Irish Writers, Anthropologically Speaking: An Interview with Helena Wulff

Anthropologist Helena Wulff has been conducting research on youth culture and multiple art worlds (especially in Western Europe) for over thirty years.

Wulff’s recent book, Rhythms of Writing: An Anthropology of Irish Literature (Bloomsbury, 2017), brings an anthropologist’s questions to the world of contemporary literature.

In a review of her new book for the Irish Times, Irish literary critic, Anna Fogarty, writes:

Her pioneering investigation nicely balances an advocacy of aspects of Irish cultural traditions which may be taken too much for granted by those living and writing in the country with a shrewd and timely critique of the inbuilt sexism of our public institutions and the provincialism of our general outlook.

You can discover more about Helena Wulff’s work on her website here from Stockholm University, where she is a professor and deputy head of the Department of Social Anthropology. Wulff has also held visiting professorships at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, National University of Singapore, University of Vienna, and University of Ulster, as well as a Leverhulme visiting professorship at the University of East London.

You can find downloadable PDFs of many of Wulff’s published journal articles and book chapters here.  Beyond her many scholarly publications, Wulff also occasionally writes popular articles for newspapers and magazines in Sweden and the UK.

With Deborah Reed-Danahay, Wulff edits the new book series, Palgrave Studies in Literary Anthropology, and with Jonathan Skinner she edits another book series, Dance and Performance Studies, for Berghahn Books.

She has served as Chair of the Anthropological Association of Sweden and is a member of the board of the five-year, multidisciplinary research program in Sweden, Cosmopolitan and Vernacular Dynamics in World Literatures. With Dorle Dracklé, she served as Editor-in-Chief of Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, the journal of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), and was also Vice-President of EASA.

We recently had an e-conversation about her new, pathbreaking book about Irish writers. Read the interview below.

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HW: Helena Wulff

AG: Alma Gottlieb

 

AG:  In your previous work, you’ve written about lots of different topics–dancers, emotions, youth, and ethnographic writing and research practices, among others. This book is about a subject that’s quite unusual for an anthropologist. What inspired you to write a book about Irish writers?

HW:  My love of literature goes back to my childhood and youth. I grew up in a home where reading fiction was a central activity, as well as, importantly, talking about it. The fact that my mother preferred reading stories to me and my brother when we were small, rather than cleaning the house, made a lasting impression on me.

I was soon a voracious and precocious reader. Not only did I devour European classics early on, such as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but also, in secret, novels my parents said I was too young to read. Literature was my way of finding out about life, history and the world, although my literary horizon was limited to Europe and North America. This was before the idea of “world literature” would include the circulation and translation of literary work from regional or national to global contexts (which I’ll come back to, as that’s my current research.)

Both my parents had been students of comparative literature. As this was such a strong interest also for me, comparative literature was the only subject I wanted to study when I enrolled at Stockholm University in 1973. I had a fabulous year, but towards the end I realized I wanted to do something different from my parents, to develop on my own.

I had learnt from friends who studied philosophy that there was something called social theory, which seemed useful as a way to understand the world around us. So I took up philosophy. On the whole, I enjoyed it–but I missed attention to empirical evidence, and the link between theory and the empirical world. That was when I found anthropology, a discipline that included both empirical evidence/ethnography and theory–and everything fell into place. I became an anthropologist–first focusing on youth culture, and later on ballet and dance as a transnational occupation. My first study of the dance world (published in 1998) was Ballet across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers.   

Then Riverdance, the Irish dance show, made a global splash. I was intrigued by its success in very different countries and cultures. So I set out to do a major study of dance in Ireland–a country that, with its difficult history, artistic vein, and eloquence, was a most rewarding place for anthropological research.

In addition, it was easy and cheap to get there from Stockholm. It didn’t take long before I was doing what I came to think of as “yo-yo fieldwork,” going back and forth between Stockholm and Dublin on a regular basis. I spent one or two weeks at a time in the field—altogether, eight months. My study was published in 2007 as Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland.

It was during the research for this study that I spotted the novel, Dancers Dancing by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, in a Dublin book shop. Thinking it might be relevant for my study, I bought it, read it with great delight, and then was able to interview the author. This was my first contact with the contemporary literary world in Ireland.

I started reading work by Colm Tóibín, Colum McCann, Anne Enright, and Joseph O’Connor–all award-winning writers–and couldn’t stop.

Colum McCann (photo by Bryan Schutmaat for The New York Times)

 

I was impressed by the style and the stories, and I identified an ethnographic presence. I noticed that Roddy Doyle was publishing at a high speed. And, suddenly, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was everywhere, selling like hotcakes.

Pulling together my lifelong love of literature with my anthropological experience of Ireland, I was thrilled to see a new study emerging: one of Irish writers in terms of their craft and career. It was triggered by one basic question: How come the Irish are such skilled writers? This was followed by two more: How do they learn to write? What does the Irish literary world look like—not just the world of writers, but also publishers, with all the attendant breakthroughs and competition?

 

AG:  I’m struck by how seamless your move from one project to another has felt to you, even though all these projects might appear so different from one another to a casual reader.

Can you talk about the interview process you’ve experienced across these projects? For example, dancers are notoriously reluctant to speak about their art. At least, many dancers I’ve known have often said something like, “If I could tell you about it, I wouldn’t need to dance it”! By contrast, for writers, verbal language is their chosen medium. Were the Irish writers you’ve interviewed happier than other interviewees to keep talking and talking?

HW: I wouldn’t say that the writers were happier than the dancers to keep talking and talking . . . but they were more difficult to get an appointment with, in the first place! (The dancers were easier to get hold of, as I spent many months with their companies, so I was around them on a daily basis.)

With the famous writers–just like the famous dancers–once I had them in front of me, I had to break through their shield of expectations, which inclined them to provide routine answers to journalistic questions that weren’t necessarily well-informed. This shield entailed a risk that they would be indifferent to the situation. I had to surprise them in order to get their engagement.

Asking John Banville, one of the most prominent and prolific contemporary Irish fiction writers: ”Why do you write?” was such a moment. He was taken aback and started thinking out aloud, off track. By then, I had established rapport with him.

I didn’t experience any significant differences between interviewing Irish dancers and Irish writers. There’s definitely a fascinating truth in Isadora Duncan’s famous observation:

“If I could tell you what it means, I would not have to dance it.”

But my questions for the dancers would mostly be about the social organization of the dance world–ranging from ”How come you started to dance?” and ”What is good dance?” to ”What do you think of dance critics?” and ”Tell me about camaraderie as well as competition in the dance world.”

I think it also mattered that I used to dance (ballet), myself. That meant that I had the vocabulary and general understanding of ballet culture, which the dancers appreciated. They often see themselves as misunderstood by other people.

 

AG:  That aspect of “native ethnography” was also relevant, to some extent, in your research with the Irish writers. But they may have also perceived themselves as “native ethnographers” of you, as well. Did you ever find yourself reversing roles with them? That is to say, did you ever fear that the writers might end up interviewing you (or just observing you), to make you into a character in one of their books?

HW: Unlike most Irish writers, who are eloquent speakers as well as sociable people, there was one writer I interviewed who told me beforehand, on e-mail, that she was ”a reserved, private person,” and that she didn’t think she’d be able to contribute all that much to my study. But she agreed for us to meet up in a café in Dublin. I told her that I, too, used to be a shy person. I found her really pleasant, and we did connect, even though the interview was a bit slow in the beginning, as I felt I had to be careful. She kept her low-key approach but seemed to appreciate my questions. Then suddenly, she took charge! Amused, I realized that I was replying to her questions–about anthropology, my research, my writing, and my own family–in a more detailed way than I’d ever done before in an interview I was supposed to be conducting. It was funny and revealing to me. I remember thinking that she seemed to be taking the opportunity to do research for her own writing.

I haven’t come across myself as a character in any of her books yet. But I did notice that John Banville featured an anthropologist as a minor character in one of the books he wrote after I interviewed him!

In a similar vein, I did a pilot interview with Éilís Ní Dhuibhne for my research application for the project on Irish writers that I submitted to the Swedish Research Council.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

 

I was delighted to be awarded three years of funding for the research. Talking to Éilís about my plans for a study of writing as career and craft in Ireland turned out to give her an idea for a novel on the social organization of the literary world in Dublin, with all its collaborations, competitions, and even plagiarisms. It was published as Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow by Blackstaff in Belfast in 2007.

While inspired by certain circumstances in the literary world in Dublin, the novel does exaggerate, in order to make some points–as novels are allowed to do.

Such artistic license is also prevalent in Éilis’ short story, ”A Literary Lunch” (2012), where she satirizes the work of a board that awards literary prizes. In my book, I discuss how literary prizes are considered an important part of a writer’s career, not least because their publishers regard them as evidence that they have selected the right book to publish.

 

AG:  Few anthropologists have chosen either writers or literary texts as their research subject. In the preface, you summarize some of the main points of overlap between anthropology and literature. Any further thoughts about anthropologists who influenced you in your decision to take on this project?

HW:  As a student, I was already aware that Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz had an interest in literature, which I found reassuring. Later, I learned that James Clifford did as well. And when my contemporary, Nigel Rapport, wrote in 1994 about the ”prose and the passion” in the writings of E. M. Forster, I was intrigued and felt an affinity.

Even though I was deeply involved in my fieldwork and writing on ballet as a transnational occupation at the time, a desire to do an anthropological study of literature had already sprung up. It would have to wait, though, until I had completed my study of dance in Ireland. Then it was just a matter of course to stay in Ireland, but move to another topic, a prominent and influential topic in Ireland-–its writers. It made a lot of sense.

This was also when I started attending sessions on literary anthropology at the American Anthropological Association, sponsored by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

With pleasure, I had long identified a literary sensibility in a number of anthropologists who are well-known for something else. Now, I was excited to meet and read the work by anthropologists such as Paul Stoller, Kirin Narayan, Ruth Behar, Kristen Ghodsee, and yourself, who were fully engaged in literary anthropology.

 

AG:  What difference does anthropology make for a study of writers?  Can you talk about how the questions you asked about Irish writers’ lives might be different from the sorts of questions that biographers and literary scholars might ask?

HW:  Many contemporary literary scholars consider cultural, political or historical context, but their focus is on the literariness of the text, while anthropologists would focus on the context, while paying attention to the text. Not only for my study of writers, but also for both my studies of dancers, my guiding light has been Howard Becker’s Art Worlds, where he shows that artists don’t work in isolation, but in “art worlds”–in other words, in professional and cultural contexts.

As for biographers, while they might set their stories against a backdrop of culture, politics or history, their focus tends to be on private and/or professional lives. Mine is a study of a profession that sometimes can be understood through private lives–but, even more, through Ireland’s special situation historically.

 

AG:   I’m struck by how you organized the book. In a work about writers, one might have imagined a focus on a single writer in each chapter. Instead, each chapter addresses a component of the literary career, or the social organization of the literary world. Can you discuss what went into your thinking about how to structure the book’s chapters?

HW:  The structure of the book is chronological.  It starts out with learning how to write, then moves to the making of a writer’s career, breakthroughs, maintaining a reputation, drawbacks, and finally demise. This is also reflected in some writers’ career trajectories, beginning with the local literary milieu in Dublin via varieties of translations of their books into films and musical shows in London and New York; America as hope; and, finally, Irish literature and the world.

 

AG:  Given their literary expertise, are you more nervous about your interviewees reading this book than you have been with earlier projects? Has any of the writers (or agents or others in the publishing world) read it and shared any reactions with you yet?

HW:  I’m not more nervous about this book. Ballet dancers, contemporary dancers, as well as Irish dancers were all experts in the fields I was writing about, and I did get really appreciative feedback from dancers who read those books. I felt mutual respect with them, as I did with the writers.

I may hear about other commentaries, but for now I’m very pleased that two of the writers (that I know of) have read Rhythms of Writing and say that they are ”impressed.” Another reaction is a very favorable review in The Irish Times by Anne Fogarty, an esteemed professor of James Joyce Studies at University College Dublin. This was fabulous not only because the review was substantial and very positive, but also because Fogarty, who is a literary scholar, appreciated my anthropological take on her world.

 

AG:  Speaking of reviews: In the book, you profile the structure of the literary marketplace. Do you see any overlaps with scholarly publishing? Any warning signs for us scholars to take note of? Any lessons we scholar-authors might learn?

HW:  Yes, there are overlaps between literary and scholarly publishing, not least in the notion of a prestige hierarchy of publishers. Among Irish writers it’s more prestigious to publish in London or New York with a global conglomerate than in Dublin with a local boutique publisher, even though that’s where most writers start.

A warning sign for us scholars to take note of is the rise and impact of the agent. Irish writers who publish internationally all have agents, but I did hear certain reservations about these brokers from both writers and publishers. There were writers who found that they had to revise their texts according to the agent’s criteria, and these criteria would follow the agent’s predictions of the market, rather than the writer’s own literary inclinations. But then, the agent may actually be right.

For publishers, the agents are necessary, as it’s often agents who spot a new talent. Yet one editor was quite frank with me in his description of how agents put their own interests first, in terms of making money for themselves.

There are, of course, already scholar-authors in the U.S. who have agents, and this might well work for them. Still, for those of us who have a firm engagement in writing as a craft, and take a lot of pride in formulating sentences and keep searching for new expressions, the idea to have not only an editor and peer-reviewers but also an agent suggesting revisions, if not enforcing them, seems scary, to say the least. For in the end, who is the author, then?

