Reversing the Gaze: Towards Post-Comparative Area Studies

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Principal investigators: Deval Desai (Edinburgh Law School, University of Edinburgh), Benedikt Korf (Department of Geography, University of Zurich), Elísio Macamo (Centre for African Studies Basel/Department of Social Sciences, University of Basel), Ralph Weber
(Institute for European Global Studies, University of Basel)
Project partners: Arjun Appadurai (Institute for Public Knowledge, New York University), Neloufer de Mel (English Department, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka), Peter Ronald DeSouza (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi), Peter Geschiere (Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology, Amsterdam), Oliver Marchart (Institute for Political Science, University of Vienna), Maria Paula Meneses (Centro de Estudos Sociais e Económicos, Universidade de Coimbra), Luciano Monti (Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali Guido Carli – LUISS, Rome), Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni (Archie Mafeje Research Institute, University of South Africa), Leoluca Orlando (Mayor of Palermo, Italy), Shalini Randeria (Graduate Institute Geneva and Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna), Kim Lane Scheppele (Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University), Glenda Sluga (Department of History, University of Sidney and EUI Florence)
Project coordinator: Pascal Schmid (Centre for African Studies Basel)
Research team: Stephan Hochleithner (Department of Geography, University of Zurich), Tebuho Winnie Kanyimba (Centre for African Studies Basel/Department of Social Sciences, University of Basel), Christine Lutringer (Graduate Institute Geneva), Matthias Maurer Rueda (Centre for African Studies Basel/Department of Social Sciences, University of Basel), Lerato Posholi (Europainstitut Basel)


The project uses a “conceptual laboratory” to take a critical theoretical approach we call “reversing the gaze” – i.e. deploying concepts developed in the Global South to the North. It tests the analytic purchase of three mid-level concepts – “re-tribalisation”, “political society” and “the cunning state” – on political crisis phenomena in Europe against the background of a careful inquiry into the methodological scope of comparison.

About the Project

Is it possible to compare the political dimensions of people’s lives across the Global North and South? This question raises fundamental debates about the nature of comparison, and how it works. Is such comparison inevitably Eurocentric, carried out with implied (or even overt) reference to political ideals and conceptualizations that were developed precisely to distinguish between the “West” and the “Rest”, the colonizer and the colonized? And if so, can something analytically productive be salvaged from the project of political comparison across the Global North and South, or is it irredeemable?

The project tries to answer these questions by proposing and exploring the value of a “conceptual laboratory”. The “laboratory” is a means of testing the analytic purchase of mid-level political concepts through practices of reciprocal comparison. The key critical theoretical assumption underlying the project is the idea that we need to “reverse the gaze”, i.e. deploy conceptualisations developed in the Global South to the North.

This project takes up postcolonial and decolonial critiques of comparative methodologies, including recent critical work from the philosophy of knowledge, area studies, and critical comparative disciplinary work. Recognizing that these critiques of political comparison implicate social sciences in general, the project works across disciplines, with a research team built from anthropology, geography, history, law, philosophy, and political science. Recognizing that these disciplines have a long legacy of producing applied knowledge to govern populations, especially in the Global South, it engages with comparison as a practical operation (rather than, for example, as a method within a discipline). And finally, recognizing that these critiques insist on the epistemic agency of the Global South, it “reverses the gaze”, drawing on mid-level conceptualisations of politics in and from the South and applying them to the Global North.

Substantively, the project applies three mid-level concepts derived from the Global South to political crises in Europe. It asks how useful these concepts  are to describe, analyse and interpret these crises, and more specifically in the Alpine region. These concepts are “re-tribalisation”, “political society” and “the cunning state”. Theoretically, the project asks how reversing the gaze might contribute to particular relational approaches to area studies (and disciplinary comparison). Methodologically, we seek to draw lessons from the conceptual laboratory in operationalizing an epistemological practice of reciprocal comparison.

Our European empirical case studies are Austria (right-wing populism), Italy (social welfare spending) and Switzerland (citizenship and migration). The project will offer innovative and conceptually out-of-the-box perspectives to the cases, differing from those derived and developed exclusively within and against a European background. The question we ask is whether and how the perspectives brought into view can help us shed more light on similar crisis phenomena.

The project’s scholarly outcomes include potentially new perspectives on comparison; a critical engagement with “universal” concepts and the politics of conceptual travel; and practical visions on how to imbue the pursuit of knowledge with a concern for ethical and political issues raised by these critiques.

Funded by the SNSF