The anthropologist as a curious subaltern? Thoughts on precarity and publics

The title of this post is meant to provoke. Or so I hoped, when I first thought of it one night as I was cooking (a very thought-inspiring activity, I must say). I was replaying a conversation in my head that I had with a visual anthropologist from Macau, who was trained in Berlin. Our conversation traced the postcolonial critique of anthropology, as well as difficulties of translating anthropological works for the public. The reason he calls himself a ‘visual anthropologist,’ he said with a laugh, is because the term gives him legitimacy in academic circles (he also gets invited to screen his films at various festivals). I think that, perhaps, doing so gives him room to be more eclectic than what a category would allow.

I wondered: why, when, and how do we call ourselves anthropologists? Of course, there are academic conventions, and institutional structures. But there’s also a sense of belonging to a professional community, a global tribe, if one is pushing the cliché. In undergraduate and graduate programs, we’re initiated into the history of the discipline, into understanding seminal moments (Writing Culture is still fresh in my mind from a course from last year), as well as into the ‘field.’ We are privy to the workings of the discipline; we see how our peers, teachers and institutions (the AAA, for instance) have responded to political questions like institutional boycotts, or Black Lives Matter (not to mention scandals within anthropology – the Yanomamo being another ‘seminal’ moment in pedagogy).

Yet, we are asked, perhaps more so than any other discipline, what anthropology’s relevance to the world is? Very often, it is a question asked in classrooms – both, by students new to anthropology and by those who’ve been here for a while. I do note a crucial difference between asking, ‘How can we be relevant?’ and ‘Are we relevant?’ Both, of course, operate in a similar rhetorical level. But the latter can be particularly challenging.

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Israeli Anthropologists Support the Boycott

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to share this letter we received from 22 Israeli anthropologists endorsing the boycott. As anthropologists critical of state power, who object to Israel’s gross violations of international law and crimes against humanity committed in their names, they urge members of the American Anthropological Association to support them and their Palestinian colleagues in putting pressure on the Israeli state by boycotting the academic institutions which are complicit in these violations and crimes. Due to the increasing atmosphere of intimidation and threats against boycott supporters in Israel, they have all signed anonymously as a collective.

Voting on the resolution is open from April 15-May 31. To join AAA or renew your membership, click here.

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We, the undersigned anthropologists, Israelis and citizens of Israel:

  • endorse the vote from the 2015 AAA Business Meeting in favor of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions,
  • urge our colleagues in the AAA to vote in favor of the resolution for Academic Boycott,
  • reject spurious arguments that blame boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) measures for the rise of the Israeli right, and that the AAA academic boycott is targeting Israeli anthropologists and moderates.

We, the undersigned anthropologists, Israelis and citizens of Israel, concerned about the devastating continuation of colonial dispossession in Israel/Palestine, applaud the courageous stance of members at the 2015 business meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) who, overwhelmingly, by 88%, voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions—a decision that must be ratified in a final electronic membership vote April 15 to May 31. We urge our colleagues in the AAA to vote in favor of this resolution. We believe that an academic boycott puts pressure on the Israeli government to advance our common goal of a just peace for all the inhabitants of this land. Continue reading

On front-lines and ethnography

My previous post was about how ethnography, for me, is a way of being grounded in particular contexts, of getting one’s feet muddied with the nuances and contradictions of everyday life, and building something concrete out of it.

The term ‘front-line’ encapsulates that grounding for me. In this post, I want to demonstrate what the term signifies about the work done by the front-line workers in Dharavi themselves, and then conclude by reflecting on what it means to do ethnography in such front-lines (or, alternatively, front-line ethnography). Continue reading

Groundings, or seeing-one’s-feet: An introduction

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Proshant Chakraborty]

Over the last year or so, I have found that nearly every academic essay I have written for my courses contains a section titled ‘Context & Positions,’ or some such variant.

The first reason for this is obvious – my undergraduate and graduate classes in anthropology focused on reflexivity to a very large extent. We were initiated into the discipline with an emphasis on the fact that our data is ‘co-produced’ with our informants; that there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ observation, nor are there any ‘Universal Truths’ out there.

The purpose of anthropology – and critical social sciences – one of my professors in my undergraduate class explained, is to ‘problematize the obvious.’ In my MA program, my professor and thesis supervisor underscored that anthropology is a ‘particularistic’ discipline.

