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Mariana Borges

Program Area(s):  Methods; Comparative Politics

Dissertation Title:

Bargaining for Votes: The Cultural Roots of Clientelism Survival in Sertão of Bahia

Dissertation Committee:  James Mahoney (Chair), Edward Gibson, Wendy Pearlman

Research Interests: Political Behavior; Political Parties; Political Culture; Cultural Sociology; Interpretive Methods; Political Sociology, Ethnography

Dissertation Description:

Why do individuals sell their vote? Most scholars argue that poor voters leave their programmatic preferences aside because the value of a cheap gift is likely to have a much bigger impact in their income than it has for wealthier voters. My research reveals, however, that individuals bargain their vote, in exchange for handouts, not out of poverty but rather because of cultural habits. Based on extensive ethnographic evidence from Sertão of Bahia Brazil, I offer a new theoretical approach to vote buying by arguing that such practices are better understood as a cultural habit rather than a purely economic transaction. Individuals understand and live everyday politics as a way to solve their personal problems by giving their vote in order to gain access to politicians’ brokerage. Based on this cultural approach to vote buying, I then seek to explain the resilience of a clientelistic logic of practicing politics despite the deep socioeconomic and political changes in Sertão of Bahia. Contrary to the predictions of materialistic accounts, I show how the improvement of voters’ living standards ended up commodifying patron-client relations instead of allowing poor individuals to vote according to their programmatic preferences. Then, I discuss how the main programmatic political party came to rely on vote buying practices during elections as a way to overcome the resistance of the electorate to support individuals who lacked the social distinction marks of the local elite. The new framework I develop to understand vote buying sheds new light on how cultural meanings influence political action. Additionally, my ethnographic study of vote buying uncovers how money colors the relationship between ordinary citizens with the state and politicians at the micro level.


  • Northwestern University, University Fellowship (2011-2012;2015-2016)
  • Northwestern University, Methods Training Grant Institute for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research Summer Institute (2014)
  • Brazilian Ministry of Education (CAPES) Ph.D. Fellowship (2012-2015)
  • Buffet Institute for Global Studies Summer Research Grant (2012)
  • Fellow of the Latin America & Caribbean Studies Program (2011-2012)
  • DAAD Intensive German Study Grant (2010)
  • Research Council of Rio de Janeiro (FAPERJ), Best M.A’s Student Fellowship (2009-2010)
  • Brazilian Ministry of Education (CAPES), M.A. Fellowship (2008-2009)
  • Research Council of São Paulo (FAPESP), Undergraduate Research Grant (2006-2007)
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