Reflections on the Scope and Practice of Political Anthropology



décolonisation, histoire, ethnographie, analyse multiscalaire, recherche collaborative


decolonization, history, ethnography, multi-scalar analysis, collaborative research



I will frame my response to the questions asked with a brief autobiographical note, because it is important to reflect on where our own politics come from. I was an undergraduate student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford at the end of the 1960s and engaged in left-wing social and anti-imperialist activism in those heady days, in ways that went beyond student street protests. Social anthropology, then only offered to postgraduates in Oxford, seemed to promise the non-Eurocentric way of looking for the world that I had already been looking for before I went to university.

I grew up in the town of Keighley in West Yorkshire, stigmatized nationally today as an especially depressing example of the “left behind” places in a deindustrialized North of England starved of jobs and investment in public services. Yet it was easy to find grinding poverty in Keighley and the urban periphery of the metropolitan city of Bradford even when I was young. The wool textile industry had experienced only a limited revival in the face of globalization, thanks to infusions of South Asian capital and immigrant workers, some of whose descendants still work in the sweatshops brought to general public attention when they became Covid-19 hotspots in 2020. The new immigrant workers were initially ghettoized and racism manifest in all social classes, although the binary character of British colour prejudices surprised better-off South Asians whose ancestors had been introduced into Britain’s Caribbean and African colonies as “buffer classes” between white planter elites and black labourers. Although some things have changed over the years, those who see the Black Lives Matter movement as an inauthentic import from the United States should try living in an ethnically mixed working-class neighbourhood. A degree of “everyday cosmopolitanism” has developed since I was an adolescent, but institutional racism, especially in the police, remains profound. The first member of my family to go to university, I was fortunate to get an elite education. Studying Ancient History at school led me to the conclusion that the stories that my teachers offered about how “Western Modernity” was rooted in the classical “civilizations” of the Graeco-Roman world were simply ideological, along with their insistence that Africans were “people who lived in mud huts” for whom colonialization had offered an opportunity to “evolve” being brought to a tragic end by their independence. Fortunately, libraries offered books telling different stories, and my exploration of ancient “world systems” led me to think about our regional experience of capitalist industrialization and deindustrialization in terms of the colonial past and globalizing present. Thus, I set about teaching myself about that as well. I was somewhat disappointed by Oxford social anthropology in the twilight of British structural-functionalism. French theoretical ambitions impressed, but it was the work of Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz that most inspired me. My generation’s perception that anthropology itself needed decolonizing did not fall on entirely deaf ears at Oxford, as demonstrated by the chapter that Wendy James contributed to Talal Asad’s Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. It should, however, give us pause that the continuing need to decolonize anthropology featured prominently in the 2019 conference of the UK Association of Social Anthropologists, and that the Black Lives Matter Protests of 2020 renewed longstanding calls to decolonize the secondary school curriculum.

I. Definition

What is political anthropology for you? How do you understand both anthropology and politics (or the political): what is politics (or the political) and what does anthropology mean to you?

Etymology and Western European philosophical traditions might encourage us to follow Hannah Arendt in finding the origins of “politics” and “the political” in the Greek slave-based polis (conveniently bracketing out the role of Islamic civilization in the processes of cultural transmission). But for British Social Anthropology the origin of political anthropology as an academic subfield was Fortes and Evans-Pritchard’s African Political Systems. In a preface to this classic, sometimes interpreted, perhaps over-generously, as a reflection of his youthful anarchist sympathies, Radcliffe-Brown insisted that the idea of “the state” as an “entity over and above the human individuals who make up society” was a “fiction of the philosophers”. Following Weber in saying that “the political organization of a society is that aspect of the total organization that is concerned with the control and regulation of the use of physical force”, but confronted with the need to understand African societies that they could not classify as “primitive states”, both he and the volume’s editors cast around for other “recognized procedures”, such as moral sanctions against people accused of witchcraft, that could be seen as “rudiments of what in more complex societies is the organized institution of criminal justice”. In my book Power and its Disguises, I objected to this entire line of reasoning as unreconstructed ethnocentrism (and in my teaching tried to show that Weber had more interesting things to say). Noting Clastres’s argument against the idea that power is coercive in all forms of social organization, I also argued that Fortes and Evans-Pritchard’s observation that it was difficult to separate “political” from other aspects of social organization in “stateless societies” failed to recognize that the apparent autonomy of the political in the modern West enabled power relations to be represented in a way that obscured their social foundations and the way that they worked in practice.

