Alumni Spotlight: Benjamin Bradlow ’20 Ph.D. Sociology, Graduate Program in Development

Benjamin Bradlow, an alumnus of Watson's Graduate Program in Development (GPD), was recently awarded a Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Azrieli Global Scholars fellowship. Now an assistant professor at Princeton, his research focuses on the politics of urban inequality and the perils of the transition to a “green” economy in the Global South.

Benjamin Bradlow, a 2020 alumnus of the Graduate Program in Development (GPD) with a Ph.D. from the Department of Sociology, was one of ten early career interdisciplinary faculty across the globe selected for the prestigious Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) Azrieli Global Scholars fellowship in the research program on "Humanity's Urban Future." Bradlow credited the GPD with teaching him to work across traditional disciplinary boundaries, "This award is part of my research trajectory that was enabled by my experience at Watson's GPD. From the very beginning of my doctoral studies, being part of the GPD enabled me to think about the work and methodologies of my discipline in relationship to a broader interdisciplinary approach." 

Bradlow returned to Brown in early April to speak at the Africa Initiative's conference, "Three Decades of South African Democracy: Promises, Perils, Potential." Currently an assistant sociology and international affairs professor at Princeton University, Bradlow was impressed by the event. "I don't know of any similar convenings with such varied reflections on South African democracy that have occurred in American academia in recent years," he said, "This was a quintessential Watson Institute event."

At the conference, Bradlow discussed findings from his forthcoming book that compares the politics of urban inequality in Johannesburg and São Paulo after transitions to democracy in South Africa and Brazil. Due to be released in late October by Princeton University Press, "Urban Power: Democracy and Inequality in São Paulo and Johannesburg" is based on his dissertation and compares how the two cities govern housing and land use, sanitation, and collective transportation after each transitioned to democracy, and explains why democracy and local government both matter. 

According to Bradlow, urban social movements were at the heart of South Africa and Brazil's respective struggles for democracy. Through over a year of fieldwork in each country's largest city, Bradlow investigated how the interaction of local government bureaucrats, politicians, movements, and private sector actors shaped the differing trajectories of Johannesburg and São Paulo in reducing inequalities in the built environment over the past three decades.

In the book, Bradlow addresses long-standing questions about the relationship of local governments and governance with urban movements. He also reinforces an emerging call to examine cases in the Global South more seriously to develop a more global urban sociology.

Initially uncertain about what discipline he wanted to study as a doctoral candidate, Bradlow did know that he wanted to embrace development issues from a global perspective. Ultimately, the Watson Institute's Graduate Program in Development (GPD) inspired Bradlow to pursue a doctorate in sociology at Brown. 

"Brown University's sociology program has occupied a very distinct niche among departments in the United States in emphasizing questions of development and researching issues affecting other parts of the world, particularly in the Global South. It has long been concerned with comparison as a way to study social problems, and comparison has been central to the history of sociological methodologies," said Bradlow.

The way [GPD faculty] engaged with other faculty and graduate students helped me understand what building an intellectual community in and across the social sciences means. They helped me build my intellectual identity as an interdisciplinary social scientist and not only as a sociologist.

Benjamin Bradlow Benjamin Bradlow, '20 Ph.D. Sociology and Graduate Program in Development
Benjamin Bradlow ’20 Ph.D. Sociology/GPD

While at Brown, Bradlow was deeply impressed by GPD seminars that brought faculty from across the social science disciplines to discuss their empirical research. "The GPD exposed me to leaders in interdisciplinary social science work on development and what intellectual engagement with this kind of work looks like," said Bradlow. "The way Nitsan Chorev and Patrick Heller engaged with other faculty and graduate students helped me understand what building an intellectual community in and across the social sciences means. They helped me build my intellectual identity as an interdisciplinary social scientist and not only as a sociologist." 

In describing the conceptualization of his comparative analysis of São Paulo and Johannesburg, Bradlow said, "Watson encouraged me to be unconventional and ambitious. My experience was very unwieldy for a long time, but my faculty mentors were willing to support my journey to investigate cases in very different parts of the world." This included learning to speak Portuguese in order to do field research in Brazil. While Bradlow has long-standing family and professional ties to South Africa, he credits Professor of History and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies and former Director of Watson's Brazil Initiative James Green, whose conferences and seminars on Brazilian politics, history and culture instilled Bradlow's appreciation for and understanding of Brazil. 

Bradlow’s latest research, supported by Brown's Climate Social Science Network, is focused on the challenges of transitioning to "green" industry and manufacturing in middle-income countries in the Global South. "South Africa and Brazil have virtually no domestic demand for electric vehicles,” Bradlow explained. “Their internal combustion engine car manufacturing sectors, with significant global exports, have historically been critical drivers of economic development. Now, wealthy nations in the Global North are planning to transition to all-electric vehicles.” According to Bradlow, this represents a potentially existential crisis for each country's economy and for many workers and communities in the Global South. "This kind of transition problem is one of the thorniest issues in global climate politics and sociology. Do you prioritize development or climate? To what extent can they be pursued together? To what degree do they conflict? Who wins, and who loses?" he said.