Ph.D. in Anthropology and Social Change


Program Description

Activism. Research. Social Change.

Anthropology and Social Change is a small, innovative graduate department with a particular focus on activist scholarship, militant research, and social change. Our unique approach to ethnographic research methodology dissolves traditional barriers between research and political activism, between insiders and outsiders, and between researchers and protagonists. Ethnography is a tool for "creating the conditions we describe." We engage in the process of co-research to explore existing alternatives and possibilities for social change.

Alongside talented faculty, Ph.D. students learn how to apply the practice of direct action to the research process. We set out to create the conditions we describe when our research begins to embody the values of the world we want to create.

About the Program

In a certain sense, we are a department of post-capitalist studies. However, we do not wish to refer to some dreamed-up utopia, nor to a speculative exploration of futuristic scenarios. While we agree with Lewis Mumford on the "importance of building castles in the sky," we see as an even more urgent necessity to study politics of alternatives in the here and now: the need to engage with concrete utopias that are already being built, and to understand other worlds that are already possible.

Together with the activists from many different parts of the world we believe that "another world is possible." The role of the new social movements, we are reminded, is not to conquer the world, but to make it anew. What, then, is the role and responsibility of anthropology and other social sciences? In a world riddled with so many crises, few things appear to be more relevant than systematic research of counter-hegemonic knowledge and practices. Social scientists should leave pessimism for better times. Anthropology, in particular, is well equipped to participate in the " nowtopian" task of constructing social scientific knowledge that looks beyond capitalism, hierarchy, and ecological disaster.

The practice and technique of activist research provide an important model of prefigurative social science. As one contemporary anthropologist, a friend of our program, recently noted, when one "carries out an ethnography, one observes what people do, and then tries to tease out the hidden symbolic, moral, or pragmatic logics that underlie their actions; one tries to get at the way people's habits and actions make sense in ways that they are not themselves completely aware of."

We ask our students to do precisely this: to look at those who are creating viable alternatives, to try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they are already doing, and then to offer those ideas back, not as prescriptions, but as contributions, possibilities-as gifts.

This program offers the space and the possibility to engage with many traditions of radical scholarship and emancipatory social science. We believe that anthropologists should analyze, discuss, and explore the possible; that they should research alternative institutions; that they need to collectively reflect and debate the dilemmas of activist research. The collective effort of understanding "concrete utopias" takes the form of an analytic and ethnographic study of real historical alternatives in the present. This, in turn, requires a serious engagement with social movements involved in the production of alternatives. Students are expected to have an excellent command of history, debates, and perspectives of contemporary social movements. These movements exist in the historical, social, and epistemological context of colonization, development, and globalization. As contributors to one recent book remind us, more than one in six humans now live in slums, over one billion in a world of jobless growth, or no growth. Solutions offered by mainstream social science are often the source of the problem, and our students are expected to have a good understanding of intertwined historical processes of colonization, development, and liberal modernity.

The doctoral program is distinctive for its focus on concrete utopias. What are some of them? Worker cooperatives in Oakland, social centers in Italy, autonomous systems of justice in Guerrero, community gardens in Detroit, occupied self-managed factories in Argentina, "good government" of the Zapatistas, buenvivir (good life) and plurinationalism in Bolivia, participatory democracy in Kerala, solidarity economics of Mondragon, participatory economics in Winnipeg, pedagogy of the block in African-American communities, alternative environmentalism in Afro-Colombian river regions, legal pluralism, the autonomy of migration, marginalized medical practices in South Asia, solidarity unionism in New York City, communal agriculture in Malawi, shack dweller democracy in South Africa, Copwatch in LA,  biodiversity in Brazil, restorative justice in Ohio, knowledge commons and globalization, independent media, and autonomous food systems in Japan, are only some of the examples of prefigurative cultures. There are so many more, and one of the responsibilities of our students is to discover them.

The program is distinctive in its emphasis on:

  • Activist research of concrete utopias
  • Global social movements and lost revolutionary treasures
  • Issues of colonialism, globalization, development
  • Anarchist, Marxist, and feminist theoretical perspectives
  • Political ecology
  • Integration of activism and scholarship: developing research skills in activist research, intercultural translation, and emancipatory thinking

Many classes include a research component, and the doctoral dissertation is based on activist research. Activist research frameworks include participatory and collaborative research approaches as well as more recent research techniques and strategies associated with militant research, oral history, and co-research approaches.

protest, models, art

Our Approach to Anthropology

Anthropology and Social Change program is best described as activist research of concrete utopias. We believe that good anthropology begins and ends in the field. Anthropology and Social Change is a part of the broader movement that seeks to return ethnography to the forefront of anthropology. Together with contributors to the Insurgent Encounters, Constituent Imagination, and Engaging Contradictions book projects, we are interested in the theoretical potential of activist ethnography. We are particularly interested in activist research of real or concrete utopias, possible alternatives to the capitalist-colonial world we live in. Both as scholars and activists, we are interested less in the "ruthless criticism of all that exists" and more in the "prefigurative" theory that embodies, in its very organization, the kind of scholarship we advocate. Going back to the critical concepts we bring from the field and returning those concepts back to the people we do research with, in a manner of gift, is what makes us both activists and anthropologists.

