Refusal as Ethnographic Concept: An Interview with Carole McGranahan, Elisa Sobo, and Erica Weiss

The August 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology featured an Openings and Retrospectives collection on “Theorizing Refusal,” edited by Carole McGranahan. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Charles A. McDonald conducted with three of the four members of the Theorizing Refusal collective: Carole McGranahan, Elisa Sobo, and Erica Weiss. In the spirit of the project, Audra Simpson had to “refuse” to participate due to time constraints, but graciously endured the barrage of emails involved in answering these interview questions.

Charles A. McDonald: Could you tell our readers a bit about how this collection came together? Was refusal already a concept or an analytic that you were all leaning on in your work? Or did you come to find it useful in the wake of conversations about projects that might have otherwise seemed quite disparate? More broadly, can you reflect on what the process of organizing a collection of essays around a concept does to how you think about your work and its relationship to other conversations and interlocutors?

Carole McGranahan: Four minds are more powerful than one. All of us were working with the concept of refusal in our research: Erica with military refusers in Israel, Elisa with vaccine refusal communities in California, and Audra with refusal as method and theory in Kahnawà:ke Mohawk political practices, including her own. I was in the middle of an article on Tibetan exiles’ refusal of citizenship in India and Nepal, and I was feeling stuck: theories of resistance didn’t fully capture what was happening on the ground, and the literature on refusal was still in formation. When Cultural Anthropology issued a call for proposals for the new Openings and Retrospectives section that included a focus on “emergent thematics and analytics,” I saw an opportunity. I invited colleagues already working on refusal to join in a collective theorizing of it. The goal was to draw on our individual research to think collectively about refusal in a broader sense. Thus, while our own individual essays benefited from close readings by the others and from our shared conversations about all four of our individual essays, our intent was to go beyond sharper insights into the specific contexts in which we each work. Instead, we sought to theorize refusal as an ethnographic, as well as political, concept. 

This was an intense project, which took a year from conception to publication, including Cultural Anthropology's rigorous peer-review process. All of us had worked with others before on coauthored pieces, edited volumes, and the like, but this was different. We collaborated on the initial proposal, read and commented on each other’s essays in multiple draft forms, including reading and responding to others’ comments on others’ essays. Ideas, questions, confusions—all were circulated and responded to generously, in a time frame that sometimes felt dizzying, but that was ultimately energetic and productive. Although I wrote the introductory essay solo (following a group deliberation about authorship), Audra, Elisa, and Erica each read and commented on it. What did the collective aspect of this collection mean for our work? It was an immediate, intense, and dialogic process. It included exhaustive reading of the literature, writing and revising, and corresponding with reviewers, but it centered on a committed group with whom to work out theoretical arguments and implications. Reading across ethnographic examples made commonalities in our cases stand out such that our theorizing came to be based on a range of cultural practices and concepts. The idea of refusal as generative or affiliative, for example, is found in each of our research contexts, allowing us to make theoretical claims for the concept beyond our own cases. Cultural anthropologists do not usually get to do such real-time collective theorizing, especially in single-authored pieces. Refusal as a topic felt emergent to us, and the Openings and Retrospectives format challenged us to write the theoretical essays we had searched for but had not found.

Charles A. McDonald: A common theme across your essays (and the four theses you propose) is that thinking with refusal allows us to step back from the state as the assumed ground zero of the political and, therefore, as that to which critical anthropology ought to be paying attention, first and foremost. Can you tell us more about why this move is important in your work?

Erica Weiss: There is a tension here. On the one hand, one has to acknowledge the power that states have over individual lives—to conscript them, to bestow and withdraw rights, to set the terms of engagement. In some ways, each of our cases of refusal revolves around states and what relations of reciprocity are to be created with them. What are people willing to give up to be on good terms with the state? Or, in our cases, what are they not willing to give up? On the other hand, each of us is very careful not to naturalize the state as the sole or primary site of the political. In The Paradox of Relevance, Carol Greenhouse (2011) pointed out that the state and its policies have often been the implicit target of anthropological efforts, because many saw this as a way to have an impact in the so-called real world. But one side effect of this orientation has been to reify the state’s importance, which hardly contributes to a critical approach.

As a concept, refusal allows us to avoid this pitfall. Through description and contextualization, we illustrate that our interlocutors live in a world in which the Westphalian state system is both historically delimited and presently hegemonic. At the same time, in highlighting cases of refusal, we draw attention to moments when attention is shifted away from the state to life beyond the state. Refusal enables us to expose political spaces that are organized and managed otherwise. While seeking to limit state violence, dissidents tend to lionize the state and its power even more than its defenders, producing analytic myopia. Perhaps the most powerful critique is to show people living lives, not locked in eternal combat with the state, but rather walking away.

Charles A. McDonald: The final line of the collection’s introduction is an invitation to think “through refusal as ethnographic concept and practice”; the language of concepts surfaces in Carole and Elisa’s pieces as well. Could one or both of you expand a bit on how and why approaching refusal as a concept is generative for you, and how it is related to thinking about practices of refusal?

Carole McGranahan: Theory is about concepts and practices, neither of which exist in abstractions. My inspiration here comes from my mentor Ann Laura Stoler, who has long insisted on the importance of concept work—that is, in constantly revisiting the intellectual work that concepts do in illuminating our thinking and moving it forward. Or not. I can hear Ann’s voice as I write: if a concept or theory doesn’t work for you, then don’t use it, no matter how entrenched or trendy it might be. In her scholarship, concept work means constantly questioning and retuning our theoretical and methodological approaches. Our collective work on refusal came about in this fashion, through the recognition of practices and commitments that existing theoretical concepts did not and could not fully capture. As Audra’s work had already shown, refusal was not something else; it was refusal and needed to be named and theorized as such. Our theorizing of refusal is thus responsive to what is needed now. As such, concept work is always provisional, resting on the ways that a theoretical term—and also methodological practice—emerges out of and speaks to on-the-ground ethnographic, historical, and political realities.

