Toward an Anthropology of Democracy

Advanced Seminar

March 6–10, 2005

In practice, what does democracy really mean? Julia Paley is interested in the ways people experience democracy in everyday life, and the chair of “Toward an Anthropology of Democracy” contends that anthropology is an ideal discipline in which to explore the question. Ethnographic method, relationships with people outside formal and elite political institutions, and attention to alternative worldviews “can capture local meanings, day-to-day practices, and changing forms of power,” she said.

Promoting democracy is the central rationale for contemporary U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond. News stories capture excitement and uncertainty as countries from Iraq and Afghanistan to Uzbekistan and Palestine make transitions to democratic political systems.

Funded in part by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc., the seminar set out to “deepen understanding, reconfigure frameworks, and rewrite the terms of debate” by encouraging scholars to examine the forms democracy takes as it emerges around the world. Through research in Peru, Ecuador, Mozambique, Japan, Guatemala, India, and the U.S., participants focused on how freedom, rights, popular sovereignty, citizenship, rule of law, and political equality are received and executed where cultural roots of these ideas often predate any formal introduction of democracy. Participants examined the ways international aid agencies, indigenous movements, international observers, and militaries influence how democracy is understood and practiced.

If democracy is government ‘by the people,’ said Harry West, then it must differ along with 'the people' in question, and how the ‘will of the people’ might be realized becomes anthropological question of pressing importance.

“Anthropology sheds light on the daily life and political struggles of people living in non-elite sectors of societies,” Paley said, “and on the subtle shades of meaning created by democracy in practice.”

Julia Paley, Chair Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Do Electoral Politics Debilitate Social Movements? What are the Consequences for Democracy? Introspection and Challenges from Indigenous Movements in Ecuador
Mukulika Banerjee Department of Anthropology, University College, London Democracy: An Ethnographic Approach
Carol J. Greenhouse Department of Anthropology, Princeton University Rethinking the Discursivity of States
Akhil Gupta Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology, Stanford University Literacy, Bureaucratic Domination, and Democracy
David Nugent Department of Anthropology, Colby College Democracy Otherwise: Struggles Over Popular Rule in the Northern Peruvian Andes
Jennifer Schirmer Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo Nuancing Democratic Discourse: Anthropology as Critique and as Technique
Kay B. Warren Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University Studying Moving Targets: Japan and Transnational Democracy
Harry G. West Department of Anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London “Govern Yourselves!”: Democracy and Carnage in Northern Mozambique

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