Anthropology of Democracy


What is it like to experience democracy after decades of dictatorship? This article discusses anthropologist Nick Long’s work on democratisation in Indonesia as an example of the kinds of insights produced by an anthropological approach to the study of democracy. It touches on the nature of anthropological research, how its focus differs from other disciplines, how anthropologists relate to the political dimensions of their work, and how democracy emerged as a distinct research interest for the discipline.

Anthropology of Democracy

In May 1998, Indonesia’s President Suharto resigned from office, bringing to an end thirty-two years of authoritarian government. The democratisation that followed was accompanied by great public enthusiasm. Before, democracy had been something Indonesians had only heard about—now was their time to experience it first-hand. Democratisation was seen not just as about legislating new civic freedoms and establishing more representative forms of government, but also as a refashioning of how individuals ought to relate to themselves and others, and how they should appropriately articulate their political desires and exercise their new freedoms.

The anthropologist Nick Long (2016) conducted research in Indonesia’s Riau Islands province investigating how Indonesians have experienced the transition to democracy in their everyday lives. One Riau Islander whose engagements with democracy Long follows is Syamsuddin, ‘a middle-aged Malay with a laundry business’. When Syamsuddin installed a cable TV in his home, he became engrossed in watching re-runs of debates held between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton prior to the 2008 US presidential elections. For Syamsuddin, watching these debates was an education in how to be a democratic citizen. Admiring Obama’s rhetorical skills, he told Long: ‘I have to learn to think and speak like that!’

Over the course of his research, however, Long noticed that a growing minority of initially enthusiastic Indonesians now expressed reservations and disappointments about democracy. Meeting with Syamsuddin a few years later, he finds the man’s views of democracy have entirely changed: ‘It’s no good. No good! Better to have a caliphate. Or a dictatorship.’ Embarrassed at Long’s recollection of their time watching Obama’s debates together, Syamsuddin tells Long: ‘Please tell me you haven’t written that I liked democracy in your book! I’m anti-democracy now.’

Certainly, many Indonesians remained positive about democracy. Others had been doubtful about its merits from the beginning. But why did an apparently growing minority change their views after initial enthusiasm? Long sought to address this puzzle by investigating how Indonesians engaged with democracy, no longer just as an abstract ideal, but as experienced in everyday life. Spending time and developing relationships with locals such as Syamsuddin was central to his research. It is through such relationships that anthropologists like Long can understand what abstract concepts such as ‘democracy’ come to mean for particular people in particular places: how they are imagined, felt, thought about, discussed and practiced.

Long found that Indonesians who turn away from democracy do so for complicated and personal reasons, even as these are shaped by the shared context of Indonesia’s ongoing democratisation. Keen to experience a political life first-hand, Syamsuddin had initially joined the local branch of the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party. While his early experiences discussing important social issues with likeminded peers in the party had been positive, he left the group over what he saw as an unacceptable compromise of orthodox Islamic teachings in the service of political expediency—the party had decided to endorse a female politician in local mayoral elections. Syamsuddin rehearsed popular critiques of democracy to articulate his disillusionment with democratic politics to Long, complaining that ignorant voters cannot be trusted to elect poor leaders, and that excessive freedoms granted by democracy make people ‘too free’.

Long, however, writes that as he came to know Syamsuddin better, ‘the more easily I could recognise how motivations and psychological dynamics related to authority and contradiction might be inflecting his encounters with and pronouncements about democracy.’ Long saw how Syamsuddin’s experiments with the democratic life ended up clashing with the values of patriarchal authority that he had grown up with under Suharto’s regime, especially as he become the head of his household and expected to wield his own share of this authority. Before starting his own business, Syamsuddin had left previous jobs over conflict with managers, and was now locked in an exasperating confrontation with his own father, who was insisting on marrying a new wife some forty years his junior in what Syamsuddin saw as a very disadvantageous arrangement. Long suggests that Syamsuddin’s difficulties with democracy lay partly with how democratic forms of social life created even more such situations in which Syamsuddin had to confront vexing contradictions between his desires and those of others. Syamsuddin’s use of popular tropes to critique democracy may therefore have had less to do with their intellectual content, and more with their ‘emotional tonality’—how they provided him with idioms to express frustration with democracy in a way that would be seen as legitimate to those around him.

The insight that commonly articulated critiques may not in fact directly express the underlying reasons why people turn against democracy was only made possible by Long’s long-term involvement in the lives of his research collaborators, by which he was able to observe how their various experiences in life came to bear upon their experiences with democracy. Syamsuddin, of course, is only one of many people with whom Long conducted his research, even as his story is useful for illustrating an argument that in fact draws on many such relationships cultivated over years of in-depth research.

Long’s findings have important implications. For example, they invite us to be careful in interpreting the meaning of survey results that consistently show ‘corruption’ and ‘the economy’ as the main reasons Indonesians express for dissatisfaction with democratic government. International support for economic development or ‘good governance’ might then not really address dissatisfactions with democracy, when the underlying reasons have more to do with tensions emerging from the encounter between new ‘democratic’ ways of life and those established during Suharto’s regime.

