Reviewed by: Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: The Political
Since the late 1990s, an anthropology of the contemporary state has emerged as a subfield within the discipline. Contributions to this area of study, however, have been produced largely within networks distinguished and, in some cases, divided by regional orientations, thematic choices, theoretical inspirations, and political or moral standpoints. Moreover, the anthropology of the state has emerged within a global arena imbued with power differentials that reflect, and are reflected in, researchers’ own experiences and assumptions regarding state
and state-like institutions and practices.
A category that carries particularly powerful implications regarding the perceived legitimacy and normativity of particular states is that of “the South.” Scholars have shown that states in both the Global and European souths are often said to function in ways that deviate from the
presumed ideal of the “European,” “northern,” or “western” state. In sites more clearly positioned in the “Global” South, states are often associated with colonial legacies, vulnerabilities to development interventions, compromised sovereignties, and porousness at their margins. As an unruly concept with global resonance, yet with specific contextualized meanings, the “South”, and its variants, slips between emic and etic frames in ways that are both tacit and explicit: in the methodological and analytical commitments of researchers, and in the talk of research interlocutors themselves, including citizens, non-citizens, bureaucrats, state functionaries and representatives of humanitarian or development agencies. The category of the “South” (or others that may accompany it) often provides a backdrop for the deployment of stereotypes in activities of meaning-making, critique, and resistance. It is frequently associated with problematic aspects of bureaucratic practice, organizational structures, and professional ethics (linked to ideas of corruption, inefficiency, or semi- “modernity”), which are often invoked to justify external interventions and forms of political and moral disciplining. Yet the South is also sometimes said to connote “positive” qualities, such as flexibility, empathy, generosity, and “authenticity.” Finally, the notion of the South has, of course, often been closely associated with the (subjects and objects of) the anthropological project itself.
This roundtable seeks to engage the concept of the South in the anthropological study of the state within a comparative regional perspective. The panel has three key objectives: First, to initiate a dialogue between scholars grounded in diverse theoretical, regional and literature-based formations, in order to identify existing overlaps and variations in approaches to the anthropology of the state. Second, to bring into dialogue scholars doing research on state ideas and practices in the Global South with those working on the margins of the Global North to further interrogate what the “South” means when it comes to anthropology’s role in researching the state. Third, to discuss whether, in a perspective of "theory from the South" or "epistemologies of the South," the anthropological study of states of the South has a contribution to make for understanding the functioning of states in the Global North, and what this contribution might be.