All posts by simone


Simone is a discipline-crossing anthropologist, having worked in planning, geography and anthropology departments. She is currently Reader in Cultural Tourism at Leeds Met University, and Reader in Energy Studies at Durham University, Department of Anthropology, where she is Director of the MSc in Energy and Society.


I’d like to think that most anthropologists now accept that you don’t have to travel to do ethnographic research. Ethnographic sensibilities are in the mind as well as the body, and just as John Urry concluded that tourism is a way of seeing the world, we could argue that ethnography is a way of experiencing and making sense, wherever you are. ENCARC Team Image 1One of the pleasures of Arctic Encounters has been an opportunity to do joint fieldwork, a mode that increasing numbers of my colleagues are favouring these days, and to engage with the work of colleagues across the ‘circumpolar north’.

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Experiencing, Exploring, Extracting, Exploiting

A recent foray into fieldwork saw myself and Britt Kramvig travelling to the annual Sami winter market in Jokkmokk in northern Sweden. Jokkmokk is the seat of the SIMG_2095wedish Sami parliament, and it also has one of the most important Sami colleges for traditional crafts or what we might call applied arts. The 409th annual Sami winter market, and its associated conference promised to be a gathering of Sami from across Sápmi, the Sami territories that reach from mid-Norway through Sweden, Finland and Russia down to the Kola peninsula, and a major tourist attraction.

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Tourism Texts and the Sub-Arctic

IMG_1410We interrupt this arctic/energy blog series for a short detour to the North Atlantic. Every category has its boundaries, and there are many places we know are not definitively in the Arctic, but seem somehow to sit in the overlap. The Faroe Islands are not in the polar circle (62 degrees North) nor particularly cold (ave summer temp 11 celsius), not very icy (sitting in the Gulf Stream) nor home to an indigenous people (mostly Viking and Celtic ancestries) but there is a strong affinity with northern islands and a sense that perhaps we ought to think of an area of sub-Arctic encounters.

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We all live in the Arctic

At least, we all live with the Arctic, since what happens in the Arctic – and the Antarctic – affects every other part of the globe, and vice versa. Melting sea ice brings changing weather patterns; ocean temperatures and currents are shifting, with fish and other sea life following them, changing the availability of food not just for people but for marine life generally. Environmental campaigners have long used images of the Arctic – icebergs, polar bears, arctic foxes and other wildlife – to raise awareness about climate change and embody the threat from greenhouse effects. But how do these images circulate and what do they mean for people living in the European Arctic regions in particular?

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The Arctic is Hot!

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Simone Abram.

It’s not a joke – the Arctic seems to be everywhere at the moment, and it’s mainly because it is getting warmer. None of us really agree what the Arctic is or where – or whether – it has limits, few of us go there, and only a small number of states border the Arctic seas. That doesn’t seem to stop commentators using images of the Arctic to serve their particular interests, often with little regard or even acknowledgement of those who actually live in the Arctic regions. Nor does it dissuade states around the world from developing Arctic policies or seeing the Arctic as a potential resource for their own development goals. These are the themes that inform a recently-established international European project on Arctic Encounters that sets out to confront the idea of a post-colonial Arctic, through the comparison between Arctic imageries and lives in the region. 

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‘Evil can murder a person, but never defeat a whole people’

