I came to Aberdeen as a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies in 2002, after completing a BA in History and a Masters in Social Anthropology at Oxford University, a PhD in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and having taught Anthropology at the University of St Andrews.
I have been doing research in Mexico since 1992, and I have also done research since 2008 in the East Bay Area of northern California. My research has focused mainly on aspects of citizenship and civil society.
As well as teaching in Hispanic Studies, I am Director of the inter-disciplinary Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law (CISRUL) which focuses on the study of political concepts in the world.
Currently I am leading a large RCUK-Newton project on Activism in Violent Regions, as well as an EU Marie Curie COFUND grant Political Concepts in the World. I am also mentor of a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, held by Hanifi Baris, a former CISRUL PhD.
From September to December 2019, I will be Radboud Excellence Initiative Visiting Professor in Anthropology and Development Studies at Radboud University in the Netherlands.
For details of my projects and publications, please click on the Research tab. Under the Teaching tab, you can find details of my undergraduate teaching and PhD supervision.
Most of my recent writing has been on different aspects of citizenship and civil society:
1. Knowing history, being citizens in Mexico
My book Knowing History in Mexico: An Ethnography of Citizenship was published by the University of New Mexico Press in October 2012. It has been reviewed so far in The Americas, Oral History Review, Journal of Latin American Studies, International Social Science Review, European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Journal of Anthropological Research, the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Bulletin of Latin American Research, Relaciones (in Spanish) and Social Anthropology (in French).
I pose two questions in the book: What is history? And why do people value it? Basing my inquiry on fieldwork near Guadalajara in west Mexico, I focus on one reason for which people commonly value history—knowing history is said to make for better citens, which helps to explain why history is taught at schools worldwide and history questions are included in citizenship tests. I combine my Mexican fieldwork with my personal experience of history in Scottish schools and at Oxford University to try to pinpoint what exactly it is that makes people who know history seem like better citizens.
Much has been written about national history and citizenship; I concentrate instead on the history and citizenship of towns and cities. My Mexican informants talked (and wrote) not only of Mexican history but of their towns’ histories, too. They acted, at the same time, as citizens of their towns as well as of Mexico. Urban history and citizenship are, I show, important yet neglected phenomena in Mexico and beyond.
Rather than setting history on a pedestal, I treat it as one kind of knowledge among many others, comparing it not just to legend but also to gossip. Instead of focusing on academic historians, I interviewed people from all walks of life—bricklayers, priests, teachers, politicians, peasant farmers, lawyers, laborers, and migrants—as well as drawing on a talk about history by the famous Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo.
2. In the eyes of the law, in the eyes of society: a citizenship tradition in Mexico
I am completing a book on citizenship in Mexico, based on fieldwork that I carried out between 2007 and 2013. My approach is set out in three recent publications entitled "Beyond the State? Civil Sociality and Other Notions of Citizenship", "In the Eyes of the Law, In the Eyes of Society: A Citizenship Tradition in West Mexico" and "'Citizens' and their stance toward 'religion': the demands of modern government" and a forthcoming chapter "Citizenship and the civil sphere in provincial Mexico". Social scientists generally begin with a definition of citizenship, usually the rights-bearing membership of nation-states, and have given less attention to the notions of citizenship held by the people whom they study. Not only is how people see themselves as citizens crucial to how they relate to states as well as to each other, but informants’ own notions of citizenship can be the source of fresh theoretical insights about citizenship.
During interviews and participant observation across two contrasting regions of Mexico, I found that my informants did talk about citizenship as rights-bearing membership. But my informants said most often that to be a citizen was simply to live in society, ideally in a civil way, which I term civil sociality. Civil sociality is, I argue, a kind of citizenship beyond the state because it is not focused on how people relate to states. The main theoretical insight that arises from my Mexican informants’ notions is that citizenship is not necessarily a relationship with states - there are other ways of thinking about citizenship.
The project included two periods of comparative research in California in 2008 and 2010.
3. Citizens and their stance toward religion: the demands of modern government
I am the lead editor and have written the introduction and a chapter for the volume Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty, which Brill published in 2015. It is a commonplace among scholars that religion is a problem or issue for citizenship. Much has been said about what a citizen is to do with his or her religion. In recent years, for example, scholars have written of a “post-secular” world in which citizens are permitted to do more with their religion than hitherto, such as bringing it into politics. Some such as Jürgen Habermas, Tariq Modood and Charles Taylor have argued for such a world. Others have warned against the advent of a “post-secular” world, such as Rogers Brubaker (2013), who worries that religion is replacing language as a dividing mark among citizens.
