Category Archives: Current Issues

What Anthropology Teaches Us about COVID-19, Part 4: A Conversation with Physician-Anthropologist, Dr. Bjørn Westgard

Recently, I checked in with Dr. Bjørn Westgard, to see how he was doing.

A person wearing a suit and tie

Description automatically generated

Back in the ‘90s, Bjørn was enrolled in a wildly demanding, combined M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois, where I had the pleasure of serving as his academic advisor.  After completing his medical school coursework, Bjørn conducted doctoral research in cultural anthropology in a small town in northern Senegal, studying the complexities of intersecting local and global medical systems as they sometimes complemented one another and sometimes competed.  He intentionally combined “bottom-up” and “top-down” perspectives, interviewing everyone from village-based farmers and healers to biomedically trained nurses and doctors.  (From that research, Bjorn is fluent in French and Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal; he also speaks Serer and Mandinka, two linguistically unrelated languages spoken in the region of his research.)

When it came time to choosing a medical specialty in which to pursue his residency, Bjørn surprised me: he decided against his early interest in pediatrics or family medicine and opted instead for emergency medicine.

Initially, I was disappointed: I thought that working in ER rooms would waste Bjørn’s formidable scholarly skills.  How could he get to know transient patients and put his extensive training in biomedical cultural sensitivity to work?  Of course, Bjørn had already thought through that concern.  “There are more return patients than you’d think,” he explained.  Bjørn understood what few others in the U.S. yet knew: that many, many uninsured Americans used emergency rooms for routine medical services.  That included the poor and the undocumented—for all of whom, Bjørn (with his ample wading into the deep waters of culturally sensitive issues) would have special insights.

Bjørn had an additional reason for selecting emergency medicine that made equally compelling sense.  “There’s so much wrong with the American medical system, and a lot of it is encapsulated in ERs,” I remember him explaining.  “As an anthropologist, I can start addressing the systemic problems if I have a position working in the belly of the beast.”  At the time, no one was talking about this problem in such clear ways–at least, not in public conversations about healthcare policy.  I remember being instantly both impressed and persuaded: Bjørn was making the right decision.

Besides, if I thought about everyone I had ever known, Bjørn would have been my first pick for an ER doctor.  He has the sort of calm temperament and clear, logical mind that would make him the obvious choice for captaining any sinking ship.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and Bjørn now finds himself working as Research Director and Senior Staff Physician at Regions Hospital, a Level 1 Trauma Center in Minneapolis that sees over 90,000 Emergency Center visits every year.  A Fellow of the American College of Emergency Physicians, Bjørn holds secondary medical appointments in emergency departments of four other hospitals in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Over the years, Bjørn has researched heart disease among Somalis in Minneapolis (with support from the National Institute for Health); has specialized in hyperbaric oxygen therapy for certain medical conditions; and has helped create an innovative program finding housing and lifestyle amelioration for homeless people in Minneapolis.

Clearly, Bjørn has harnessed the wisdom he gained from studying pluralistic health practices in a small town in Senegal to the technical skills he gained in studying medicine.  With his incredible combination of scientific and humanistic talents, I was unsurprised to learn that Bjørn is now leading a medical team that is fashioning policy responses to COVID-19 for the state of Minneapolis.

On his home page, Bjørn describes his approach to medicine this way:

My teaching and research have focused on Emergency Department use for preventable conditions among priority populations, “food deserts” and diet-related Emergency Department visits, longitudinal changes in Emergency Department use among the homeless, supportive housing, and reducing health disparities in emergency care.

Who could be more qualified than an ER physician-anthropologist such as Bjørn Westgard to understand the COVID-19 crisis in both scientific and human terms?

(You can read a brief bio of Bjørn Westgard here and his LinkedIn page here.)

Recently I had a conversation with Dr. Bjorn Westgard about this long COVID-19 moment—about what he has learned, and what he can teach the rest of us.

