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Pardo and Prato on Debating Legitimacy

Series editors of Palgrave Studies in Urban Anthropology

Today, as the long-festering acute crisis of rulers’ responsibility and accountability that mars many democracies has become evident, the legitimacy of the traditional democratic set up has become increasingly questioned. Citizens’ grounded distrust in rulers who, often blatantly distrust and dismiss them, is visibly growing, raising fundamental questions that point directly to the dynamics of morality, action, law, politics and governance in the articulation of what is legitimate and what is not in our society. Significant examples, unfortunately, abound. One is given by the Italian rough treatment of the fundamental division of power that, since the early 1990s, has polluted the political system. Notably, until recently, powerful groups’ legal but widely questioned manipulation of political competition and the democratic process has allowed, among other things, a succession of unelected governments to rule the country. Another example lies in the grassroots motivations of the American voter that marked the last US Presidential election. Other examples are offered by the strong ways in which similar motivations are reflected among most of the Britons who voted to leave the European Union and of the French, Austrian, German, Dutch, Hungarian, Czech, Polish and Italian electors who amply support ‘anti-establishment’ parties that just cannot be (conveniently) dismissed as ‘populist’. Of course, while acrimony and its many expressions may satisfy some, it solves nothing and may even end up working as appeasement in disguise.

Dissatisfaction with the élite in power is igniting grassroots protests of assorted types. Every day there are reports from across the world of objectively justified grievances that expose power that lacks legitimacy, in many cases so much and blatantly so that rule is received and seen to be authoritarian, as opposed to authoritative (Pardo 2000, Pardo and Prato 2019). Unmistakably, such grievances bring to light the obnoxious ways — obnoxious, that is, to reason and citizenship rights — in which dominant élite exercise power. As discontent generates grassroots opposition to rulers’ rhetoric and behaviours, citizenship is confronted with the appalling spectacle of ‘the powerful’ panicking into combating unlikely strawmen, inventing inexistent threats, implementing authoritarian actions and hollow accusations of populism, and worse, that demonstrate a dearth of credible, sustainable arguments and implementable actions that meet the fair demands of a justly exasperated citizenship.

It is almost a moot point that now, more than ever in the recent history of democratic society, the foregoing has acquired urgent and critical importance. But, moot or not, this is a point that must be raised. This is indeed a point that we must argue robustly, if we accept that one of the duties of the engaged intellectual is to study mankind in order to improve mankind. ‘What will happen to us?’ is a question being asked around the world, and it is the responsibility of the ethnographically-informed scholar to help answer the question with particular attention to the morality of what is broadly deemed as legitimate. Discussions of morality are notoriously sensitive, if not controversial. For many years a select number of scholars have engaged in this overall debate consistently addressing this question with strong scholarship and logical presentations. They animated the work done so far with warnings on worrying developments that are now for all to see. Drawing on ethnographic evidence, the cited publications have unequivocally pointed to the nature and complications of the growing gap between the rulers and the ruled and have warned against the consequent dangers. Now, such long-ignored worries and warnings have evidently come to bear as this gap has often become an unbridgeable chasm. Perhaps naturally, this problematic is especially evident in the urban field.

Urban ethnographic research on the dynamics of legitimacy and legitimation is clearly both timely and futuristic, the latter adjective being justified by foreseeable developments — too often, very disturbing — of these dynamics across the democratic world. In a recent edited collection Legitimacy: Ethnographic and Theoretical Insights, we have brought together a range of dynamic contributors to explore these thorny, multifaceted issues. But the conversation does not stop in a single volume: this month, we have released a special issue of Urbanities-Journal of Urban Ethnography to continue and offer new perspective on these debates, through sixteen essays by anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and urbanist who draw on diverse ethnographic knowledge and wide-ranging perspectives.

It is our hope that the edited collection and our Open Access Special Issue, alongside the cited body of literature and a wide range of previously published work in the journal and beyond, will encourage others to join in this debate in future.

Italo Pardo is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Kent. He co-founded and presides the IUS - https://kent.academia.edu/ItaloPardo.​​​​​​​

Giuliana B. Prato is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent. She chairs the CUA. Dr Prato co-founded the IUS and serves as its Secretary-Treasurer https://kent.academia.edu/GiulianaPrato.


Pardo, I. 2000. “Introduction–Morals of Legitimacy: Interplay between responsibility, authority and trust.” In I. Pardo (ed.), Morals of Legitimacy: Between Agency and System. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Pardo, I. and Prato, G. B. 2019. “Ethnographies of Legitimacy: Methodological and Theoretical Insights.” In I. Pardo and G. B. Prato (eds), Legitimacy: Ethnographic and Theoretical Insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.