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Making Selves, Making Revolutions: Comparative Anthropologies of Revolutionary Politics

Final Report Summary - CARP (Making Selves, Making Revolutions: Comparative Anthropologies of Revolutionary Politics)

This project set out to develop a distinctively anthropological approach to the study of revolutionary politics. Developed in the context of the Arab Spring and its aftermath in the Middle East, as well as the rise of the so-called Bolivarian New Left in recent decades in Latin America, the project's core ambition was to transform the way we understand revolutionary politics by looking at it not only from the outside as a particular political form, but also from the inside as a form of political experience that runs deep, into just about every aspect of people’s lives. Assembling a team of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers, as well as more senior anthropologists working on revolutionary politics, the project produced a series of fine-grained ethnographic studies of revolutionary politics at different stages of their development in different parts of the world, using the comparison between countries in the MENA region and Latin America as its central axis. Building on the studies provided by the individual members of the project and analyzing them comparatively, the project has also produced a series of joint publications which distill its core intellectual contributions to the anthropology of revolutions, as well as a major exhibition presenting and developing them in visual and auditory forms.

Exploring systematically what anthropological thinking can contribute to the study of revolutions, the project asked: What happens when we look at revolutions through the prism of the local social and cultural frameworks in which they are enacted? How might our understanding of revolutions be challenged, shifted and augmented by looking at revolutionary phenomena in different ethnographic settings, in relation to varying social forms, notions of time, space, power and personhood, religious cosmologies, indigenous mythologies and ritual practices – contexts, that is, that are often quite different from standard understandings of revolution as a predominantly ‘modern’ political phenomenon. The project’s central contention is that, when viewed anthropologically in this way, revolutions emerge as concerted attempts to radically reconstitute the worlds people inhabit. Unlike more gradual and piecemeal forms of political change, revolutions set themselves up as projects of total and radical transformation, expressed characteristically as a desire to bring about a ‘different world’ – sometimes an altogether ‘new’ one. This all-embracing quality makes revolutions more than just acts of violent political rupture – a feature on which political theories of revolution have tended to focus. From the holistic, ethnographically informed perspective of anthropology, revolutions emerge as processes of wholesale societal transformation that penetrate deeply into the fabric of people’s lives, albeit in complex, often uneven, and invariably contested ways. They interact with localised social forms and structures, which they often seek to reconstitute. They make demands in people’s most intimate spheres, promoting new forms of personal comportment, sometimes related to religious or quasi-religious ideals such as Islamic piety or the ‘New Man’. They seek to refigure the relationship between past, present and future, often through ritual practices and mythical narratives. All in all, we suggest, revolutions have a deeply cosmogonic character. They unfold and refold in different ways the coordinates of human existence, recasting people, their relationships to each other, and to the world at large, giving new roles not just to State, Leader, or Party, but also, for example, to divinities, ancestors, and spouses.