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259 REPRINTS AVAILABLE DIRECTLY FROM THE PUBLISHERS. PHOTOCOPYING PERMITTED BY LICENSE ONLY© BERG 2007 PRINTED IN THE UK CULTURAL POLITICS VOLUME 3, ISSUE 2 PP 259–264 BOOK REVIEW COMPARING THE CULTURAL MEANINGS OF POWER HARALD WYDRA Culture Troubles: Politics and the Interpretation of Meaning, by Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, London: Hurst & Company, 2006, 395pp, £14.95, PB ISBN 1-85065-800-5 Proposing no less than an epistemological shift in comparative politics, this ambitious book argues “that a genuinely ‘scientific’ comparative study is only possible if every effort has been made to identify the relevant local evidence.” (p. 201). This work is a timely and important contribution to a sub-discipline under pressure to strike a balance between disciplinary requirements to standardize its methodological apparatus in view of its claim to be a “social science” and the inherently conflictual and contentious nature of its object of study. Patrick Chabal, Professor of Lusophone African Studies at King’s College London, and Jean-Pascal Daloz, Senior Researcher at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Bordeaux, have already HARALD WYDRA TEACHES POLITICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE, WHERE HE IS A FELLOW OF ST CATHARINE’S COLLEGE. HIS RESEARCH INTERESTS INCLUDE EASTERN EUROPEAN AND RUSSIAN POLITICS, COMPARATIVE DEMOCRATISATION, POLITICAL SOCIOLOGY, AND INTERPRETIVE METHODS IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES. HE IS THE AUTHOR OF CONTINUITIES IN POLAND’S PERMANENT TRANSITION (PALGRAVE, 2001), COMMUNISM AND THE EMERGENCE OF DEMOCRACY (CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2007), AND THE EDITOR (TOGETHER WITH ALEXANDER WÖLL) OF DEMOCRACY AND MYTH IN RUSSIA AND EASTERN EUROPE (ROUTLEDGE, 2007). > CULTURAL POLITICS DOI 10.2752/174321907X194075 CULTURAL POLITICS 260 BOOK REVIEW produced a well-received piece of collaborative work, Africa Works: Disorder as a Political Instrument. Drawing on a well-established record as specialists on Africa and the comparative study of elites, they ask two central questions: Can comparative politics justify evaluating the functioning of polities around the globe on the grounds of ontological certainty and value-based developmental goals? Is it warranted to aim at generalizable knowledge about the political world by means of conceptual tools,which were largely gained from the study of Westerntype forms of political organization and disseminated by scholars within the Western academic establishment? In the authors’ view, reducing the complexity of reality to variables, models, mechanisms, and variation in outcomes leaves non-Western societies in particular with no choice but to adopt such values. The alternative would be to fall behind Western expectations of political development. Against this “fallacy of a universalist framework” Chabal and Daloz put culture at the center of politics. Following Clifford Geertz, the political anthropology of Culture Troubles conceives of human beings as embedded in historically grown environments and suspended in existing and changing webs of significance. From this perspective, it would be short-sighted to test political choices, structures, and behavior with regard to the universal applicability of values. As political activity consists of an on-going and open-ended contest for power, the authors explain that comparison should not be about trying to draw functional equivalents between societies. Rather, it should consist in the painstaking work of “thick description,” engaging in the reconstruction of actions and structures by translating the meanings and symbols in local and historically contingent contexts into a common language. While culture cannot be relegated to a variable in a political system one should also resist defining it exhaustively. In their critique of grand theory, the authors also include more genuinely “cultural” approaches to politics such as structuralist Cultural Theory, which they consider reductionist for distinguishing four cultural patterns: egalitarian, hierarchical, individualistic, and fatalistic (p. 72). The authors frame their methodological program of thick description as what could be called applied political anthropology. Comparative work requires translation, evaluation, and understanding based on a double technique of interpreting meaning within context: thinking inductively and semiotically requires onerous in-depth study of phenomena, which are complex and, by definition, singular occurrences. “Comparative insight then stems from the ability to make sense of the singularities of each system, rather than from the capacity either to slot them into pre-determined boxes or to place them on a continuum.” (p. 63). In other words, cultural diversity cannot be reduced to...


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