Accepted Paper:

Assemblies and the struggle to diffuse power: ethnographic examples and contemporary practices  


Stefano Boni (Universita´ di Modena e Reggio Emilia)

Paper short abstract:

An ethnographic review of the use of assemblies to diffuse power; the concentration of power in contemporary assemblies of western parliamentary democracies; the practical problems of social movements' egalitarian political engagement; possible hints derived from political anthropology

Paper long abstract:

The paper approaches the notion of assemblies as the scene of culturally diversified struggles between the attempt to establish and defend diffused power and tendencies to enforce its concentration. The ethnographic literature on the topic (Abélès, Bassi, Clastres, Edelman, Evans-Pritchard, Lazar, Leach, Lincoln, Graeber, Hornecker) is reviewed with specific reference to the distribution and polyphony of speech; mediation and consensus formation; the definition and flexibility of roles. While formal and informal assemblies in several settings have guaranteed a significant diffusion of power in crucial group decisions, contemporary political assemblies, expressed by representative democracy in nation-states and trans-national institutions, have increasingly lost the capacity to represent collective will. Current social movements denounce throughout the globe the concentration of power in governments and banks and promote more egalitarian political processes as one of their primary objectives. In this effort, they confront issues documented ethnographically in settings of diffused power: the attempts to construct and defend forms of horizontal political engagement are menaced by hierarchical tendencies that manifest themselves in the control of crucial resources; the emergence of charismatic leaders; the transformation or incorporation in institutions. The management of assemblies in current social movements, as well similarities and divergences with historically and ethnographically documented settings, is examined with a specific attention to practical and problematic management of group decisions.

Panel W121
Inspiring alter-politics: anthropology and critical political thinking (EN-FR)