Birth as Ritual/Ritual as Birth

Cultural anthropologist, Robbie Davis-Floyd, is a leading anthropologist in the fields of childbirth, midwifery, and obstetrics.

 

A Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin, she has studied childbirth practices firsthand in the U.S., Mexico, and elsewhere, and has promoted the work and legitimacy of midwives around the world.

Robbie Davis-Floyd (back row, right) honored by the North American Registry of Midwives (NARM) for helping create a nationally recognized certification process for professional midwives in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada

 

She has also lectured as a featured, keynote speaker at over 1,000 universities and health practitioners’ conferences in the US and internationally, always taking the opportunity to learn more about the maternity care systems of the countries she has visited.

Robbie Davis-Floyd speaking at the 2014 Symposium of the California Endowment

 

Davis-Floyd serves as a Board member of the International MotherBaby Childbirth Organization (IMBCO) and its new International Childbirth Initiative (ICI): 12 Steps to Safe and Respectful MotherBaby Family Maternity Care. She is also Senior Advisor to the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction, and Associate Editor of Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

Considering the cumulative impact of her energetic and creative efforts on many fronts to promote healthy childbirth without unnecessary, high-tech interventions, it is probably no exaggeration to say that Robbie Davis-Floyd has long served as the “public face of anthropology” to the international childbirth movement. Her work has been instrumental in bringing anthropological insights into the global childbirth arena and in effecting humanistic changes in childbirth practices in many countries.  Indeed, given the impact of her work, she is considered a “living legend” among birth activists both within and beyond anthropology.

Despite the enormous impact of her research, writing, and speaking on childbirth practices in the U.S. and elsewhere, birth is by no means the only topic that Davis-Floyd has studied. She’s recently given birth to a delightfully readable, new book, The Power of Ritual, co-authored with neuroanthropologist, Charles Laughlin.

Cultural anthropologist, Claire Farrer, has called the new volume “an exquisite and informative book,” writing:

I wish that this book had been available during my long teaching career–I would have used it in all my relevant courses!

Beyond professors and students, because of its breezy writing style, combined with its captivating examples from common experiences in Westerners’ lives, the book will surely appeal to many “ordinary” readers. Birth educator, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, has written:

Before I read The Power of Ritual, I thought I knew what ritual was, yet now I know that it is so much more–it can be everything from a simple conversation-opener to a powerful healing process, from an individual’s daily habits to full-scale ceremony. I have learned much from this book that I can apply to my own life to enable me to more consciously perform my daily, family, and professional rituals.

Robbie and I recently chatted about the book online. You can read our conversation below.

Meanwhile, you can learn more about Robbie Davis-Floyd’s work on her website here, including her C.V.  You can also find a view of Davis-Floyd’s many published books here, and downloadable PDFs of most of her dozens of published journal articles and book chapters here.

 

RDF: Robbie Davis-Floyd

AG: Alma Gottlieb

*

AG: You’re well known for helping develop and promote the anthropologies of childbirth, midwifery, obstetrics, and reproduction. Your fans may be surprised at the focus of this book on ritual. Yet, your first book (developing from your dissertation), Birth as an American Rite of Passage, used ritual as an analytic frame.

 

In that sense, would you say that The Power of Ritual reprises the conversation about ritual that you began nearly 30 years ago?  Or, takes it in new directions?  Or both?

Put differently (and more broadly), why would an anthropologist of childbirth write a book about ritual?

 

RDF: I’ve come full circle, as I did not start out as a birth anthropologist! My original graduate training was in both Folklore and Anthropology, and my interest in ritual was sparked by one of my Folklore professors, Roger Abrahams, whose writings on ritual I found enticing.

I did my Master’s thesis on the folklore of a Texas madam, Edna Milton, who for many years ran the notorious Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas—featured, after its closing, in the movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The article I wrote about how Edna’s masterful use of jokes and other forms of language manipulation kept her in total control of the Chicken Ranch, its customers, and its employees was published in the Journal of American Folkore and was widely used for teaching for many years, as it clearly shows how jokes and folktales can be used for manipulation, plus it is hysterically funny!

