Category Archives: Guest blogger

Please Don’t Shoot the Fact-Checker

Anthropologists seeking to communicate their research to general audiences are likely to work with fact-checkers. Here’s some advice on how to handle the process if you’ve been interviewed by a reporter.

I write a lot of emails that make me seem much less educated than I am. Why? I often work as a professional fact-checker.

In this capacity, it’s my responsibility to confirm the accuracy of the words someone else has written. I’m not conducting original research; I’m making sure that another writer got their facts right.

This usually entails contacting the experts the author chose to interview and asking them a series of questions to determine whether or not the wealth of information they provided to the author was adequately distilled into a handful of words. I frequently do this by rewriting the author’s article into a series of “yes” or “no” questions.

Years ago, I was fact-checking for a glossy magazine and wrote an email to a well-respected biological anthropologist who had been quoted in the story I was working on. I asked: “Did marriage evolve so that we can find someone to fall in love with, in order to reproduce?” I’d read enough Gayle Rubin to answer this question from the point of view of a cultural anthropologist. I had to remind myself that, as a fact-checker, my job was not to challenge the statement the scholar had made. My responsibility was to confirm that these were words this media-savvy scholar would have spoken. She answered with a simple “yes.”
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Writing About Violence (Part II)

After nearly three years of eating almost nothing but the watery beans and undercooked rice I was served while conducting research in Brazilian prisons, I couldn’t wait to hit the restaurants of New York City when I returned from the field. I was surprised to find that even the spiciest chana masala tasted bland. I was numb. Kind neighbors had to remind me to put on a coat when I left my apartment to walk to the library, even though the sidewalks were covered with ankle-deep snow. My nose didn’t even twitch when I was forced to wait for a train on a piss drenched subway platform.

Well-meaning friends recommended therapy. Graduate advisors suggested writing as a strategy for self-care. I watched movies instead.

One night, I went out to see Ônibus 174, a slick documentary directed by José Padilha that tells the story of a Rio bus robbery that turned into a nationally televised hostage situation. The film manages to vilify poor black youths who turn to violence out of desperation, and the police officers who are tasked with keeping such violence out of the neighborhoods where privileged Brazilians like Padilha live. I left the movie theater with hot tears in my eyes and cried for six hours. Then I opened a brand new notebook and, for four straight hours, wrote about the seemingly endless reasons my fieldwork experiences led me to despise Padilha’s film.

No one but me will ever read those pages. The writing they contain is too raw to share. I confirmed this a few weeks ago, when I pulled out that notebook to verify that the writing was as awful as I remembered; it was. Sure, I’d vividly described a few places and had jotted down the kernels of thoughts that have since ripened, or that I am still cultivating. But, overall, the prose was too emotional and self-absorbed to be ethnographic.

I’ve thought of that private notebook when reading the texts of some emerging ethnographers who have recently studied violence in the field and have rushed to write publicly about their experiences before they’ve had the time to really think them through. While I commend such individuals for having the courage and the discipline to write, I also invite them to pause before publishing. Ethnographic writing can be a therapeutic exercise, but to be effective it must also be more.

Ethnographers of violence who are far, far more accomplished than I have argued that writing can help an anthropologist who has been emotionally taxed by fieldwork to recover. Even as the act of writing plunges the anthropologist back into the field, it also offers him or her a way to move beyond personal experiences of horror or fear to arrive at larger conclusions about the human condition. But the movement from therapy to theory is not as simple as this statement implies. It is only over time, and via multiple drafts, that writing permits the ethnographer to tease out the ways that intensely felt personal experiences of fear or suffering jarred their previous understanding and challenged them to rethink troubling problems and uncomfortable truths from unexpected angles.

When we read Philippe Bourgois, Mick Taussig, or Donna Goldstein—or many, many others who write about violence with style and grace—we don’t always notice the intellectual labor that went into producing their work. The grit and urgency of the writing belies its polish. Many of us aspire to write so vividly, so personally. Yet, it is crucial to note that when we read texts like In Search of Respect, Law in a Lawless Land, or Laughter out of Place, even though we feel the immediacy of the ethnographic encounter by being privy to the author’s thoughts and emotions while in the field, the enduring contribution of these texts lies in what their authors have told us about the people and the places they have studied, not in what the authors have revealed to us about themselves.

