Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester. manchester.academia.edu/MaiaGreen
Classification and world making are the core concerns of anthropology. In- groups and out- groups, borders and boundaries are the frameworks of social and political order. Sorting Things Out, as Bowker and Star put it, or the social practice of classification is essential for understanding how all kinds of organisations function in the contemporary world. It can also provide a platform from which to change them.
Gillian Tett, an anthropologist and Financial Times journalist, makes this claim forcefully in her recent book. The Silo Effect. Why Every Organisation Needs to Disrupt Itself to Surviveexplores what happens when institutions become too entrenched in their own worlds to be able to see what lies outside them. Closed, self referential networks where socially constructed truths prevail and established ways of doing things are never challenged amount to silos which stifle innovation, limit adaptiveness and lead to organisational failure. Continue reading →
For the past couple of years I’ve been addicted to a series of books by the Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Presented as fiction, these explore in minute detail the everyday life experiences of the author from his childhood in the 1970’s to his relationships with his friends, his family and his children.
Knausgaard presents a vivid picture of the world around him as it is affected by, and affects, the constantly evolving interior world of his own perception and consciousness. The writing is phenomenological. It evocatively captures the materiality of ordinary living through its various locations and artifacts, as well as the intensity of the embodied feelings and sensations which make up life as it is lived. The reader experiences what it was like to grow up on an island in Norway, to ride a bike aged thirteen on a summer evening and the click of inserting a cassette tape into a tape recorder in the 1980’s.
These evocations of what anthropologists would recognize as ‘ordinary affect’ are profoundly moving. The first book in the series deals with the emotional repercussions of the death of the author’s father, a violent alcoholic. The most recent, published in English translation in 2016, describes a visit to his elderly grandfather in a city hospital. While the interior orientation of these books and the emphasis on the narrow consciousness of the author seems at first sight to be in sharp contrast to the exterior orientation of an ethnographic approach, it generates astute insights into the wider cultural and social worlds which he inhabits. Reflecting on the organization of the hospital in which his grandfather is a cardiac patient, and by extension all hospitals, Knausgaard observes how the medical categorization of disease as afflicting specific organs organizes social relations and the space within it. The personal identity of his grandfather is rendered insignificant through this process of classification. `For hospitals all hearts are the same’.
I love reading Knausgaard’s books because such close accounts of every day life and relationships are fascinating. These are, after all, the staple diet of anthropology. But I think these books are good for anthropological thinking beyond this, prompting a reflection on anthropological practice as comprising both participation and representation. Knausgaard’s books offer a situated perspective on what it is to be a social actor in a specific time and place. They provide access to a position usually inaccessible to an anthropologist. They allow the reader to experience `being there’ as an observant participant, from the inside looking out, and as a person who is changed by these experiences.
Knausgaard is not solely concerned with thinking about participation. He takes us one step further as he explores the difficulties of capturing this in writing. Representation is explored practically through the structuring of the texts and as a social practice. Knausgaard’s life effort which he recounts in this series is his struggle to become a writer. This struggle is not simply intellectual. It entails getting the time and space to sit alone and write uninterrupted, managing the demands of other work, of partners and children and dealing with the unsightly by products literary production in the form of wasted effort, rejections and negative reviews.
A key insight, over the five books so far published in English (there are six in all), is that good writing takes time. Time to actually do writing, time to develop the skills to write well and, importantly, time to develop a voice. Recommended summer reading.
Can anthropologists combine research on witchcraft with research on development? Why are some topics considered more relevant to understanding development issues than others? This post is a response to a question from a reader considering doing a research project in anthropology. It provides an overview of some recent work on witchcraft by anthropologists mostly working in Africa. Continue reading →
This post isn’t just another lament about the sorry state of the job situation in the academy. The US is undoubtedly undergoing a crisis on that front, accentuated by the huge increase in the numbers of people completing PhDs in liberal arts subjects and the scale of student debt. The effects of this crisis spill over into what is now a global market in academic jobs. This is clearly evident in the UK where the numbers of applicants for academic posts in anthropology frequently reach well over one hundred, compared to perhaps fifty or sixty only a decade previously.
The problem is partly structural- the mismatch between numbers and posts on the one hand, and the impacts of selective shrinkage in the University sector on the other. But demand is also a factor. People continue to study at graduate level because they are motivated by research as much as anything. Doctoral study isn’t only about entry into formal academic employment, in any discipline. And, while the casualization of higher education is a concerning trend, in the US and beyond, it’s not the only issue. It’s hard to imagine under what economic system there could ever be sufficient secure jobs in the university sector for those with higher degrees at a time when it seems that more people than ever are pursuing postgraduate research.
This doesn’t mean giving up and not trying to get a university post, if that’s what you really want. But it does entail a healthy dose of realism combined with the practical career building tips of the sort offered so eloquently by Karen Kelsky aka The Professorisin whose site I wholeheartedly recommend. Having been on the other side of the job process over the past year, as a search committee member and chair of a department, I’m going to offer a few of my own. The first is optimistic, if you are an anthropologist at least.