Recent events in Norway have been utterly shocking. The mass killing of young, politically-engaged people at summer camp means that the effects of the murder travel back to each district of the country, as party members travel home, or fail to return. Since the killings, there have been vigils and demonstrations against the violence, and there is clearly a period of collective shock and horror that spreads beyond the immediate location of the bombing and shooting. The public responses have been marked by mass expressions of grief, political defiance, but also of love.  The Norwegian Labour party estimate that 200,000 people joined a procession in Oslo yesterday, holding aloft roses while listening to speeches and songs, and many tens of thousands more processed through Bergen, Trondheim, Tromsø, Stavanger and other towns and cities across the country and in neighbouring countries. The overriding theme of these marches, online debates and speeches by politicians and royalty have been expressions of love, the need to reach out to each other, be close to one another and hold each other, and to preserve the values of open democracy and care for fellow citizens that define what is it to be Norwegian, a member of ‘this little land’. At moments like these, it appears that we see the imagined community being embodied in overwhelming demonstrations by people who wish to stand up for shared beliefs. They follow in a tradition of sympathy processions, such as the one that followed the racist murder of young Benjamin Hermansen in Oslo in 2001. The processions reflect, in many ways, the particular political cultures of this fascinating country built on a mass social movement for welfare democracy, and on a nature-nationalism that finds its expression in outdoor life.

The Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, described the island of Utøya as the summer paradise of his youth, and the place where he became political engaged. Spending the summer on an island or in the mountains is definitively a Norwegian thing to do, and it is indicative of the state of political life in Norway that the Labour party was able to attract several hundred young members to a summer camp, something that British Labour party officials could barely dream of. The island is owned by the Labour party’s youth organisation, AUF, and has since 1950 held summer camps for young party members. Stoltenberg was leader of the youth organisation from 1985-89, like several Labour leaders before him, and was due to address the summer camp the day after the shootings. He is reported to have been writing his speech when the bomb went off outside his offices in central Oslo. He has since been widely praised for his stoicism, his appeals for people to care for each other, and his defiance against attacks on the open social democracy that the Labour party stands for.

Many of my friends and colleagues who know that I have worked in Norway over more than a decade have asked me whether I know anyone who has been killed. My answer has been that I am not aware of anyone I know having been directly involved, but that in such a small country, with such extensive social networks, I expect to hear before long of someone I know having been affected. All of my Norwegian colleagues will be affected, at least indirectly, because elements of the warped logic of the perpetrator of these crimes is well known to them. It appears, from news reports about the perpetrator’s engagement in online discussions, that he participated in racist conspiracy debates[1], that are extreme versions of the kind of everyday racism that Norwegian anthropologists have critiqued and discussed for many years. Marianne Gullestad wrote, held public lectures, and engaged in public debates for many years to try to dispel casual racist ideas that linked into nationalist ideologies[2], and Thomas Hylland Eriksen has worked no less relentlessly to counter myths about a homogeneous Norwegian nation[3].

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a last post on housing

In both France and Britain, state commitment to financing housing for poorer tenants is now being radically reduced, with governments relieving themselves of responsibility for the welfare of the population in the assumption that people will take care of their own well-being, without the organised redistribution that fiscal systems allow. What do anthropologists say? We’re all for self-determination aren’t we? Doesn’t that sound like keeping the state at bay? There are still many anthropologists of the romantic persuasion who like to see themselves as vaguely left-wing yet feel that people should govern themselves on the most local level possible. Which leaves us in a fix – self-determination good, welfare good, welfare is organised by the state, state interferes in local relations. In this day and age, these views are being adopted by those who support neo-liberal small-states; ‘let people form communities and be responsible for themselves’.

Use and abuse of anthropology is not new. A big hurdle for me in approaching Das Kapital was the opening discourse about the natural state of man based on the old armchair anthropologies and missionary reports. Conservatives argue that people have become too dependent on welfare and should be encouraged to ‘take responsibility’ for themselves, the implicit assumption being that good old fashioned villages had a place for everyone, and everyone looked after each other. It’s an odd mix of old-Tory (rich man in his castle, poor man in his cottage) and neo-liberal (welfare makes you lazy), but it is buoyed up by long trails of romantic sociology which saw villages having authentic social relations and cities as anonymous. That we haven’t moved so far beyond this is evident in the need to do something called ‘urban anthropology’. But you find housing and housing-planning in both rural and urban areas, in bureaucratic and ad hoc systems, and in formal and informal contexts, and in permanent and temporary use (including holidays and tourism). Which takes me back to the beginning – in that housing for poor tenants is not a separate field. Governments have been quick to bail out the banks who frittered away money on poor property investments (etc. etc.), but remarkably less keen to bail out the poor people who can no longer afford to pay their house loans or rents. There’s a category distinction at large that is being hidden, a connection being ignored, with pretty grim consequences.