Moving from therapy to theory in writing about personal experiences of violence is intellectually demanding work. The difficulty of the task is exacerbated by the imperative to publish quickly and often. When still overwhelmed by the stresses and emotions of recent fieldwork, it is often easier (and more immediately rewarding) to write about the personal effects of what we experienced in the field. But allowing time and reflection to intervene between our ideas and the visceral and the emotional aspects of certain ethnographic encounters can enable us to better think through the ways that personal experiences of fear or suffering can illuminate larger patterns or problems. To put it simply: while ethnographic writing can offer catharsis, it should also offer critique.

References

Bourgois, Philippe. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Goldstein, Donna. Laughter out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown. University of California Press, 2013.

Taussig, Michael. Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Theidon, Kimberly. “‘How was Your Trip?’ Self-care for Researchers Working and Writing on Violence.” Drugs Security and Democracy Program DSD Working Papers in Research Security. New York: Social Science Research Council, 2014.

Writing About Violence (Part I)

Writing is never easy. Writing ethnographically about people who perpetrate violence is exceptionally difficult. Not only does the ethnographer have to cautiously avoid slipping into what we call “pornographic’ representation, she (or he) must find a way to convey the humanity of people who do “inhuman” things, while also doing justice to the victims of their violence. Writing in the first person compounds these difficulties. How does one insert his or herself, as ethnographer, into such a narrative?

In writing up my research on prison rapes and murders, I struggle with the competing desires of wanting to present myself as a likeable protagonist and wanting to honestly relate the ways that my ethnographic practice cannot help but become entwined with the forms of violence that I study. I also worry that as I try to navigate between these two treacherous poles of representation, my writing will be either disastrously self-exculpating or unnecessarily self-flagellating.

One solution to this problem might be to consider the ethnographer in the stories I write about violence as a character, rather than a robust and authentic representation of me. But, would doing so necessitate writing the violent events of my fieldwork as fiction? And would turning into ethnographic fiction events that I experienced as being too-real (and as having too-real consequences) be just another way to avoid confronting their ethical ramifications?

A simpler solution would be to pretend that the violence I either witnessed or experienced in the field did not happen at all. I would not be the first to elide physical violence in my ethnographic writing. In fact, I’ve admittedly written much less about the violent events that were central to my fieldwork than I have about the forms of structural violence that have shaped the ethnographic contexts in which I study because I find doing so to be less fraught than writing about specific instances of physical aggression or pain. But blood, bullets, and torn flesh were so prevalent in my fieldwork, I would feel dishonest if I wrote them out of my work.

Another course I could steer in writing about my ethnographic encounters with perpetrators of violence would be to unequivocally position myself as observer rather than participant. But, to me, this would hearken back to the late nineteenth century, when ethnography was decidedly about “the other,” not about the complex relationships that entangle us with people we might—especially when acts of murder or torture are involved—prefer to refer to as “them.”

The choice I have made is to directly acknowledge both my discomfort with and my complicity in the violence that I study. The subsequent challenge I face is how to write this way without dipping into the egocentrism that, as my next post will discuss, sometimes plagues writing about ethnographic encounters with violence.

REFERENCES

Fassin, Didier. 2014 “True Life, Real Lives: Revisiting the Boundaries Between Ethnography and Fiction.” American Ethnologist 41(1): 40-55.

Nader, Laura. 2011. “Ethnography as Theory.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1(1): 211-219.

Taussig, Michael. 2010. “Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism: Another Theory of Magic.” Walter Benjamin’s Grave. University of Chicago Press, p. 121-156.

A Question of Politics, not Agency

My as work has an anthropologist in Brazil has drawn me into an historically layered matrix of racial, class-based, and gendered violence that I did not sufficiently understand when I entered the field. I am still working to understand it now. In my previous post I described how, when an off duty police officer held a gun to my temple, he made it impossible for me to claim that I stood fully outside that matrix because I was a light-skinned foreigner. Still, I could not claim that I stood fully within the matrix because I was an anthropologist. The threat I faced was an exceptional moment in my life; such moments were likely to become quotidian to the three little boys who knelt with me in the cane.

