CALL FOR PAPERS
Explorations of the state: Considerations from critical
A workshop at the University of Oslo
Oct 25-26, 2002
The Department of Anthropology at the University of Oslo invites the
submission of paper proposals for a small workshop on investigations of the
modern state, to take place in Oslo on Oct 25-26, 2002.
In a recent essay, Michel-Rolph Trouillot has argued that there is an
interesting duality emerging in today’s world: on the one hand, there is a
conceptualization that globalization makes the state increasingly
irrelevant, and on the other hand the state, particularly the penal state,
has augmented its presence in our lives across the world. Analysts have
claimed that the nation state is withering away and that the eroding forces
are transnational. Others argue that political thinking does not necessarily
undergo easy transformations and that there are many signs that localism,
nationalism and geopolitics have grown stronger. Still others have argued
that the state, while not declining in importance, has undergone a
transformation: state effects previously produced by the institutions of the
state have to an increasing extent been relocated to other institutions such
as NGOs, the educational system, the medical profession, and the social
sciences. This approach suggests a way out of one of the major challenges
for an anthropological study of the state: how to adapt a methodology
developed for studying small-scale interaction to modern bureaucracies.
Especially within the governmentality tradition, field-based studies of
state effects have provided interesting results. The question remains,
however, whether this approach is appropriate for studying states other than
liberal capitalist democracies. Where the state is only weakly integrated,
one would not expect to see the same processes and effects as those
described by Foucault.
This workshop rests upon the following ideas: States have a powerful
presence in many citizens’ lives. The relevance of the state in many parts
of the world is not declining. Therefore, we must continue to ask: How can
we usefully conceptualise and examine the state?
Why ‘the state’? Why a critical anthropology?
Why do we need to hold onto the word ‘state’ at all? Why should we study
‘the state’? Radcliffe-Brown argued that the state, understood as an entity
over and above the human individuals who make up a society, is a fiction. If
‘the state’ has been reified and personalized by analysts, politicians and
citizens, then why not just get rid of the concept? Why not, for example, be
content with shaping an anthropology/ethnography of power, violence and
meanings? This workshop recognizes a need to deconstruct a deeply fetishized
category, ‘the State’. But states are not just phantasms. Nor are their
The idea of what constitutes a ‘state’ is not only contested; its usage is
also flexible, dynamic and far from uniform – hence its various adjectives
such as ‘capitalist’, ‘expansionist’, ‘totalitarian’, ‘democratic’,
‘bureaucratic’, ‘socialist’, ‘postcolonial’, ‘soft’, ‘patrimonial’,
‘collapsed’ and so forth. For this workshop we are seeking discussions of
how we can usefully think and analyse contemporary states. The state has a
presence in our lives everywhere. Yet to many anthropologists, states remain
difficult to conceptualise.
Contributors are also invited to consider the following questions: What was
the historical link between the construction of twentieth-century
anthropology and the making of western states? Why did so much mainstream
twentieth-century anthropology ignore the state or take it as an unanalysed
given? What have the consequences been for anthropology?
Many authors have argued that the core of modern state formation and
expansion, is that centrally made state institutions refashion the worlds
inhabited and thought by the members of local communities on the state’s
territory. They have stressed, not so much the state’s use of physical force
as the state’s ability to impose itself by generating a cultural revolution
and a moral regulation – that is, transformations that result in profound
reorganization of the ways in which social life is lived across the national
space. They maintain that the state must ‘normalize’ or ‘discipline’. Others
insist that this ‘coercive’ view of state-making bears little or no relation
to the complex histories – or the changes in power, culture and economy –
that resulted in the genesis and construction of national control in
specific parts of the world. Others, again, emphasize that agents construct
states by means of tactics, negotiations and exchanges – in a word,
networks. All this underscores the need for critical, ‘grounded’ ethnography
– detailed, fine-grained explorations of the social relations and symbolic
imaginaries that produce, reproduce and transform states in different areas
of the world. We welcome contributions that are heavily ethnographic. Papers
that attempt to reflect on ethnographic strategies and methodological
challenges are particularly encouraged.
In sum the workshop intends to address a set of inter-locking issues:
– How should researchers conceptualise the state?
– How may we usefully explore state-making ethnographically?
– Where can we track down state practices, state processes and state
– To what extent should we recognize historical differences? Much work on
state building and nation-making is based on data either from Western Europe
or from those areas which were conquered and controlled by a centralized
European state during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as areas
of Asia and Africa. What has been the history in other parts of the world?
What has been the history in postcolonial Latin America?
– To what extent has the history of state building shaped the history of
We also welcome papers that fall outside the above list of topics. Please
send a title and a 100-word abstract (e-mail, attachment, or post) by
Monday, 8th April, 2002, to:
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Fernando Coronil, University of Michigan
Penelope Harvey, University of Manchester
Bruce Kapferer, Universitetet i Bergen
Anh Nga Longva, Universitetet i Bergen
Signe Howell, Universitetet i Oslo
Iver Neumann, Universitetet i Oslo
Knut Nustad, Universitetet i Oslo
Christian Krohn-Hansen, Universitetet i Oslo