BW = Bjorn Westgard

AG = Alma Gottlieb

AG: An ER doctor in New York, Dr. Cameron Kyle-Sidell, recently claimed that ER doctors around the world may have drastically misjudged the nature of the COVID-19 beast when it enters the lungs, and may have unintentionally harmed patients by keeping them attached to respirators administering too much pressure on fragile lungs.  His claims are quite striking and disturbing!  If this ER doctor is right, it’s tragic to think of what damage might have already been done by mis-calibrating those respirators.  What do you think of his claims, medically?  And, why do you suppose he posted this video on YouTube for general consumption?

BW: This has gotten a lot of play.  Unfortunately, his understanding of high-altitude pulmonary edema is a little off, and no one has put anything together about his critique that is systematic or peer-reviewed.  However, multiple physicians from China, Italy, and New York in particular (on some emergency medicine podcasts and the like) have raised the possibility that treating COVID using ventilator parameters for ARDS [acute respiratory distress syndrome] may be incorrect, at least initially. 

The ventilator management of these patients doesn’t sound incompatible with early ARDS, but it is still very controversial.  I just got into a heated argument with an intensivist earlier today for even bringing up the above.  There is fear among all sorts of health professionals right now, especially among those who tend to “know what they know” with the most certainty.  So the idea of managing critical pathophysiology that might be different from what is expected–requiring a veritable, Kuhnian paradigm shift–can be very anxiety- and anger-provoking. 

To add further fuel to that fire, there has also been discussion of a possible hemoglobin issue (oxygen carrier in the blood), but there has been nothing other than a pre-press 3D computer modeling paper out of China in the rapid-fire literature to support that idea.  However, a group from NYU did use machine learning to predict severe disease, with results that could support the idea of a hemoglobinopathy.  I even have colleagues in my other Board specialty, hyperbaric medicine, who are working on a trial to use hyperbaric oxygen to get around the possible hemoglobin issue.  I think there’s probably more to the receptor for COVID, which is present in all of the body’s vasculature, which could potentially trigger inflammation and coagulation that way, and that inflammation and small clots, which we’re finding everywhere in coronavirus patients, could be causing diffuse injury.

It’s fascinating to watch the accretions of science and knowledge in the age of the Internet and social media.  Already, cranks are hawking conspiracy theories and supplements in response to the “censored” knowledge above.

As an emergency physician and an anthropologist, I’m a bricoleur of the contingent and the emergent, by trade.  I’ll consider new ideas if they make pathophysiologic sense, and I have no doubt that someone will examine these ideas further and more systematically, so I’ll keep watching for more evidence.  For now, I’ll care for the patient in front of me and adjust their vent settings as needed.

AG: That sounds like a good strategy both for an ethnographer and a doctor.  But then, I always thought that all doctors ought to have training in anthropology.

BW: I hope I didn’t give you the impression in my last email that I was resistant to the ideas presented, just that I’m looking for more information, whether from personal, clinical experience or other data.  I’m just not generally inclined to change my clinical practice in response to social media.  I’m in the middle of our Thursday morning residency conference right now, and we’re discussing initial and ICU ventilator settings, given developing information, and it’s fascinating to hear an intensivist colleague suggest that “we’re all in the same boat here, the attendings [fully credentialed, attending physicians], the fellows, the residents, and the med student . . . we’re all learning together as we go.”

AG: Speaking of combining social and technical approaches, we’ve been reading about efforts to systematically calculate social contacts for COVID-19 patients, to help track the socio-geographic spread of the disease.  What do you think of those?

BW: Very cool.  I’m trying to get our state to do something similar using an app I’ve worked with a team to develop.  I’m arguing with our Department of Health, who have difficulty appreciating how technology might help.  But they’re also feeling less pressure to consider novel options, since our state is doing relatively well.

AG: Here’s something else I thought you might have a lot to say about . . . the whole “herd immunity” question strikes me as so interesting for anthropologists.  I’ve been reading a lot about this recently.  This piece in the Boston Globe really caught my attention.

