Workshop: “The Cultural Life of Democracy” (Zurich, 3-4 Nov 2022)

Convened by Harshana Rambukwella and Benedikt Korf, Department of Geography, University of Zurich

Date: 3 & 4 November 2022
Venue: Völkerkundemuseum, Universität Zürich

Harshana Rambukwella: 
Benedikt Korf: 

This workshop is a modest attempt to broaden the critical discourse on democracy by using Sri Lanka as an empirical locus, but adopting a comparative gaze beyond Sri Lanka, and to explore the possibilities of fashioning the ‘cultural life of democracy’ as a conceptual and methodological heuristic to explore democracy and democratization as an actual political practice rather than a political ideal. Politically and intellectually the project aligns with the ‘post-colonial’ spirit of exploring ‘alternative’ accounts of democracy but is also cautious of how populist-authoritarian iterations of democracy have rationalized themselves through claims to alterity. Challenging the dominance of what Chakrabarty (2000) calls ‘hyperreal Europe’ there have been attempts to understand democracy in relation to postcolonial social experience. These include, drawing on the practice of adda in Calcutta society as a form of public sphere (Chakrabarty 2000), rethinking democracy from the margins in Chile where the isolated Chachapoyas region has historically resisted integration by self-consciously constructing itself as a pre-modern and pre-political society (Nugent 2002) and examining Islamic forms of democratic participation in Arabian societies that do not follow the Turkish ‘secularist’ model (Rane 2010). Collectively, these can be understood as forms of democratic participation that do not follow a rigid definition of democratic norms. This approach to ‘provincializing’ democracy has also yielded a number of studies that attempt to map civic life in South Asian societies (Orsini 2000; Dass 2015; Scott et al. 2016). The workshop thereby aligns with the agenda of the SINERGIA project “Reversing the Gaze”, which seeks to unsettle the Eurocentrism of democratic theory.

Taking Sri Lanka’s current political crisis as well as its varied history of democracy as a case, this workshop invites critical and comparative reflection on postcolonial theories of democracy, electoral politics and political dissent beyond the Sri Lankan case. The term “cultural life” starts from the supposition that the cultural is often a site of political struggle, but also, that politics develops a cultural life of itself: in the events it celebrates, the rituals it performs, the narratives it produces and the mundane practices it follows in the everyday. Studying how exactly these different modes of political conduct are mobilized and negotiated gives us an insight into “actually existing politics” (Spencer 2007: 177). Studying actually existing politics raises normative questions: We recognize that discourses like ‘post-truth’ have led to an erosion of norms such as ‘civility’, a class-driven but vital norm theorized by scholars like Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu (Thiranagama et al. 2018). Similarly, populist leaders have redefined sovereignty in self-serving ways that draw on the rhetoric of decolonization. The theoretical and political challenge, therefore is in fashioning a stance that recognizes that ‘civility’, for instance, has a loaded colonial history (Thiranagama et al. 2018: 163- 64) – but at the same time does not romanticize populism or restrict democracy to a set of culturally exclusivist markers.

Specifically, the workshop intends to explore the following interdisciplinary questions:

  1. What insights can a ‘cultural’ account of democracy offer for postcolonial societies like Sri Lanka, which ‘standard’ accounts of democracy and democratization such as the study of democratic institutions, the rule of law, etc., are unable to offer.
  2. How can we trace the ‘cultural life’ of democracy in varied forms of artistic production such as art, literature, film and theatre, but also political activism and events?
  3. What are the methodological and conceptual challenges of a project of this nature with its interdisciplinary and methodologically eclectic approach?

Workshop: “Decoloniality and the Politics of the Urban” (hybrid, 27 Oct 2022)

The Geneva Graduate Institute, the Reversing the Gaze Project and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) invite you to participate in an upcoming workshop, exploring themes of decoloniality in relation to the politics of the urban.

