GV4D3      Half Unit
Local Power in an Era of Globalization, Democratization, and Decentralization

This information is for the 2023/24 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof John Sidel


This course is available on the MSc in Political Science (Conflict Studies and Comparative Politics) and MSc in Political Science (Global Politics). This course is not available as an outside option.

This course has limited availability, and it is necessary for students (regardless of MSc programme) to obtain permission from the teacher responsible. The course is capped at 1 group.

Course content

Over the course of the past three decades, the inter-related processes of globalization, democratization, and decentralization are said to have generated new social forces and political freedoms in localities around the world. Market reforms and village elections in China, the end of Communist Party rule in Russia and Eastern Europe, and trends of (re)democratization in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have all offered new opportunities for local people to effect change in local politics around the world. Yet academic, journalistic, and policy accounts have highlighted the rise and resilience of "local despotisms" – "authoritarian enclaves," "bosses", "caciques", "chiefs", "clans", "local strongmen", "mafias", "warlords" – in the midst of this reworking of market, electoral, and administrative circuitries. This course focuses on this phenomenon of what scholars have come to call "subnational authoritarianism", and competing explanations for its emergence and entrenchment, the diversity of its manifestations, and various challenges mounted against its perpetuation.

The goals of the course are twofold. First, the course offers a critical examination of competing accounts of and explanations for the phenomenon of "subnational authoritarianism" in the developing world. Second, the course helps students to think more carefully, critically, and creatively about local politics more broadly, and to do so with an eye towards the comparative analysis of local power structures rooted in local economies and societies. The course begins with an examination of an emerging new political-science literature on "subnational authoritarianism" and a more established body of scholarship on clientelism and machine politics. The course then turns to case studies in diverse settings, ranging from southern Italy to China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Russia, and extending to cases of "warlordism" in contexts such as contemporary Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia.

The readings allow students to examine and evaluate competing explanations for the rise and entrenchment of local bosses, chiefs, clans, and mafias, diverging descriptions of their modes of domination, and alternative accounts of their disappearance, evolution, or transformation in the face of economic, social, and political change. Successive weeks also explore the links between constellations in local politics on the one hand, and patterns of economic development, ethnic conflict, and religious mobilization on the other. The final weeks of the course shift attention to the efforts to challenge entrenched local power structures and to create "countervailing power" through popular mobilization, political participation, and social empowerment in localities in diverse settings across the world.


This course is delivered through a combination of lectures and seminars totalling a minimum of 23 and a half hours in the Autumn Term.

There will be a reading week in Week 6 of the AT.

Formative coursework

One non-assessed 1,500-word essay.

Indicative reading

Jacqueline Behrend and Laurence Whitehead (eds.), Illiberal Practices: Territorial Variance within Large Federal Democracies (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016); Ward Berenschot, Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State (London: C. Hurst, 2012); Judith Chubb, Patronage, Power, and Poverty in Southern Italy: A Tale of Two Cities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Edward L. Gibson, Boundary Control: Subnational Authoritarianism in Federal Democracies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Ben Hillman, Patronage and Power: Local State Networks and Party-State Resilience in Rural China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014); Kimberly Marten, Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012); Wolfram Lacher, Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict (London: I.B. Tauris, 2020); Kelly McMann, Economic Autonomy and Democracy: Hybrid Regimes in Russia and Kyrgyzstan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, Political Consequences of Crony Capitalism inside Russia (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2010); Jane C. Schneider and Peter T. Schneider, Reversible Destiny: Mafia, Antimafia, and the Struggle for Palermo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).


Exam (50%, duration: 2 hours) in the January exam period.
Essay (50%, 3000 words).

Student performance results

(2019/20 - 2021/22 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 43.8
Merit 56.2
Pass 0
Fail 0

Key facts

Department: Government

Total students 2022/23: 15

Average class size 2022/23: 15

Controlled access 2022/23: Yes

Lecture capture used 2022/23: Yes (LT)

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Personal development skills

  • Problem solving
  • Communication