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Reversing the Gaze

'Reversing the Gaze’ is a £2.1 million, four-year project that studies political phenomena in Europe through concepts developed in and from the Global South. By ‘reversing our gaze’ – that is, studying Europe through the Global South, rather than analysing the South through ideal-types developed from Europe – it aims to generate new empirical insights into European politics, and new methodological and theoretical perspectives on conducting comparisons.

reflections of tree and sky on clear ball

Edinburgh Law School is the lead organisation for a case study on social welfare spending. This study asks: why does such a large volume of social welfare funds, collected and earmarked for the benefit of specific vulnerable groups, remain unspent and unallocated - in spite of the political promises made to those groups?

Beginning in India, where tens of billions of pounds remain unspent, the case develops theories to answer that question. It then “reverses the gaze” and applies those theories to Italy, to explore the underspending of billions of Euros of European Structural Funds. Through this comparison, the project explores how theories of the administrative state from the Global South might travel to the Global North.

Project team and affiliates

Dr Deval Desai, Principal Investigator, University of Edinburgh

Dr Sruthi Herbert, University of Edinburgh

Dr Christine Lutringer, Graduate Institute Geneva

Sapna Reheem Shaila, University of Edinburgh

Anna Rita Ceddia, Fondazione Bruno Visentini

Dr Himanshu Upadhyaya, Azim Premji University

Project fellows

Arjun Appadurai, New York University

Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

Luciano Monti, LUISS Guido Carli, Rome

Shalini Randeria, Central European University

Is it possible to compare the political dimensions of people’s lives across the Global North and South? This question raises fundamental debates about the nature of comparison, and how it works. Is such comparison inevitably Eurocentric, carried out with implied (or even overt) reference to political ideals and concepts that were developed precisely to distinguish between the “West” and the “Rest”, the colonizer and the colonized? And if so, can something analytically productive be salvaged from the project of political comparison across the Global North and South?

The project uses a “conceptual laboratory” to test the analytic purchase of mid-level political concepts. This laboratory entails practices of reciprocal comparison (i.e. looking at Northern contexts through the Global South, and vice versa). The key critical theoretical assumption is the idea of “reversing the gaze”, or deploying concepts developed in the Global South to the North.

Three mid-level concepts derived from the Global South are applied to politics in Europe: “re-tribalisation”, “political society” and “the cunning state”. The European empirical case studies are Austria (right-wing populism), Italy (social welfare spending) and Switzerland (citizenship and migration).

The project’s approach will offer innovative and conceptually out-of-the-box perspectives to the cases, differing from those derived and developed exclusively within and against a European background. The project’s scholarly outcomes include potentially new perspectives on comparison; a critical engagement with “universal” concepts and the politics of conceptual travel; and practical visions on how to imbue the pursuit of knowledge with a concern for ethical and political issues.

Visit the ‘Reversing the Gaze’ website to learn more

‘Reversing the Gaze’ is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation’s Sinergia programme. The four-year project is led by a consortium at the University of Basel, the University of Zurich, and the University of Edinburgh. The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, is a Swiss partner; international partners are based in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.

Journal articles

Deval Desai and Shalini Randeria, “Unfreezing Unspent Social Special-Purpose Funds for the Covid-19 Crisis: Critical Reflections from India”, 136 World Development (2020), 1-4

Book chapters

Deval Desai, Shalini Randeria and Christine Lutringer, “Redefining Vulnerability and State-Society Relationships During the Covid-19 Crisis: The Politics of Social Welfare Funds in India and Italy”, in Maduro, M.P., and Kahn, P. W. (eds.), Democracy in Times of Pandemic (2020), 182-195 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Blog posts

“Administrative Codes? Coding and Capital in the Global South” (review of Pistor, Code of Capital), Indian Journal of International Economic Law (April 2021).


