June 12, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 18

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    Lisa Wedeen, Professor in Political Science and the College, Chair of Political Science

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Lisa Wedeen

    For Lisa Wedeen, teaching graduate students means exposing them to how theoretically motivated empirical research “can chafe against our conventional expectations.”

    Wedeen, Professor in Political Science and the College and Chair of Political Science, knows as a scholar of comparative politics that lived experience sometimes upends theoretical assumptions while abstract thinking also helps one “make sense of and have a critical relationship to perennial political issues.”

    Wedeen stresses an ethnographic sensibility that implies “the possibilities and pleasure of serendipitous encounters, the commitment to long-term engagement with places and inhabitants, and an abiding attention to what people say and do—as well as an appreciation that what people say is a form of doing in its own right.”

    Wedeen said her courses “straddle the subdisciplinary boundaries of political theory and comparative politics.” In addition to teaching in her regional specialty, the Middle East, she has taught courses on nations and nationalism, identity formation in comparative perspective, power and resistance and citizenship and membership classes.

    In her popular “Interpretive Methods in the Social Sciences,” students learn to read texts and images by studying contemporary thinking about interpretation, narrative, ethnography and social construction. Students explore semiotics, hermeneutics, ordinary language philosophy and discourse analysis and read Roland Barthes, Clifford Geertz, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin and Michel Foucault, among others. Like her quantitatively minded colleagues, Wedeen takes a “hands-on approach,” providing students with exercises so they learn to use these methods in practice.

    Wedeen draws on her field experiences in her forthcoming book, Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen. Based on 18 months of fieldwork, Peripheral Visions analyzes the creation of national attachments in the absence of strong state institutions. She shows how “national solidarities happen episodically, are conveyed anonymously, and solidify suddenly, only to collapse once again in disinterest or discord. With the state incapable of controlling violence or distributing adequate goods and services, extraordinary political events and the practices of everyday life define the arena in which a putative ‘nation’ of citizens can take place.”

    In her fieldwork, she found that much of public life in Yemen revolves around qat, a leafy stimulant chewed daily in the context of afternoon socializing. “Qat chews” occasion “a broad range of discursive interaction among friends and acquaintances as well as strangers, including intensive discussion of manifestly political matters,” Wedeen said. By analyzing these gatherings, Wedeen demonstrates how social science scholarship can “benefit theoretically and empirically from attending to democratic phenomena that exist outside of electoral and other formal organizational confines.”

    Wedeen’s role model in teaching is Hanna Pitkin, Professor Emerita of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, where Wedeen completed her Ph.D.

    “What I learned most from her was how crucial it is to write clearly and think critically. When students’ sentences are convoluted, they’re probably not thinking clearly. And if those students are attempting to unsettle conventional assumptions or voice unpopular views, then they have to anticipate objections in a language that makes sense to scholars who might otherwise dismiss them.”

    “That’s one of the things Hanna Pitkin did for me. I think she read 18 drafts of the first chapter of my dissertation. And Hanna’s own writing provided me with an example I could try to emulate.”