The State at its Margins: Comparative Ethnographies of the Modern State in Africa, Latin America and South Asia

Advanced Seminar

April 22–26, 2001

The very form and reach of the liberal or welfare state is undergoing radical change in many parts of the world and is being dramatically affected by increasing globalization. In April 2001, Deborah Poole and Veena Das co-chaired an advanced seminar, “The State at its Margins: Comparative Ethnographies of the Modern State in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia.” The term “margin” was used not to describe a geographic border, but rather to describe areas far from the centers of state sovereignty. It also refers to the ways in which the state is unable to ensure implementation of its programs and policies in these areas.

The seminar was designed to develop an ethnographic methodology and theoretical apparatus to assess perceptions of power in three regions where both state reform and violence have been particularly dramatic: South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Understanding how people perceive and experience the agency of the state was a central theme of the seminar. “A driving question for our sessions was—‘how is the state experienced on a daily basis?’” said Deborah Poole.

Documentation provided a way to trace the materiality of the state in both its legitimate and illegitimate forms. “The falsification of documents is a practice that replicates the power of the state as well as undermines it,” Poole observed. The question of “fixity” versus “mobility” arose concerning different forms of regulatory authorities that have emerged in border economies where there is active contraband trade in mercenaries, currency, goods, arms, and diamonds. Poole observed, “In these cases, we must ask: who is of, and not of, the state? And further, how do these practices at the margins shape the state itself?”

The role language plays as cultures struggle to articulate these issues at the margins emerged as another seminar theme. Such terms as the “shadow” cast by the state, the “nexus” of relationships through which people map their connections with the state, and the “embodiment” of the state in narratives concerning police officers and other state agents, help illuminate how people experience and perceive the state on a daily basis.

Veena Das, Chair Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University Documentary Practices: State and Everyday Life on the Peripheries
Deborah Poole, Chair Department of Anthropology, New School for Social Research Natural and Legal Jurisdictions on the Margins of the Peruvian State
Talal Asad Discussant, City University of New York
Adam Ashforth School of Social Science, Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton University AIDS, Witchcraft and the Problem of Public Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa
Lawrence Cohen Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley Operability, Exception, the Surgical State
Mariane Ferme Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University Imagining the State At/Beyond its Borders
Pradeep Jeganathan Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota Anthropology and Violence
Diane Nelson Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Lewis and Clark College Anthropologist Discovers Legendary Two-Faced Indian in Guatelmala! Margins and the Bamboozling of the State/s
Janet Roitman Centre Nationale Des Recherches Scientifiques Productivity in the Margins: The Reconstitution of State Power in the Chad Basin
Victoria Sanford Department of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame It Fills My Heart With Sadness: Testimony, Memory and the Healing of Fragmented Communities

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