I came to Aberdeen as a Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American 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 Spanish and Latin American 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.
I led a large RCUK-Newton team project on Societal Responses to Crime and Violence in Mexico (2016-19), and currently I lead an EU Marie Curie COFUND grant Political Concepts in the World (2018-23), which funds 11 PhD fellowships together with related training and conferences. I am also mentor of a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship (2019-22), held by Hanifi Baris, a former CISRUL PhD.
From September to December 2019, I was 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 first book Knowing History in Mexico: An Ethnography of Citizenship was published by the University of New Mexico Press in October 2012. It was reviewed 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
Based on extensive fieldwork on citizenship in Mexico and California that I carried out between 2007 and 2013, I have published a series of chapters and articles including the following:
- "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"
- "'Citizens' and their stance toward 'religion': the demands of modern government"
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.
Beyond the fieldwork, I have developed my account of citizenship though editing a volume on Dynamics of Authority in Citizenship and Political Community.
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. Societal responses to crime and violence in Mexico
I was PI on this project, which ran from November 2016 to October 2019 and was funded by a large grant from the ESRC, supporting 10 researchers at 5 institutions over 35 months.
The project focused on societal responses because Mexico’s institutional responses had proved little effective, and even exacerbated crime and violence. We chose the state of Michoacán in part because in 2013 it was the scene of an extreme form of societal response: an uprising of armed civilian groups known as autodefensas (self-defence). The autodefensas effectively took security into their own hands, confronting the criminal organization which then monopolized criminal business in most of Michoacan, and which had captured much of local and state government. Our cases of societal response included the autodefensa groups that persisted in some rural areas in 2017, but we also studied other societal responses and in other contexts, including urban ones. The responses we studied included local citizen security councils, artist collectives, church-linked initiatives and women’s groups.
A full description and relevant documents is available on the CISRUL page.
5. Developing Civil Sphere Theory (CST)
During my project on citizenship (see above), I found that cultural sociologist Jeffrey Alexander's Civil Sphere Theory shed more light on my findings than did much of the literature on citizenship itself. Since then I have looked to develop CST through collaborating with Alexander and others in a series of workshops and volumes. Examples are my chapter in The Civil Sphere in Latin America (CUP, 2018) and the conclusion to the volume The Nordic Civil Sphere (Polity, 2019) that I co-authored with sociologist Giuseppe Scriotino.
Our most recent publication is the volume Breaching the Civil Order: Radicalism and the Civil Sphere (CUP, 2020). It is not only a paradox but something of an intellectual scandal that, in an era so shaken by radical actions and ideologies, social science has had nothing theoretically new to say about radicalism since the middle of the last century. Breaching the Civil Order fills this void. It argues that, rather than seeing radicalism in substantive terms – as violent or militant, communist or fascist – radicalism should be seen more broadly as any organized effort to breach the civil order. The theory is made flesh in a series of case studies by leading European and American social scientists, from the destruction of property in the London race riots to the public militancy of Black Lives Matter in the US, the performative violence of the Irish IRA and the Mexican Zapatistas to the democratic upheavals of the Arab Spring, and from Islamic terrorism in France to Germany’s right-wing populist Pegida.
"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 the following grants:
- a Radboud Excellence Initiative Visiting Professorship in Anthropology and Development Studies at Radboud University in the Netherlands (Sep-Dec 2019)
- a 5-year EU Marie Curie COFUND grant to expand the CISRUL PhD programme (2018-22)
- a large ESRC grant as PI to conduct 35 months of research in partnership with Mexican and UK institutions (2016-19)
- a Royal Society of Edinburgh Visiting Researcher Fellowship at the Civic Constellations Project of the Universidad de Málaga (Sep-Dec 2016)
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) include:
- Peter Watt (completed 2009)
- Alena Thiel (completed 2015)
- Ulisses Terto Neto (completed 2015)
- Anna Grudzinska (completed 2018)
- Chuck Sturtevant (completed 2018
- Hanifi Baris (completed 2018)
- Eve Hayes de Kalaf (completed 2019)
- Domenico Carolei (completed 2019)
- Andreas Zaunsder (completing)
- Aditya Mohanty (completing)
- Valentin Clavé-Mercier (started 2018)
- Maxim van Asseldonk (started 2019)
- Tam Nguyen (started 2019)