Category Archives: Research methods

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

 

 

Interview with Perry Gilmore about “Kisisi (Our Language): The Story of Colin and Sadiki”

Kisisi (Our Language): The Story of Colin and Sadiki chronicles a charming and, indeed, remarkable friendship that developed between two five-year-old boys—one (Sadiki), the son of a traditionally pastoralist Samburu family in Kenya working as a wage laborer for wealthy British landowners; the other (Colin), the son of a white American couple of means, both students, living in Kenya for 15 months of graduate research.

Kisisi Cover

Kisisi was published in cloth, paperback, and e-editions by Wiley Blackwell in 2016

 

When they first met, the age-mate boys found themselves drawn to one another . . . but frustrated by their lack of a common language. Slowly, they developed their own language (dubbed “Kisisi” by Colin’s mother, Perry Gilmore), combining bits and pieces of Swahili and English into a constantly-evolving pidgin that they, alone, understood. Narrating the development of this unique pidgin, the book combines the engagingly personal voice of a proud and loving mom with the sharp observer’s eye of a trained anthropological linguist.

Renowned linguist, Deborah Tannen, has this to say about the book:

It’s part linguistic analysis, part gripping story of culture contact, part deeply moving memorial to a life tragically cut short. This book will fascinate anyone interested in language, children, or human experience.

The 136-page book has five chapters, and Gilmore writes like a dream. Once you start it, I dare you to put it down.

You can find a link to a sample chapter here (“Uweryumachini!: A Language Discovered”):

If you’d like to request an exam copy for a course you teach, follow this link.

You can find Perry Gilmore’s contact information here.

I recently interviewed Perry Gilmore online about the book. Here’s what she had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; PG = Perry Gilmore):

PG portrait

Perry Gilmore

 

AG: In the Prologue, you write of Colin and Sadiki:

[T]heir invented language helped them construct new identities and resist, transgress, and transform the marked postcolonial borders and harsh inequities of economics, race and culture that engulfed them and dominated the social power relationships and language ideologies that engaged all aspects of their daily lives (xvi).

As such, you call the book

a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and the politics of language and oppression . . . an ethnographic exploration of young children’s critical and resilient discursive agency in their innocent yet effective quest for language equality and a place for their friendship on the rigid borders of their vastly different language and cultural worlds (p. xix).

Similarly, in the final chapter, you write:

“the children’s language . . . [created] opportunities for them to cross deeply entrenched colonial borders as effective change agents and as an official effective language policy makers” (p. 95).

Those are impressive claims. How would you respond to skeptics who might doubt the ability of five-year-old children to disrupt the intertwined and entrenched legacies of colonial domination and racism in East Africa?

Colin and Sadiki Planning a Pretend Hunt

Sadiki (left) and Colin (right) planning a pretend-hunt

PG: I agree that these are impressive claims! But I am convinced that they are reasonable and accurate insights about the social dynamics that Colin and Sadiki’s border-crossing friendship generated – for them and for those around them.

In the early pages of my book, I express the hope Colin and Sadiki’s story will be able to amaze the reader. The boys’ story urges us to look more closely and see all children with a little more awe, wonder, and respect.

I, myself, was almost incredulous when I first discovered that, before two months, the children were communicating non-stop and with great facility in a Swahili- sounding language that only the two of them understood. My own shock, disbelief, and curiosity prompted me to record their language carefully and document the full range of their social interactions. In 1975, when these events occurred, I, myself, was doubtful that Colin and Sadiki – at only five years of age – could actually be displaying such creative linguistic virtuosity, strong agentive social roles, and active resistance to the existing language ideologies and conventions that surrounded them.

Having been an elementary school teacher for six years, a language and literacy curriculum developer for school-age children, and a graduate student in developmental psychology with a focus on language acquisition, I had a strong background in child development and behavior. All that I had ever read about children and about language at that time completely defied what I was witnessing.

