Daniel Nichanian: Current Research

The view that all citizens should influence governmental decisions lies at the heart of the democratic project, but its appropriateness is often questioned. Some people’s attempts to contribute to public affairs—to shape decisions by advocating programmatic views—can appear out of bounds based on their education, identity, or credentials. My research asks why and how people persist in contributing to governmental processes when they are not recognized as having the requisite qualifications to do so.

My dissertation, Seizing a Seat at the Table: Participatory Politics in the Face of Disqualification, corrects contemporary democratic theory’s lack of a vocabulary to analyze contestatory movements as a form of participation in the business of government. I show that available theoretical frameworks enable scholars to treat instances of contestation as expressions of anger or discontent, as demands for recognition and redress, or as signs of an antigovernmental orientation, but not as attempts to contribute politicized judgments on what governmental bodies should do. These frames misrecognize what some sociopolitical movements are doing because they interpret claims voiced by disqualified actors as at most agitating for a right to participate, rather than as already working to shape the content of governmental decisions and policies.

By contrast, I outline the distinctive rationality of practices of contestatory participation; these are practices by which disqualified actors work to intervene in tasks believed to be beyond their involvement. By examining how a range of activists navigated in practice the doubts they encountered as to their competence and as to whether others would take up their claims, I reconstruct the misunderstood logic of sociopolitical movements whose members seize a seat at the proverbial table.

Three of my chapters lay out reasons why contemporary political theory’s dominant paradigms neglect the contributory work some contestatory movements undertake. I do this through close readings of Hannah Arendt, Seyla Benhabib, Michel Foucault, Chantal Mouffe, and Philip Pettit. First, I diagnose what I call the framework of mutuality; this is the widespread premise within democratic theory that it is only viable to act upon one’s participatory aspirations insofar as one is embedded in relations of mutuality with cooperative interlocutors and responsive institutions. Second, I argue that we should refrain from resolving at an ontological level the two predicaments disqualified actors face, namely doubts about their competence to participate and a lack of uptake for their claims. I contend that we should pay more attention to how particular movements negotiate the uncertainty as to what they can do and why they would bother doing it.

Three other chapters construct a new historical and conceptual framework that makes sense of a neglected form of activism, one by which people challenge social expectations as to their lack of qualification in the course of adding contributions to the very governmental processes from which they are disqualified. I work out this framework by offering new readings of Frederick Douglass and Jacques Rancière’s political thought and by studying two instances of contestation whose stakes have been misconstrued: American suffragists’ constitutional claims in the 1870s, and ACT UP activists’ technical recommendations on AIDS research in the 1980s. I show that pursuing uninvited interventions into the business of government can be an occasion to put the propriety of one’s participation to a public and contentious test and to experiment with the adequacy of alternative divisions of labor. My argument complements radical democrats’ attention to protests with an appreciation for the persistence of governmental aspirations, and institutionally-minded theorists’ attention to governance with more awareness of people acting from disqualified positions.