In the middle of my PhD studies, I took some time off to spend a year traveling around Mexico and learning Spanish. I returned to Mexico often and worked with two shamans—Don Lucio, a traditional shaman and “weather-worker” (trabajador del tiempo) from a small village in central Mexico, and Edgardo Vasquez Gomez, a wealthy businessman living in Cuernavaca who had traveled the country in his younger years studying sorcery (brujeria), magic, and traditional healing, and later combined that with the teachings and philosophy of the Russian philosopher, G. I Gurdjieff. Both had large followings, and both could actually manipulate energy and perform what I experienced as magic. If you combined them into one person, you would get someone very like Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan.

I know that Castaneda’s work has been discredited, but the two shamans I worked with were real—as were the effects of the (very different types of) rituals they performed. We used to joke that Edgardo was Don Juan. In my doctoral program, I later wrote several long papers on myth, ritual, and shamanism in Mexico and expected to do my dissertation research with those two. (That was before computers, and those papers, sadly, were lost in a house fire.)

But then I had a baby, got “bitten by the birth bug,” and decided, instead, to research women’s childbirth narratives, as I was still in folklore mode. Yet the more women I interviewed, the more one question grabbed me:

Given the highly individual nature of each woman’s birth experience for that woman, why is birth treated in such a standardized way in American hospitals?

I began to research the scientific literature on birth. I soon realized that the vast majority of “standard obstetric procedures” did nothing to make birth safer. Instead, they made it more predictable and controllable—while unnecessarily harming women and babies in the process.

Davis-Floyd has chronicled how fetal heart rate monitors keep women attached to a bed and claim attention on a machine’s readouts, rather than on a laboring woman’s subjective experience

 

At first, I was confused. Like most people, I had assumed that obstetrics was based on science. When I realized it wasn’t, I had to ask the most basic anthropological question: Why? Why would doctors do things to women that didn’t make birth safer? The explanation hit me like a bombshell.

’”Standard obstetric procedures” do not come from the logic of science but, rather, from the logic of ritual. Like most rituals, they reflect the core values of their culture—in this case, the culture of technocratic societies.

They are designed, as so many rituals are, to try to control the uncontrollable forces of nature, to keep fear at bay–in this case, fear of both death and lawsuits. So, I switched from simply analyzing women’s birth narratives to a focus on analyzing obstetric procedures as rituals.

To fully explore this notion, I needed to understand ritual more, and its primary characteristic– the use of powerful symbols to convey meaning. I took a summer seminar at the University of Virginia with Christopher Crocker on what was then called “symbolic anthropology” (now “interpretive anthropology”). I also taught myself medical anthropology, which I had never formally studied.  But I had to become an expert in it, as pregnancy and childbirth had long ago become defined as medical events.

After reading almost everything that Victor Turner, Clifford GeertzArnold van Gennep, and many others had written about ritual, I saw that birth, which used to be a physical and social rite of passage replete with social rituals, had become a completely medicalized rite of passage.  The rituals that characterize birth everywhere had become medical rituals, officially disguised as “standard procedures.”

Dissatisfied with the many definitions of ritual I read, I created my own:

a ritual is a patterned, repetitive, symbolic (and often transformative) enactment of a cultural (or individual) belief or value.

Obstetric rituals enact the core values of what I called “the technocracy”—a term that came to me from Peter Reynolds, via his book, Stealing Fire: The Atomic Bomb as Symbolic Body, but that I redefined:

a technocracy is a hierarchical, bureaucratic, capitalist, and (still) patriarchal society organized around the supervaluation [a word I coined] of the progressive development of high technologies and the global flow of information via those technologies.

I generated a list of what we might perceive as characteristics of rituals: symbolism, rhythmic repetition, order, formality, framing, performance, acting, stylization, staging, and often, intensification toward a climax. In my dissertation (which became my first book, Birth as an American Rite of Passage), in a chapter called “Birth Messages,” I dissected each standard obstetric procedure—its official rationale, the scientific evidence against it, women’s highly varied responses to it—and explained how it acted as a ritual by enacting, displaying, and transmitting specific core technocratic values and beliefs to women, their partners, and their practitioners.

In Birth as an American Rite of Passage, Davis-Floyd analyzes the wheelchair as a powerful symbolic statement conveying the clear message that the woman in labor is “disabled”

 

At first, some ritual scholars like Ron Grimes argued that I was metaphorizing obstetric procedures as rituals, but that they were not really rituals—they were like rituals—because most scholars saw ritual as religion-based. But since the publication of my book in 1992, and its second edition in 2003, my analysis of hospital birthing practices as rituals has held, and its framework for understanding the characteristics of “secular ritual“ (using childbirth as an example) has been widely used.