In Kisisi, I present what I hope is a range of convincing contextualized behavioral evidence to demonstrate not only the children’s language virtuosity but also their effective and impactful social agency. No doubt, some might be skeptical about the ability of two five-year-olds to interrupt an entrenched and oppressive colonial order. I, myself, initially struggled with these more speculative ethnographic insights. For example, I could answer questions about “what” they were speaking with empirical linguistic descriptions that identified specific lexical innovations and new syntactic constructions. I could answer questions about “how” they constructed meaning and negotiated shared information in an empirically detailed discourse analysis that, line-by-line, examined their turn-taking utterances. However, to answer questions about “why” they chose to invent and continue to use their own private pidgin language instead of the Up-Country Swahili that they were expected to use, I used an ethnographic analysis that is necessarily more exploratory in nature and more interpretive in identifying underlying meanings.

A skeptic – or any reader, for that matter – could, and probably should, question my ethnographic interpretations about the children’s resilient and transformative agency. It was my task in the book to provide enough of their story to convincingly demonstrate their effective resistance in a rich description. I hope I accomplished that. As with all ethnographic work, however, I did not and cannot “prove” my analysis; instead, I explore its underlying meanings.

The case of the boys’ friendship, and the ephemeral invented language that helped create and sustain it, presents a provocative extreme along a continuum of possibilities in examining language choices and behaviors in social practice. The example also provides a lens for understanding how young members of language communities use and think about language – how they clearly exercise language choice, change, and possibility.

It is only in recent years, especially in the new and growing field of the anthropology of childhood, that children’s agentive behavior and early language ideologies have been recognized and explored. In earlier anthropological studies, children had generally been seen as the recipients of generational cultural transmission, rather than seen as contributors to and co-constructors of their own worlds. The role of children as language innovators and de facto language policy makers has been largely understudied, undocumented, and even ignored. This case of language invention provides documentation of children’s language creativity; gives insight into the agentive roles of children as language innovators in multilingual contact situations; and sheds new light on questions of language genesis, change, shift, and maintenance.

Even two-year-olds make their own decisions about language choice in multilingual settings. For example, in my Indigenous language work in Alaska, I saw young Yu’pik mothers in tears when their two-year-olds could understand everything their mothers said to them in Yu’pik, but would only answer in English. Somehow, much to the pain of their families, these very young language learners had made their own decision to choose the dominant English language over their Alaska Native heritage language. Examples like these are widespread and clearly demonstrate that very young children can and do resist existing language ideologies and exercise their own language choices.

Colin and Sadiki’s isolated and remote rural situation contributed to their more extreme language innovation, collaborative language choices, and social practices. I have argued that the children, by choosing to sustain, expand, and develop their own private language, resisted the dominant language ideologies that represented the hegemonic, racialized, post-colonial order of newly independent Kenya. Their public uses of their private language made a symbolic statement about what I describe as their “cultural critique” of an oppressive regime in which their own cross-racial friendship was considered by many as a violation of social norms. The boys refused to docilely participate in the existing colonial order and rejected the Up-Country Swahili language that was designated to keep that order in place. They resisted being socialized into a language ideology they rejected, and instead created a new language ideology that allowed a safe and celebrated space for their friendship. Sadiki and Colin used their language to deconstruct a colonial culture of fear and silence and reconstructed their own counter-culture of courage and voice.

Their resistance and language ideologies may not have been articulated with theoretical vocabulary, but they were boldly enacted. The boys did not resist through anger or aggression. Instead their effective, border-crossing agency was accomplished through loving verbal art and play. Their joy-filled language practices challenged the oppressive colonial culture that surrounded them, identifying them as a distinct and separate speech community that valorized its own social justice values and allowed a space for their treasured border-crossing friendship.

Colin & Sadiki-Proud Pretend Hunters

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right)–proud pretend-hunters

AG: What a persuasive response! I dare a reader to remain unconvinced. . .

In the book, you point out that, until recently, scholars of language overlooked children’s linguistic experiences as unimportant. How does your book contribute to developing scholarship about children’s language practices? Does what you observed about the development of Kisisi suggest anything about the origins of our species’ linguistic abilities?