Date: 27th October 2022
Time: 9:00-16:30 UK time
Format: Hybrid

What is the politics of the divide between the urban and the non-urban (semi-urban, peri-urban and the rural), in contemporary postcolonial and metropolitan contexts, as well as historical colonial contexts? The divide is fundamental to the emergence of modern states as political-economic entities – European, colonial, and developmental. It expresses a politics of concentration/scale, productivity, specialisation, and movement to be governed. Crucially, colonial histories and categories of urban and rural and their relationship to productive and unproductive labour give shape to internal hierarchies of citizenship within states. The politics of these categories manifest themselves in historic rubrics of retribalisation, and contemporary politics of internal labour migration and populist resentment. The divide is of interest as at once a material site, political framework, and historical stage for the making of colonial and postcolonial states – and potentially for the continuation of an “unfinished project of decolonisation”.

This is a unique opportunity to engage with interdisciplinary scholarship on relevant themes of decoloniality, both historical and contemporary. If you’re interested in participating in a panel, kindly submit a short abstract (no more than 200 words) to and with the title ‘Decoloniality Workshop Submission’ and your name and affiliation by October 3th, 2022. If you have any questions, feel free to contact Tanushree at

Research Colloquium, Fall Semester 2022: “Concepts without borders”

In this semester, the colloquium will discuss the changes socio-scientific analytical concepts undergo to be able to render phenomena intelligible in different settings. The standard assumption according to which concepts, when properly used, are independent of context has come under massive critique, especially within the context of postcolonial and decolonial critiques. But does this mean that concepts are hopelessly tied to context and are bearers of normative assumptions? What happens with analytical concepts when they travel from one historical or regional context to another? What is gained – and what is lost? And (why) should we make concepts crossing borders at all?


Mon 26.09.2022, 12:30-14:00 CET
Knowledge: Values and validity
Elísio Macamo (Centre for African Studies Basel/Department of Social Sciences, University of Basel)

Mon 10.10.2022, 12:30-14:00 CET
Traveling theory: The potentials and limitations of ideas as they ‘travel’
Harshana Rambukwella (Postgraduate Institute of English, Open University of Sri Lanka)

Mon 17.10.2022, 10:15-16:00 CET
Researching the (un)familiar (workshop)

Thu 27.10.2022, 08:00-16:00 CET
Decoloniality and the Politics of the Urban (workshop)

Thu 03. & Fri 04.11.2022
The Cultural Life of Democracy (workshop)

Mon 21.11.2022, 12:30-14:00 CET
Towards non-representational concept-making
Rose Marie Beck (Institute of African Studies, Universität Leipzig)

Mon 05.12.2022, 12:30-14:00 CET
Review session
Ralph Weber (Institute for European Global Studies, University of Basel)

The colloquium takes place online via Zoom. If you are interested in participating, please use the registration form to register for one or several sessions.

PhD candidates and advanced MA students can earn credits (1 ECTS credit points).

PhD candidates and students at the University of Basel can register for the course via MOnA (course no. 65906-01).

PhD candidates and students at other Swiss universities can register via the University of Basel Student Administration Office.

Workshop: “Researching the (un)familiar” (Basel, 17 Oct 2022)

Workshop in the framework of the sub-project When there are Strangers in Our Midst. Citizenship, Migration and Re-tribalisation in Switzerland

Time & date: Monday, 17 October 2022, 10:00-16:00 CET
Venue: Centre for African Studies Basel, Rheinsprung 21, 4051 Basel, room 00.002

This research workshop examines experiences of doing research in familiar and unfamiliar contexts. The familiar/unfamiliar are understood as fluid and mutually non-exclusive, and may refer to different aspects of the researcher’s biographical, social or intellectual relation to the specific regional and historical context she/he works on. The workshop focuses on methodological challenges and conceptual issues with a focus on doing research in Europe and in Africa. The workshop draws on research in the framework of the study “When there are Strangers in Our Midst. Citizenship, Migration and Re-tribalisation in Switzerland” (a case study of the Reversing the Gaze project).


