ANTH 423, Dr. Maximilian Forte, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University


Anne-Myriam Abdelhak, 2013, Version 1

(Preliminary editing by Maximilian Forte)

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Apathy comes from the ancient Greek apathies, which means “lack of feeling”. In politics, ancient Athenians praised attentive citizens and condemned the apathetic ones (Bennett, 2001, p. 579). The concept of apathy is studied extensively in many different fields, such as political science, sociology, neuropsychology or applied human sciences. Apathy is mostly studied in relation to political systems and problems of participation in the social sciences, and as pathology in psychology and associated fields. If apathy has been studied extensively in political science especially, it is not until more recently that the concept started to really be discussed in anthropology, a tendency that has increased with the emergence and development of theories of participatory democracy in the 1960s, in which apathy and political participation become crucial issues to be looked at (MacLennan, 1994, p. 51).

Apathy as a concept has its roots in the stoic philosophy of the 4th century BC, and later on in Zeno of Cithium in the third to fourth century BC, and was the object of debates between the Aristotelians, Stoics, and Epicureans, regarding the extent to which pathe, which are emotions and feelings, should be present and rule human lives (Encyclopedia Britannica [EB], 2013).

In anthropology and related fields, the concept really emerges in the 20th-century. Early in the century, anthropologists and ethnographers began to show interest in political participation in relation to specific political cultures, while ethnographers, through their specific community studies, observed apathetic attitudes in particular communities towards their peers and local politics. Those early works studying political participation through the prism of political culture had a strong psychological component and were concerned by how attitudes can be reproduced in societies through socialization (MacLennan, 1994, pp. 53-54). Thus, works such as Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), Mead and Metraux’s The Study of Culture at a Distance (1953), or Gorer’s The American People (1948) explore political participation in relation to particular political culture, and through the analysis of “psychological attitudes and patterns of thought said to characterize the whole society” (MacLennan, 1994, p. 53).

At the same time, ethnographic community studies of small towns in the United States by anthropologists and sociologists also mention apathy, still with the broader goal of describing but not necessarily understanding political participation in certain political cultures. In the United States, it is Franz Boas’s “historical particularism” that dominated, a method that emphasized detailed descriptive studies of particular cultures (Lewellen, 2003, p. 5), which influenced those early community studies. Ethnographers, such as the sociologists Helen and Robert Lynd, and the sociologist-anthropologist Lloyd Warner, were interested in “rituals and symbolism in communities that were also characterized by citizen apathy and disinterest in political activity and participation” (MacLennan, 1994, p. 55).

In their 1937 study, Middletown in Transition, Helen and Robert Lynd observed apathetic attitudes and feelings in a small American town. This study depicted, “a worldview, a culture that reproduces an apathetic response to the political and societal problems of the depression era in this community” (MacLennan, 1994, p. 56). Indeed, faced with hard circumstances and poverty, the citizens’ answer was a highly individualistic attitude, and a belief that change must be individual and not institutional (Lynd & Lynd, 1937, 492 as quoted in MacLennan, 1994, 56). Here, apathy is really understood in terms of individual responsibility, and individualistic attitudes. The Lynds also noticed “a wide disparity between citizen disinterest in local politics and intense interest in national elections,” thus evoking the idea that certain external conditions can stimulate apathetic citizens, like symbols at the national level (MacLennan, 1994, p. 55), while local politics suffer from disinterest, an idea which will be found repeatedly in the study of apathy later on. In a similar type of work, Lloyd Warner’s Democracy in Jonesville (1949) saw apathy in local communities as a “functional” element and part of the “ideology of democracy” that maintains an “open system of social class” in the United States. Apathy here is thus conceptualized as a necessary element for the American liberal democracy (MacLennan, 1994, p. 57). Thus, in the first part of the 20th-century, apathy was understood either as a psychological attitude at the level of the individual, in a “blame-the-victim approach” (MacLennan, 1994, p. 59), or in the case of Warner as a functional element of liberal democracies. The Lynds mention of a dichotomy between local apathy and enthusiasm for national elections underlines that external factors can influence apathetic individual attitudes, and prefigures the shift in the study of apathy in the second half of the century, where the concept is studied much more in terms of external impediments to political participation and apathy provoked by state institutions rather than as an individual or personal issue.