 

AG:  Let’s end on a happier note! Can you say something about your new research on  “world literatures” beyond the Euro-American traditions?

HW:  This is an anthropological study of the social world of migrant writers and their work in Sweden. I’ve just published a piece introducing the research–“Diversifying from within: Diaspora Writings in Sweden.” It’s part of a major interdisciplinary research program on World Literatures funded by the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. As with my study of Irish writers, I’m investigating the making of a migrant writer’s career–how these writers learn to write, as well as drawbacks, the publishing industry (including the notion of ”the migrant writer”), their breakthroughs, and their role as public intellectuals.

Sweden used to boast an ethnically welcoming policy, but has now restricted its migration and refugee intake. There is also a growing anti-immigration party. Still, these writers are diversifying Sweden from within. Some of them have international reputations. While the Irish writers were surfing on the mighty fame of their predecessors such as James Joyce and Seamus Heaney, migrant writers in Sweden are not associated with August Strindberg or Astrid Lindgren. So, how is it that the writings of Jonas Hassen Khemiri (of partly Tunisian origin) on terrorism and racism in Sweden have become acclaimed in New York, London, Tokyo and many other places across the globe?

Environmental Anthropology: An Ethnographer’s View of a Cove Cleanup

The curse of the anthropologist: finding culture everywhere in nature.

Publicly posted signs reinvent the medieval European town crier, or the West African village drummer

 

Today, the coastal neighborhood in which my husband and I now live hosted a cleanup in a nearby cove.

 

Of course, this effort was billed as an environmental event. But whenever I bent down to pick up a piece of blue plastic poking up from the sand, or a shard of brown glass glinting under the noonday sun, I couldn’t help thinking of the organization of labor required by clever humans to lug this alarming collection of detritus to a landfill.

 

 

Or perhaps a container ship will transport the bags of sea trash halfway around the world. Someplace in China, rural-to-urban migrant laborers might pick through heaps of American scrap and send the sorted pieces to factories in Shenzhen or Dongguan. There, other rural-to-urban migrant workers (of the sort profiled by the fascinating book by Leslie Chang that I am currently reading, Factory Girls) will make new products from recycled glass and bits of plastic. Maybe next year, those products will make their way on new container ships headed back to the Port of Providence, right up the road from us. And then, I might buy a set of drinking glasses or a plastic spatula at the local mall that boasts, “Made in China.” Was it really? Our work today suggests that such a label might tell only a very partial story.

Or so I fantasized, as I picked out crushed straws and dirtied pencil stubs from the wet sand and stuffed them in my rapidly filling trash bag.

Enjoying a beautiful day for a clean-up; photo by Philip Graham

 

As I joined in today’s collective effort, my mind wandered back to an annual community cleanup that occurred in the small villages of the Beng people in which my husband and I have lived for long periods in the rain forest of Ivory Coast. There, the male chief of every village organizes the event. The goal: to sweep the paths clean that connect village and forest. Farmers walk these paths daily to reach their fields, which are located deep in the heart of the West African rain forest. It’s important to keep the paths clear–otherwise, inattentive farmers worried about this year’s rainfall might forget to look where they’re stepping and tread on a poisonous millipede, a scorpion, or a snake.

Beng villages are designed as discrete clearings in the surrounding rain forest; photo by Philip Graham

 

Once those paths into the forest are cleared, the residents tackle the village itself. The goal: to clear every blade of grass, so no child inadvertently steps unsuspectingly on a green mamba hiding among tall plants while walking to Grandma’s house.

A Beng chief’s word is next to that of god. Beng chiefs are said to use witchcraft to protect their villages, and no sane person would dare deny their annual order to sweep the paths.

A young Beng man sweeps in front of the assistant chief (seated, with a white shirt), while behind him, his older brother, the village chief (seated, with a long, light blue robe) looks on, approvingly; the space is being cleared before a village meeting is convened

 

Moreover, these chiefs occupy a hereditary position. Sure, villagers might dispute the suitability of this or that genealogically qualified candidate, after a particular chief dies. But the basic system offers an official and more or less predictable structure into which individual successors can be slotted.

The neighborhood in which my husband and I now live in Rhode Island lacks such an inherited leader. So how does our annual neighborhood cove cleanup get organized?

As it happens, one woman named Barbara Rubine occupies something of a chief-like position.

Barbara Rubine (left) oversees today’s cove cleanup, along with Andy Gell and Mark Garrison, two Board members of the Edgewood Waterfront Preservation Association 

 

Living across from the cove motivated her to start thinking clean-up thoughts some thirty years ago, when the discouraging view out her window featured more rubbish than river. To maximize her efforts, she founded the Edgewood Waterfront Preservation Association, of which she remains president. As the city of Cranston noted when it voted to commend her for work in 2013, Rubine has “coordinated park maintenance, and shoreline and marsh restoration work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Save The Bay, EWPA and the City of Cranston.”  Which is to say, she’s helped secure major grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as local organizations.

Yet, from what I can tell, many volunteers at today’s cleanup don’t know this energetic and visionary woman–even though she is, herself, a veritable force of nature. No, it’s not Barbara Rubine’s moral authority that draws groups of neighbors to add their e-mail address to a list of volunteers, study a long list of labor-intensive tasks, then grab trash pickers and leaf bags and get to work.

 

 

Environmental activist groups sponsoring the clean-up requested e-mail addresses to recruit volunteers for future tasks, then provided supplies for all volunteers to use

 

It must be some collective sense of purpose that, despite its amorphous shape, draws individuals here.

Dean’s grandfather

 

Moreover, many parents clearly aim to model civic engagement for their children.  After all, it takes a village to maintain our neighborhood cove–which, as my five-year-old grandson Dean proclaimed last year (following a tour of Rhode Island’s magnificent coastline), is, after all, “the original, the best, and the most beautiful cove.”

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so, behind all this laudable effort to preserve the habitat of shellfish beds in their vulnerable corner of the natural world, the structure and motivation of the human labor on behalf of the mussels somehow claim most of my attention.

Fragile mussel beds benefited from the housekeeping efforts of their human friends

 

The curse* of the anthropologist, indeed.

 

* or blessing

 

. . .

 

[All photos by Alma Gottlieb except where noted.]

 

Doing Development the Right Way: A Conversation with Charles Piot

Anthropologist Charlie Piot has been conducting research on the political economy and history of rural West Africa for over thirty years. His first book, Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa (1999), has gained wide attention for re-theorizing a classic, out-of-the-way place as existing within the modern and the global.

 

His next book, Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War (2010), explored shifts in Togolese political culture during the 1990s, when NGOs and charismatic churches reorganized social and political life in the absence of the state.

His current project focuses on Togolese who apply for, and attempt to game, the US Diversity Visa Lottery.

You can find out more about Charles Piot’s work on his Duke University website here.

While pursuing his own research in Togo, Piot now brings undergraduate students from his U.S. campus (Duke University) for short stays in the West African villages of the Kabre people where he has made a second home.  While there over summer and winter breaks, the students have developed and pursued their own, small-scale development projects.  In developing these projects, the students aim to tap into both their own skills and the needs of the villagers.

Neophytes are notoriously doomed to fail in such culturally and politically sensitive work. But these students are lucky to have Professor Piot to guide them in the exceptionally thoughtful and informed way that anthropologists do best.  Many of the projects have already proven transformative, while the failures have proven instructive.

Piot has worked with the students to publish a striking collection of essays chronicling their efforts.  The result: Doing Development in West Africa: A Reader by and for Undergraduates (Duke University Press, 2016).

Anthropologist Brad Weiss calls the book “an innovative . . . eminently readable and teachable text valuable to courses in international relations, political science, and anthropology.”

The book was “Highly recommended” for libraries by Choice.

Recently, Charlie and I had a conversation online about the book.  During part of our conversation, Charlie was actually back in the villages, checking up on recent projects and tweaking them to make improvements.  I think you’ll find the conversation fascinating.

CP: Charles Piot

AG: Alma Gottlieb

 

AG:  This book features projects that your undergraduate students at Duke have undertaken in a rural area of Togo where you’ve conducted research among the Kabre people for a few decades.  What inspired you to compile a book of essays by and about research in West Africa done by American undergrads?

CP: The idea for the book was entirely student-driven!  One year’s group of students with academic leanings – all three went on to graduate study, with one now pursuing a PhD in medical anthropology – asked if they might write up the results of their summer projects in an Independent Study class.

I agreed and put them through the paces – first week, produce an abstract; second week, an Introduction; and so on.  Before you knew it, they each had short articles, which were surprisingly strong.  One of the students asked if we couldn’t try to publish them, and of course I said, “Sure”–while secretly imagining that we’d end up publishing them on a website of our own design.

But one thing led to another.  We added more essays the following year.  We found some money to fly in to Duke an anthropologist (John Hawkins) who had published a similar book of student essays, and he gave us outstanding editorial advice.  We had lunch with a Duke University Press editor who was super-supportive of the idea – for him, it was a novelty, a book by undergraduates for undergraduates about development – and said he’d send the essays out for review.  But then, of course, the real work of producing a book – of editing and fitting all the pieces together – began.

Then, too, the projects themselves have always drawn me in.  These projects – all, student-designed – are interesting and doing important work in the villages.  And they tell interesting cultural stories.

Recipient of the Writer’s Collective Award for Best Poem (with a Duke Student), in a Kabre Village (Togo)

 

Finally, the problems and challenges of development in West Africa are vexing and fascinating.  I didn’t used to think so.  In fact, in years past, I would run the other way when I saw a development worker.  But now I find issues of development not only urgent but also (as Lévi-Strauss might have said) “good to think with.”

2017 Group of Duke University Students in a Kabre Village (Togo) 

 

AG:  Let’s start with that last comment.  As an Africanist, I spent three decades lecturing to students about the failures of large-scale “development” programs across Africa.  I suspect you did, too.  Yet we both find ourselves now working with small-scale “development” projects in our fieldsites.  Or maybe, it’s because we found so much wrong with those large-scale programs that we’ve both now embraced much more local, small-scale projects, in spaces we know well.  (Your work with these projects in Togo is exactly why Philip Graham and I invited you to join the Advisory Board of the Beng Community Fund that we founded, to create small-scale projects with Beng villagers in Côte d’Ivoire.)

In helping your students design their micro-projects, do you find yourself thinking explicitly about the failures of so many past IMF (etc.)-funded projects in Africa, and working with these students to design projects that will avoid those well-documented problems?

 

CP: Everything we do in Togo is tied to the spectre of development’s many failures that you reference.  My own feeling is that many of those failures, whether large-scale or small, are due to the failure to understand or engage with local culture.  How can you introduce new systems of debt (that come in with a microfinance project) if you don’t understand local notions of debt?  How can you design farming or health projects if you don’t understand local labor and cultivation practices, the way gender and labor intersect, and even local conceptions of the body?  But, astonishingly, most development projects never get down in the weeds of the local like this.  They assume the benefits of their projects will be obvious to all.  So they hire technicians and economists and agronomists, who are all well-versed in the Western sciences—but, rarely, anthropologists!

All of our projects in Togo – a microfinance opportunity for teens, a village health insurance system, computer classes, a writers’ collective – attempt to draw on local knowledge from the get-go, from design to implementation.  If we’ve had any success at all–and I believe we have– it’s because of our attention to local culture and history.

But there are no guarantees!  Indeed, as a provocation, I tell the students they shouldn’t get their hopes up too much, they should remain humble (and assume that locals know much more than they do – about farming, their bodies, local institutions), and even expect failure.  But such failure can be instructive in informing future efforts.

Another blind spot of many development projects is sustainability and follow-up.  Do they ever think about the time, five or ten years down the road, when the outside director or project manager will no longer be there?  Usually not.  This is a topic I’m preoccupied with right now.  What will happen to these projects after I stop taking students to Togo?  And what happens each year after we leave?  Do the computer classes live on, does the microfinance project continue to function?  I’m actually in Togo right now for a few weeks for that very reason, to follow up on all of the projects and continue to brainstorm the question of sustainability.

Charlie Piot Drinking Sorghum Beer with a Local Chief in a Togolese Village

 

AG: That’s fantastic that you’re writing about this from the village–using Internet supplied by one of your students’ projects.  That would certainly be one of the success stories.   Can you talk about the projects that have been the most–and least–sustainable?  In the case of the projects that are faltering, are the obstacles more technical, or sociological, or economic, or emotional . . .or a combination of some or all the above?  Are there things you now realize you could do in the future to make new student projects more sustainable?

Wireless Relay Station outside a Kabre Village (Togo) Demonstrated by Duke Student

 

CP: A nice question!  I’ll respond by discussing two examples of projects of ours that have had mixed success.

First, the health insurance system we’ve set up in a village clinic.  With this project, member families get free consultation and pay 25% the normal cost of medications, all for $4 a year per family.  The project has had fluctuating membership since it began 10 years ago, with only 25 families out of 200 currently enrolled.  And this, despite the fact that all insurees are unanimous in their praise of the benefits of the system.  Every year, we interview members and non-members to try to get to the bottom of why more families aren’t signing up.

Some of their responses: the health insurance scheme requires payment on a schedule, while the local system of payment and debt is more accommodating to unforeseen contingencies; the indigenous system of medicines is also efficacious and cheaper (you never “thank” a healer until after you are cured, with payment in kind – some beer, a chicken); some worry that paying for a cure before you fall sick might (through mystical means) bring on the sickness; others want to know if they can get their money back at the end of the year if they never attend the clinic.  All these responses make us realize how culturally shaped the idea of “health insurance” is!