Resisting the evolutionism of African Political Systems opens the way to seeing different forms of political organization as interrelated developments in a regional framework of state expansion and resistance and/or accommodation to it. More fundamentally, it opens up an agenda for political anthropology as a comparative project focused on the historical differences between state forms, cosmologies of hierarchy and power, and the different meanings that people have invested in “the state”, “government”, and “politics” itself. Such a project makes an analytical virtue of the anthropological holism that political scientist David Easton found so problematic, conscientiously rejecting the separation of “the political” from the social everywhere, including North Atlantic societies. It is also compatible with critiques of conceptual fetishization of “the state” as an “entity” that are different from Radcliffe-Brown’s, such as Abrams’s argument that “the state-idea” should be understood as a dimension of legitimation processes, or Gramsci’s “extended” concept of the state, which includes the role of non-political social institutions and the inter-class and inter-institutional dynamics of the formation of historical blocs. This is not to deny that “politics” appears a specialized domain in societies in which “representation of the people” is provided by bureaucratized political parties and professional politicians, which makes it vulnerable to wholesale “anti-political” rejection, but electors often speculate on whose interests other than their own their representatives might be representing even when the precise connections remain opaque to them. One of the advantages of studying in an elite university like Oxford was that it opened windows onto the backstage connections by which social elites and political classes reproduce themselves, together with opportunities to join them for those with that ambition.

I therefore see political anthropology as a comparative project aspiring to contribute to a truly universal history of humankind and all forms of human relations with each other and with “nature” (not, of course, a universally separate ontological category). Efforts to maintain particular forms of hierarchy and power relations could provoke localized ecological crises in the pre-capitalist world, although the planetary consequences hardly compare with those produced by the evolution of the “Capitalocene”. Transcending conceptual Eurocentrism is more easily achieved if we adopt a long-term perspective that “provincializes Europe” and grasp the historical processes that produced the Westphalian territorial state. Although the socioeconomic and ideological development of “Western modernity” depended on colonial expansion in general and the new Atlantic world in particular, we should not bracket out the coeval presence of Islamic networks even in that process. History should be central for a political anthropology that aims to study the workings of power and resistances to power in a more universalizing way. Understanding the differences between “modern” states and empires and earlier formations is not of purely antiquarian interest, because although the colonial order of things generally brought radical changes in social, legal, and ethnic, as well as political organization that were often at the heart of post-colonial conflicts, certain elements and logics of the pre-colonial order of things also sometimes reasserted themselves.

Various conclusions follow from this starting point. Firstly, political anthropology is more than the study of living people by ethnographic methods. Secondly, it should not be defined in terms of ethnographic methodology, as distinct from its comparative project, because ethnography needs to be complemented by other methods and an historical perspective even when research is primarily about contemporary issues (as most of my own work has been). Thirdly, there are advantages in a “four-field” definition of anthropology even if our interest is in political anthropology. I have a particular interest, and practical experience, beginning when I was an adolescent, in archaeology. Archaeology offers opportunities to look at forms of political organization that do not have direct analogies in living societies observed ethnographically and highlights inter-regional connections. In Amazonia, for example, non-state networks of regional organization were rapidly disrupted by European invasion, but the archaeological evidence refutes the idea that these were “simple societies” whose “development” was “limited” by environmental conditions. Historical archaeology, along with biological anthropology, also offers opportunities to explore the “hidden histories” of the worlds colonized by Europeans. In the Americas, one is in understanding how indigenous societies continually changed in response to the processes of colonization, in a manner aimed at “pacifying us, together with our germs and our commodities” from their own ontological perspective, as Manuela Carneiro da Cunha put it. Another is gaining fresh insights into the lives of African slaves and their descendants who moved northwards in the United States. All kinds of anthropology can contribute to politics (and justice). The forensic anthropologists who excavated and dated mass graves made a key contribution to the trial for genocide of former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Rios Montt, for example.