Christine Lutringer and Sruthi Herbert, Unspent Funds: Mobilisation and Accountability Post-COVID’, Research Colloquium, Fall Semester 2021: “Making concepts work”, 27 October 2021

Sruthi Herbert, Rather Misspent than Unspent? Examining the Use of Welfare Funds for Pandemic Relief in India, Work in Progress discussion, School of Law, University of Edinburgh, 11 October 2021

Deval Desai, “Reversing the gaze: Methodological reflections on studying India and Italy as ‘cunning states’”, SCRIPTS Theory Network Workshop on Post- and Decolonial Perspectives on Contestations of the Liberal Script, 9 September 2021

Deval Desai, Roundtable on Faculty Scholarship, Global Scholars' Academy, 18 August 2021

Sruthi Herbert, Rather Misspent than Unspent?: Examining the Use of Welfare Funds for Pandemic Relief in India, Law Schools Global League Summer Conference 2021, Edinburgh Law School, 21 July 2021

Deval Desai, Roundtable on Law, Covid, and Crisis, Edinburgh Legal Theory Festival, 2 June 2021

Deval Desai, “Reversing the Gaze: Building a Theory of Administrative State Forms from the Global South”, Amsterdam Center for International Law Public Lecture Series, 17 May 2021

Deval Desai, Public roundtable, International Law and Distribution, Glasginburgh 2021: International Law and Distribution, 14 May 2021

Deval Desai, Democracy in Times of Pandemic, South African Association of Political Studies and Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, 5 May 2021


Review Workshop for the IDP Journal Special issue on ‘The puzzle of unspent funds: Implications across developmental contexts’, 30 November  – 1 December 2021

  • Approximately US$4.2 billion of the Indian government’s US$22.6 billion spending as emergency relief due to the pandemic came from a vast pile of unspent social special-purpose funds.
  • The causes of the initial underspending are not only bureaucratic and technical, but also institutional and political.
  • The remobilisation of these funds to combat Covid-19 transforms state-society relations, in particular ideas about social vulnerability, state obligations, and good governance. 
  • It is possible to argue that “democracy is also being transformed by significant changes in the states fiscal arrangements and its political economy”, as revealed through these funds.  

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About the series

This series of discussions and events engages with how we think, observe, and comprehend legal phenomena, practices, objects, relations in a comparative fashion. We are reminded that legal notions, and our understanding of them - such as “the rule of law”, “the state”, “bureaucracy”, or “rights” – cross many boundaries today: geographic, disciplinary, cultural, political, social, and more. At the same time, in comparative work, we demand some way of thinking about these notions such that they can be separated out and compared. How can we do both at once – or, indeed, should we?

Bringing a range of scholars from the disciplines of law, political science, international development, sociology, economics and anthropology, the series will explore the kinds of methodological reflexivity and sensitivity that can aid in, problematize, and challenge comparative work about big legal notions – particularly work that spans the Global North and South.

The first strand of discussions in the series will engage with the notion of the “rule of law”, from sociological studies of efforts to “promote” it in the Global South, to the use of comparative literature to reveal its colonial pasts and futures at the international level.

Upcoming events

Rule of Law Intermediaries: Brokering Influence in Myanmar

Date: Thu 21 October 2021

Time: 14:00-15:30

Location: Virtual via Zoom

Speaker: Dr. Kristina Simion, Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs' Asia Programme

About this seminar


Dr. Kristina Simion will talk about her newly published book "Rule of Law Intermediaries: Brokering Influence in Myanmar". By focusing on the decade of Myanmar's political transformation, the book explores rule of law assistance through the practice and experience of intermediaries, their capital, strategies and challenges. How do intermediaries influence the field, and the ways in which the rule of law is brokered transnationally? And why do they matter? In the book, Kristina relates her research to law and sociology to bring to light these neglected players, focusing on who they are, the influence they have, their double agency and their crucial importance in establishing trust and translating rule of law. Relying on rich empirical data collected in Myanmar, the book shares the voices of the individuals that help to steer societal change within authoritarian confines. The seminar will also discuss the available theoretical and empirical strategies for exploring the work of intermediaries as well as questions of positionality and access to challenging research settings. More information about the book in the book flyer.

Register for the event