10:15-12:00 – Session 1

  • Introduction by Elísio Macamo
  • Keynote by Peter Geschiere followed by discussion

12:00-14:00 – Lunch break

14:00-16:00 – Session 2

  • Presentation of current research by Winnie Kanyimba and Matthias Maurer
  • Final discussion



  • Elísio Macamo (Centre for African Studies Basel/Department of Social Sciences, University of Basel)
  • Pascal Schmid (Centre for African Studies Basel)

Registration form

Publication: “The Puzzle of Unspent Funds”

This special issue edited by our project members Deval Desai, Sruthi Herbert and Christine Lutringer explores a matter of critical policy relevance and political importance: the unuse or underuse of public funds, and more specifically of special purpose social funds. The contributions ask: why are there unspent social purpose funds, what do they tell us about the structures of the administrative state, and what can be done to remedy the situation?

The eight chapters, which include contributions by project members Tanushree Kaushal, Luciano Monti and Anna Rita Ceddia, span across two different contexts : India and Italy. These radically different contexts also present valuable points of comparison. The analyzed funds diverge in terms of their institutional design, type of benefits and eligibility of beneficiaries. At the same time, they sit within decentralized democratic frameworks and fragmented and multilevel governance. Juxtaposing the cases, the papers reveal key processes related to fiscal, administrative and policy practices that cause underspending. The papers provide an innovative vantage point to analyze institutional design and reforms in multilevel governance contexts; administrative and bureaucratic state practices; modalities of state-society engagement; and mechanisms to increase democratic accountability.

Desai, D., S. Herbert and C. Lutringer (eds) (2022) The Puzzle of Unspent Funds. Political and Policy Implications of Fiscal Underspending, International Development Policy / Revue internationale de politique de développement, 14.1 (Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications). DOI: 10.4000/poldev.5048

  • Deval Desai, Sruthi Herbert and Christine Lutringer: Introduction. Critical Issues Emerging from the Study of Unspent Funds
  • G. K. Karanth: Managing Unspent Funds when Money is Scarce: Karnataka State Construction and Other Workers Welfare Board (kcowwb)
  • Lipin Ram: Funds Spent: The Lessons and Challenges of Kerala’s Exceptional Experience
  • Tanushree Kaushal: The Aestheticisation of Governance in India: The Appeal of Urban Aesthetics in Microfinance
  • Himanshu Upadhyaya: Registration, Expenditure and Audit Trends: A Technical Commentary on the Karnataka Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board
  • Christine Lutringer: The Puzzle of ‘Unspent’ Funds in Italy’s European Social Fund
  • Luciano Monti: The Italian Puzzle of the European Youth Guarantee
  • Anna Rita Ceddia: The Pivotal Role of Mid-level Implementation Bodies in Italy’s Cohesion Policy  

“Concepts without borders”: Reversing the Gaze at the VAD Conference

Watch the roundtable and panels convened by our project members at the conference of the Association for African Studies in Germany (VAD) in Freiburg im Breisgau (7-10 June 2022).

Rose Marie Beck, Patricio Langa, Ralph Weber, Peter Ronald DeSouza and Elísio Macamo at the roundtable “Concepts Without Borders”, VAD Conference in Freiburg i.Br., 8 June 2022

Concepts without borders: Reversing the Gaze at the VAD Conference

Roundtable chaired by Elisio Macamo (University of Basel) and Ralph Weber (University of Basel)

Speakers: Patrício Langa (UWCUEM), Peter DeSouza (Retired Professor), Rose Marie Beck (University of Leipzig), Claudia Derichs (HU Berlin)

The politics and epistemic value of positionality

Panel convened by Lerato Posholi and Ralph Weber

Translating concepts from Africa to Europe

Panel convened by Winnie Kanyimba and Matthias Maurer Rueda

Workshop: “The Philosophy and Global Politics of Concept Travel”

Veli Mitova (African Centre for Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, University of Johannesburg) during her presentation titled “Wilful Ignorance and Concept Travel”.

On June 17, the workshop on “The Philosophy and Global Politics of Concept Travel” brought together philosophers and social scientists from India, South Africa and Switzerland to reflect on the link between concept travel, conceptual engineering and the politics of knowledge production. The discussions raised various issues about the dominance of Eurocentric concepts in social science; possible advantages and disadvantages of concept travel; and outlined some strategies for conceptually engineering concepts.

The workshop was part of Lerato Posholi and Ralph Weber’s work package in the “Reversing the gaze” project and was organized in collaboration with Prof. Veli Mitova from the African Centre for Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, University of Johannesburg.