The other side of this coin is that archaeology and history, as well as anthropology more broadly conceived, become subject to their own forms of politicization. For example, now that building the nation state is more important than building the revolution for China’s communist rulers, they are interested in searching for archaeological evidence of the antiquity of an entity that could be considered “China”. The politics of “heritage” in general has become a major topic of anthropological research, but it intersects with other themes in economic, political, and urban anthropology when poor people of colour are displaced from “historic” urban centres by elites that seek to capitalize on the tourism income generated by marketing a domesticated black cultural heritage and creativity. An apt example is the social cleansing of the historic centre of Salvador, the original colonial capital of Brazil, and the movements of resistance and contestation that process has fostered. Broadening the scope of political anthropology broadens the scope of critical and engaged research, but it also obliges us to be reflexive about the politics of our own scholarly efforts and the uses to which they may be put that we cannot completely control. For ethnography-based political anthropology, this raises questions about how best to engage with the people we study. Max Gluckman apparently told his students to keep their eyes and ears open and their mouths shut. Yet maintaining “detachment” is often unrealistic when we are not the colonial masters and our research subjects demand more of us, even if we maintain “critical distance” in our analyses. I will return to this issue later.

II. Heritage

Does your research in political anthropology voluntarily relate to, or at the contrary, break with one or (m)any disciplinary traditions (as places for teaching, working and carrying out fieldwork)?

As a young lecturer at University College London I formed part of the collective that edited the journal Critique of Anthropology, dedicated to radical paradigm change. We taught courses offering non-Eurocentric world systems theory perspectives, explored Marxist approaches in anthropology in critical dialogue with French colleagues, and promoted feminist anthropology, absorbing poststructuralist contributions, especially Foucault, but remaining sceptical about the “postmodern turn”. My choice of Mexico as regional specialization was unusual for a British anthropologist, although I didn’t feel completely comfortable being described as a “Latin Americanist” until I started doing fieldwork in Brazil as well, after moving to Manchester in 1996. These choices would be conventional for a US-trained anthropologist, but being conscious that I was the product of another “imperial anthropology”, in Stocking’s sense, made me anxious to embed myself in local research institutions, contribute to their teaching programmes, and avoid treating Mexican anthropologists as “informants” rather than colleagues. I have always published a good deal in Spanish, and latterly in Portuguese too, and made sure that the people that I study have access to what I write about them. This is essential for taking responsibility for the politics of our own professional activity.

Even if deeply immersive, local level ethnography is not sufficient to answer all the questions we might pose as political anthropologists, its virtues are unquestionable. It enables us to understand how ordinary people understand “the state” and contribute to its construction. We can explore formal and public encounters between politicians, state agents and citizens, but also informal relations and part of the political “backstage”. We can grasp the meanings of political rituals to the participants, including their levels of cynicism about the official narratives being projected, and, indeed, the extent to which electoral politics itself can be seen as a ritual process, as proposed, for example, by Palmeira and Heredia in their model of the “political season” in Brazil. Ethnography helps us to understand the governmental roles of NGOs and other non-state actors, of which drug cartels are especially important in my Mexican research, from a bottom-up perspective. Local-level ethnographic research often reveals ambiguities not easily documented using other methodologies, including what makes or breaks regimes of local-boss rule. It can show that political parties locally do not necessarily represent what they seem to represent nationally, or ideologically, and may simply be labels adopted by political actors according to a local balance of forces in factional conflict. The same may apply to identification with social movements, including the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas. Ethnography is likely to reveal the internal contradictions of social movements, even when they are more or less what they appear to be. But determining whether they are what they appear to be often requires us to look beyond the local level to wider, real and popularly imagined, networks of political power.

