ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Power, desire and social contract: power's aftermath in the contemporary world

Location Chrystal Macmillan Building, Seminar Room 2
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 11:00


Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic (University of Edinburgh) email
Maya Mayblin (University of Edinburgh) email
Mail All Convenors


What is it like to be someone who once had, who actively desires, or currently has power over others? Inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's belief in the supremacy of 'The General Will', the panel aims to illuminate the actual experiences of having power and being at the apex of a collective tide.

Long Abstract

Inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's belief in the supremacy of 'The General Will', this panel will explore what is it like to be responsible for the carrying out of the 'The General Will'? Anthropologists have done much over the years to elaborate the perspective of the subaltern - those 'under' the power of others. Anthropologists have also been adept at revealing the various limits of 'The General Will'. But what does it feel like to have power from highest vantage point? How is power defined from within, and how do power holders handle their own interests in relation to competing forces from without? This panel seeks to delve into experiences of power, aspirations to dominate political ground, symbolic capital, or simply, to have influence over others. It invites reflections on power holders past and present, including on the declining fortunes of previously important organizations, concepts, or even famous individuals. We welcome contextualized and historicized studies of governmental, political, kinship, intellectual, artistic or religious leaders, and of famous and influential (or once-famous or influential) figures in any part of the world. The key assumption of the panel is that anthropology has not sufficiently engaged with the phenomenological consequences of power among the powerful, nor has it properly explored the fragile and unpredictable qualities of power in decline. The panel invites submissions from all branches of anthropology, including anthropology of religion, history, politics, art, science and so on.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Love and fear: 'power among the powerful' across India and Venezuela

Author: Lucia Michelutti (University College London)  email


Tracing various political careers in their formative stages in a rural village in Venezuela and in a provincial town in North India the paper enquires into the ways in which local powerful people construct the reputations necessary for their work by through 'love' and through 'fear'.

Long Abstract

Contemporary political power and legitimacy derive largely from the ability to act in the name of the people but constructions of this key element of the political imagination, and of the ties that bind people and governments, vary widely across the world. This paper draws from insights I gained 'on power among the powerful' during my fieldworks on popular sovereignty, 'democratic' leadership and electoral representation in North India and Venezuela. In India while discussing the local art of statecraft an elected 'gangster politician' told me that a successful leader should both inspire love and fear. Five hundred years ago Machiavelli stated that very few leaders can manage to be both loved and feared. He added that if one can't be both - being feared is usually more effective. Tracing various political careers in their formative stages in a rural village in Venezuela and in a provincial town in North India the paper enquires into the ways in which elected leaders and local strong men construct the reputations necessary for their work through 'love' (by being generous, magnanimous and caring) and through 'fear' (by using force and intimidation). Local ideas of kinship, kingship, personhood and the divine, the intersections of moral and kinship frameworks with local socioeconomic and political life are central to the ways the protagonists of this paper perform their power, create and manage their charisma and become the representatives (or the embodiments) of the will of 'the people'.

Power and legitimacy in the new China: the case of Bo Xilai

Author: Yuecheng Ding  email


In the Chinese single-party political system, leaders acquire and exercise power by joining or organising a hierarchical faction. By examining the factional struggles surrounding Communist Party politician Bo Xilai, this paper illuminates the dynamics of power in early 21st century China.

Long Abstract

In the Chinese single-party political system, leaders acquire and exercise power by joining or organising a hierarchical faction. This paper will examine the case of Chongqing Communist Party leader and Politburo member Bo Xilai, who fell from power in 2012 when his police-chief, previously a loyal member of his clique, fled to the US Consulate and Bo's wife was accused of the murder of a British businessman. Bo was gaoled, losing overnight his freedom, his good name and a political career many expected to lead to the highest office. At his trial, a year later, historically open to the public, Bo was convicted of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power.

Through interviews with four officials, this paper sheds light on the unwritten rules governing the acquisition and exercise of power in the Chinese bureaucracy by leaders such as Bo, including the dyadic relationships established through personal networks (Guanxi) and links between political factions and business (Quanzi) which were exposed in Bo's trial. The paper shows that a proliferating individual sphere is interwoven with the collective state as a locus for such relationships, allowing influential leaders to extend their power beyond state agencies.

Finally, the paper will show that in order to preserve the legitimacy of the state, the full extent of such relationships was not allowed to emerge fully in the political performance of Bo's trial, prompting civic desires for a more transparent supervision of the power domain.

Political power now and then in Trinidad

Author: Dylan Kerrigan (University of the West Indies)  email


This paper looks at political power and techniques of old and new elites in Trinidad. It describes and examines the norms, ideologies and language of political power under colonialism and compares these element to political power today.