In that train of thought then, Carlos Vélez-Ibañez’s study of Mexican marginalized communities in Rituals of Marginality: Politics, Process, and Culture Change in Urban Central Mexico (1983) sought to “understand how cultural forces, such as myth and ritual, create an impression of national political and economic integration” and by that understand the powerlessness and passiveness at the local level (MacLennan, 1994, p. 67). He thus breaks with the earlier approach, by attributing powerlessness and apathy of this group to “structures of marginalization” or “rituals of marginality”, to use his words, taking place in society and leading to those apathetic attitudes. Another element that explains this passiveness and apathy is the problem of the dichotomy between national and local politics: “Support from the bottom (local-level participants) gives way to a form of coerced management from nonlocal elites, which leads active, local participants into pessimism and eventual withdrawal” (MacLennan, 1994, p. 68). Here the concept of apathy is indicated through the use of terms whose meaning have conventionally been associated with apathy, such as pessimism and withdrawal.

Mentions of apathy and how it is provoked by the state and its institutions become more and more prevalent in anthropology as we move from the end of the 20th-century to the beginning of the 21st-century. Apathy is more and more framed and studied in terms of preventing participation in decision-making processes and opportunities, and as a tool of state management to assert control and domination over a population.

Michael Herzfeld’s The Social Production of Indifference: Exploring the Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy (1993) takes a Weberian approach to understand citizen apathy or involvement. He describes state bureaucracies as an instrument of domination that create boundaries between people, arbitrarily deciding who belong and who does not, and thus influencing citizen apathy or involvement. He portrays this widespread indifference originating from bureaucracies as dangerous apathy as it is an instrument of domination: undermining such power was not brutality but apathy, what Michael Herzfeld has called “indifference”, whose “real danger” is “not that it grows out of the barrel of a gun” but that it too easily become habitual. The banality of power was the affective consequence of a certain public mindset of indifference which, as Herzfeld has so eloquently put it, “is the opium of the state drudge” (Herzfeld, 1993, as quoted by Majumdar, 2013, p. 178). Thus apathy is an attitude cultivated and reproduced by state institutions as an instrument of power. This idea becomes even more present and developed in anthropological texts of the beginning of the 21st-century.

In the same vein as Herzfeld, Florence Piron wrote about apathy as a tool of modern state management, for the control of populations, in an article that she dedicates to Herzfeld’s book. She talks about the political production of indifference in modern societies, an indifference that she relates to highly individualistic attitudes towards others (Piron, 2003, p. 47). This attitude, she says, reflects a “post-modern withdrawal” (“repli sur soi post-moderne”), which resonates with the Lynds’ idea of individualism in explaining apathy, but also a “modern instrumentality” or “modern structure of indifference” that seeks to control the masses and alters human relationships, and diffuses feelings of indifference and apathy as being “normal” in our societies (Piron, 2003, p. 49). Indifference and apathy are thus deliberately encouraged and reproduced through the ideological and social force exercised by the structures of power, and create a “consumer-citizen” that becomes part of this “new public management” where indifference and apathy are necessary elements (Piron, 2003, pp. 49-50).

Another trend suggests that apathy is different from non-participation in politics, thus definitely breaking with the Behaviouralist approach that had dominated the study of apathy especially in the 1950s and 1960s (MacLennan, 1994, p. 51). In Romance of Democracy, Matthew Gutman (2002) makes a distinction between apathy and non-participation, thus adding precision to the concept as it is studied in anthropology: “for many…the right to participate in formal democratic institutions such as elections is quite distinct from the reality of how that participation may actually change Mexico” (Stephen, 2003, p. 287). Marginalized working class persons, while being excluded from mainstream politics, live and act politically in a vibrant but different way inside their communities. Building on Gutman’s input, Jessica Greenberg writing about participation and apathy in the Balkans, posits that non participation, or apathy “can be an expression of complex and sophisticated responses to socio-political contexts”, and thus, can be understood as an active act of rejection (Greenberg, 2010, p. 41).

If new approaches emerge regarding apathy, old ideas also resurface. For example, the idea of a dichotomy between national and local level politics evoked in Susan Schneider’s article on decentralized health reforms in Mexico goes back to Carlos Vélez-Ibañez’s idea of apathy triggered by a discrepancy between political interest of ruling elites and community needs: “since resources are distributed through political parties, they often follow political interests and agendas, rather than community needs” (Schneider, 2007, p. 347). She also points to another structural issue, which is the perceived inefficiency and apathy of the local government that helps reproduce a general feeling of apathy in societies thus mirroring Herzfeld or Piron’s ideas. She explains that “clearly apathy and a lack of political will from “above” trickle down to residents “below” (Schneider, 2007, p. 348).

