Petitions and Petitioning: Voice, Politics, Practices, Codes, Technologies

Jane and Aatos Erkko Professorship Academic Conference
2–3 May 2019

Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki
Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation

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In this conference, participants will explore a historically and geographically widespread yet highly varied practice of making claims and seeking justice: petitioning, as well as its conceptual and material form, the petition. With addressees ranging from imperial China to the Ottoman Empire, from the British Parliament to the League of Nations, from state authorities to multinational corporations, individuals and groups have long used petitions as a means of voicing desires, claims and demands to more powerful figures or institutions with something to bestow: things, protection, rights, recognition, pardon, even life itself. Petitioning goes beyond mere communication. Typically it aims to constitute a social relation between petitioner and addressee and to instigate a response, though in this, the petitioner may be disappointed. Petitions may also be written to address the “plight” of others. Similarly, petitions may be accompanied or supported by various advocates. When published in print or digital media, they may be addressed as much to a wider public as to the explicitly named addressee. Furthermore, petitions might be construed as having a kind of agency: of instigating processes, generating relationships, having a social life and even a career.

Such observations prompt a range of questions: What is a petition? How is it distinguished from other forms of application and appeal? What linguistic codes govern the form and composition of petitions? What etiquettes must they observe in order to be received, heard and acted upon? What politics frame petitioning? What political relations are expressed through petitioning? What can, and cannot, be said? What technologies are entailed in writing, supporting, delivering, presenting, examining and responding to petitions? Who are involved in making, receiving and responding to petitions, and who are excluded? What can be said about the agency of petitions, particularly (though not only) in our times when online petitions may be signed by ‘bots’ as well as by humans? The conference will offer an opportunity for speakers to explore political, legal, ethical, social, cultural, affective, material and technological aspects of petitioning in particular contexts as well as theoretical and methodological approaches to petitions and petitioning.

Convener: Jane K. Cowan, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sussex and Jane and Aatos Erkko Visiting Professor in Studies on Contemporary Society at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies in 2018–2019

Visuals: Minerva Juolahti

Registration closes on 23 April 2019.