This conference aims to extend recent anthropological theorising on the state. Anthropology has long been interested in the comparative study of states, and from the mid-twentieth century onwards, at least, anthropologists have provided rich ethnographic accounts of, and key theoretical insights into, states as institutional and bureaucratic formations, as purveyors of nationalist sentiment (especially in post-colonial settings), and as custodians of public ritual. However, in recent years, a growing body of anthropological work has extended these definitions further still, by drawing attention to the ways in which ‘statecraft’ may be embedded within wider sets of relations, representations, and practices as well.
One key concern of this contemporary literature has been to highlight the ways in which the elements of statecraft are made manifest through, yet may also become dependent upon, different kinds of materialities, including documents, audio-visual media, and different kinds of physical spaces. Another has been to examine the kinds of affective, embodied responses that state processes, practices and systems often generate. A third interest has been to examine what implications all of this has for our understanding of the relationship between states and persons. Against earlier models, which cast the state as a set of discrete institutions that could be (in a sense) ‘set against’ its individual subjects or citizens, this newer scholarship has emphasised the ways in which state imaginaries and practices may be imminent to, and embedded within, processes of socialization and subject formation. In some instances, the two may even become homologous of each other (as they have – some would argue – under the conditions of late-capitalism/neo-liberalism).
There is a sense in which addressing these concerns is becoming more urgent in the current historical moment. In other words, in the context of a rising entertainment-security complex, of increased state secrecy (and eroded personal privacy), of ongoing attempts by post-colonial governments to forge new kinds of settlements with indigenous peoples, of a return to state-led industrialisation across the ‘developing world’, and of growing distrust, across the political spectrum, of ‘globalization’ – to name just a few trends – the need for us to more effectively document, and to theorise, the materialities, affects, and sociologies of states has become more vital than ever. Each of these trends appears to have resulted in states becoming more far-reaching, and powerful, than ever before. Yet paradoxically, each seems to have also resulted in statecraft appearing more contingent, fragile, and contestable, than ever. If states and persons are mutually constitutive of each other, then all of these shifts will inevitably have profound effects for the whole of humanity. Therefore, they not only invite, but in fact demand, focused anthropological attention.