Distinctive Approach to Methodology

In our graduate program, we give special attention to research and to what we call activist research. Our signature approach to methodology rests on the investigation of different research models and strategies associated with activist or militant research. We emphasize co-research and direct action, horizontality, and self-activity, seen as essential ingredients of collaborative knowledge production. Activist research, our distinct approach to investigation, attempts to combine research interest in militant ethnography, drift, mapping, co-research, workers inquiry, and radical oral history with collaborative and engaged participant observation. In this experimental play with different forms of politically engaged collaborative research, we strive to construct a distinct model of activist research. The second element of our approach is our active interest in other ways of organizing society and life, in alternative but real and concrete utopias.

Participatory Approach to Learning

The graduate program in Anthropology and Social Change brings together scholars and activists engaged not in teaching but in co-learning. Our approach to co-learning is inspired by a long and beautiful history of education developed in popular universities, modern schools, universities of earth and without walls, and free schools. We find ourselves in the tradition and legacy of educators such as Leon Tolstoy, Paul Robin, Francisco Ferrer, Emma Goldman, Alexander Niell, Ivan Ilich, Paul Goodman, Angela Davis, Bell Hooks, and Paulo Freire. We are excited to learn from past educational experiences in the Bay Area: Black Panther community schools, San Francisco Liberation School, New College of California, and Berkeley Free School -- these are only some of the exciting traditions that inspire our educational vision. We conceive of the classroom as a convivial space of facilitation and consultation, of interactive and horizontal processes of knowledge exchange and production.

Convivial Approach to Communication Knowledge

We offer several forms of convivia, or convivial spaces of knowledge communication:

  • Insight/Incite: our participatory cinema monthly event, in collaboration with  Sherman Street Cinema.  
  • Political Laboratory:  held once each semester as a weekend-long convivial encounter of local or international scholars working on a particular project, students, and selected participants from the local community. Together they think collectively about a particular idea, book, concept, or project.
  • Autonomous Classroom:  an experimental class created convivially by Ph.D. students, a class where the world is turned upside down, students become teachers, teachers become students, and all graduate students autonomously design a class that they teach and self-manage over the course of one semester.
  • Guerrilla Workshop:  an improvised event-space where students, faculty, or students and faculty, present on their current work. This includes papers to be presented at various conferences, report backs from academic or activist events, and dialogues relevant to anthropology, social justice, and critical theory.
  • Dialogues and Interrogations: Instead of interrogating people, in this public convivia, coordinated by Sasha Lilley, we interrogate ideas. This takes the form of a bi-monthly conversation between activist journalists and prominent organizers and activist intellectuals.
  • Nomadic Cafe:  where we have nomadic discussions on spaces, places, and non-spaces.

Events, Workshops, Research Working Groups, and Visiting Scholars

The program regularly hosts lectures, conferences, and workshops on a variety of social justice issues that bring together scholars, activists, and artists, both local and international. A one-day political laboratory on Radical Pasts, Radical Futures combined the intellectual and political experience of social movement theorists and activists Selma James, Peter Linenbaugh, Andayie, George Katziaficas, Ruth Reitan, and Scott Crow.

Aymara feminist from Bolivia, Julieta Paredes, gave a workshop presentation of "feminismo communitario."  Against the Grain producer Sasha Lilley interviewed Iain Boal on his book on communes in Northern California. Silvia Federici and Selma James gave lectures, and organized a political laboratory, around the issue of Reproductive Labor and the Commons. Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber gave a key-note lecture on the first 5000 years of debt. Arturo Escobar presented on anthropology and post-capitalism.

Our visiting activist scholars include John Holloway, Jason W. Moore, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, David Graeber, Silvia Federici, Arturo Escobar, Adrienne Pine, and Havin Guneser. We co-sponsor events such as American Indian Movement West conferences, Howard Zinn Bookfair, The Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival, World-Ecology Research Network Annual Conferences, Anarchist Studies Conferences, Revolutionary Organizing Against Racism Conference, and the Institute for Social Ecology summer school. The Anthropology and Social Change Program now has its own book imprint-- Kairos-- with the PM Press publishers.

