Realizing Revolution in Iran and Nicaragua

My dissertation focuses on explaining the ways in which revolutionary actors try to create meaningful social transformations in a complex, and often hostile, world. I examine the post-revolutionary trajectories of revolutionary societies in Iran and Nicaragua, from 1979-1999. In my work, I focus on the role of culture and discourse in guiding (but not determining) the process of change. The project explains differences in the realization of revolution in both places as arising from different modes of articulation and reflection, as well as the cultural “baggage” associated with each revolutionary culture. I also explore similarities in both cases resulting from a common set of problems and a shared hostile world context.

Drawing on thousands of pages of newspapers and primary sources, this project promises to keep me occupied even after the dissertation is finished, and has even spawned a spin-off project on indigenous pushback!

Realizing Revolution: Culture, Contingency, and Change in Iran and Nicaragua, 1979-1999
My dissertation uses periodicals, archival documents, and secondary sources to examine the intersections of conscious attempts at social revolutionary change with structural realities, contingencies, and political opponents. It focuses on the evolution of revolutionary cultural politics as revolutionaries struggle to make their revolution a reality.

Abstract: In 1979, two revolutionary movements ended decades of personalist rule and created openings for social transformation on opposite sides of the world, in Iran and Nicaragua. Though both of these “twin” revolutions quickly started down very different paths – one becoming an authoritarian theocracy with the trappings of a republic, and the other a liberal democracy – they also both followed strikingly similar patterns of change as revolutionary elites undertook projects to durably transform their nations’ social and political structures.

This project begins where most other studies of revolutions leave off. Instead of asking the question of why these revolutions occurred, it asks the question of how revolutionary actors struggled to create lasting social change by translating their revolutionary projects into reality. More specifically, this project seeks to answer two related questions: how did Iranians and Nicaraguans actually transform the social structures that made up their society, and which changes were durable and why? In answering these questions, this project seeks to move beyond simple narratives of revolutionary failures, betrayed alliances, and static ideologies, and instead to bring dynamic revolutionary culture to the center of attention by examining the interplay between revolutionary discourse, popular culture, ideology, and social structures.

This project adopts a method of “comparative eventful process-tracing,” in which changes in the frameworks, identities, and orientations found in revolutionary discourse in Iran and Nicaragua are tracked through an historical content analysis of national periodicals and propaganda from 1979 until 2009. This project will first explore how revolutionary cultures make sense of and deal with the inevitable contingencies that arise from the post-revolutionary process during the radical periods of both revolutions from 1979 until 1990, and explore how these new cultural understandings affect the realization of the revolutionary project. It will then examine the post-radical periods from 1990 until 2009, in which the reasons for the durability, or lack thereof, of the changes identified during the earlier period are explored. By comparing and tracing the relationship between evolving revolutionary cultural formations and social change through historical research, this project will identify those factors that shape and contribute to lasting revolutionary change.

Revolution for Whom?: Miskitos and Sandinistas in Revolutionary Nicaragua
An early draft of this paper – a spin-off  of my dissertation – was presented at the 2017 ASA conference in Montreal. It examines the transformation of Sandinismo and Miskito nationalism through their interactions during the Nicaraguan Revolution. Read a working draft of the paper here.


Abstract: The 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution both ended a brutal dictatorship and transformed ethnic boundaries between mestizos on the country’s Pacific Coast and indigenous groups on its Atlantic Coast. Though sometimes praised for its accomplishments on the Pacific Coast, the revolutionary Sandinista regime relegated the nation’s ethnic minorities to passive roles in the revolutionary process, or else excluded them entirely. This paper examines the transformation of ethnic boundaries in revolutionary Nicaragua by examining the evolution of two nationalisms in conflict – mestizo Sandinismo and Miskito ethno-nationalism – through a process of revolutionary boundary-making. By casting Miskitos (and other indigenous groups) as passive recipients of the revolution, the Sandinista regime actually opened up a space for Miskito nationalists to change the course of the Nicarguan Revolution, forcing fundamental changes in revolutionary discourse through periods of possibilistic partnership, paranoid conflict, and grudging cooperation.