AG: What a fascinating intellectual history! So, for this book on ritual, how did you decide to collaborate with a co-author who specializes in neurological approaches to human experience?

RDF: From analyzing birth narratives, I saw that women’s perceptions of themselves and their ability to give birth were profoundly affected by technological hospital rituals (such as IVs, electronic fetal monitoring, Pitocin induction or augmentation, episiotomies, immediate cord clamping, etc.). So I knew there was a missing piece in my growing understanding of ritual. It seemed clear that ritual can affect the human brain–but how?

Davis-Floyd’s research has helped document the much higher likelihood of a C-section once a woman’s labor is “induced,” or accelerated, with Pitocin

 

I searched the literature but found no answers until, one day, while browsing the book stalls at the annual American Anthropological Association conference, I saw a book way at the back of the Oxford exhibit booth. That particular book was literally glowing at me—in much the same way that I could often see the reins of energy that Edgardo held in his hands glowing during group meetings. I pulled the book out, and my life changed! It was called The Spectrum of Ritual, and it gave me the answers I was looking for. Here, finally, was the missing piece—the neurophysiology of ritual, the explanations for how ritual works on the brain and, thus, where it gets its power over us humans—starting with its multiple roles among animals.

A few years later, I met one of its authors, Charles Laughlin, at a conference. We both had read everything the other had written, so our meeting was intense and our ensuing friendship equally so. We eventually decided to co-author a book on The Power of Ritual–because I wanted to expand my study of ritual into other arenas besides birth, while Charlie wanted to put his highly esoteric work on ritual (characterized by what he termed ”neurognosis”) in more straightforward language, so he could make it accessible to people with IQs lower than 180.  I kept telling him, “Just dumb it down and tell stories”!

AG: Did you run up against differences in approach?

RDF: Not really. Charlie accepted my definition of ritual as the one we would use.  We also used most of my list of the characteristics of ritual. At some point, though, we realized that some factors on my original list, such as the fact that rituals generally work to preserve the status quo yet, paradoxically, can also be used to generate rapid social or religious change, were actually effects of ritual, not characteristics.

In this book, I finally was able to write about my long-ago work with the two Mexican shamans.  Unfortunately, it was all from memory, since, as I previously mentioned, the graduate school papers I had written about those experiences had all burned up in a house fire.

 

AG: This book begins with a theoretical discussion of how to define and analyze ritual, but it ends with a surprisingly down-to-earth section offering models for how contemporary readers might create their own rituals for important moments in their lives, whether for menarche, meditation, lucid dreaming, prayer, birth (as Melissa Cheyney has shown, homebirthers in particular create lots of rituals for honoring, de-medicalizing, and helping them through the labor process–see her article, “Reinscribing the Birthing Body: Homebirth as Ritual Performance”), death, or other significant events or experiences.

When we think about “engaged anthropology,” we usually have more economic or political transformations in mind.  Would you consider the “how-to” section of the book another variety of “engaged anthropology”?

RDF: Yes! And also of “applied anthropology.” Anthropological understandings gained from studying people and their lifeworlds should be expressed in ways that enable people to apply them to their own lives and use them for their own purposes. We need to come down out of our ivory towers and make our work relevant and useful in immediate ways. That is why Charlie and I put so many personal examples of ritual into our book—to engage readers with those experiences and help them directly apply them, should they wish to do so.

 

AG:  So, what’s next?

RDF: Our refinement of both of our life’s works in this book is now feeding back into the third edition of Birth as an American Rite of Passage, which I am working on now, and which will be a complete revision and update (this time with a co-author, the amazing Missy Cheyney). Another full circle!

But I‘ve never confined myself completely to birth and related subjects. In addition to ritual and symbol, I’ve also intensively studied cults (as described in The Power of Ritual), medical doctors who became holistic healers (as described in From Doctor to Healer: The Transformative Journey), futures planning via global scenarios, and aerospace engineers. But those are stories for another time. That’s one of the great values of anthropology. Once you have the tools, you can study any phenomenon that captures your interest!

AG: Any other future projects in the works?

RDF: Betty-Anne Daviss and I are in the process of finishing Childbirth Models on the Human Rights Frontier: Speaking Truth to Power—a sort of follow-up to our book, Birth Models That Work (2009), which has been called “seminal” (though we would have preferred “ovarial”) because it was the first book to describe truly functional birth practice models that are woman-centered and evidence-based—as opposed to the dysfunctional, non-evidence-based maternity care models that predominate almost everywhere.