We therefore need a variety of other methodologies, and I have always accepted the argument of political scientists that there are some questions that cannot be convincingly answered without systematic quantification. It was also difficult to defend a purely local perspective in the kinds of communities in which I worked in Western Mexico, where international migration to the United States has been a central aspect of social and political life for more than a century, and continuing transnational connections remain important, across class lines. Being able to adopt a longitudinal perspective on local developments is also valuable, even when it provides few reasons to be cheerful, as in the case of the escalating violence associated with criminal cartels, whose development I have been able to follow since the early 1980s. I was able to do long-term research in Mexico because I was fortunate in securing research funding from Mexican as well as British government sources and international foundations. Although I enhanced my Mexican studies over the years by working comparatively in different places, with different social, ethnic, and political profiles, I also returned to previously studied places with some frequency. At the same time, however, it is valuable to look at micro-regional differences and compare different “local” settings with each other and in terms of the higher-level political networks and processes. This was what the students who carried out research in Chiapas under my direction succeeded in accomplishing, working in diverse locales that included zones where the neo-Zapatista movement had not achieved hegemony to produce a broader understanding of its uneven impact and other dimensions of the state’s politics obscured by focusing on the EZLN.

I have been privileged in terms of the opportunities for participant observation of intimate political processes that I have managed to convince local communities to give me as an outsider. But embeddedness in local academic institutions as a teacher, as well as a researcher, also opened doors into the social worlds of Mexico’s elite and political classes, and gave me an understanding of the wider political role of academic figures and trade unions. I like to think that my close involvement with institutions in the regions in which I did fieldwork transcended the traditions of “imperial anthropology”. I not only participated in, but also helped to develop, outreach projects between research centres and local society, many of which were quite “political”, although teaching courses to local students who went on to play significant roles in social movements sometimes produced ironic consequences. One former student who became a leader of an important indigenous autonomy movement once apologized to me for resorting to “strategic essentialism” when speaking in a public meeting that I also attended. But I did not feel inclined to challenge a little “invention of tradition” given the stakes of that particular struggle.

III. Contexts and fields

How does the specific (political and disciplinary) context of your fieldwork shape your own approach of the political anthropology you are conducting?

Latin America is a region born in the genocide of its indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans, whose history has always been shaped by imperial rivalries and interventions. It is a complicated history, since different patterns of colonization of ecologically diverse terrain, associated with variable inter-ethnic and economic relations, created “new peoples” based on biological and cultural mixing whilst also conserving patterns of ethno-racial discrimination. It is a violent and conflictive history, because existing power structures have faced repeated challenges from a variety of disaffected social forces, often entering into fragile alliances across “castes” (racialized ethnic status groups) and economic classes, which seldom ended in ways that satisfied the aspirations of their subaltern shock troops. It is no exaggeration to say that genocide has repeatedly been on the agenda of Latin American elites and, as many black and indigenous activists assert, continues to be so today.

Working on the politics of this region presents a variety of challenges. For the early generations of professional anthropologists born in the region who made their careers there, the role of the anthropologist was to support “nation-building”, in a close relation with government, although assimilationist “official indigenist” anthropology was on the wane when I began research in Mexico. The transition from the oligarchic forms of governance that characterized the original Latin American republics has generally been towards “low intensity” forms of democracy still susceptible to subversion by coups in which the hidden hand of US power remains significant, as recent experiences in Brazil and Bolivia demonstrated. Much has changed in society since the era of the military dictatorships (or the end of the seventy unbroken years in national power of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party). Yet anthropological studies reveal the complexity, ambiguity and limitations of political changes, including those associated with the “Pink Tide” governments. Leaving aside the compromises with elites and ways of doing politics embedded in established party systems that governments committed to redistributive policies arguably had no option but to accept, it is difficult to ignore the dependence of redistributive policies on agroexports and extractivism. One of the contradictions of the Bolivian “Indigenous State” of Evo Morales was that its macro-economically successful economic policies provoked opposition from some indigenous people, and it was the Brazilian Workers’ Party-led government that initiated the environmental and social catastrophe created by the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam.