PG: For centuries, speculations about the origins of human language and the genesis of new languages have presented daunting questions for philosophers, language experts, historians, and scientists. These questions had always fascinated me. My primary reason for being in Kenya in the first place was to study baboon communication. This type of ethological fieldwork was in part driven by a fascination for primate studies and its potential for illuminating the origin of language in the human species. The study of nonhuman primates in their natural habitat was a relatively new research practice at that time. Naturalistic, long-term primate studies promised to be a valuable source of information concerning possible models of early hominid behavior and communication. I had no way of predicting that it would be my son’s unplanned and serendipitous close friendship with his Samburu neighbor that would offer me an even more provocative language origin story!

Ethnographic studies of young children’s language socialization were just beginning to emerge as an area of interest and significance. In striking contrast to earlier widespread Piagetian language studies, which characterized children as developmentally egocentric and incapable of modifying their speech for an interlocutor, newer observational studies showed strong socio-centric abilities of very young children and even babies. For example, Elinor Ochs (1977) demonstrated that her infant twins were able to take conversational turns and repeat each other’s pre-linguistic babbling utterances. These findings in the late ‘70s defied the long-held Piagetian claims of egocentrism. Of course, Ochs’ work had not yet been written or published when I witnessed Colin and Sadiki’s socio-centric language invention.

The infamous “forbidden experiments” recounted by Herodotus and others, the failed and poignant attempts to teach feral children to speak (e.g., Itard’s Wild Child, and the case of Genie), questionable research proposals designed to create a new pidgin language by isolating speakers of different languages on a small island (e.g., Derek Bickerton), the study of a new sign language created by deaf children in Nicaragua, twin languages – all these cases were seen to hold the promise of finding the secrets of language origins and genesis. The study of pidgin and creole languages has similarly been seen as a fascinating place to see language develop and change over time.

The study of Colin and Sadiki’s language adds to this literature in captivating ways. It is a rare, first-hand account of an emerging language-in-the-making. Most of the examples of “new languages” are anecdotal and discovered after the fact. I was in an unusual situation whereby I could document the boys’ language practices as they occurred over time. Invaluable also was the benefit of seeing all of their behavior in social context. The ethnographic details of their situated everyday language practices were unique compared to other studies. These ethnographic data allowed for a more “emic” interpretation of the functions, uses, and meanings of their communication in context. This “ethnography of communication” approach enabled me to describe the children as members of a vibrant (if tiny) “speech community” who used their new language for specific purposes and in specific situations. I did not simply provide a structural description of their “language” in a vacuum but in the context of their complex, multilingual social life.

What can Colin and Sadiki teach us all about human language and about children’s language? One reviewer, a linguist and pidgin/creole scholar, has commented that Kisisi “shows that two five-six year old children can create a new grammatical system” and it “can happen fast.” I suggest that the boys can teach us many things about children and language. What seemed to me at first to be a small and simple story of two children inventing a language turned out to be a story that was complex, nuanced, and multilayered. Their experiences raise many profound questions causing us to rethink common assumptions about children and about language. Their “not-so-simple” story provides provocative insights about some very big ideas concerning language origins, children’s innovative language competencies, and the significant role of play and verbal art in language genesis. Their experience provides compelling evidence concerning the agentive roles that very young children can exercise in language and culture resistance, choice, and change.

Sadiki and Colin’s language began in response to a pragmatic need to understand each other in order to be playmates and friends. Their early genesis of an original, simplified Swahili pidgin served that immediate function, facilitating their play and budding friendship. As time went on and their close bonds deepened – even as they had learned and used other local languages – they continued to use and expand Kisisi, its linguistic form and structure, and its semiotic functions. It was fun. It was secret. It was theirs. It was an artistic verbal spectacle that surprised and captivated unsuspecting audiences. Their new language bonded them as much as it reflected their bonds. They created a secret language with a public function. Through their language use, they carved a new, exclusive, and symbolically resonant space, a separate universe for their controversial friendship.

Their experience taught me that we scholars of childhood need to view all children’s language, in its many complex forms, as inevitably intertwined with the lives and meanings of the children who use it.

