Techniques of Political Bodies

Issue coordinated by Thomas Riot and Nicolas Bancel

Institut des sciences du sport de l’Université de Lausanne (ISSUL-SSP), Institut des mondes africains (IMAF-CNRS)

« Africa has failed. You, the athletes, were the only ones to succeed and you have shown us the way, to us, the political leaders », Mälläs Zénawi during the closing ceremony of the XVIth African field championships (4 May 2008, Addis Ababa).

Since the end of the 1990s, many sub-Saharan states have elaborated pedagogies about physical activities and sports as part of their policies for « development » and post-conflict « reconstruction ». Non-governmental organisations and various private and international investment funds have sometimes been instrumental in these efforts to build these programmes. This « tracksuit politics » is not new. As early as the 1950s (and with greater fervour in the decades that followed decolonization), several countries developed football games (Alegi, 2004), paper chase and games of capture (Honwana and de Boeck, 2005), or even dances of confrontation (Ranger, 1975), that contributed to the maturation of political mobilization – whether pacific or confrontational (Bancel, Denis and Fatès, 2003; Fair, 1997). Rwanda provides a relevant example of the oblique trajectories these activities can follow. From the early 1990s to the month of July 1994, sports practices as well as choreographic and warlike behaviours were mobilized to implement the genocide; this shift rested upon the engagement – be it voluntary, advised or forced – of several thousands of dancers, footballers and spectators in the extremist groups that led the anti-Tutsi pogroms (notably the interahamwe). In the context of this shift from a developmental order to a genocide order (Viret, 2009; Straus, 2006), militia groups  articulated in varied ways bodily knowledge acquired in the sphere of sports and hobbies, and militia dispositions as developed within the civil society (Riot, 2014). While these activities previously informed some of the most drastic processes of political socialization, Rwanda’s post-genocide government summoned the very same practices (through the itorero device, inspired by precolonial practices, that combines war dances, football and contest nights) in order to fight the « genocide mentality » – as the regime says – and reconstruct a society deeply affected by mass violence (Riot, Boistelle and Bancel, 2016).

This special issue aims to revisit these multiple and seemingly contradictory uses of bodily techniques and give insight, in an innovative way, on the dynamic interaction between political socialization and actors’ engagement. Almost ten years have passed  since Politique africaine’s issue entitled « Politiques du corps » coordinated by Danielle De Lame (2007) introduced a multi-focal analysis of biopowers, showing how they were governed by esthetical, technological, professional or more clandestine repertoires. In this issue, we wish to explore biopowers through the prism of a range of « reflexive body techniques » (Crossley, 2005), namely, as a combination of motor, sensory and affective actions having the body as object, and assigning socio-anthropological intelligibility to corporeality. It aims to shed light first and foremost on the preliminary and (dis)continuous incorporation of several possible forms of activities: recreational and competitive practices (e.g. football, athleticism, or exploration games), which can favour cohesion but also divide communities (religious competition, paternalism, male domination,…); belligerent practices (combat sports, warrior dances, archery, lance throwing) that may drift towards political and/or armed violence; paramilitary training (muscle reinforcement, shooting initiation, races, capture games) that contribute more directly to the maturation of combatant mobilization. Amongst many other practices – like techniques of care, bodily seduction, or human motor devices –, studying these bodily practices makes it possible to explore the processes of political subjectivation that take part in the social and political control of actors and – dialectically – in the formation of bodily techniques and bodily imaginaries that accompany their trajectories. This issue therefore focuses on an aspect poorly studied in sociohistory, the sociology of politics and the sociology of mobilization. Such relationships are not mechanical. They require interrogating the link between each practice and power, as well as asking – where necessary – if bodily knowledge can favour the political engagement of actors. In some territories like the Central African Republic and Rwanda, football is manipulated through a double dynamic: it is used to depoliticise radicalized minorities and mobilise armed groups. In Rwanda, the objective is to fight the genocide mentality and simultaneously build up the army; in CAR, the regime aims to restore the social fabric between Muslim and Christian populations, but also feed the reservoirs of the anti-balaka movement (Riot & al., 2016). In this way, these reservoirs of sports foster some « politics of apoliticism » (that is, the political instrumentalisation of practices intended to bring people to adhere to the policies of the party in power) and provide for numerous forms of political and para(military) engagement.