In writing about the event, my goal was to foreground the matrix in which the violent encounter I described unfolded and to think through my liminal place within it. While I do assume responsibility for making the event I described possible, I am more interested in examining the larger structures and forces that create the conditions in which violence occurs than I am concerned with assigning individual blame for particular acts of violence.

Admittedly, it would have been expedient to cast myself as an innocent victim of an “other’s” violence. But to me, the more productive question to ask is: How have innocence and complicity become intertwined in a context where murder is too often understood to be an acceptable response to perceived disrespect?

Participant Outsider?

During my first research trip to northeastern Brazil, an off-duty police officer took me and three local homeless boys to the middle of a sugar cane field and held a loaded gun to each of our heads. He thought we had stolen his wallet, which contained three credit cards, a few bills, and his badge. The boys and I insisted upon our innocence and begged for mercy. In the end, we survived because I was eventually able to help the officer recover his belongings.

Until now, I’ve only shared this story with a few of the anthropologists and writers I consider to be trusted friends. So far, people have responded to the tale in one of two ways: Some believe that story affirms the power of white skin and an American (or European) passport to cast a protective shield over researchers who study violence in contexts where the primary victims are poor and black. Others understand the event to have been my Balinese cockfight: a shared moment of danger that not only positioned me as in league with my interlocutors, but also illuminated for me many of the subtle and shifting local relationships between violence and order.
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Danger and the Rio Olympics

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Kristen Drybread.]

The 2016 Olympics in Rio are fast approaching. For the past two months, people I haven’t seen in years—and people I have never even met—have been emailing to ask if I can help them find an affordable and, above all, safe place to stay during the Games. Never mind that I haven’t been to Rio for four years. Never mind that “affordable” and “safe” are relative terms. The assumption is that, having spent several years conducting fieldwork in northeastern Brazilian prisons (most recently in 2014-2015), I’m a better guide to Rio than the Lonely Planet. Continue reading

We’ve already got the robes: Of monks and us

This is the last post in a six part sequence called Strange Rumblings in the Meritocracy.

In this series I’ve written a lot about education, its constraints, the pressure we all feel to compete in the meritocracy, and some possible ways out. Much of this came from my reflecting on the fact that the financiers I study make use of university credentials to speak to their own worth in ways that are far from what we would like to do in our classrooms and in our research. I’ve distinguished assessments that are supposed to speak to essential parts of a person (GREs, SATs, GPAs and so on) and mark them as special, from feedback on particular work that is often offered open-endedly and in a pass/fail format (on, say, a thesis), as in a model of apprenticeship. I’ve also suggested that the more we get in the business of assessing the worth of someone’s character or the potential of someone’s soul from our various course and research offerings, the less we know what we’re doing, and the more we play into our current, meritocratic modes of anointing elites. In this last post I want to offer some thoughts on what academia might look like if somehow we were able to strip away the meritocratic ranking, the obsession with grades and league tables, and focus on the substance of teaching and growing what we know. So in the grand spirit of comparison I want to compare the student’s path in a university to the novice’s path in a Catholic monastery.

To reiterate I’m not saying academia is a monastery, or the monastery is a college (though there are similarities). What I am suggesting is that, insofar as we want to get out of the soul-weighing business, and into the work of teaching what we know, monastic formation is worth considering.

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Domestic Policy: The Resolutions Will Not Be Televised

This is the fifth post in a sequence called Strange Rumblings in the Meritocracy.

Given that we as a discipline seem to feel empowered to develop a foreign policy, I figured I’d offer a few domestic policy ideas, a few resolutions that might take care of some our own local inequities.