Unlike those scholars, this volume starts by treating “religion” not as a self-evident phenomenon but instead as a category. Our modern idea of religion is precisely that, we argue—an idea that has taken shape in modern times. As I explain in the volume introduction, modernity has multiple histories and so does the modern idea of religion. The volume focuses on the history of how governments from the eighteenth century onwards came to define “religion”. I begin my own chapter by arguing that while modern governments reworked the category of religion, they also reworked what it meant to be “citizens.” Governments made increasing demands on those whom they recognized as citizens. One of the key demands made of citizens was that they take a particular stance toward “religion”. The volume makes clear that governments’ fashioning and refashioning of “religion” has taken different courses at different times and places, and my own chapter focuses on the particular case of Mexico.
4. Political community: a holistic and comparative approach
The idea of a self-governing people—a political community—dates back to the Greeks but enjoys unprecedented salience in the world today. When Scotland voted on Independence in 2014, the debates were followed not only by the world’s nationalists, but by movements as different as the Spanish indignados (now Podemos Party) with their critique of conventional politics, and the Kurdish rojava cities in Syria which claim to offer plural and hospitable democracy. Meanwhile, although hopes for a ‘European people’ have faded, the recent Greek elections, as well as the UK’s promised EU referendum, will reignite debate on the standing of Europe’s ‘peoples’ vis-à-vis EU government. I aim to distil the myriad notions of the people across these and other contexts, developing a rich, multi-faceted account of what claims are (and should be) made to act in the name of a people. The project will be completed in 2017 with the publication of a volume entitled Political Community: The Idea of the Self-Governing People, arising from conferences and online debate that CISRUL hosted in 2013 and 2014.
Further details are available on the CISRUL blog.
5. Activism in violent regions
This project began in November 2016 and is funded by a large grant from the ESRC, on supporting 9 researchers at 5 institutions over 32 months.
Athough scholars and analysts suspect that civil society has the potential to mitigate the effects of criminal violence, only a few have conducted substantial research on the topic, and they have focused mainly on national and international organizations. We are focusing instead on activists based in the affected regions themselves, which have seldom been studied, and never on the scale that we propose.
Researchers and policy-makers have come to suspect that activists may have a role to play in these contexts, by monitoring the actions of state institutions (legislative, executive and judicial) and by pressuring those institutions to pursue human-rights development, thus helping to offset the hold of criminal organizations over those institutions. However, although there have been some studies of the role of national and international civil society in holding state institutions to account, the potential role of activists within the regions themselves has been neglected.
The few studies, including those by project members, suggest that activists are themselves hemmed in by organised crime, and find it difficult to resist penetration by organised crime, much less to advance an agenda contrary to its interests. This helps to account, indeed, for the reluctance of researchers to conduct sustained fieldwork in these contexts.
Despite the forbidding panorama, the project will use comparative ethnography, following strict protocols designed to mitigate risk, to identify and explain positive examples of organisations which have played an effective role in holding state institutions to a human rights agenda, and specifically one designed to offset the noxious effects of organised crime activities.
A full description and relevant documents is available on the CISRUL page.
6. Civil sphere and radicalization
This project focuses on modes of political action intended to disrupt, confront, and subvert public order, and which are usually condemned as such not only by government but by organizations from churches and charities to voluntary associations and social movements, and in the press. Examples include hacktivism, road or highway blocking, occupying public buildings, inflammatory cartoons, graffiti, querying the Holocaust, suicide bombing, setting oneself alight, calling for revolution, rioting and looting, wearing masks and refusing to remove them, leaking large amounts of sensitive data, organising marches without giving notice, mooning in public, and hunger striking. Such actions often, perhaps usually involve breaking the law, but they need not. They do not typically employ violence, but they may. They are censured because of the disruption and damage but also because, at least in constitutional democracies, there are a range of ways to make oneself heard, including voting for the opposition, resolution through the courts, representation in the media, making petitions on office holders, and legal modes of protest such as policed street demonstrations and legally-protected strikes. The question is why people court condemnation by choosing to go beyond the established modes of political action, and what happens when they do. This includes the moments in which, whether at the time or decades later, there is a measure of sympathy or solidarity amid the condemnation.
