Local Knowledge of Elites as a Basis for Comparing Political Systems

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Amitai Touval


Abstract: I organize conversations and press reports about socialist-era officials into four streams of discourse, each stream of discourse representing a particular lesson that I sought to learn in the field.  I then examine what each lesson, or strand of discourse, implies about the reputation of East Germany’s deposed elite, the inner workings of East Germany, and the moral significance of East Germany.  Next, I analyze the identity politics that is woven into local knowledge of East Germany’s deposed elite: The discrimination faced by former East German officials, the ambiguous moral position of the anthropologist who is interested in a stigmatized group, and the seemingly elevated moral status of the anthropologists’ conversation partners.  I then draw on the criteria by which deposed elites are judged to create a framework for comparing regimes.  My framework highlights two criteria of judgment: Has the elite violated local or international norms?  Is the elite composed of locals or foreigners?  These two criteria are a potential source of reputational hazard and delegitimation, and thus can inform analysis of political culture: the myths and rituals that elites draw upon to legitimate their rule.

Keywords: East Germany; Leipzig; elites; politicians; comparative politics; forms of government

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