Colin & Sadiki Closing the Paddock Gate

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right) closing the paddock gate

 

AG: You lived in Kenya, where the events described in this book occurred, some 40+ years ago. Some people might think that the data are too old to be relevant; others might think you’ve forgotten too much by now to write accurately about the events. Can you talk about the advantages of waiting so long to write about past events?

PG: Producing what Johannes Fabian would describe as a “late ethnography” that (re)presents and interprets historically situated events and practices, I have written this account forty years after I experienced it. I had deliberately accumulated a substantial archive during my time on Kekopey Ranch in Gilgil, Kenya. Like so many who had come before me, I intended to write a book about my time in Africa–although I originally thought my book might be about my life with the baboons I was studying. With that in mind, I was very meticulous about keeping lengthy journals and records. I also kept carbon copies of all the letters I wrote to friends and family back home. And I kept copies of the audio cassette voice letters we regularly sent back and forth to the States. Those voice letters included rich descriptions of our activities and environment, as well as many instances where Sadiki and Colin told jokes, recounted events, and sang songs for Colin’s grandmother, other relatives, and close friends. Because I was fascinated with their new language, I made regular tape recordings of Sadiki and Colin’s language interactions in a range of contexts and kept detailed notes about and translations of their developing language.

At the time, I was a professional writer for a nationally funded educational laboratory, Research for Better Schools, Inc. (RBS). I was on leave to do the baboon research but was able to do freelance writing for RBS drawing on my Kenya experiences. I mostly wrote children’s poetry and short stories for an anthology for a reading and literature curriculum we had been developing. (I had a wonderful supervisor at RBS who arranged for me to continue as a long distance writer on our project. This was amazing since it was long before fax machines, e-mails, Skype and scans! The international packages took six to eight weeks to arrive at their destinations.) I did this writing for the entire time I was in the field. The poetry and stories I wrote were largely focused on the boys and necessarily captured many subtle details and evocative descriptions of their daily life events.

The letters, journals, notes, recordings, and RBS writings all provided an extremely rich archive for me to draw on, decades later. Even forty years on, the accounts seem vibrant and vivid, and the now-digitized recordings bring the children’s giggling voices right into the room. I also maintained a growing library of local books, newspapers, documents, and articles that captured the local colonial life of the period. Furthermore, I drew on the parallel memories of many colleagues, friends, and Sadiki and his family, who lived with us in Kenya at the time. Many of them were kind enough to read early drafts of the book and/or talk with me about these past times and events.

You ask about the advantages of waiting to write about past events. One of the most exciting advantages of writing the book now is that over these decades, the field has grown so rich theoretically, and that has allowed me a range of theories, concepts, and language to work with that did not exist before. When I was first examining their behaviors, we didn’t really have the theoretical frameworks or the critical language to fully describe or understand what the boys were doing. Post-colonial studies, critical ethnography, language socialization, power and hegemony, decolonizing methodologies, agency, resistance and language ideologies didn’t yet exist as areas of study. I was better able to capture all aspects of their profound and complex story by relying more heavily on more recently developed ideas as central issues in telling their story. It was as if the field finally caught up to the boys!

 

AG: Ha, yes. We sometimes talk about scholars being “ahead of their time.” In this case, two five-year-olds proved “ahead of the scholars’ time”!

In that regard, in the Epilogue, you suggest that Kisisi offers pedagogical implications for language learning (including bilingual education) that could prove useful to teachers of students at various levels and in various contexts. Can you share some specific ideas you might have along those lines?

