PS 919 Political Ethnography: The Politics of Daily Life

Beyond the fact that over the years a number of graduate students have asked me to teach a course such as this one, another reason for offering this course stems from a long-standing fascination with the politics of the quotidian in all its varied forms. This interest spawns several important questions. First, are the small events, phenomena, attitudes, and emotions of daily life, however apolitical they might seem to be, actually deeply political on levels we might not always be aware of? In other words, where do we situate the political realm? Second, how can we relate these small events, phenomena, behaviors, and attitudes —politics writ small — to the larger political phenomena that interest us both as political scientists and as citizens. Can we link the micro-world of daily existence and experience to the macro-world of both politics and political science. Moreover, and this is primarily a methodological question, how may we best accomplish this linkage? Political ethnography is one possible answer to this question. In addition, and to be honest, I have long wondered if perhaps I have somewhere lurking within me an as yet unwritten book on the politics of daily life. This seminar represents an initial attempt to begin thinking about this project.
This course has two primary goals. The first is to examine the micro-political world of daily life and, in so doing, think systematically about different forms of small-scale political organization. The world of daily life has a plurality of political forms, not all of which are easily recognizable within the prevailing paradigms of political science. Thus, one assumption undergirding this course is that the state, however important it might be, has been something of a cognitive trap for
political scientists. Although it is often a critical part of the context in which people lead their daily lives, it is — on a daily basis — usually no more than that. Most politics, political behavior, and political phenomena occur without reference to the state. Yet we as political scientists continue to ignore this fundamental reality of the quotidian. The second goal is to read and examine political ethnographies with an eye toward what this methodological form has to offer and how it might be adapted or even improved.
Full disclosure requires the following statement: This course is conceived with the intent of exploring a topic of interest to both the instructor and, I hope, to the students. Since the readings are eclectic, not canonical, this seminar is not designed to prepare students for their preliminary examinations in either methodology or any other subfield of political science. If, however, it should have that effect, it will be an unintended consequence.