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Welcome to the seminar

Prior to taking her seat on the United States Supreme Court in 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave a lecture at the New York University School of Law in which she presented her conception of democratic citizenship.

[T]he history of the U.S. Constitution is the story of the extension (through amendment, judicial interpretation, and practice) of constitutional rights and protections to once-excluded groups: to people who were once held in bondage, to men without property, to Native Americans, and to women. (Ginsburg 1992, 1118)

Her view that political rights can and should expand to include everyone was, then and now, a very conventional way of thinking about social progress. This confidence in the direction of history toward liberation for all was in some ways the animating force behind postwar economic development as well: societies progress when people are made more free. For that reason, development has long been based on the idea that improving people’s lives and realizing their rights as individuals go hand in hand.

Today, two different trends should make us question this faith in progress.

  • First, although affluent Western societies long claimed to be model for so-called developing societies, they both grapple with the same kinds of social suffering and injustice. At best, government policy and civil society organizations manage social problems that continue to fester.
  • Second, the real threats to people’s material wellbeing come from pathologies in the global order: climate change, global inequality, structural racism, and the legacies of colonialism. The contemporary global order is far from democratic because it is based on many different structures of inequality and dependence.

The real solution to many social problems may not come from social reform but by a reconstruction of the global order. The liberal, democratic, capitalist West no longer has much credibility as a model for other societies, and the dream of a New World Order based on liberal rights and free markets is basically dead. What counts as progress now? If we no longer assume that all societies will and should develop a social contract based on individual human rights, then what are the kinds of political community that people are interested in creating now?

In this class, we will approach these questions through a study of the public sphere, civil society, and citizenship. Most people assume that these institutions are the best way to grapple with social problems and alleviate social injustices. Yet if this kind of politics isn’t working, then what else is there? Is there a better kind of political community that is based on giving people what they need rather than assuming who they should be and should strive to become?

Our examination of these questions will take two main forms. First, we will consider the role of these concepts in theories of democratic politics. These theories propose a normative model of politics; they argue for the kind of politics people should have. We also, and second, examine concrete, real-world, and specific empirical cases of politics where rights, citizenship, and questions of membership are at issue. Unlike political theorists, empirical social scientists who study politics, social movements, and social change ask why people have the kinds of political rights and statuses that they have, and why a political community takes the form that it does. Social scientists seek to explain the world as it is. They ask what is and why and not what should be and why.

To understand our world now, we need to ask both kinds of questions. Indeed, the answers proposed to questions of one type can influence how we answer questions of the other type. Normative debates in this area often take a critical turn. Theorists of citizenship talk back and challenges the dominant normative model of politics, rights, and justice by seeking alternatives. To support their critique of dominant ideologies, theorists often turn to empirical cases of politics and political struggle to highlight the unintended and unforeseen consequences of ideological models of citizenship (and political movements also generate their own alternative knowledge of their reality, and so entail proposing new ways of thinking as well as making claims or demanding change). Hence to challenge what most people assume is the only possibility we must consider, to quote Nancy Fraser, “actually existing democracy” and understand where it comes from, what really makes it possible, and what problems it faces and overcomes (Fraser 1992, 109). In this class, the empirical research we study is not meant to justify or rationalize what is. It too has a critical intent. By revealing what is hidden, it is informed by and contributes to a quest for an alternative, more just society. Thus the two kinds of questions are both crucial to a deeper understanding of citizenship because together they will compel us to think about alternatives.

While in many ways this class surveys a wide and diverse field, it is not meant to provide a comprehensive, let alone complete, picture of this field. Rather, the main payoff for students is that they will gain a new set of tools for thinking about questions of kinds of political membership and political community, both as ideals and as empirical social phenomena. Each topic is meant to expand how how we think about things that seem familiar, rather than add to a stock of knowledge. In some ways the topics are chosen because they are difficult in one way or another. Some works we will read will require purely abstract thinking. Others will be shocking or unfamiliar for other reasons. I chose these topics for one reason only: I wanted to expand my own imagination. I wanted to know more about them. That’s all I expect of my fellow students. The goal should never be mastery or expertise, and so nothing in this class will ask you to demonstrate that you know everything or understand anything completely. Instead what we will do is to help each other become better thinkers.

Like many classes at the postgraduate level, this class is organized as a seminar, and thus centers on an open discussion among students. I provide guidance to the discussion. I will not, however, give any lectures in this class.1 Each week we will come together to help each other understand a set of readings better. Each week’s readings represent the work of one important scholar whose ideas have influenced the development of anthropology. Our job in this class is to enter into this kind of discussion, and thus become part of this scholarly community ourselves. Every week, we will know if we have done a good job if:

  1. students have done most of the talking, and
  2. everyone in the class has had a chance to ask questions and contribute their ideas.

Your participation in discussion is, in that sense, something you do for your fellow students. By offering your views, especially to people who disagree with you, you help them to reflect critically on their own reasoning. Likewise, when you seek out the perspectives of other people, you are able to become aware of your own thought processes. This is ultimately what you will take away from this class: an understanding of your own perspective, rather than familiarity with the ideas of major theories.

To help each student prepare for their participation in class discussion, each week you will submit a short reflection on an open question about the week’s topic. While each of these are graded, they are not meant to be tests and the questions do not have a single right answer. You receive points for doing a good, thorough job of reflecting on your own ideas and elaborating them in a paragraph or two. If you write in complete sentences and show that you have put some effort into developing your thinking (for example, by citing relevant information in the week’s reading and including a correct reference), you will be doing well. You have space to go out on a limb and say something that you are not entirely sure about.

Everyone has a first seminar. For some students, open participation in a class is totally new, and can be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable. Part of making a seminar successful is helping everyone feel like they can join in, even when its their first seminar class ever. Discussion is important to this class—and it is a part of your grade—but I am not assuming that it will come easy to everyone. What I expect is that each person try their best, and keep trying. What you can expect from me and from your fellow students is that we will all help make the class comfortable and welcoming to everyone’s participation. One way we can achieve this is by using various formats for class discussion, including small work groups, discussion with a partner, and in-class writing. If your active verbal class participation is not possible, you can also talk to me about other ways you can participate in class.


Fraser, Nancy. 1992. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” In Habermas and the Public Sphere, edited by Craig Calhoun, 109–42. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Ginsburg, Ruth Bader. 1992. “Speaking in a Judicial Voice.” New York University Law Review 67 (6): 1185–1209.

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