Theme 3. Power and belonging

Theme 3 of the Urmis is part of the evolution of the laboratory and the extension of its scientific perimeter (new Cs and ECs, reinforcement of pluridisciplinarity). These new collaborations create a synergy that invites us to reinforce and give greater visibility to the question of power in our work on migration and situations of co-presence. The appearance of this third theme in the project announces the strengthening of this perspective in the coming years. The attention to the political dimension applied to our objects leads us to develop an original approach to politics and power relations, complementary to the approach of political science, giving a new impulse to political anthropology and sociology. The study of the political dimension of social and spatial affiliations thus runs through all of the unit’s work, and is grasped in a central and structuring way, which justifies devoting a theme to it in the laboratory project.
Whether it be rituals, more or less formal forms of mobilisation or resistance, violence, the sidelining of the other or the coexistence of different types of regimes of belonging, they all participate in the structuring of the social, while forming – or being part of – power relationships. The political dimension is understood to include not only the study of states, political parties, and public policies, but also the modes of social organisation at various levels, the more or less formalised collective imaginary, and the related social practices. The research carried out at Urmis thus undertakes a political reading of social phenomena, by reflecting on the historical shaping of the forces of social and spatial belonging, as well as on the power relations that run through them. They analyse both the instances of social change (educational, associative, cultural, state and institutional, demographic, territorial, etc.) and their intelligibility, as well as the tensions and conflicts that are linked to them. Their originality lies not only in the way in which states, through their daily actions, deal with civil society movements or sometimes marginalised groups and interact with them in a two-way sense, but also in the way in which civil or political society actors (Chatterjee, 2004) structure societies and spaces by producing new forms of co-presence, both in the countries of the North and the South. Thus, theme 3 places power relations at the heart of the societies and social phenomena studied in the laboratory and emphasises the political constructions and social links that result from them at all scales.

Power in all its forms

The diversity of the objects studied at the URMIS, of the disciplinary tools, of the fields practiced, and of the surveys carried out, allows us to analyse power relationships in their diversity from complementary and sometimes comparative perspectives. At the heart of power issues are the State and its institutions, which are subject to historical trajectories and current circumstances. Royalty, democracy, authoritarian regimes, developmentalist states, rogue states, strong or non-existent, the political configurations are multiple. In each of these configurations, the role of the state in prescribing (in)equalities, hierarchies, norms and belonging seems to be prevalent, albeit implemented with different means. From ‘ordinary’ discrimination to mass extermination, from violence to the peaceful and routine fabrication of identities, the state structures belonging, memories and staged mobilities. The role of the state in the historical formation of nations in the 19th and 20th centuries has been studied extensively, but there is less research on the way in which nations are constructed and reproduced by and outside the state today. In addition to the power of states over their national communities, there is also the power they exercise over their transnational communities. Expatriates, emigrants, refugees, and diasporas often maintain complex relations, nourished by mistrust and interest with their states, those they flee, cross, or claim. New state administrations sometimes try to channel these transnational communities, creating appropriate ministries or secretariats, new ethnic or legal statuses, as well as commercial or financial channels. These new administrations can also be interstate (regional, continental, international), and contribute through their policies to institutionalising a diaspora or diasporas, in fact to giving it shape. This is the case, for example, of the African Union, which has been in dialogue for fifteen years with dozens of organisations, congregations and civil society interest groups in the Americas and Europe as part of its “Diaspora Initiative”.

However, a reflection on politics can also be built outside an approach focused on the role of the state. The state can be confronted, overtaken, avoided or circumvented, just like the dominant norms or legal frameworks. Thus, forms of political structuring can take place without state control or referent. This is where the question of political uses outside or alongside official and conventional practices of power comes in. They are carried by a set of actors who, lacking institutional legitimacy, are not recognised by the instituted prescribers (Le Gall, Offerlé, Ploux, 2012). Political informality, marginality, clandestinity, illegality and administrative non-existence are all forms of organisation on the fringes or outside the state. Politics from below, on a day-to-day basis, as it is inscribed in everyday practices (Certeau, 1990) is a privileged entry point into the social and spatial depth of the phenomena studied. Starting from the ‘bottom’ (Revel, 1989) gives full scope to approaches based on the analysis of territories, neighbourhoods, collective imaginations, the distribution and exploitation of land, heritage, and the power relationships they reveal. This also leads to a renewed attention to biography, life stories, trajectories and genealogy.


Belongings, affiliations and allegiances are based on power relationships that are either publicly and explicitly staged or remain intimate or implicit. They give a social existence to interest groups, whether they are considered normal or subversive. For this reason, they participate in the political dimension of our societies. Beyond that, it is the political construction of these memberships that is questioned, and its deployment on several scales. The “classic” affiliations of class, race and gender and their articulation, specific to the intersectionality that characterises the work carried out at the URMIS, are reconsidered by giving their full place to the agentivity and empowerment of actors. What are the political forms of belonging? How do we move from an ‘other’ class, race or gender identity (alteration, racisation, assignment, ethnicisation, etc.) to the reclamation of this identity? What uses of the past are put at the service of belonging? How does the coherence of a social group, a social mobilisation or a social project become explicit? Similarly, how are the contradictions of these actors and causes articulated?

The political construction of belonging can be studied from several privileged sites of observation. Firstly, religions, religious movements, congregations and ritual practices are constructed along a continuum that is not without its breaks, where very local issues and globalising or universalising ambitions are at play. Groups, associations, organisations, institutions (such as schools), parties and ethnicist, territorialist, nationalist or diasporic practices also produce, instrumentalise or reconfigure collective belonging and the associated imaginaries. Also, popular music and culture, enriched by their circulation and the plasticity of the identities they convey, are creators of alternative, transnational and sometimes globalising affiliations, which in turn generate new cultural and identity references. Finally, collective mobilisations paradigmatically stage power relations and the belonging that is linked to them.

This approach to the political construction of belonging raises the question of citizenship in a new way. Indeed, citizenship no longer seems to be solely the prerogative of states, limited as they sometimes seem to be to prescribing citizenship norms. The other dimensions of citizenship – memorial, cultural, transnational, or produced from ordinary practices – thus seem to form one of the major issues of the articulation between belonging and power relations. They may contribute to redefine our view of societies and social phenomena which are at the heart of the work of the C, EC and PhD students of the Urmis.

Bibliographical references (in French)

Balibar Etienne, ” La construction du racisme “. Actuel Marx, No. 38, 2005.
Certeau M. de, L’invention du quotidien, Paris, Gallimard, 1990
Chatterjee, P., 2004. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in most of the World, New York, Columbia University Press.
Crenshaw K., “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6, 1991, pp. 1241-1299
Doron Claude-Olivier. L’homme altéré : races et dégénérescence (XVII-XIX siècles). Paris, Champ Vallon, 2016.
Goldberg David Theo, ” Racial Europeanization “, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 29, 2006.
Le Gall L., Offerlé M., Ploux F., (dir.), 2012, La Politique sans en avoir l’air, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes.
Revel, J., ” L’histoire au ras du sol “, préface de l’édition française du Pouvoir au village de Giovanni Levi, Paris, Gallimard, 1989.
Schaub Jean-Frédéric, Pour une histoire politique de la race. Paris, Editions du Seuil, 2015.