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An anthropology of the social contract: The political power of an idea

Burnyeat, Gwen; Sheild Johansson, Miranda; (2022) An anthropology of the social contract: The political power of an idea. Critique of Anthropology , 42 (3) pp. 221-237. 10.1177/0308275x221120168. Green open access

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Abstract

The idea of the social contract resonates in many societies as a framework to conceptualise state–society relations, and as a normative ideal which strives to improve them. Policy-makers, development organisations, politicians, social scientists (including anthropologists), and our interlocutors all live with contractarian logics. While generations of political philosophers have debated the concept and its usefulness, the term has also travelled beyond academia into the wider world, shaping expectations, experiences, and imagined futures of state–society relations. An anthropology of the social contract explores ethnographically how this pervasive concept, laden with assumptions about human nature, political organisation, government, and notions such as freedom, consensus and legitimacy, impacts state–society relations in different settings. In this way, the social contract itself – its many emic instantiations, and its political effects – becomes the object of study.

Type: Article
Title: An anthropology of the social contract: The political power of an idea
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1177/0308275x221120168
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1177/0308275x221120168
Language: English
Additional information: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access page (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage).
Keywords: agonism, citizenship, consensus, contractarianism, equality, government, legitimacy, liberalism, political philosophy, state–society relations
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Dept of Anthropology
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10155373
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