Transformations Discussion 14/10/14

Transformations Discussion Oct 14:
Synopsis by Ariell Ahearn

We discussed the concept of “discursive fields.” I have been particularly interested in applying this concept in an analysis of two government initiatives in rural Mongolia. The initiatives are indicative of changing formats for citizenship based on the formalization of household productions (see here for more details). Akhil Gupta (1995) discusses the ‘discursive construction of the state’ by examining discourses on corruption in India using an ethnographic lens. Gupta advocates for an analysis of the construction of the state through the study of ‘mundane administrative practices,’ such as the collection of taxes, distribution of food, record-keeping around land registration, etc. He argues that studying these everyday practices is a means to ‘disaggregate’ the construction of the state and understand how power works on the ground (see also Ferguson and Gupta, 2002; Sharma and Gupta, 2006).

Gupta’s formulation draws on Foucault’s notion of the ‘capillary’ and ‘panoptical’ or dispersed and internalized nature of governance and power more generally. For Foucault, ‘government’ is a comprehensive term that refers to ‘the conduct of conduct’ and he devoted his historical analysis to illustrating how the contemporary state has been formed in the context of ‘discursive fields’ where modes of governance and forms of knowledge coalesce (Lemke 2001). But, how can we understand this concept of a discursive field? What are concrete examples of it? Can I use the concept of ‘discursive field’ to understand the street protests in Hong Kong? Is there a spatial aspect to this concept?

With this in mind, a discursive field is defined as:

“constitutive of the genre of concepts in the social sciences that can be thought of as ‘embedding’ concepts in that they reference broader enveloping contexts in which discussions, decisions, and actions take place. Discursive fields evolve during the course of discussion and debate, sometimes but not always contested, about relevant events and issues, and encompass cultural materials (e.g. beliefs, values, ideologies, myths) of potential relevance and various sets of actors (e.g. targeted authorities, social control agents, countermovements, media) whose interests are aligned, albeit differently, with the issues or events in question, and who thus have a stake in how those events and issues are framed and/or narrated.” (Snow, 2013)

Given this definition, what are some examples of discursive fields?

We discussed whether a discursive field can be defined as an ‘event’ or ‘space,’ such as the example of the protests in Hong Kong. In the context of the protest, the discursive field would be democracy or freedom because the event is the site in which a discursive field is being expressed. Next, the point was raised that (O’Toole?) wrote that discourse emerges in ‘formal, practical, and popular’ formats. It was generally agreed that discursive constructions involve people talking amongst each other about larger issues such as the state, and these discussions are often contested. An interesting example was the idea that scarcity, such as water scarcity is an good example of a discursive field. The question that still remains for me after this discussion is what makes a discursive field distinct from other types of public debates? Does it connote a certain type of ‘struggle’ or a particular set of practices? The examples provided of discursive fields in our discussion point to ‘issues’ rather than practices and behaviours. Gupta’s ethnographic examples of corruption as constituting a discursive construction of the state marshals evidence including a description of local administrative practices around negotiations over land registration, an example draw from a botched housing development project, an account of villager actions around electricity failures, and then a section on the discourse of corruption in public newspapers. These examples all include a story of corruption, but it is unclear what the criteria for inclusion in a discursive field would be, or if simply anything that contributes to or constitutes debates on corruption would count.

The conversation moved on to the topic of universal basic income and government cash transfers. James Ferguson gave a keynote speech at the IUAES Conference last May on the politics around cash transfers and resource distribution in Africa as it related to broader discussions that have occupied the field of anthropology since its inceptions on exchange and gift-giving. With cash transfers, the public has a ‘right’ to the national wealth and labour is de-linked from the earning of cash. Ferguson cited that a large amount of the world’s wealth is transferred by inheritance, so in that sense wealth is already de-linked from labour. We discussed some of the recent debates in Switzerland on universal basic income as well as providing a baseline income to residents in the UK living under a certain income threshold.


Ferguson, James and Akhil Gupta. 2002. Spatializing States: towards an ethnology of neoliberal governmentality. American Ethnologist 29 (4) 981-1002

Gupta, Akhil. 1995. Blurred Boundaries: the Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State. American Ethnologist 22(2): 375-402.

Sharma, A. and A. Gupta (eds) (2006) The Anthropology of the State. Blackwell: Oxford.

Snow, David A. (2013) ‘Discursive Fields’, The Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements. Accessed on October 14, 2014


About Jonathan Balls

PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Oxford
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