University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Political Ethnography (graduate seminar):

What, we'll ask, does it mean to study politics from below?  How does immersion of the researcher in the research world contribute to the study of power? What are the promises, and perils, of social research that invites the unruly minutiae of lived experience to converse with, and contest, abstract disciplinary theories and categories? In this practice-intensive seminar, we explore ethnographic and other qualitative fieldwork methods with specific attention to their potential to subvert, generate, and extend understandings of politics and power. Readings draw on exemplary political ethnographies as well as discussions of methodology and method in political science, sociology, and anthropology. Participants will have the opportunity to craft and conduct locally based ethnographic research projects related to their primary areas of interest and will be expected to make significant weekly commitments to field research. The seminar is intended as preparation for students planning to conduct independent fieldwork for their MA or PhD research, but those interested in the epistemological, political and ethical implications of studying power from below are also welcome.

Distance, Deceit, Denial (graduate seminar):

This course explores the roles of distance, deceit, and denial in structuring, reproducing, and contesting relations of domination and exploitation. Drawing on a wide range of ethnographic, historical, sociological, psychological, architectural, and anthropological case studies, as well as novels, short stories, and military manuals, the course aims to stimulate imaginative theorizing and generative research projects about the operation of distance, deceit, and denial in three specific dimensions: language (euphemism, dysphemism, public and hidden transcripts, etc.), space (borders, walls, checkpoints, special economic zones, camps, policing and surveillance technologies, modes of experience-distant warfare, etc.), and social organization (the division of labor, hierarchy, chains of command, etc.). In addition to exploring distance, deceit, and denial as mechanisms of domination and exploitation, specific attention will also be given to the efficacy and ambiguities of movements and technologies that aim to collapse distance. The seminar is intentionally interdisciplinary and provocatively eclectic: its purpose is expressly not to present you with tidy theories or a concrete body of organized knowledge but rather to spur and inspire you to bold and creative thinking that draws on, but is not shackled to, the insights produced by various academic disciplines. In addition to traditional written assignments, you will be asked to keep a weekly journal of provocations and produce a visual and/or aural essay. Reading genres include: a psychological experiment, ethnographic case studies, history, social theory, architecture and visual theory, short stories, novels, and U.S. military training manuals. The primary measure of your success in this seminar will be your capacity, at semester’s end, to talk, think, write, and—above all else--ask questions about about distance, deceit, and denial in ways that are empirically specific, theoretically generative, and politically productive. 

 In week one we whet our appetites for the key themes of the course by reading Stanley Milgram’s (in)famous 1961 Obedience to Authority experiments alongside The Reverse Bug, a short story by Lore Segal about a hidden sound transmitter that projects the screams of the suffering and must eventually be buried deep in the desert, along with the demolished building in which it was hidden. Next, we consider the political geographies of distance, deceit, and denial through the exemplary cases of barbed wire (week two); the systematic, routinized killing of over 50 billion nonhuman animals each year (week three); a forensic architecture of occupation (week four); and the deliberate creation of non-state spaces in highland Southeast Asia (week five). In week six, we turn our attention to the uses of language as both weapon and shield, drawing on tools provided by George Orwell, Murray Edelman, and Stanley Cohen to deconstruct the substantive, orthographic, and grammatical features of the 2013 United States Marine Corp Infantry Readiness and Training Manual, the 2014 United States Senate Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, and the United States Army’s 2006 Counterinsurgency Manual. In week seven, we attend to the contrasting arguments of visual theorists Susan Sontag and Susie Linfield to better understand the visual representation of hidden suffering as a political tactic of collapsing distance. Week eight advances the theme of distance-collapsing with a screening and discussion of Citizen Four, Laura Poitras’ photojournalistic documentary of Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Administration employee who has been charged with treason for leaking documents about the nature and extent of N.S.A. surveillance. In weeks nine and ten, we take up Luisa Valenzuela’s He Who Searches and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, two novels that provide us with footholds to explore what it might mean to enact affectively powerful and politically relevant inquiry into “those repressions, disappearances, absences, and losses enforced by the conditions of modern life. ” Finally, we dedicate the final week of our semester (eleven) to studio crits of your own visual/aural/written essays with the aim of furthering your independent inquiries into distance, deceit, and denial as mechanisms of power.

Introduction to Comparative Politics (undergraduate large lecture):  

Every course tells a story.  In this course, the focus of our story is on the origins, rise, and consequences of the modern world.  We begin (week one) with the tale of an innocent remark at a birthday party in Sarajevo that turned out to have some not-so-innocent consequences. We examine how this tale illuminates some of the central abstractions that lie at the heart of comparative political analysis: state, economy, culture, identity, and violence. We ask: “What is the study of comparative politics and what is it good for?”  Next (week two), we turn our attention to the world that existed before the world we live in, thinking critically about our choice of starting points and why it matters.  In week three, we examine the emergence and rise of the modern nation-state and of free market capitalism, two dominant, seemingly inescapable features of our time.  In week four, we take account of those who intentionally resisted these structures, adapting their geography, agriculture, and cultures to repel the states that sought to “civilize” them.  In weeks five and six, we turn to the political and economic trajectories of Britain, France, the United States, and Germany, four modern democratic capitalist states that exhibit striking variation despite their key commonalities.  In weeks seven through ten we look closely at the enormous gaps in power and wealth that have been produced since the ascendancy of these and other “advanced” nation-states, focusing in particular on the world’s two most populous countries: India and China.  In these weeks, we attend not only to the big structures of state, economy, and culture, but also to how these structures make themselves felt in the everyday lives of ordinary people.  We will immerse ourselves in the lives of the Zhang family as they travel 2,100 kilometers across China in the world’s largest human migration (week nine), and, along with twelve year old Sunil and sixteen year old Abdul, we will become embroiled in the horrific aftermath of the suicide of a one-legged woman in a slum of Mumbai, India (week ten).  After this, we pivot sharply to one of the most central and enduring questions of comparative politics: the classification, measurement, and evaluation of regimes, focusing in particular on democratic and non-democratic regimes (weeks eleven and twelve), and ending with a close examination of the political and economic trajectories of Russia, Iran, and Nigeria (week thirteen).  In our final week (fourteen), we draw on the 2011 catastrophic meltdown of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan in order to zoom back out to a planetary level where we will conclude our semester together with the urgent question: what might it mean to do comparative politics in the age of the Anthropocene?