"A theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation, 'to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them' (Horkheimer 1982: 244)

                                                                                            (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005)

"The call for engagement has enlisted anthropologists as varied as those who argue that anthropology requires a rethinking of its methods and modes of writing to create a postcolonial relationship to its subject, to those committed to finding a nonimperialist political stance, to those working to formulate a new way to work collaboratively rather than hierarchically with communities. All of these forms of engagement contribute to a rich panorama of anthropological work in the public sphere."

                                                                                                   (Setha M. Low & Sally Engle Merry, 2010)

Global economic, humanitarian and environmental crises are necessary points of engagement in the contemporary social sciences. Intellectual traditions glossed as "critical theory" have been important to scholars attempting to understand structures, processes and practices associated with power, poverty, violence, exploitation, marginality, agency and ongoing political transformations in the world today. What new directions in critical theory are evolving in response to current events, such as financial crises in the US and Europe, new democratic social movements from the "Arab Spring" to "Occupy" to "Anti-Austerity", and the growing chronicle of un/natural disasters and socio-ecological vulnerabilities that portend changing climate patterns? What insights and provocations do ethnographic perspectives contribute?

The readings we will undertake together consist of advanced texts in ethnography and social theory. In particular, we consider examples of "engaged anthropology" from Madison, New York and Washington D.C. to Rome, Cairo, and Sofia.

This course will be conducted as a seminar:  work will be focused mainly on independent reading and writing, supported by class discussions. Students will be encouraged to think on their feet and find their own paths through a set of challenging but significant pieces. Assessment will emphasize preparation, participation in open debate, and perceptive critical engagement as demonstrated in both oral and written work. Students will develop individual essay projects focusing upon a case study that draws on anthropological sources.

View the syllabus

© Tracey Heatherington 2012