Latin America provides ample opportunities to address well-established general themes, such as patron-client relations, in both urban and rural contexts, but it was particularly central to debates about “new social movements” in the 1980s and 1990s. Ethnographically-grounded anthropological research tended to throw cold water on utopian visions of the alternatives provided by “new” movements, exploring ways in which many were reincorporated into the politics as usual of party organizations or subject to “NGOization” under formally democratic conditions. Nevertheless, new forms of social mobilization have continued to emerge, including increasing female protagonism across a range of issues and classes, and more radical indigenous and black movements confronting rural displacement by capital, socially exclusionary neoliberal models of urban development, and the violence of militarized policing aimed at keeping everyone in their proper place and defending development models even at the cost of killing small children as well as young men of colour. But anthropological research also has to explain why everyone in the same social situation does not adhere to these movements. Why, for example, does the militant US-influenced black movement in Brazilian favelas generally have fewer followers than the kinds of evangelical churches that the Comaroffs saw as embodying the spirit of neoliberal capitalism?

Disillusion in the global North after the heady days of the Sixties refocused attention on the “infrapolitics of everyday subaltern resistance”, to invoke James Scott’s terms. Yet ethnographic studies highlighted the need to analyse the internal politics of subaltern groups, as stressed by Sherry Ortner, and the difficulties of linking “everyday resistances” to structural changes in power relations. It was not simply that “communities” might divide over whether or not to oppose mining projects or resist the “gentrification” of irregular settlements created by invasions of urban land. Nor was it simply a matter of “bringing the state back in”, since national and transnational non-governmental organizations were also producing “modern government” in Foucault’s sense. Whilst Sahlins complained that a “Foucauldian-Gramscian-Nietzschean obsession with power” had produced “anthropology’s new functionalism”, his own vision of “culture” as a structurer of history, rather than an evolving product of social action and relations, including power relations, seemed backward rather than forward-looking. As Eric Wolf argued, putting power at the centre of political anthropology seemed the better way to go, provided we defined the different “modes of power” that this “polymorphous” word might denote.

Latin American is a region shaped by the geopolitics of empires, whose societies and cultures are doubly unbounded, given that migrants came to Latin American countries from a broad range of other regions, including East and South Asia, whilst Latin Americans themselves have emigrated extensively, within as well as beyond the region. Its nature encourages a vision of political anthropology with power at its heart as a multi-scalar undertaking, taking us from locality and micro-region through larger-scale regional and national-level analysis, into the domain of international relations and geopolitics. This multi-scalar approach was adopted in a major contribution to building an anthropology of power by Richard Newbold Adams in his pioneering 1970 book on Guatemala, Crucifixion by Power, a work that Wolf reminded his audience to read in his own essay twenty years later, a suggestion I still endorse half a century later. Many reviewers of Wolf’s own Envisioning Power book complained that it was too “macro” and totalizing, even reinstating the “over-coherent” view of culture that Wolf himself had so frequently criticized in the past. Yet as Anthony Marcus pointed out, in the case of the Nazis, Wolf’s concept of “structural power” was composed of social forces that comprise millions of people. One of the things that political anthropologists can contribute through ethnography is to tell more complicated stories about the local, quite often at the expense of optimism about the ease with which we might change the world. But at a moment of generalized crisis in which the transition from one world order to another is taking the form of a new Cold War, the case for attempting more than that seems as strong as it was in the 1970s.

IV. Role

What do you think is the role of the political anthropologist both in the public and intellectual debate?

Which are the “solicitations of the present” (authoritarian regimes, repressions, revolts or revolutions, riots, social mobilizations and protests, etc.) that make political anthropology important for our contemporary societies? How does the present affect or disrupt research, methodologies, engagements, interpretations and theories?

How do you position yourself in relation to commitment and political transformations? Do you find it necessary or inevitable a dialogue with social movements? If so, why and what for?