Rex’s post on back to school books got me thinking. `Doing the life of the mind’, as he puts it, involves lots of different activities. Its not just reading and writing. Talking is a big part of what we do. And to different audiences, or not , as the case may be. Much of the way that we do our academic presentations gets in the way of wider communication. This might be intentional. In reinforcing the walls of the silos in which we like to situate our knowledge it fosters the aura of complexity and exclusivity which in our social universe renders academic knowledge credible.
A recent book addresses this phenomenon as it applies to writing in the social sciences and, by extension, to anthropology. Learn to Write Badly . How to Succeed in the Social Sciences by Michael Billig is not a ‘How To’ book. Its a `How Not To’ book. But, as the author makes plain, if you don’t write in the way which has become authoritative in your field, even if it entails writing badly, there could be consequences for your reputation if not your career.
Although Billig’s is a book about writing I think that the author’s claims work pretty well for communication in the social sciences more generally. It certainly made me think about how we as anthropologists in academia tend to speak to our audiences whether they are our students or our peers. The formal style of academic presentations in anthropology based on writing rather than on `findings’ prioritizes engagement with other writing over and above engagement with either our audience or our informants. This is quite different to communication in other fields, within and outside academia. A how to book which you may find useful for engaging with these other fields is Carmine Gallo’s Talk like TEDsummarized neatly here by Sam Leith of the Financial Times .
Sure, it’s a manual in self promotion (but lets not kid ourselves that academia is any different). But it also has lots of useful tips about connecting with the audience, making a few key points and giving them something to remember. And I learned something wholly new, useful and unexpected. That if you press the B or W keys in powerpoint you can suspend the presentation so your audience is focusing on you not the slide until you are ready to show them the next one. Despite the acknowledged allure of intellectual posturing sometimes you just cant beat useful practicality.
I have just got back from the Association of Social Anthropologists Decennial conference. The ASA formally represents anthropologists from the former Commonwealth countries, including the UK. Like the AAA for those such as myself, who are neither resident in nor citizens of the United States, it’s now more than this- a forum for anthropologists to get together to discuss practice, organize conferences and share ideas.
The ASA holds annual conferences, some of which are in commonwealth countries. This year’s conference was Edinburgh, a fabulous city as well as a pertinent choice given the forthcoming referendum which will determine whether or not Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom. This nationalist moment informed the theme of the conference which was structured around the intellectual contributions of the Scottish enlightenment- to modern thought in general and to contemporary concerns in anthropology.
These big ideas were intended to be explored in some of the plenaries, depending on the contributors, many of whom did as academics will and explored their own big ideas. This wasn’t a particular problem. As in any conference of this sort, themes are primarily ways of organising the order of events and putting people together. And, this being anthropology, there was less orientation to coherence than to the presentation of highly individual points of view which we were presented with in abundance.
If anything, there was slightly too much on offer. I am not sure exactly how many delegates attended, maybe somewhere between five hundred and one thousand, but there were so many panels, almost eighty, over three full days that the audiences were often very small. On the plus side, this gave the event an intimate feeling, which was reinforced by the social buzz of the coffee breaks. In contrast to the social awkwardness induced by the overwhelming scale of the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings where delegates huddle over flat screens as they try to work out with whom to seek a connection this was a meeting which encouraged face to face interaction. The setting, a University campus in a part of the city near to downtown, was suitably informal.
The content on offer was not very different from that presented at other social or cultural anthropology meetings elsewhere. There were, for example, panels on animal human relations, on issues of care and gender , on forms of modern knowledge, on utopias and on waiting. Ontology and neoliberalism as terms were invoked with an unsurprising regularity (I even managed to invoke them in my own presentation on religion and David Hume!) , as were emergent keywords struggling to become dominant as the next wave of fashionable theory.
A number of strong papers foregrounded field findings presenting insights on observed social practice as it is being reconfigured in the face of rapid change. Others foregrounded an analysis which preconfigured the interpretative framing of a story, generally including the anthropologist, as ethnographic insight. I left the conference having learned far more about my fellow anthropologists than I learned about the worlds which they had experienced first hand.
This isn’t a comment on this specific conference. Far from it. It’s a reflection on the current preoccupations of anthropology. Good anthropology should both reflect on itself and our own theory and on real social practice in the world. The whole point of ethnography and of spending an extended time in the field was to use observation of how people lived in the worlds they made as the building blocks of the theories which could to describe and explain them in different settings.
As a professional showcase of what social anthropology currently is and what social anthropologists think its important to talk about I enjoyed the conference enormously. Its appeal to those outside the discipline is less certain. As long as our concerns are driven fundamentally by the models and imaginaries of social theory we will continue to have the kinds of conversations which characterise our conferences. These are fascinating and erudite for sure, but if we are really concerned with wider society should we be having them only with ourselves?
