Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2001

The Anthropology of Power and Resistance in a Changing World

Lecturer: Professor John Gledhill,
Manchester University, UK
Dates: 6. - 10. August 2001

The primary focus of this course is on cross-cultural analysis of contemporary political life on a global scale. The postcolonial critique of classical anthropology has rightly emphasised the founding fathers' relative silence on colonial power relations and the artificial nature of some of the models that this refusal to contextualise produced. Re-contextualising the so-called 'small-scale societies' that once served as a privileged laboratory for the West's exploration of itself through studying its 'others' often forces us to rethink our analyses quite radically.

Many of the theoretical assumptions that once shaped anthropological thinking also now seem anachronistic because the world has changed: simple spatial distinctions between 'centres' and 'peripheries' no longer seem entirely appropriate and transnational and global processes are receiving greater attention. This does not, however, mean that classic contributions in the field of political anthropology lacked value, and the course will highlight ways in which contemporary work can build on insights from past generations of scholarship.

It is also often important to adopt an historical perspective in order to make a judgement about what is truly 'new' about today's world and what is more a matter of rethinking the concepts and models that we used in the past. But the principle message of the course is that anthropological perspectives are more essential today than ever, as an antidote to media stereotypes, tendencies to uncritical Western triumphalism and politically convenient denials of responsibility for the state of the world on the part of Northern governments.

The course adopts a global perspective, using case studies from a variety of different regions of the world to illustrate particular themes. It examines a number of controversial issues, including the politics of anthropology itself and the ethical issues posed by anthropological work that serves particular political agendas. Emphasis is placed on the ability of ethnographically grounded anthropological research to illuminate processes unlikely to be understood by other disciplinary approaches and the ability of anthropologists to shift from the micro-level to make arguments about large-scale, national, transnational and global processes that contest other interpretations.

Basic readings

Course outline

Lecture 1. A Classical Dilemma: Finding 'Politics' in 'Stateless Societies'
The emergence of political anthropology was intimately tied to the 'new' colonial system of the 19th century. We will begin by considering how this shaped anthropological work, against the backdrop of the development of European thought and imperial politics in general. The discussion will include some consideration of early anthropological work in the United States as well as Europe, not simply because the United States was itself an imperial power, and possessed its own, internal colonial relations, but because it is interesting to contrast the politics of anthropology in the US at end of the 19th and start of the 20th century with that of Europe. Early work in political anthropology was much vexed by the question of what constitutes 'law' and 'politics' in 'acephalous' societies. The answers given were often Eurocentric, but a more fundamental problem was what it meant to talk about 'stateless societies' in colonial contexts. The value of using ethnographically observed 'societies' as proxies for 'society before the state' in an evolutionist sense will be questioned by considering Amazonian examples.

Syllabus Readings:

Lecture 2. Post-colonial Tribes and the Problem of Violence
This lecture will continue the discussion with some further examples that examine the role of warfare and violence in 'stateless' societies and the way their development can be linked to expanding state systems. We will consider in depth some of the ways in which colonial and post-colonial transformations undermined indigenous institutions for regulating conflicts and could be said to have increased levels of violence both at the social and domestic level.

Syllabus Readings:

Lecture 3. Domination, Hegemony and Resistance
Although it would be a mistake to consider the whole of classical anthropology to have been silent on the subject of colonial power relations, the 1970s saw a wide range of critiques of the anthropological project which forced a considerable amount of rethinking. This lecture focuses on some of the problems raised by postcolonial critics outside anthropology and the difficulties of pursuing an analysis that adopts a 'from below' perspective on 'domination and resistance'. Appealing though the heroic figure of the 'resistant subaltern' might be, ethnographic research reveals a more complex and ambiguous picture. In the second part of the lecture, Antonio Gramsci's formulation of the concept of 'hegemony' will be contrasted with its later appropriations by anthropologists and with James Scott's reading.

Syllabus Readings:

Lecture 4. Postcolonial States and 'Civil Society'
This lecture examines the processes of national state formation in Africa and Latin America and the way they contrast with European experience. Particular attention is paid to the argument that authoritarianism reflects a weak 'civil society' and the historical evidence on the role of popular movements and the nature of elites. One major orientation of anthropological work has been to adopt a 'view from below' that focuses on the contribution of particular regions to the shaping of national regimes and the way 'the state' and 'the nation' themselves are constructed in the popular imagination. Once we move beyond European experience, historical anthropology frequently seems to produce unexpected and revealing alternative perspectives.

Syllabus Readings:

Lecture 5. Remaking the Postcolonial State: Indigenous Rights Movements.
One of the most striking developments of recent years is the emergence of a global movement for indigenous rights. In many contexts, the creation of a politics of recognition for indigenous culture and identity represents a radical break with earlier forms of popular mobilisation, even in communities that have maintained a specific 'indigenous' identity. Anthropologists would appear to have a natural predisposition to support or even to advocate such movements, but their politics are not straightforward and transparent. The dynamics of local movements are influenced in important ways by the involvement of NGOs as well as by local histories, as will be further illustrated later in the course. Their relationships with other popular movements may also be problematic, particularly in contexts where elites are practised in the manipulation of ethnic cleavages.