As far as the “solicitations of the present” are concerned, I have published a lot recently about the relationships between the resurgence of the ultra-right (I have studied historical movements too), decay of social democracy, and the growing violence of the societies of control and surveillance emerging in a context of mounting local and global capitalist contradictions. Disillusion with liberal representative democracy and rejection of professionalized party politics may intensify as the economic consequences of the current pandemic begin to be felt. Even more of humanity may fall into the condition of Agamben’s “bare life”, or “disposables”, a concept I used when talking about Latin America’s social epidemic of femi(ni)cide. Yet although the Covid-19 pandemic has unmasked the scale of precarity, poverty and inequality in both North and South, along with the specific kinds of national structural malaise revealed in British and Brazilian central government handling of the pandemic, it has also provoked new stirrings of “resistance”. These include poor communities organizing themselves to do what governments fail to do, and mobilizations by “Uberized” delivery workers and Amazon warehouse workers that are not simply about low pay and precarity but bids to redefine the category of “essential workers”. The key issue is whether “politics as usual” will impede return to the old “new normal” produced by the rentier character of financialized neoliberal capitalism and the development model that produced the climate crisis and pandemic.

The challenges are daunting. The post-WWII international order, which was hardly wholly admirable anyway, is unravelling. Xenophobic nationalisms threaten those forms of internationalism that are genuinely humanitarian, lacking power-laden ulterior motives. Political polarization is widespread in democracies, and alternatives to traditional social-democratic electoral parties on the “left” of the political spectrum have yet to define coherent alternatives that might build hegemony across cleavages of class, race, and ethnicity. Yet it remains dubious whether horizontal alliances between fragmented “grassroots movements” can transform the basic structures of economic and social power behind existing political systems. We still need politics, and it could benefit from a more directly politically engaged (and left-leaning) anthropology.

Yet the pandemic is likely to lead to radical changes in university institutions, whose academic knowledge production was already challenged to overcome the alternative voices diffusing scepticism about it via digital social networks. Doing research may become an increasingly scarce opportunity. Our capacity to assume a public intellectual role was already dampened by academic audit culture and the fragmenting logic of neoliberal “competitive accountability”. As someone who was always an active trade unionist, I ask myself how far academics will be willing to transcend our sectional economic interest and claims to be “experts” to embrace a broader politics of care for other workers.

There are, however, different ways of being a public intellectual. Since my wife is a Brazilian academic born in Argentina who also has family in Mexico, my principal concern now is the future of Latin America. One way of being more “political” in countries of which I am not a citizen has been to adopt collaborative styles of research.

In Mexico, I decided to study an indigenous group on the Pacific Coast of Michoacán who refuse to be “ventriloquized” by any outsider, including the EZLN’s subcomandante Marcos, somewhat discomforted by their questioning when he paid them a personal visit as an allied “community in resistance”. Convincing a community assembly to let me live there was a challenge, but once I was allowed in, people were prepared to discuss the findings of “critically distanced” research as they planned their responses to new external threats posed by mining as well as methamphetamine and cocaine processing and trafficking. Community demands shaped much of my research agenda. I reconstructed their whole, remarkable, postcolonial history and strengthened their land claims by revealing the anomalies that had characterized the official process of demarcating their territory. My ethnography documented a contemporary religious and ritual life that was integral to their resilience as a self-governing entity jealous of its autonomy, but I could also show how it had changed and adapted in the face of new challenges and new enemies. “The community” did not lack internal factionalism. The participation of community leaders in different political parties and the broader politics of the narco-municipality was one source of conflict, not easily removed from the backstage even after the communal assembly voted to ban political parties and participation in the state’s electoral processes. Yet even after external violence intensified, the deep structures that bound eventually proved stronger than the conjunctural ties and events that divided. This research was collaborative in the sense that it supported the community’s struggles to determine its own future by defending its territory, understood in an indigenous sense that links cosmologically coded space to identity rather than in the non-indigenous “land rights” bureaucratic sense. The two principles coexisted in tension, but the former remained encompassing, because it gave a meaning and dignity to subaltern lives that mestizo neighbours had often failed to understand.