The second example involves the cyber café.

                Muddy Flip-flops Left outside the Entrance to the Kudwe Cyber Café                          in a Kabre Village (Togo)

 

The computer classes we’ve offered while we’re there have been wildly successful.

Schoolroom Chalkboard Demonstrating the French Keyboard in a Kabre Village (Togo)

And we’ve found a high school student, a real wiz, who took our classes, to teach them to others after we left.  That could make the project sustainable beyond our presence.

Students inside Classroom in a Kabre Village (Togo)

But last month, when I was visiting the villages, I discovered that the cyber café has been closed to classes since we left last August, because the person responsible was transferred to a town fifty miles away,  and the person taking over hasn’t yet done what they call a “transfer of power” (passation de service), because no one has yet compiled an inventory of the materials in the cyber café.

So, as you can see, these are not technical problems–they’re social and cultural.  And while both projects are “successful” – the health plan works well for some families, and we’ve taught computer and Internet skills to several hundred youth in the villages – they’ve nevertheless fallen short of realizing their full potential.

 

AG: You’re unusually honest in assessing the weak spots of promising projects. I’m guessing this is because your training as an anthropologist compels you to see the social fissures that are invisible to the directors of so many large-scale development projects, who often focus on the technical components alone.  Our propensity as anthropologists to see the invisible but powerful lines of the social universe may make it easy for us to spot problems that elude the gaze of others.

But, does that skill also enable us to fix the problems?  For example, once you discovered the personnel problem with the cyber café, did you perceive any viable way to tackle it?

The insurance situation strikes me as even more challenging, because there, you’re dealing with a clash of values, and that’s almost always far trickier to address than other challenges.

Thinking about both these projects–with their encouraging yet mixed successes–I wonder if you have thoughts about how the next group of Duke students you bring to Togo might brainstorm solutions that could further address this thorny but critical question of sustainability.

CP: I do think our training as anthropologists aims our attention to the social life of communities, with all its messiness and conflict and fissure.  Do these insights also enable us to find solutions to the problems of development in small-scale contexts like this?  In principle, yes.

To stay with the example of the cyber café we’ve installed: despite the frustrating loss of time – eight months of inactivity – my students and I have familiarity with the lines of authority at the cyber café and in the larger community, and we know what jealousies might be in play—so we are able to brainstorm solutions with local allies.

In this case, a promising outcome is in progress – and one that may vault the cyber-café into a whole new orbit of activity, with a private entrepreneur from a different ethnic group managing it, while adding a photo-copier and printer, and installing a money transfer kiosk. (Local wisdom is to go outside the community to look for a manager, as locals might attempt to poach on the goodwill of a family member or close acquaintance, quickly bankrupting the enterprise.)  So – perhaps!  Only time will tell if this will be a failure-into-success story.  If it does, even a success will surely generate its own new round of challenges and setbacks.

But, development in such a context is always like this.  If we’re lucky, we might take three steps forward for every two steps back.  And, in any case, staying with the challenges has its own rewards.

2017 Teen Microfinance Awardees (and Family Member Guarantors) in a Kabre Village (Togo)

 

The Anthropology/Poetry Nexus–An Interview with Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor

Can artists and social scientists inhabit the same universe?

Melisa (“Misha”) Cahnmann-Taylor embodies that nexus.

Her advanced degrees include an MFA in poetry . . . and a PhD in educational linguistics.

She’s published plenty of scholarly work in academic journals and books (about language learning, sustainable or fragile states of bilingualism, and teacher education) . . . and plenty of poems in literary journals.

She uses poetic and theatrical exercises to teach everyone from young children to future English language teachers.

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (in black, with hat) running a poetry program at an elementary school in Cajones, Mexico

 

Misha’s professional quest is to understand the complexities of U.S. bilingual education, second language teaching, and world language education . . . and, more broadly, the intersections between language, culture, identity, class, and power.  She dubs her work, “scholARTistry,” which she sees as spanning linguistic, cultural, and disciplinary boundaries.

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (back row, left) celebrating writing bilingual and trans-lingual creative writing with participants in a workshop for students held in Guanajuato, Mexico; sponsored by the Richard Ruiz Residency Scholar Program (a fellowship program for scholar-artists through the U of Arizona Resplandor program) 

 

Misha began her career as a bilingual (Spanish/English) elementary educator in south-central Los Angeles and went on to teach and conduct research among Latino/a communities in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Mexico City.  She now works with bilingual youth and their families in Georgia, where she is Professor of Language and Literacy Education in the College of Education at the University of Georgia.

As a teacher, Misha seeks a humanistic approach–one that honors lived experience, and that cultivates the potential for cross-cultural dialogue and deep listening in and out of the classroom.  Some of her pedagogical activities are inspired by Brazilian activist Augusto Boal’s development of a Theatre of the Oppressed.  A book that Cahnmann-Taylor co-authored on Teachers Act Up! Creating Multicultural Learning Communities through Theatre explores the potential for theatre to inform teaching.

 

Misha also incorporates poetry at every level of teaching.

A student’s edited poem done in a workshop taught by Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor

 

Misha brings her creative approach to the classroom in training pre-service Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages [TESOL], foreign language teachers, and K-12 English language arts teachers.  To these different constituencies, she offers a wide array of courses on topics ranging from Spanish-language children’s literature and bilingualism/bilingual education to theatre for reflective language teachers, poetry for creative educators, and trans-lingual memoir.  

From her inspirational instruction, Misha received a national teaching award in 2015, the Beckman Award for Professors Who Inspire.  In 2016, she directed her first National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read – Jeffers Program.”

A moment with Edgar Allen Poe, while Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (center) directed her second Big Read-Jeffers Program for the National Endowment for the Arts 

 

You can find Misha’s university webpage here and her Academia.edu page here.  And you can follow her pedagogically oriented blog (Teachers Act Up–Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change) here.

One academic home that’s helped Misha unite the poetic and social scientific sides of her identity is the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.  Having won the Ethnographic Poetry Award from their journal, Anthropology and Humanism, Misha is now Dell Hymes’ successor as poetry editor for the journal, and she judges their annual poetry contest.  In her life as a poet, Misha has won a Leeway Poetry Grant in 2001 and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize in 2005.

Her book, Imperfect Tense: Poems was recently published by Whitepoint Press (2016).  

Many of the poems in this book reflect on what Cahnmann-Taylor learned while serving in 2013-14 as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Oaxaca (Mexico), where she researched American adults’ Spanish language acquisition.  In a pre-publication assessment of the book, distinguished poet Thomas Lux wrote: 

“These poems are about language and are brilliant evocations of what it is like to be human in a world that seems to make that more and more difficult. This is an original and powerful book.”

I recently interviewed Misha about Imperfect Tense.  Have a read (AG = Alma Gottlieb; MCT = Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor):

*

AG: Given your training as a social scientist, why do you (also) write poetry?

MCT:  One answer is that I was mentored and inspired–directly or indirectly–by creative scholars and anthropologists such as Ruth Behar, Renato Rosaldo, Fred Erickson, Nancy Hornberger, Ivan Brady, Gloria Anzaldúa, Augusto Boal, you, and others who maintained lives as creative people . . . and whose social science was better because of their engagement with music, image, metaphor, and vulnerability.  

Equally true is that I write poetry because it’s how I’m built.  I use the tools of an anthropologist to listen deeply, and see and process what I’m experiencing and what I’ve learned from others’ scholarship.  I also use the tools in which I was trained as an artist.  Metaphor, image, meter, rhyme, stanzaic structure–these aspects of craft and form help me shape what Robert Bly referred to as a “leaping consciousness,” one that is unafraid to go back and forth between the head and the heart.  I can’t help but want to “feel” data and find the right words in the right order.  With any luck, my poems may also help others feel the compressed complexity of human experience through lyric form.

 

AG: Does writing poetry also inform your ethnographic writing?

MCT:  Only now, so many years after writing about “arts-based research” (culminating in a book I co-edited, Arts-Based Research in Education:Foundations for Practice), have I begun to defy separation between these two genres and look at them both as forms of “trans” writing–writing that’s often trans-lingual and trans-genre.  Writing poetry has helped me clarify and claim my own voice as a poet scholar, or “scholartist”–one who wants to move away from tired explanations of method and theory.  

That said, when I wrote my 2013-14 Fulbright application to study adult North Americans’ Spanish language acquisition in Mexico through poetry, I did so with trepidation, as well as a healthy dose of “conventional” methodology–interviews, planned participant-observation.  I went into the field to collect ethnographic data much like any conventional anthropologist.  

Observing Jonathan Blasi teaching Spanish to an adult American language learner in Oaxaca

 

But doing so as a poet, perhaps, also meant that I was open to the unconventional, that my fieldnotes and poetry notes intermingled, and that the ethnography study I might also write might never get written.  The poems felt more accomplished than my ethnographic prose writing.  That said, there was one interview that I found too big and too important to compress into a single poem or series of poems.  This is why I took up ethnographic playwriting and wrote my first play.  But I don’t think I’ll do that again because it requires a commitment to working with staged readings and theatre companies that I just don’t have.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I prefer poems because I can craft them virtually alone.  

 

AG: Ha, yes, that’s probably something many poets might identify with.

Many of the poems in your new book have a “meta” foundation—they address different aspects of language itself, from being bilingual, or trying but failing to learn another language, to nuances of modal verbs and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. Can you talk about the grammatically-themed title to this collection—“Imperfect Tense”?

MCT: The title is a direct result of an interview with an English-speaking, American woman I met in Oaxaca, Mexico in her 60s who described her own painful process toward the never-ending goal of “fluency” in Spanish.  Like many of those I interviewed, she was disappointed with traditional language classes for foreigners where verb tenses are taught in isolation.  She told me how accomplished she felt when she could describe a film she’d seen all in the “imperfect tense” rather than in the present or fixed past–a tense that doesn’t exist in English.  “The imperfect is so good for telling stories,” she said.  

I got a chills as soon as she’d said it.  That’s it!  What we tell ourselves as language learners are all stories of imperfection–I’ll never know enough, I’m not a good enough student, I’m not native–all these negative messages we tell ourselves and others.  These seemed to help me better understand the grit of those who study a second language in spite of the hardships–it’s a reckoning with permanent imperfection.  

 

AG: I love that.

 

MCT: In putting together the book manuscript, I had poems from earlier phases of my life as a bilingual teacher, a bilingual daughter, and future aspirations as a bilingual mother.  So the “past” and “ever-present” tenses seemed like good additions to the “imperfect” for drawing together different sections of the book and the poems that have composed my life.  

I should add that I’m teaching a course now on “translingual writing” and work toward changing my language from describing “bilingualism,” implying two separate codes, towards translingualism or code-meshing.  I’m grateful to Suresh Canagarajah for inspiring this movement.  Translingualism helps me grapple with my own imperfect command of Spanish, English, Yiddish, and other codes that transgress my system.

 

AG: The notion of “translingual” writing seems especially apt these days, with so many conversations about “transgendered” identities.

At the same time, another set of poems in this book addresses mothering, child-rearing, and childhood.  

A somatic statement on the politics of motherhood

 

The poem, “Mother Less, Mother More,” especially blew me away (and I love your dramatic reading of the poem, online here):

I can imagine that poem speaking to any mother, anywhere—no small feat.  If you agree, would you still see this poem as ethnographic?  Or do you think a poem must treat a culturally specific experience in order to qualify as “ethnographic”?

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor with her daughter in Mexico

 

MCT: That is a very good question, and quite a compliment.  That poem was published in a journal called “Mom Egg Review: Literature & Art” that targets mothers as its primary audience, so I was happy that this poem was showcased there.  While its audience, if I’m lucky, may find it compelling to mothers in general, its trigger is partly personal (I have two small children ages 8 & 10), but also ethnographic.  My training was in the Department of Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania founded by Dell Hymes.  I was informed by many linguistic anthropologists, including Elinor Ochs and Shirley Bryce Heath, who drew my attention to the different ways language is used according to race, class, gender, age, and a host of other variables.  

If I were restricting myself to terms current in linguistic anthropology now, I might replace “motherese” in the above excerpt with “caregiver speech” or “infant-directed speech.”  But that’s head language and not poetry.  And this is a poem, not ethnographic prose.  Or is it?

I had poems informed by theory, by the many academic disciplines in which I was trained, and the permission that making art has given me to defy boundaries and write it! (a nod to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”), anyhow.  I trusted that coherence between individual poems would happen.  It took quite a while, but the centering work of ethnographic fieldwork in Mexico gave me the backbone I needed to hold these varied language poems together in one book’s spine.

 

AG: They do hold together, even as another set of poems in this collection addresses your experiences with Judaism.  Religion is a classic topic for anthropology.  Why have you chosen the genre of poetry to write about it?  Do you think there are things you can say about Judaism (or any other religion)—or ways to say it—that work better through poetry than through social science?

 

MCT:  For me, the theme in this book is imperfection.  Speaking a “standard language,” or becoming a “good mother,” or abiding by the tenets of one’s “religion”–these are all socially constructed roles which privilege an unattainable ideal.  The poems are informed by interviews, participant-observation, library research, theory, and of course life experience.  I would say that choosing to write religious poems was the choice made by my unconscious mind, a choice I might not have made had I restricted myself to writing only about my ethnographic focus of Spanish-English bilingualism.

 

AG: Can you compare your process of writing scholarly texts (including the research necessary ahead of time) with the process of writing poems (whether or not this ever involves “research” for you)?  Any overlap, or are they two entirely different processes?