That is perhaps why I consciously decided to title this post as ‘Groundings’ – but there is a second reason for it, which is more personal and intuitive, arising from my own engagement with ethnography. It is what I describe as ‘seeing one’s feet’ (which is, of course, a nod to Scheper-Hughes’ idea of ‘anthropology with feet-on-the-ground,’ and ‘barefoot anthropology.’ I will return to this theme in the next few posts). Continue reading

Smeared Disguises: A Reply to Hirschkind

(Savage Minds is pleased to present this occasional post by Gregory Starrett, professor of anthropology at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This piece is a response to Charles Hirschkind’s Savage Minds piece A Smear in Disguise: Comments on StarrettHirschkind was himself replying to Starrett’s essay in anthropology news, The Symbolic Violence of Choice -Rx)

I am grateful to Charles Hirschkind, whose intelligence and thoughtfulness I’ve always appreciated, for his sharp observations on my essay in Anthropology News. I argued there that voting on whether or not to have the American Anthropological Association officially approve the boycott of Israeli academic institutions was a form of symbolic violence, an occasion for the precipitation of identities through multiple calls to order. I apologize for the number of times Charles had to read the essay in order to find hidden messages which were never actually there.  So I will try to articulate its point more clearly below. His own exercise in eisegesis helps immensely with that task, because it works by attributing to me a set of political positions I do not hold, thereby pointedly illustrating the process I described. Continue reading

Affect, Attention, and Ethnographic Research: Thoughts on Mental Health in the Field

This year has seen some encouraging openings in a much-needed conversation on academia and mental health (for example: The Guardian, Chronicle Vitae, The Professor is In). Many of these interventions critically tie their findings to the costs of operating in the academy today. While these conditions increasingly impact all of us, here I’d like to try and tie this talk to anthropology – and specifically, ethnographic research.

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Trolling @AmericanAnthro; PLUS: Savage Minds is Seeking Social Media Manager!

Saturday morning, the American Anthropological Association celebrated its 114th birthday. Sort of. That morning, @AmericanAnthro tweeted something along the lines of:

“Today is AAA’s 114th birthday! Tell us why you love AAA with the hashtag #AAABDay.”

Not much later, two people responded:

aaatroll 01
I don’t agree, but it’s still pretty funny.
aaatroll 02
Sick burns, indeed.

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Seeing Revolutionary Info-structure

[extract from keynote at the Mobile Life Centre, University of Stockholm, March 17, 2016]

Its the summer of 2015 and I am on a former Naval Air Force base in Keflavik, Iceland. The wind is 20 miles per hour and still won’t keep the midge flies from darting into my eyes. A massive once-white satellite disc hovers above collecting signal intelligence. I am hunched over my black boxy backpack unpacking an unmanned aerial vehicle, spinning its four propellers on, checking its battery, bluetooth tethering its on-board camera to my iPhone so that I might see as it sees, behind me another video camera on a tripod films the scene as I use my thumbs to thrust the drone off the abandoned and weedy tarmac and into the sky, just eye-level and arms length from myself. Seagulls swoop in to see what is suddenly threatening their airspace. Gusts of 40 miles per hour shove the drone to the west, but it automatically recorrects to my eyeline level–my daughter has come to call this thing the “dragonfly” for these very stunts. I embark on a few exploratory examinations of the satellite disc, practicing circumnavigating this space eye with my airborne digital eye, gusts funnel off the curves of the disc, shoving the drone back and forth. I’ve already crashed this 1000 pound plastic remote controlled devices twice, thankfully some engineers were able to straighten outs its wickedly bend arm.

After this practice I turn the drone towards the day’s real goal–to get a bird’s eye view of a major data center, Continue reading

A Smear in Disguise: Comments on Starrett

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to present  Charles Hirschkind‘s powerful rebuttal to Gregory Starrett’s recent essay in Anthropology News that discredits the call to boycott.

Voting on the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions is open to all AAA members from April 15 – May 30. You can watch an informative webinar covering the basics of the boycott at this link — featuring anthropologists Ilana Feldman, Lisa Rofel, and Nadia Abu El-Haj. You can also read the AAA’s Israel-Palestine Task Force report here.

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A Smear in Disguise: Comments on Starrett

Charles Hirschkind

In “The Symbolic Violence of Choice” (Anthropology News, March 2, 2016), Gregory Starrett denounces the Resolution to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions currently being considered by AAA members on numerous grounds. Despite a thin and misleading veneer of impartiality, the essay is unequivocal both in its condemnation of the proposed resolution and its disparaging assessment of those who support it. Having read the piece a number of times now, I find it profoundly confused, a set of rhetorical feints disguised as an analysis. But given the timing of its publication, just before AAA members must decide on the boycott initiative, I feel that a serious response is necessary. Continue reading

Paranoid Reading, Writing, and Research: Secrecy in the Field

In my first Savage Minds guest post, I wanted to write about the encounter that most deeply influenced my time in the field.  In the remainder of my time here, I want to write in the same vein about research dynamics I sense to be widespread (and widely impactful), but that we have few opportunities to discuss.  I want to think together about some of the sticky issues – some of the nagging and not-well-articulated frictions that might be worthwhile to work through.  In this post I’d like to raise some questions about secrecy, and our ethnographic orientation toward the unknown.