Back home

My previous posts were about housing, that is aggregates of places some people call home, some people call investments, and some people call many other things, no doubt. I did it to challenge the fact that anthropologists have been much more attuned to thinking about houses as people’s homes, filled with objects and practices with great meaning, and a way into the imaginative life of families and communities. But there’s no suggestion that the latter is not a great subject. I picked up a copy of Inge Daniels’ new book ‘The Japanese House’ at the recent EASA conference. As well as being a good critical review of house-ethnography, it’s also a lovely thing. Daniels has worked with a photographer to produce a cross-over book that I won’t be surprised to find on the shelves of my architect colleagues. Books like this1 go a long way to retrieving academic communication from the serried ranks of dusty stacks. I’m certainly considering taking it along to my evening class in Japanese language to see what the other students make of it. At the same time, it’s helping me think through my own contribution to an interdisciplinary exhibition to be held in Sheffield University next year called ‘Inhabiting Space’. I’ve participated in many anthropological discussions about  working with artists, exhibitions, theatre and so forth, so the prospect of being able to try out my own ideas is very exciting.

We talk a lot about public anthropology these days, and one of the things we discuss is how to reach audiences beyond anthropologists. Visual methods have been key to these debates, and at the EASA conference, our panel on public anthropology included several inspiring papers on photography, film and museum displays, as well as anthropological consultancies and campaigns. It’s no coincidence that advances have come first online, where it’s become so much easier (ie. cheaper) to use audio-visual materials or mixed media. In this we’re ahead of the regulatory game, which evaluates academic performance through stuff you can touch. But despite it all, we still like to do other things, even if we know they’ll not bring us any institutional advancement (and probably the opposite). Doing research on concepts of well-being at home or outdoors poses a paradox. Doing that research is increasingly likely to endanger our own well-being, as universities increasingly try to squeeze more juice out of academics.

1Another book ‘like this’ was Banerjee and Miller’s ‘The Sari’.

Owning and caring

Lurking behind my last blogposts was another question. The political idea that owning something transforms the owner can be reflected onto other house-owners. Does owning more than one home make you an even more respectable citizen? Does the ownership of a house transform everyone associated with it? Are landlords transformed by ownership? And while I highlighted beliefs about the ownership of a home by a citizen, the corollary would be to ask how or whether anyone thinks the state is transformed into a socially responsible entity by owning things like housing. Rather than remind readers how the state is only a fictive performance (pace Philip Abrams), I’d rather point out that anthropologists have been so keen to speak up for the repressed and alienated, that we might forget that there are people for whom the state is not an enemy. Of course, there are the elites at the top who always stand to gain, but there are also many people for whom the welfare state, in particular, made a great deal of sense, if not now then at least earlier, in the 20th century. Some of the elderly residents who I go to know on a housing estate in Sheffield remembered clearly their moves from overcrowded cramped housing in the city centre (several houses to a yard, a toilet block across the courtyard). The city provided them with beautiful modern apartments, with splendid views across the moors, clean air, lawns and trees. They didn’t provide a community centre, but residents began to organise and campaign pretty quickly. A member of a tenants association in a new housing estate in the late 1960s or 70s could arrange to have a direct discussion with the Director of Housing in the local authority (municipality, council), and get an answer to a problem with a commitment to its implementation.

