In contemporary politics both in Europe and the US, emotion increasingly appears to trump fact, reason, and rationality. Right-wing populism is on the rise all over Europe and North America. The recent success of the AfD in Germany, the coming coalition between conservatives and right-wing extremists in Austria, and the rise of anti-Islamic political movements such as Pegida in Germany or the Identitarian movement in Austria and other countries signal that right-wing populism has gained momentum not only with respect to parliamentary politics. Moreover, it exerts a significant influence on everyday lives as it appears to be gradually seeping into mainstream discourses.
Both academia and left-leaning liberal media appeared to be caught by surprise and were quick to identify a “gap” between those labeled as the leading elites and specific social groups, which themselves believe to be underrepresented and therefore misunderstood. In the US, authors such as Arlie Hochschild (2016) and Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson (2012) seek to understand the widening gap between their own left-liberal academic reality and the world of increasingly “alternative facts” and realities that seem to be more and more drifting apart, leaving them literally speechless. Didier Eribon (2013) and J.D. Vance (2016) scrutinize their own origins in French and US-American working classes respectively to understand the prevalent homophobic and racist world views.
In April 2017, ethnographers from Europe and the US gathered in Hamburg for the two-day workshop “Mind the Gap! Problematizing Societal Gaps and Ethnographic Knowledge” to inter alia discuss the implications of this ‘gap narrative’ for anthropological research and ethnographic knowledge production. This workshop intends to follow up on the Hamburg discussion but at the same time seeks to focus on specific aspects that we perceive as particularly timely and urgent: (1) anthropology’s theoretical stance and analytical approaches to right-wing populism, (2) methodological challenges, possibilities and limits of ethnographic research among right-wing sympathizers, and (3) anthropology’s public role and responsibilities in times of populism.
Anthropologists and other social scientists are only beginning to ask how ethnographies of affective politics can help to understand this particular “Other” and thus the current crises of democracy and political representation. Yet, the quest for understanding social phenomena from the point of view of acting subjects lies at the heart of ethnography and cultural anthropology. However, ethnography for a long time has chosen to ignore those who are now gathering in or feel attracted by such movements as Pegida in Germany or who voted for Trump in the US and for PiS in Poland. Instead, ethnography preferred to focus on the suppressed and marginalized rather than on those in the center of society who were perceived as ordinary rather than interesting, as conformist rather than revolutionary, and as oppressing rather than oppressed. Sindre Bangstad argues that anthropologists “have tended to study those people who in some way or other can be said to ‘suffer’. When we speak of ‘suffering’, images of white male populist right-wing sympathizers are perhaps not the first images that cross our anthropological minds though some of them both feel and are marginalized and suffering” (Bangstad 2017). This “Other” is not likeable and exotic, but rather boring, possibly strange, and even repulsive.
The workshop will be roughly divided into three sessions, with three short inputs introducing each session. While these short inputs shall serve to provide a general starting point and highlight certain landmarks, all participants are encouraged to contribute to the discussion equally.
1 March 2018 (University of Klagenfurt, Room D10.0.06)
15.00-15:30 Welcome and Introduction
15:30-17:30 Session 1: Where do we come from? Preconceptions and Analytic Approaches
The workshop, first, seeks to critically discuss ethnography’s reluctance to conduct research among these, polemically speaking, “boring white people”, and at the same time to evaluate the “state of the art”. What is the specific contribution of (political) anthropology to the field of populism? Which preconceptions shape our perspective on social groups such as the (actual or perceptive) white middle class and white right-wing populist sympathizers more generally, their ways of life, attitudes, and worldviews? How do anthropological and academic approaches differ from journalistic reporting and press coverage, and where do both converge and can possibly create synergy effects?
2 March 2018 (Room D10.0.06)
9:30-12:00 Session 2: What are we doing? Current Research Themes and Perspectives
Second, the workshop intends to discuss possible ways of analyzing the phenomenon of emotional and affective politics and populism. It seeks to explore these issues from a comparative ethnographic perspective focusing on such diverse aspects as radicalization of thought, affective political regimes, state spectacle, aesthetics and politics, language and semiotics, or how affect and emotion can be infrastructural to political maneuvering and state power. We are interested in analytical perspectives, theoretical approaches and the various methodological issues that inform current research on right-wing populist sympathizers.
14:30-17:30 Session 3: Where are we heading? Responsibilities and Future Developments
Third, the workshop seeks to explore how ethnographic knowledge relates to democratic processes of social representation. How is ethnographic knowledge integrated into media coverage and political decision-making processes? What, more broadly speaking, is (and can be) anthropology’s role and responsibility in social and political processes? How can anthropology and ethnography matter and impact current and future developments? Last, but not least, the wider question of research ethics needs to be addressed.
17:30-18:00 Final Discussion and Concluding Remarks
Bangstad, Sindre (2017, 28.08.2017): „Doing Fieldwork among People We Don’t (Necessarily) Like.“ from http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2017/08/28/doing-fieldwork-among-people-we-dont-necessarily-like/.
Eribon, Didier (2013): Returning to Reims. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Hochschild, Arlie Russell (2016): Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press.
Skocpol, Theda and Vanessa Williamson (2012): The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vance, J.D. (2016): Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: HarperCollins.