This issue will explore these questions via « through-body » (par-corps) apprenticeship (Faure, 2000), that is to say, by studying the processes of knowledge incorporation that derive from the movement and action of bodies. These « reflexive body techniques » constitute a contact point between incorporated knowledge, processes of political socialization, and the engagement of actors. The focus here is put on the potential interactions between devices that have the body as object, corporal processes of political socialization, and forms of engagement in order to explore the fungible character of these acquisitions in their relations to power. How could we characterize – if it exists – the « sporty » side of an activist’s career or of a more ordinary process of political adhesion? Is there a link between violence (be it political, competitive, or mass violence) and the incorporation of motor skills? Could these activities, likewise, effectively contribute to the social and political reconstruction of post-conflict societies?

In view of this, it is necessary to follow the paths of socialization, mobilization, repossession, or radicalization of these techniques, but also to give insight into their relation with politics and the state, taking into consideration their relative autonomy. This implies adopting a diachronic and synchronic approach that can highlight – from the 1950s to the present – the forms and conditions of such a transfer. Jumping techniques and political engagement, or choreographic apprenticeship and combatant mobilization: one needs to remember that transferability from one sphere to another is not systematic, and that the interactions between games, sports and politics are more sinuous than we can imagine.

These activities will be looked into by taking into consideration their specific forms, the social and political trajectories they propel, and the particular forms of commitment they shape; at the same time, how such activities are re-appropriated by the state and other local, national and international political organizations will be explored so as to shed light on their potential « double contribution » to the diffraction and cohesion of sub-Saharan societies.

The « reflexive techniques of the body » equally raise the question of their adjustment to political imaginaries. Could some activities get merged, more than others, in the realist fictions of democracy (Erenhberg, 1991), such as British sports or scout games that, since their birth, have contained powerful repertoires about merit and democracy? If that was the case, how can one explain that capitalizing on individual and collective merit can be part of more radical trajectories of present-day actors? It seems, indeed, that some incorporated techniques can move from the civil society to the spheres of political engagement which are the more likely to bring about mobilisation (even violence), whether such mobilisation is constrained, voluntary or forced. Rwanda’s Hutu militias or groups of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone an Ivory Coast perfectly illustrate how collective recreational and motor bodily techniques have been integrated into the corporatist warlike universe of the youth (De Boeck, 2004; Hoffman, 2007; Kourouma, 2000).

In this respect, the formal characteristics of incorporated techniques seem less decisive than the socialization spaces within which these techniques circulate; in a given society, a same practice can be part of the most unequal appropriation of power resources and, at the same, favours the growth of personal spaces of initiative. Such a situation should not be seen as necessarily paradoxical, but it requires exploring the specific conditions that made possible actors’ adhesion to these devices.

Articles engaging with one of the four following axes will be selected in priority:

Forms of engagement as sequenced by the techniques of political bodies

In sub-Saharan societies like elsewhere in the world, the trajectories of political actors (from the most ordinary to the most exceptional) often include bodily sequences – let’s think, for instance, of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada (Mazrui, 1977) and his practice of boxing or, in more « ordinary » ways, the recreational and sports activities of the African elites involved in youth movements. This is not a linear process, and one has to question its centrality in the maturation of these trajectories. Nevertheless, one can reconstitute these biographies following different stages during which the « reflexive body techniques » have been associated with the social and political progression of the concerned individuals. As a plural and complex process, it intertwines structural elements, contingencies, and mechanisms of hybridization to produce techniques and forms of political commitment that can be more or less asserted. Here we will use and bring together several levels of analysis (Sommier, 2012; Fillieule et al., 2010; Gayer, 2009; Becker, 2006; Della Porta, 1995; Tarrow, 1989; Collovald et Gaïti, 1986), most notably: indicators of political adhesion (macro); organisations mobilizing bodily resources (méso); actors’ bodily dispositions and individual processes of political subjectivation (micro). The point here is to reconstitute singular trajectories that are sequenced by techniques and thanks to which biographical situations of « through-body » apprenticeship emerge.