Ryan’s recent post on money and its flows and blocks prompts me to post this, something I wrote a few weeks ago in response to a request from colleagues in Leiden for their ICA magazine, which is published by study association Itiwana of the department of cultural anthropology and development. After my post on brands and the UK riots they thought I could write something about brands. Being in Tanzania which is buzzing with money talk, prompted in part by its new status as a destination for mining and gas companies in the current natural resource rush, I wrote instead about how development is being re-branded.
The 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals is fast approaching. Few countries in Africa are expected to meet the targets. Income poverty, food insecurity, rising inequality and poor health remain problems for the most of the continent. Despite shifts towards democratic politics in many countries, civil conflict and political instability are entrenched in others as legacies of colonial state building and post independence power struggles. Such conflicts, as in Mali and the Sudans, are fueled by the rising value of resources associated with particular regions within a global market that is revaluing Africa as a potential source of minerals, gas and oil and as a high growth location with an expanding middle class.
Annual growth rates for African economies have averaged six or seven percent for much of the decade. The extent to which growth is a consequence of political stability and sound macroeconomic management is open to question. A more pressing explanation for the recent transformation in Africa’s economic fortune is the global increase in demand for its natural resources enabled by regimes of economic management which are increasingly open to foreign investment and partnerships.
This continental push to promote the commercialization of what can be claimed as `natural’ resources within a context of on-going economic liberalization is legitimating an emerging discourse about the wealth of African nations and the urgent need for investment as the magic bullet which can liberate this capital and create national prosperity. The regionalization agenda which fosters economic integration is aggressively promoted by governments and donors, along with initiatives aimed at strengthening property rights, enabling foreign direct investment and transforming communications infrastructure.
China’s new position as the potential economic savior of a continent signals fundamental shifts in the political ordering of international development. The poverty discourse central to the MDGs and, arguably, to the constitution of countries in sub Saharan Africa as fitting subjects of development intervention is increasingly contested, not only by politicians and media commentators across the continent, but by an authoritative cadre of technical experts promoting market led development. Development is being re-imagined not as a consequence of social sector spending but as an effect of marketization.
States across the continent are seeking to present themselves as entrepreneurial and investment friendly. Tanzania is no exception. Like Uganda, it has practically shifted the orientation of its poverty reduction strategy towards economic growth. The government of President Jakaya Kikwete, now in its second term, is pursuing a policy of Kilimo Kwanza, farming first, seeking to marketize agriculture and to promote `a green revolution’ with the support of major donors including the World Bank. While the country continues to rely on donor support for around thirty percent of its national budget, rationales for intervention are now situated within a discursive package that is market led. Donor funded workshops buzz with talk of value chains and market information.
The more conventional investments in the social infrastructure of schools and health facilities financed by the Tanzania Social Action Fund have been superseded by what are designed to be income generating investments for farmer groups to enhance their own livelihoods. Phase Three of this program, shortly to be implemented, is structured around an assumed transformation from indigence to entrepreneurship, enabling self reliance through savings and micro finance as the poorest get, in a phrase equally at home in US discourses of welfare reform, `a hand up not a hand out’.
The aspirations of private sector advocates, within and outside government, increasingly converge with the policy positions of development partners as development is re-branded globally to occupy a new market position. In Tanzania, as elsewhere, financialization, as means and end, plays a central role in this convergence. International accounting firms fight for market share of development implementation within extended contracting chains that conflate financial and political accountability. Civil society organizations are brought into being to play specific roles in monitoring public expenditure, along with new organizational forms and participatory practices. Public expenditure tracking, known as PETS, has a set of methods into which civil society volunteers must be enrolled through seminars and allowances. Techniques equally at home in the world of market research comprising score cards and surveys come to have political clout as modalities through which dissatisfaction with government can be articulated.
Outside these transient relations held tenuously in place through development funding streams, a range of private institutions are seeking to establish the architecture through which the financialization of Tanzanian social life is possible. The limited reach of existing banking infrastructure and the Savings and Credit Co-operative Societies creates potential opportunities for new kinds of financial institutions. These include private financial institutions providing loans to formal sector workers, specialist microfinance lenders such as Pride, and the money transfer services provided by mobile telephone companies, of which the market leader is Vodacom’s Mpesa. The proliferation of formal and informal financial services, and those which straddle this divide, is staggering.
Savings and loan groups are rapidly proliferating in both urban and rural areas, notably those organized on the Village Savings and Loan model promoted by the NGO Care International. These groups consisting of around thirty members are a fascinating organizational form, using strategies of ritualization and formalization to ensure regularity of savings and financial transparency in a group structure where all transactions take place at weekly meetings and hence in public. Group members buy weekly shares up to a limit of five intended to ensure that large profits cannot be made and to restrict the exploitative potential of the better off making money from lending to their poorer neighbors. Savers lend to members of the group at a rate of interest designed to increase the value of the savings share.
