About the PhD

In a certain sense, we are a department of anti-capitalist studies. However, we do not wish to refer to some dreamed-up utopia, nor to a speculative exploration of futuristic scenarios. While we agree with Lewis Mumford on the "importance of building castles in the sky," we see as an even more urgent necessity to study politics of alternatives in the here and now: the need to engage with concrete utopias that are already being built, and to understand other worlds that are already possible.

Together with the activists from many different parts of the world we believe that "another world is possible." The role of the new social movements, we are reminded, is not to conquer the world, but to make it anew. What, then, is the role and responsibility of anthropology and other social sciences? In a world riddled with so many crises, few things appear to be more relevant than systematic research of counter-hegemonic knowledge and practices. Social scientists should leave pessimism for better times. Anthropology, in particular, is well equipped to participate in the "nowtopian" task of constructing social scientific knowledge that looks beyond capitalism, hierarchy, and ecological disaster.

The practice and technique of activist research provides an important model of a prefigurative social science. As one contemporary anthropologist, a friend of our program, recently noted, when one "carries out an ethnography, one observes what people do, and then tries to tease out the hidden symbolic, moral, or pragmatic logics that underlie their actions; one tries to get at the way people's habits and actions make sense in ways that they are not themselves completely aware of."

We ask our students to do precisely this: to look at those who are creating viable alternatives, to try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they are already doing, and then to offer those ideas back, not as prescriptions, but as contributions, possibilities-as gifts.

This program offers the space and the possibility to engage with many traditions of radical scholarship and emancipatory social science. We believe that anthropologists should analyse, discuss, and explore the possible; that they should research alternative institutions; that they need to collectively reflect and debate the dilemmas of activist research. The collective effort of understanding "concrete utopias" takes the form of analytic and ethnographic study of real historical alternatives in the present. This, in turn, requires a serious engagement with social movements involved in the production of alternatives. Students are expected to have an excellent command of history, debates, and perspectives of contemporary social movements. These movements exist in the historical, social, and epistemological context of colonization, development, and globalization. As contributors to one recent book remind us, more than one in six humans now live in slums, over one billion in a world of jobless growth, or no growth. Solutions offered by mainstream social science are often the source of the problem, and our students are expected to have a good understanding of intertwined historical processes of colonization, development, and liberal modernity.

The doctoral program is distinctive for its focus on concrete utopias. What are some of them? Worker cooperatives in Oakland, social centers in Italy, autonomous systems of justice in Guerrero, community gardens in Detroit, occupied self-managed factories in Argentina, "good government" of the Zapatistas, buen vivir (good life) and plurinationalism in Bolivia, participatory democracy in Kerala, solidarity economics of Mondragon, participatory economics in Winnipeg, pedagogy of the block in African-American communities, alternative environmentalism in Afro-Colombian river regions, legal pluralism, autonomy of migration, marginalized medical practices in South Asia, solidarity unionism in New York City, communal agriculture in Malawi, shack dweller democracy in South Africa, Copwatch in LA,  biodiversity in Brazil, restorative justice in Ohio, knowledge commons and globalization, independent media, and autonomous food systems in Japan, are only some of the examples of prefigurative cultures. There are so many more, and one of the responsibilities of our students is to discover them.

The program is distinctive in its emphasis on:

  • Activist research of concrete utopias
  • Global social movements and lost revolutionary treasures
  • Issues of colonialism, globalization, development
  • Anarchist, Marxist, and feminist theoretical perspectives
  • Political ecology
  • Integration of activism and scholarship: developing research skills in activist research, intercultural translation, and emancipatory thinking

Many classes include a research component, and the doctoral dissertation is based on activist research. Activist research frameworks include participatory and collaborative research approaches as well as more recent research techniques and strategies associated with militant research, oral history, and co-research approaches.

Course of Study

36 required units of coursework

Alternative Political Systems

Activist Ethnography I

Activist Ethnography II

Alternative Economic Systems

Other Ways of Being Human: Alternative Sexualities, Family, and Kinship Systems

Other Ways of Knowing: Alternative Epistemologies, Rival Knowledges, and Justice Systems

Autonomous Seminar (1 unit, taken three times during the course of study)

Social Research Methods

Directed Seminar in Research

9 units of advisor-approved general electives

Two Comprehensive Exams

Dissertation Proposal

Dissertation Seminar

Admissions Requirements

PhD Admissions Requirements

Entry into the PhD program in Anthropology and Social Change requires a master's degree. Students with an MA from another school or from another department at CIIS may require up to one additional year of coursework as part of their PhD program. Students with an MA in Anthropology and Social Change from CIIS do not require additional coursework.

The Anthropology and Social Change PhD concentration is a residential program. We are interested in creating a convivial community of scholars, not competitive academics; we believe in educating intellectuals and not professionals. We believe that professors and students are co-learners, and that learning, and knowledge production, is a participatory, inclusive, and horizontal process. Our program is probably not the best fit for those who want to be taught in the vertical space of a traditional classroom. Rather, this is a unique and inspiring place for activist scholars who are passionate about co-creating knowledge that is useful, relevant, and integral.

Applicants must meet the general admissions requirements of the Institute. In addition, two letters of recommendation, one from an academic advisor or someone familiar with the applicant's ability to do academic work, and one from a supervisor in a recent professional or volunteer setting, are required. Applicants are also asked to include a recent sample of scholarly writing. The required autobiographical statement should describe significant events in the applicant's life that have led to the decision to pursue admission to this department. A goal statement that includes areas of academic interest should be included.

Admission to the PhD Program without an MA in Anthropology from CIIS

Students entering the PhD program without an MA in Anthropology and Social Change from CIIS are required to take an additional 12 to 15 units of MA-level coursework within the Anthropology and Social Change Program. Students may require an additional year in which to complete these courses.

Once students are admitted, advisors will facilitate the drafting of a tailored curriculum contract that incorporates these additional courses and suggests a timeline. These additional courses include three of the following five courses:

  • Ideas for Action: Social Theory for Radical Change
  • Global Social Movements
  • Unthinking Social Science
  • Radical Theory

Radical Political Economy

Part-Time Curriculum

Students may pursue a part-time course of study in consultation with their academic advisor.

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