Transnational bodies

Since the Western conquest of sub-Saharan territories, the construction of colonized bodies – that is, the process of incorporation of colonial knowledge by colonized societies – has relied upon social and cultural transnational circulations (from the metropole to the colony and vice versa, as well as through transnational exchanges between the colonized territories). In this context, practices originating from Europe were introduced (like sports of British origin, scout games, or new paramilitary knowledge) and were indigenized in ways that were profoundly hybrid: the appropriation of football, for example, prompted the emergence of new warlike repertoires anchored in the autochthonous (post)colonial cultures (Riot, 2010; Boer, 2004). Concomitantly, local practices were (re)invented like dance, wrestling or athletic practices. These new forms resulted from the selective integration of foreign knowledge. It was the case of the Beni ngoma – a dance created in reference to the political and military behaviour of foreign occupation (Ranger, 1975) – or Rwanda’s colonial itorero – a pastoral and warlike practice transferred to the catholic missions (Riot, 2011). These devices thus captured some of the codes of conduct of Westerners (missionaries, administrators, colons) and embodied unprecedented modes of resistance against foreign domination. Nowadays, these (trans)national techniques follow the political projects they are affiliated with: scouts mobilization in the state’s apparatus of surveillance (as is the case in many countries of former French West Africa) unfolds throughout a long postcolonial continuity. Individuals who seize this knowledge can even move up the social and political ladder – like Senegalese wrestlers, for instance, who embody « new figures of success » (Havard, 2001) in their country and at the international level. It would thereon be inspiring to resituate this bodily knowledge within a transnational re-reading of the production of subjectivity so as to better understand, beyond the geographical delineated limits, how « connected bodies » can get shaped at the porous borders between history and politics.


The matter of war?

A wide array of practices (e.g. war games, address tournaments, strength techniques) can be explored to better understand how rivalry practices interact with the production of belligerent subjectivities (Bayart et Warnier, 2004). Authors will assess the part played by bodily motor skills in these belligerent acquisitions (seeing that such skills are at the heart of the construction of the subjects of experience) and observe the « freeing subjugation » procedures (Banégas, 2007) that can emerge from them: a same technique can indeed constrain the subject and, simultaneously, give him political opportunities and new chances to access social honour (Illife, 2005). Rejecting any teleonomic perspective, this axis does not consider bodily practices in armed mobilization only. The case of sports is thereupon relevant. At first glance, it is indeed disconcerting to see that situations of war and violence incorporate practices that are historically and sociologically part of the dynamics of repression of « aggressive impulses » (Elias et Dunning, 1994). Moreover, is it possible to consider that practices deriving from actions and imaginaries that undergird the political regimes of merit and democracy get transformed into instruments of authoritarianism and extreme violence? Seeing that sports can be a cathartic power, can it, on the one hand, contribute to condensing the resources of its adherents in a non violent manner; and, on the other hand, can it provide innovative ways of transferring bodily knowledge in the experience of war (or, to say it differently, the relative fluidity of practices oscillating between the « civil » space of sports and the space of political and armed mobilizations) ?


The bodily forge of the state

Can the apprenticeship of sports practices of colonial origin in colonial schools, where a large part of the sub-Saharan colonial elites was formed, help to shed light on the trajectory of postcolonial states – a trajectory largely based upon different forms of mimicry of the former dominant power? Moreover, the techniques studied here seem to have relative autonomy from the state. While some membership clubs and associations got associated to the state, others have developed independently of the state’s politic arenas. In Liberia, most sports associations are managed by humanitarian actors linked to a state that is essentially governed by the international community (for this information, see the international Observatory of sports policies in Lausanne). On the contrary, in South Africa, small sports groupings (for example, cycling racers) organise themselves at the margins (in and around the townships), thus opening routes of emancipation for the most vulnerable fringes of the Black and Coloured population in the face of the supremacy of white centres (Beecroft, 2015). Intermediaries like the directors of clubs or sports associations, for example, play an essential role. Depending upon their social and political status and their relation to the state, they can act (sometimes in competitive ways) like powerful intermediaries between activity members and the wider organizations in which they move. What is their role in the « bodily forge » of the state? Like Burundi or Rwanda, the case of Liberia raises the question of the use of « reflexive body techniques » within the framework of policies of peace and reconstruction. Is there a « sporty » manner of considering the social and political reordering of a post-conflict state – that is to say, a way to use these techniques and associated sociability in a new apparatus of control and re-education? Some contributions could shed light on the mechanisms of the bodily forge of the state, illuminating (des)articulation between sports policies and the construction of citizens formed to new techniques of governing.



  • 30 November 2016: deadline for sending abstracts (7,000 signs maximum, spaces included) to Thomas Riot ( and Nicolas Bancel (
  • 15 December 2016: notification of selection or rejection to the authors
  • 15 March 2017: deadline for sending full articles (45,000 signs max notes and spaces included)


Indicative bibliography

Alegi, Peter. 2004. Laduma. Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa, from its Origins to 2010. University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

Bancel, Nicolas, Daniel Denis et Youssef Fatès, éd. 2003. De l’Indochine à l’Algérie. La jeunesse en mouvement des deux côtés du miroir colonial. Paris: La Découverte.