Groups operate on an annual cycle after which accumulated interest is divided among members according the value of their purchased shares.These `care groups’ as they have come to be known in some districts are wildly popular because they allow people to borrow money at limited rates of interest, particularly useful in helping meet big expenses such as school fees, funeral contributions and hospital costs. They also provide a predictable return on savings, depending on the extent of borrowing within the group. An additional weekly contribution functions as a kind of social insurance for group members who are paid a sum of money should they fall sick or lose a close family member.
These kinds of groups are heralded by promoters as a locally available form of micro financial institution serving the previously excluded, a social institution for the promotion of fiscal responsibility and the discipline of saving not so much as an end in itself but as the precursor to enterprise. Savings groups thus conceived may indeed be foundational to a new culture of economic change. They also enable a range of distinct practices which support radically different cultures of economic practice, cultures which simultaneously promote and obstruct the aspirations of Tanzania’s economic transformation.
In Ulanga district, Southern Tanzania, where I have been doing some fieldwork, a large number of `care groups’ have been established over the past two years, with the majority now entering their second savings and loans cycle. Despite the core organizational template which specifies numbers of members and the management structure, the practice of groups varies widely, even within the same geographical area. In addition to variations in the value of shares purchased and the timing and duration of loans, some groups insist on compulsory borrowing as well as saving as a condition of membership as a means of increasing the value of savings for all the members of the group. Many groups also insist that members purchase necessities like laundry soap from the group at a price which is the same as or higher than market prices in order to increase group profit and hence the value of the shares which are divided at the end of the cycle.
Borrowing is socially construed as an emergency response to hardship but valued as the means of increasing savings. In this enactment of savings and loans the group itself is the enterprise and saving framed as entrepreneurial activity which generates a return for individual members. The income generating strategies of group members focus on gathering sufficient cash to make savings, in actuality purchasing regular shares, because this is likely to accumulate more value than alternative forms of enterprise, including agricultural investment. Participating in `care groups’, for people with cash to make regular contributions, is fast becoming a recognized means of making money make money. Consequently, traders and middle income people in the villages close to the district capital are joining multiple groups, allowing them to them to escape the limitation on share purchase within a single group and to access the kinds of loan amounts which can yield profitable returns.
That money generates money though such practices does not equate to the kind of financialization envisaged by the architects of Tanzania’s new development order, a world premised on depersonalized economic action within a market frame. `Care groups’ in performing the social relations through which money begets money, via shares invested by group members and the interest they pay on loans , permit individual profit so long as costs are shared to some extent by members of the group. Organized around distrust rather than trust groups rely on the visibility of transactions made in public and the simple technology of the specially constructed cash with three separate locks for which separate keys are distributed among ordinary members. Such practices make explicit the social labor required to make money do savings work and the essential embedding of money within social relations. It is this embedding which accounts for the success of mobile money services in much of Africa rather than mobile banking- what people are interested in is the capacity to transfer money between situated persons not the potential of investing money in abstract institutions.
Political emphasis on accountability dovetails with cultural preoccupations around relations and money , articulated as concerns with the illicit appropriation and consumption of public resources which are highly personalized. The organizational structure of `care groups’ taps into fundamental cultural concerns about groups and individuals, collective responsibility, equity and enrichment in ways that permit adaptation to support core ideals. As anthropology consistently demonstrates, values rather than value are foundational to understanding economic practice in any context. This is not a matter of resistance to global capitalism or neo-liberal economics so much as an assertion of what values count.
Matt’s recent post about the survival of disciplines like anthropology in the post neo liberal future was, like all the best sci- fi stories, simultaneously fun and scary with distinct elements of , if not truth exactly, possibility. We recognise the narrative and see ourselves in it because of how we are experiencing these kinds of changes in our respective locations. These are not merely geographic, although place becomes increasingly important, but encompass our situation within the global political economy of knowledge production and reception, and the global education market place.
The extent to which the scorched earth scenarios will actually unfold is uncertain. The mass expansion in higher education globally over the past decade, not just in the global north, is after all a combined product of private and public spending. What the sector is experiencing is, as Matt shows, increasing differentiation.
The niche occupied by anthropology is changing. Some of this is cataclysmic, as departments shrink and others are faced with closure. But anthropology and ethnography are struggling to find new territories outside the academy and at different sites within it. This is of course leading to debates about what `real’ anthropology is – that is the extent to which anthropological knowledge should stay as inaction research constituted from a position of criticism.
Such refrains may be muffled in the longer term by the roar of rising water over the sinking ship. One established version of what we think of as social anthropology evolved in the nineteen thirties and forties and was distributed widely through the expansion of academic posts and departments in the nineteen sixties and seventies.