 

This new follow-up volume describes models that are way more “out on the edge”—in high-poverty, disaster, and war zones, for example. It also discusses birth models that are more iconoclastic, while addressing professional bullying and competition among doctors, and the de-skilling of obstetricians in techniques for vaginal breech birth.

Our next project will be an edited volume called The Global Witch Hunt: The Ongoing Persecution of Woman-Centered Birth Practitioners. Its purpose is to call attention to the often-intense persecution of some of the most skilled midwives and obstetricians in the world, who will often go out on a limb to honor the wishes for a normal birth of women considered high-risk, by attending them at home or in hospital, but then get punished for putting the woman, not the protocols, first. The “witch-hunted” practitioners will tell their own stories in each chapter, while we co-editors (Betty Anne-Daviss, Hermine Hayes Klein, and myself) will contextualize those stories in the Introduction and Conclusion.

In another vein, for years I have been writing short stories, which I hope to publish some day in a book called Robbie’s Reader: Vignettes of My Magical Life—for my life has indeed felt magical, primarily because my anthropological research and international talks have taken me all over the world, filled my life with adventure, and given me great stories to tell!



When Women’s Laughter Keeps Men in Line; or, What Gathering-Hunting Women of Central Africa Have in Common with Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, et al.

Among the Mbendjele gathering-hunting people who live in the Republic of Congo,

women’s laughter manages to keep men in line.”

Drawing from ethnographic research by Jerome Lewis, anthropologist Chris Knight relates that among the Mbendjele, “senior women exercise a special privilege, seeing it as their enjoyable role to bring down anyone who seems to be getting above themselves.”

To explain what “getting above themselves” might include, Knight enumerates an impressive list:

  • greediness
  • selfishness
  • dishonesty
  • cheating
  • laziness
  • arrogance
  • boastfulness
  • carelessness
  • cowardice
  • intolerance
  • moodiness
  • impulsiveness
  • aggression
  • possessiveness
  • not providing enough to eat
  • threats of, or attempts at, violence
  • chasing another woman
  • not having sex often enough.

Why should we care about Mbendjele women’s complaints about their men’s bad behavior?

Given that all humans began (evolutionarily speaking) as gatherer-hunters in sub-Saharan Africa, anthropologists have long pointed out the special insights that contemporary hunter-gatherers of Central Africa hold for our species history. Expanding on writings by anthropologist Chris Boehm, Knight uses the example of laughing Mbendjele older women to develop a broad-ranging theory of how laughter may have evolved as a unique human pleasure.

Here, my aim is far less ambitious.

Let’s call this a Memo to the [Increasingly Empowered] White-Clad Women of the U.S. Congress: 

Why not learn from your Mbendjele sisters and take up coordinated public laughter at out-of-control men as your next power move?

In fact, our newly-elected women Members of Congress have already gotten a brief but great head start.

I’m guessing that Mbendjele women would recognize their strategy.

Maybe the next group press conference held by our women MoCs critiquing unjust laws and unethical practices (patriarchal and otherwise) will be accompanied by a full-scale, Mbendjele-style laugh-in. Our species’ long evolutionary history might well support it.

 

To Be a Man Is Not a One-Day Job: A Conversation with Daniel Jordan Smith

Daniel Jordan Smith has been conducting research in, and writing about, West Africa since 1995.

Dan Smith in his office

 

 

His first book, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria, was a compelling work narrating the daily experience of interrelations between morality and economy, seen from the bottom up. It won the 2008 Margaret Mead Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology/American Anthropological Association.

His next book, AIDS Doesn’t Show Its Face: Inequality, Morality, and Social Change in Nigeria, was a tour de force of medical anthropology. It won the 2015 Elliott P. Skinner Award from the Association for Africanist Anthropology.

You can learn more about Dan Smith’s work on his website here from Brown University, where he holds multiple positions—as the Charles C. Tillinghast, Jr. ’32 Professor of International Studies, the chair of the Department of Anthropology, and the director of the Africa Initiative for the Watson institute for International and Public Affairs.  You can also find a list of many of Smith’s published journal articles and book chapters here.

Recently, Smith published a fascinating study of masculinity among the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria: To Be a Man Is Not a One-Day Job: Masculinity, Money, and Intimacy in Nigeria (University of Chicago Press, 2017). You can find the publisher’s web page for the book here.

