An image of a conscientious objector standing trial in Second World War Britain, distributed by the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors.

From Soviet refuseniks to Kurdish activists and British pacifists, acts of dissent can be understood as attempts to take a position of principle. But, dissidents are not simply people of high ideals, but are also individuals caught up in other, sometimes contradictory intimate aspirations and relationships. The social world of dissidents and activists is often a place of especially intense sociality and, alongside abstract principles, dissent also involves both the making and breaking of specific attachments of kinship and friendship. Political dissent therefore does not just reverberate through public acts, but also in the most intimate of relations.

The short essays collected here keep intimate relationships, intense commitments, and political action in the same analytical frame, by examining those moments when people take a stand—acting in ways that go against the grain of social and political life—often at great personal risk. The starting point of these essays is therefore ethnographic and empirical rather than theoretical. Acts of dissent can be framed by a range of linked words, such as resistance, refusal, opposition, or protest (Foucault 2001; McGranahan 2016; Simpson 2015; Weiss 2016), but we are particularly interested in those acts where people declare or act on their commitments. We are not trying to coin a new theoretical term, but to try and understand the conditions of possibility for such acts, and the culturally thick meanings and significance with which they are subscribed. We can only understand the intensity of acts of dissent, and the risks they entail, if we also understand the intimate ties, tensions, and contradictions within which they are enmeshed.

Commitments are never just political abstractions, but are also produced through intimate relations. Intimacy here though is not simply about known personal relations, but also wider dense ties of familiarity (Herzfeld 1996), and as such the lines between intimate relations and abstract principles can become blurred. At one level, convictions are shaped and are given meaning through the dense flux and flow of relations with friends, children, parents, siblings, lovers, and comrades. Commitments are rarely just commitments to ideas, but also, as Michael Walzer (1970) has pointed out, obligations to people who we might know, love, and respect. People tend not to die, for example, not simply for country, God, or class, but also for friends, comrades, and lovers. At the same time, the intimacy of dissent also means that the inequalities and forms of violence that mark intimate relations can also run through public acts of dissent. The act of taking a stand can be marked hierarchies of gender, class, and race that run through intimate ties.

At another level, dissent can exist in tension with our intimate ties. Not only do acts of dissent put intimate ties under strain, but also the burdens and implications of dissent are often born most intensely by those to whom they are personally close. The memoirs of dissidents and political prisoners, for example, focus on the costs of their actions for their families and friends (Mandelstam 1999). Some would-be dissidents refused to join protests because they did not want to hurt their families. In other contexts, rupturing and severing personal relations is the enabling condition of dissent, and for those involved in forms of dissent, family and friends become neglected and invisible. The sense here is often, but not inevitably, of tragic necessity, of loyalties to intimates conflicting with obligations of principle.

In some of the recent anthropology of activism and social movements, whilst questions of class, sexuality, and gender have been given analytical significance, activists have often been analysed as if they are political, and only political, all the way down (with some important exceptions: Lee 2016; Schielke 2014, for example). It is as if, when politics is a vocation, self-consciously political actors have no other relations beyond those that are politicised. Politics, as it were, becomes everything, and as a result becomes conceptually, culturally, and sociologically flat, with nothing to push off against (Candea 2011). We need to pay particular attention to the ways in which the meanings and implications of dissent are formed through the contingent relationship between the political and its counters. The intimate relations within which an act of dissent is embedded, or works against, will color its goals, outcomes, affects, and meanings.

We have framed the essays in terms of dissent, because at an empirical level it seems to capture the types of acts we are interested in—those moments when people take a stand, often at great personal risk—by acting in ways that go against the grain of social and political life. But at the same time, we are also aware that the language of dissent has a very particular, and perhaps liberal history, and is linked firstly with the Protestant Reformation and more recently with Cold War human rights. Most importantly, the concept of dissent emerged within the context of particular assumptions about personal freedom. One of the challenges therefore is to see if we can think through dissent in ways that parochialize this very particular history, and its associated forms of agency, personhood, and change. There are broad questions about the types of claim and action that are seen as dissenting, both by the dissenters and by others, and the types of action that are seen as legitimate and significant. In many contexts dissent, or at least particular forms of dissent, can be a vice as well as a virtue, or even be seen as irrelevant and unimportant. And dissent can easily turn into a form of vanity, convinced of its own virtues as an end in itself, blind to its own shortcomings in the moment, even if sometimes regretted after the fact.

The essays in this collection started life at a workshop held at the University of Edinburgh in the summer of 2018 funded by the European Research Council. The papers explored the intimate life of public acts of dissent, focusing on Russian dissidents, British pacifists, Sri Lankan leftists, Indonesian student activists, Israeli women’s groups, Tibetan exiles, and Kurdish prisoners. Taken together, they examine how dissent is both enabled and restricted by our most intimate ties.

Candea, Matei. 2011. ““Our Division of the Universe”: Making a Space for the Non-Political in the Anthropology of Politics.” Current Anthropology 52 (3): 309-334.

Foucault, Michel. 2001. Fearless Speech. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Herzfeld, Michael. 1996. Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation State. London: Psychology Press.

Lee, Doreen. 2015. Activist Archives: Youth Culture and the Political Past in Indonesia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

McGranahan, Carole. 2016. “Theorizing Refusal: An Introduction.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (3): 319–25.

Schielke, Samuli. 2014. Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration, and Ambivalence Before and After 2011. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Walzer, M. 1970. Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War and Citizenship. Harvard University Press.

Weiss, Erica. 2016. “Refusal as Act, Refusal as Abstention.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (3): 351-358.

The research upon which this essay is based was generously funded by an ERC Horizon 2020 Consolidator Grant (648477 AnCon ERC-2014-CoG).

Cite as
Kelly, Tobias. 2019. “Introduction: Anthropological Perspectives on the Intimate Life of Dissent.” In Tobias Kelly, ed., “The Intimacy of Dissent,” American Ethnologist website, April 15, 2019.

Tobias Kelly is Professor of Political and Legal Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.