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Israel’s Foreign Policy in Latin America — Another Reason to Take the Call to Boycott Seriously

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Les W. Field. Les is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at U New Mexico. He pursues collaborative research projects in South, Central, and North America, and in Palestine. Field has also co-organized two field schools for UNM undergraduates and graduate students in the occupied West Bank.]

Many Latin Americanist anthropologists and other scholars are unaware of the state of Israel’s substantial, long-term relationships with certain forces and governments in Latin American countries. Yet knowing of these relationships will aid scholars seeking more background information as they consider their position within the AAA debate over whether the Association should boycott Israeli academic institutions. Israel’s involvement in Latin America initiated quickly after its 1948 establishment, after which it built alliances with right-wing and military regimes that have consistently displayed anti-left, anti-indigenous and anti-democratic characteristics. The comparative thrust of the discipline of anthropology should lead Latin Americanist scholars to ask whether Israel’s record in Latin America is consistent with Israeli policies towards Palestinians inside Israel and the Occupied Territories. As an ethnographer of social change in Nicaragua during the 1980s, it was Israeli support for the Contra insurgency that first led me to read widely and critically about the question of Palestine. I came to see important resonances between Israeli foreign policy in Latin America, on the one hand, and the systematic dispossession of Palestinians from their lands and other resources, including the implementation of apartheid-like policies in the lands controlled by Israel, on the other.

In what follows I offer significant examples of Israel’s involvement in parts of Latin America where I and many other anthropologists have worked, often with indigenous peoples. In the conflicts of which this involvement is a part, the AAA took significant stands in defense of human rights.[i] I argue that if in Latin America, successive Israeli governments have supported brutally violent even genocidal campaigns against indigenous peoples (which the AAA has often opposed) and also supported the most right-wing even anti-Semitic regimes, pay attention to what Israel does in the Occupied Territories because foreign and domestic policies are, I would argue, part and parcel of the same nationalism.  Latin Americanist anthropologists, indeed all anthropologists, should learn about the effects of Israeli foreign policy upon the places where they work, then learn about the parallels with Israeli domestic policy. This knowledge is critical when making any decision to boycott or not, because as anthropologists, we know that states operate in complex international arenas but often reproduce their own exclusionary nationalisms in doing so. I decided to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions on the basis of what I have learned, and I submit the following aspects of Israeli foreign policy in Latin America since the 1980s, that may similarly educate other anthropologists. Continue reading

The Self at Stake: Thinking Fieldwork and Sexual Violence

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Alix Johnson]

I don’t intend to write about surveillance and suspicion, but then I spend my first five months of fieldwork feeling watched.  I move to Reykjavík for dissertation research a year after being sexually assaulted there; just in time to testify in the ensuing trial.  I schedule my first interviews between witness preparation.  And in the months before he’s convicted, I get used to seeing my assailant around town.  Our eyes meet at bars and we share aisles at grocery stores; I see or sense or imagine or conjure him a few paces behind me while I’m walking home.  But his are never the only eyes on me – my lawyer says the defense attorney will question my character, so I weigh my decisions, imagine defending them in court.  Later, our case is covered by the tabloids.  They describe exactly what he did to me, and I watch people trying to find it in my face.

Meanwhile, I’m meeting with engineers and developers, talking about data centers and fiber-optic lines.  I’m here to study the making of Iceland as an “information haven”: as John Perry Barlow called it, “the Switzerland of bits.”  A proposal for economic and political recovery, many saw positioning Iceland in this way as the path forward from the  financial crash.  So developers build data storage facilities, officials draft “information friendly” laws, and entrepreneurs found startups to manage it.  I want to trace the physical and conceptual infrastructure that allows Iceland to take on this new role.  Assuming technological connections index other intimacies, I am trying to track how debates over Iceland’s “connectivity” raise questions over sovereignty, identity, and place in the world.  My field notes from this period are hard to read now.  Desperately exhausted by the work of surviving, I’m frustrated that this should interfere with my “real” research.  But a year later, I can see something else there: a way of being that shaped the way I see and do my work.
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Public Statement on Zika Virus in Puerto Rico

This call to action was written by Adriana Garriga-López, Ph.D. (Kalamazoo College), and Shir Lerman, M.A., M.P.H., PhD Candidate (University of Connecticut), with Jessica Mulligan, Ph.D. (Providence College), Alexa Dietrich, Ph.D., M.P.H. (Wagner College), Carlos E. Rodríguez-Díaz, PhD, MPHE, MCHES (University of Puerto Rico), and Ricardo Vargas-Molina, M.A. (University of Puerto Rico). The authors are members of the Society for Medical Anthropology’s Zika Interest Group.

