Notes on peership: A conclusion

This post follows a few ideas I expressed last year, as I started the second year of my MA in anthropology here at Leuven. It was a moment when most of us in my program returned from our respective field sites; reeling from the intensity of ethnographic fieldwork, dealing with copious amounts of field notes, emotions and reflections, wondering if we have enough for a thesis.

I wrote then of the need for ‘peership’ in classrooms: a sense of ‘taking care of our own’ in educational spaces – ‘a crucial support network that enables many of us to get around.’ We called this endeavor, with seriousness and a lot of jest, ‘Peers and Beers.’ We met every couple of weeks, presented our thoughts, spoke of creative ways to write and think through our notes, shared references, helped develop tables-of-content (for a large part!), and of course drink wonderful Belgian beers.

I am hesitant to speak about the successes or failures of this experience because our intention was never to see of it as such. Sure, it helped me and lot of others to find our way; there were things we could have done better (as it is with any endeavor). One thing that did come out of was the first student-led and -organized colloquium in the anthropology faculty here: again, an idea that arose during several conversations (and with the support and encouragement of the faculty). The inspiration for it came from several spaces: other universities, classes on current issues in anthropology, and masterclass seminars that some of us attended at other Belgian universities.

The colloquium was, essentially, ‘Peers and Beers’ in a larger and more formal sense (with a 7 minute time limit for presenters! We also had beers); it was about talking about things that go into making a thesis, but also making interventions beyond the scope of the document. As a friend and co-organizer put it, “We don’t just want our theses to stay on a bookshelf!”

The horizontality of peership is what draws me most to it; that everyone can bring something valuable to the table; that we can all learn from each other; share our ‘internal kitchen’ (to use another term suggested by a friend). It is also a great catalyst for empathy, and questions the individuating logic that comes to dominate academia quite frequently (of course, the experiences of being in an MA program vastly differ from higher positions, as precarity often increases as we move upwards).

I found references to the term “peership” in Don Brenneis’ opening address to the AAA in 2004, and in Amy Levine’s article in Anthropology News (November 2011). Both write on the collaborative nature of peership, but are largely concerned with professional academic tasks, like peer review and writing grants (which are crucial, and tasks with which I haven’t had any experience yet). I find Jason Lind’s blog on mentoring anthropology students to be closer to my usage of peership. He writes about how volunteering in the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA) made him an ‘instant mentor,’ using his experiences to guide others in the field. His notion of ‘anthropological flexibility’ – of methods, research topics, and teamwork – I think is something crucial to the peership I am attempting to describe.

Peership, thus, is a term that I think has utility outside of classrooms as well. It was a sort of peership that my front-line colleagues in Dharavi engaged in with each other (where I participated in a few instances), as they developed modules and attempted to creatively engage in a context that is quite hierarchized. It is fraught with challenges, one of which is institutionalization or formalization. This, I suspect, would hamper the creativity, open-endedness and spontaneity that are important in peership.

It is also ideological, of course. It implies reciprocity and mutual respect (perhaps it has a Maussian logic to it!) It is something I hope to carry with me into the future – in both professional and academic spaces. At the same time, I don’t want to romanticize it. As much as we tried for our experience of peership to be inclusive, there were nonetheless exclusions (for instance, it was largely international students who showed up; not to mention, it is also an elite and privileged space. And as encouraging as we tried to be, some people were not comfortable with the concept and wanted to work on their own ways, a point that is completely understandable and inevitable).

Writing for Savage Minds for me, too, was an exercise in peership: first, as a platform for sketching out and expressing ideas; and second, as something we can carry into acts of peership in and outside of classrooms (for instance, the ongoing interventions on BDS and decolonizing anthropology is something we speak about quite often outside of classrooms).

This is my final post on Savage Minds. I would like to thank Carole and Kerim for accepting me as a contributor; to the commenters, for their suggestions and questions that helped me reflect more clearly on my ideas and assumptions; to the other anthropologists, writers and academics on Twitter for the brief but insightful exchanges. I’d also like to thank my peers in Leuven, especially Alex and Lore, for their enthusiasm in reading my posts, and their feedback on my writing(s). And finally, I want to thank Nolina, for patiently reading and commenting on each post, for her encouragement and love, and for being a constant intellectual companion.

Proshant is currently pursuing his MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology at KU Leuven, Belgium. He previously worked as a researcher in Mumbai, India, on issues like public health, AIDS advocacy, migration, and gender-based violence.

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