This is post in the #teachingthedisaster series comes to us from Maria L. Vidart-Delgado. Maria lectures in the Anthropology Program at MIT and is also the co-founder of Department of Play.
I taught a class on the 2016 U.S. presidential election (syllabus here) to a group of undergrads at MIT with diverse political commitments, social sensibilities, and with different levels of exposure to anthropology. I faced two challenges. One was getting my students to think anthropologically about electoral politics and democracy more broadly. I mean moving away from analyses that mimic prevalent political punditry (do elections work?), to a comparative mode of analysis attentive to how different groups of people experience, understand and perform free, fair, legitimate elections. The second challenge was to build a common ground to listen to each other in an emotionally charged political environment. I found that in cultivating an anthropological perspective we built a common place to question the assumptions shaping our political preferences, and to discuss the implications of those preferences.
I made an effort to cultivate in my students what Clifford (1988:19) calls an “ethnographic attitude,” one that sees “culture and its norms—beauty, truth, reality—as artificial arrangements susceptible to detached analysis and comparison with other possible dispositions.” This “relativistic” approach (and I mean it facetiously) was fruitful to study electoral campaigning in its own terms. As charismatic assemblages—of experts, supporters, techniques, political ideals, political networks and media infrastructures—working in concerted action toward electing a candidate (Nielsen 2012; Stromer-Galley 2014). We saw that these assemblages deploy strict top-down management tactics to fuel and spread a collective enthusiasm for a political cause, and produce dominant storylines that ultimately become the bases for political judgment and policy design (Laclau 2008). 2016 provided abundant case studies, like Brexit or the Colombian Peace Referendum.