In the neoliberal state of the 2000s, (and already before then), the Director of Housing is less accessible, but even if the tenants’ representative were able to arrange a meeting, the Director could not implement any agreement, since housing services are subcontracted or outsourced through at least one further organisation, over whom they have no immediate control, contracts having been agreed and set for a period of time, sometimes years. The most she could do is sympathise and pass on a request to someone else. In this way, the state no longer appears to be a monolithic framework with an internal logic. Today, the state is more likely to appear to be a mess of fragmented organisations, with little personhood, little coherence and even less sensitivity.  So what does housing tell us about our ideas about the state? It certainly means that we can rethink the question of ownership. While the classical arguments over the rights of persons over their home assumed that ownership gave security, for many tenants, public housing offered – until now – security too, not least because it came with guarantees. Resistance to the privatisation of council housing was strongest among tenant groups, so much so that the Blair government had to offer utterly biased terms to force people to ‘vote’ to leave council ownership (ie, leave the council and get investment for refurbishment and maintenance, or stay and get nothing). As unusual as it is to see governments trying to rid themselves of power, there are questions to be asked about the consequences of governments also ridding themselves of ownership. Does it make the state appear heartless, literally with the heart removed, or metaphorically as lacking in feeling? In practice, in the housing estates, as elsewhere, there was a strong feeling that the state failed to care for residents. A failure to care led to the relinquishing of ownership, but they went hand in hand. You don’t bother to hold on to things you don’t care about. Perhaps owning did, indeed, give the state personhood. So where will it find its personhood without ownership?

The other financial crisis

I imagine most anthropologists – and not a few others – are pretty fed up of hearing about the financial crisis these days. We are now living the after-effects. British universities have been implementing savage cuts (or trying to) for over a year, and all are holding their breaths over the cuts to be announced in the government’s spending review in October. More on that later. What I want to peek at is the financial crisis that didn’t happen, which was the one I’d been expecting.

The story we do know goes (bearing in mind I’m being incredibly brief here) that the crisis was fuelled by unsustainable lending by banks to poor people who couldn’t pay back their debts. Whipped round the financial markets with a few clever recalculations and repackaging, bad debts escalated, and eventually the hot air deflated and banks collapsed. But there was another shuffle going on in the background. In Britain, the major part of the economy that was not about the City (of London, i.e. financial markets) was about the construction industry1. As manufacturing collapsed, governments saw construction as a replacement sector – it produces stuff and keeps people employed.

The expansion really took off in the 1990s2, when government statisticians reckoned that the number of households was increasing even if the population was falling3. With people marrying later, an increase in the number of students, and more widows and widowers living longer there were more one-person households who apparently needed (or wanted?) small flats. And lo, small flats there came. An urban regeneration based on posh – read overpriced – flats in city centres around the country took off. The cities looked more lively, old buildings were ripped down and new oversized blocks of flats appeared (oversized in height to make more money out of each plot). But after a while it became clear that most of them were empty. Some cities, like Leeds, had up to 70% vacancy rates. Yet the prices didn’t come down. What was happening was not that unfortunate landlords couldn’t find tenants, but that investors were buying property to put on their portfolio, as an asset that automatically increased in value from year to year along with the housing market. They never intended anyone to live in them. Clever stuff. So the financial crisis I was expecting was the one where investors decided they needed to realise their assets and sell their flats. Finding the market flooded, the value of the property crashes and they’re all left with empty assets and cities with empty flats. The other crash intervened, but this one is still there waiting to happen. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to see this (and the issue of vacancy and investment were spotted by property analysts). What anthropology can do is tie together the central statistics, the activities of investors, and the local politics of house-building on the ground.

The housing market’s been an odd beast for many years, yet anthropologists have mostly ignored it. Much more glamorous the bear pits of the City, yet  in my view, the the ins and outs of housing can be just as odd and fascinating. The numericization of social issues drives the whole process, and leads to the kinds of unexpected consequences that anthropologists love to recount. We end up with thousands of empty houses, and more thousands of people who are homeless – either with no place of their own, or no place at all. But because the houses have been built to make a profit, and not to house people who need them, we cannot put the two together. In other words, the problem of housing is not about buildings. It’s about money, class, geography and ethnicity and other usual suspects. The problem for anthropology is that we need to look at the bigger picture, and not only tell stories about the people in the houses. We need to accept that stories about our own politicians and policies can also be anthropology.

