Populism in conflict

Populism in conflict

introduction to the essay series
31 May 2022
by Julian Kuttig
populism JKUTTIG

Populism has become a buzzword in popular and media discourses in recent years. Academic debates on the concept of populism—what it is and is not, where to look for it, and its normative prescription—have been highly contested. A considerable but disparate field of study has emerged from minimal definitions to vernacular descriptions to propositions to drop the concept altogether. This essay series attempts to critically explore the concepts' possibilities and limitations to find a common language for similar phenomena in disparate contexts. Inspired by the discipline of critical conflict studies, this essay series intends to transcend colonial constructions of differentiation by bridging the still prevailing Global South/North divide in academic literature while simultaneously considering context specificity and uncovering populist vernaculars.

The genealogy of populism studies can be subdivided into four waves of scholarship. The earliest originated in a conference attended by a multidisciplinary cohort of primarily European scholars in 1967 at the London School of Economics, with the conference proceedings published in an edited volume (Ionescu and Gellner 1969). Those early scholars addressed the rise of a "global populism"—a variety of disparate phenomena—primarily in what they considered "pre-modern states" located in Africa, Asia, and then communist Eastern Europe (Pappas 2016).


The second (1970s-1980s) and third wave (1980s-1990s) concentrated specifically on political developments in Latin America. The former group (e.g., Di Tella 1965; Germani 1978) sought to understand the socio-economic determinants of mass political movements and the structural conditions under which lower classes entered the political community through populist movements in post-war decades and times of import substitution industrialization. The latter scholars (e.g., Roberts 1995; Weyland 1999) described a new "breed" of populist politicians who were able to implement neoliberal policies while simultaneously maintaining remarkably high levels of popular support: neo-populism. However, both waves remained primarily confined to Latin America's specific spatio-temporal context and socio-economic realities.


In the fourth wave (1990s-today), the study of populism has been growing exponentially, effectively making it a modern buzzword. Initially, this renewed interest in populism was largely based on the idea that a powerful populist zeitgeist has been challenging Western democracies (e.g., Mudde 2004). As a consequence, populism has been increasingly studied in its relationship to representative politics (e.g., Canovan 1999; Taggart 2002), radical democracy (Laclau 2005), and political liberalism (e.g., Pappas 2019). More recently, the study of populism has gone global. Cases such as Duterte's authoritarian "penal populism" in the Philippines (Curato 2016, 2017) or Modi's "Hindu-nationalist populism" in India (Chatterji, Angana, Hansen, and Jaffrelot 2019) are just the most prominent examples in a growing list of disparate types of populism uncovered in various parts of the world, which led some scholars (e.g., Moffitt 2016) to announce a renewed "rise of global populism".

Although there is no agreement over a common definition of populism among scholars, there is minimal overlap in its described characteristics. Populism then appears in the guise of a (thin-centered) ideology (Mudde 2004), discourse (Hawkins 2009), or style (Moffitt 2016) that pits a whatsoever constructed notion of "the pure people" against an equally vaguely constructed "corrupted elite". Other key elements are the notion of a volonté générale (will of the people), social homogenization, polarization, and charismatic leadership.


Overall, however, the quest to consistently conceptualize populism has not made much headway since the early attempts by the pioneering scholars in the late 1970s, which has led some scholars (e.g., Art 2020) to question the analytical value of the concept altogether. Two key points of contention are a) whether populism offers an added value in relation to other concepts such as authoritarianism, nativism, or nationalism and b) whether its normative indeterminacy emphasizes redeeming qualities of such ideological or discursive regimes. However, both of these caveats may also be an expression of the concept's strength.

Approaching populism as a distinct but contextualized phenomenon that can appear in combination with disparate political regimes and ideologies allows for the blurring of the Global North/South divide. A line, as William Mazzarella (2019, 48) suggests, "that was [...] always more ideological than empirical" and that populisms "markedly illiberal practices that were popularly supposed to be signs of the Global South's liberal lag (i.e., residual savagery) are now explicitly acknowledged as ordinary political currency in the centers of the Global North."


Regarding the question of normative valuation of populism, the very vague notion of a generic and normative liberalism—generally perceived by postcolonial and critical scholars as a (neo-)colonial instrument, serving as a "critical foil against which the nonliberal (illiberal? postliberal?) practices" or life-worlds of people in the Global South are measured—appears to be the basis of normative considerations. Thus, an approach that refrains from taking the liberal shorthand as a basis for normative conceptualizations of populism may thus enable a common terminology or academic language—tearing down fictional, ideological, and repressive walls—and enable a productive conversation across cases in the Global South and North.

While the study of populism has become a common currency in the political sciences, the essays in this series contribute to the debate on populism from the multidisciplinary perspective of critical conflict studies. Starting from this premise, the diverse essays aim to showcase vernacular forms of populism both in the Global South and North, which may appear as both pathology or remedy of distressed democracies as well as in opposition to or in consolidation with authoritarian regimes, facilitating a critical engagement with populism and pondering over its complicated relationship with (il)liberalism.


Julian Kuttig  is a postdoctoral researcher at the Conflict Research Group at Ghent University.

This blogpost introduces a number of essays on populism. The essays can be found here.


 Art, David. 2020. “The Myth of Global Populism.” Perspectives on Politics, 1–13.

Canovan, Margaret. 1999. “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy.” Political Studies 47: 2–16.

Chatterji, Angana, P., Thomas Blom Hansen, and Christophe Jaffrelot, eds. 2019. Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism Is Changing India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Curato, Nicole. 2016. “Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope: Penal Populism and Duterte’s Rise to Power.” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 35 (3): 91–109.

———. 2017. “Flirting with Authoritarian Fantasies? Rodrigo Duterte and the New Terms of Philippine Populism.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 47 (1): 142–53.

Germani, Gino. 1978. Authoritarianism, Fascism, and National Populism. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Inc.

Hawkins, Kirk A. 2009. “Is Chávez Populist?: Measuring Populist Discourse in Comparative Perspective.” Comparative Political Studies42 (8): 1040–67.

Ionescu, Ghita, and Ernest Gellner, eds. 1969. Populism: Its Meanings and National Characteristics. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. On Populist Reason. London and New York: Verso.

Mazzarella, William. 2019. “The Anthropology of Populism: Beyond the Liberal Settlement.” Annual Review of Anthropology 48: 45–60.

Moffitt, Benjamin. 2016. The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mudde, Cas. 2004. “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition 39 (4): 542–63.

Pappas, Takis S. 2016. “Modern Populism: Research Advances, Conceptual and Methodological Pitfalls, and the Minimal Definition.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, 1–24.

———. 2019. Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roberts, Kenneth M. 1995. “Neoliberalism and the Transformation of Populism: The Peruvian Case.” World Politics 48 (1): 82–116.

Taggart, Paul. 2002. “Populism and the Pathology of Representative Politics.” In Democracies and the Populist Challenge, edited by Yves Mény and Yves Surel, 62–80. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tella, Torcuato Di. 1965. “Populism and Reform in Latin America.” In Obstacles to Change in Latin America, edited by Veliz. Claudio, 47–74. Oxfort: Oxfort University Press.

Weyland, Kurt. 1999. “Neoliberal Populism in Latin America and Eastern Europe.” Comparative Politics 31 (4): 379–401.

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