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Rethinking Territory from Below: Learning from Theory and Practice in Argentina

Rethinking Territory from Below: Learning from Theory and Practice in Argentina

Leverhulme Trust


The research is part of a three-year postdoctoral fellowship funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Isaac Newton Trust at the University of Cambridge.

Following initial pilot/scoping research in August and September 2016 (funded by the British Academy), the project currently consists of two parts:

(i) conceptual work that seeks to rethink territory through a dialogue between Argentine (and more broadly, Latin American) and Anglophone understandings of territory, via archive analysis and literature review, exploring what a decolonial reading of urban territory may look like and what implications this has on how territory is theorised in the UK;

(ii) an empirical investigation into Buenos Aires' new system of neighbourhood comunas since their juntas (local councils) were first formed in 2011, evaluating the opportunities and challenges it has opened for territorial political activism and participation, and exploring the relationship between grassroots and institutional territorial organising.


Territory, understood as the political occupation and control of space, is a core concept in geography and other social science disciplines yet needs rethinking. Following extensive research on distinct territorial forms, e.g. borders and states, the concept of territory itself has recently become focus of significant scholarly analysis (Painter, 2010). In particular, Elden (2013) has traced the history of territory, understood as a "political technology" through which power is exerted in place and the modern state was formed. Yet contemporary uses of territory indicate the need to bring this concept up-to-date. 21st Century politics around the world has been shaken by a new generation of activists eschewing traditional state-based politics and organising territory to experiment with new forms of political participation.

In Spain, for example, grassroots organisations expanded from occupying urban space in 2011 to integrating neighbourhood assemblies into Barcelona's city council in 2015, while the UK has seen a resurgence of localism and community politics (Wills, 2016). The renewed theoretical interest in territory provides an opportune moment to rethink the concept from the perspective of contemporary, grassroots political transformations. By reconceptualisating territory from below, this project opens up new conversations about the geography of political transformation and the changing relationship between civil society and the state. It engages with activists and scholars, integrating archive analysis and interviews into a synthesis of territorial thought and practice in Argentina over the last twenty years.

Image 1: Neighbours organise street assembly
in response to hike in gas prices

Street assembly

Image 2: Participatory Citizenship and Decentralisation meeting
Comuna leaders
Participatory meeting

Why Argentina?

Territory has been central to both theory and practice of Argentine political transformations during the last two decades. Since the mid-1990s, in the build-up to the financial and political crisis of 2001, territory has become key to grassroots organising, especially in Buenos Aires and other major cities, in what activists term 'territorial work' (trabajo territorial) - the organisation and control of neighbourhoods by marginalised political actors - and related territorial practices including: blocking public roads (piquetes), factory workers' occupations (tomas); and people's assemblies (asambleas) (Svampa and Pereyra, 2003). Many of these practices have been key to recent social movements in Europe and North America (Sitrin and Azzellini, 2013).

Moreover, territory has been central to Argentine research (conducted by universities and social movements), providing a distinct perspective on the significance of territory to Anglophone literature. For example, Argentine research demonstrates the significance of grassroots territorial politics for developing new subjectivities (e.g. unemployed workers) and practices of resilience (e.g. solidarity economy) in times of crisis (Sitrin, 2012) and highlights how territorial politics forges a new relationship between civil society and the state based on the negotiation of grassroots demands (e.g. welfare, infrastructure) and struggles for political and economic autonomy from the state (Dinerstein, 2015; Grimson et al, 2009).

This research provides a synthesis of theories and practices of territory in Argentina and integrates (and compares) it with current research on territory in Anglophone literature. With Argentina ending 2015 with the first new government in twelve years, and the left-wing 'Pink Tide' coming to an end across Latin America, it also provides an opportunity to assess the outcomes of two decades of practical and theoretical engagements with grassroots territorial organising.


(i) To rethink territory in the context of contemporary political transformation.

Territory as a concept cannot be separated from its historical use in practice (Elden, 2013) and traditional theories of territory as political domination tied to state-space are out of touch with 21st century politics. This project expands on prevailing theory by examining how territory is also produced from below in attempts to create improved living conditions by grassroots organisations. Although the spatial dimension of activism has received increasing attention there has been little discussion of territory in social movement literature. For example, the significance of place for mobilising activism has been highlighted (Nicholls, 2009) and rich ethnographic descriptions of everyday practices of occupation exist (Chatterton and Pickerill, 2010), yet this literature rarely speaks to theories of territory, even if territory is acknowledged as an important spatiality of social movements (Nicholls et al, 2013).

(ii) To develop a new conceptual approach to territory that is inclusive and expansive, integrating theory and practice across disciplinary and, in particular, linguistic barriers.

Although the challenges of working across culturally distinct approaches to territory have been highlighted (Painter, 2010) there has been little attempt to integrate them. Argentine thought on territory has developed in dialogue with Latin American (particularly Brazilian) scholars examining new territorial politics across the region (Porto Gonçalves, 2001). Integrating these regional discussions also speaks to contemporary geographical debates concerning the postcolonial dynamics of territory and the ways knowledge is produced and circulated (Bryan, 2012; Radcliffe, 2010). Moreover, at a time when territorial practices developed in Argentina (e.g. people's assemblies; public space occupations) have travelled to Europe and elsewhere (Sitrin and Azzellini, 2013), looking at politics in seemingly distant, unexpected, places can provide insights into political transformations closer to home (Peck and Theodore, 2015).


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  • Chatterton, P., and Pickerill, J., 2010. 'Everyday activism and transitions towards post-capitalist worlds' Transactions of the Institute for British Geographers. 35: 475-490.
  • Dinerstein, A., 2015. The Politics of Autonomy in Latin American: The Art of Organising Hope. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Elden, S., 2013. The Birth of Territory. London: University of Chicago Press.
  • Grimson, A., Ferraudi, C.M.C. and Segura, R., 2009. La vida política en los barrios populares de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires: Ed. Prometeo.
  • Nicholls, W., 2009. 'Place, networks, space: theorising the geographies of social movements', Transactions Int. Br. Geographers 34(1): 78-93.
  • Nicholls, W., Miller, B. and Beaumont, J. (eds), 2013. Spaces of Contention: Spatialities and Social Movements. Farnham: Ashgate.
  • Painter, J., 2010. 'Rethinking Territory', Antipode 42(5): 1090-1118.
  • Peck, J. and Theodore, N., 2015. Fast Policy: Experimental Statecraft at the Thresholds of Neoliberalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
  • Porto-Gonçalves, C.W., 2001. Geo-grafías: Movimientos Sociales, Nuevas Territorialidades y sustentabilidad. Mexico DF: Siglo Veintiuno.
  • Radcliffe, S., 2010. 'Re-Mapping the Nation: Cartography, Geographical Knowledge and Ecuadorean Multiculturalism.' Journal of Latin American Studies 42(2): 293-323.
  • Sitrin, M., 2012. Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina. London: Zed Books.
  • Sitrin, M. and Azzellini, D., 2014. They Can't Represent Us!: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy. London: Verso.
  • Svampa, M. and Pereyra, S., 2003. Entre la ruta y el barrio: La experiencia de las organizaciones piqueteras. Editorial Biblios.
  • Wills, J., 2016. Locating Localism: Statecraft, Citizenship, Democracy. Bristol: Policy Press