First, there are the epidemiological questions.  How accurate is the concept of “herd immunity” to begin with?  As a doctor and scientist, I assume you’ll have much to say about that.

Second, there are the sociological implications.  How can your perspective as an anthropologist speak to the epidemiological factors?  If the US (and/or other nations) adopts a “herd immunity” approach at some point (before a vaccine is widely available), what sorts of people will be allowed—or even encouraged–to be exposed to the virus?  What sorts of people should be allowed, or even encouraged, to be exposed to the virus?  Are those two groups of people the same?  Or, will socioeconomic disparities intervene, and might large numbers of the wrong people (the most vulnerable) end up being exposed to the virus?  I’m thinking about this because, over the past two weeks, many mainstream journalists in the U.S. have begun noting racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality.  Of course, that’s no surprise to anthropologists (and some other social scientists), though it seems to be surprising plenty of politicians.  Thinking about these social factors, are there new risks to perpetuating racial disparities with a “herd immunity” strategy?

Third, there are the symbolic/conceptual/philosophical implications.  As a scholar steeped in sensitivity to discursive implications, what are the ramifications of using a metaphor of (non-human) animal behavior for human behavior, in evoking “herd” immunity?

The maddening “organism at the edge of life” (as virologist E. P. Rybicki describes viruses) that is far too dangerous to appear this beautiful

BW: I haven’t had time until after my shift this evening to get to your questions, but I like them.  It prompts me to reflect and consider with a wider lens.

I’m not an expert in infectious disease or epidemiology, but my understanding is that “herd immunity” is primarily a statistically useful concept that expresses the aggregate balance between immune systems and infectious vectors such that there’s enough immunity to prevent ongoing transmission.  But when you get into the immune system, things become very complex very quickly.  Talking about vaccines and immune medications (like those being discussed as treatments for cytokine storm, for example), the questions pertain not just to the dose of a drug in the volume of an aqueous human, but also to what the most productive triggers are for the bodily machinery churning out the immunity widgets of antibodies.  The questions become: What is needed to trigger the production of immunity?  How effective is the immunity that is produced?  Does it wane, and if so, when?

And all that is without discussing the social patterns of intermixing that we all experience, and which have become the main means by which we are currently intervening upon the spread of this pandemic.  I think that’s where the concept of “herd” becomes interesting.  Anthropologists and many others are comfortable with the idea of the population as a biopolitical concept generated by a certain kind of governmentality.  But how do we, the multitude, deploy that in an effective, self-governing manner? 

It seems to me that the concept of the “herd” could allow us to conceive of our collective biology, our animality, in a way that is positive and potentially collectively empowering, rather than biostatistically disempowering.  That said, it seems clear that a “herd immunity” strategy that treats the lot of us like chattel (the flip side of the “herd”), positing that we should all “put on our big boy and big girls pants” and accept that a lot of people must die, will undoubtedly do more harm.  We’re seeing this in those areas of the country where few or late actions have been taken to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. 

It’s my hope that we’ll use available information from around the world to develop better methods that capitalize upon our current collective engagement.  It seems like “flatten the curve” has brought the collective back to the biostatistical.  Hopefully, well-thought-out approaches to “reopening” and easing social/policy measures could do the same.  But the evidence for these measures is thin, and we are all learning about one of my favorite areas or research, complex population models of disease. This is another area where science is being built daily, as the pandemic provides some of the first empirical test cases for these tools.

But it is disheartening that in areas both with and without aggressive measures, we see the impact of racial and socioeconomic disparities.  Those disparities are at play in health inequities and inequitable care in the best of times.  Now, resources are strained, so it would be almost unthinkable that those factors would not be significantly at play in the pandemic.  In areas with less, or late, social and political measures to isolate people, the historic clustering of populations through systemic segregation, with associated increases in population density and decreases in access to resources, lead to syndemic conditions.  In areas with more social and political measures to isolate people, many who work low-end jobs become unemployed, with all the accompanying fears and hardships, while those who keep their low-end jobs–clerks, janitors, service workers, etc.–are left out in public in positions that put them in contact with large numbers of potentially infectious people.  So, between the two groups, disparities in rates of infection and adverse outcomes should come as no surprise.