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We write out of our shared concern over the current Zika virus epidemic in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in the hopes of making useful interventions. Because of Zika’s adverse effect on fetal development and potential link to Guillain-Barré syndrome, the virus poses serious concerns for public health. The World Health Organization declared a Public Health Emergency in Brazil following the outbreak of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome cases, strongly suspected to be associated with Zika.

Puerto Rico is already in a state of political-economic emergency, while burdened with a preexisting Chinkungunya epidemic, as well as endemic Dengue virus. All three viruses share the same mosquito vector, Aedes aegypti. In late January 2016 an influenza epidemic was also declared on the island.

Because the main vector is an anthropophilic (domestic) mosquito, well adapted to the human made environment in areas where there are multiple opportunities for water to collect, we find the issue of access to clean water and waste management (especially plastic) to be of great urgency and importance in containing viral spread. We call on the government, as well as agricultural corporations and water-intensive industries in Puerto Rico to share responsibility for the ecologically sustainable restructuring and management of the public water systems, especially in view of the historic drought of 2015 on the island, during which Puerto Ricans suffered unprecedented water shortages for several months. Continue reading

Filming Empathy – Part 1

In their essay “Whatever Happened to Empathy?” Hollan and Throop1 cite the ambivalence that Franz Boas felt about the usefulness of the concept for ethnography:

On the one hand, Boas seemed to champion empathy when acknowledging that the ‘‘needs of anthropological research have led many investigators to adapt themselves as thoroughly as may be to the ways of thinking of foreign tribes and peoples . . .” And yet, on the other hand, Boas remained decidedly suspicious of such empathetically based approximations of other lifeworlds, given his views on . . . the problems inherent in inferring similarities based on observed likenesses in outwardly perceptible behaviors and effects.

Another way of putting this might be to say that a little empathy aids in interpretive understanding, but too much empathy gets in the way of rational explanation. Maybe this is the case. I certainly think that studies of nonhuman animals tend to suffer from either a total lack of empathy or a surfeit of anthropologizing that refuses to recognize difference. I’m less certain how important it is to insist on recognizing difference when dealing with other humans. Talal Asad famously criticized Ernest Gellner for his insistence on difference in his article on “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology” in the book Writing Culture. In that essay Asad points out that the refusal of empathy insisted upon by Gellner takes place in the context of a history of unequal power relationships between the two sides. But to the extent that we take “the culture concept” seriously, surely we must be wary of the potential of empathy to erase the differences we wish to explain?

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Waiting for the Future

Call it what you will: an anecdotal and impressionist narrative, or a set of strung-together fieldnotes, collected over years of living and working with people across class lines (in my own home construction sites, in an NGO working in the space of education, in my locality with maids and workers and neighbors) suspended indefinitely in a life of participant observation. The following is a story of the ways in which the future frames us—in both senses of the word.

It is a week before the second spate of massive rains will flood Chennai city, causing the worst flooding the city has seen in 100 years. We are at Home Center on TTK Road in Alwarpet, one of the new home and lifestyle chains which feel much like a localized version of Bed, Bath, and Beyond—down to lighting and layout. We are with my parents and elderly uncle, who is fond of remarking on each instance he finds of facilities and services being “just like in a foreign country.” These days, there appear to be many such.

Back home in Pondicherry, a tiny little “modular kitchen” furnishing, appliance, and homeware showroom has recently opened up, directly across from a housing block, built thanks to the Integrated Housing and Slum Development project sanctioned under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM) scheme. Neighborhoods like this one, off-center from the old heritage “white town,” are very mixed, with more expensive apartments and private homes tucked into unlikely nooks, adjoining slums, ‘low income’ government-built tenements, cow sheds, dhobi ghats (washing areas for laundry), and un-walled private plots by default used as open dumps. I’m walking past with a woman, Selvi, who works as a maid in a house nearby, and lives in the government quarters, as they’re known. We remark on the presence of the new kitchen store. “Do you think of going there to buy things?” I ask, somewhat disingenuously. She laughs. “Us? It’s only people like you who can go into shops like that.” I don’t bother to clarify that it’s not the kind of shop I would really think of visiting. Continue reading