ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Political subjectivities in resource-rich authoritarian countries

Location Quincentenary Building, Seminar Room
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 14:00


Jon Schubert (University of Geneva) email
Tristam Barrett (University of Cambridge) email
Mail All Convenors


Comparative ethnographic studies of popular engagements with "the political" in the hydrocarbon extracting states of Southern and Equatorial Africa and Central Asia.

Long Abstract

As scholarship on hydrocarbon states shows, not all wealthy nations make for healthy publics. The statecraft of newly fledged petro-states affirms that authoritarianism is emerging as a norm despite two decades of democratization. We know of the "menu of manipulation" (rigged elections, unfree press, etc.) and the disappointed expectations of civil society, oppositional and human rights movements, but how does living in a petro-state inform the subjectivities of its inhabitants?

This panel brings together ethnographic case studies from Southern and Equatorial Africa and former Soviet Central Asia to investigate the political subjectivities of citizens of resource-rich authoritarian countries and understand the scope for political agency when classical avenues (parliamentary politics, civic engagement, etc.) are extremely restricted. How does oil affect the cultural construal of political authority, value, and everyday life? How do citizens participate in the political imaginaries that sustain these states?

Western dependency on oil-related investments and the failure of "international democracy assistance" make this a timely question for scholars. Equally, the political compromise that rested on socialist, anti-colonial and revolutionary imaginings of authority and legitimacy has come to its limits, and a younger, educated generation is emerging that is less content with the status quo. In this context, much may be gained by looking at the mundane, everyday experience of social groups that are not politically active, but will ultimately drive economic and political change.

We especially welcome submissions on Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Mozambique, as well as hydrocarbon producing countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Domination and desire in everyday Luanda

Author: Chloé Buire (LAM | CNRS)  email


“They have the money, they decide”, says the resigned resident expropriated from the city centre. “Now I have a house, my life starts”, says the satisfied homeowner in a new suburban housing project. This paper explores the urban and political contradictions of hope and submission in Luanda, Angola.

Long Abstract

This paper is based on ethnographic immersion in a central neighbourhood of Luanda called Coreia (Angola). In 2010, a Presidential Decree earmarked Coreia for the construction of the city's New Political and Administrative Centre. Residents were helpless and despite an attempt to collectively oppose to the project, all have now been expropriated, only waiting for their final eviction. In the meantime, low cost residential developments are being erected on the urban fringe to house those who cannot afford to live in the centre anymore. Some "Coreians" have moved there, where they intend to start a new life and regain their dignity.

To explore the political identities that accompany the "great transformation" (Polanyi, 1944) of Luanda, I use the concept of "propertied citizenship" (Roy, 2003; Lund, 2006; Holston, 2008). I argue that the political dimension of homeownership is even stronger in a context of urban vulnerability and strict political control. Mundane practices of home making are likely to map out new political subjectivities that are based on a sense of belonging and of respectability. Domestic spaces - while often ignored in political theories - become original signifiers of the ambiguities of self-discipline and community ordering on the one hand, and of political obedience and resistance to domination on the other hand. Ethnographic material collected about urban daily life both on the ground and on Facebook tells the story of the everyday struggle to achieve one's most cherished desire: make home; and the heavy price paid for it: freedom and autonomy.

"I think this will all end bloody": the politics of middle-class privilege and dependence in Maputo

Author: Jason Sumich (GIGA Hamburg)  email


This presentation examines how Frelimo's (the ruling party of Moambique) nationalist hegemony is beginning to crumble among those who have long benefitted from the party's rule.

Long Abstract

In this presentation I discuss what the category of 'middle class' means in present-day Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. I examine the relationships of dependence and obligation that form this social category and the attempts to symbolically justify such relationships. I argue that the current bankruptcy of the narratives that provided moral legitimacy of the social order is causing the ruling party's hegemony to crumble. By focusing on the symbolic narratives that attempt to justify privilege, forms of dependence and inequality, and how they have transformed, I then demonstrate why, despite the nation's economic growth, many of my informants see the current era as a time of fearful decay.

Political subjectivity and social stratification: Baku and Luanda in comparative perspective

Author: Tristam Barrett (University of Cambridge)  email


This paper investigates the political subjectivities of different social classes in Baku and Luanda, and puts them into comparative perspective with the cases presented by other panelists.

Long Abstract

As in the cases of Maputo, Caracas, and Luanda – discussed by the other panelists – the oil-boom economy of present-day Baku, Azerbaijan, is effecting a large-scale economic transformation within the city, and correspondingly new forms of social stratification have emerged. Those who participate in the new economy of oil and related booming sectors (construction, real estate, finance, public administration) form a burgeoning middle class with new expectations and possibilities for meeting them. On the other hand, those who remain either within the continuing economy of post-socialism or on the margins of the new economy – or whose social position within the previous order of things has been eroded – maintain an altogether different set of dispositions and attitudes to life, and accordingly, to the political. But despite the seeming commonalities, patterns of class formation and their implications may differ in each context.

In this paper we present findings on social stratification and political dispositions from our separate field research in Baku and Luanda. We seek to draw together common threads between these findings and those of other panelists, to begin to formulate the grounds for a comparative perspective on the issues investigated in this panel. We know that oil affects cultural understandings of authority, value, and everyday life [cf. Coroníl's “The Magical State” and Apter's "The Pan-African Nation”]. But does it affect all classes in the same way? What differences exist between the political attitudes and dispositions of the new middle classes, and other marginal (and marginalised) groups in oil-rich states? In what ways do these groups construe political authority, and how do their attitudes and dispositions ultimately help perpetuate the very different political imaginaries that sustain these states? Are there significant homologies across each of our case-studies? And what effect do the very different historical legacies of these countries have on these questions?

In seeking to answer these questions, we hope to find the grounds for a rich comparative debate on the nature of political subjectivity in resource-rich authoritarian states.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.