I’ll get back to you with more, as this is the next bit of thinking required.  In Minneapolis, the group I’ve assembled between HealthPartners and the University of Minnesota are going to consider how to model this process to provide guidance for the long term of the pandemic.

AG: Yes, racial disparities are emerging with disturbing alacrity and intensity in the US.  But, as you say, that’s hardly a surprise, for all the reasons concerning systematic, structural disempowerment that have characterized US society since Europeans set foot on these shores.  Those sorts of disparities have begun to be part of a growing national conversation since the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s, and they took on new force more recently with the Black Lives Matter movement.  One of the components of the current horrible moment that I’m actually finding most heartening is the extent to which social conditions ARE finding their way to being front and center of many conversations.  It strikes me that this moment of national (and global) crisis offers America new opportunities to expand that conversation and really take its lessons seriously in a new way for the first time in US history.  And, medical researchers and doctors will be at the forefront of that conversation.  Someone like you, with your dual training, is especially well positioned to think systematically about just how to operationalize those lessons in ways that work with public health protocols.  That’s why I’m excited about our continuing conversation!

BW: I think it’s very clear that this virus is hitting communities in both indiscriminate ways (with some reportedly healthy individuals going on ventilators or even ECMO life-support machines) and in VERY discriminating ways, hitting poorer communities and those of color.  What I haven’t heard exactly is any discussion about ways to focus resources on those communities that are hardest hit, which is disappointing but not unexpected, given the current national leadership. 

I actually think race and structural inequalities and violence have very much come to the fore within medical practice.  It’s just that our sphere of influence is limited.  For example, in Minnesota, our healthcare system has an Equitable Care Committee that has done a lot of great work, although it has vacillated between focusing on equitable care and health equity, depending upon what we think we can actually achieve.  Residents and med students, particularly the med students, are very aware of disempowerment, and it’s one of the things I teach about when I’m on shift [teaching residents].  In fact, next week, I’ll be drawing directly from anthropology in giving a talk as part of a panel at our Society for Academic Emergency Medicine national meetings (now online!) about teaching residents to be “structurally competent”—meaning, thinking about larger, structural issues that shape the experiences they see in particular patients. 

What’s most difficult is to figure out how to get beyond the clinical domain and affect pathologies upstream, closer to their source.  It helps one understand why Paul Farmer long ago advocated for large-scale wealth transfers between north and south, and why we need to do the same in the U.S.  That’s actually some of what was achieved by the Affordable Care Act but then was largely undone or undercut by recent tax cuts for the wealthy.  So it’s good that these issues are front and center, but I think they could be even more so.  And it’s good that we’re thinking communally, as I said before, but the idea that we might differentially focus collective resources upon communities that are hardest hit seems to meet resistance with predictable frequency. 

AG: In Rhode Island, where I now live, there’s actually a vigorous initiative (Beat COVID-19) with just that emphasis.  Beyond the capital, the two cities hardest hit in Rhode Island are Central Falls and Pawtucket, both of which have large, immigrant communities of color (mostly from Latin America and Cape Verde).  The current rate of infection in both those cities currently surpassess that of New York City.  Nationally, these two small cities are invisible in news reports, but locally, a multidisciplinary coalition has formed that is forging creative approaches to reach these communities. The coalition includes a normally unlikely set of folks, including a local doctor, representatives from the state’s Department of Health and the two cities’ police departments, marketing specialists, local community organizers and advocates, translators, and even yours truly, as an academic critic.  I’ve been heartened to see a far more open-minded approach to reaching these communities than I would have imagined.  For example, since many residents of these neighborhoods feel more comfortable speaking either Spanish, Portuguese, or Care Verdean Kriolu, a new COVID-19 hotline in these three languages now welcomes callers, and there are now public service announcements in those three languages that are being promoted online in all sorts of social media spaces where people from these communities are likely to read them.  I’m so impressed by what I’m seeing that I’m starting to consider this local initiative a model for communities elsewhere.

