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Situating Free Speech: European Parrhesia in Comparative perspective

Risking SpeechEuropean Research CouncilFree speech has long been a topic that has attracted extensive and sustained theoretical attention, definition and critical discussion in the fields of legal studies, philosophy and political science. Yet our understanding of how people relate to free speech in their everyday lives in concrete historical and geographic contexts remains paradoxically scant.

This five-year ethnographic and comparative project is studying the ethics, epistemics, politics and material-semiotic infrastructures of freedom of speech in a range of locations in and beyond Europe. Our aim is to enquire into the way free speech is lived on the ground by activists, teachers, politicians, intellectuals and artists in times of crisis and political transformation in Europe and beyond.

At the heart of our project are four key case studies, chosen to highlight intra-European differences between types of actors, political orientations, legal and institutional frameworks, and cultural and historical backgrounds: Matei Candea examines a court in Paris that specializes in free speech law, and in which many of the key arguments surrounding French republicanism are currently playing out. Paolo Heywood investigates the small town in the heart of the Italian ‘red belt’ in which Mussolini was born, is buried, and which remains haunted by the spectre of fascism, as well as the prospect of hosting Italy’s first and only museum of fascism. Fiona Wright works on a new psychotherapeutic practice in the UK known as ‘Open Dialogue’, which aims to bring together a patient’s social network in a single context and value each voice equally, thus asking how free speech functions not only politically but as a channel for inner states and relationships. Finally, Taras Fedirko examines the ways in which journalistic practices and the Ukrainian parliamentary commission on free speech have become the focal point for debates around censorship and the current ‘information war’ with Russia and Donbas separatists. 

The Risking Speech project is now entering its third year. So far we have hosted a number of seminars and masterclasses addressing questions of freedom of speech by prominent anthropologists (including James Faubion, Cymene Howe, Douglas Holmes, Jessica Greenberg, Dominic Boyer), legal scholars (Jim Weinstein, Ivan Hare, Meir Dan-Cohen) and classicists (Mary McCabe). We have undertaken extensive fieldwork in the above locations. We have also engaged in methodological reflections, discussions and seminars which will themselves lead to a number of publications. The first of these is Matei Candea’s monograph “Comparison in Anthropology: the Impossible Method” which has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

The project is funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant (Situating Free Speech: European Parrhesia in Comparative perspective). It is based at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge.

For more information including events, please visit the Risking Speech website.

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