Long’s research serves as one illustration of what anthropological research can look like and the kinds of insights it can produce. It shows that to fully understand a phenomenon such as democracy, we must look to how people relate to themselves and others in contexts of everyday life. This emphasis distinguishes anthropology from disciplines such as political science, which usually focuses on more overtly political contexts such as formal institutions of government and representation. Typically, anthropological analysis also aims for a critical and analytical, rather than normative, perspective. That is, it rarely produces explicit recommendations for the most ‘effective’ policies, or accounts of what the ideal democracy should be like (as a political philosopher might). The point of Long’s research is not to agree or disagree with Syamsuddin’s thoughts on democracy, but to understand his experiences as part of developing an analysis about why an enthusiasm for democracy turns to disillusionment for some Indonesians.

This, of course, is not to say that the critical analyses produced by anthropologists are unconnected to their own ethical and political commitments. Anthropologists are often sympathetic to the concerns of those they study, and sometimes intervene in public debates in ways that challenge established narratives and provide greater understanding of the experiences and perspectives of marginalised groups. The anthropologist Claudio Sopranzetti (2017), for instance, who conducted research with Thailand’s motorcycle taxi drivers and the Red Shirts political movement in which many drivers participated, has written op-eds and news stories drawing on the expertise he gained through his research. Anthropologists also research people whose political beliefs are likely far from their own. Scholars such as Don Kalb (2009) and Nitzan Shoshan (2016) have researched right wing populists and neonationalists, producing analyses that go beyond stereotypical portrayals and are sensitive to the experiences by which individuals come to hold such politics. How anthropologists should relate to those whom they study, and to the political dimensions of these relationships and of anthropological research more broadly, are topics of enduring debate and reflection within the discipline. 

Although anthropologists have long asked questions about power and politics, the ‘anthropology of democracy’ began to emerge as a distinct focus in the post-World War II period when many of the colonies in which anthropologists anthropologists conducted research gained independence. A second wave of anthropological interest in democracy came in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War and accompanying expectations about the inevitable spread of liberal democracy (Paley, 2002).

Growing interest in researching democracy has coincided with an ongoing erosion of older understandings and popular stereotypes about anthropology as a discipline concerned primarily with people and places that are ‘far away’, ‘exotic’ and ‘traditional’ from a Western perspective. These days many Western anthropologists conduct research far closer to home, on topics such as democracy that are closely associated with modernity and the West. Indeed, a now well-worn expression of the discipline’s approach is that it seeks to ‘make the strange familiar and the familiar strange’. In other words, good anthropology can allow us to understand ways of life that are profoundly different to our own, but also to see how practices that seem entirely normal and natural to ourselves are just as strange and arbitrary as any other; ‘normal’ only in the particular time and place where we live our lives.

The suggestions for further reading that accompany this text provide examples of anthropological analyses of democracy in contexts that may be more familiar than Indonesia. Insa Koch’s blog post discusses her recent research on English council estates, where many apparently disengaged voters nonetheless turned out for the Brexit vote as an opportunity to express their frustrations with government as a whole. The series of blog posts edited by Lucas Bessire and David Bond on ‘The Rise of Trumpism’ was an attempt by anthropologists to provide timely, and perhaps more politically engaged and provocative, responses to Trump’s election. Finally, Nick Long’s article on ‘Debating Democracy’—written for the magazine Inside Indonesia during his time as a PhD Student —provides another perspective on the everyday challenges of democratisation in Indonesia, as well as an example of how the work conducted by anthropologists can also lend itself to lively journalism.


Don. 2009. ‘Conversations with a Polish Populist: Tracing Hidden Histories of
Globalization, Class, and Dispossession in Postsocialism (and Beyond)’. American
36 (2): 207–23.

Nicholas J. 2016. ‘Why Indonesians Turn against Democracy’. In The State
We’re In: Reflecting on Democracy’s Troubles
, edited by Joanna Cook,
Nicholas J. Long, and Henrietta L. Moore. New York: Berghahn Books.

Julia. 2002. ‘Toward an Anthropology of Democracy’. Annual Review of
31 (1): 469–96.

Nitzan. 2016. The Management of Hate. Princeton: Princeton University

Claudio. 2017. Owners of the Map. Oakland: University of California

Activity questions

  • Consider the contexts in which democracy manifests itself in your everyday life, and in which it does not. For example, how might your family, school or friendship group be ‘democratic’? Where might you need to go, and what might you need to do, to ‘participate in democracy’? What does this tell us about the specific, local ways in which democracy is understood in the culture in which you live?
  • Nick Long’s argues that common complaints about corruption and the economy can in fact serve as idioms for expressing underlying frustrations with democratisation that are more difficult to express on their own terms. Insa Koch suggests that many council house residents voted to leave the EU to express anger at their own government, perhaps more so than at the EU. What other criticism about politics or society have you encountered that might in fact be a way of expressing dissatisfaction with something else? How would you investigate this?

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