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Max Coleman

Soc 750
Exemplar Week 9

Levine (2016) follows nine community-based organizations (CBOs) in six Boston
neighborhoods to assess their role in urban governance. After four years of ethnographic work—
214 private meetings of CBOs, 76 public meetings with residents, jobs in City Hall and as a
consultant for a project funder, and analysis of 2000+ emails—he argues that CBOs often
“supersede” elected officials with respect to the power and prestige afforded to them. CBOs, he
claims, have greater control over resources than elected officials, the latter serving as mere
figureheads without much influence. Levine frames the disproportionate power of CBOs as a
tradeoff between effective governance—CBOs may indeed marshal resources effectively on
behalf of poor neighborhoods—and democratic accountability, which is lacking since CBO
officials are unelected.
While Levine’s article is laudable in many respects, several issues deserve attention. Of
chief concern, the author does not explain how he gained access to each of the nine CBOs in his
study, nor how he presented himself when applying for his positions in City Hall and at the
redevelopment foundation. Each of these acts of entry should be explained at least briefly, since
they bear not only on research ethics (e.g., did City Hall officials know they were being
observed?) but also on the validity of the data (e.g., did CBO representatives trust Levine enough
to speak candidly, or were they likely censoring themselves)?
A second issue concerns the quantification of findings as displayed in Tables 2 and 3.
What does it mean to claim, for example, that a CBO “used language of electoral politics”—how
is this language defined, and how is it coded (e.g., is a single instance of such language enough)?
Similarly, the author notes that he gained access to over 2000 emails, but never discusses their
analysis; were these, too, included in the counts in Tables 2 and 3? A detailed account of the
coding scheme should be provided in an appendix or online supplement.
Other, more minor points regarding the tables are worth noting. In Table 1, the author
lists the location of each CBO; since readers are unlikely to be familiar with these Boston
neighborhoods, a map would be a very helpful supplement. In Table 4, the comparison of
theoretical frameworks is quite useful, but the last row (“Relationship to Private Funders”) is not
particularly helpful, and seems a rather unfair critique of alternative frameworks—it is awfully
convenient for the author that every approach except his own allegedly fails to theorize any
relationship of CBOs to private funders. This row can be removed without doing violence to the
author’s argument, since the discussion of private funding is taken up with greater nuance toward
the end of the article.
Despite these critiques, the article is impressive in many respects. The author employs
“multi-sited ethnography” not only by visiting nine CBOs in six neighborhoods but also by taking up
jobs at City Hall and in a redevelopment foundation. As a consequence, he is able to examine
relationships among multiple actors from those actors’ own perspective, an act of subjective
understanding that the author rightly claims is at the heart of ethnography. (However, the author
somewhat neglects the perspective of urban poor residents themselves, which is surprising given that
he attends 76 public meetings with residents; these perspectives could be at least briefly explored in
future drafts. For example, do residents trust CBOs more than elected representatives?)
Levine also makes a convincing case for Fairmount Corridor as a “strategic site.” While
many studies appear to make post hoc justifications for their object of study, Levine notes that,
among other reasons, Fairmount Corridor is an excellent location because its approach to urban
poverty has been touted as a “best practice” across the country: thus, “this is the governance
arrangement the federal government sees as legitimate and successful”—or at least, it was in
2011; this may have changed under the Trump administration (1257). While Levine points to the
strengths of his ethnography site, he also notes that “some aspects of Boston’s political context
may be unique” and are not necessarily generalizable to other contexts (1257, see also p. 1272).
This is one of several examples in which Levine qualifies the generalizability of his findings.
Discussing the bankruptcy of one of the nine CBOs, Levine examines a countervailing
case: what happens when there is no CBO to guide urban development? His answer, in short, is
that elected officials quickly take over, but with less success (in terms of funding) than the CBO.
While the reader cannot rely too much on one example, Levine’s preliminary observations here
are instructive and provide a solid foundation for future research.
Finally, Levine ends his essay with a provocative critique of democratic accountability
for its own sake, whose value, he says, cannot be assumed in advance but is “an open empirical
question” (1271). In making this bold claim, Levine broadens the theoretical import of his work
(as all good articles ultimately do), raising fundamental questions in democratic theory that recall
the works of Joseph Schumpeter and the Platonic tradition.