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This dissertation uses a reexamination of the contemporary New England town meeting to argue that mainstream Euro-American discourses about political “participation” have become too stereotyped to be useful, for analytic and normative purposes alike. I work at the intersection of participatory democracy studies and the anthropology of democracy, two fields that have had little interchange to date, but whose enormous affinity I establish. From this intersection, I use a suite of ethnographic, historical, and quantitative methods to examine how residents of “Northmont,” a town of 1,200 people in northern Vermont, actually practice town meeting democracy, and how the iconic image of town meeting in U.S. culture alternately informs and obscures the ways that they participate. Building on recent anthropological work that has provincialized normative Euro-American models of democracy, I show that those models are a procrustean bed for democratic practices “at home” too, and I develop various alternative idioms to describe Northmonters’ participation. Rather than build to a new and improved overall concept of participation, however, I instead suggest that a commitment to ethnographic ways of thinking helps us to understand that there cannot be any such thing. Taking inspiration from participant observation and participatory democracy as methodologies for transcending stereotypes, we instead are pointed toward a reflexive, interactional, never-settled approach to understanding participation.


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