Facing bureaucratic uncertainty in the Bolsa Família Program

Clientelism beyond reciprocity and economic rationality

in Focaal

Clientelism is often analyzed along lines of moral values and reciprocity or an economic rationality. This article, instead, moves beyond this dichotomy and shows how both frameworks coexist and become entwined. Based on ethnographic research in a city in the Brazilian Northeast, it analyzes how the anti-poverty Bolsa Família Program and its bureaucracy are entangled with electoral politics and clientelism. We show how the program’s beneficiaries engage in clientelist relationships and exchanges to deal with structural precariousness and bureaucratic uncertainty. Contributing to understanding the complexity of clientelism, our analysis demonstrates how they, in their assessment of and dealing with political candidates, employ the frames of reference of both reciprocity and economic rationality in such a way that they act as a “counterpoint” to each other.

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