Once COVID-19 starts hitting the white heartland–as now seems inevitable–because of resistance both by Republican governors and local residents to maintain social isolation procedures, and insistence to “re-open” the economy prematurely and indiscriminately–it will be interesting to see how those communities respond to the crisis suddenly invading their families.  As a physician, I imagine you must feel quite frustrated by those conditions.

BW: Just look at the largely white nationalist forces that have hijacked what began as small-business protests about state efforts to enact social-distancing policies, in an effort to minimize the impact of the COVID surge. 

Photo by MEGAN JELINGER via Getty Images
A local militia group is seen at a rally to protest the stay-at-home order amid the Coronavirus pandemic in Columbus, Ohio, on April 20. For the third time that week, hundreds of protesters gathered at the Ohio State House to protest the stay home order that was in effect until May 1.
Source here.

Those folks are having trouble getting on board with just the baseline collective actions needed for public health.  Currently, so many folks in the rural parts of the country see this crisis as an urban thing.  But if we look back at the influenza pandemic of (supposedly) 1918-19–which actually lasted three years (my grandfather nearly died of it in 1921)–the initial wave hit densely populated areas, but the next waves were largely rural.  And today, if you look at rural areas, they’re as disproportionately disadvantaged as are many of the low-income, urban communities from which we’ve divested as a society.  In fact, rural America overall is actually less insured, has less access to services, and is more dependent upon government transfers of resources than is most of urban America.  So, I’d really like us to be able to see both of those kinds of communities with one gaze.

AG: That makes a lot of sense both politically and intellectually.  It will be interesting to see if white conservatives come around to that position, once they are affected.

Since you’re enjoying thinking about epistemological issues raised by COVID, I wonder what you might think of an e-mail I recently received.

A prominent medical school has decided to confer MD degrees a little early, for med students who had completed all their training and were scheduled to receive their degrees within a few months.  (The e-mail subject line read: “Emergency Powers Exercised: Approved Early Degree Conferral of 4th Year Medical School Students.”)

That will allow these brand-new medical residents to start practicing in COVID-19 hotspots and help alleviate the hospital crisis in those areas.  Seems like a great idea–this is a good time to challenge bureaucracy, right?

But I also saw an online petition on a related question that made me more nervous–to grant “registered nurse” (RN) licenses to “licensed practical nurses” (LPNs), who have quite a bit less training than registered nurses do.  That struck me as way riskier.  But perhaps I’m being too conservative.  Maybe LPNs are actually being asked to do the work of RNs in this crisis, and so they should be credentialed and salaried accordingly.  What do you think?

BW: I definitely agree with deploying fourth-year medical students early.  It strikes me as a safe move at this time in their training.

However, in areas that are not already seeing surge conditions, I think the country would be best served by deploying medical students to do case-contact tracing.

And I agree with you that granting RN licenses to LPNs is riskier.  Credentials are indicators of different kinds of training, and their significance should be maintained, though that’s the professional in me coming out and maintaining boundaries.

As with many things at the moment, one could simply and temporarily alter practice parameters for surge or crisis standards of care.

AG:  I recently read another, especially thoughtful piece in the New York Times, about when to “re-open America”—with the intentionally provocative title, “Restarting America Means People Will Die. So When Do We Do It?”  A staff writer for The New York Times Magazine moderated a panel discussion with five people with varying backgrounds (a minister, an economist, a global health specialist, a civil rights specialist, and a bioethicist).  They raised sociological issues related to those raised in the Boston Globe piece about “herd immunity”–but from broader perspectives, and more critically, I think.  Lots of food for anthropological thought here.  As a physician-anthropologist, you can, I imagine, bring special perspectives to this emerging national conversation about how we think about risk in “re-opening society.”