The objects of study have changed radically since then, of course, but the ways in which the knowledge categorised as anthropological is organised and obtained hardly at all. At the same time, cognate disciplines, human geography for example, claim to use ethnography as one among many methodological possibilities while also being open to more explicit modalities for the co-production of disciplinary knowledge, not only with colleagues within the discipline but actively with informants.
Something is lost as well as gained through such endeavours. The paradigmatic ethnographic research experience of working through interpretive frames of emergent understanding is not only unique to a particular way of doing anthropology. It yields unique insights. It is also ethically problematic. Debating its limitations as well as potentialities is urgent, as is the rethinking of new approaches to ethnographic practice and to anthropology. If, as we reiterate endlessly to our readers and students, culture and social practice are constituted relationally, we should pay more heed to how the relations within which we are embedded are changing and to our possible role in effecting their transformation. As, Matt suggests, resistance is a strategy but it is not the only one. In the game like scenario he outlines, some communities carve out new spaces for themselves and adopt new weapons and strategies for survival.
Whether the game of academic survival is more analogous to Pokémon, with its public private partnerships providing health resources to the battling creatures under the supervision of titled professors, or to the blood and thunder of World of Warcraft, probably depends where one is situated. In the UK, teetering on the brink of economic crisis amid huge cuts in public spending and a government imposed value for money agenda through which all spending is assessed, the pressing issue is not simply the marketization of higher education, but what level of public investment can be justified. In this climate, it is not surprising that disciplines like ours feel extremely vulnerable.
At Manchester, we are exploring ways of addressing the changed situation by actively engaging it. Instead of simply bemoaning neo-liberalisation, although we do that too, we perceived it as an opportunity. If neo-liberalisation has changed our universities and the kinds of students we attract, what could this mean for our discipline? How could we generate demand and attract different kinds of students to our courses? One experimental answer was to offer a different kind of course aimed at a different kind of student.
Our first year course in business anthropology is designed to be accessible and relevant for undergraduate students taking degrees in business and finance disciplines. It attracted several hundred students in its first year of delivery, students who would not normally have selected an anthropology option. Trying to think in market terms enabled us to situate ourselves differently but it also placed us in a relation of competition with other departments from whom potential students were drawn. Responding to markets may in practice mean shifting the burden of vulnerability. We as a formerly protected species are being forced out of the reserve. Is there an alternative to this world of Prey into Hunter? What other options might we have as anthropologists working in and outside the academy to restructure this particular conjuncture?
At the weekend I saw the film Project Nim, a documentary about the chimpanzee at the center of a language learning experiment at Columbia University in the 1970s. It’s a great film for anthropologists. Not only are these misdirected intellectual endeavors an important part of the history of the discipline, the social universe portrayed in the film raises questions still relevant today about power, authorship and inequality in the knowledge sector.
The film is partly the tragic story of the chimpanzee, Nim, brought up as a human baby in a New York brownstone, breast fed by his `foster mother’ and taught sign language by a succession of young, mostly female, research assistants.
As Nim matures into adult chimphood his massive strength and capacity to bite mean that he can no longer be contained in a human environment without posing considerable risk to the research team. He is returned to the primate facility where he was born, a brutal environment where electric cattle prods are used to control the animals, who are eventually sold on to a medical research laboratory. Campaigning by one of his previous carers and the intervention of a lawyer prepared to extend arguments about human rights to animals raised as human leads to Nim’s eventual rescue and he ends his days in an animal sanctuary where he is ultimately reunited with some of the other chimps from the laboratory.
Nim’s problematic behaviour as he grows up is oriented toward his quest for dominance, the natural behaviour of an adult male chimpanzee. Nim’s carers and the research staff assigned to work with him have to become adept at displaying dominance in the right way or risk serious injury.Dominance matters in other ways not restricted to the social universe of chimpanzees. The film presents a visual snapshot of the hierarchies of power and domination which structured academic life in the 1970s through the relationships between the lead scientist and his junior, mostly female, assistants. The assistants undertake the bulk of the day to day work of experimentation and hand on care for the chimpanzee. The professor does, disseminates and takes credit for the `science’, at one point totally altering his own interpretation of the significance of the experiment. In his view, which differed from that of the people who spent their daily lives interacting with the animal, the inability of chimpanzees to structure sentences grammatically was conclusive proof that they lacked the capacity for language.
Of course, the professor’s narrow definition of language as opposed to a wider concept of communication and the divergences of interpretation are of considerable interest, not least in demonstrating the ways in which the framing of a research object determines the scope of what can be considered findings within a particular scientific paradigm, the kind of narrow cause and effect paradigm we face on our forays into Grantlandia’s uncertain territory. But what struck me about this film was its insight into laboratory life in another era, and the ways in which some things change and some things become institutionalized to the point of being foundational.
