Anthropology & Democracy: A Project Proposal

With the elections in the US less than three weeks away, the idea of “democracy” has been on my mind a lot.  And, considering recent events like this (which isn’t exactly getting a lot of press coverage), I am thinking a lot about the ideals of democracy versus the actual practice of democracy–here in the US and elsewhere.  There’s certainly a lot underneath and behind all of the rhetoric of democracy–and I think anthropology is a good tool for taking a deeper look into what’s going on.

So here’s my idea: How about doing a bit of a collaborative project about democracy and anthropology?  My idea here is to do a series of posts and open threads here on SM that explore the histories, practices, and meanings of democracy from an anthropological perspective.  My goal is to encourage a lot of participation from the SM readership–and hopefully from others in the anthro-blogosphere.  We can use the upcoming elections in the US as a point of departure, but by no means should this discussion be limited to the USA.

I was reading this post by Jason Antrosio this morning (which is a good example of taking anthropology to discussions about politics), and it made me ask myself: “You know, there are a LOT of anthropologists out there–I wonder what they’re thinking about all of this?”  What are you all thinking about this?  How can we ignite a conversation about the meaning of the d-word?  So I am thinking of a sort of crowd-sourced, participatory, spur-of-the-moment-anthropology-in-the-streets series on democracy.

Maybe we could use this first post to share some links, sources, and readings that cover the theme of anthropology and democracy?  Or feel free to just chime in and give me a yay or nay on this idea.  Please pass this around via Facebook, twitter, etc.  I’d like to see if we can generate some interest here and maybe build up a bit of a collaborative effort.  Maybe we can pull in some folks from the OAC, or Neuroanthropology, or Living Anthropologically, or Ethnography.com, or…???

What do you think, readers of SM?  Are you game?

UPDATE 10/20/12: Check out the discussion about this over at the OAC.

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently writing up his dissertation, which is about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, Mexico. You can reach him at ethnografix AT gmail dot com or @publicanthro on twitter.

11 thoughts on “Anthropology & Democracy: A Project Proposal

  1. Thanks Derick.

    Also, here’s a link with some history about debates in the US:

    http://people.howstuffworks.com/debate.htm

    Pay particular attention to the role of the League of Women Voters, and the agreement between Republicans and Democrats in 1988. Kinda makes you wonder.

    And how about a couple of quotes:

    “Modern democracy was no doubt the most wholesome and needed reaction against the abuses of absolutism and of a selfish, often corrupt, bureaucracy.”

    -Franz Boas

    “To claim as we often do, that our solution is the only democratic and the ideal one is a one-sided expression of Americanism.”

    -Franz Boas, again.

  2. My favorite essay on the topic is David Graeber’s There Never Was a West, which sadly doesn’t seem to be on the internet in any form except a password protected pdf from a conference at Berkley in 2006. When I was trying to figure out how to find a copy, David was kind enough to just email it to me. When the London Review of Games site goes live next week, I might put it up there, or maybe SM wants to host it?

    Anyway, he offers a helpful summary right at the start:

    1) Almost everyone who writes on the subject assumes “democracy” is a “Western” concept that begins its history in ancient Athens. They also assume that what eighteenth and nineteenth-century politicians began reviving in Western Europe and North America was essentially the same thing. Democracy is thus seen as something whose natural habitat is Western Europe and its English or French-speaking settler colonies. Not one of these assumptions is justified. “Western civilization” is a particularly incoherent concept, but, insofar as it refers to anything, it refers to an intellectual tradition. This intellectual tradition is, overall, just as hostile as anything we could recognize as democracy as those of India, China, or Mesoamerica.

    2) Democratic practices—processes of egalitarian decision-making—however, occur pretty much anywhere, and are not peculiar to any one given “civilization,” culture, or tradition. They tend to crop up wherever human life goes on outside systematic structures of coercion.

    3) The “democratic ideal” tends to emerge when, under certain historical circumstances, intellectuals and politicians, usually in some sense navigating their way between states and popular movements and popular practices, interrogate their own traditions—invariably, in dialogue with other ones—citing cases of past or present democratic practice to argue that their tradition has a fundamental kernel of democracy. I call these moments of “democratic refoundation.” From the perspective of the intellectual traditions, they are also moments of recuperation, in which ideals and institutions that are often the product of incredibly complicated forms of interaction between people of very different histories and traditions come to be represented as emerging from the logic of that intellectual tradition itself. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries especially, such moments did not just occur in Europe, but almost everywhere.