Long Abstract

What is political power? What does it look like? How has the political power derived from Enlightenment ideas spread to modern elites in nations geographical far away from Scotland? This paper investigates the political power and techniques of old and new elites in Trinidad and Tobago. It identifies empirical and discursive evidence of connections between colonial and neo-colonial elites. The merit of such an inquiry is not to feed studies of white guilt but to highlight the ways in which racism, class warfare, and a predisposition for particular ideological projects connected to Western Enlightenment tradition manifest themselves in the colonial and postcolonial context . Building off the work of anthropologists of social justice and the "coloniality of power" such as Iris Marion Young, Walter Rodney, Anibal Quijano and Arturo Escobar the enquiry looks at the values, norms, and convictions of contemporary, local political culture, practice and discourse including specific practices of the politically powerful then and now such as nepotism, corruption and gangsterism to describe the contemporary and common culture of politics found in this ex colony.

Seeing like a father: the Ba'thist panorama of Hafiz al-Assad

Author: Bethany Honeysett (University of Edinburgh)  email


To understand the currently beleaguered Syrian regime’s entrenchment I explore the terms of its legitimacy. By contextualising the hyperbolic imagery of power in a monument to former Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad with ethnography of kinship and political ideology, I address the regime’s popularity.

Long Abstract

The power of Syria's Ba'thist regime and its President Bashar al-Assad have been heavily encroached upon by its malcontents since March 2011. Yet it remains belligerently un-deposed. The regime's brutal shortcomings are exposed to the world for criticism which is often levelled directly at the Presidential position, as hereditary totalitarianism in a web of nepotism and sectarian privileging. But what are the terms by which they have remained in power for over 40 years? And what facets of ideology and practice have encouraged ongoing popularity across the social spectrum? This paper addresses kinship, nation-building and ideologies of domination for the 'greater good' in Ba'thist Syria. To illustrate I focus on the monument commemorating the October 6th 1973 Arab-Israeli War and former president Hafiz al-Assad. Paid for by North Korea, the castle-like monument gives visitors the opportunity to take in a series of immersive representations of the battle which saw Syria re-capture a strategic summit in the Golan Heights, culminating in a panoramic representation from this point. By juxtaposing the overt military references to power with the subtleties of other imagery the monument contains, I build on Lisa Wedeen's observations about the particularity of Syrian politics, as it interweaves with models of family and witness. Using ethnographic discussion of Ba'thist ideologies from families with whom I worked, I explore the reciprocity between familial modes of power and imagery and those of the regime in order to represent the stance of power from which it has held legitimacy, even among its critics.

Who tells a princess what to do?

Author: Stefanie Lotter (SOAS)  email


Where within and beyond male dominance can we locate female agency in a patriarchal society? This paper discusses the dependent status of a princess oposing personal freedom and political influence.

Long Abstract

Being a woman in the early 20th century in Nepal is not normally associated with great powers. When the princess J RLD Rana is born, the first child of the beloved forth wife of the Prime Minister, she enters society in a position of great influence. Growing up at the court of the Prime Minister Janak learns to give orders; she grants favours and controls access to her father. Like her mother she becomes a politically minded person who influences and represents without a formal position in the state administration.

Privately, she is dominated by her autocratic father who controls her life, leaving very little room for personal agency. He decides upon her a husband and the number of children she has. He presents her with several palaces and denies her access to formal education.

After the abdication of her father and his early death a little later, her political powers dwindle while her personal agency increases. She is finally able to make her own decisions. Her brothers and her husband do not control her. At 36 years she enters formal education going to school. By the age of 55 she is a university graduate, becomes a barrister and enters politics. She never reaches the political influence she held when her father was alive and she manages to lose all her funds through a number of ill-advised economic ventures leaving her with modest funds.

Within and beyond male dominance, where can we locate female agency in a patriarchal society.

Fear and loathing in red state America: race, sexuality, and the declining religious right

Author: Jennifer Curtis (University of Edinburgh)  email


Public support for LGBT rights surfaced abruptly in the post-Bush US. Republican evangelicals see this shift as an existential threat, and appropriate Enlightenment ideals to preserve their power. These efforts are a window on historic US struggles to expand, or restrict, the rights of citizens.

Long Abstract

Civil rights for LGBT people are a central and contentious human rights issue in the twenty-first century. Many western nations have established LGBT rights protections, as public consensus solidifies in favor of these rights. This new 'General Will' surfaced abruptly in the post-Bush U.S. Indeed, during the 2000s, a triumphal Republican Party solidified evangelical support with anti-gay rights proposals. Now, evangelical political operatives see their permanent majority receding; LGBT rights are part of broader challenges to their social and political authority.

Although 'God Hates Fags' demonstrations claim headlines, the existential struggles of evangelical elites usually play out more quietly, in 'red' locales they once thought secure. This paper examines one such struggle, from the perspective of evangelical political activists in the Missouri Ozarks. When the city of Springfield considered LGBT nondiscrimination law in 2013, local evangelical elites, some with national status, were dismayed. For more than a year, the proposal was publicly debated, and these elites were stunned that their opposition was not reflexively affirmed. The city had been a bastion of political and religious conservatism, particularly since the Republican Party's pursuit of white southerners after 1960s civil rights reforms. Now, local evangelicals scramble to authorize their newly fragile power with the logic of rights and minority protections—the very politics they mobilized to oppose. Their awkward embrace of the Enlightenment is a window on larger historical struggles, including the U.S.' fitful expansion of eighteenth-century rights to changing categories of citizens.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.