The institutionalization of ethical review and changes in the legal framework about experiments on animals in many countries mean that what happened to Nim hopefully could not happen again so easily. I am less certain about the imbalance of power between lead scientists and staff, between seniors and juniors. While the gender dimensions of exploitation exposed in the film may be less prevalent today there is no doubt that current mechanisms for funding and employment in Universities in the UK and the US work to promote the silverback and embed this kind of structural hierarchy.
The move towards funding modalities of large projects modeled on the natural sciences system raises questions for anthropologists who have worked as individual scholars, contributing to team endeavors certainly, but not seeking to produce data on which a lead scientist’ can pronounce. In such situations how do we manage the balance between individual contribution andscientific case’? What are the lines of authorship and ownership between the project leader who holds the funding and researcher in the field? To what extent are conventions of multiple authorship coming in to anthropology as these funding relations alter the social organization of our work? Given the climate in Grantlandia is the future for more of us, especially postdocs, jobbing support to other, often interdisciplinary, projects?
Its been a few years since I last posted on Minds. I was thinking of a kind of catch up commentary. How the world has changed. Is changing. Including the privileged bubble in which we as academics could find ourselves. If we were lucky. This is certainly changing. Public funding is being cut, academia is, if not in turmoil, heading for upheavals globally. This has implications for disciplines like anthropology where demonstrating impact and relevance is difficult. Perhaps this week’s turmoil in the UK offers some scope for anthropology’s core strengths of empathy and interpretation. Several days of rioting in London have given way to riots in urban centres, including yesterday evening in Manchester city centre and in the adjoining city of Salford a few miles away. Full background to the riots is available on newssites such as the BBC and the Guardian. Youtube provides graphic images of young people breaking into city centre stores and walking out with goods.
Commentators agree that what is different about this disorder is the rapid transition from a localised political protest at the shooting by police of a young man in Tottenham, an area made famous for politically motivated riots in the 1980s, to what seems to be a new phenomenon, at least in the UK, of spontaneous urban looting which is at present largely confined to retail areas. I am not in a position to comment on who is involved in the rioting or how this differs from previous incidences of organized disorder, political or otherwise, here or elsewhere. As the journalist Zoe Williams remarks in today’s Guardian newspaper, this is the kind of situation you don’t go out and look at. Levels of violence were quite high. Moreover, events can be followed on twitter, blogs, newsfeeds and other social media, a means of participating from a distance and for some an invitation to action.
Not all of this action was negative. Social media groups have apparently organised clean ups in London and Manchester. Electronic traces of these events will doubtless sustain an entire generation of social analysts for years to come as they strive to recreate the reasons for this apparently mass outbreak of smash and grab. Another change, another way of doing ethnography. Some things however remain the same and one of them is the potential of insightful ethnographic analysis to inform and shed light on social practice.
I have just read Orvar Lofgren and Robert Willim’s Magic, Culture and the New Economy. The book is a series of snapshots of new economy practices taken during the 1990s at the height of the uber boom built on brand, affect and image. Although the examples in the book deal with typical new economy enterprises such as hip hotels and lifestyle spas and the marketisation of self realisation through career coaching, all point to the importance of emotion in constructing value, the significance of affect as driver and product of the new economic order and the gap or perhaps uncertainty in terms of what value is actually based on.
The young people involved in the smashing and grabbing in Manchester last night are widely condemned as lacking core values of respect and decency. Newspapers and members of the public – on the Greater Manchester Police Facebook pages for example- remark that this is not a political protest but a descent into criminality. It is evidently something of both. Indeed, attempts to categorize these phenomena within certain fields will constitute a site of contestation for a long time to come. Lofgren’s and Willim’s book highlights the dramatic inequalities on which the new economy is founded and the circulation of branding as value where value can be socially sustained- the magic of making something out of nothing to which the book’s title alludes. Manchester’s looters focused on high value electronics where these were available and branded goods, particularly clothing. In taking without paying they were demonstrating disrespect certainly, but were they also refusing to accept the magic of the brand?
As I am not teaching this year my engagement with ideas is coming largely through the things I am reading , rather than through dialogue with students. Its actually the need to understand something in order to explain it to another person which provides me with a good starting point for an ongoing engagement with a topic or theme, an engagement which generally goes way beyond whatever the original class topic was about. My tendency to drift along avenues of interest now runs relatively unchecked without the discipline of having to refocus on the core issues which I would have to address in a course. There are losses from this, a certain fragmentation in reading and thinking which may seem to jeopardize the likelihood of having any coherent thoughts about anything. But there have been enormous gains in the sense of freedom from the constraints of normative connections which one usually makes, enmeshed within the silos of what have come to count as discrete topics and issues in anthropology which have become entrapped within particular discursive frameworks and literatures.
