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Constitutional Ethnography, Counter-Constitutions, and the Study of Form, Sediment and Trajectory

  • Prof. Kim Lane Scheppele
Friday 13 January 2017
Old Observatory
Sterrenwachtlaan 11
2311 GW Leiden
C 1.04

Constitutions are not usually the subject of ethnography. Successful constitutions create a political world in which political combat has well-recognized limits because constitutional ideas are taken for granted and taken-for-granted ideas are hard to study. But one starts to see precisely how constitutions work when alternatives proliferate, when dissent comes in the form of challengers to constitutional normalcy and when practices that were once taken as obvious have to be defended. When the taken-for-granted ceases to be obvious, constitutional arguments have to be created and parried, and then we can hear what went without saying before. We can find a strategic research site for constitutional ethnography in “counter-constitutions” that present themselves as alternatives to constitutional normalcy. 

In ethnographic investigation, the researcher focuses on practices and their meanings, on the relationship between representations and what is understood as reality, on the way that ideas work their way into habits and habits turn into institutions. An ethnographer is also interested in documenting all of these processes when they go into reverse, and focuses on how the obvious comes unraveled, how the real becomes simply a point of view and how institutions are hollowed out from within and ultimately collapse. The study of counter-constitutions allows us to see constitutions themselves more clearly because taken-for-granted ideas only become visible when they have contenders.

Traditionally, “ethnography” has meant simply in-person, on-site fieldwork as the primary and distinctive way to acquire information. But ethnography is now associated with a wider range of methods that share a common goal, including archival work, analysis of material objects and readings of cultural products. I will therefore present ethnography not as a single method, but also an attitude toward a subject. Ethnography focuses on fields of meaning, lived experience, the creation of knowledge, the sedimentation of that knowledge into social forms and trajectories, and the uses of that knowledge to create common understandings that make social activity possible and that make social products real. Hence the diversity of specific methods that can fly under the banner of ethnography. Ethnography is the method that allows one to take a phenomenological view of the social world.

In elaborating an ethnographic method in the shadow of phenomenology, I will introduce the concepts of form, trajectory and sediment. A form is a meaningful category, developed and abstracted from lived experience so that the experience is still visible in the abstraction. A trajectory is a distinctive arc of meaningful action over time, identified as a recognizable sequence that can be repeated with different specific content. Sedimentation captures the process when attention is focused on the stream of experience, and picks out particular sequences as meaningful episodes. Through a focus on the form, the trajectory and the sediment, we can understand how knowledge becomes objectivized and naturalized and conversely, how knowledge becomes relativized and denaturalized. The goal of constitutional ethnography is to understand how political communities come to govern themselves through the creation and deployment of constitutional knowledge.

Kim Lane Scheppele is the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton. From 2005-2015, she was Director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton, after 10 years on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.  Scheppele's work focuses on the intersection of constitutional and international law, particularly in constitutional systems under stress. After 1989, Scheppele studied the emergence of constitutional law in Hungary and Russia, living in both places for extended periods. After 9/11, she researched the effects of the international "war on terror" on constitutional protections around the world. Her many publications in law reviews, in social science journals and in many languages cover these topics and others. She is a public commentator in the popular press, discussing comparative constitutional law, the state of Europe, the transformation of Hungary from a constitutional-democratic state to one that risks breaching constitutional principles of the European Union and European legal solutions to European crises. Scheppele is an elected member of the International Academy of Comparative Law and in 2014 received the Law and Society Association’s Kalven Prize for influential scholarship. She held tenure in the political science department at the University of Michigan, was the founding director of the gender program at Central European University Budapest and has taught in the law schools at Michigan, Yale, Humboldt/Berlin and (starting in January 2017) Harvard. From June 2017-2019, she will serve as the elected President of the Law and Society Association. She is honored to be a visiting professor at Erasmus University in the Netherlands in 2016-2017. 

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