Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;  

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
— W.H. Auden, The Unknown Citizen, 1940. 
The subjects of politics
The primary concern in studying politics is to understand how the subjects of politics come into being. The word ‘subject’ here signals at least two meanings.
It signals first what counts as politics. People might think that politics is what governments do. That it takes place in designated places where the work of government gets done. The issues, affairs, and debates arise from this work and become the subjects of politics. This leaves too much for governments (and corporations) to influence what counts as politics.
Most people live their political lives in assemblies, campuses, classrooms, courts, gatherings, factories, galleries, hospitals, meetings, museums, neighbourhoods, offices, prisons, protests, pubs, squares, streets, theatres, and indeed homes. What counts as the subjects of politics are sorted through struggles in and over such everyday places.
The second meaning of the word ‘subject’ complicates it further. Through everyday political lives people become subjects as named, recognised, seen, and heard people with arguments about whatever that they are struggling with. Becoming subjects means becoming political, people articulating ourselves as a force of politics.
W.H. Auden’s poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’ written in 1939 as an imaginary epitaph is a good place to start thinking differently about the subjects of politics. After listing all the usual ways that a citizen is obedient and subservient, Auden asks if the ‘unknown citizen’ was free or happy. The voice of government erupts: ‘The question is absurd. Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.’ What Auden reveals is how we have come to accept the relationship between governments and people as a relationship of subservience, obedience, and even domination. The poem, however, subversively portrays the citizen as a dissenter whose work is to disrupt the work of government – a very different image.
To question this dominant image and displace it with alternatives requires both theoretical and practical work, which are done by activist citizens (and noncitizens) themselves. The primary concern then turns to studying how activist citizens (and noncitizens) do this theoretical and practical work and how scholars may incorporate this work into systematic ways of studying politics (Isin, 2015). [PDF]
Those who think about politics in this sense often call their approach as ‘political anthropology’ to signal that their intent is to observe everyday politics in action and understand reasons and thoughts of those who are engaging with politics. The typical objects of study in political anthropology are social struggles – it is through these struggles that people determine the conditions under which they are subject to power, refuse, resist, alter, or overturn these conditions, and name the conditions under which they want to lead their lives. Multiple forms of domination – class, racial, sexual, ethnic, linguistic, religious – intersect and combine the conditions against which people struggle and dissent by developing effective practices. Through these struggles people develop reasons, thoughts, and concepts with which and through which they carry out their struggles.

Back to Top