The purpose of these resolutions is to suggest some ways out of what most everyone agrees is a generally miserable situation for those currently coming of age or working in academia. More or less, all of us want jobs for scholars and a free education for our students. Repeat that to yourself: jobs for scholars, free education for students. In proposing these, I’m also suggesting that we have some power over our academic, professional and disciplinary destiny and can and should act in concert. I see the decline in tenure-line positions, the specter of academic debt, and even the coercive and jealous guarding of scholarship by publishing cartels, as an invitation to collective action. We already have a communications infrastructure, national and international associations in place, as well as active local chapters across the globe (those hot-beds of activism, academic departments). From this point of view, we’re actually very well organized. All we need to do now is raise some consciousness and come up with a few action items. Should you doubt whether collective action is worthwhile or appropriate, it’s also worth keeping in mind the ways in which activists and unions are making the university a more livable, humane place (one example of each).

Here follow three resolutions. They are drafts. I accept and apologize for their limitations and shortcomings. They don’t talk about all that’s worth fixing (how could they?). I offer them to imagine what collective action on our problems might look like. Interested academic associations should consider them for debate, improvement, and vote.

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What would your university look like if you could just say, “no?”

This is the Fourth post in a sequence called Strange Rumblings in the Meritocracy.

Sometime towards the end of graduate school, I got it into my head that students should be able to veto tuition hikes. It’s pretty widely known that university tuition in the United States, at both public and private universities has increased far faster than inflation or wages over the last few decades . So, as a graduate student, I and a few of my colleagues had done some research into our own particular situation and found, as you might expect, that tuition had gone up a lot. Our college’s budget in 2013 included a 4.5 percent tuition increase, raising the cost per credit hour to $1,344. One comparison ultimately stood out to us: in this same year, the Graduate Center at the City University of New York’s tuition per credit hour was $465 for in-state students, and $795 per credit hour for out of state students. Now, of course, we might expect a public university to be more affordable than a private university. But we didn’t have just one year of data. We had credit-hour prices going back to 1915 ($6.00 per credit hour, or $138.94 per credit hour in 2013 dollars, in case you were wondering, all this according to the bureau of labor statistics inflation calculator). With this historical data, and with this nifty inflation calculator, we were able to see that tuition was at or below $500 per credit unit for most of the 1970s and 1980s. Prior to 1967 or so, tuition was well below $400 per credit hour, in 2013 dollars. So, I and my colleagues stumbled into the fact that for most of our private college’s history, tuition was cheaper than it currently is at CUNY, even for an in-state student.

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An Interview With Reviewers 1, 2, and 3

This is the third post in a sequence called Strange Rumblings in the Meritocracy.

[What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of an interview I conducted with Reviewers 1, 2, and 3. NB: Reviewer 1 and 2 and I had been sitting around for two hours, waiting for Reviewer 3 to show up, when we decided, to hell with it, we’ll just start talking. Reviewer 3 eventually showed up.]

Daniel: I just wanted to thank both of you for taking the time to talk with me. I know graduate students and junior scholars will likely appreciate a peek behind the curtain of anonymous peer-review. For many people it’s their first excursion into the broader discipline beyond the networks of their home institution, professional colleagues, or academic peers. More prosaically, successfully navigating peer-review is the only way any of us will get jobs. I’m guessing, too, that some mid- and senior-level scholars who are not actively involved in journal editing might like hearing what their colleagues say.

I also want to apologize for Reviewer 3. I’ve been getting texts, I think they’re stuck in traffic, or there was a schedule conflict, or there was a sick pet, or a student crisis, or something. I’m not really sure. The message keeps changing. They say, though, that they’ll be here soon. So I guess we should get started, and make due.

I was wondering if we could start off with a basic question. When you review for an academic journal, what do you look for in an article?

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Make the C.V. Great Again: An argument for a short-form C.V.

This is the second post in a sequence called Strange Rumblings in the Meritocracy.

Oh god, more title clickbait. I’m going to lose this guest blog gig if I’m not careful. But please, allow me a moment. Like the “campaign” slogan that I’m riffing on, I’m sure this title makes you wonder things like, wait, what exactly do you mean by “great?” And when exactly was the C.V. ever “great?” We should probably be answering those before we get to this “again” nonsense. And, like supporters of the referred-to campaign slogan, you’d probably be hard-pressed to come to any sort of consensus about when and why and where were the salad days of the CV. For many of us, I suspect, the CV is one of those taken for granted bits of technology, that more or less unreflexively (except when we’re being hounded by the furies of the career center or harassed by the specter of The Professor is In) gives a sense of who we are academically. And if we’re to follow Rex’s thematic, it probably always sucked in one way or another. Moreover it’s the thing that presumably allows a hiring committee to make a snap judgment about whether any particular person will get more than a fleeting review before joining the party in the trash can.