Similarly, Bernardo Brown’s ethnographic study of Sri Lankan migrant workers in the community of Negambo, Sri Lanka, tries to understand the origin of apathetic attitudes in those communities, a term that he uses interchangeably by looking at the overarching societal structures in this particular community. Apathy here is a result of a lack of opportunities at the national political level, provoking frustration and indifference, but is also understood as a result of an insensitivity of the ruling elites towards lower classes, and especially migrant, experiences (Brown, 2011, p. 45). He explains that the country’s class-based, hierarchical political system does not allow for creativity or deviance, and thus, limits the ability of communities to develop themselves freely (Brown, 2011, p. 55). In the same vein, Jacqueline Haq and Susan Brin Hyatt argue that “community quiescence in the face of drastic local changes is a direct product of particular forms of state interventions, rather than a reflection of citizen apathy,” speaking of the decrease in grassroots activism in England following Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s governments. They recognize that the perceived apathy and decrease in citizen involvement in England is due to specific conservative policies put in place by those governments (Haq & Hyatt, 2008, pp. 212-213). As the main channels for quieting activism and encouraging apathy they list incentives from the top to fracture communities and encourage individualism, policies that circumvent the role of local structures, an emphasis of consumerism, and the introduction of new regimes of policing and surveillance. In that sense, the idea of a new state management and consumer-client expressed by Piron is also present here in a more concrete way, as it relies on facts in England during that period.

More recently, apathy in anthropology has also been studied in relation to social movement theories, especially by Chad Morris in relation to resource mobilization theory. Indeed, by seeking to understand how broad-coalitions could be formed more effectively and be more inclusive, he mentions and explores reasons and barriers to non-participation such as being part of a cultural minority (Morris, 2011, pp. 57-58).

Finally, apathy has also been explored in visual anthropology. Juan Orrantia, a Columbian visual anthropologist, studied the impact of extreme political violence on places and people. He describes how intense experiences of remembered terror are “leakages in ordinary experience of banality, passivity, apathy” (Orrantia, 2012, p. 50). He mentions apathetic attitudes of the local population, and a “sensual relation to heat” that creates a “geography of power” where the general attitude appears as lethargy and apathy (Orrantia, 2012, p. 53). The memories of massacres and terror with a political origin break this pervasive and communicative apathy and constitute intense moments in the “crevices of boredom” (Orrantia, 2012, p. 67).

Thus, today, apathy in anthropology is mostly studied as a consequence of deliberate state polices, and as a systemic issue that relates to the way the state functions. Apathy is also even more relevant to study today, especially in anthropology, as it has become one of the most important issues of our societies, and a key element preventing modern societies from moving towards more participatory forms of democracy.


Benedict, R. (1946). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Bennett, S. E. (2001). Apathy. In N. J. Smelser, & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (pp. 579-581). Oxford: Pergamon.

Brown, B. (2011). Indifference with Sri Lankan migrants. Ethnology, 50(1), 43-58.

Encyclopedia Britannica (EB). (2013). Apathy. Retrieved from: http://0www.britannica.com.mercury.concordia.ca/EBchecked/topic/29376/apathy

Gorer, G. (1948). The American People. New York: Houston.

Greenberg, J. (2010). “There’s Nothing Anyone Can Do about it”: Participation, Apathy, and “Successful” Democratic Transition in Postsocialist Serbia. Slavic Review, 69(1), 41-64.

Gutman, M.C. (2002). The Romance of Democracy: Compliant Defiance in Contemporary Mexico. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Haq, J., & Hyatt, S. B. (2008). Paradoxes of “Progressive” Government: Urban Policy Under New Labour and the Decline of Grassroots Activism in England. Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, 37(2), 211-249.

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MacLennan, C. (1994). Democratic Participation: A View from Anthropology . In S. Forman, (Ed.), Diagnosing America: Anthropology and Public Engagement (pp. 51-74). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Majumdar, Saikat. (2013). Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mead, M. & Metraux, R. (1953). The Study of Culture at a Distance. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Morris, C. T. (2011). Assessing and Achieving Diversity of Participation in the Grant-Inspired Community-Based Public Health Coalition. Annals of Anthropological Practice, 35(2), 43-65.

Orrantia, J. (2012). Where the Air Feels Heavy: Boredom and the Textures of the Aftermath. Visual Anthropology Review, 28(1), 50-69.

Piron, F. (2003). La production politique de l’indifférence dans le Nouveau management public. Anthropologie et Sociétés, 27 (3), 47-71.

Schneider, S. (2007). Constructing Healthy Municipalities: The Dogma and Dilemmas of Decentralization in Mexico. Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, 36(4), 321-355.

Stephen, L. (2003). The Romance of Democracy: Compliant Defiance in Contemporary Mexico (review). The Americas, 60 (2), 286-288.

Vélez-Ibañez, C. (1983). Rituals of Marginality: Politics, Process, and Culture Change in Urban Central Mexico, 1969-1974. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Warner, L. (1949). Democracy in Jonesville: A Study in Quality and Inequality. New York: Harper & Row.