Soft Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, a con­cept that appears con­tra­dic­to­ry, aims to cap­ture the cur­rent fuzzi­ness of democ­ra­cies slid­ing into author­i­tar­i­an rule the world over. For­mal elec­tions bol­ster the pow­er of strong­men, majori­tar­i­an democ­ra­cies under­mine the rights of minori­ties, the rule of law is hol­lowed out using the con­sti­tu­tion, and dis­cours­es of free­dom of expres­sion are deployed to dis­man­tle fun­da­men­tal human rights.

Our Research Group stud­ies in com­par­a­tive per­spec­tive the flu­id and flex­i­ble polit­i­cal, juridi­cal, social and dis­cur­sive con­fig­u­ra­tions which blur the line between demo­c­ra­t­ic and author­i­tar­i­an prac­tices of rule. It exam­ines how soft author­i­tar­i­anisms of var­i­ous vari­eties are estab­lished and con­test­ed in dif­fer­ent con­texts. How are these new forms of rule legit­imized dis­cur­sive­ly, imple­ment­ed insti­tu­tion­al­ly? How are respon­si­bil­i­ties and account­abil­i­ty watered down, pow­er cen­tral­ized and its trans­fer imped­ed? What forms of mobi­liza­tion and action by cit­i­zens attempt to stem the slow and sys­tem­at­ic ero­sion of lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions? In what ways has the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic exac­er­bat­ed author­i­tar­i­an ten­den­cies and are they here to stay?

Our three con­trastive case stud­ies link­ing ethnog­ra­phy with dis­course analy­sis and doc­u­men­tary research focus on Poland, France and Turkey/​the Turk­ish-Euro­pean diaspora.

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The Weaponization of Republican Values in France

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Didier Fassin: Death of a Traveller. A Counter Investigation.

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Introducing Podcast Series: Democracy in Question

S3E8: Holding Power Accountable with Investigative Journalism

21. Jan­u­ary 202232:48 min listen

This episode explores what the Pan­do­ra Papers reveal about wealth and the gov­er­nance of a glob­al finan­cial sys­tem. What are the com­mon strate­gies adopt­ed by wealthy com­pa­nies, indi­vid­u­als, and organizations…

S3E7: Populism and democracy’s critical infrastructure

13. Decem­ber 202135:00 min listen

This episode explores the con­cept of pop­ulism and fun­da­men­tal struc­tures that give legit­i­ma­cy and effi­ca­cy to demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics. Is pop­ulism the direct result of a cri­sis of rep­re­sen­ta­tion? How can…

S3E6: The Right to Belong

29. Novem­ber 202130:54 min listen

This episode explores ques­tions of cit­i­zen­ship, dis­place­ment, state­less­ness, and the ways in which they are relat­ed to aspects of race and gen­der. The dis­cus­sion includes an exam­i­na­tion of the right…

S3E5: The Role of Radio in Transistions to Democracy 

10. Novem­ber 202131:10 min listen

This episode of Democ­ra­cy in Ques­tion, host­ed by Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­si­ty (CEU) Pres­i­dent and Rec­tor, Shali­ni Ran­de­ria, fea­tures guests Car­o­line Vuillemin, direc­tor of the Swiss non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion Fon­da­tion Hiron­delle, and Said Nazir, managing…

Ethnography as Counter-Investigation?


Time: 4–6 p.m.

Loca­tion: Online, via zoom

Book presentation and discussion with Didier Fassin:

Death of a Traveller. A Counter-Investigation. Polity 2021.

In his last book, Didi­er Fassin exam­ines a bla­tant case of police vio­lence and insti­tu­tion­al racism. A young man, belong­ing to the Trav­eller com­mu­ni­ty, fails to return to prison after a tem­po­rary release. The search oper­a­tion of a spe­cial unit of the French gen­darmerie ends with the fugi­tive shot dead on his par­ents’ farm. After­wards con­tra­dic­to­ry accounts of the fatal event are giv­en. The gen­darmerie speaks of inevitable self-defense; the fam­i­ly reports of a sequence of exag­ger­at­ed bru­tal­i­ty that cul­mi­nates in the exe­cu­tion of their rel­a­tive. Dur­ing the fol­low­ing judi­cial inves­ti­ga­tion, the family’s account is mar­gin­al­ized and even­tu­al­ly dis­re­gard­ed; the offi­cers’ ver­sion prevails.

Based on inter­views as well as a care­ful read­ing of offi­cial doc­u­ments and judi­cial reports, Didi­er Fassin car­ries out a “counter-inves­ti­­ga­­tion”. Giv­ing each ver­sion of the nar­ra­tive the same cred­it, he expos­es the incon­sis­ten­cies that the court rul­ing, final­ly dis­charg­ing the offi­cers, had ignored. As a result, Fassin coun­ters the author­i­ta­tive “judi­cial truth” with an alter­na­tive “ethno­graph­ic truth” that aims at re-open­ing a legal­ly closed sto­ry and here­by return­ing respectabil­i­ty to the vic­tim and his family.

In this online meet­ing Didi­er Fassin will dis­cuss with mem­bers of the com­mis­sion “Ethno­gra­phies of the Polit­i­cal” about the par­tic­u­lar gen­e­sis of the book, its main con­cepts, argu­ments and tex­tu­al­i­ty. A spe­cif­ic empha­sis will be put on “counter-inves­ti­­ga­­tion” as a method­ol­o­gy to inter­vene into polit­i­cal and judi­cial process­es via ethnog­ra­phy. We will explore the char­ac­ter­is­tics and poten­tials of “counter-inves­ti­­ga­­tion” in rela­tion to fur­ther approach­es and strate­gies of a Pub­lic Anthropology.

Please reg­is­ter by send­ing an email to Natasha Deasy ( You will receive a zoom-link the day before the event.

Didi­er Fassin is the James D. Wolfen­sohn Pro­fes­sor at the Insti­tute for Advanced Study in Prince­ton and a Direc­tor of Stud­ies at the École des hautes études en sci­ences sociales in Paris.

For fur­ther infor­ma­tion about the book “Death of a Trav­eller”, please con­sult this recent review (in Ger­man).

This event is orga­nized by the com­mis­sion “Europeanization_​​Globalization: Ethno­gra­phies of the Polit­i­cal” (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Empirische Kul­tur­wis­senschaft) in coop­er­a­tion with the U Bre­men Excel­lence Chair Research Group “Soft Author­i­tar­i­anisms”.