Knowing the people: popular sovereignty and governmentality in authoritarian populist contexts

Organizers: Luciana Chamorro (University of Arizona) and Brian Silverstein (University of Arizona)

Discussant: Nusrat Chowdhury (Amherst College)

Populism as a political strategy often involves the promise of delivering “justice” for the people – a promise that involves cutting through bureaucratic procedures and institutional barriers to give the people what they want. However, who is the people, and by what means do populists know what the people want?

In his 2019 Ruth Benedict lectures, Partha Chatterjee discusses one of the core paradoxes of democracy: the tension that exists between the principles of popular sovereignty and the problematics of governing that ensue from the nation-state and liberalism’s mandate to care for the populations under its domain (Chatterjee 2019). For Chatterjee, modern liberal democracies produce split subjects, individuals who are at once subjects of rights and subjects of interest. While as subjects of right individuals are aggregated into the abstract form of “the people” (the sovereign foundation of the state), as subjects of interest individuals are aggregated into population groups in the name of both security and welfare. Governmentality, as Foucault famously argued, is exercised at the level of the population (Foucault 2007). While liberal democratic theory presumes the citizen-subject’s will is unique to them, authoritarian populist leaders often claim to know the will of the people, because, to put it simply, they are the people (Sanchez 2020). On the other hand, the premise of governmentality is that populations and their interests can be known by governments through observation, surveying, and other surveillance and algorithmic techniques that deploy statistics to make calculations of probability and risk (Asad 2018).

This panel seeks to examine the relationship between the people and the population in authoritarian populist projects from an ethnographic perspective, with a special interest in the role that liberal and neoliberal regimes of knowledge and power play in populist authoritarian governance, and how these technologies themselves might be transformed as those in power adopt a populist-authoritarian strategy.

We seek papers that offer ethnographic insights into the relationship between populist claims of embodying the sovereign will of “the people,” and the techniques and technologies of “knowing” the population deployed by governments. Specifically, we invite papers that consider:

  • The convergences and divergences that exist between the ideological and governmental aspects of authoritarian populism
  • The political field that opens up in the space between the will of the people and the interests of the population.
  • Approaches to the study of the bureaucracies and technocracies of authoritarian populist regimes
  • The role of policing, surveillance, espionage, and other techniques for knowing populations in the formation of the “enemies” of the people.
  • The representational effects of the crowd in authoritarian populist contexts.

If you are interested in submitting a paper for this session, please email Luciana Chamorro ( and Brian Silverstein ( with an abstract of no more than 250 words by May 20th 2021.


Asad, Talal. 2018. Secular Translations: Nation State, Modern Self, and Calculative Reason. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chatterjee, Partha. 2020. I Am the People : Reflections on Popular Sovereignty Today. New York: Columbia University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sánchez, Rafael. 2020 “Humpty Dumpty Populism: Theopolitics and the Retreat of the Politico-Theological in Venezuela (and Elsewhere).” Social Analysis 64(4): 140–160.