The project has taken the form of conferences that I have organised on Radical Protest in Constitutional Democracy and Civil Sphere and Radicalization and a volume under contract for Cambridge University Press that I am co-editing with cultural sociologist Jeffrey Alexander.
"Introduction" (with Jeffrey Alexander) and "Wedging Open Established Civil Spheres: A Comparative Approach to Their Emancipatory Potential" in eds. Jeffrey Alexander, Farhad Khorsrokhavar and Trevor Stack Breaching the Civil Order: Radicalism and the Civil Sphere. Cambridge University Press, November 2019
"Citizenship and the Established Civil Sphere in Provincial Mexico" in ed. Jeffrey Alexander and Carlo Tognato The Civil Sphere in Latin America. Cambridge University Press, 2018
"Introduction" and "'Citizens' and their Stance toward 'Religion': The Demands of Modern Government" in eds. Trevor Stack, Naomi Goldenberg and Timothy Fitzerald Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty Brill. 2015
"Ser ciudadano y ser indígena, entre el Estado de derecho y el vivir en sociedad" in ed. Jorge Uzeta Identidades diversas, ciudadanías particulares: Reflexiones sobre la relación entre "ser indígena" y "ser ciudadano" Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán. 2013
"Spoken like a State: Language and Religion as Categories of Liberal Thought" (response to Rogers Brubaker "Language, Religion and the Politics of Difference") in Studies of Ethnicity and Nationalism 13(1). April 2013
"In the Eyes of the Law, In the Eyes of Society: A Citizenship Tradition in West Mexico" in Citizenship, the Self and Political Agency, special issue of Critique of Anthropology 33(1). March 2013
Knowing History in Mexico: An Ethnography of Citizenship University of New Mexico Press. 2012 (See reviews listed above)
"Beyond the State? Civil Sociality and Other Notions of Citizenship" in Citizenship Studies 16 (7). 2012
"Trajectories of Culture in West Mexico" in History and Anthropology 23 (3). 2012
"A Just Rule of Law" in Social Anthropology 18(3). 2010
“A Higher Ground: The Secular Knowledge of Objects of Religious Devotion” in ed. Tim Fitzgerald Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations Equinox. 2007
“Rooting and Cultura in West Mexico” in Bulletin of Latin American Research 26 (3). 2007
co-edited with Andrew Gordon (including co-authored introduction), Citizenship Beyond the State, special issue of Citizenship Studies 11 (2). 2007
“Creativity in Advertising, Fiction and Ethnography” in eds. Tim Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam Creativity and Cultural Improvisation Berg. 2007
“The Skewing of History in Mexico” in American Ethnologist 36 (3). 2006
"The Time of Place in West Mexico" in eds. Wendy James and David Mills The Qualities of Time: Anthropological Approaches Berg. 2004
"Citizens of Towns, Citizens of Nations: The Knowing of History in Mexico" in Critique of Anthropology 23 (2). 2003
Most recently I received
- a Royal Society of Edinburgh Visiting Researcher Fellowship to spend 4 months at the Civic Constellations Project of the Universidad de Málaga in September-December 2016
- a large ESRC grant as PI to conduct 30 months of research starting November 2016 in partnership with Mexican and UK institutions
- a 5-year EU Marie Curie COFUND grant to expand the CISRUL PhD programme in 2018-22.
I have also received a long series of grants in support of my research in Mexico and California from the British Academy (2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013) and the Carnegie Trust (2004, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013), as well as a British Academy Conference Support Grant to hold the conference at the British Academy in January 2010 and funding from the Gordon Cook Foundation for a workshop in March 2013.
Finally I have received substantial donations to set up and direct the Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law at Aberdeen, which is hosting a series of conferences and offering PhD studentships.
I teach undergraduate courses on a wide range of topics including the first year core course "Latin America: A Cultural History" and the Honours courses “Citizenship in Latin America” and "The Golden State: History, Culture and Politics of California". I am also responsible for a cross-University course "What Gives Us Rights?".
I have supervised or co-supervised PhDs on topics as varied as Mexican intellectuals and journalists during the 1970s, claim-making by Ghanian market women, Brazil's programme for protecting human rights defenders, discourses of nationalism and citizenship in Poland, and competing visions of polity in Turkey. Students that I have supervised or co-supervised recently include: