Call for Papers: Voting materiality: technologies and imaginations of citizenship

Call-for-proposalsCall for papers for the journal Politique africaine

Guest editors: Sandrine Perrot, Marie-E. Pommerolle & Justin Willis

« Voting materiality: technologies and imaginations of citizenship »

At election time, public space is crowded with the stuff of campaigns: posters, tee-shirts, and audiovisual messages flow into the streets, as well as in more specific social spaces like churches, administrative offices, and marketplaces. At the same time, electoral institutions create, buy and circulate technologies meant to ensure « free and fair » elections, from registration to counting of the votes. A variety of objects are conceived and produced to build institutions and citizenship in conformity with the idea of « modern » political representation. This abundance of official and unofficial materials opens new avenues for research in the near-saturated field of electoral sociology. Objects are at the centre of symbolic and material transactions; studying them may help trace changing forms of control, exchanges, subjugation and disobedience which erupt during electoral situations.

Since the return of multipartyism at the beginning of the 1990s, elections have drawn the attention of social sciences studies on Africa, but also of governmental and non-governmental experts, from the continent and abroad. This outpouring has, however, tended to follow particular themes. Some studies offer statistical and cartographic analysis of electoral results, attempting to explain the outcomes of a specific elections. (Cheeseman, Lynch, et Willis 2014; Bratton 2013); others attempt to evaluate the « democratic » quality of elections (Plattner et Diamond 2010; Bratton et Van de Walle 1997) and the advance of democratic consolidation (Bratton 1998; Lindberg 2009; Lindberg 2006; Keating 2011).

A few research works have gone beyond and interrogate the meaning of elections (Quantin 2004; Otayek 1998), especially in semi-authoritarian or hybrid regimes (Perrot et al. 2014; Perrot 2014; Hilgers et Mazzocchetti 2010; Dabène, Geisser, et Massardier 2012). They do so by carefully studying electoral brokers (Vannetzel 2010 ; Zaki 2009; Bennani-Chraïbi, Catusse, et Santucci 2005) or political parties (for example the PhD theses by Laure Traoré and Emmanuelle Bouilly).

This special issue stems from this kind of empirically-grounded work. Articulating history and political sociology, our concern is less with the vote itself than with its materiality. It draws from another strand of work interrogating the invention, the appropriation and the ritualisation of elections through their apparatus and objects (the polling station, the voting booth, the ballot box the ballot paper, etc.) (Garrigou 1992; Déloye 1993; Déloye 2006; Garrigou 2002; Offerlé 1983; Deloye et Ihl 2008). Anthropologists and historians have already tackled the process of « subjects » turning into « citizens » through the constitution of electoral registers, and the introduction of electoral cards, voting booth and secret ballot papers during the late colonialism period (Cooper, 2012 ; Bertrand, Briquet, et Pels 2007; Pels et Quantin 2001; Willis et el Battahani 2010; Onana 2004; Toulabor 2004 ; Trémon, 2013). And the comparative work of Hélène Combes and Lucie Bargel on the materiality of the voters and the devices of the votes or the very innovative research project of Richard Banégas and Séverine Awenengo on the “social life of identity papers in Sub-saharan Africa” open exciting new areas for research.

The aim of this special issue will be to take further these discussions surrounding the transformations of electoral objects, their uses and the controversies they entail. Beyond technologies and logistics, objects make individuals (Warnier 2004) and make citizens through a subjectivisation process. Interrogating processes of discipline and self-fashioning, this line of approach moves beyond three widespread but univocal understandings of the materiality of elections : one considering routinisation and ritualisation as the signs of democratic consolidation (Lindberg 2006) ; one seeing electoral apparatus as manipulated by entrenched power and giving new spaces for frauds (Willis and el Battahani 2010) ; and one analysing these objects as forms of resistance to electoral « modernity » or as « African voices » of political expression (« an African way of doing things ») (Young 1993).

This special issue draws inspiration from anthropologists’ work on the social life of things (Appadurai, 1986) and the ‘politics of value’ (Kopytoff 1986, Roitman and Warnier 2006) which reveal the historic and social variability of value as a construct. It will investigate how these things and technologies shape the act of voting, but also how they are used, subverted or even resisted. One of the aims will be to analyse the extent to which this materiality transforms – or fails to transform – imaginaries of the vote, and of electoral citizenship. We endeavour to trace the social life of the material stuff of elections, and its transformations, its pitfalls, its circulation and spread; and we ask how and why the materiality of voting creates particular forms of political subjectivity, and shows the kinds of dependency to which these are subject. Using these objects as a starting point also allows a careful study of the exchanges which they induce (including a fresh look at those which might be called clientelist), of the disputes which they provoke (such as the different values placed on items which are intended to ensure electoral integrity); and to the flows and circulations in which they are involved (there would be need to evaluate phenomena such as the standardisation of electoral marketplaces, and its consequences).

Three lines of research can be envisaged, at the heart of each of which is a concern with objects, their use and their ‘diversion’ (Appadurai, 1986).

  1. The material history of the electoral act

‘Electoral development’ was a product of the late-colonial moment, and was transformed by the realities of postcolonial power. Civic education booklets, biometric registration technologies, party membership were projects of bureaucratic rationality as well as techniques of citizenship; and they were reworked through local logics of religion and morality (Ménoret 2009; Ménoret 2005; Nkume-Okoroe et Chouin 2011; Breckenridge 2014). The material realisation of electoral processes manifested forms of categorisation, the creation of hierarchies, and processes of inclusion and exclusion. Revisiting the material reality of electoral technologies – which sought to both civilise and to enframe voters – will make it possible to see, for example, the limits as well the modernising ambitions of the bureaucratic power of colonial states.

This will allow us to address, among other things, the way that multiple electoral processes are involved in bureaucratisation and the construction of the state: the creation of electoral registers (subject to much controversy in each new poll); voters’ cards; biometric identification technologies. An investigation of the social and political circumstances of this progressive bureaucratisation, and the tangible procedures through which it was effected, enables an understanding of the new constraints which they placed on the organisers of elections, as well as the opportunities which they offered – which were seized as much by those who challenged power as by political elites, or by those who sought to establish authority by positioning themselves in the making, circulating and interpreting of the material stuff of elections (Gaïti 2006; Lipsky, 2010).

‘Electoral development’ is also created through the precise moment of the ballot, through the means of a collection of technologies and required behaviours intended to both control and make acceptable the casting of the ballot. These objects, their arrangement, their origin work together to enframe the act of voting, and bestow credibility on electoral institutions and politics. The multiplicity of these objects (the polling booth, ballot-boxes, plastic bowls, indelible ink, voters’ cards, ballot papers) and their meanings, within and around the polling stations, work together to generate confidence in an act which was at once both routine and constantly contested. To interrogate these objects thus, as intermediaries between institutions and voters, reveals unrealised ambitions for institutionalising the vote, and the misunderstandings and fascination which characterise that intermediacy.

  1. Objects in campaign

The materiality of voting is not confined to official technologies but also includes a range of objects linked to the practices of campaigning: clothes, posters, flags, placards, songs, caricatures. Their very existence encourages us to take seriously the messages which they diffused (« Prosperity for all », « Time for change »); and the analysis of these objects draws our attention to the exchanges they induce. Revisiting clientelistic relations, through objects, their use and circulation will draw our attention to the changing conditions of these exchanges (rural/urban ; collective/individual) and their meaning (including the startling reversals apparent when enthusiastic voters bring gifts to their candidates). Focusing not on the exchange itself, but on the object that is exchanged, may allow study the of the variability of value and the social construction of its exchangeability (Roitman & Warnier, 2006).

The plurality of state and non-state, national and foreign stake-holders (churches, women associations, civic education NGOs, inter-governmental organization, etc.) in the co-production, diffusion and interpretation of objects could be questioned. How do these actors use materials produced by others? Citizen-voters face many different mediations of materiality and « subjectivizing governmentalities » (Warnier 2004) distinct from official electoral institutions, which raises questions over whether this builds new imaginaries of citizenship, or not. We could also question the historical and cultural variability of the use and diversion of these objects and the way the producers of objects manage this local understanding and practice of things, always redefined, and how they position themselves in these “war of subjectivization”, i.e. the competition between producers of definitions of electoral identities through these materialities (Warnier 2004).

« Paths and diversions » (Appadurai) – see for example the diversion of electoral posters -are tracks of the social life of things, of their transformation through diverse value registers that coexist in the same social space (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2005), of their phases of recapture and contest, which all are thresholds in the subjectivation process of the citizen-voter.

This research question could open the way to a range of cultural biographies (as defined by Appadurai) of specific objects – of a voter’s card or a partisan T-shirt for example -, in order to grasp their meaning that is “ inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories” (Appadurai, 1986 : 5). Which use does one do of an object one has not produced? Which are the trajectories of these objects collected by coincidence, conviction, inclination or with indifference? Which tracks of the euphoric moments of elections remain when routine gives back daily ordinary functions to these objects?

  1. The market of electoral material

Finally, a third relevant research question would be the marketing of this voting material. Which firms produce them, distribute them? How are these objects exchanged, commercialized? This entry point could thoroughly analyze not only international markets of electoral material (like the delocalized productions of ballot papers), its circulation (the exponential market of biometric technologies in particular) or its potential standardization, but also very local markets of electoral material (like the Tanzanians small traders duplicating and commercializing CCM T-shirts). This issue would allow us to think about the « production of expertise and authority » (Roitman, Warnier, 2006), in terms of voting material, and especially about the ambivalence of foreign authority (Guilhot 2005, Petric 2012).


20 March 2016:  Paper proposals (1 page maximum) should be sent to Sandrine Perrot (, Marie-E. Pommerolle ( and Justin Willis (

30 March 2016:  Accepted proposals notified to authors

15 June 2016:  Papers submitted to the guest editors for review by the editorial board (max. length 50’000 characters, spaces and footnotes included)

30 September 2016:   Final versions of articles selected by the guest editor and the editorial board submitted.

December 2016:  Publication of the special issue.

Articles may be submitted in French or English: those accepted will be translated into French for publication in the journal.


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