UA Scholars to Explore Global Politics and Culture in Sawyer Seminar supported by Mellon Foundation

Oct. 9, 2019

A grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will allow the UA to create a Sawyer Seminar – in essence a year-long research center – on the role neoliberalism has played in the surge of right-wing populism across the globe.

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Right-wing populism has risen sharply in many parts of the world, especially since the economic crisis of 2008. In a year-long seminar, an interdisciplinary team of University of Arizona scholars will examine the role that neoliberalism has played in this shifting political climate. 

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the UA a grant of $225,000 to support a Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures, titled “Neoliberalism at the Neopopulist Crossroads.”

Sawyer Seminars are essentially temporary research centers that bring together faculty, foreign visitors, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from a variety of fields – mainly in the arts, humanities and social sciences – for intensive study of subjects chosen by the participants.

“We are grateful to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for this prestigious award and their commitment to addressing some of the biggest social issues of our time,” said Elizabeth Cantwell, senior vice president for research and innovation at the University of Arizona. “This is the first time the UA has received this Sawyer Seminar grant, and it reinforces the university’s commitment to bringing people together to research some of our most pressing issues.”

The scholars will explore how neoliberalism, which favors free-market capitalism, is not just as an economic doctrine, but a strategy to exert market forces on areas of social life. For example, recent scholarship on neoliberalism examines how it redefines modern individualism and shapes people as figures of self-interest.

In the past decade, neoliberalism has collided with a surging backlash of right-wing neopopulism and nationalism that frequently opposes neoliberal flows of peoples and goods. The UA seminar will re-evaluate prevailing theories of neoliberalism and consider to what extent the new populist movements and governments represent a forceful reaction to the changes effected by neoliberalism.


The scholars will focus on three principal case studies: the United States in relation to Latin America, the European Union in relation to North Africa and the Middle East, and India in relation to Pakistan.

Seven themes will guide the year’s programming: genealogy, subjectivity, crisis, borders, race, media and resistance. Reading group meetings on each of the themes will alternate with public seminar events. An international symposium of distinguished scholars will take place in spring 2021.

As part of the programming, Adela C. Licona, the interim director of BorderLinks, will curate a Border Zone Community Forum, inviting community groups to share the impacts of neoliberal and neopopulist policies and discourses on life in the borderlands.

The seminar will culminate in a major publication as well as a website that will include archives of events, a bibliography for further research, and curricular materials.

The UA’s Sawyer Seminar will be led by principal investigator Leerom Medovoi, professor in the Department of English, which is housed in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

“We are excited that The Mellon Foundation is giving us this opportunity to make sense of the rapid political and social changes that we have been seeing globally over the last five years,” Medovoi said. “Neoliberalism and its long-term effects are clearly connected to this explosion of right-wing populisms across the globe, and the accompanying resurgence of racism and xenophobia, trade wars and border-building.”

Medovoi added, “We wanted to bring this talented and diverse group of faculty together to develop a deeper understanding of how that relationship works. These are the kind of big question that require scholars from many disciplines and with different forms of expertise to think together.”

The UA team of scholars includes: Anna Reynolds Cooper in the School of Theatre, Film and Television; David Gibbs in the Department of History; Mark Kear in the School of Geography and Development; Marcia Klotz in the Departments of English and Gender and Women’s Studies; Eithne Luibheid in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies; Hai Ren in the Department of East Asian Studies; Brian Silverstein in the School of Anthropology; and Ragini Tharoor Srinivisan in the Department of English. 

Sawyer Seminar awards also provide support for one postdoctoral fellow and for the dissertation research of two graduate students.

The Graduate Program in Social, Cultural and Critical Theory, the Department of English, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry will be providing support and collaboration on this project.

Jane Zavisca, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Social and Behavioral Science, said that the UA’s Sawyer Seminar will advance The Mellon Foundation’s mission to strengthen the contributions of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies.

“The historical and comparative breadth provides an opportunity to step back from the crises of the day to think deeply and critically about the origins and consequences of populist backlash to global, political and economic transformations.” Zavisca said.