Charles A. McDonald: The question of how the self or the subject is produced, undone, or transformed in the staking out of ethical claims about citizenship, belonging, and identification cuts across all of these essays. In what ways might training more ethnographic attention on refusal enable us to conceive of the subject or self differently than anthropologists have been doing in recent years?  

Elisa Sobo: There has been a lot of focus on the soft parts of selfhood: the situational, partial, shifting bits. Those exist in regard to refusal, but hard parts do too: the bits of identity that people will cling to even when they become impractical (e.g., when they may lead to one’s death) or when empirical experience shows that the identification is wrong. This is how some have explained the hard line taken by full-out vaccine refusers: they have invested so much time and effort in the stance that they cannot bear to see things any other way. It becomes important to their self-conceptions to prove that vaccination is wrong. A similar desperation can exist for those fully on the other end of the spectrum, such as scientists who have staked their careers on the idea that vaccination is an unequivocal good.

Erica Weiss: In recent years, anthropologists have discussed how we might understand the ethical subject. James Laidlaw (2002), in particular, has contributed a great deal to this discussion. He draws our attention to an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, we know that the self is shaped and formed through socialization and interaction. Anthropology, following Durkheim, has long focused on the social forces that constrain and determine the subject, an approach that Zygmunt Bauman (1988) describes as “the science of unfreedom.” On the other hand, we regularly observe freedom, not in the Western ideological sense, but in the subject’s ability to reflect on her own tradition, to evaluate and judge social norms and values. Refusal, as we are trying to develop it, is an elegant way to acknowledge this tension. A focus on refusal allows for a subject who can make a judgment, without the expectation of jumping beyond the constraints of her social reality. She can make an intervention without having at hand a manifesto that fully articulates an alternative. She can say “no, not that” without really knowing what the future holds, or even what she is holding out for. She only knows that there is something better. In Carole’s case, Tibetan refugees can’t know what citizenship alternatives might arrive or when. My draft-dodging interlocutors don’t yet have a grammar for the political approach they are trying to develop. Though they are constrained by their social contexts, these people have decided that something is not right, even if they do not have a fully developed philosophical or political counterclaim. In this sense, the concept of refusal brings the anthropology of becoming (see Biehl and Locke 2010) to a very concrete level.

Charles A. McDonald: Perhaps because my own work is focused on return as an ethnographic concept, I couldn’t help but think about return as conceptual kin to refusal as I read your essays. In the case of Audra and Carole’s pieces, return is explicit, connected to questions of citizenship, territory, and nation. In the essays by Elisa and Erica, it is perhaps more oblique: refusal to vaccinate one’s children might be understood as embodying an argument or theory about a return to a time/place in which the bodies of children were not claimed as sites of necessary medical intervention. Of course, the notion of return is foundational for the state of Israel and embedded in the rhetorics with which potential citizens and soldiers are invited to recognize and be recognized by the state. Does return offer any traction for you in thinking about the forms of refusal that structure affiliation, hope, and belonging among those with whom you work?

Elisa Sobo: We agree: to refuse can be to return, whether to the past, to one’s homeland, or to traditional ways. Yet to refuse also can be to advance; for instance, to progress via a refusal of technologies that did not live up to their promise or that have been surpassed. Examples of both aspects of refusal are seen in my new research, which concerns the medicinal use of cannabis (medical marijuana, or MMJ). To use cannabis as medicine is of course to refuse biomedical hegemony. But there is another layer of refusal here, too: the refusal of particular modalities. At this level, these refusers—cannabis users—divide themselves. Some patients refuse the new, industrially fabricated edibles, tinctures, oils, and vaporizing technologies whose active ingredients are chemicals such as CBD, CBN, THC, and THCA. These chemicals have been isolated from the plants in which they grew. For this reason, many patients reject them: they prefer old-fashioned ways to ingest whole-plant MMJ, such as through pipes or homemade edibles. These refusers generally refer to their medicine as marijuana or use other words that reference the whole plant.   Other patients actually prefer industrially controlled, chemistry-based formulations, favoring their consistency (when properly prepared and tested) and the knowledge of exactly what they contain over the guesswork involved in reliance on whole plants. These refusers look forward, not back; they see cannabis-based medicines as an advance over even modern pharmaceuticals, which often have nefarious side effects that, with cannabis, they believe can be avoided. They rarely use lay terms in describing the medicine and, in addition to using the plant’s scientific name, they generally go further, speaking not of the plant but of the exact chemicals (and ratios thereof) through which they find relief.

So while the first class of patients sees MMJ as a form of return, the latter clearly sees it as an advance. There are opportunities for affiliation on either side. There are also a number of in-between or situational positions, but that is another story. At this point, the polarization we associate with the pro- and anti-vaccine groups has not yet taken hold, although faction boundaries may stiffen in the coming year as a number of legislative battles unfold.  


Bauman, Zygmunt. 1988. Freedom. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Biehl, João, and Peter Locke. 2010. “Deleuze and the Anthropology of Becoming.” Current Anthropology 51, no. 3: 317–51.

Greenhouse, Carol J. 2011. The Paradox of Relevance: Ethnography and Citizenship in the United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Laidlaw, James. 2002. “For an Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8, no. 2: 311–32.