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Populist Mobilization: A New Theoretical Approach to Populism


  • Address correspondence to: Robert S. Jansen, Department of Sociology, University of Michigan, 4209 LSA Building, 500 South State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1382. Tel.: 734-763-0078. E-mail: The writing of this article was supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship in Latin American Sociology and by the Michigan Society of Fellows. I would like to thank Julia Adams, Rene Almeling, Craig Calhoun, Andrew Deener, Kurtuluş Gemici, Wes Hiers, Angela Jamison, James Mahoney, Iddo Tavory, Andreas Wimmer, and especially Rogers Brubaker for their valuable feedback on previous drafts. I would also like to thank audiences at the 2007 meetings of the American Sociological Association, at a 2008 Comparative Social Analysis Seminar at UCLA, and at the 2009 Junior Theorists Symposium for their criticisms and suggestions.


Sociology has long shied away from the problem of populism. This may be due to suspicion about the concept or uncertainty about how to fit populist cases into broader comparative matrices. Such caution is warranted: the existing interdisciplinary literature has been plagued by conceptual confusion and disagreement. But given the recent resurgence of populist politics in Latin America and elsewhere, sociology can no longer afford to sidestep such analytical challenges. This article moves toward a political sociology of populism by identifying past theoretical deficiencies and proposing a new, practice-based approach that is not beholden to pejorative common sense understandings. This approach conceptualizes populism as a mode of political practice—as populist mobilization. Its utility is demonstrated through an application to mid-twentieth-century Latin American politics. The article concludes by sketching an agenda for future research on populist mobilization in Latin America and beyond.