1Margaret Thatcher was notoriously close to the owner of the MacAlpine construction corporation – later Lord MacAlpine. It was rumoured she and her ministers owned substantial shares in construction companies.

2 Bear with me here, John, I know there were booms before, but let’s just look at the last time round for now…

3For a somewhat fuller explanation, see Murdoch and Abram 2002: ‘Rationalities of Planning’.

Magical properties

I was fabulously flattered by the invitation to blog for Savage Minds, and uncharacteristically nervous when considering how popular it is. But here we go, and let’s hope you find this moderately interesting.

There are more than moderately interesting things happening in Britain today. We have a new government with radical and fairly exotic ideas, and much for anthropologists to get their teeth into. One area that’s been occupying me for some time is the more florid statements of certain people who are now Ministers on the value of social housing. Recent pronouncements have included suggestions from the Prime Minister that people should not be allowed to live in the same house all their lives, it ‘stunts ambition and means that people end up staying on estates for life’1. He’s referring here to council estates, not country estates where, presumably, living all your life at your country seat is not a sign of lack of ‘aspiration’.

Just a few lines of background first: in Britain, many low-cost homes were, for nearly a century, built, owned and managed by local government organisations that we call councils, hence ‘Council Housing’. A simple strategy to ensure that the poorest people had somewhere decent to live. Not free housing, but secure housing available at relatively low rents, with a carefully regulated landlord (the council) and clear rules and policies. It worked pretty well for at least half a century, yet the middle classes tended to look down on it and stigmatise council tenants as dangerous and reckless. Under Thatcher that reached a zenith (or nadir depending on your point of view), and she began to dismantle the free and fair system, a process continued under New Labour with the wholescale demolition of rundown estates of housing, and the transfer of publicly owned housing to autonomous institutions, such as Housing Associations and the wonderfully named ‘Arms Length Management Organisations’ (immediately known as ALMOs). So far, so factual.

What’s particularly fascinating, for me at least, is the kind of mystical agency that some ministers invest in housing. One particularly prominent minister, former leader of the Conservative Party and now Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, one Iain Duncan Smith, seems to have wholly adopted Levi-Strauss’s suggestion that houses have personhood. The key feature that gives houses this agency is not the house itself, but its ownership: ‘People with assets are more positive, more constructive, more likely to do the right thing’2. Now, forgive me, but this strikes me as rather radical. It says that our relationship to material objects transforms us as persons, but only if we own them ourselves. There is more depth to this than any neo-liberal rant about small government or reducing red tape – those are merely processual details. This, on the contrary, is a fairly radical moral belief.

It was slightly more elaborated in a statement by Duncan Smith’s ‘think tank’:

The ownership of an asset encourages a series of behavioural changes. Those who own are more likely to protect their assets, to protect their position of ownership and to engage in constructive behaviours that enable their assets to be protected and enlarged: behaviours that benefit themselves, their families and the community at large3.

So this house, in a relationship of ownership, becomes the agent not only for the behaviour of its occupants while in the house, but for the wider social arena. It goes well beyond the former New Labour government’s unimaginative observation that people who rent have no property to pass on to their children. For the new Tories, the relationship of ownership is that which creates a fully socialised person, and the most fully socialised is the one who owns the most substantial property, a home. Sadly, the other side of this curious belief is the spectre of council tenants being told to move to private housing if they no longer need income support (ie welfare), and a renewed wave of stigmatisation and prejudice against council tenants. But I, for one, think that the beliefs on ownership are themselves worthy of some anthropological analysis4 in the hope that this might give more strength to those who campaign on behalf of people who do not own private houses.

Next blog post – on the financial crisis that didn’t happen…

1Widely reported, including in

2Ian Duncan smith interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 2/12/08

3Centre for Social Justice 2008 (press release)

4For more on this, my book ‘Culture and Planning’ should be out next year.