I have written here before about the problem of witchcraft, the way in which anthropology has construed this as primarily an intellectual problem, as a problem of interpretation. Partially escaping the closed circuits of anthropological approaches to the phenomenon is enabling me to embark on some different thinking in relation to witchcraft, different at least in terms of my own approaches to it. I gave a paper last week looking at witchcraft as an instance of moral re-categorization- so far so usual. But by comparing the social effects of this reordering of obligations and households with social policies in nineteenth century Britain and France a clear parallel emerges in relation to transformations in the kinds and content of social relations which go into making up, literally, modern economies. So witchcraft appears (or is made to appear) not so much as a critique of capitalist reordering, as a modality for its achievement.
My freedom to think outside the box comes by making my boxes bigger, and situating them in different stacks of other kinds of boxes. Interestingly, this expansionary capacity is what anthropology seemed to have once effected for other disciplines, particularly, and perhaps paradoxically, at the very time when anthropology was at its most insular and when its representation of the Other was most totalising. Perhaps this was because it seemed to offer such solid alternative propositions of different cultural worlds. In the current context of course these multiple worlds are invoked within and outside anthropology. Given the increasing singularity of anthropology today it may be that its only outside of it that we can get different takes on how these may be perceived and apprehended.
Well, I went to the European Anthropology conference and it was really good. Smallish, with perhaps five hundred delegates- with plenary sessions and workshops, the latter being a kind of succession of panel , often with a continuity of themes participants, creating a different and more coherent experience than at the AAAs. And I kind of got the answer to the question I raised the other week, about the rationale for a specifically Europe focused association. The stated aim was for a professional association across the expanded Europe. Another aim, officially unstated but one mentioned in conversation by some delegates, was as an explicit alternative to the apparent American hegemony of the AAA. This was not unexpected. It was however intriguing, especially in relation to some of the topics which came up at the conference, which included conspiracy theories and our current favourite, neo-liberalism.
A presentation by Kathleen Reedy on popular conspiracy theories in Syria got me thinking. It emerged from the discussion that in many ways conspiracy theories are like social theory. They do the same things. And whether or not we categorize something as conspiracy theory or not is a matter of the politics of to what we are willing to accord credibility. This insight brings me back to neo-liberalism, or rather, to anthropological takes on it. We are very keen to accord neo-liberallism conspiratorial power to wholly re-form multiple world orders in its own image; indeed, the opening speech at the conference made this explicit claim.
The conference itself was partly informed brought into being in response to an American conspiracy. Strangely, this self conscious rejection of such hegemonic ordering does not seem to lead to radically divergent anthropologies.. The preoccupations of papers seem on a par with the range of offerings at a triple A meeting. Is this a victory for hegemony and evidence of the neo-liberal reach, creating, as Hardt and Negri might have it, the possibility for the replication globally of the same few core institutional forms? Or is it simply the reality that we comprise the same scholarly community within and outside Europe, that the boundary is not so much between European anthropology and the US axis but elsewhere, perhaps imposed by the de facto alliance of European and North American influenced anthropological forms? Which leads to another question: whether the apparent uniformity of the product and preoccupations of anthropology now are an indication of a crisis of the anthropological imagination, on both sides of the Atlantic?
Reading Rex’’s comments on the challenges of creating on line communities made me feel guilty. I have been a slothful poster of blogs, and hence something of a peripheral member of the minds community. But it also made me think about the work and time involved in building communities in general, the labour of making relationships and making relationships work (something Latour makes much of in Reassembling the Social). As anthropologists and as academics we have to do this in several ways simultaneously; through interpersonal contacts and conversation, as when we teach or engage in person to person debate and fieldwork; and through our relations with texts, in the form of books, posts and articles, and increasingly through the on line exchanges with their authors which may follow. And then there are the formal events at which we are supposed to achieve a presence which is both personal and textual as in the conference presentation season which is fast coming upon us.
This week, after my holiday reading, I am struggling to make a presentation for a workshop session at the European Association of Social Anthropologists Conference to be held in Bristol in the UK next week. This is a new event for me. Although not a mega conferencer, I have tended to go to the AAA meetings. AAA, whatever its shortfalls, is inclusive and open to all anthropologists, whatever and wherever their fields. I was somewhat disconcerted to see that the EASA states that it exists for anthropologists working on or trained in Europe. Why the limitation? Is there anything unique about being trained in Europe? Is there a European tradition of anthropology which renders the inclusion of others trained elsewhere inappropriate? What is included in `Europe’? Does Euro America count? Other places influenced by Europe? Or rather where are boundaries drawn between kinds of relations which are categorised as somehow pertaining to Europe?
I wonder how systematically these boundaries are policed and enforced. I also wonder what the purpose is, especially since the logic of a place based anthropology community has been largely trascended by the combination of cheap air travel and the internet. Personally, I would like to see more inclusive and open organisations which confront and discourage boundaries , whether these are regional, disciplinary or whatever. I think we see the kind of synergy and innovation that results from this kind of openness in the ways that anthropology is changing and in the kinds of things which we now study. As a person qualified in Europe, I will go to the conference and presumably find out more about their regionally exclusive rationale. I will do my presentation and make my limited contribution to face to face community building. After that I hope to have more time to get on with the virtual sort.
