The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

The Anthropology of “Democracy” in Rural Societies of Asia and Africa

Joint Research Coordinator MASAKI Katsuhiko

Reserch Theme List


context-specific living, reductionism, the Anthropology of Democracy

Major objectives

This anthropological research is designed, through on-the-spot investigations as well as data based on documents, to shed light on how the spread of democracy has progressed in various societies in Asia and Africa, in terms of how people at the grassroots level have responded to democratization from above and decentralization, and the kinds of social changes have been experienced. People living in local societies are not just objects affected by systemic changes; they have also been engaged in resistance to former social values and the creation of new commonalities. In addition, local NGOs and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) have emerged as effective actors in relation to the distribution of various social and economic resources. This research will examine the operations of social movements in the broad sense of the term and should contribute to further development of traditional research on social change in individual regions and ethnographic research concerning development phenomena.

Global society today shows a greater inclination to respect the independence and equality of individuals, but conversely conspicuously engages in the exclusion and expunction of individuals who are symbolized as not self-reliant and autonomous. This research group plans to highlight the suffering that results from placement outside the ethos of democracy, and engage in critical consideration concerning the spread of grassroots democracy in Asia and Africa, not laying democracy down as an axiom.

Research Results

The institutional legitimacy of democracy and the conditions under which justice prevails have been discussed in detail in political theory. Particularly noteworthy is a concern for "corporeal agency and the concrete details of life", which appears, for example, in debates over non-exclusion from welfare systems, liberation from patriarchal ideology, and paying attention to narrative. Although concern for non-exclusion from welfare is often proclaimed, discussions of political theory often remain at the level of institutions or abstract human rights, whereas the feelings of those who must struggle with diverse values and interests are not considered. In response, anthropologists are greatly concerned about the details of everyday life being either sustained or overlooked, thus the results of anthropological fieldwork are of major significance.

Ordinarily, when considering democracy, there is a tendency to adopt the same perspective as those who govern, and see democracy as synonymous with national politics and administration. The focus of this project, however, was on activities the goal of which is improvement of general welfare: protecting the environment, indigenous peoples' movements and regional development. Instead of burying concern for details of everyday life, in most cases these movements urge people to engage in self-improvement in terms of clearly defined criteria. However, people targeted by these activities often reject as distasteful the political intentions and messages of these movements. Not infrequently, those involved in these movements regard such distaste and rejection as an irrational obstacle to achieving their goals, yet this distaste and rejection are rarely examined and debated. This research project confirmed the importance of creating and energizing a completely new public space, to bring together all those involved to talk openly about this previously neglected topic. This should lead to more productive discussions in which the values and opinions of individuals are respected more fully.