Research Colloquium, Spring Semester 2022: “Working with the state”

In this semester, the colloquium will focus on the ways in which academic and non-academic interpretations of the concept of ‘the state’ vary in different contexts. Drawing from case studies of the research project “Reversing the Gaze” as well as guest talks, the sessions will shed light on research endeavors involving the travel and translation of concepts across different regions, disciplines and research foci.


Mon 14.03.2022, 12:30-14:00
Is the state an ideological power?
Tebuho Winnie Kanyimba & Matthias Maurer Rueda (Centre for African Studies Basel/Department of Social Sciences, University of Basel)

Mon 28.03.2022, 12:30-14:00
The Postcolonial African State in Transition
Lerato Posholi (Institute of European Global Studies, University of Basel)

Mon 11.04.2022, 12:30-14:00
Retribalization and the State in Switzerland
Tebuho Winnie Kanyimba & Matthias Maurer Rueda (Centre for African Studies Basel/Department of Social Sciences, University of Basel)

Mon 25.04.2022, 12:30-14:00
A Colonial History of Pensions: The East India Company and One Genesis for the Welfare State
Geeta Patel (Middle Eastern & South Asian Languages & Cultures/Women, Gender & Sexuality, University of Virginia)

Mon 09.05.2022, 12:30-14:00
The State, Infrastructure, and Populism
Stephan Hochleithner (Department of Geography, University of Zurich)

Mon 23.05.2022, 12:30-14:00
Review session
Stephan Hochleithner (Department of Geography, University of Zurich)

The colloquium takes place online via Zoom. If you are interested in participating, please register via email to:

PhD candidates and advanced MA students can earn credits (3 ECTS credit points). In order to do so, participants should write a report on one of the sessions.

PhD candidates and students at the University of Basel can register for the course via MOnA (course no. 64025-01).

PhD candidates and students at other Swiss universities can register via the University of Basel Student Administration Office.

Book Chapter: ”Comparative philosophy and comparison” by Ralph Weber

Comparative philosophy is lively and the field is diverse and assembles different, sometimes even contradictory views. In his contribution to the edited volume ”Comparative Methods in Law, Humanities and Social Sciences”, Ralph Weber presents these different views and then proceeds to deal with the current conceptualisation of the logic of comparison, with specific attention for diminishing bias and the adequacy of bases of comparison. He helpfully states that one way of investigating the inner dynamics of a given comparison is to ask a set of questions: Who is performing the comparison? What commonality supports the choice of what has to be compared? What is being compared with what? In what respect(s) does the comparer compare that which they compare? What relation results from comparing what the comparer compares in that particular respect? How does the choice of the pre-comparative tertium restrict the realm of possible tertia comparationis? How does a chosen tertium comparationis qualify the comparanda? And what role does the comparanda play in the result of the comparison? Each of these questions reveals an enormous complexity, and the answers may be subject to criticism or require further clarification and substantiation. Moreover, most if not all of these questions are highly relevant for comparative legal research too. Weber also deals with some specific issues, such as generalisation, one-sidedness, and the identification of similarities and differences.

Call for Papers: “Post-Pandemic Mobilisation and Management of Social Welfare Funds”

Project members Sruthi Herbert and Deval Desai host a workshop on “Post-Pandemic Mobilisation and Management of Social Welfare Funds: Implications for Equity and Citizenship” at the annual conference of the Development Studies Association (6-8 July 2022). They discuss the fiscal and administrative practices that emerged in public welfare spending after the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of equity and citizenship.

The workshop explores a matter of critical policy relevance and political importance: the fiscal and administrative practices that emerged post-pandemic to rapidly mobilise funds for the pandemic relief, and its implications for equity and citizenship. The case-study of special-purpose vehicles (SPVs) in India guides this discussion.

Sruthi Herbert and Deval Desai (Edinburgh) will be the co-convenors. They welcome abstracts for papers from scholars, writers and activists engaged in monitoring and analysing the management and use of public/earmarked funds in India or other regions of the world.

The deadline for submissions is 4 March 2022. The conference is taking place online on 6-8 July, organised and hosted by University College London.