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Citizenship and political life

To study citizenship requires in part the study of how societies organise membership in – and, very importantly, exclusion from and marginalisation within – political communities. This must be investigated in combination with fine-grained ethnography of how people experience, understand and represent these processes. For most people today, the state is the dominant political community of which they are members, and so citizenship is principally understood to reference the relationship between individuals or groups and the national or local state. Yet in practice people are members of multiple and shifting political communities or constituencies, at different scales and articulated through different topologies: national but also transnational, local, city-based, networked or distributed, defined on the basis of residence, occupation, identity, territoriality and so on.

The connection between citizenship and political belonging has raised a number of questions which have been answered differently in different social and historical contexts, such as: how to articulate membership and exclusion from membership; how to make claims on the community and participate in governance or restrict participation in governance; how to create “good” citizens; or how to distribute equality. As a research agenda, therefore, we seek to investigate how people across the world answer these questions but also how they enact their belonging, participation, differentiation and exclusion, and what kinds of implications this might have for their subjectivity and sense of self, both individually and collectively. We are also concerned, therefore, with critical readings of cross-cultural narratives of political society and claims of community. Our focus on political life thus addresses the following themes and questions:


  • The practices of participation and governance within different political communities. These may be seen as democratic, authoritarian, aristocratic, plutocratic, ethnocratic and so on. How do they vary cross-culturally? Are aristocratic systems represented as restrictive or enabling, and by whom? How are understandings of democratic participation articulated differently in different political communities? What does that mean for the ability to challenge hegemonic understandings of how to organise political and economic life?
  • What spaces host political life? The streets, the airwaves, the courthouse, the house, the city more broadly? Do the different kinds of spaces hold different affordances for political life to be experienced as democratic or otherwise? How does political life change when spaces become affectively charged with memories, trauma, history? How is politics distributed through space and materialities?
  • How is the city as political space shaped by its economic life and the distribution of resources within and between cities? How do citizens value ‘the commons’ (e.g. public squares, parks, water supplies and sanitary facilities) as against privatisation? What have been the consequences of privatisation and advanced capitalist enterprise on the sociality and politics of cities?
  • What is the role of the supernatural in political life? How do people relate their political practices with spirituality? And, in turn, can religion and politics be disaggregated from one another? Is ‘secular’ politics possible?
  • How do people in different parts of the world construe ‘politics’ differently? Are there culturally distinct understandings of ‘politics’ and/or do notions and practices of ‘politics’ get influenced by transnationalism?
  • What is the role of politics in the making of subjectivity?  Further than ‘political subjectivity,’ can we study the mutual entrainment of ‘politics’ and ‘subjectivity’? What can the study of ‘subjectivity’ add to anthropological studies of ‘politics’?
  • How do political communities articulate membership, exclusion (exit), participation and identity transnationally and at the borders between countries, metropolitan areas, the urban and the rural? What legal and moral instruments are brought in to bear on such articulations? What role does migration play?
  • How are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ political communities envisioned and articulated historically and cross-culturally, and what local meanings have been given to political forms such as ‘empire’ and ‘nation-state’? How do the ethnic and the national configure in states subscribing to principles of democracy or communism (or socialism)? What implication does the ‘transition’ from one regime form to another have for ethnic and national identity and membership?
  • How do bureaucratic practices articulate with political membership? How is this related to practices of scientific knowledge construction and the uses made of scientific knowledge?  And how are these domains invoked in policy practices involving the movement of goods and persons, as well as capital and services?
  • What do we mean by ‘democratic’ political life and is this understanding best articulated through normative understandings of liberal democracy, or are alternative conceptions of participation in political life ultimately more relevant to ordinary lives? So, if we can free ourselves of normative notions of democracy, should we ask whether clientelistic or aristocratic systems are necessarily anti-democratic?
  • Political membership requires educational projects that make good (or docile) citizens, committed political activists, people who see themselves as part of the collective in some way. How do these projects of individual and collective self-cultivation articulate with ethical projects of moral self-cultivation?