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 SSC 331 - Faces of the State: A View from Anthropology


Anthropology retains a long-standing engagement with the state as an object of scholarly study. After their initial attempts to define, categorize and distinguish the state from earlier forms of political organization, anthropologists shifted toward a quest for state origins. Since the 1990s, anthropologists have moved away from a focus on state formation and have begun paying closer attention to the workings of the state, and to the dynamic and imaginative processes associated with it.

This course takes its point of departure with this most recent body of anthropological work. In doing so, we chart the ways contemporary scholars tackle the complex nature of the state, especially as it relates to social and cultural processes. In particular, the course focuses on the ‘faces of the state’ – that is, on its numerous manifestations and manifold expressions – with the overriding aim of exploring together what might (and should) constitute an ‘ethnography of the state’. In pursing this agenda, we draw on literature from a wide-range of social and cultural contexts, as well as from other related academic disciplines (including history, sociology, geography and political science).

Faces of the State is divided into two main parts.  In Part One of the course we review some of the most recent theoretical perspectives on the state, insights that prove central for our anthropological engagement with the state. In particular, students reflect on the problematic nature of the state as an object of study; they review Marxist and neo-Marxist renditions of the state, and the complex relationship between ‘the state’ and civil society.  In addition, during this first part of the course students engage with the historicity of the state, and with the impact of Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘governmentality’ on anthropological understanding of state processes.  In Part Two of the course, we explore some of the various ‘faces of the state’ as studied by anthropologists and others.  First, in considering ‘the legible state’, we come to terms with state technologies, and with the ways states ‘see’.  In particular, we focus on statistics, censuses and passports.  ‘The national state’ comprises the next major theme in the course.  Here, students review various aspects of nationalism, including its origins, types, paradigms and prospects.  Subsequently, ‘the gendered state’ leads us to the relationship between gender and the nation.  In what ways are gender notions deployed in the national process?  We then shift to the anthropology of bureaucracy with a focus on ‘the bureaucratic state’.  In particular, we address the bureaucratic structures associated with immigration in the United States of America.  Next, students turn their attention to ‘the vulgar state’, that is, toward some of the crude, indecent and excessive aspects of state processes in Africa and North America.  Since political imagination is central to ordinary people’s construction of the state everywhere, we conclude with a consideration of ‘the imagined state’ in order to explore how states manifest themselves from below. Taken together, these six faces of the state will reveal not only the complex and dynamic nature of states, but also some of the more recent ways anthropologists have chosen to pursue the state ethnographically.

This course emphasizes a seminar format and thus students are expected to read thoroughly and participate extensively in discussions.  Most weeks involve at least three hours of classroom discussion in the form of student presentations and group work.  Discussions revolve around specific topics in conjunction with assigned literature and/or case studies.  Lectures and mini-lectures will be offered regularly throughout the semester. 


Dr. John Friedman​ 




One of the following courses is required in order to take this course:

  • SSC 131 Introduction to Socio-Cultural Anthropology
  • SSC 151 Introduction to Political Theory
  • SSC 211 Modern Sociology
  • SSC 231 Anthropology and the Study of Politics
  • SSC 251 Foundations of Comparative Politics