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Constellations of Inequality

Space, Race, and Utopia in Brazil

Winner of the 2018 Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Brazil Section Book Prize

In 1982, the Brazilian Air Force arrived on the Alcântara peninsula to build a state-of-the-art satellite launch facility. They displaced some 1,500 Afro-Brazilians from coastal land to inadequate inland villages, leaving many more threatened with displacement. Completed in 1990, this vast undertaking in one of Brazil’s poorest regions has provoked decades of conflict and controversy.
Constellations of Inequality tells this story of technological aspiration and the stark dynamics of inequality it laid bare. Sean T. Mitchell analyzes conflicts over land, ethnoracial identity, mobilization among descendants of escaped slaves, military-civilian competition in the launch program, and international intrigue. Throughout, he illuminates Brazil’s changing politics of inequality and examines how such inequality is made, reproduced, and challenged. How people conceptualize and act on the unequal conditions in which they find themselves, he shows, is as much a cultural and historical matter as a material one. Deftly broadening our understanding of race, technology, development, and political consciousness on local, national, and global levels, Constellations of Inequality paints a portrait of contemporary Brazil that will interest a broad spectrum of readers. 

272 pages | 17 halftones, 1 map | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Latin American Studies


"The writing is exceptionally clear, the theoretical discussions are original and provocative, and the ethnographic portrayals are superb. . . Constellations of Inequality is so compelling in scope and argument that I consider it one of the best ethnographies of the past decade."

Anthropology and Humanism

"Indispensable to anyone wanting to understand some of the main social and political issues at stake in contemporary Brazil. . . an outstanding political ethnography and a great book for anyone who wants to have a deeper, ethnographically grounded understanding of the persistent yet changing faces of inequality in contemporary Brazil."

Journal of Latin American Studies

"The book really works as an ethnography of the Brazilian nation, with its many fault-lines and convergences, at a particular historical conjuncture, and as revealed by an exceptional situation. The book is not only successful as an analysis of Brazilian inequality, it models an exemplary usage of ethnographic methods for the study of such multi-scalar processes."

Luso-Brazilian Review

"One of the greatest virtues of the book is its integrated, multiscalar approach, which deftly links the two parallel and interconnected processes of transforming conceptions of nationhood and citizenship and situates both within broader political and economic currents. . . Constellations of Inequality [is] a compelling launchpad for a critical and nuanced reflection on global inequalities and the value and potential trajectories of anthropology in this aspirational space."

American Ethnologist

"A valuable contribution to the anthropological analysis of how class, race and inequality interact across scales of time and space."

Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture

“Joining the scholarship on Brazil and inequality, Mitchell’s book is also a valuable contribution to the expanding anthropology of space and a timely reminder that the futures that space invokes in different parts of the world exist within very concrete social realities and in the experiences of those who dream, suffer, and resist.”

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Mitchell offers a compelling account of the changing face of inequality in Brazil set against the intriguing story of the state’s quixotic effort to launch a space program at the end of the Cold War. The social impasses that followed—between development and exploitation, public and private enterprise, class and race-based struggle—capture, in microcosm, an unfolding national history. They inform an especially acute analysis of the ways in which inequality is made, redressed, and remade, here and everywhere else.”

Jean Comaroff, coauthor of The Truth about Crime: Sovereignty, Knowledge, Social Order

“Mitchell's study of political mobilization in Alcântara is indispensable reading for both students and specialists.  In it he depicts with great historical and regional depth the ethnic, racial, and national mobilization in northern Brazil by agents as diverse as anthropologists, activists, and local authorities.  Both analytical and descriptive, his book provides material for reflection about the dilemmas of social inequality Brazilians still encounter today and the widespread dreams and solutions to resolve them. Required reading.”

Antônio Sérgio Alfredo Guimarães, University of São Paulo

“Mitchell’s wide-ranging but rich and sensitive ethnography dazzles, due in no small part to the author’s deft shifts in scale that make clear how race and inequality came together in novel and unsettling ways in Brazil of the Lula years.”

John F. Collins, author of Revolt of the Saints

"Joining the scholarship on Braziland inequality, Mitchell’s book is also a valuable contribution to the expanding anthropology of space and a timely reminder that the futures that space invokes in different parts of the world exist within very concrete social realities and in the experiences of those who dream, suffer, and resist."

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Table of Contents

Introduction: Relaunching Alcântara
1 Mimetic Convergence and Complementary Hierarchy
2 Alcântara in Space and Time
3 Interpreting an Explosion
4 Expertise and Inequality
5 Racialization and Race-Based Law
6 The Making of Race and Class
7 Space at the Edge of the Amazon
Conclusion: Space and Utopia
Works Cited


Latin American Studies Association, Brazil section: LASA Brazil Section Book Prize

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