This panel asks how political anthropology can regain a distinctive intellectual identity by giving analytical priority to the ideas that underpin vernacular political action and thought.
Political anthropology is in trouble. It does not lack in abundance - quite on the contrary - but it has lost its ethnographic legs, and with them its intellectual identity. Conducted mostly through the categories of Euro-American social and political theory elevated to the status of analytical universals (rights, identity, public sphere, civility, populism, neoliberalism, governmentality, bare life), it has grown severely alienated from the ways in which ordinary people, the world over, conceptualise and carry out their political lives. This alienation has, in turn, incapacitated anthropologists from contributing anything of real substance to the comparative conceptualisation of politics in the wider world. Yet this contribution is more urgently needed today than ever before, intellectually as much as politically, as it becomes clear that the prophecy of Globalisation Theory - that the spread of Western modernity would compress the world into an increasingly homogenous globe - has failed. A careful focus on language and imagination, on the terms in which our interlocutors express, conduct and reflect on political action - on rules, principles, concepts, values - promises a way out of the current impasse. This panel aims to initiate a conversation about how to go about this, by (1) taking stock of anthropology's already-existing intellectual resources, and by thinking (2) conceptually and (3) comparatively about our own ethnographic work.