Daniel Nichanian: Current Research

My research takes up a long-standing debate in democratic theory and practice, namely the kinds of competence that can be expected of citizens who would participate in public life. Historically, criteria of competence have included things such as one’s education, identity, language skills, free time, and of course one’s gender or race.  My work shifts away from theoretical approaches that center on what these criteria are or what they should be. Instead I analyze the political practices with which people, though disqualified on the basis of some set of such criteria, actually manage to participate in public life and in so doing to challenge prevailing conceptions of proper citizenship. To do this, I combine conceptual and interpretive work with studies of specific historical contexts, especially ones pertaining to race, gender, and educational disparity in the United States.

I am currently revising a book manuscript born of my dissertation; it is entitled Seizing a Seat at the Table: Participatory Politics in the Face of Disqualification. The book is about the governmental aspirations of sociopolitical movements. It considers how people act on such aspirations when they are not recognized as having the requisite qualifications. I show that available theoretical frameworks enable scholars to treat contestation as an expression of anger and discontent, a demand for recognition and redress, or an instance of nongovernmental action, but not as an attempt to contribute judgments as to what policies governmental bodies should pursue. These frames misrecognize what some 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 argue that sociopolitical movements can function as a form of participation in the business of government. I reconstruct the distinctive value of a misunderstood form of activism by which people persist in contributing to domains that are marked by technical expertise, such as constitutional interpretation and scientific decision-making.

Three of my chapters lay out reasons why the dominant paradigms within democratic theory neglect the participatory work that contestatory movements undertake. I draw out these reasons through close readings of Hannah Arendt, Seyla Benhabib, Michel Foucault, Chantal Mouffe, and Philip Pettit. For instance, I show that many democratic theorists take for granted that engaging in participatory action is ineffective as long as one has not already obtained recognition of one’s capacity and standing. My approach, however, demonstrates that intervening in exclusionary governmental tasks can transform prevailing standards of competence and authority. I argue that disqualified groups that seize a seat at the table put alternative divisions of political labor to a contentious public test. I make this case in three chapters that offer new readings of Frederick Douglass and Jacques Rancière’s political thought and that study two instances of activism whose stakes have been misconstrued: American suffragists’ constitutional claims in the 1870s, and ACT UP activists’ technical recommendations on AIDS treatment in the 1980s.

I am also conducting new research on antislavery political thought in the United States, as well as on American constitutional theory. The former sheds critical light on the mechanisms by which racism is sustained in the United States, as well as on the way in which contemporary political thought defines the concepts of agency and competence. The latter examines how the jurisprudential debates between different modes of constitutional interpretation can play out in the course of political movements of rights-claiming.