MCT:  Earlier, I said that I am taking advantage of aging into a voice that isn’t one or the other but is always both.  This may also be due to restrictions in the time I find I can spend doing extensive, planned fieldwork abroad, and to the increase in time I spend researching communities around me.  Recently, I have been teaching poetry courses to international students enrolled in graduate-level TESOL programs [Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages].  They will return to their home countries to teach English, and I am teaching them to consider their own poetic voice and those of their future students.  

Misha also incorporates drawing as a visual complement to writing in her pedagogy; here, students drawing on the streets of Oaxaca

 

Studying this process involved collecting data in the form of interviews, but also these students’ poems as well as my own poetic response to the shared educational experience.  I am constantly searching for ways to merge my thinking and my poetic voice.  Recently, I did this in a “manifesto” I wrote for a journal called Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal.  I needed a new genre as a way to find language for grappling with #BlackLivesMatter as a white, female academic.  Finding this journal and their open call for the “manifesto” form felt like finding a “home”–one I didn’t know existed but have been seeking.

 

AG: That “manifesto” genre is an unusual one for a scholar.  Did having anthropologist-poet role models like the ones you mentioned earlier help give you courage to explore new writing styles? 

MCT: I feel so “at home” when I meet members of this hybrid tribe.  I began to find community through the Society of Humanistic Anthropology where I first met Dell Hymes in person and was awarded the ethnographic poetry prize so many years ago.  

 

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor receiving Ethnographic Poetry Award from Alma Gottlieb (president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology), November 2003

 

Then I became a judge for this prize, and not long after, Ather Zia came to my attention. She was one of the prize winners, and she has been a dear companion and now co-judge ever since.  Nomi Stone, Adrie Kusserow, and Dana Walrath are some of the many other poetic anthropologists I’ve met through various meetings, often organized by the late, great Kent Maynard who I will forever miss since his early passing.

I continue to be drawn to panels at AAA that address creative crossings and genre bendings. At this last year’s 2017 meeting, I met wonderful poets and poetic anthropologists through the This Anthro Life [podcast series] and the wonderful new Sapiens [blog] from Wenner Gren.  I’m also newly connecting with ethnographic songwriters like Kristina Jacobsen, as well as with ethnographic fiction writers and ethnographic dancers.  My new heroes are often younger than I am, pushing and changing the field, daring to do things that might have felt impossible or taboo to do earlier.  

 

AG: What’s next?  More poetry?  More anthropological writings?  Both?

MCT:  I just came out with a second edition of my co-edited book on “arts-based research” as I continue to articulate what it means to create new transdisciplinary work spaces that sit between the social sciences and the arts.  I keep my creative writing alive, and I am open to more poems as well as finding new spaces for trans-genre writing that is both empirical and aesthetic.  

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (second from right) leading students and colleagues from the Autonomous University of Oaxaca at a poetry reading at the Oaxaca Lending Library

 

Finally, I am still doing some conventional qualitative inquiry, especially as I mentor students. It’s very important to me not to lose touch with the nuts and bolts provided by theory and ethnographic research design.

 

AG: As a scholar-poet, have you found a space in the academy that accommodates that dual career?  Or, do you bifurcate these parts of your life into two separate career tracks?  Based on your own experience, how would you advise young scholar-poets to construct their professional lives in the present moment of the academy?

MCT:  In the last chapter of our new book, Arts-based Research in Education, I answer this question.  I am tired of bifurcation and am teaching new generations of students to defy binaries.  They push and pull, and I push and pull back, and this is happening in different ways in creative writing, the arts, and social sciences both in the U.S. and around the world.  Based on my experience, I train students to strive to do “double”–to train in conventional research methods and theory as well as in poetry or other creative genres, and discover ways they can fuse them.  In this way, they can play more than one game, to be able to get through the dissertation process and find a job in various possible homes.  

But I feel I have a lot to learn from daring and younger scholars who won’t necessarily seek or find the same kind of academic jobs I was prepared for, and that I uphold.  Based on my experience, I encourage younger “scholartists” to take my advice . . . but I know that only 50% or less will be relevant for them, their particular identity, and the new market in which they find themselves.  To be relevant means to be present in the moment as you learn all about what has come before.  My job is to nurture confidence and humility, and try to exercise those skills myself as my students continue to teach me about unknown futures.  The poet in me tries to train the pedagogue to share what I have learned, but also to invite students to surprise me with what they know or can newly conceive.  

Everything You Thought You Knew about Orphans in Africa Is Probably Wrong

Policy makers, development workers, orphanage voluntourists, missionaries, prospective adoptive parents: ignore this book at your peril.

Crying for Our Elders-Front Cover

 

“AIDS orphans” are commonly imagined as the most vulnerable of the world’s most vulnerable populations.  In a provocative new study, anthropologist Kristen Cheney  challenges just about everything we thought we knew about the children of Africa who have been labeled “orphans.”  Along the way, she decries what she terms the new “orphan industrial complex.”

Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (2017).

In a pre-publication assessment, distinguished anthropologist Didier Fassin has written:

“Through her cautious, insightful, and moving ethnography based on fieldwork in Uganda, Cheney provides a deep understanding of the complex and unexpected forms of life that emerge around orphans. An important contribution to the growing field of critical children’s studies, Crying for our Elders is also a remarkable expression of ethically engaged anthropology.”

And in an early review, Rachael Bonawitz has written:

This abundantly researched work is essential to the study of international development and of orphanhood, as well as an enriching contribution to the field of children’s studies.

You can find a Table of Contents here.

Read excerpts online here.

The publisher offers complementary desk/exam copies to instructors here.

From the website of the Institute of Social Sciences/Erasmus University-Rotterdam (where she is Associate Professor of Children & Youth Studies), you can find Kristen Cheney’s institutional home page here.

At the recent conference of the American Anthropological Association (held in Washington, DC in December 2017), Kristen Cheney and I recorded a conversation about her new book.  Here’s what Kristen had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; KC = Kristen Cheney):

Kristen Cheney, Headshot

Kristen Cheney

AG: What gave you the idea to write this book?
KC: I had done fieldwork with children for my dissertation, which became my first book (Pillars of the Nation: Child Citizens and Ugandan National Development, University of Chicago Press, 2007).  In the process, I came across a lot of kids who were orphaned.  I was working at schools, so I’d often come to a primary school and have kids approach me—at least once a week—and give me letters, because they were too shy to talk to me directly about their situation.  A lot of the letters described their circumstances and asked for assistance—primarily, educational sponsorship.

In one instance, a girl came up to me one Monday and said that she lived with her aunt and uncle, and over the weekend, her uncle—who was her blood relative—had died.  Her aunt-by-marriage said, “You can continue to live here, but with him gone, I don’t know how long I can keep you in school, because I have to prioritize my own children.”  So by Monday, the girl was already coming to school and saying, “I’ll find the mzungu”—white person or foreigner—“and ask them if they can help me.”  That kind of thing happened fairly frequently.

So I decided the next book would look into how children experienced and understood orphanhood—as well as the broader purview of humanitarian responses to orphanhood, and how they either help or hurt those situations.

 

AG: That raises methodological issues.  In the book, you talk about adapting participant action-style research methods with children.  That’s a kind of research that’s become very popular in other disciplines, though we don’t call it by that name in anthropology.  Can you talk about the difference that this research method makes to working with children in this kind of project?

KC:  For what I term “youth participatory research,” the benefits were several.  I wanted continuity with some of the kids I’d worked with before.  My youth research assistants for this project were the young people who I’d worked with and had done life histories on for the first book.  So there was some continuity, because part of the purview of the book was mapping generational experiences of the HIV/AIDS pandemic onto different developments in the fight against AIDS.  These kids were born around the time of the “prevention of mother-to-child transmission” initiative, which meant that a lot of the kids who might have died from having gotten infected by HIV survived.

But their parents still often died when the kids were quite young.  So they were one sub-generation, in their teens by that time.  I wanted them to work with some of the younger kids who were 5-10 years old—kids of the post-ARV generation, for whom anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs had become much more available.

 

The post-ARV generation

 

Some of the teens had experienced these kinds of issues surrounding orphanhood themselves.  Some of them weren’t full or double orphans—some had lost one parent, some had lost both, some hadn’t lost either parent but had still struggled a lot.  So they were in a better position to work with the younger kids, by being closer in age, and having grown up in the same kind of society, facing the same kinds of issues.

Youth Research Assistant Works w His Group

 

A youth research assistant (right) works with his focus group, 2007

(photo by Kristen Cheney)

 

There was also a pragmatic element.  Being based in the US at the time, I’d be in East Africa for a while, or for a summer, and then I’d have to leave.  With this method, the youth research assistants could be visiting these kids with whom we’d matched them–visiting them in their homes or schools once a month, and talking about how it was going–and we’d get a broader sense of their lives, without me having to visit 40 different homes.  We could cover more ground that way.

I don’t want to claim a representative sample, but we could get a broader picture of what kids were going through.  That worked fairly well.

The down side is that this method takes you out of the field.  You have to yield your expertise and your authority, and make space for that to happen.

You have to yield your expertise and your authority.

I became a bit of an administrator rather than a direct researcher.  But when we had workshops together and compared notes and we asked, “What do we make of that?” it was much more participatory, and formulative of some of the broader arguments.  We’d decide as a group, Where do we probe further, and where do we go deeper into certain kinds of issues?

The research itself becomes transformative.  If you’re really interested in these issues, and you want to study it to help change something, and fulfill a sense of social justice, you start to see change within the community.  The younger children saw the youth research assistants as older brothers and sisters.  They became very close.  The young children would tell the youth researchers things that they would not tell anyone in their own family, and voice some things they didn’t feel they could voice, especially about loss—saying, “No one’s telling me what’s going on.  They think they’re protecting me, but I want to know.”

We really had to think about how we handled that relationship very carefully—think together, How do we counsel these kids?  Because the youth research assistants became mentors to those kids.  It was also transformative of relationships in the community.

I’ve done a lot of other youth participatory research projects since, and we’ve seen the same things happening.  Right now, I’m doing a project to study adolescents’ understandings of healthy relationships, for the Oak Foundation.  The work is supposed to help in the Foundation’s advocacy in preventing child abuse.  We’re doing that project in Tanzania and Bulgaria.

Youth Peer Researchers-Oak Fdtn ProjectYouth peer researchers in the Oak Foundation project on Adolescent Perceptions of Healthy Relationships, 2017 (photo by Kristen Cheney)

Now we have youth peer researchers who are as young as 10 years old!  I had a conference call—what they call a “learning call”—with some of the Foundation team, and I was describing the progress of the project.  They were already on board with the participatory method, so there was no having to convince them of its value, which was nice—because sometimes, you have to do a lot of convincing.  They said, “We’re really anxious to hear how your results will help our advocacy.”

And I said, “We can talk about that—but I want to be clear that our approach is that research IS advocacy.  We’re already seeing transformation in these kids, and the way that they talk about how, under the aegis of the research, they’re able to talk to adults across generational divides about things that they otherwise aren’t able to talk with them about.  Those adults come to see them differently, because they become informed about certain ideas and start to possess certain knowledge such that people start to see them differently. It raises their status.

So we’ve already seen a lot of transformation happen—between the kids we’re working with and their peers, and also other interlocutors in the community.

So I said, “It’s not research then advocacy; research is, in itself, a kind of advocacy.”

And they said, “Oh, okay.”  They hadn’t thought of that.

We have youth peer researchers who are as young as 10 years old!

 

AG: That raises another question.  Can you talk about how you compensate the youth researchers—whether financially or in other ways?  Because that’s a mode of doing research that may be unfamiliar to some anthropologists.

KC: Even working at ISS, a development studies institute, we work a lot on “capacity building” with non-academic development partners, and we’ve also talked with them about this.

We agreed that it doesn’t work well to do cash compensation with young kids.  It creates a perverse incentive, in a way, and doesn’t lead to quality research.  But there are other, non-cash incentives.

In the case of Crying for Our Elders, I helped the youth research assistants with school fees.  But it wasn’t conditional.  I said, “It would be great if you would help with this research,” but it wasn’t either a carrot or a stick.  They were happy to help with it.  I met with them before I published the book, a few years later, and had them reflect on the experience.  It was interesting for them to talk about that.  That issue of compensation came up, the ways that they gained skills—whether they were directly applicable in their professions as they got through school and went on, or just interpersonal skills. It was really rewarding to see.  That’s the sort of incentive I wanted to create—I told them, “You’ll build your skills, and they’ll be marketable skills.”

When my colleagues and I were doing a project for Save the Children that also used youth participatory research methods a few years ago, we trained almost 100 peer researchers in Uganda and Ethiopia.  None of them dropped out, unless their family moved.  But none of them said, “I’m bored” or “I’m not earning anything” or “It’s not helping me.”  They all stayed with the project for three years.  The idea that kids will be flighty and just leave is not necessarily true.

We trained almost 100 peer researchers in Uganda and Ethiopia.  None of them dropped out.

In our last workshop, we asked them to reflect on how they experienced the study.  We had them draw pictures of their journeys within the research project.  Some drew mountains, and some drew rivers with bends in them; there was always some sort of apex or obstacle to overcome.

One young man drew a bus and said, ”I feel like the bus is coming out of the woods and into the city.”  Basically, he was talking about the process of participating in the research project as enlightening.  Then he said, “The forest is illiteracy and the city is literacy.”

