Course Meeting Times

Seminars: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Description

This course introduces students to the ethnographic study of politics, with an emphasis on elections. During the semester, we will follow the American Presidential race with anthropological questions in mind. Rather than probing the effectiveness of our electoral system ("do elections work"), or of our candidates ("do campaigns work"), we will take a step back to examine the cultural processes animating our versions of a good democracy, and the cultural ideals shaping the techniques that campaigns use to reach voters. For example, why do campaigns rely on marketing techniques to reach voters? What versions of consensus and autonomy lie behind the use of these techniques?

Few anthropologists have written about elections in the United States. For this reason, we will read across disciplines (mainly Social History, Political Communication and Journalism), and contrast these readings to ethnographic works exploring similar themes in other contexts. The readings are organized in three thematic blocks.

  • The first section examines anthropological takes on elections in contexts of recent democratization. These works illuminate a tension in the practice of elections familiar to democracies worldwide: Elections encompass an ideal of rationality and proceduralism that depends on the not-so rational (almost magical) practice of persuading voters to support a candidate.
  • The second section explores how this tension between rationality and voter persuasion plays out in three foundational myths of American democracy: that of consensus, equality and authority.
  • Thereafter, the third section questions the rise of mass markets, the citizen / consumer and the birth of "technical" electoral campaigning. Finally, in the last section, we will look at different techniques for reaching voters (polling, micro-targeting, messaging, candidate branding, field campaigning, and social media). We will ask whether these techniques have reinvented America's foundational electoral myths.

Learning Objectives

After taking this course, students will be able to:

  • Identify key debates in the Anthropology of Politics
  • Apply anthropological concepts to the analysis of politics
  • Distinguish between democracy as ideal, and democracy as practice


Students will turn in two assignments, and a final research paper.

  • Assignment 1: Ad Analysis
  • Assignment 2: Imagining a Campaign
  • Assignment 3: Final Paper - (Mini) Ethnography and Presentations

For further detail on these, see the Assignments section.

Grading Policy

Assignment 1 10%
Assignment 2 15%
Research Questions 15%
Preliminary Observations 15%
Final Paper 25%
Presentations 5%
Attendance and Class Discussion 15%

Reading Materials

There are two required books for this class:

Buy at Amazon Schudson, Michael. The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. Free Press, 2011. ISBN: 9781451631623.

Buy at Amazon Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis. Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns. Princeton University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780691153056. [Preview with Google Books]

Other readings for the class can be found in the table in the Readings section.


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