Course of Study

36 required units of coursework

  • Alternative Political Systems
  • Activist Ethnography I
  • Activist Ethnography II
  • Alternative Economic Systems
  • Other Ways of Being Human: Alternative Sexualities, Family, and Kinship Systems
  • Other Ways of Knowing: Alternative Epistemologies, Rival Knowledge, and Justice Systems
  • Autonomous Seminar (1 unit, taken three times during the course of study)
  • Social Research Methods
  • Directed Seminar in Research

9 units of advisor-approved general electives

Two Comprehensive Exams

Dissertation Proposal

Dissertation Seminar

Admission Requirements

Entry into the Ph.D. program in Anthropology and Social Change requires a master's degree. Students with an MA from another school or from another department at CIIS may require up to one additional year of coursework as part of their Ph.D. program. Students with an MA in Anthropology and Social Change from CIIS do not require additional coursework.

The Anthropology and Social Change Ph.D. concentration is a residential program. We are interested in creating a convivial community of scholars, not competitive academics; we believe in educating intellectuals and not professionals. We believe that professors and students are co-learners and that learning, and knowledge production, is a participatory, inclusive, and horizontal process. Our program is probably not the best fit for those who want to be taught in the vertical space of a traditional classroom. Rather, this is a unique and inspiring place for activist scholars who are passionate about co-creating knowledge that is useful, relevant, and integral.

Applicants must meet the general admissions requirements of the Institute. In addition, two letters of recommendation, one from an academic advisor or someone familiar with the applicant's ability to do academic work, and one from a supervisor in a recent professional or volunteer setting, are required. Applicants are also asked to include a recent sample of scholarly writing. The required autobiographical statement should describe significant events in the applicant's life that have led to the decision to pursue admission to this department. A goal statement that includes areas of academic interest should be included.

Admission to the Ph.D. Program without an MA in Anthropology from CIIS

Students entering the Ph.D. program without an MA in Anthropology and Social Change from CIIS are required to take an additional 12 to 15 units of MA-level coursework within the Anthropology and Social Change Program. Students may require an additional year in which to complete these courses.

Once students are admitted, advisors will facilitate the drafting of a tailored curriculum contract that incorporates these additional courses and suggests a timeline. These additional courses include three of the following five courses:

  • Ideas for Action: Social Theory for Radical Change
  • Global Social Movements
  • Unthinking Social Science
  • Radical Theory
  • Radical Political Economy

Application Requirements

  • Online Admissions Application
    Begin the application process by submitting an online graduate application and submitting the non-refundable $65 application fee payment.
  • Degree Requirement
    A bachelor's and master's degree (or their equivalents from a regionally accredited institution.
  • Minimum GPA
    A GPA of 3.0 or higher in previous coursework is required. However, a GPA below 3.0 does not automatically disqualify an applicant and CIIS will consider a prospective student whose GPA is between 2.0 and 3.0. These individuals are required to submit a GPA Statement and are encouraged to contact the Office of Admissions to discuss their options.
  • Transcripts
    Official transcripts from all accredited academic institutions attended where 7 or more credits have been earned. If transcripts are being mailed to CIIS, they must arrive in their official, sealed envelopes. Transcripts from institutions outside the US or Canada require a foreign credit evaluation through World Education Services (WES) or CIIS will also accept foreign credential evaluations that are in a comprehensive course-by-course format from the current members of the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES).
  • Autobiographical Statement
    A four-to-six page (typed, double-spaced) introspective autobiographical statement discussing your values, emotional and spiritual insights, aspirations, and life experiences that have led to your decision to apply.
  • Goal Statement
    A one-page (typed, double-spaced) statement of your educational and professional objectives.
  • Two Letters of Recommendation
    Recommenders should use standard business format and include full contact information-name, email, phone number, and mailing address.
  • Academic Writing Sample
    A writing sample of eight to ten pages (typed, double-spaced) that demonstrates your capacity to think critically and reflectively and demonstrates graduate level writing abilities. A sample that uses outside sources must include proper citations. You may submit copies of previous work, such as a recent academic paper, article, or report that reflects scholarly abilities.

International Students

Please note: International students and individuals who have studied at institutions outside the US and Canada have additional requirements.

Last updated Nov 2020

About the School

California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) is an innovative, forward-thinking university based in San Francisco, California.

California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) is an innovative, forward-thinking university based in San Francisco, California. Read less
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