Youth Peer Researcher-Save the Children Project

 

A youth peer researcher for a Save the Children project sharing his research journey, 2016

(photo by Kristen Cheney)

 

He also spoke really movingly about how the research group had become like a family to him by the end of the project.

 

AG: You had meetings for everyone?
KC: Yeah, we had workshops where we got together a lot.  But they would also go out and do data collection in pairs, or they’d do interviews or focus groups together.  And they had a lot of support at different levels.  All of them said, “We feel like it’s a family now.”  And they said, “We’ve learned how to talk to adults about things that had been taboo, or difficult to talk about—and even how to talk to adults, more generally.”  For me, that was rewarding in itself.

Youth Peer Researchers in Ethiopia, Save the Children Project

 

Youth peer researchers (left and right) for a Save the Children project in Ethiopia engage with their supervisor (center), 2016 (photo by Kristen Cheney)

 

For that project, we’d also brought a lot of swag and bling from my institution (the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague)—backpacks, pens, trinkets that said ISS on them, and so on.  Every time I came to a workshop, I’d always have a bag or hats or whatever.  But the one thing that was really special to the kids was getting a certificate.  Early on, they’d even asked, “Will we get a certificate for participating in the project?”  Because certificates really mean a lot to them as they’re building a professional portfolio.  Even if they were still figuring out what they wanted to do when they grew up, they knew they’d always have that certificate that said, “I participated in this project, and I did research.”  They were more eager about that than they were about the other stuff we’d bring them.  They thanked us for the backpacks, but when you gave them that certificate, they were so, so thrilled by it!  It became a career-building sort of thing.  That was the thing that was really important to them.

 

Youth Peer Researchers w Backpacks, Certificates

Youth peer researchers with their backpacks and certificates (Uganda, 2015)

(photo by Kristen Cheney)

 

I’ve also given certificates to some of the youth researchers who helped with Crying with Our Elders.  When I met them years later, they said they’d saved their certificates.  One of them even reached into his bag and pulled out his certificate that I’d give him almost ten years before.  He’d had it laminated.  Another one said, “Mine got wet and got destroyed, and I was going to ask you for another one.”

It’s not about, necessarily, financial incentives.

 

AG: In effect, the certificates, and what they represented, became a sort of intellectual capital.

KC: Yeah, it’s helping them see the long view of how the research project might help them with making connections with people, because we were working with local development organizations—ones that did the research and training.  So it’s connecting them.  They saw the value in the social connections and the skills building, and that was enough in a lot of cases.

 

AG: In choosing youth researchers, were you looking for students who seemed to have particular intellectual capacities?  Or was it the opposite—those who seemed to need the most help?  Or, something else?

Youth Peer Researcher, Jill

 

Youth research assistant, Jill, reporting at a project workshop, 2008

KC: In Crying for Our Elders, I returned to work with kids I’d worked with earlier, when they were younger.  Some of them were quite strong as students, but some of them weren’t.  That could become a bit of a challenge in this project.  For the workshop, some of them were keeping very detailed notes and journals.  But one of them just didn’t like to write, and just wouldn’t do it—he refused to write.  I would say, “If you go into the field and don’t write anything down, it’s like you didn’t do it.”  That didn’t compel him to write anything down.  But he was a talented musician who really liked to work with audio equipment.  So I said, “You have your voice recorder.  You’re turning it on to talk to the kids.  Just keep it on and take notes—do verbal notes.”  And he said, “Oh, okay, I can do that.  I can just speak into the thing.”
AG: I do that often myself, when I’m driving away from an interview.

KC: Right. So you work with where they’re at.  Others were very good about keeping notes.   But that’s obviously not the only way to do it, and we sometimes tape fieldnotes ourselves.

I had another youth researcher who was really enamored of the video camera.  I just said, “Take the video camera and run with it.”  And he’d do that.  He’d get all this nice footage of the kids and use it as documentary evidence.

In this more recent project, one of the examples I gave to the Oak Foundation of the advocacy issue is, when we had our first workshop after the kids were recruited in Tanzania, we had one kid who was no longer in school.  She was a 14-year-old girl and seemed very shy, almost mortified by everything that was happening.

Sometimes we’d say, “Everyone think of three things and write them down and we’ll go around and share them.”  And we’d come to her and sometimes she’d be physically hiding her face, as if she didn’t want to be called on.  At first, we started wondering if she really wanted to be there.  By the end of the day, it started to dawn on us that we were asking them to do a lot of reading and writing, and she couldn’t read or write.  She’d gone to two years of school and dropped out.

My local project leader said, “I don’t know how she’s going to do the survey if she doesn’t know how to read or write.”

But I said, “No, let’s not push her out.  There’s a reason she’s here.”

We discussed this with her, and she said, “Don’t make me leave.  I’ll come tomorrow with a friend who can help me.”

I said, “She can reach people we can’t reach.  So let’s not exclude her because she doesn’t have these skills.  We can find other ways around this.”

And she was saying, “I can find other ways around this.  I’m willing to improve in order to be involved.”

So I said to the local project leader, “Let her stay.  She could be the most transformed by this project.”

The next day, she came with a friend and was much happier to participate.  I think partly she had just been worried that the other school-going kids would tease her.  When they didn’t do that, she settled down and stopped excluding herself and started to join in.

We have these “circles of support,” and we said to the supervisor in the closest circle, “Can you help her find an adult education class nearby?”

Three months later, when I checked in, the local leaders said, “She’s already vastly improved in her reading and writing, because she wants to participate in the project.”

So we’re already seeing that transformation happening.

 

AG: That’s awesome.  You’ve talked about advocacy and social justice.  You’ve mentioned that research itself can be a form of advocacy.  Beyond that, can you talk about what would be your best-case scenario if policy wonks interested in the HIV and/or orphan crises in Africa were to read your book?  What would you want them to do differently?

KC: What we’re seeing now is people acknowledging that the traditional family system in Africa has largely weathered the storm of HIV/AIDS orphanhood and taken those kids in.  But what we’re also seeing is people picking up and running with this very broad definition that UNICEF has of orphans—that an “orphan” is any child who’s lost at least one parent.  That’s become a justification for a lot of private donations, particularly, to orphanages (along with some public investment in them).  We’re suddenly seeing a mushrooming of orphanages in Uganda and other places.  This is what I’ve been talking about in lectures I’ve been doing recently—what I call an “orphan industrial complex” that’s come out of this desire to help orphans, and thinking that orphanages are the best way to do that—but they’re not.  It also comes out of the growing popularity of what’s now called “voluntourism,” and working with children has particular purchase with people.  They see orphans as the most vulnerable children, so people say they really want to work with orphans.

 

Proliferation of Orphanages in Uganda

Proliferation of orphanages in Uganda since the height of the AIDS pandemic (bit.ly/orphanindustrialcomplex)

I’m really challenging that sort of “child rescue” discourse that’s actually jeopardizing children and breaking up families and causing unnecessary institutionalization, because they’re building orphanages and pulling kids into them.

In short, I would like to see an end to orphanages in my lifetime, and I think that’s quite possible to do.  Instead, we’re seeing a real increase in orphanages, because people who think they’re helping are setting up new orphanages without realizing this broader picture.

“I would like to see an end to orphanages in my lifetime.”

First of all, from 60 years of child development research—which a lot of the donors to orphanages haven’t read— we know that orphanages are not good places for children to grow up in.  A lot of this comes from faith-based communities.  They’re talking about the Biblical command to “visit orphans and widows in their distress.”  Somehow, the widow falls out of the picture very quickly, because there’s a much more emotional purchase in the orphan.  A lot of these people don’t have backgrounds such that they would investigate this history or this research in the child development literature.  “Child rights” isn’t in their vocabulary.  “Child protection” isn’t in their vocabulary.  So it can be very difficult to break through this idea of, “I’ve always wanted to go to Africa and start an orphanage.”

 

AG: Or maybe they perceive the “child rights” and “child protection” discourses in very different ways that make it look as if they’re actually doing everything they can and should do to help?

KC: Right.  But it comes from a very different register—either this spiritual idea, or from “voluntourism” and service learning, on which there’s been a lot of good critical literature coming out stating that that sort of transformation is much harder than something you can accomplish while backpacking.  The supporters of orphanages don’t often think through some of the issues I’m trying to raise.  This is not about the supply of orphans, this is about the demand for experiences with orphans.  We’re actually causing orphanhood, de facto.

“We’re actually causing orphanhood.”

Locally, what’s happening is—if you build an orphanage in a poor community, kids will come.  But they’re not coming because they’re orphans—they’re coming because they don’t have access to schooling, and recruiters are going into the community to entice families to institutionalize their children in order to access education.  That’s the #1 reason we’re seeing why families are being induced to put their kids in orphanages.  To the local community, it’s often presented as free schooling!

 

AG: So, to the policy wonks, maybe your big take-away point would be, “Don’t build orphanages; build schools”?

KC: Yes, in some ways.  The main goal should be: improve educational access.  Don’t support orphanages.  Don’t build them.  Don’t visit them.

I’ve actually been working with a group called Hope and Homes for Children that’s doing de-institutionalization of orphans in a number of places. They’re helping the Rwandan government to close all their orphanages by 2020, and they’re ahead of schedule to do that.  It doesn’t take a wealthy country to do this; it just requires political will.

By the way, we generally don’t have orphanages any more in North America and Europe.  There’s a reason for that: we know family-based care is better.  Why is it that we’ve decided orphanages are not appropriate in our home countries, yet we’re saying, “Let’s build them in Africa because there’s a lot of orphans there who need it”?  First of all, that’s not true.  A lot of people are even saying, “Let’s get rid of this word, ‘orphan,’ altogether.”  It’s stigmatizing.  Kids don’t want to be called that.  And it’s often a misnomer.  It’s not that a child without one parent has no family and needs to be in an orphanage.  All the kids I worked with for this book—some 40 kids—lived with extended family in their community.  So I didn’t really have any association with any child care institution until the end, when I heard there’s also these baby homes, so I thought maybe I should go visit them.  That’s what got me down this rabbit hole: the cultural politics and political economy of orphanages on a broader, global scale.

“All the kids I worked with for this book—some 40 kids—lived with extended family in their community.”

 

AG: Really, the concept of “orphans” is Eurocentric insofar as it privileges two opposite-sex, biological parents.  And, in effect, it implicitly claims that once you lose both of those, you’ve lost everything.  In so-called “extended family” communities—which we see all over Africa—the concept of “orphanhood” in a sense is superfluous.

KC: Right.  It doesn’t exist—not in that form.

 

AG: Because you’ve always got other people.  In the local language, many of those other people are called “little mother” or “little father,” or “big mother” or “big father.”

KC: Right.  Or they just don’t have a word that means “orphan.”  They say, “Well, we might say enfunzi”—and they would whisper the word.  Because they don’t want a kid to hear that.

 

AG: They know it’s stigmatizing.

KC: Yeah, they know the children would feel bad to be called that.  Because it doesn’t mean the same thing that “orphan” does; it means you’ve not only lost your mother and father, but you’ve lost your “little mothers” and “little fathers”—your aunties and uncles, and your grandparents—and have basically been cast out and abandoned and have nobody.  So it’s not the same concept.

At the same time, one of the things I noted is that, when you have humanitarian assistance coming, specifically, for orphans—essentially, targeting them—these same people who acknowledge, “I wouldn’t call a child an ‘orphan’ to his face, it would be insulting, and they’d feel very bad”—these same people will say, in English, “Here are my orphans.”  And they’ll push forward “their orphans” and say the word in English and continue, ”I hear you have resources that might help me educate and feed these kids.”

Elderly Guardian w Children in Her Care An elderly guardian (right) with some of the children in her care, 2017

(photo by Kristen Cheney)

 

The unintended implication of targeting orphans in the humanitarian response is one of the things I discuss in the book.  At first, they were targeting orphans, but then they would find quickly that the status of orphans would rise higher in an extended family when orphans were targeted by humanitarian agencies.  But there’s also resentment in the family, because some kids might be going to school because sponsorship was available for “orphans” in the house.  The biological children in the same household would say, “Mommy, Daddy, why can’t I go to school?”  The parents would respond, “Because you’re not an orphan.”

It got to the point where someone from UNICEF told me, “We’d have an event where we’d distribute books and pens to orphans, and we’d hear other children saying, ‘I wish my parents were dead so I could get schoolbooks.’”  The UNICEF staff thought, “What are we doing when we have kids saying, ‘If my parents were dead, I’d get to go to school’?”

Schoolchildren in Uganda

 

Schoolchildren in Uganda, 2013 (photo by Kristen Cheney)

 

AG: It pays to be an orphan.

KC: Literally.  Or in other instances, a child soldier.  These sorts of targeting and labeling actually make people take on a role and can actually inscribe trauma where it didn’t exist.  If you’re not traumatized, but you understand the Western assumption, “You must be traumatized by being an orphan, or a child soldier,” or what have you, you figure out that if that’s the way to entitlement, then you really need to adopt that role.

And it can end up that if you really adopt that role, you can actually internalize that trauma and become vulnerable.

 

AG: There are so many unintended consequences of labeling.  And this label that you’re applying so provocatively, the “orphan industrial complex”—I guess, borrowing it from Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex,” and then the second-generation term of the “prison-industrial complex”—that’s a really powerful concept.  I don’t think it’s yet been over-used, despite being adopted by folks critical of the prison system.  Do you find that your version of the phrase arouses interest, or just offense?

