation of each CCT program and had the unanticipated effect of making the state itself visible to broader publics and thus subject to intense scrutiny.


Luciana de Souza Leão is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Michigan. De Souza Leão is a political and comparative sociologist with broad interests in knowledge-making processes, racial inequalities and the state. Her work has appeared in the American Journal of Sociology, the British Journal of Sociology, Politics & Society, Theory and Society, among other publications. She is currently working on a book, tentatively titled, Manufacturing Legitimacy: the Politics of Giving Money to the Poor in Brazil and Mexico, which examines how politics, measurement practices, and expertise shape anti-poverty programs in Latin America.