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Political Theory in an Ethnographic Key

  • MATTHEW LONGO (a1) and BERNARDO ZACKA (a2)

Abstract

Should political theorists engage in ethnography? In this letter, we assess a recent wave of interest in ethnography among political theorists and explain why it is a good thing. We focus, in particular, on how ethnographic research generates what Ian Shapiro calls “problematizing redescriptions”—accounts of political phenomena that destabilize the lens through which we traditionally study them, engendering novel questions and exposing new avenues of moral concern. We argue that (1) by revealing new levels of variation and contingency within familiar political phenomena, ethnography can uncover topics ripe for normative inquiry; (2) by shedding light on what meanings people associate with political values, it can advance our reflection on concepts; and (3) by capturing the experience of individuals at grips with the social world, it can attune us to forms of harm that would otherwise remain hidden. The purchase for political theory is considerable. By thickening our understanding of institutions, ethnography serves as an antidote to analytic specialization and broadens the range of questions political theorists can ask, reinvigorating debates in the subfield and forging connections with the discipline writ large.

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Copyright

This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the same Creative Commons licence is included and the original work is properly cited. The written permission of Cambridge University Press must be obtained for commercial re-use.

Corresponding author

*Matthew Longo, Assistant Professor, Institute of Political Science, Leiden University, m.b.longo@fsw.leidenuniv.nl.
Bernardo Zacka, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, nardoz@mit.edu.

Footnotes

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Both authors contributed equally to this manuscript; their names are listed alphabetically. The authors are grateful to Ian Shapiro and Dvora Yanow for their comments on an earlier version of this letter, and to Janosch Prinz for discussion of related ideas. They would also like to thank four anonymous reviewers for the APSR and Associate Editor Leigh Jenco, whose advice improved this work considerably.

Footnotes

References

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Political Theory in an Ethnographic Key

  • MATTHEW LONGO (a1) and BERNARDO ZACKA (a2)

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