My most recent collaboration, from 2006 onwards, is with a community on the urban periphery of Salvador, Bahia, carried out with Maria Gabriela Hita and students from the Federal University of Bahia. Bairro da Paz is a large favela which has a history of “resistance”, but is more socially, religiously, and politically heterogenous than my indigenous example. Conflicts, especially between members of the neo-Pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and followers of Candomblé, can be acute. Politics, which involves militancy in the radical Black Movement as well as political parties of the left, right and centre, also raises passions, and although the community is seen as uniformly “black” by middle class outsiders, there was a backlash against the PT’s affirmative action policies from some lighter skinned residents. Our aim was to support community leaderships in their efforts to construct an overarching representative body that could mediate these divisions, serving as a forum for bringing different kinds of community organizations together to produce diagnostics of problems that could be presented to governmental officials as demands for action backed by everyone. The object of the exercise was to change the terms of negotiation not only by ensuring that “the community” would speak with one voice, but also by presenting demands transparently in public meetings controlled by community members and not by outside authorities, a break from established practices of “popular participation”, even when government did not resort to finding a leader to co-opt as representative of a “popular consensus” that did not actually exist. Not surprisingly, this experiment had its ups and downs, but it did produce some successes. Our role as academics was not simply to provide useful data on the basis of our research, technical support, and advice on navigating the labyrinth of bureaucracy. Our team, along with an important Catholic NGO and some other external organizations that worked in the neighbourhood, was a member of the new organization. We could not keep our mouths shut because we were required to contribute to the collective deliberations before the public meetings, although we deferred to community leaders and residents in those.

This, then, is a type of collaboration in which the researchers become co-responsible for political outcomes. Our ethnographic observations contributed to evaluation sessions on what had and had not been achieved, as we all worked to make the organization more effective. Even in the midst of a pandemic that makes traditional ethnography impossible, we can continue to keep in touch with Bairro da Paz through WhatsApp, an everyday means of communication for everyone. Since social media “fake news” played a crucial role in the 2018 elections in Brazil, there is some purpose in pursuing digital ethnography. It is not an adequate substitute for the full panoply of methods we would normally employ in research on political life, another challenge facing anthropologists at this time of multiple, intersecting, global crises. Yet the most profound challenge is ensuring that we are not just talking amongst ourselves.


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Electronic reference

John Gledhill, « Reflections on the Scope and Practice of Political Anthropology », Condition humaine / Conditions politiques [Online], 2 | 2021, Online since 20 juin 2021, connection on 24 avril 2024. URL :


John Gledhill

John Gledhill is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester and a fellow of the British Academy and Academy of Social Sciences. He has conducted ethnographic and historical research on society and politics in Brazil and Mexico, in both rural and urban contexts, and with mestizo, indigenous and afro-descendent communities. He also writes on broader comparative issues, and his best-known general contribution to political anthropology is his book Power and its Disguises (1994; 2000). His most recent books are La cara oculta de la inseguridad en México (2017); The New War Against the Poor: The Production of Insecurity in Latin America (2015); (editor, with Mariela Gabriela Hita and Mariano Perelman) Disputas em torno do espaço urbano: processos de [re]produção/construção e apropriação da cidade (2020) and (editor) World Anthropologies in Practice: Situated Perspectives, Global Knowledge (2016).

John Gledhill est professeur émérite en anthropologie sociale à l'Université de Manchester, membre de la British Academy et de l'Academy of Social Sciences. Il mène des recherches ethnographiques et historiques sur la société et la politique brésiliennes et mexicaines, en milieu rural et urbain, ainsi qu'auprès des communautés métisses, indigènes et de celle des Afro-descendants. Il publie également des études comparatives plus larges sur différentes questions. Sa contribution générale la plus connue à l'anthropologie politique est Power and its Disguises (1994 ; 2000). Ses derniers ouvrages parus sont La cara oculta de la inseguridad en México (2017) ; The New War Against the Poor: The Production of Insecurity in Latin America (2015). En tant qu'éditeur scientifique, il a également publié Disputas em torno do espaço urbano: processos de [re]produção/construção e apropriação da cidade, avec Mariela Gabriela Hita et Mariano Perelman (2020), et World Anthropologies in Practice: Situated Perspectives, Global Knowledge (2016).