Josh Pacewicz

September 4, 2012  |  Contact: Darlene Trew Crist |  401-863-2752
Jan Mateusz Pacewicz Assistant Professor of Sociology and Urban Studies Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Local business and labor leaders once found politics to be a ladder to national status, Josh Pacewicz has found. But the professional economic development leaders who succeeded those leaders after the economic downturn found politics divisive and counter-productive. Turning economies around requires collaboration and flexible coalitions.

Like many young people, Jan Mateusz Pacewicz — call him Josh — started his university studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service without really knowing what he wanted to do. He was particularly drawn to courses in social science, history, and politics, those that could satisfy his desire to learn more about how the world works. Ultimately, he chose to specialize in sociology, which allowed him the flexibility to study things that fascinate him. As Pacewicz explained, “The world is really complicated, and sociology allows for that; it doesn’t force you to adopt models that are simpler than the way the world actually works.”

Pacewicz tackled his studies with an insatiable curiosity. Born in Poland, he came to the United States with his mother in 1987 so she could pursue her Ph.D. at the University of California–Santa Barbara. Their year in the United States turned into many and he essentially grew up in America, living in places as different as Winona, Minn., and Austin, Texas. Then he moved to Paris.

After earning a B.A. with special honors in liberal arts from the University of Texas–Austin, Pacewicz was awarded an A.M and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. Rather than follow a long held tradition of studying Chicago while at the university, Pacewicz chose to study cities that were more manageable in size. In an ethnographic project, he compared two fictitious Midwestern cities for his dissertation — River City and Prairieville — initially to investigate how presidential elections interfaced with urban politics. Once engaged in interviews and field work, he quickly surmised that urban politics is really structured by economic changes. The big change in the cities he studied was the economic transition that occurred with deindustrialization.

“Essentially what happened is that the economy was predicated on manufacturing, which gave a lot of power to local business and labor leaders. In turn, local life was structured along these two factions, which overlapped with city politics and partisan politics. So the big wheel of the chamber of commerce or the big labor leader would simultaneously be prominent in the economic and civic life of the city as well as in partisan politics.”

This local political structure served essentially as a ladder for local people and resources that worked their way up into the national political system. But when the cities began to lose their economic base in the ’80s and ’90s, those old community and political leaders went away and were replaced with a professionalized drive toward economic development. This new focus on reviving economies was much more about partnerships and development projects that required flexible coalitions of partners working toward specific projects such as bringing in an arts center or redeveloping the waterfront to attract new businesses.

What we see today in the politics of these two cities and others struggling to revive economies “is a flexible model of politics. Implicit is the idea that one has to set divisive issues aside to sit around the table to work toward a solution.” This plays out nationally as city elites gradually pull out of partisan politics because they see it as disruptive rather than coalition-building, leaving political parties in the hands of more extreme activists.

Pacewicz predicts that such collaborative local efforts may make their way up to the state and national level, and examples are already evident. “I was doing this study during the 2008 election, and for a lot of these local leaders, then presidential candidate Obama coded as one of these new elites with his talk about building coalitions and that the old politics were broken. Mayor Corey Booker in Newark is another example where partnerships and coalitions are part of his rebuilding initiative.”

These new models of local governance, with their often accompanying speculative financing methods for redevelopment projects, are the focus of Pacewicz’s book, in progress and under contract with the University of Chicago Press. He hopes to have it completed by the spring of 2013, after he and his wife welcome the birth of their first child this fall.

Pacewicz has a joint appointment in urban studies and sociology. He will be teaching urban theory and field methods in the fall and hopes to teach a course in financial crises and their effect on local politics at Brown in the spring. What’s certain is that he will integrate real world examples into the discussion so students can observe how political theories are being played out in the present.