BW: There definitely needs to be attention to those who are at higher risk for contracting and dying from COVID-19, and to those communities whose residents don’t have a choice about going back to work.  It’s really a matter of whether people are forced to be at risk, or are allowed to be agents of their own risk and that of their loved ones.  Are we going to make re-opening businesses opt-in?  

Unfortunately, the baseline state of affairs in America is far from a level playing field.  Some people will, essentially, be forced to work so that states don’t have to pay them unemployment benefits, and small business owners will be forced to run risk so they can qualify to get loans and other state-funded stimulus funds.  Yet, somehow, there’s no national conversation questioning whether oil, airlines, and other large industries should be bailed out. 

I think we could consider restarting by focusing on the social and the scientific.  I think most of us would be doing better with all of this isolation, quarantine, and lockdown if we had a few more people to connect to.  If you look at places that are opening up, or even how we started this all, we could start clustering in smaller groups, 10 people or fewer.  Just folks who you would know were sick.  And we could get the kids back together.  Given the low likelihood of adverse effects in children, the fact that they have been much less symptomatic, but that they are also very good at transmitting disease to each other (just ask any parent of a daycare child), getting them back together would get us started with herd immunity.  Bioethicist and oncologist, Zeke (Ezekiel) Emanuel was one of the first to say that we should probably get summer camps up and running.  To me, that makes sense.  But, again, it’d have to be opt-in, both for those who run the place and those who go to camp. 

AG: Scholars and doctors aren’t the only ones talking about how to protect ourselves from this virus.  I just discovered a pretty awesome rap video about COVID-19 from Y’en a Marre, a group from Senegal (here).  Any thoughts?

BW: Y’en a Marre are a great group.  They were instrumental in mobilizing the youth vote to get Wade out of power in Senegal, so I feel like they’re always “au service du peuple et de la nation” [in the service of the people and the nation].  It’s so interesting how hip-hop and other forms of art in a smaller country, fending for its own identity and economy with a smaller media space due to the constraints of language, can be called on–if not officially (like this probably was), then culturally–to serve the body of the nation.  In this new video of theirs, I love how they’re all doing scientific activities–looking at charts, microscopes, and blood specimens–instead of just striking stereotypical poses in hazmat suits.  It’s a solid video.  I can’t imagine many hip-hip artists in the States pulling something similar off with the same tone–in Minnesota, maybe Atmosphere, but not many others in the national mediasphere.

Senegalese group, Y’en a Marre, in a new music video (singing in Wolof) advocating safety measures to protect against COVID-19
Source here

AG: You mentioned that you’ve just co-authored a short piece about COVID-19 that you’ve submitted to a medical journal.  Can you talk a bit about the orientation of that article?  Were you able to insert an anthropological perspective into an article for a medical journal?

BW: In Minnesota, we’ve just had a huge decline in visits to the emergency department and to the hospital for just about everything.  Most of the news outlets have covered it, but no one has published any numbers or more detailed reports of what’s not coming in.  I’m fine with a slowish day in the ER, but across the country, particularly in those places not seeing the surge, the changes in patient volume have had devastating effects on clinics, hospitals, and health systems that have to operate at near full capacity and with razor thin margins in normal times just to stay afloat.  So, at the same time as we have surge, we’re also seeing mass furloughing and pay cuts for nurses, doctors, and even (gasp) administrators. 

So we just pulled the numbers for before and after our great Governor Walz’s announcement of a statewide “peacetime emergency,” comparing volumes and visits to a year ago, and we found a 70% drop off in strokes, and a 50% drop off in heart attacks, but also declines in really painful things like kidney stones, too.  And, who’s not coming in?  Well, it’s the elderly, children, and those who have insurance through Medicare.  Much of this drop is likely prudence on the part of high-risk individuals, but we know there’s also some desire to not burden the health systems with non-COVID related care, as well as some fear of actually contracting coronavirus in healthcare settings. 

Similar trends have been seen in China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Europe, as well as in chronic care.  In Minnesota, the HealthPartners Institute has a chronic care surveillance group, and they saw visits drop off by 90% in three days after the statewide announcement. 