KC:  I’ve gotten good feedback.  I’m talking to those who are potentially participating in “orphan tourism”—college students, even high school students, from the global North.  So far, I’ve had pretty good reception to the term.  It is provocative.  But I do get people listening.  The way I lay it out, they start to see the bigger picture of how it works.  At first, they may come into it skeptically, saying, “What’s wrong with wanting to help?”  It’s difficult to be the killjoy who says, “This is what’s wrong with helping in certain ways,” if those ways really are destructive.  But I do say, “Here are things you can do that would be really helpful.  For example, helping keep children in families, and lobbying governments not to send them to orphanages.”

As I was saying about Rwanda, and Hope and Homes for Children, we went to DFID—the Department for International Development in London, which is like their USAID.  They handle all the development funds for the UK government.  We talked to them about divesting from orphanages and other organizations that support the institutionalization of children.  We were talking to them about this as experts.

And they were interested.  Usually, these people flit in and out of meetings, but they stayed for a good hour-and-a-half.  What really helped is that I had a former student who grew up in an orphanage in Kenya and talked about things they’d never thought about—including his loss of identity, as a child who grew up in an orphanage.  He ended up in an orphanage because his mother died in an accident.  The orphanage never made any effort to find his family.  When he was older, he wanted to see his file and try to trace his family—but he found out the orphanage staff had changed his name.  From the time he was four or five, he was called something else.

 

AG: So many layers of emotional theft. . .

KC: And he talked about how, when volunteers came to visit, they’d only pay attention and play with the cute, little ones.  It caused resentment among the other kids.  But once you’re not cute or little, you don’t get much attention from these volunteers.  Sometimes the staff would hide away the other children and only parade the disabled children, because there was a donor who was particularly interested in helping disabled children.

 “Once you’re not cute or little, you don’t get much attention from the . . . volunteers. “

 

AG: So it also pays to be disabled.

KC: There were all these ways they hadn’t thought about these issues.  I think that really moved them to have someone talk about that personal experience, and how identity gets erased. Being labelled an “orphan” has these lifelong effects.  Now he’s in his 30s, but he’s still saying, “This is the long-lasting effect of having gone through this.”

 

AG: I think your book is going to forge such a different conversation among so many kinds of people who I hope will read it.

KC: That’s what I’m hoping.  And also by being provocative about the “orphan industrial complex”—which, drawing on the “military industrial complex,” which deals with the politics of fear—but this is the politics of hope and love—and this idea of the “need to help,” as Liisa Malkki talks about, and trying to unpack that idea and be self-critical about it, and show how that has unintended consequences.  I do think people are listening to this message, and I hope they will change that discourse.

Of Diapers, Potties and Split Pants

Understanding Toilet Training around the World May Help Parents Relax

I recently published a piece on The Conversation about toilet training in a global context.  You can read the piece here.

 

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 10.52.58 AM

A Tale of Two (Ad) Campaigns

For a while, the mega-global corporation, Unilever — owner of Dove beauty products — spoke thoughtfully to the world’s women.

The 13-year-long “Real Beauty” campaign that began in the early ’90s aimed to “change the conversation” about gender by presenting women of many colors, sizes, and body shapes in its ads for soap products. Although the campaign had its critics, it seemed to garner far more admiration than assault. Sure, Unilever also produced horrible Slim Fast powders and skin-whitening creams that undermined the body-positive and multiracial values that the new Dove campaign claimed to promote.

But . . . those images.

Dove Beauty Campaign-Diverse Women in Underwear

Who wouldn’t smile at this anti-one-size-fits-all ad?

But last spring, the latest installment in the campaign that declared itself on the side of women launched a new ad that angered far more viewers. Showing women of diverse sizes and shapes was one thing. Showing bottles of diverse sizes and shapes was another.

Dove Ad-Diverse Bottle Sizes & Shapes

And the new campaign for body washes explicitly equated women with those bottles.  Ugh.

“Each bottle evokes the shapes, sizes, curves and edges that combine to make every woman their very own limited edition.”

Oh, we’ve been there before.  We’ve had decades of ads equating women with cars.

Pirelli Tire Ad

And bottles of beer.

Woman as Michelob Beer Bottle Ad

Feminist media critics such as Jean Kilbourne have been brilliantly critiquing those sorts of offensive ads objectifying women for decades.

Suddenly, Dove didn’t get it.

To make matters worse, the new ad in the UK from Dove — already pulled, soon after airing — managed to offend women intersectionally: not just on gender grounds, but also race.

Dove Ad-Black Woman Becomes White

 

Online, some sharp viewers (including one named, intriguingly, Kristina Chäadé Dove) schooled Unilever in the shameful history of soap companies promoting racist assumptions about cleanliness.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 10.41.26 AM

The Twitterverse has wondered how this outrageously racist ad could have gotten approved. One blogger has commented, “It leaves one wondering if there are any people of color that make decisions at Dove.”  

Well, let’s recall that the Dove’s parent company is Unilever, after all — headquartered in the Netherlands. The Dutch have a long history of denying the racism behind their colonial empire. So, perhaps, no.

Meanwhile, along comes General Mills. A new pair of ads follows in the footsteps of Dove’s earlier successes. Instead of urging women to diet, or binge-eat — or both — these ads actually encourage women to have a normal relationship to food. You know: Eat when you’re hungry. Enjoy what you’re eating.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 11.06.31 AM

Or, as one ad concludes: “Own it.” 

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 11.06.02 AM

The new stage directions in the theatre of global advertising: Enter General Mills, Exit Unilever.

But this simple math equation, which seems to evoke only a single solution, raises disturbing ethical questions. Does corporate society have space for more than one enlightened-feminist ad campaign at a time? Will any of these feminist-inspired campaigns affect more mainstream corporations to produce images challenging gender inequity — stereotype-busting images that our society still so desperately needs?

What a Brown Recluse Spider Has Taught Me

After having recently received a venomous bite by a brown recluse spider in NYC, I’ve spent some time researching my arachnid aggressor and discovering how to recover from the poisonous attack. Along the way, I’ve learned some life lessons.

Brown Recluse on Cardboard

Brown recluse spider

Statistical odds provide unrealistic reassurance.

  • Brown recluse spiders normally live in South America and a few southern and midwestern states of the U.S. They’re also loners and rarely approach humans. Yet, somehow, one managed to find its way to Manhattan, and to me.

Twain-Lies, Damn Lies, & Statistics

Rational choice theory is alive and well, even in those who challenge it

  • When in NYC, if I worry at all about the risks to life and limb, I probably focus (unconsciously) on getting hit by a speeding taxi, or crushed by a collapsing construction site, or shot in a terrorist attack. What I have most certainly neglected to worry about is getting bit by a subtropical spider far from its home territory. In this, my calculations must implicitly revolve around a rational choice model of risk/benefit assessment.

     

     

    But, really, I should have known better. Back in 1975, my graduate fellowship had me assisting in (and once lecturing to) a course that highlighted Mary Douglas’ theory of risk–a far different perspective that emphasizes individual perception shaped by complex social and cultural factors well beyond “simple” (especially economic) costs and benefits. Mark Twain’s insight is an earlier (and pithier) way of saying: statistical odds, at best, provide likelihood rather than certainty.

     

     

    Still

    , to be honest, there aren’t enough hours in the day to worry about every catastrophe that could conceivably befall us. So, we pick and choose our worries based on statistical odds that turn out not to be all that rational.

Ir-rational

 

Globalization works for creatures beyond humans, too.

Invasive Species Fish Cartoon

We are hardier than we may fear.

  • After surviving a herniated disc/back surgery, 15 months of intestinal parasites, and two unmedicated childbirths (my choice) a couple of decades ago, my pain threshold apparently remains pretty high. Okay, the partly-necrotic tissue now disfiguring a big chunk of my leg might have reminded me of a Green Day song about taking Novacaine. Still, wincing from the throbbing wound on my leg, I’ve managed to keep up with e-mail and other work tasks while popping only a few ibuprofens.

Pain-is-Temporary

Despite the above-mentioned point: Our life plans are frailer than we may hope.

  • Scheduled errands, meetings, outings, and dinners with friends are all on hold. My doctor predicts that my bite may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to heal. The Internet warns me it could even be a few months. That’s a lot of iCal events to tentatively reschedule.

Keep It or Cancel it?

I now know what bit me while living in a small village in Ivory Coast.

  • Back in 1980, a mysterious wound showed up on my ankle that worsened alarmingly, nearly causing gangrene. The local Senegalese doctor prescribed nine antibiotic treatments a day (3 shots + 6 pills)   . . . and declared me lucky to avoid amputation of my foot.

     

     

    In Parallel Worlds, Philip Graham and I wrote that my wound’s origins stumped the doctor, although he thought it might be an allergic reaction to an insect bite. But the symptoms resembled those of my current spider bite so closely that I am now certain it must have been a spider, not an insect, that assaulted me. Perhaps it was a kind of violin spider–the Loxosceles lacroixi, which lives in Ivory Coast and belongs to the same Loxosceles family as my more recent nemesis, the brown recluse. Of the violin spider, one website notes: “Their venom destroys tissue, causing a specific kind of skin necrosis known as loxoscelism in 66% of cases. The danger of secondary infection is high if left untreated.” Yep.

Snakes loom larger in the popular imagination than do spiders.

Poisonous Snake About to Bite

 

I am now officially nervous around spiders.

  • In any case, arachnophobia is a thing (not just a horror movie), and it’s definitely gendered. Until now, I’ve never had much patience for girls who screamed at the sight of a (harmless) spider. Hmm–is it too late for a feminist to enthusiastically embrace demeaning gender stereotypes?

Girl Screams at Spider

 

Speaking of gender . . .  turns out my poison was probably deposited by a devoted spider mom looking out for her kids’ interests.

  • That’s what Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Kary Mullis, wrote in his 1998 memoir, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field: “It’s a mother spider that first gets you and she wants a hole in you that oozes and expands and doesn’t ever heal. The females have the most powerful venom . . . . She wants that hole because her babies need a place to feed. They can dip their ugly little heads into the pool of nutrients that you are exuding and suck your vital fluids through their sucking tubes, and they can live. . .  After making the hole, she moves away and lays her eggs. It’s elegant biotechnology from the point of view of the spider.”

     

     

    I find this alarming. As a devoted mother of two, myself, I should sympathize with any mom’s efforts to nourish her children and give them the best foundation she can for their health and well-being. I have certainly tried to do that for my kids. Somehow, though, there’s a cross-species sympathy chasm I’m simply unable to traverse. I guess that’s a second blow to my identity as a feminist.

Brown Recluse Spiderling on Egg Sac (Photo by Sturgis McKeever, Georgia Southern U), cropped

 

Brown recluse spiderling on an egg sac (photo by Sturgis McKeever)

Conclusion:  Maybe it’s time for a new approach to studying pain.

Campodesmus alobatus (Millipede in CI)Guinea Worm Reduction Statistics

Campodesmus alobatus (millipede in Côte d’Ivoire)

 

  • When you live with long-term, disabling pain from childhood, how does that shape your brain, your temperament, your world view? Your sense of self, and your sense of being subject to, and capable of overcoming, hardships? By contrast, when pain invades your life only rarely, and briefly, what sort of identity forms surrounding notions of (in)vulnerability?

Pain Chart Form

  • Anthropologists: We have explored how plenty of other somatic experiences are influenced by factors beyond biology. Pregnancy and childbirth, menstruation, diseases from cancer to mental illness, and sports from walking to basketball have all claimed our attention. Yet, we live in a world of many people who experience pain routinely or even chronically. And when we’re not actively suffering from pain, we may spend much time thinking back on past episodes with amazement that we survived . . . or anticipating future episodes with dread. fear-tension-painPuzzlingly, few anthropologists have put that fundamental human experience front and center. True, some scholars discuss pain in investigating particular topics such as childbirthendometriosis and acupuncture. But to date, the 48 sections and interest groups contained within the American Anthropological Association–which focus on topics ranging from visual anthropology, music, and museums to agriculture, corporations, and tourism–do not include a group dedicated to exploring the world of pain.

    In a rundown of selected global perspectives on pain, anthropologist Mary Free has crafted a superb opening for a new subdiscipline. The brown recluse spider that deposited its poison in my leg this past weekend has suggested to me: it may be time for a systematic and dedicated anthropology of pain.

     

Postscript (Oct. 5, 2017): I’ve now been in touch with two entomologists who specialize in spiders, one of whom is a leading expert on brown recluse spiders. Both are quite skeptical that a brown recluse could have found its way to a park bench in Manhattan. My doctor and I are revisiting the diagnosis. Stay posted.

Do All African Immigrants Arrive Sick, Desperate, and Empty-Handed on the Shores of Europe? Ask Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg!

The lives, status, and image of immigrants may constitute the single-most urgent human issue of our time.  In an arresting and captivating new study of Cameroonian mothers now living in Berlin, Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg challenges just about everything we thought we knew about immigrants.  Living as migrants in a nation infamous for its twentieth-century genocides against “others,” these educated, often middle-class women demonstrate over and over again the common impulses that define our shared humanity.

Mothers on the Move: Reproducing Belonging between Africa and Europe was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (2016).

Mothers on the Move-Front Cover

 

Daniel J. Smith calls it

“a wonderful book full of rich and compelling ethnographic cases.”

And Cati Coe calls it

“[a] sensitive, well-grounded, and beautifully written study of the
dilemmas immigrant mothers face when they migrate.”

You can find a Table of Contents here.

Read a free preview from the Introduction here.

The publisher offers complementary desk copies and exam copies to instructors here.