So, against this natural- and normal-ness I’d like to suggest that the CV as it currently works allows for two things that are anathema to open scholarship: a privileging of authority and seniority; as well as a credentialed elitism. I’ll also suggest a “Short-form C.V.” that should mitigate some of this. And again, yes, the C.V. is a bit player given the larger structural problems of the academy: the over production of Ph.D.s and the conversion of the academy into a majority non-tenure-track work place to name two. But the C.V. is the place at which we tell the professional story about ourselves which we think our colleagues should know. Perhaps for this reason, the not-so-humble C.V. deserves at least a blog post.

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How to Teach Anthropology Without Making Your Students Dumb

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Daniel Souleles. This is the first post in a sequence called Strange Rumblings in the Meritocracy.

Yes, this title is clickbait. Please, allow me a few paragraphs to explain.

In my graduate program, particularly in the early stages, there was a lot of anxiety, impostor syndrome, and fear. All told, fear was probably at the root of things–fear of failure, fear of being found out, and perhaps, most basically, fear of being tossed out. Over the first two years of the program we would meet at the beginning and or end of each semester with the four professors who ran the program. Masters students and other  departmental students called them “the four horseman.” And The ever-present concern in these meetings was that your number would finally be up. It helped matters not one bit that there was a healthy oral history in the department about all manner of ejection. Did you hear the one about the whole cohort that got asked to leave after summer field-work? The fields lay fallow that year, and there was but one survivor.

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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. Continue reading

Are nuances like curry leaves?

The title of this post – and its contents – was inspired by an anecdote I wrote about in an earlier post in my field blog. Before I proceed, I want to recapitulate it.

It was late-August, and towards the end of my fieldwork. Sanjay, Pankaj, Jagdish,* and I were having lunch in the NGO’s field office in Dharavi. After we finished lunch – a combination of coriander chicken curry and rice, made by Pankaj – Sanjay said introspectively, “We field staff, who work on the ground level, we are like curry leaves.” He asked us if we knew what he meant by that. I shook my head, no. Pankaj said that it is perhaps so because the field staff, like curry leaves, “adds flavor” to the NGO’s work. Jagdish offered his interpretation: because we (the front-line staff), like curry leaves, are chewed up and spit out once the taste or flavor is gone.

Sanjay smiled, and nodded: “Yes, that’s what I meant! A combination of the two!”

I wrote in the previous post why I found this metaphor so intriguing. It demonstrates the reflexivity of the front-line workers – how they are positioned hierarchically compared to the ‘offices’ – and is also a reflection on the kind of ideas and epistemologies they bring forth in their everyday intervention work in the basti (communities). Continue reading

On the margins of politics

I am going slightly out of depths with this post, traversing into the territory of yet-to-be-formed thoughts, which could either be speculations or reflections; responses, or idiosyncratic musings. Part of it emerges with the experience I’ve had so far working ethnographically, and from my previous research encounters and readings; but the other part is deeply contemplative, troubling even. Here, I wish to work with another concept that can be read along with ‘subalternity’ as I discussed in the last post – that of ‘margins.’

Therefore, I would like the reader to be aware of the tentative nature of the thoughts expressed in this post, and the assumptions that guide them, and the delicate nature of the interventions that I make.

I began to think of margins more concertedly after I attended a lecture by Pnina Werbner recently, where she spoke about political revolution in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements in 2011, and the aesthetics of effervescence and despair. She spoke of how such movements needed to be backed by politics so as to materialize the changes that guide them in the first place. Despite apparent failures, she argued that such movements do have an impression on the world: narratives, strategies, and so forth, which steer and shape protest politics in the world. While I am in agreement with her argument, I do think one element that was left relatively under-theorized – and one I think is crucial – is that of the margins of such politics. Continue reading