    4) The fact that this ideal is always founded on (at least partly) invented tradition does not mean it is inauthentic or illegitimate or, at least, more inauthentic or illegitimate than any other. The Contradiction, however, is that this ideal was always based on the impossible dream of marrying democratic procedures or practices with the coercive mechanisms of the state. The result are not “Democracies” in any meaningful sense of the word but Republics with a few, usually fairly limited, democratic elements.

    5) What we are experiencing today is not a crisis of democracy but rather a crisis of the state. In recent years, there has been a massive revival of interest in democratic practices and procedures within global social movements, but this has proceeded almost entirely outside of statist frameworks. The future of democracy lies precisely in this area.

  3. Steven that’s a good one, especially this part: “The Contradiction, however, is that this ideal was always based on the impossible dream of marrying democratic procedures or practices with the coercive mechanisms of the state. The result are not “Democracies” in any meaningful sense of the word but Republics with a few, usually fairly limited, democratic elements.”

    Hmm. Thanks for posting this.

  4. On democracy and privilege, courtesy of the Guardian UK: http://m.guardiannews.com/ms/p/gnm/us/sgvcYEhf1_iiCN7UW24NA7A/view.m?id=15&gid=commentisfree/2012/may/06/leveson-murdoch-cameron-brooks-privilege&cat=commentisfree.

    And given that the Guardian article starts out by mentioning Tagg Romney, worth reading alongside this: http://www.salon.com/2012/10/18/tagg_romney_mr_white_privilege/

    And relating to anthropologist John Jackson’s discussion on ‘georaciality’ and David Theo Goldberg’s ‘Presidential Race': http://threatofrace.org/2008/10/blog/presidential-race-by-david-theo-goldberg/.

    Worth thinking about democracy, in relation both to ancient Greece/Rome and the post-colonial, post-slave state Americas (north and south), in relation to enduring legacies of slavery and circumscribed, unequal definitions of citizenship and democratic belonging.

  5. Thanks for those links, DWP. I am hoping we can find a way to keep up a conversation about democracy–or lack thereof–in the coming weeks leading up to the election…if not beyond. I think anthropology can be a powerful vehicle for exploring what democracy is all about (potentially at least).

  6. Ryan, thanks for this post. I had a similar reaction when I listened to the Democracy Now podcast. I’m currently doing my dissertation research in Russia, which makes for a sort of surreal election-watching. I am at once reading the English-language news about the utterly flawed execution of democratic process in the US, and hearing Russian acquaintances continuously implicitly and explicitly reference American Democracy when talking about unfair elections or other various political complaints about their own government. I feel like I am breaching some sacred code whenever I speak to Russian friends – many of whom are uber hipper/globally savvy (who outside of Portland, Oregon plays bike polo on fixies?) – about the rampant injustice in the US. How is it, I wonder, that the global news machine churns out continuous critique of Russian democratic process in English, but Russian-language press stays out of any assessment of the democratic-worthiness of US elections? Clearly, there is much that could be said about Cold War legacies, neoimperialism in the Second World, etc, etc, but my point for now is that American Democracy seems to occupy a very Emperor’s New Clothes kind of position of global leadership.

  7. Hey Cassandra, thanks for you comment.

    “I’m currently doing my dissertation research in Russia, which makes for a sort of surreal election-watching. I am at once reading the English-language news about the utterly flawed execution of democratic process in the US, and hearing Russian acquaintances continuously implicitly and explicitly reference American Democracy when talking about unfair elections or other various political complaints about their own government…”

    I can relate…I am working in Mexico and have had some similar conversations here. Especially right around the time of the elections here in Mexico. There is certainly a lot of distrust about the democratic and political process here in Mexico, and sometimes people have asked me “Well, it’s a lot better in the US, right?” Well………is what I answer. I remember one specific conversation where someone was complaining about the number of different parties, and that someone can win the election with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. This person contrasted this with the US, saying that at least the person who gets elected is voted in has more than half the vote. My response was “Ya, but we also have a bit of a problem where two parties have complete control of the electoral process.” And so on…maybe these discussions about democracy are inherently messy.

    “How is it, I wonder, that the global news machine churns out continuous critique of Russian democratic process in English, but Russian-language press stays out of any assessment of the democratic-worthiness of US elections?”

    Ya, that’s a really good question. The role of the media in shaping what *we think* democracy is all about is key.

    Thanks for the source as well.

  8. “How many voters does it take to change a light bulb.”
    “None, voters don’t change anything.”

    In Graeber’s “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology”

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