From the website of Carleton College (where she is the Broom Professor of Social Demography and Anthropology, and Director of Africana Studies), you can find Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg’s institutional home page here.

I recently interviewed Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg online about her new book.  Here’s what she had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; PFS = Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg):

Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg, Cameroon Cloth Dress, 12-6-14 cropped 2

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

 

Interview with Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg

AG: Your early research focused on the lives of women in Cameroon.  This book focuses on women who’ve left Cameroon to re-start their lives in Berlin.  What inspired you–both to switch fieldsites to a new continent, and to write a book on a new subject?

PFS: Each research project has opened up new questions and curiosities. Following these leads has led me to new fieldsites within Cameroon, and then within Europe. Along the way, I am not only following up on questions raised by prior research projects, but I’m also following people from the same ethnic group and region—sometimes even the same people, or their friends and children—from the countryside to the city, and on to Berlin or Paris.

And I’ve always been interested in women’s lives, in reproduction and family-making, and in tensions between belonging and marginalization. Thus, even though I’ve switched fieldsites, there’s a lot of continuity in my work.  The transnational migration aspect is new, but otherwise this book is not about an entirely new subject.

Even my next planned research project—about ways in which the contexts of reception matter for Cameroonians’ changing notions of transnational family obligations—continues along these lines, while bringing me to new sites (Paris, Cape Town).

 

AG: That should be a wonderful new project.

Meanwhile, Western media images of migrants and refugees tend to focus on the poorest of the poor—those in desperate conditions, in need of serious outlays of both aid and

African Refugee in Over-crowded Boat in Mediterranean

sympathy.  The West African migrants you profile are mostly highly educated, and at least middle-class.  Did you choose to focus on this group of semi-invisible migrants to challenge stereotypes?  What lessons can they teach Western readers?

PFS: Yes, I do aim to challenge stereotypes. I tell one among many possible stories about African migration and family-making in Europe. Other important stories have been told about migration and the search for well-being. I fear that some of these narratives end up reinforcing stereotypes of “the African migrant” as illegal(ized), impoverished, and in need of help.

In dialogue with my Cameroonian interlocutors and colleagues, I became aware of the pain caused by the repetition of a one-sided story of abjection. Stereotypes hurt.  However well-meaning, fundraising campaigns portraying poor, helpless African women and children belie the energy, intelligence, and educational resources of Cameroonian immigrant women. Without sugarcoating the hardships of migration, it’s important to let readers know that the story of abjection does not fit the data for Cameroonian immigrants to Berlin.

There are enormous distinctions in women’s lives depending not only on class background and class attainment, but also immigration status upon entering the new country, as well as the ability (or lack thereof) to maintain or obtain regularized immigration status. These critical distinctions often lead to vastly differing reproductive strategies, which in turn are linked to different ways that women seek a sense of belonging in multiple communities.

As anthropologists we look for both patterns and particularities. The former are important for telling a coherent, social-scientific story; the multiple stories of particular individuals’ lives are important to work against typification, which is by definition reductionist.

 

AG: Your book details examples of daily racism that Cameroonian immigrants experience in Berlin . . . yet, new Cameroonian migrants continue arriving.  In the wake of Germany’s role in WWII aiming to annihilate Jews, Roma, gays, and other groups of people that white Germans dubbed “Others,” how do you explain the decisions of these African elites to emigrate, of all places, to Germany?

PFS: There are many reasons that Cameroonian migrants—and as we know from the news, many, many others—choose to emigrate to Germany.  Economics is primary—because of the country’s strong economy and job opportunities.  Especially important to upwardly-mobile Cameroonians is Germany’s almost-free university education. And, interestingly, many Cameroonians appreciate the fact that it is not France. Cameroonian migrants in both Germany and France—and, as I learned this summer, those who remain home in Cameroon—perceive that immigration bureaucracy works more reliably and predictably in Germany than it does in France. Even if the UN, in its Decade for People of African Descent, finds significant structural racism in Germany, native-born Germans hold a variety of political and ideological positions. Thus, despite the catastrophic history of racism in their country, some Germans are more aware of inherent racism, and eager to discuss it, than are their counterparts in countries with less tainted histories. And, for all its faults (past and present), Germany is certainly more welcoming to refugees than is the U.S. in the current Trump era.

Still, the common question posed often by Germans to immigrants in daily life, “Where do you come from?” haunts Cameroonian parents and their children in Germany, as does the general image of “Africa” that is portrayed in mass media. One Cameroonian mother told me a poignant story about her seven-year-old son’s visit to Cameroon.  “This isn’t Africa, mom,” he exclaimed. There were no lions or giraffes, not even a little monkey in the big port city of Douala. Instead, while visiting his urban cousins, he experienced air-conditioned office buildings with elevators, manicured gardens, and schoolchildren in neatly pressed uniforms. None of this fit with the image of game parks and starving, half-naked children that the boy had learned about from television.

 

AG: Wow, what a moving (and disturbing) story.  It reminds me of all the mini-stories you write about the women whose lives you’ve followed in Berlin.  These women will feel very much like real people to a reader–individuals with their own idiosyncratic biographies and challenges, rather than what Renato Rosaldo might call the dreaded Group Noun (which, in this case, would be a single kind of person we could categorize as “Cameroonian women migrants”).  Why did you decide to feature a number of individual women, and how did you decide on these particular women to feature?

PFS: In this book I aim to portray the voices of individual women, each with her own concerns, challenges, resources, and desires. I mentioned earlier that I want to work against stereotypes and typification. This doesn’t mean that I don’t look for patterns in Cameroonian migrant women’s lives. Of course I do! Migrant women share predicaments of belonging, reproduction, and connection that are created and/or exacerbated by migration. But, shaped by their diverse biographies and circumstances, each woman manages these predicaments in her own way. I decided to feature particular women because they illustrated the diversity of women’s experiences and strategies.

When women told me about their lives, I was just fascinated by how their individual characters came through. I think of Maria telling me her love story—starting with her surprise meeting with a childhood sweetheart in Berlin—while showing me her family photo album. Or of Mrs. Black’s anguish that her white German husband just couldn’t or wouldn’t understand how important it was to her to help her extended family with gifts of cash.

I’d like to add something else about stories. Cameroonian migrant mothers share stories, or anecdotes from their lives, with one another. This is just a normal part of socializing. My book shows how, through stories, individual experiences are communicated and become crystallized into collectively held orientations toward the world, toward a new context.

 

AG: One of the key concepts you deploy in the book is the notion of “affective circuits.”  Can you speak about how you seized on that metaphor from electrical engineering to speak to the issues concerning migration that you are tackling?

PFS: I didn’t invent the term. I got the idea from our fellow anthropologists, Jennifer Cole and Christian Groes, who had invited me to contribute to an edited volume on affective circuits. I loved the layers of metaphors—gesturing simultaneously toward research on migration circuits and toward electrical engineering—so I took the idea and ran with it, developing the notion further. So often in studies of social capital, researchers write as if economic and informational flows along network ties are constant. But the network ties of the women I studied were neither constant nor additive. Women dropped some relationships, gained others, and then renewed old ties, depending upon how their circumstances and their feelings changed. Neither words (whether loving or nagging) nor money nor presents flowed continuously along women’s social connections; the flows stop and start and must be managed. And this careful management that women do is all bound up in the feelings they have toward their families, their fellow migrants, and the German bureaucrats they meet.

 

AG: Indeed.  Moreover, in Berlin, the children of the migrants you’ve followed are growing up in very different circumstances from the childhoods of their parents.  You’ve highlighted the term “Belonging” in your subtitle.  Can you talk about the different issues that the two generations experience as black migrants in a predominantly white nation?

PFS:  What an interesting question, with many layers! Some aspects of belonging are not questioned in Cameroon, but are brought to consciousness in Germany. One difference is that parents, growing up in Cameroon, largely didn’t have to worry about being black. They didn’t grow up as a “minority”—but their children do. On the other hand, the children of migrants grow up fluent in German, and they get early practice in code-switching between forms of behavior deemed appropriate in “German” vs. “Cameroonian” settings. Language learning and cultural adaptation are more challenging and self-conscious for their parents.

Another difference is that migrants who arrived in Germany as adults had earlier experienced challenges of belonging in Cameroon. It may seem surprising that individuals have a hard time belonging in their country of origin, but the legacies of Cameroon’s complex colonial history (which included three different colonial powers—Germany, France, and England) mean that people of certain ethnic groups and regions are disadvantaged on the national scene. These groups—for example, the Bamiléké and English-speaking Cameroonians—make up a large proportion of the Cameroonian diaspora. Their children, by contrast, grow up in Germany with a different view of their homeland—a place of origin, a place to visit, a place where Grandma and Grandpa live.

Still another difference in migrants’ experiences concerns recent historical change in Germany.  Earlier migrants faced many more challenges than do more recent migrants, because there are now settled migrants and migrant organizations that can ease newcomers’ transition to life in Germany.

 

AG: In the US, we now have a president who campaigned on a platform of drastically restricting immigration, and many of his supporters easily denounce whole groups of immigrants.  Alongside health care reform, restricting immigration (including refugee applications) has been one of Trump’s major agendas.  What do the experiences of Cameroonian immigrant women in Germany have to teach us in the US?

PFS: Immigrants can bring a lot to our country. Overall, immigrants are more law-abiding than native-born Americans, and in terms of college and post-graduate degrees, they are better educated. Immigrants tend to be ambitious, making many personal sacrifices for the well-being of their children and families. We have a lot to learn from them when we consider “family values,” and perhaps even reconsider what family can mean. Providing chances and being welcoming allows these immigrants to contribute to society.

Is History Over? How Can Power be Soft? Ask Ulf Hannerz

 

  • The end of history
  • The clash of civilizations
  • The coming anarchy
  • Soft power

We’ve all heard these trendy mottos, and most of us have probably cringed.

Anthropologists know the world as an infinitely more complex place than such simplistic catch-phrases and predictions can possibly describe.

Yet simplistic catch-phrases and predictions are–well, catchy.

In a new book, instead of dismissing them out of hand, Ulf Hannerz tackles these pseudo-scholarly slogans head-on.

One of our discipline’s most renowned, thoughtful, and witty writers, Hannerz has just published a new collection of tightly interrelated essays analyzing the blockbuster books that have promoted popular yet maddeningly misleading scenarios predicting anything from political realignment of continents to doom and gloom for the world.

UlfHannerzKolkata2015

Writing Future Worlds: An Anthropologist Explores Global Scenarios (Springer/Palgrave, 2016) appears as part of a new series, Palgrave Studies in Literary Anthropology, edited by Deborah Reed-Danahay and Helena Wulff.

The book’s prologue + nine chapters (some, previously published in different forms) combine to make a case that anthropology is more relevant than ever.

Anthropologist Didier Fassin has this to say about the book:

With his uniquely elegant style and subtle irony, Ulf Hannerz offers a penetrating anthropological reflection on this singular anticipatory genre that simplifies and dramatizes the representation of global tensions. Multiplying examples and crossing perspectives, he proposes an indispensable critical analysis of the way in which our worldviews are shaped.

And Michael Herzfeld cheekily sums up the book’s importance by urging:

This book deserves greater and longer-lasting prominence than those with which it engages.

You can find a Table of Contents and an excerpt from the Prologue here.

And the publisher offers discounted e-books for sale here.

Hannerz, Writing Future Worlds-Photo (Front & Back Covers)

I recently interviewed Ulf Hannerz online.  Here’s what he had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; UH = Ulf Hannerz):

 

Interview with Ulf Hannerz

AG:

Traditionally, cultural anthropologists have specialized in local, micro-communities.  In this book, instead of a remote village, you train your eyes on a very different tribe: the miniscule set of public intellectuals who have published books claiming to explain everything occurring in the modern world, and predicting what will happen next to our species and our planet.  As an anthropologist, what special insights can you bring to this tribe?

 

UH:

Let me contextualize and historicize a bit. There was a time when most social science and humanities disciplines were quite Eurocentric, and anthropologists seemed to have much of the world more or less to themselves, as far as the production of scholarly knowledge was concerned. That began to change in the Cold War era with “area studies programs” and the like, and then toward the end of the twentieth century, terms like “globalization” and “transnational” entered our vocabulary. Some time in the 1990s, after periods of field work in a Nigerian town for one thing (and finding “creolization”), I began to take an overall interest in the landscape of transnational knowledge production, in and out of academia. I did a first conference paper identifying three categories of professional people who, like anthropologists, had been pioneers in that field: spies, missionaries, and foreign correspondents. Their objectives and working circumstances were, of course, quite different from those of anthropologists. And, characteristically, the relationships between them and the anthropologists have tended to be complicated. I described that effort as “studying sideways,” and that is what I have been doing since.

“Studying up” and “studying down” in anthropology have involved mostly differences in power and privilege. “Studying sideways” is more a matter of looking at groups on more or less parallel tracks of knowledge production–in the scholarly disciplines, in the media, or wherever. I turned first to news media foreign correspondents, and a book came out of that – Foreign News (2004). Incidentally, when I first made contact with some of them, introducing myself as an anthropologist, they responded, “So we will be your tribe.”

Now, what can I bring as an anthropologist, studying sideways into the genre of global future scenarios? For one thing, a knowledge of relevant ethnography. Even when the writers in question do touch ground somewhere in the world, you may get eloquent, impressionistic reporting, but often shoddy, misleading description. And that reporting is very uneven – people’s everyday life can be very important in generating their futures, and the scenario writers tend to give little attention to that. Probably they have seen little of it, in other parts of the world.

