Alessandra Radicati is an MPhil/PhD student in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics. In the latest in our Academic Inspiration series, Alessandra talks us through some of the most inspirational books in her life, taking in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Ferguson’s Global Shadows.
Looking at a list of the books that inspire me is like looking at a map of my journey through various academic disciplines. I have at various times thought of myself as a student of literature, political science, history, anthropology, and development. It has made for a confusing and, at times, difficult path, but despite my disciplinary wavering, the books that have shaped my consciousness share an overarching concern with issues of inequality, social justice and identity.
I came to the social sciences by reading novels. I grew up in a suburban, middle-class immigrant family in California. My parents had come to the United States from Italy a few years before I was born, and as a child I was often consumed by the sense that I was different from my “normal” American peers. Luckily, I was encouraged to read and to read voraciously, so I soon came to realize that this feeling of otherness seems to be shared by approximately 99% of those who have ever written a poem or novel. What became interesting then – and what still fascinates me now – is how this feeling of “otherness” experienced by individuals can also be a powerful collective force, both creative and destructive.
Two works of fiction to which I owe my interest in inequality are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I was lucky enough to have a high school English teacher who believed in her students enough to assign these texts and who urged us to consider the difficult questions they raised, not shying away from their troubling portrayals of American society. This motivated me to begin reading rather eclectically about history and politics, as I sought out books and classes on whatever looked interesting, without much regard for consistency. It wasn’t until graduate school that I came to understand the power (and potential dangers) of theoretical frameworks.
My advisor recently joked with me that no one ever gets past the post-structuralism vs. Marxism debate. I’m afraid he’s right. Since my days as a master’s student in Montreal, I have been drawn to critical theory but there is always a sense that one has to choose between Marxist approaches and the contributions of feminist, postcolonial, and post-structuralist thinkers. This strikes me as particularly unfortunate especially given that many of the theorists I admire most from all of these categories have been actively involved in bringing about social change in addition to simply writing about it. Michel Foucault, often unfairly blamed for what some see as our postmodern malaise, was far from apathetic in his personal life.
In my very first term as an undergraduate, I read the sections of Discipline and Punish in which Foucault describes the panopticon and the rise of surveillance. As an 18 year-old encountering post-structuralism for the first time, I was captivated by the elegance of Foucault’s argument, even as I had a hunch that I did not fully understand it. (Perhaps I never will – Foucault is an author whose work still troubles and inspires me today). At the same time, his description of a form of power based not on physical force but on a much subtler form of control spoke to me. Having been raised in a prosperous part of the world in which I was largely safe from the threat of violence, I nonetheless recognized that there were mechanisms of social control at play which encouraged people to act in certain ways (this has only become more relevant with the rise of social media and emphasis on personal branding). But as I’ve spent time in other contexts, I have come to believe that Foucault’s theories of power, discourse and biopolitics are relevant to many situations, even those where the threat of physical violence persists alongside other forms of control.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I only came to the work of Karl Marx quite recently. I read The Communist Manifesto during my undergraduate years and excerpts of other works here and there, but it wasn’t until my year studying anthropology at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center that I engaged with Marx’s theories in a sustained way. Reading Capital, Volume I was a life-changing experience that altered the way I viewed not only the economy but the world itself. Having the chance to discuss Marx’s work with my classmates – many of whom were seasoned activists in addition to being great scholars – afforded me the opportunity to think about Marx’s theories in relation to a host of other issues like nature, the environment, gender, colonialism and the family. Reading Marx was also an interesting way to go back and think about more recent thinkers like Foucault, finding new ways to engage and critique their work.
One book that provides a welcome bridge between the work of Foucault and Marx is Pierre Bourdieu’s The Bachelor’s Ball. In this compelling study of rural France – a collection of different articles written over the span of many years – Bourdieu explores why so many men (including his old friends and school acquaintances) never marry. From this seemingly modest premise, Bourdieu brilliantly articulates his notions of strategy and habitus, and engages issues of gender, class, and power. I have a deep appreciation for this book both for its personal tone and for the sophisticated theoretical points that it makes. Bourdieu’s work shows that one can take class oppression seriously while still ascribing agency and flexibility to individuals.
Another book that provides something of a bridge between different approaches in the social sciences is anthropologist James Ferguson’s Global Shadows, a collection of essays about neoliberalism and Africa. Though Ferguson is probably best known for his earlier monograph, The Anti-Politics Machine, it is Global Shadows that first inspired me to study development through an anthropological lens. In this volume, Ferguson considers an important tension in development work – how do “we” avoid imposing our values on people in the Global South, while also acknowledging that poor communities live daily with real inequality? If a book’s value is measured in how many times it has been moved into a new apartment, then Ferguson’s volume is a treasure. It continues to inform how I think about development work today.
Finally, as someone whose research focuses on Sri Lanka, I have drawn inspiration from South Asia scholars from various disciplines. Narendra Subramanian’s study of Dravidian parties, Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization: Political Parties, Citizens and Democracy in South India, was an example to me of the enormous potential for political science to use historically and ethnographically informed methods. Sharika Thiranagama’s book In My Mother’s House explores little-studied aspects of life in the north during the civil war, as well as drawing attention to the multicultural and multiethnic identity of the city of Colombo. Valentine Daniel’s Charred Lullabies, one of the most significant ethnographies of Sri Lanka, is a troubling and moving book that lays bare the moral quandaries involved in writing about violence.
Alessandra Radicati is an MPhil/PhD student in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics.