THE CHANGING MEANINGS OF PEOPLE’S POLITICS. Gramsci and anthropology from the history of subaltern classes to contemporary political subjects

Gramsci Conference, Past & Present, King’s College, London, 18th and 19th June 2015 


Since the 1950’s, Gramsci is one of the main references for those studies inquiring into the history, the forms, the experience, and the significance of popular politics. What is the significance of popular or subaltern politics today and what would be a Gramscian perspective on that? In order to tackle this question, this paper traces the changing ways in which Gramscian concepts have inspired scholars, and especially anthropologists, on the issue, showing how the idea of popular politics has changed accordingly to the changing meanings of subalternity, from the end of the Second World War to the present. Firstly, the paper describes the way in which Gramsci has been, for a moment, a link between anthropology and social history (De Martino, anti-colonial anthropology, Hobsbawm, Thompson) for the study of subaltern classes, especially rural groups not yet completely incorporated into state and capital modernity. Secondly, it shows the critical, but also partial, use of Gramsci’s concepts in the post-structuralist anthropology of resistance and of peasant societies (Scott, Guha) in postcolonial worlds. At the end, the paper reflects on the possibilities and the limits for a Gramscian look at popular politics for anthropologists today. This is a critical issue in our times, where intellectuals and institutional politics have lost any capacity to represent organically subaltern classes and where the meaning of subalternity of Gramsci’s times – as both nostalgically denounced and prophetically anticipated by Pasolini about Italy – has completely changed in the contemporary world.

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The “political initiative” and the Political Representation of “organic intellectuals” Among a Marginalized Group in Benin

Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association, Washington, panel Translating subalternities today. Critical Perspectives on Gramsci and anthropology,  Sunday, December 7, 2014: 12:15 PM

Riccardo Ciavolella (CNRS/EHESS)

This paper retraces the political initiative of a marginalized community in Northern Benin, fostered by some local leaders claiming for the recognition of rights to politics and to economic resources of their constituencies. Their role is like that of “organic intellectuals”, maintaining the necessity of autonomous emancipation of these groups as a cohesive political subject. To do that, intellectuals – called “Jannguube”, which means both “political representatives” and “literate people” – insist on the idea of a “cultural and moral awakening”. Political representation then passes through the idea of a cultural representation of the subaltern groups, with discourses insisting on identity, cultural specificity and the necessity of re-discovering their own “history” as a tool for affirming their social and political presence. In this perspective, they show an interest in the monographic work of the anthropologist as an instrument for political recognition. In a more theoretical perspective, the paper addresses the issue of the “political initiative” of subaltern groups in the terms of Gramsci, but with an interesting convergence with political theories of anthropologists; and the issue of political representation and the “organic” link between intellectuals and their constituencies.

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What if people do not move into political movements? – The case of Fulani pastoral nomads in West Africa

Paper presented at the workshop “Activism and Possibilities of Justice: Anthropological Perspectives”, organised by the Anthropology and Social Movements Network of the EASA, University of Perugia (Italy), 26th October 2013 –

This paper inquires into the consequences, for the debate on social movements, of considering the situations of depoliticised or under-represented populations, rather than those of groups already active and engaged in political and social struggles. Actually, the recent attention paid to popular uprisings in the Global South should not neglect, in a Gramscian sense, the need for a reflection on the conditions for mobilisation or non-mobilisation, and on the different stages of politicisation of subaltern groups.

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Looking for Gramsci in Local Resistances – Reflections from the Margins

Paper presented at the panel Capitalism and Global Anthropology: Marxism Resurgent (conveners L. Steur and P. Nieveling), 17th Conference of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Studies, 5th-10th August 2013, Manchester, UK – 

My paper deals with a Gramscian analysis of subaltern people’s resistances in West Africa. Relying on my ethnographic fieldwork in Mauritania, Mali, and Benin, it discusses pastoral communities facing political discrimination and rural economic economy; and of people, both in rural and urban contexts, coping directly with global capitalism. In this second case, they are pastoral communities, again, facing the grabbing of their lands, and slum dwellers of slave descent confronting slum-clearance programs.

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Séminaire EHESS – Keith Hart “Tha anthropology of unequal society and the struggle for economic democracy” – ANNULÉ

Séance annulée

Jeudi 20 Juin 2013
de 15h00 à 17h00 
salle 11 , 105 Boulevard raspail 75006 PARIS 

Keith HART (University of Pretoria & London School of Economics)

The anthropology of unequal society and the struggle for economic democracy

Discutant : Riccardo CIAVOLELLA

Séminaire du LAIOS 2012-2013 “Anthropologie Politique : Globalisation, Race, Etat”

Véronique BENEÏ
Jean-Bernard OUEDRAOGO

“This is an early draft of an essay for Annual Reviews of Anthropology (2014). Modern anthropology was born to serve the coming democratic revolution against the Old Regime. A government by the people for the people should be based on what they have in common, their “human nature” or “natural rights”. The great Victorian synthesizers, such as Morgan, Tylor and Frazer, stood on the shoulders of predecessors motivated by an urgent desire to make world society less unequal. Jean-Jacques Rousseau deserves to be seen as the source for an anthropology that combines the critique of unequal society with a revolutionary politics of democratic emancipation. The most impressive work coming out of the post-war American school was Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People without History (1982). But Claude Lévi-Strauss tried to redo Morgan in a single book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship(1949). Jack Goody has also engaged with world historyproducing a score of books investigating why Sub-Saharan Africa differs so strikingly from the pre-industrial societies of Europe and Asia, with a later focus on refuting the West’s claim to being exceptional, especially when compared with Asia. 

 The bulk of the essay will consider how anthropologists today have responded to the current world crisis, in the process renewing the political struggle against unequal society and for economic democracy. Chief among them is David Graeber for his book, Debt: The first 5,000 years (2011) and now The Democracy Project (2013). My own work, from The Memory Bank (2000) to The Human Economy (2010), is in dialogue with his and has recently taken a political turn in revisiting the twentieth-century contrast between “reform” and “revolution”: hence my interest in charting a fresh course through this essay. At stake is the formation of world society on the ruins of national capitalism, a process sometimes known as “alter-globalization” or as the struggle for power between national governments and transnational corporations (Blim 2005). The greatest contradiction in contemporary capitalism is over intellectual property rights which takes the particular form of struggles for a digital commons. Gabriella Coleman leads the way here with Encoding Freedom (2013) and her ethnography of Anonymous. 

The research program that I co-direct at the University of Pretoria ( exposes me to world society from the perspective of the global South and Africa in particular. Young political anthropologists are breaking new ground in Southern Europe and elsewhere around the world. I hope to get more pointers to relevant reading on recent directions in anthropological research from this seminar. I will speak in English, but read and understand French.”

Mobilizing Family Relationships against Marginality. The Case of the FulaaBe of Mauritania

This paper was presented at the European Conference of African Studies of AEGIS, in Leiden, July 2007. A longer version of the paper has been published in Italian: Ciavolella, Riccardo. 2009. “I Fulaabe della Mauritania e i loro tentativi di integrazione allo stato”. In Alice Bellagamba, ed., Inclusi/Esclusi. Prospettive africane sulla cittadinanza. pp. 62-85. Torino: UTET. Please, also refer, for a longer discussion in French, to my PhD dissertation Le pouvoir aux marges. Les Fulaaɓe et l’État mauritanien. Ph.D. diss., Università di Milano Bicocca, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2008; and to the monograph Les Peuls et l’Etat en Mauritanie. Une anthropologie des marges. Paris: Karthala, 2010.

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