If anybody fancies some heavy but rewarding reading try Bruno Latour’s recently published book on Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. I took it on holiday, along with a pile of other books , including Friction and Global Shadows. In the event, or lack of it, I only managed to struggle through the Latour. And once I had read it the other books didn’t seem as inviting, although they are probably a more engaging read. Latour’s book seems to be directed not at the experience of reading so much as the consequence of having read. It takes the reader on a mental journey over difficult terrain, the terrain metaphor resurfacing throughout the book via a play on the acronym ANT and the notion that ants are somehow grounded and hence capable of dealing thoroughly with whatever minutiae are blocking their paths
to unspecified destinations.
Reassembling the Social is one of those books written against in order to work out what it is for. In this instance, its directed against sociologists, whom Latour divides into two types: sociologists of the social and those who claim to practice critical sociology. Latour argues that both kinds of sociology and their practitioners do not conform to what might be the expectations of scientific approaches to the study of society. This is because they rely on pre-existing notions of what the social is and does to account for what people do and why they do it. The idea of society in such accounts fails to explain the very thing which is the object of study. As a consequence the motivations of social actors are always silenced and ignored. The silenncing of social actors is paradoxical for what claims to be a science of the social which ought to be able to demonstrate how things happen or rather how happenings are made. The making is the social process which is both material and symbolic. There is then no break between material culture and cultural material. The object of study includes objects, the subject object divide is collapsed and the sociology of the social superseded by a sociology of association, that is the relations through which actors achieve agency to effect happening.
Latour says much more than this of course in this complicated text, some of which reiterates previous insights and ideas. He makes pertinent points about the sociology of the social’s preoccupation with context and place, hence the eternal return conceptually to the analytical split level of the global and the local. I will try and think more about this when I get around to reading Friction as an `ethnography of global connections’. But in the meantime I think that Latour’s arguments about place are worth exploring for the way they jog ones’ perspective and decentre comfort zones about where we are and what we are claiming to describe when we set out to describe other places. Latour proposes that there is nothing intrinsically contextual about place, that place is simply a staging or framing for traces and associations, near and distant, past and present. Context as such does not exist as a factor which explains or accounts for a place. Placeness is brought to a situation through framing, and only part of this situation is localised.
There is some truth in this way of thinking. As write this I am in what I had on first contact thought of as a post Augean non place, not Manchester although I am sure that others consider it so, but a holiday island in the Mediterranean, the kind of island so subjected to the onslaughts of package tourism and the internationalization of consumption that it seems to no longer have any real identity or sense of location. Among the Irish pubs, the West African street traders selling carved elephants, the Mexican, Chinese and Indian themed restaurants , the International Herald Tribune on the newsstands and the televisions broadcasting UK news and sport, you have to actively look for faint signs of some other more original identity. Latour’s account makes me reconsider my position. If place is frame rather than context then what I am witnessing is a framing of wider traces, some place.
The web changes the way in which we do research and reading. It seems as if its always been this easy to get stuff, but its really only a few years since google and e journals combined became really effective. Its now possible to find almost everything ever written on a topic across disciplines and times, certainly that which was published in the journals now in JSTOR. And this makes new connections and chance discoveries possible, as well as the deliberate searching out of old thinkers. Last week I found a gem of an essay by Mary Douglas called The Hotel Kwilu. A Model of a Model and which had appeared in American Anthropologist in 1989. The essay is a commentary on the lack of connection between anthropology and the world, including the world of other social sciences. Mary Douglas likens this state of isolation to that of the Sheraton style hotel where she had stayed on a revisit to her fieldwork villages in what was then Zaire, a hotel which was perfectly fine but which was not connected to any national infrastructure. There were taps and a bathroom, but no running water. There were light fittings but no electricity. The hotel was in a state of anticipated and optimistic readiness for incorporation into a system from which it was excluded. I am sure all of us have stayed at similar places.
Anthropology has changed a bit since then. So have hotels in rural Africa. But not always in the ways anticipated back in the 1980’s. Connection to international media via satelite television and mobile phone networks is now quite common for even quite local hotels in Tanzania for example. Connection to water less usual. The direction of change is equally unpredictable in anthropology. Anthropology today is more likely to study transnational communities, interstitial social settings and social movements than in the 1980s. We are also looking at bigger issues. From our own singular perspectives. Perhaps where the Sheraton analogy still apt is in this replication of what makes this perspective institutionally possible across much of the world. Despite neoliberalism, cuts in public education and so on, globally, it seems to me that there have never been more anthropology departments in universities and never more anthropologists. What are the implications of this? Are university departments of anthropology part of a global chain? And how diverse are the different institutional products of different countries and regions?