Over the past decade, the subfield of comparative democratization has gained greater prominence, bringing together scholars of American and comparative political development. Democratization is best viewed as an ongoing process, characterized by contestation over the distribution of political power and rights. Democratic polities may be, in some ways, only nominally so, with the existence of sub-authoritarian enclaves. The “Jim Crow” period of one-party governance in American southern states is an especially instructive and illuminating case of sub-national authoritarianism. Nobles current research focuses specifically on the coercive dimensions of political and social life in the American South. This research seeks to answer basic, but so far, overlooked questions about the scope and nature of racial violence. Answering these questions, begins first with the construction of a database of racial murders.
Today, international news regularly reports on truth commissions, trials, or some other process being contemplated or implemented in one country or another. Beginning in the early 1970s, with what has been described as the “third wave” of democratization, efforts by incoming rulers to address the crimes of outgoing repressive regimes have multiplied. Trials (both domestic and foreign), truth commissions, lustration, restitution, apologies, monuments, etc. are now fixtures of the political landscapes of societies transitioning to democracy or emerging from civil wars. Once relegated to the margins of the general study of democratization, “transitional justice,” as it is now known, has emerged both as field of study and a political force in its own right. Nobles’ research contributes to this field, broadening it to include historical injustices in long-standing democracies. Her research is motivated by the observation that organized demands for remedy for past harms is not a “one-shot” deal, but often extends forward, becoming a part of democratic processes.
Nobles’ research has examined the institutional origins of racial and color identifications, focusing on the United States and Brazil. Census categorization is an oft-overlooked arena of governance and democratic contestation, treated as the domain of demographers and statisticians and removed from political processes. Her research shows that counting by race and/or color has always been a fundamentally political act, shaping the experiences and meanings of citizenship. Census bureaus help to create the racial and color identifications that they purport merely to count. Ideas about race and color have causal weight and this weight is enhanced by the census. At bottom, census bureaus are neither disinterested bureaucracies nor innocent bystanders. Rather, they are active, if overlooked, participants in politics.