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Nationalism & Political Anthropology


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Greetings current & hopeful anthropologists!  

I’m currently preparing for a Masters program but am hopeful to continue onto a PhD afterwards.  My undergrad is in Political Science, but I’ve recently become confused as to which discipline would suit my specific academic interests.  They have a strong regional focus, but are basically in the realm of “identity politics” and nationalism.  I guess at this point, I’m a bit confused as to which discipline my interests fit into.  Although I’m familiar with Political Science, I’m starting to believe that I would rather move into Political Anthropology.  And then there is also Cultural Geography.  I’m assuming the only differences here are in methodological approaches but I’m unsure.  

Are you anthro folks familiar with political anthropology?  What are the differences from Comparative Politics in regards to studies on national identity?  Thanks!

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  • 3 weeks later...

Political anthropology often goes hand in hand with legal anthropology. The disciplines study the structures of social order within societies, otherwise known fondly as law and order. What systems (informal and formal) are in place to govern a group of people? I would say this area overlaps with your general interests in that laws and political systems (formal and informal) can help shape an identity, and anthropology seeks to understand how these systems impact that identity. Also, you could look into how identity shapes a people's experiences within a political/legal system, and how different identity groups interact within those parameters.

Cultural geography, to my knowledge, is more about how culture interacts with specific places/spaces. Sub-disciplines of geography tend to have a lot more of a physicality to them, where cultural attributes are explained taking into consideration the specific space in which people live. In relation to your interests, I would say cultural geography would look at how land spaces can help form identity and, alternatively, how identity shapes how people interact with the land. Perhaps this would fit your interests best if the group of people ties their identity to the land on which they're living. I am not 100% on this, though, so take that with a grain of salt.

As far as comparative politics goes, I believe this focuses on similarities and differences across groups, and it looks more at the system itself. What are the specifics of different systems, and how does it differ from the system in X country? Not quite sure how this might relate to identity politics beyond looking at racially/ethnically driven policies.

In short, anthropology is all about people and culture. Cultural geography is the interaction between people and land. Comparative politics sounds like it's about making a comparison of the systems themselves. It all depends what you're interested in beyond identity politics and nationalism... are you interested more in the people part of things, or are you interested more in the system or the geography? I would say they would also have some methodological differences as well, but I can't speak for anything other than anthropology on that front.

I hope that some of the above general statements can help you better identify with one of the disciplines. Best of luck to you! I would love to hear more about your research interests, as well as what discipline you feel would fit best!

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Thanks so much, Lexie!  This is great information and truly helps.  It’s interesting.  My whole life I had been putting my “eggs" into comparative politics, but it truly feels like anthropology is where my heart really is…and has always been…but I didn’t even know it until now.  

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Glad I could help! I felt the same way during my undergraduate career. I started as a music major who was interested in ethnomusicology, but took a cultural anthro course and I realized that what I was searching for were the people. What I was most interested in was something's impact on people, and how their stories changed as a result.... And subsequently, understanding how their changed narratives can culminate in a form of cultural shift. Like you, I put a lot of eggs in that one basket, so I can relate!!

I'm also thrilled to hear that anthropology feels like a good fit for you (not that I'm biased, or anything :) ). Political and legal anthropology are on my list of major interests, so if you ever want to chat about possibilities for your own interests in that direction, let me know!

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  • 1 month later...

Hi Kosmosis,

If you're thinking of a PhD moving forward, I'd recommend looking into particular schools and spending time reading the kind of research that's being done in anthropology departments that are historically strong in the areas you're interested in. This will be very valuable research for your future PhD applications, but will also help you to figure out whether the kind of current research that's being done is similar to what you're hoping to do in the future. Harvard has a major focus in political anthropology (see this page), and also a number of faculty working on the anthropology of place (page here), which would link in well with you interest in cultural geography. I don't know what your regional/theoretical focus is, specifically, but if you're interested in urban space or in politics/space in the US, CUNY could be a great program to look into/read research from— they have a very strong history in that kind of research thanks to David Harvey and Setha Low being there. CUNY also has the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, which also seems relevant— you could read through work published by their associated faculty, too.  

Depending on your research and regional interests, other places that immediately come to mind would be Johns Hopkins for the political/legal emphasis, Stanford, and perhaps Berkeley as well. 

All that being said, if cultural geography is really where the majority of your interests lie, it might be worth checking out geography programs in the UK, if you have any interest in studying there. Geography is a very exciting, very forward-thinking (and almost anthropological!) discipline in the UK in a way that is isn't in the States, so that could be worthwhile to do some research into, too. Cultural geography in the UK also has a comparative element methodologically, which you'll likely find to be much more uncommon in US anthropology departments.


Hope this helps! I know you weren't asking specifically about programs, but I do think that's a great place to start, especially while a masters student, because that will give you both a sense of where you might want to position yourself in the future, as well as a better feel for what's going on at present in anthropological research— which I would argue is especially important if you're looking at doctoral work in that you'll need to be careful about positioning your work alongside what's being published now.


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To me the primary thing that distinguishes anthropology from the other disciplines you mentioned is its methods. Do you want to spend years conducting research in a single place, learning the language and doing intensive participant-observation? Do you want to write an ethnography, that places you as the author within the text and narrates large political trends through the eyes of ordinary people? Then Anthropology is for you! 

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