UCL Anthropology


Democratic Cultures


The Research Programme Democratic Cultures develops global comparative  research on the  interlocking relations between politics, violence and crime. The driving intellectual objective of our research is to put these entanglements at the heart of a new theorization of power, sovereignty and legitimacy in a way that cuts across distinctions between state and non-state structures and actors.

The research program produces comprehensive ethnographies and multi-disciplinary case studies in different locations across Europe, South and East Asia, Africa and the Americas. Research is embedded in anthropology but informed by empirical and analytical questions relevant to political science, criminology, legal studies, human geography, history, economics and development studies. We addresses current policy issues and challenges in the fields of security, violence and conflict and the relationships between illicit economies and democratic governance within and beyond the state.

The programme brings together a large international team and promotes a network of scholars with shared interests in the intersection of democratic institutions with "actually existing politics", violence and corruption, religion and the informal/criminal economy. Since 2012 it has been funded by grants from the European Research Centre and the UK Economic and Social Research Council.

Current projects

Anthropologies of Extortion is a five-year research project that seeks to launch the comparative study of  the extortion.  Extortion had come to occupy a quintessential position in the global imaginary of mafia-type-criminal organizations. Yet it is also increasingly present beyond clandestine criminal networks and is becoming a normalised profitable source of livelihood and governance and a key visible social relation in many parts of the world. Despite this observable trend, much of academic, policy and media attention still remains focused on extortion’s economic transactional nature rather than its lasting effects in shaping social and moral relations, effects that reach beyond the moment and place of the transaction, as well as its original rationale.

Timely, the project sets up extortion as an object of anthropological inquiry and charts the first comprehensive cross-cultural account of extortion in social life across South and East Asia, the Americas, Africa and Europe. The proposed program of work consists of 4 main components:

  1. Primary research on ‘offers that cannot be refused' across different domains of life in and across 22 settings;
  2. Analytical and theoretical development in the study of power, consent and ‘organized crime’
  3. Methodological innovation by conducting a simultaneous cross-national ethnographic research and adding a South-to-South comparative angle in an area dominated by single case studies and a focus on the Global North;
  4. Policy relevant research in the fields of violence and consent, organized crime, informal economy and development.

The project is led by Lucia Michelutti (and involves a core team of  14 investigators (including the PI) working in different settings  such as Argentina, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, China, France (La Reunion), Guatemala, Honduras, Japan, India, Italy, Wa State, Pakistan, Peru, United Kingdom, Venezuela and West Africa. It is funded for five years (2021-2026) by the European Research Council's Advance Grant scheme.

Team Members

Advisory Group

  • Prof Federico Varese (Oxford)
  • Prof Rivke Jaffe (University of Amsterdam)
  • Prof Arias (CUNY)
  • Prof Henrik Vigh (Copenhagen University)
  • Prof Thomas Blom Hansen (Stanford University)
  • Professor Alena Ledeneva (UCL)
  • Prof Barbara Harriss-White (Oxford)
  • Dr Peter Evans (Foreign Commonwealth Development Office, FCDO)
  • Dr Roeland De Wilde (International Organization for Migration, IMO)


Michelutti L. and D. Picherit. 2021. Brigands (Special Issue). Terrain. 74 Mars


Towards Critical Corruption Studies (LUXCORE Workshop)
June 9, 2021 10:00 – 15:30 PM Oslo

Towards an Anthropology of Crime and Criminalisation
May 7, 2021 15:30 - 17:30 (UTC+2)

Previous Projects

‘An anthropological investigation of muscular politics’ (2012-2016). The research team investigated  questions of leadership and charisma, cultures of elections and the relation between business cultures and democratic governance across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. The research was funded by the EU European Research Council (ERC-2011-StG - N° 284080 - AISMA) and the UK Economic and Social Research Council