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Wendy Wolford Research Spotlight

Wendy Wolford

Wendy Wolford

Polson Professor of Development Sociology
Cornell University
Full Profile for Wendy Wolford

One of my colleagues recently referred to me gently as "not a thoroughbred," and I think that is something of an understatement. I have been trained by economists, geographers, sociologists and anthropologists, and I draw on an eclectic range of critical social theorists to help me understand the way the world works (or doesn't). My research interests include the political economy of development, social movements and resistance, agrarian societies, political ecology, land use, land reform, and critical ethnography, all with a regional concentration in Latin America, particularly Brazil. My research and teaching specifically focuses on projects within the six areas detailed below. (*note: I have linked as many of my papers as possible to this website; for others, especially those in progress, please contact me directly or wait patiently.)

The Changing Dynamics of Land Reform

As a national and international policy tool, land reform was pronounced dead in the 1980s because of its perceived failure to lift people out of poverty and create self-sustaining small farm sectors. It is back today, however, due to an unlikely convergence of social movement, non-governmental and state demands in a variety of quite different contexts worldwide. My research in this area explores the questions of why political actors from opposite ends of the political spectrum are increasingly looking to land reform as a solution to inequality, and why, then, despite its almost universal appeal, land reform remains the subject of intense conflict.

Articles that I have published on this topic include:

The Moral Economics of Social Mobilization


For over fifteen years, I have worked with one of the most exciting and important grassroots social movements in Latin American history, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (the Movement of Rural Landless Workers, or the MST). Much of my research has used the analytic framework of agrarian moral economies—the historically, culturally, and geographically situated moral arguments that people use to define and defend their ideal mode of societal organization–to explore nuances and tensions within social movements and among different actors in the struggle for land in Brazil specifically, and in the transnational peasant movement more broadly.

The results of this research have formed the basis of my two books:

  • 2003. Wright, Angus and Wendy Wolford. To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil. Oakland, CA: Food First! Publications.
  • 2010. This Land is Ours Now: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. For a Portuguese-language summary of this book, click here.
  • Also see: Combatendo a Desigualdade Social: O MST e a reforma agrária no Brasil, 2010, edited by Miguel Carter. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, my chapter is pp. 373-394.

Articles that I have published on this topic include:

  • 2005. "Agrarian Moral Economies and Neo-liberalism in Brazil: Competing World-Views and the State in the Struggle for Land" Environment and Planning, A, 37: 241-261
  • 2008. Baletti, Brenda, Tamara Johnson and Wendy Wolford. "Late Mobilization: Transnational Peasant Networks and Grassroots Organizing in Brazil and South Africa," in Journal of Agrarian Change, (April/June) 8/2-3: 290-314.
  • Under review. "Sebastião Salgado: Documenting the Social Life of Mobilization," invited contribution for ASA panel honoring Salgado, to be published in Sociological Forum.
  • Under advance contract. "Rethinking the Revolution: Latin American Social Movements and the State in the 21st Century," in Enduring Reforms: Progressive Activism and Visions of Change in Latin America's Democracies, edited by Vivienne Bennett and Jeffrey Rubin. College Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Rural Development and Citizenship in Brazil

As part of this work on social movements and landlessness in Brazil, I worked with Mike Harris, a sixth grade teacher at Philips Middle School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to develop a two-week curriculum unit for the sixth grade that covers the historical roots of landlessness and rural inequality in Brazil as well as the relationship between movements like the MST, property rights, and effective versus formal citizenship.

In the coming years, I hope to work with teachers in Tompkins County, NY, to teach this unit locally.

Institutional Ethnographies of Land Governance


The current resurgence in interest about land reform and land governance is generating a host of important research on movements for reform, the viability of land reform settlements, and regional effects of land redistribution. My research in this area, however, focuses on an understudied but, I argue, key part of land reform—how reform actually is enacted on the ground. This requires attention to how these policies are negotiated inside of land reform agencies by the employees that implement them on a day-to-day basis. My on-going institutional ethnography of INCRA in Brazil highlights the unexpected ways in which participation (or the increasing articulations between social movements and the multifaceted INCRA) works. This research has been funded by a regular research grant (BCS-0518404) from the National Science Foundation.

Some of my articles on this subject include:

I am also convening a workshop on "Grounding the State: Institutional Analyses of Land Governance"at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam from January 19 – 21, 2011. The conference will bring together scholars doing critical work on land institutions in different countries to analyze the construction of governance in Agrarian Reform worldwide.

I am also a coordinating member of the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI). In conjunction with four other scholars, Jun Borras, Ruth Hall, Ian Scoones and Ben White, I am analyzing what have come to be known widely as land grabs – large scale acquisitions of land for food, fuel and energy production, usually as off-shore sites for private and public investors. For summaries of a recent panel given at the annual meeting of the Committee on World Food Security at the FAO in Rome, click here. For my own thoughts about land grabbing in Latin America, see this short narrative piece: Contemporary Land Grabs in Latin America.

Political Ecologies of Conservation and Degradation

Political Ecologies

Political ecology is a field that cuts across disciplinary lines, methodological approaches, geographic boundaries, and cultural contexts. While the field can be difficult to define, political ecologists generally work from a set of political economy principles to analyze environmental issues such as access, distribution and use. As Flora Lu at UCSC says, political ecologists stress that there is an ecology of politics and a politics of ecology. Ecological conditions influence, but do not determine, the development of social structures and institutions by imposing challenges and opportunities for meeting basic needs. Moreover, ecology is political: when there is scarcity, there are decisions that have to be made over how things are doing to be allocated, who will receive and who will not. In my work, I use many of the tools of political ecology; I focus on 'land managers' and analyze the scalar relationships influencing access to and use of the land.

I specifically call upon political ecology in two projects: one is the analysis of agricultural production in the Brazilian grasslands (known as the cerrado) and the other is the analysis of environmental crisis and new forms of conservation in the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador. The latter is an ongoing project with Flora Lu (UCSC, Latin American and Latino Studies) and Gaby Valdivia (UNC Chapel Hill, Geography). Together, we are investigating the turn towards farmers and agriculture in conservation projects on the islands. We see this as constructing new forms of conservation subjectivities and landscapes and we hope to follow several different farm-based projects on the islands in the coming years.

Rethinking Global Development

Brave New World

My work on development starts with the understanding that development is not an object—a goal to be reached through policy prescriptions—it is a relationship, and one that is fundamentally unequal. While a political economy based critical analysis of the Development industry is my point of departure, my current work in this area draws together critical work from multiple disciplines to argue for a rethinking of Development theory and practice based on demands coming from new grassroots social movements. Mobilization for "another world," for food sovereignty, for counter-globalization networks, for solidarity economies and more needs to be incorporated into official paradigms of Development.

Some of my work in this area includes:

  • 2008. "Global Shadows," comments for a symposium on Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order by James Ferguson, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 29(3): 266-269.
  • Forthcoming (2010)."Development" for the Companion to Human Geography, edited by John Agnew and Jim S. Duncan. Oxford: Blackwell Press.


Methods are not magical bullets; there is no single method for every question. Rather, the best methodological approach is embedded within the research question. In my work, the questions I see as important for me to answer have pushed me to employ what Gillian Hart (UC Berkeley Geography) calls "critical ethnographies." I am particularly interested in finding new ways to allow the voices of those who participate in our research to emerge.