PG: Ethnographic inquiry about children’s language practices can inform and often enlighten educators. Ethnography can expose children’s language competencies that hide in plain sight, often unnoticed and unimagined. Kisisi can provide one ethnographic account of young children’s competencies that might help teachers look at their own students differently. Teachers might be encouraged to use an ethnographic lens in their own daily pedagogy. An ethnographic eye can reveal otherwise unseen or unrecognized competencies. Ethnographies like Kisisi can present strong counter-narratives to a dominant, destructive, deficit discourse that unfortunately persists in many educational settings. In a time when deficit arguments continue to hang heavy in US educational circles – fueled, for example, by the so-called “30 million word gap” research (Hart and Risley 1995, 2003), which falsely argues that low-income children in the U.S. at three years of age have been exposed to millions of fewer words than have been their wealthy counterparts – it’s a good time for teachers to use an ethnographic eye to confront the unequal power arrangements that obscure the potential linguistic talent, virtuosity, and strength we need to recognize and nurture in all children. By paying close attention and documenting children’s everyday talk, teachers can identify competencies and start to work from from a resource-rich stance rather than a deficit bias. All students come to schools with naturally creative and flexible multilingual and translanguaging capabilities. Colin and Sadiki are not unique. They demonstrate the fluid language abilities that all children are capable of. What is needed is a safe and respectful space to use language(s) in ways that enhance rather than threaten children’s identities and ideologies. When teachers create those meaningful contexts, language learning and use will flourish.

 

AG: Speaking of which . . . President Trump began his presidency with an executive order founded in deep suspicion of immigrants and refugees. Your book seems founded in the opposite aim: the urge to find the common humanity linking young children from radically different cultural traditions, historical contexts, economic resources, and life options. Have you had any reactions to your book from readers who might have approached it from something closer to Pres. Trump’s position of skepticism? More broadly, do you think your book, and others like it, can make inroads among those who hold deep convictions about the unbridgeable divides separating people via discourses of “otherness”?

PG: In an era of division, I have had very positive responses to Colin and Sadiki’s story. I believe the boys touch a place of hope and optimism in the hearts of those who have read the book. In this Trump era, Sadiki and Colin’s story reinforces a vision of building bridges, not walls. I think it sparks a yearning for deeper human connections with the “other.”
Colin and Sadiki Running in the Tall Grass w Perry Gilmore

Perry Gilmore, Colin and Sadiki walking through tall grasses

 

AG: Who do you hope will read this book—among scholars/students, policy makers/politicians, and the general public? What’s your fantasy for the impact that this book could have, if it were read by the right people?

PG: I hope a wide array of people will read the book. The two boys offer us a beautiful lesson in humanity. Love and play are at the heart of their creative language virtuosity and their healing, social justice transformations. I hope those who read the book will forever after watch all children with more awe and wonder! Linguists, anthropologist, educators, policy makers, and the general public can all find something in the book for them. The boys have left us a unique gift – a rare language legacy; and a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and resilience in challenging the politics of language and oppression.

And, finally, I wrote this book as a memorial tribute to my son, Colin Gilmore, whose life was cut short by a drunk driver when he was only 18 years old. One clear hope of mine is that readers will remember Colin and the courageous and loving lessons he and his dear friend, Sadiki, left us.

 

AG Update: Check out the fabulous review of Kisisi here.

The Joys–and Uses–of Teaching Anthropology

Yes, I’ve retired from full-time teaching.  Yes, I sometimes miss it, and may well return to the classroom from time to time.

For now, I was tickled to read of the impact that a research methods class I taught a few years back has had on a student.  Apparently, he’s now using those interview methods I taught him to figure out how people interact with the Expedia website, then using those interviews to improve users’ experiences online.  Who said anthropology is old-fashioned and irrelevant?

 

Chris Nixon Interviews Shopper, Seattle Mall

Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read

Kristen Ghodsee’s new book, From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read, was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (in 2016).

ghodsee-from-notes-to-narrative-book-cover

The discipline of anthropology desperately needs good writers.  Our writings are often so dense, jargon-packed, and off-putting that I sometimes fear we deserve our reputation for being abstruse and irrelevant.

That’s a shame!

We promote a comparative perspective on the human condition that no other discipline offers.

We’ve created research methods specializing in deep and long-term immersion in communities and languages that no other discipline offers.

And the cumulative data base we’ve constructed is based on extraordinary amounts of research we’ve conducted around the globe, in communities ranging from some of the world’s most vulnerable populations to elites at the center of power.

We have so much to teach people–from political leaders and policy makers to ordinary citizens curious to understand the lives of their neighbors.