Banégas, Richard. « Côte d’Ivoire : les jeunes se lèvent en hommes. Anticolonialisme et ultranationalisme chez les Jeunes patriotes d’Abidjan », Les études du CERI, n° 137, 2007.

Bayart, Jean-François et Jean-Pierre Warnier, éd. 2004. Matière à politique. Le pouvoir, les corps et les choses. Paris: Karthala.

Becker, Howard S. 2006. Le travail sociologique. Méthodes et substances, Fribourg: Academic Press.

Baker, William and James Mangan, éd. 1987. Sport in Africa: Essays in Social History. New York: Africana Publishing.

Boer, Wiebe. « A Story of Heroes, of Epics: The Rise of Football in Nigeria », in Armstrong Gary and Richard Giulianotti éd. 2004. Football in Africa: Conflict, Conciliation and Community. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 59-79.

Collovald, Annie et Brigitte Gaïti, éd. 2006. La démocratie aux extrêmes. Sur la radicalisation politique. Paris: La Dispute.

Crossley, Nick. « Mapping reflexive body techniques: on body modification and maintenance », Body & Society n°11(1), 2005, p. 1-35.

Della Porta, Donatella. (1995). Social Movements, Political Violence and the State, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ehrenberg, Alain. 1991. Le culte de la performance, Paris: Calmann-Lévy.

Elias, Norbert et Eric Dunning. 1994. Sport et civilisation: la violence maîtrisée. Paris: Calmann-Lévy.

Fair, Laura. « Kickin’ it: Leisure, Politics and Football in Colonial Zanzibar, 1900s-1950s », Africa n°67 (2), 1997, p. 224-251.

Faure, Sylvia. 2000. Apprendre par corps. Socio-anthropologie des techniques de danse. Paris: La dispute.

Fillieule, Olivier, Eric Agrikoliansky et Isabelle Sommier, éd. 2010. Penser les mouvements sociaux. Conflits sociaux et contestations dans les sociétés contemporaines, Paris: La Découverte.

Gayer, Laurent (2009). « Le parcours du combattant : propositions pour une analyse des récits de vie des militants sikhs du Khalistan », Questions de recherche, n° 28, Centre de recherches internationales, 63 p.

Havard, Jean-François. « Ethos bul faale et nouvelles figures de la réussite au Sénégal ». Politique africaine, n° 82, 2001, 63-77.

Honwana, Alcinda et Filip De Boeck, éd. 2005. Makers and Breakers. Children and Youth in Postcolonial Africa, Oxford; Trenton; Dakar: James Currey; Africa World Press ; Codesria.

Illife, John. 2005. Honour in African History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

de Lame, Danielle, éd. « Politique du corps », Politique africaine, n°107, 2007.

Mazrui, Ali A. 1977, « Boxer Muhammad Ali and soldier Idi Amin as international political symbols: the bioeconomics of sport and war », Comparative Studies in Society and History,  n°19 (2), 1977, p. 189-215.

Ranger, Terence. 1975. Dance and Society in Eastern Africa, 1890-1970. The Beni ngoma, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Riot, Thomas. « Les politiques de loisir et le génocide des Rwandais tutsi. Du racisme culturel aux donjons de la mémoire », Politique africaine, no. 133, 2014, p.131-151. —. « Le football au Rwanda. Un simulacre guerrier dans la créolisation d’une société », Revue canadienne des études africaines, n°44 (1), 2010, p. 75-109.

Riot, Thomas, Herrade Boistelle et Nicolas Bancel. « Les politiques d’itorero au Rwanda : un dispositif éducatif et guerrier à l’épreuve de la reconstruction nationale », Tiers Monde, 2016, sous presse.

Sommier, Isabelle. « Engagement radical, désengagement et déradicalisation. Continuum et lignes de fracture », Lien social et Politiques, no. 68, 2012, p.15-35.

Straus, Scott. 2006. The order of genocide. Race, power and war in Rwanda. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Sundberg, Molly. 2014. Training for model citizenship. An ethnography of civic education and state-making in Rwanda. Uppsala University Library.

Tarrow, Sidney, 1989. Democracy and disorder: Protest and politics in Italy, 1965-1975, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Viret, Emmanuel, 2011. Les habits de la foule. Techniques de gouvernement, clientèles sociales et violence au Rwanda rural (1963-1994), Thèse de doctorat, Paris: Institut d’études politiques.


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