I would also compare their concepts with ours. For one thing, a number of them use the culture concept in ways that few anthropologists would now accept.  Indeed, they may be inclined to what, within our discipline, has recently been described as “cultural fundamentalism.” Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis stands out as one example. I know there are anthropologists who feel that as the concept is often misused, we should just give up on “culture.” I think that is an ostrich policy. The concept will not go away just because one academic discipline turns away from it. If it is a key notion in understanding human life, and involves matters where we may still be recognized as having some intellectual authority, let us use that in whistleblowing when we feel that the culture concept is misused. So I use it above all as a matter of understanding the organization of human diversity, varying in scale between the global ecumene and microcultures, and always in motion in time and space. That matters, whether you are dealing with “soft power” or “Jihad versus McWorld.”

 

AG:

The authors you profile in this book propose models for understanding human societies that most anthropologists would dismiss as hopelessly reductionistic. Besteman and Gusterson (2005) and others have already scorned these “pundits” for having gotten everything wrong.  What made you decide to spend more time commenting on their simplistic (often binary) models?

 

UH:

Part of the answer is that I had already started on this before Besteman’s and Gusterson’s Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong came out. I fundamentally agreed with their and their collaborators’ critiques. But I also felt that there was much more to be said. For one thing, there was that title. Certainly, these “top pundits” may have been American, and addressing primarily U.S. readers – a general audience, but sometimes not least the White House, Foggy Bottom and Pentagon.

Even in the American context, the place of the “scenarios” in public culture seemed interesting. The writers inhabited a complex terrain of academia, media, think tanks and politics, and there was an interplay between the long-term views of the scenarios they proposed, and that daily coverage of international news that I knew about from my study of foreign correspondents.  Since I came from an anthropological interest in the ways that networks weave in and out of institutional contexts, that probably intrigued me.

But then, the simplistic “scenarios” that those scholars and journalists proposed actually found quite a lot of readers just about everywhere. A number of these authors appeared on ranking lists of “top global public intellectuals.” I soon found their books, in the original or in translation, in airport book stalls all over Europe and Asia—often, next to how-to-succeed-in-business type books.) When Samuel Huntington died in 2006, one obituary noted that his “clash of civilizations” book had been translated into three dozen languages. For that matter, I could read in Swedish newspapers that the leader of the growing Swedish neonationalist, more or less xenophobic, political party had talked about the “clash of civilizations” as if it were an established fact, at campaign meetings in 2014.

That first generation of America’s top pundits, too, was in large part based somewhere on the stretch between Cambridge, MA, via New York to Washington, DC – with some trans-Atlantic commuters from Britain. This is the home ground of a lot of American academic, media, and political power. I add some number of writers from that group, like Joseph Nye, Robert Kagan and Niall Ferguson. Then, however, I go on to consider the contributions of a number of other, mostly later writers. Some of them resemble that prominent cohort of anthropologists, particularly in the United States, who have sometimes playfully described themselves as “halfies”: people who have some of their personal background linking them to other parts of the world. This includes people like Amy Chua (actually more famous for her “Tiger mother” book on tough-minded parenthood) and Fareed Zakaria – with his Harvard Ph.D. (advised by Samuel Huntington) but more recently a CNN talk show host, and a Washington Post columnist.

But I also consider a number of contributors to the scenario genre from elsewhere in the world: including Bernard-Henri Lévy and Amin Maalouf from France, and Kishore Mahbubani from Singapore. These, again, are global public intellectuals, with mixed academic, political, and media involvements. With people like these, the “global future scenario” genre really becomes part of a world-wide public culture. I would like to see it as a space of conversations about the future of the world. Yet the trouble is that there is not a whole lot of dialogue. Those European and Asian writers are frequently familiar with the American pundits and comment on them, but the Americans do not seem to pay much attention to these far-away others.  That, of course, is another, dubious, aspect of American soft power.

 

AG:

Most anthropologists do face-to-face ethnographic fieldwork with live humans living in communities.  You’ve done plenty of this sort of fieldwork yourself.  But in this book, your interlocutors are authors, many of them fellow Ph.D.-bearing scholars in the social sciences who you’ve never met (notably, Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Joseph Nye, Thomas Friedman, among others).  Moreover, unlike your book about foreign correspondents—who you interviewed—for this book, your data set is the corpus of books, not their authors.  What was it like to do this sort of virtual fieldwork in the “virtual community,” if we might call it that, of quasi-scholarly books, without doing a single interview, let alone “participant observation”?  Or, do you consider the act of reading the books you discuss here, a literary form of “participant observation”?

 

UH:

With the foreign correspondents, I had interviews of a kind I like to think of extended, free-flowing conversations, and I liked many of them as persons. I tend not to feel comfortable in the role of adversarial interviewer – I suspect many anthropologists don’t – and talking to writers of whose work I am in large part critical, that is what I would have to have been.

Hannerz, Foreign News-Front Cover

Moreover, I have heard people who have interviewed veteran interviewees complain that these would tend to drift into their routine responses, without listening very carefully to the questions. I suspect that might have happened too often, had I been given a chance to talk to the stars of scenario writing.  So, in my book I really don’t say very much about the writers themselves.  Instead, concentrate on the texts and their reception–their impact both nationally and transnationally.

I did conduct a set of interviews with academics in Tokyo about how the “scenarios” were received in Japan. As far as the texts are concerned, I found them interesting not only in terms of content, but also with regard to style. Writing about the future is necessarily at least semi-fiction, so I place the scenarios next to other such varieties of writing, like “subjunctive reporting” and “counterfactual history.” There is also the way their various key messages are summarized as fast food for thought, often through more or less counterintuitive catch phrases, like “the end of history,” or “the world is .”

 

AG:

Ha, yes–more like marketing slogans than analytic concepts.  There’s an argument to be made that these “future scenario” books really belong more in the genre of science fiction than social science.

 

UH:

Then, certainly, there is also the issue of the success or failure of the scenarios in anticipating what would really happen in the world, and the relationship between texts and coming realities. A hundred years ago, you had the famous commentator-muckraker Lincoln Steffens proclaim, “I have seen the future, and it works.” He made that remark about the young Soviet Union. Well, it did not really. That cohort of future scenarios that started appearing after the Soviet Union came to an end has also been a set of clear failures and mixed successes.

But what part did they play in shaping the future? Some commentators feared that Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” scenario might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So far, that has hardly happened – at least not on any major scale.

In fact, if you see the scenarios as in large part dystopic, early warnings, you may see them as the opposite–possibly self-destructive.  People read them, shake their heads, and do something about the threats.

Again, I would think one can most usefully see the scenarios as a kind of global conversation pieces. But then, it helps if they are really well-informed, and manage to reach out at the same time.

 

AG:

The books you analyze all claim to predict the future.  This past year has caught many “pundits” in the prediction business by surprise.  Looking back on two of the biggest political surprises to “experts” in the UK and the US—the Brexit and Trump votes—can you say that any of the authors you discuss in your book would have predicted these outcomes?

 

UH:

I suspect Robert Kaplan, who stands out as a conservative anti-elitist–in a way, a populist–might be least surprised, given the books he’s written reporting on his travels in the US. Samuel Huntington, rather anti-Muslim in his “clash of civilizations” scenario (“Islam has bloody borders”) and warning of Mexican immigration in his last book, Who Are We? (2004), could just have fit into a Trump administration if he had been alive.

Probably most of the others would have been fairly surprised. If there had ever been an “end of history” of the kind once sketched by Fukuyama, Trump seems more likely to start it going again – intentionally or unintentionally. Thomas Friedman certainly shows in his New York Times columns that he is no Trump admirer. And Joseph Nye’s program for “soft power” will not get much funding from Donald Trump.

 

AG:

Given your vast reading of world history, what surprised you the most in 2016?

 

UH:

In October 2016, before the election, I did two commentaries on the election campaign, one for a Cultural Anthropology  blog–presumably mostly for an American audience—and another one in Swedish for the new blog site of the Swedish Anthropological Association.  It was an interesting experience, writing about the same thing for two different audiences.

Looking back at them, I see that I did not take a Clinton victory for granted. But then, I had been reading some “early warning literature” relating to the American scene – beginning with Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2005)–a fair number of years ago, and then, coming closer, Mark Leibovich’s This Town (2013), about the Washington, DC elite, and George Packer’s The Unwinding the same year, an account of a country coming apart, to mention some. And then, around mid-year 2016, one book quickly became a bestseller: J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, basically an auto-ethnography. In large part, these are books by journalists. I was only a little sorry not to find more anthropologists contributing some visible grassroots ethnography to this literature.

 

AG:

Indeed, that’s a real failing on our part.

 

UH:

Then I might add that some time ago, I wrote a piece titled “The American Theater State,” inspired by Clifford Geertz’ interpretation of the precolonial Balinese state. This essay just appeared in the book, America Observed, edited by Virginia Dominguez and Jasmin Habib (2016). Changing the notion of the theater state into a traveling and comparative concept, I suggested that Americans had turned it over sideways: if the Balinese had celebrated hierarchy, the ruling obsession in American political culture became one of a dramatization of egalitarianism – no less urgent when real social inequality actually grew. As I see it, in the campaign phase of American party politics, each candidate must build his/her own campaign apparatus, and create his/her own personal “brand.” A presidential candidate should be someone to identify with: someone with appealing interests and personality. But again and again, it helps that the boundaries of politics are porous, so that existing symbolic capital can be imported from other domains: the entertainment industry, big business, televangelism, the drama of warfare.

 

So Donald Trump may be an extreme case, but he is not the first one to move in his career from show business into politics: remember Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Thompson. And at present, there is a senator from Minnesota who came into politics from “Saturday Night Live.”  My favorite case here is really George Wallace’s third-party campaign in 1968. Governor Wallace, a populist in his time, tried to recruit John Wayne from Hollywood for the vice-presidential slot – Wayne was just then on the screens in Green Berets, the Vietnam War epic. But Wayne stayed loyal to the Republicans. So then Wallace reputedly attempted to get Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), to take on this part, before ending up with General Curtis LeMay. Which was a disaster.

 

AG:

Ha, you probably have a better memory of these strange nooks and crannies of American political history than most Americans.

Well, however much they disagree on particular points, all the “scenarios” you discuss in this book share a broad look at global politics.  By contrast, both the US and the UK have recently voted for a candidate or a policy, respectively, that would drastically close borders and limit immigrants.  Beyond these leading Anglophone nations, one might suggest that the opposed forces of globalization and xenophobia are at war in many nations these days.  Or, perhaps, that’s yet another simplistic binary scenario.  Regardless: who do you think best explains the current moment?

 

UH:

Probably there is no simple explanation. Above all, there is probably the fact that globalization has had its winners and its losers – which is not only a matter of competition, but also of technological changes. And established political elites have tended to pay too little attention to this, which has left a wide field open to protest parties and politicians, strong in declining areas, and combining economic messages with xenophobic scaremongering. I actually have a chapter on this in Writing Future Worlds, focusing on an early phase with such scenario notions as “Eurabia” and “Londonistan,” and Huntington’s anti-Mexican book. Islamist terrorism seems to me to be a mirror image of this, in the Middle East and in the banlieus of western Europe.

But then, one should see that 2017 has also brought some reasonably good news. It is true that xenophobic populism is now on the scene more or less everywhere in Europe, with political parties that are among the larger in many countries–but that has been in large part because the opposition to them is divided into so many parties, from establishment conservatives to Greens and post-Communists. They are mostly far from a majority of their own – the elections in the Netherlands, France, and Britain have shown that. In part, of course, that may be a reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency. And that in itself is a result of that peculiarity of the American electoral system whereby the loser of the popular vote has become president in two recent elections out of five.

One more thing: the early cohort of scenario writers paid little or no attention to the new media, which then grew and diversified extremely quickly in the period that followed.  Obviously, social media have played a major role, everywhere from the abortive 2011 Arab Spring to the 2016 election in the United States. That is a real revolution, penetrating social life just about everywhere.

 

AG:

Indeed–and we anthropologists, like other scholars, have been slow to catch up with those horses long out of the gate.

In many other arenas, you’ve been on the vanguard.  You’ve produced one of the first urban ethnographies of African-American communities, you’ve pioneered the anthropology of transnational flows, and you’ve interrogated the contemporary moment in anthropology.  What’s next?

 

UH:

Actually, I also have another new book, Small Countries: Structures and Sensibilities (2017), co-edited with Andre Gingrich, my friend and colleague in Vienna. We deal largely with countries up to 10 million inhabitants or so.  That includes some European countries like the Scandinavian countries and Austria, but we also have contributors writing about Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Israel, Singapore and New Zealand. A major point is that smallness may be both absolute and relative: the size of the population, on one hand, with its implications for the structure of social relationships; but also, perhaps, the presence of some large, more or less dominant neighbor, on the other. Ireland next to Great Britain, for example; or Austria next to Germany; or New Zealand next to Australia.

Hannerz & Gingrich, Small Countries-Structures & Sensibilities

Mostly, in my anthropological endeavors, I have not written much about my home country of Sweden, but in this case, in a concluding chapter, I get somewhat auto-ethnographic: I try to show how Swedish smallness is reflected in my own encounter with His Majesty the King, in the context and aftermath of the assassination of a prime minister, and in the festivities surrounding Nobel Prize awards.

After this editing project: well, I am leaning back a bit, but playing with different possibilities.

 

AG:  Any time you want to take a break from well-deserved relaxation, your many fans await.

 

Writing Future Worlds-Front Cover

 

 

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