 

Robert Morrell has praised the book:

“In this brilliant and highly readable exploration of masculinity, Smith bores down into the lives of his Nigerian friends and informants to find out what makes them tick. Through his interest in and involvement with a local tennis club for a period of over twenty-five years, he has developed a depth of understanding that even for anthropologists is unusual.”

And anthropologist James Ferguson has written:

“Brimming with insightful observations and telling details, this book makes an outstanding contribution to our understanding of a topic of enormous contemporary significance—in Africa and beyond.”

Dan and I recently had a chance to speak online about his new book. You can read our conversation below.

 

DJS: Daniel Jordan Smith

AG: Alma Gottlieb

*

AG: In the past, your work in West Africa has focused on a variety of medical issues, economic questions, and gender topics. If we consider mental health a component of medical anthropology, one might say that your new book combines some of the most important questions you’ve addressed across some 25 years of ethnographic inquiry. What made you decide to write a book drawing together (but also going well beyond) issues you’ve tackled from all these diverse writings?

DJS: In many respects, my decisions about what to study and write about in Nigeria are driven by what seems most salient in the lives of the people I live with and work with there—intersecting, of course, with what I find interesting and important as an anthropologist.

The focus of this book on masculinity in Nigeria–and, specifically, on the relationship between money and intimacy in men’s lives—is the product of having spent much of my time in Nigeria in the company of men. In the places where I work in southeastern Nigeria, social life is quite gender-segregated—not extremely so, but to the extent that, as a man, over the years, I have spent a disproportionate amount of time with men. This book is an attempt to draw all of that experience together and to try to understand men’s lives.

The author during a match with his Nigerian tennis partner, Osofia, in 1989

 

Beyond that, I wanted to use masculinity as a prism or a vehicle through which I could explore social life, and social change more broadly, in Nigeria. I never actually did a research project focused on masculinity, per se—though many of my projects focused on masculinity implicitly in one way or another. But at some point, I realized that I had a huge corpus of material about men and masculinity, and so I decided to write this book.

The author with his Nigerian tennis partner, Osofia, 15 years after their first match

 

AG: Feminist anthropologists have critiqued earlier generations of scholars for focusing exclusively on men’s lives, without acknowledging this gender bias as such. Your study, grounded in the new “masculinity studies,” strikes me as quite different from those early works that discussed men’s lives without really problematizing the gendered nature of their experiences. Can you talk about the premises of the new masculinity studies that underlie your approach?

DJS: As your question suggests, I think one of the key premises of new masculinity studies is that the generations of scholars focusing more or less exclusively on men’s lives almost never examined masculinity “as gender.” By that, I mean that, while men were the assumed objects of study when trying to understand economics, politics, social organization, and culture, masculinity itself was not really examined, problematized, and unpacked in and of itself. The idea that masculinity is socially constructed and performed–rather than simply given—is at the heart of new masculinity studies. So, too, is the idea that there are multiple masculinities, not just one.

                      Portrait of an elderly Igbo man in his village in southeastern Nigeria                        

 

Also central is the recognition that masculinities, like femininities, are relationally constructed—both broadly and specifically in relation to femininity.

 

 Portrait of a vulcanizer (tire repairer) in southeastern Nigeria

 

My work has benefited from all the excellent recent scholarship on masculinities, including in Africa. But my goal in the book is broader than trying to understand masculinity in Nigeria. I try to show that by understanding masculinity and men’s lives, we can better understand wider aspects of social life and social change in contemporary Nigeria. The book’s focus on the complex geometry of money and intimacy in men’s lives is intended not only to understand Nigerian masculinities, but Nigerian society more generally.

Men enjoying a moment of relaxation at Umuahia Sports Club, southeastern Nigeria

 

AG: In the book, you make this connection quite explicit. For example, you document what you call the “changing landscape of intimacy” by providing so many life stories that exemplify how “money has become the essential means to prove one’s value as a man.” In insisting on the deep nexus between emotion and economy, are you trying to make a theoretical point about, say, the mutual braiding between the anthropology of emotion on the one hand, and economic anthropology on the other? And, if so, do you think southeastern Nigeria is an especially apt place in which to make such a claim?

