Professor Harcourt Part of Interdisciplinary Study of the State

This year, as news broke of the federal government collecting data on individuals’ phone calls and Internet communications, the subject of the state and its power became especially relevant. Of course, the ever-changing state and the way it interacts with its citizens is always important, which is why Professors Bernard Harcourt, Elisabeth Clemens, and James Sparrow are in the midst of a yearlong exploration of that topic. “The State as History and Theory” is one of four inaugural large-scale collaborative projects of the University’s Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society, which supports interdisciplinary research in the humanities and social sciences.

Harcourt is Julius Kreeger Professor of Law and Political Science. Clemens is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology, and Sparrow is an Associate Professor of U.S. History. They believe that the state is dramatically changing in the face of rampant privatization and globalization, and they are not alone; across history, sociology, political science, and law, there is an ongoing discussion of the changing nature of the state, and its decreasing resemblance to the traditional unified sovereign state that has been most studied. It is much more complicated, the researchers posit, than simply studying presidents, parliaments, or other organized institutions of governance.

For example: If Google collects massive amounts of information on U.S. citizens and provides it to the government, is Google the state? If the U.S. outsources military work or the state of Illinois sells a prison to a business, are those private actors part of the state? It’s increasingly murky, but critically important.

“The metamorphosis of the state so fundamentally impacts everybody’s lives that it has to be at the core of our thinking, of our thoughts about human subjectivity and freedom, but also law and political power,” Harcourt said, adding that the project is an effort “to rethink the state and power in our age of security.” By “age of security,” he is referring to the many ways in which the state evaluates risk and danger and attempts to mitigate those risks, he said. For instance, the government may use thermal imaging tools to identify fever-stricken sick people at airports who may be a threat to the broader population. A copy of such a heat-seeking image has been chosen as a visual representation of the project.

Harcourt and his fellow researchers are joined in their work by Stephen Sawyer, a historian at the American University in Paris, who is beginning a yearlong fellowship on campus. The group will study independently and also come together regularly for reading groups and workshops. The project will culminate in a conference on the state in May 2014. Before that, in November, the principal researchers will speak on a panel at the Social Science History Association, of which Clemens is president. The scholars plan to produce journal articles and books from the project.

The project officially launched in April, when prominent political scientist and historian Ira Katznelson visited the Political Science Department. Katznelson, a former chair of that department, is now at Columbia University. He spoke about his new book, “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time,” and met with graduate students to talk about the different ways scholars have thought about the state and its power. It was an appropriate beginning to the project, as Katznelson and other Chicago scholars studied the state collaboratively in the 1970s and ‘80s. This latest project is a descendant of that work, Harcourt said.

For his part, Harcourt plans to focus on the “carceral state,” by which he refers to prisons, asylums, and domestic security apparatuses. He is examining the tension between the reality of a state that incarcerates its citizens but purports to subscribe to the principles of economic liberalism. How do mass incarceration and economic liberty coexist? Harcourt will ask.

Harcourt hopes to “shed some light on the paradox of the liberal democratic Western state, namely, the fact that our liberal democracies, which pride themselves on free expression, free trade, free economic exchange, are the same countries that hold the world record in prison populations.”

As part of that, Harcourt is editing Michel Foucault’s 1973 lectures at the College de France, “The Punitive Society,” in French. He’s also doing his own research on the logics of the security state and how it emerged, which will likely evolve into a book.

Harcourt is not the only Chicago Law professor engaged in one of the Neubauer Collegium’s ambitious projects. Tom Ginsburg, Leo Spitz Professor of International Law and Professor of Political Science, is leading a study of the persecution of the academic class in Iraq with his project, Iraq's Intelligentsia Under Siege: 1980-2012. The Collegium is now seeking research proposals for the 2014-2015 academic year; the application deadline is October 30.