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Anthropological Approaches

Edited by Julia Paley

In recent decades, powerful institutions have packaged Western democracy for export around the globe. Although Western democracy is grounded in specific historical experiences and cultural assumptions, advocates have generally taken its normative status for granted. So too have most academics. Yet if democracy is broadly understood as government by “the people,” it must necessarily differ along with “the people” in question. Just what “the will of the people” is and how it might be realized become questions of pressing importance. Rather than advance alternative definitions of democracy, celebrate alternative democracies, or posit alternatives to democracy, the contributors to this volume focus on the way that specific definitions of democracy are advanced as normative and others eclipsed, and how certain claims to represent “the will of the people” gain currency and others are silenced. While previous scholars of democracy have proposed one definitive model after another, the authors in this work suggest that democracy is by nature an open ended set of questions about the workings of power—questions best engaged through the dialogical processes of fieldwork and ethnographic writing.

2008. 280 pp., notes, references, index, 6 x 9

Contributors: Mukulika Banerjee, Kimberley Coles, Carol J. Greenhouse, Akhil Gupta, David Nugent, Julia Paley, Jennifer Schirmer, Harry G. West

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“What do anthropologists have to add to the understandingof democracy, perhaps the most taken for granted, overused term in our political lexicon? A great deal, as it turns out, much of it subversive of received wisdom. This volume does a highly impressive job of interrogating what the term actually means in different contexts, how democracy is conceptualized and practiced in different times and places, and why we ought to relinquish many of our preconceptions about it. A major achievement, this, in the critical study of politics.”
—John Comaroff, University of Chicago


  1. Introduction
    Julia Paley
  2. Democracy Otherwise: Struggles over Popular Rule in the Northern Peruvian Andes
    David Nugent
  3. Democracy, Sacred and Everyday: An Ethnographic Case from India
    Mukulika Banerjee
  4. “Govern Yourselves!” Democracy and Carnage in Northern Mozambique
    Harry G. West
  5. International Presence: The Passive Work in Democracy Promotion
    Kimberley Coles
  6. Participatory Democracy, Transparency, and Good Governance in Ecuador: Why Have Social Movement Organizations at All?
    Julia Paley
  7. Literacy, Bureaucratic Domination, and Democracy
    Akhil Gupta
  8. Fractured Discourse: Rethinking the Discursivity of States
    Carol J. Greenhouse
  9. Habits of Mind, Deliberative Democracy, and Peace: Conversatorios among Military Officers, Civil Society, and Ex-guerrilleros in Colombia
    Jennifer Schirmer

There are no working papers for this book at the present time.