This course explores what it means to research “social movements” in the discipline of anthropology. We first discuss the history of ideas in anthropological theory surrounding ideas of power and social change: early functionalist approaches presumed static traditions, whereas Marxist, feminist and postcolonial intellectual movements invited anthropologists to theorize structure and agency, power and contradiction, dialectics and change. Common-sense notions of “social movement” still pose a conceptual challenge to anthropology and ethnography as a method: What distinguishes a social movement from social change broadly put? An anthropological approach to politics means that the modern western delimitation of the “political” must itself be viewed as a historical development, and one with gendered, classed and racialized dimensions. How do we locate a social movement ethnographically? What does ethnography as method teach us about social movements that we might not otherwise see? How do we proceed ethically, attending to questions of positionality, subjectivity, objectivity?
These conceptual discussions are presented in relation to ethnographic studies in Latin America, East Asia, North America and Eastern Europe, wherein students are also introduced to general disciplinary debates such as the challenges of multisited ethnography, cultural relativism, conceptualizing relations between the “local” and “global”, digital ethnography, fieldwork methods and ethics, and practices of public anthropology, including writing to and for participants in social movements. The case studies are explored to emphasize the particular benefit of approaching “social movements” with an anthropological lens onto everyday life; in the process, social theoretical concepts such as marxism, anarchism, feminism and intersectionality are themselves productively decentered as cultural and historical objects.

offering time

Summer 2023


Social Studies


Erica Lagalisse(V)



Course code


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