But who will listen, if readers can’t get past our first, boring paragraphs?

no-jargon-allowed

Anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee has some great advice for students and scholars who would like their writing to have an impact beyond their professors, students, and colleagues.

And Kristen Ghodsee’s in a great position to teach us how to write.  Her book, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2010), won four book prizes.  Another book she co-authored (with Rachel Connelly), Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), has attracted wide attention from reviewers.  And a short story she wrote (“Tito Trivia”) won the 2011 Ethnographic Fiction Prize from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

The author of seven books, Ghodsee has focused her research in Bulgaria, where she’s studied the lives of ordinary men and women, and the effects of political transition on Bulgaria’s Muslim minorities.  Her most recent works have been heavily influenced by humanistic anthropology; Ghodsee has experimented with ethnographic fiction, autoethnography, and photo-ethnography, produce intimate narratives and images of the disorienting impacts of the collapse of Communism on daily life.  She is currently serving as the president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

kristen-ghodsee

Her latest, short book I’m featuring here, From Notes to Narrative, has fourteen chapters of only about ten pages each. In other words, it’s a quick, easy read—yet it packs a rich punch.

One of our discipline’s best writers, Ruth Behar, has this to say about Kristen Ghodsee’s new book about writing ethnography:

“Thank you, Kristen Ghodsee, for offering an absolutely essential guide to ethnographic writing. I fervently hope From Notes to Narrative will be read by every aspiring ethnographic writer, and, most of all, that its lessons will be put into practice. I can’t wait to read the books that will come from this book!”

And Paul Stoller urges: “[T]his work should be required reading for all social scientists.”

You can find a Table of Contents here.

I recently talked with Kristen Ghodsee about her new book. Here’s a record of our e-conversation:

 

Interview with Kristen Ghodsee

 

Alma Gottlieb (AG): What gave you the idea to write the book?

Kristen Ghodsee (KG): The idea first emerged from my undergraduate students. They reacted strongly to certain ethnographic books I assigned in my senior research seminars. My students are smart, motivated, and eager to learn, but they were impatient and critical of books written in what seemed to be deliberately obtuse language. As I removed the offending books from my syllabus, I started to wonder about the conditions under which ethnographies are produced. Ethnographers spend extended periods of time living in communities, but then turn around and write books and articles that members of the community cannot read. That didn’t seem right to me.

 

AG: Have you always loved writing?

KG: Yes. I always wanted to be a writer. I spent the entire summer between sixth and seventh grade writing my first novel. I wrote poetry and fiction throughout high school, and I majored in creative writing when I was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz. I agree with Ruth Behar that many ethnographers are frustrated novelists, but I don’t agree that ethnography is somehow a “second fiddle.” It is a different type of writing than fiction, but good ethnography can be as well crafted, even if its purpose is education rather than entertainment.

 

AG: When you’re not reading anthropology, what do you like to read?

KG: I actually like reading books about writing and creativity, things like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Right now, I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style and David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish. Occasionally, I also read memoirs and autobiographies. I just finished Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom, and I can’t wait to dive into Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

 

AG: In your new book, one of your chapters is titled “Minimize Scientism.” Since you’re writing for social scientists, can you explain what you mean by that?

KG: Many of the social sciences, but especially political science, economics, and psychology, have been seduced by the language and style of the natural sciences, creating neologisms or producing technical vocabularies. Sometimes these vocabularies are necessary, but often authors use complex words for simple ideas because they think those words make their work sound more “scientific,” and by extension more important. I think ethnographers should try to write their books for broader audiences, saving disciplinary-specific jargon for their conference presentations and journal articles.

 

AG: Another chapter is titled “Embrace Dialogue.” Some social scientists are nervous about writing dialogue –- partly because they’re unsure of the mechanics, but also because they’d be afraid of inaccurately filling in gaps in conversations they didn’t record. What are your thoughts about the space between fiction and non-fiction?

KG: Regarding the use of dialogue: Every ethnographer has to make a personal decision based on her own individual circumstances. There is always the risk of filling in the gaps of conversations they didn’t record, and this is especially true if you are working in a foreign language and translating other people’s words into English. But I think it is possible to be true to the content of a conversation while representing it in dialogue form. The problem is that ethnographers don’t learn the mechanics of dialogue and tend to rely on lengthy block quotations that are less interesting for the reader.

