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.
Reversing the Gaze is led by a consortium at the University of Basel, the University of Zurich, and the University of Edinburgh. The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, is a Swiss partner; international partners include institutions in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.
The project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation in the frame of the Sinergia programme.
Project period: October 2020-September 2024