Syllabus Readings:

Lecture 6. Micro-politics: Politics Through the Eyes of the Ethnographer.
Anthropologists cannot ignore the impact of larger forces on the local situations which are the conventional subject of their field research, and studying processes at the local level is not all that anthropologists today actually do. Nevertheless, ethnographic research does offer genuine insights: it often enables us to understand situations that are paradoxical and it sometimes shows that established theories based on general arguments are wrong. In this session, we will take a close look at a classic work of Manchester School anthropology, Victor Turner's Schism and Continuity in an African Society. This will be coupled with another ethnography that does not, at first sight, appear to be about politics at all, but "meaningless" urban youth violence. If such violence is not, however, meaningless, which is what this analysis shows, then we may feel inclined to shift our ideas about where we need to look to understand the effects of power structures that maintain gross patterns of social inequality in the modern world. Finally, the lecture will consider Michel Foucault's influential approach to the micro-physics of power, highlighting both its strengths and its limitations.

Syllabus Readings:

Lecture 7. Globalisation and the Transnational Politics
Though seemingly at the opposite end of the spectrum to anthropological studies of the local and micro-level, the anthropological analysis of 'the global' has often remained entangled in a pursuit of 'articulations' between the 'local' and 'global' that leave a number of theoretical problems unresolved. Efforts to study people who 'live their lives across borders' as migrants or refugees have given rise to a vogue for 'multi-sited ethnographies' that will also remain of limited value without further conceptual reflection. In practice, 'globalisation' and 'transnationalism' have become buzz-words that often lack clear definition in the literature. Debates have raged throughout the social sciences about whether either is truly historically new, and about the implications of both global capitalism and political action involving organisation across national borders for the power of states and the future of the nation state. This lecture will survey some recent critical anthropological contributions to the debates, focusing in particular on the role of the state and the potential of transnational political action of various kinds.

Syllabus Readings:

Lecture 8. State Crisis and the Post-Cold War Scenario
This lecture challenges a number of prevalent conventional wisdoms about the causes and nature of violence in the contemporary world. It focuses in particular on the critique of the 'New Barbarism' diagnosis of the roots of the innumerable 'small wars' of Africa, and offers alternative perspectives on what at first sight appear to be simple processes of 'state collapse' but which might often better be seen as transformations in the forms of power that constitute 'governance'. Particular attention is paid to the relationships between 'ethnic violence' and state terror, and the need to be cautious about reading certain kinds of conflicts as 'ethnic' in the first place.

Syllabus Readings:

Lecture 9. Social Movements and their Contradictions
Many theorists and activists have come to see popular 'social movements' as an alternative to political parties and, in effect, the chief hope for achieving 'democratisation'. Writers such as Arturo Escobar have argued that certain types of social movements should be of particular interest to anthropologists since they embody radical projects for 'alternative modernities' and reflect the coming together of the local and the global in ways that open up new possibilities for practising a cultural politics that is also about control of resources. Ethnographic studies of a wide variety of social movements have dampened some of the earlier optimism of the social movements literature, and we should not forget about social movements that most of us might consider 'reactionary' or 'Right Wing', like the anti-government militias and 'anarcho-capitalists' in the United States. But a more nuanced, and less utopian, vision of social movement politics arguably makes the issue of the impacts of social movement activism more rather than less interesting and important.

Syllabus Readings:

Lecture 10. The Politics of Doing and Writing Anthropology
In this lecture I discuss some of the ethical and political dilemmas raised by the past history of anthropology and the discipline's adaptations to a changing world. One lesson that might be learned from this survey is that the road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions, but the principal lesson is perhaps that anthropologists need to think very carefully about whom they produce knowledge for. Some anthropologists have argued that the discipline should become more politicised by adopting a stance of activism and partisanship on behalf of the poor and oppressed. This is not, however, as straightforward a proposal as it sounds.

Syllabus readings:

The lecturer
Professor John Gledhill is Head of Department at the Department of Social Anthropology at Manchester University. He studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics as an undergraduate, and Social Anthropology as a postgraduate, at Oxford University. After teaching for twenty years at University College London, he joined the Manchester department in September 1996. He is a specialist on Mexico and Central America, with particular interests in political, economic and historical anthropology. His primary research is contemporary and comparative, though his work is characterised by attention to the historical roots of contemporary situations. The theme of his research embraces political, social and economic issues at the local level and between local society and larger global processes.

Among his monographs are Power and its Disguises: Anthropological Perspectives on Politics (1994) and Neoliberalism, Transnationalization and Rural Poverty: A Case Study of Michoacán, Mexico (1995). He has written several book chapters and is currently managing editor of Critique of Anthropology, and member of the editorial board of such journals as Anthropological Theory and Identities. He has published a number of articles in scholarly journals as Journal of European Area Studies, Critique of Anthropology and Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economy.