Producing accurate dialogue is hard work, and I understand that not everyone has the time or inclination to do so in scholarly texts. Some books are written for a handful of scholarly peers, and it may not be worth the extra effort. I recently saw the production budget for a book from a major university press, and it assumes that academic monographs won’t sell more than 750 copies in their lifetime. With such a small audience, why invest time in making a book readable? But maybe the reason only 750 people read any given academic book is because they are so damn difficult to read.

 

AG: The penultimate chapter is called “Find Your Process.” That might sound rather funky and even a bit mystical to some scholars. What would you say to social scientists who might be surprised by this chapter?

KG: It sounds mystical, but it is really about finding time to write, and optimizing the conditions under which you write. All of the academics I interviewed had specific writing rituals that helped them work, and this chapter is really about exploring the tips and tricks that people have to make them more productive.

 

AG: What’s the one question you’re most hoping interviewers will ask you about the book?

KG: Is it easier to write a book about writing ethnography than it is to write an actual ethnography?

KG: Not easier, but more fun. Writing this book actually made me a better writer, because I have started taking my own advice!

As Usual, The Devil’s in the Details; or, Why Ethnography Matters for Everything

A new study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee fail to achieve any long-term gains. Republican lawmakers are already seizing on the news as evidence that pre-K programs don’t work in general, and should no longer be funded.

By contrast, the same study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Boston are achieving significant long-term gains. Democratic lawmakers will no doubt seize on the news as evidence that pre-K programs do work in general, and should be further funded.

As usual, the devil’s in the details.

The Tennessee program emphasizes passive classroom strategies that are dull even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children sit and listen while a teacher talks.

Students Sleep in Lecture
The Boston program emphasizes active learning strategies that are tried-and-true even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children learn to measure distance by measuring the shadows their bodies cast on the ground, and brainstorm about making their city a better place by using skills they learn in reading, math, art and science to present a proposal to City Hall.

Boy Measures Own Shadow
My conclusions:

1. Conclusions are only as good as the data they draw from.

2. “Think global, study local” should be the official Congressional mantra.

3. Everything is better with ethnography.

Digital Deities?

A new study by economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz tells us that Internet searches for “God” are way down. He notes that this is true even in cases of catastrophe:

Stephens-Davidowitz “looked at the war in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, the tsunami in Japan, and the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. In every instance, in the affected country, searches for news increased by between 90 and 280 percent. The top religious searches, be they the ‘Bible,’ ‘Quran,’ ‘God,’ ‘Allah’ or ‘prayer,’ tended to drop or stay about the same.”

I’m pleased to see that his search term for “God” wasn’t limited to English, and the “Bible” wasn’t the only sacred text he Googled. Of course, the world has many more religious traditions than Christianity and Islam, and many more gods than the postulated monotheistic one, so the cultural biases embedded in the relatively narrow search terms he sought remain a methodological restriction.

But Stephens-Davidowitz himself recognizes another methodological restriction that is even more interesting, and far less correct-able:

“Does this mean that when tragedies strike, people focus on getting information and spend little time praying? I have to believe this is a limitation of search data, that actual prayers rise during tragedies, and that searches just do not capture this behavior. If nothing else, it is a puzzle, as everything I thought I knew about the world and search data led me to expect the opposite.”

Clearly, Internet browsing doesn’t reveal everything. Facebook and Instagram may have cajoled us to put a lot more of our inner lives and previously private thoughts into a public space, but they haven’t cajoled us to publicize ALL those thoughts. Until engineers create a way to probe our silent ruminations and blast them onto a (digital?) billboard, some things still remain sacred–and only we may still know what those are.

We may have produced a visual way to represent a quiet thought in the form of a “thought bubble.” But we still don’t know the contents of anyone’s “thought bubble” but our own.
Thought Bubble
Still, the sociology of Internet browsing histories offers a fascinating source of data for what it DOES reveal.