DJS: In connecting money and intimacy (and economics and emotion more broadly), I am certainly building on what I think is an already well-established theoretical point in anthropology—and specifically in Africanist anthropology—about the inextricable intertwining of economics and emotion in social life. But I think my more central conceptual contribution focuses on the way that concerns about morality infuse the intersection of money and intimacy. For example, I argue that men are constantly engaged in projects of what I call “conspicuous redistribution,” whereby they are trying to put money into the service of sociality, even as they show it off. This occurs, I argue, in both large collective occasions, like weddings and funerals, but also in more everyday contexts in which a man shares his money in his intimate relationships—such as with kin, friends, or lovers. At stake for men in these performances of conspicuous redistribution is whether their money is socially productive and morally legitimate.

I think the stakes are particularly high in southeastern Nigeria because money often stands symbolically for social changes about which people are ambivalent at best, including the rise of individualism and the pursuit of wealth. Even more negatively, money symbolizes (and is seen as creating) the pervasiveness of greed and corruption. Men face a double bind. They need money to be good men, yet they often feel compelled to pursue it by socially and morally problematic means. In this context, how they spend it becomes all the more scrutinized.

Portrait of a shop owner in southeastern Nigeria

 

AG: Bringing up the problematic relationship linking money, morality, and men in southeastern Nigeria inevitably leads us to the present moment in the US, where gender relations are an especially fraught topic—with a president accused multiple times of sexual harassment and even sexual assault, and a powerful and growing “#MeToo” movement arising among women to resist intimate practices of patriarchy. (How) would you say your book speaks to this moment in the US? That is, what lessons might American men draw from your discussion of contemporary Nigerian men’s lives, challenges, and frustrations?

DJS: I wrote the book well before the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the “#MeToo” movement, so I certainly never intended for it to speak to the US context directly. That said, I think there are always opportunities to reflect on social life in one’s own culture that come in the process of trying to understand another society. For me, one of the most powerful (and in many ways most appealing) aspects of masculine social life in Nigeria is the pervasiveness and importance of homosociality—that is, of men’s social relationships with other men. As I discuss at length in the book, I found this dimension of Nigerian masculinity very compelling. At the same time, it was clear that Nigerian men frequently reinforced and rewarded patriarchal privilege in male-dominated fraternal settings.

I think similar dynamics between fraternity and patriarchy are common in the US. But it seems to me that the masculine enjoyment of male fraternity need not depend on patriarchy to enable men’s social solidarity. I think American men would benefit from more male comraderie, but in both the US and Nigeria it would be preferable to de-couple fraternal solidarity from patriarchy. They are often intertwined, but I don’t think they have to be.

 

AG: What’s on the horizon for your next research and writing project?

DJS: In Nigeria, people have a saying that “every household is its own local government.” By this, they mean that because the state so woefully fails to provide basic infrastructure and services—water, electricity, security, transportation, etc.—every household must figure out how to address these needs and desires. My current research project (and next book) examines the informal economic and entrepreneurial means by which Nigerians cobble together basic infrastructure, and what all this reveals about the state, citizenship, and political culture.

 

AG: That sounds like such an important issue for so many places (not just Nigeria).

Finally, a more personal question. While remaining extraordinarily productive as an author, you’ve held many administrative positions, and you’ve even won a campus award for teaching. Do you have any time-management secrets you can share with colleagues who might assume that being excellent simultaneously in all arenas of the academy (research/writing/          administration/teaching) is beyond impossible?


DJS: It’s very generous of you to pose the question in this way. I am afraid I don’t have any magical time-management secrets, but I can share a couple of thoughts. Most important, I think, is loving what you do, which makes it easier to work hard and work effectively. It sounds cliché, but it makes such a difference to like what you are doing. At least, that’s my experience. So, whether it’s research and writing, teaching, or administration, I try to do work that I want to be doing. That’s obviously easier said than done, especially for junior faculty, but in academia, we have a remarkable amount of freedom to pick what to work on—in administration and teaching, as well as in research and scholarship.

More mundanely, I think the secret to time management in academia is being able to use both huge chunks of time (like summer and winter breaks) and short spans of time (like 45 minutes between a class and a committee meeting) efficiently. Our profession provides an unusually large number of both very long and very brief periods of time that can be managed well or squandered. I always tell my junior colleagues that if you have 45 minutes between things, you can use it to grade some papers, or update a lecture, or read an article (or whatever). Those little chunks add up to a huge amount of time over a year (not to mention, over a career). And they are relatively painless to utilize. Using the big chunks effectively takes more discipline, but if they are filled with work you like (at least mostly), then working is easier and more rewarding.

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.

*

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

« Older Entries