Department 'Anthropology of Politics and Governance'
The Department “Anthropology of Politics and Governance,” established in 2020, brings together scholars who use the tools and techniques of anthropology to research political arrangements, governance initiatives, and social movements that organize the contemporary world and that animate future possibilities.
We are interested in both silent routines and spectacular departures. First, we study that which is usually taken for granted and easily escapes critical inspection, yet organizes fundamentally the terrain of plausible and possible action. This includes habitual orientations and ways of knowing, as well as affective attachments and value regimes that coordinate practices and frame the horizons for future aspirations. However, routines are regularly interrupted by sudden disaster or technological innovation, and they are threatened by lingering long-term conflicts and emerging tensions. Thus, a second emphasis in our department is critique – critique that springs from historical injustice and structural violence, or that accompanies social and technological innovation, appearing as open contestation in the public arena or manifest in the silent subversion of alternative lifestyles. Today, what things are singled out as worthy of collective attention or propel popular action?
Our examination of contemporary political practice is organized around two master concepts that are of enormous appeal and powerfully structure visionary engagement and future-oriented action: care and control. We build on substantial work not just in anthropology but also in feminist studies, sociology, and science and technology studies. Care refers to a commitment to nurture that may take various forms – for example, investments in human relations, measures to preserve the climate, or responsibility for members of companion species. In relations of care, humans remain open to the emerging needs of beings and things, and they acknowledge the interdependency of life and the ultimate indeterminacy of the future. Meanwhile, control encompasses more than mere repression and often takes the form of confident interventions intended to create order. Such interventions are driven by the desire to contain precarity and secure life, but since they target specific populations, they are usually exclusive and also discriminatory. The term control includes a wide range of activities, from policing borders to redistributing resources, calculating risk, and disciplining populations.
Care and control may appear as rivals, and their distinction describes a fault line of discrimination between those things and beings that attract care and those that are surveilled, neglected, or left to die. Yet, in political projects, care and control are inextricably linked, since efforts to control are always exercises in experimentation, as is apparent when considering concrete case studies. For example, by introducing genetically modified seeds, breeders seek to enhance agricultural production, well aware that their interventions will have – potentially destructive – unintentional consequences. Similarly, attempts to make welfare distribution more inclusive by using fingerprinting technology help to remedy some problems of leakage, while creating new exclusions and multiple technical errors. Due to the instability of the world, the unpredictability of future developments, and glaring gaps in knowledge, such attempts to control turn out to be forms of participation in a networked world that require an ability to be attentive, to be open, and to care. In this department, we consider sites of transformation and radical critique that are driven, very often, by attempts to care and control, and we focus on innovation in relation to durable structures, affective orientations, and the indistinct boundaries between reason and belief. Thereby we open up for analysis the processes by which humans remake the world while being remade themselves along the way.
The department’s research topics are chosen for their potential to provide impulses for re-theorizing the dynamics of paired concepts that have been foundational for anthropological thinking, such as nature-culture and society-technology. Through multiple yet interrelated interventions, proponents of feminist phenomenology, science and technology studies, and new materialism have identified the paradoxes that organise entanglements of life and opened them up for analysis. Humans appear simultaneously as powerful agents driving change and as victims of processes beyond their control. For example, collectively, though unequally, humans, among others, are now suffering from climate change, while as participants in capitalism they have contributed to the advent of the new geological time of the Anthropocene. Intimate technologies such as biometric scanners or genetic testing are human inventions that recast notions of well-being and belonging and alter the meaning of life itself. Large-scale engineering “solutions” open up new frontiers for science and create effects beyond what humans could have imagined to be possible. These are only some examples of contested innovations that push human activity in the direction of change. Such developments confront us with problems that are inherently political and demand analysis in such terms.
Initially, three groups will work on the interrelated topics of ecological transformations, techno-optimism, and well-being.