ASU professor sheds new light on citizenship

In his in his award-winning book "Ingenious Citizenship: Recrafting Democracy for Social Change," Arizona State Universty Professor Charles T. Lee questions our approaches to citizenship and eliciting change in our current democratic system.

The associate professor in justice and social inquiry, from the School of Social Transformation, uses film, literature, ethnographic sources, and political and cultural theory to analyze the work of ingenious citizens — people who have incited social change outside of the systematic and traditional approaches we tend to think of. Using narrative examples to critically reinterpret political agency, citizenship, and social transformation, Lee reveals the possibilities of organizing change within a human rights discourse. ASU professor Charles T. Lee's book "Ingenious Citizenship: Recrafting Democracy for Social Change" questions our approaches to citizenship and eliciting change in our current democratic system.

He said his intentions are to "...[continue] the generation of democratic social change, calling forth a reinvestigation of what we can learn from nondemocractic manifestations of agency in everyday liberal social life in order to pluralize and expand the spheres and potency of such change.”

Lee will be giving a talk about his book, which won the Institute for Humanities Research 2017 Transdisciplinary Book Award, at the Humanities Authors' Reception on Oct. 18. For more information and to RSVP, visit ASU Events

Here Lee answers some questions about his book.

Question: Could you talk about the transdiciplinary nature of the book? How did you decide to investigate these sources?

Answer: This book is a work in political theory. However, unlike the predominant works in the field that draw solely upon the Western canon of political thought and philosophy as their intellectual resources and methodology, it turns to and draws on the everyday practices and narratives of what I call “abject subjects” (e.g., migrant domestic workers, global sex workers, and transgender people) as contextual resources for its political theorizing. In doing so, the book seeks to shift our usual conception about citizenship and democracy from the “high” vision of Western political theorists to the “low” angle of the lived experiences of marginalized people. To achieve this intellectual objective, the book adopts a transdisciplinary approach in its scope, methodology, and content — bridging and integrating a diverse range of sources from cultural studies, cultural anthropology, sociology, critical ethnography, postcolonial theory, ethnic studies, transnational feminist theory, queer and transgender studies, to critical migration studies. The end result it offers is an unconventional political theory of social change.

I came to investigate these sources because while I was a political theorist by training and really liked to grapple with the intellectual questions about justice, equality and democracy in theoretical texts, I have also always been very interested in and inspired by studying and learning about the everyday lived experiences of marginalized populations (especially those marked by racial, class, gender, sexual and immigration status differences. I felt it was important for my theoretical work to be grounded on and connected to actual people’s lived experiences and struggles — and allowing those intricate experiences and struggles to inform and enrich my critical theorization. So, while still grounded in the humanistic interpretive method central to political theory, this book made a methodological shift to decenter the fundamental role occupied by political philosophers and theorists in the predominant works of political thought, and instead placed the everyday narratives and practices of abject subjects at the center of its political theorizing. With this objective, I just kept on branching out and absorbing insights from various sources, literatures, and disciplines, and this has helped expand my intellectual-political horizons in the process.  

Q: How does your research inform your teaching?

A: The transdisciplinary approach of my research informs the way I teach. My course materials in justice studies are regularly drawn from several disciplines — sociology, cultural anthropology, critical geography, social and political theory, ethnic studies, gender studies, queer studies, and cultural studies. In fact, what accentuates this transdisciplinary approach is the combination of theoretical literatures and ethnographic materials in my teaching, seeking to help students draw meaningful connections between critical theoretical concepts and corporeal lives. In doing so, I also hope to cultivate students’ ability to connect the materials they read for the courses to their own everyday life surroundings — often by inviting students to reflect on and share their own experiences and observations — so they can see how the course materials they engage with resonate with their own lives. And by drawing on diverse perspectives from the course materials and encouraging and stimulating diverse student perspectives in class discussions, I hope to ultimately inspire students to act in whichever and however way they can to transform unjust and unequal social conditions in their everyday life — and doing so with a holistic frame of mind that can work through complexity.

"I hope to cultivate students’ ability to connect the materials they read for the courses to their own everyday life surroundings" 

— Charles Lee, associate professor, School of Social Transformation

Q: What are the stakes of what you do as a humanities scholar?

A: As a political theorist, I see “the political” — that is, how human subjects engage in political action, contestation, and struggle in making and remaking their social community — as constituting a critical terrain and purpose of the humanities. Not only are the enduring questions such as “justice” and “equality” in the humanities inseparable from questions about power and power relations, broadly conceived, but almost any social justice campaigns/projects would also have to go through the broad political realm (e.g., whether it be governmental legislation and policy, social movements, contentious politics, or cultural resistance) to realize their visions and goals. What I wish to contribute as a transdisciplinary political theorist in my work is to open up a new way of thinking about the plural and unconventional ways of cultural-political actions and contestations that diverse people in different locations and contexts can engage in their everyday life, so to help engender multiple pathways of social transformation at multiple sites and through multiple channels. This is the way I see how I can be a part of the larger humanities project by helping transform and advance the lives of subordinate/marginalized populations more in the direction of social justice and equity.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Building on my arguments in this book, I’m working on two new projects that further the investigation on how certain practices that are usually conceived to be apolitical actually harbor political potential that can be used towards the purpose of social transformation. The first is a project on ethnic food and citizenship, which employs theoretical analysis and ethnographic fieldwork in Southern California to explore how the transnational production of ethnic food has enabled immigrants to gain rights not through conventional juridical-political channels but through their everyday practices of immigrant entrepreneurship, racialized/gendered labor and cultural consumption. The second project investigates how what are often perceived to be passive or nonpolitical mindfulness practices actually harbor vitalizing seeds for an unpredictable but transformative cultural politics.

The School of Social Transformation is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Lee is also an affiliate faculty in women and gender studies and in the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics.