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The Politics of Small Things

The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times

Political change doesn’t always begin with a bang; it often starts with just a whisper. From the discussions around kitchen tables that led to the dismantling of the Soviet bloc to the more recent emergence of Internet initiatives like and Redeem the Vote that are revolutionizing the American political landscape, consequential political life develops in small spaces where dialogue generates political power.
In The Politics of Small Things, Jeffrey Goldfarb provides an innovative way for understanding politics, a way of appreciating the significance of politics at the micro level by comparatively analyzing key turning points and institutions in recent history. He presents a sociology of human interactions that lead from small to large: dissent around the old Soviet bloc;  life on the streets in Warsaw, Prague, and Bucharest in 1989; the network of terror that spawned 9/11; and the religious and Internet mobilizations that transformed the 2004 presidential election, to name a few. In such pivotal moments, he masterfully shows, political autonomy can be generated, presenting alternatives to the big politics of the global stage and the dominant narratives of terrorism, antiterrorism, and globalization.


“Jeffrey Goldfarb is absolutely right that politics cannot be understood simply as a matter of grand issues—and moreover that approaches to democracy that don’t bring it to life in the details of everyday life are unlikely to build the better society proponents seek. They can also be dangerous.”

Craig Calhoun, University Professor of the Social Sciences, New York University

“Resonating with the voices of Hannah Arendt, Erving Goffman, and Michel Foucault, The Politics of Small Things, combines the rich texture of ethnography with the powerful clarity of a manifesto. Goldfarb helps us identify realities that major ideological narratives neglect or shun. This wonderful exercise in focus-switching opens new territories and new languages for political action. In its measured, soft spoken style, I hope it marks the beginning of an era.”

Daniel Dayan, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

The Politics of Small Things is an appealing plea for the little picture view of the world, reminding us how the limited human-scale can yet move mountains. A compelling, very readable, and original work with extraordinary breadth, it is refreshing book to read. Serious and enjoyable, it will stimulate lively discussion.”

Eugene W. Halton, University of Notre Dame

The Politics of Small Things is a lucid, challenging work by a distinguished theorist of modern American democracy. Drawing on Arendt and informed by Goffman, Jeffrey Goldfarb urges us to recognize the liberatory importance of face-to-face interaction, of private arenas where individuals can learn to distinguish between factual and philosophical truths and so escape the power of official, totalizing ideologies. Such private arenas are not, he argues, the alternative to larger political projects but the precondition for making them democratic. This is a notable work that deserves to be widely read and pondered.”--Talal Asad, CUNY Graduate Center

Talal Asad

"For many people in America and elsewhere around the world, these appear to be gloomy days indeed. Whether it’s the unease of life under corporate globalism, the ever-lurking fear of terrorist attack, or dread of the repressive impulses of all manners of fundamentalism, there doesn’t seem to be much the average person can do to effect change in the larger scheme of things. Sociologist Jeffrey C. Goldfarb offers a way out of the seeming abyss with his new book The Politics of Small Things: The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times. . . . [It] is a modest book. . . . But it’s long enough to make the case that the phrase ’reach out and touch someone’ is more than some derelict advertising slogan."

Vincent Carducci | PopMatters

"At a time when the Left could not be more depressed about its political prospects, sociologist Jeffrey C. Goldfarb serves up an absolutely inspiring book-length treatise on the positive ways radical politics is evolving, and what kinds of prospects for change this might open up. Taking as his foundation the notion that from a whisper can evolve a big political bang, Goldfarb points to such contemporary progressive phenomena as and Redeem the Vote, contending that they are revolutionizing the political landscape on a micro, as opposed to macro, level. Every old-school activist ought to read this. There is indeed life outside the so-called party."


"The Politics of Small Things is a wonderful little book to assign to smart students in a seminar about contemporary politics and social change. It is heartfelt, even moving in places, and cleanly written. It is neither technical nor boringly conventional, but boldly assertive and engaged. It moves easily between history, theory, and contemporary politics."

Daniel Chirot | American Journal of Sociology

Table of Contents

Introduction: In the Shadow of Big Things
1. Theorizing the Kitchen Table and Other Small Things
2. 1968: Theater of Truth
3. 1989: New Definitions of the Situation
4. 2001: Narratives in Conflict
5. 2004: Small Things + the Internet = Alternatives
6. 2004: The Church, the Right, and the Politics of Small Things
7. Institutions: Democracy in the Details
8. The Presentation of Self in the Age of Electronic Communications
Conclusion: The Politics of the Politics of Small Things

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