We’re interested in doing follow-up studies, monitoring for the effects of delayed or deferred care, both acute and chronic, and seeing who comes back first, and with what.

AG: That sounds like an important set of considerations I haven’t yet seen anyone talking about in the press.  Everyone is so focused on the now of the emergency, and how to extricate ourselves from it, that few I’ve seen are allowing themselves the luxury of imagining ancillary questions such as those you’ve just raised.  Again, I imagine your training in anthropology makes it easier for you to keep your eyes focused not only on the big picture, but on seemingly unrelated factors that, in the end, turn out to be deeply related.  That’s what we do in anthropology, right? 

Well, let’s end on a positive and practical note.  Last week, the team you’re leading produced a new app, “SafeDistance,” to provide up-to-date information about COVID-19 incidence in micro-neighborhoods. 

Online, the website for the new app describes it this way:

SafeDistance is a free, non-profit app and website that crowdsources symptom data to help detect, predict, and prevent the spread of COVID-19, while assuring your privacy.

·         Personalized, social distancing recommendations

·         Neighborhood-level COVID-19 risk map

·         Privacy assured – no account required, you remain anonymous

Can you talk about what sorts of social knowledge about Minnesotans factored into how you designed the app for ordinary people?

BW: The basics are maintaining privacy while collecting data of actionable utility.  So we’re focusing on anonymity–both to allay privacy concerns, and also to make it an easy tool to begin using.  Instead of identifying individuals, we’re mapping and doing analytics by neighborhood.  This approach allows both individual users, and anyone else who is interested in the data from a more sociogeographic perspective, to have some granularity to what they’re seeing. 

If you look at most of the data that’s out there, even the Johns Hopkins and Unacast or SafeGraph data, it’s mostly out there in county form, which is fine if you’re interested in the temperature of the pandemic locally, but it doesn’t tell you the weather and how much caution you should be exercising.  Right now, that’s not a huge deal, because we’re all being very cautious with our efforts to self-isolate, mask and the like.  But as we open up, and we find that our prior efforts burn out and COVID-19 flares up in different spots, we’ll probably have to dial up and dial down and differentiate our self-protective and collective efforts to deal with the virus.  As I said, the “1918” influenza pandemic actually lasted until 1921, so it’s like [epidemiologist] Mike Osterholm has said, we need tools to figure out how we’re going to live WITH this virus, since it’s unlikely that we’ll just out and out defeat it–at least, until an effective vaccine is available globally.

AG: You initially launched the app in and for Minnesota, but it’s now available for anyone across the U.S. via a user-friendly website.  Do you imagine it could have equal relevance anywhere in the country?

BW: If all the app does is give users good information and maps that convey the details of the pandemic in their neck of the woods, I’ll be satisfied. 

But the detailed neighborhood maps that will be produced in the app from new user data will soon be available nationwide.  If the data that are generated can be combined with other datasets to get us to a geospatial SEIR model that would allow us to predict more accurately when and where future outbreaks might occur, that would be a real contribution to fighting this pandemic–as well as to science more generally.  

Well, it’ll likely only be the former, but hope springs eternal.

N.B. Another version of this post appears on the website of the anthropology journal, Public Anthropologist. You can find it here.

UPDATE, June 19, 2020: Bjorn has just published a co-authored article analyzing changes in the numbers and kinds of patients arriving at ERs in one large, public Minneapolis hospital. You can request a copy here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342111120_An_analysis_of_changes_in_emergency_department_visits_after_a_state_declaration_during_the_time_of_COVID-19

What Anthropology Teaches Us about COVID-19, Part 3: A Few Thoughts about Culture, and What We Can Learn from Artists . . . and the Homeless

What is “culture”?

Early generations of anthropologists offered all sorts of definitions. No matter what their specifics, the various definitions inevitably shared one feature: “culture” is identifiable. Above all, it encompasses a set of beliefs and behaviors that, together, are premised on an enduring set of values.

Or something like that.

And, as such, culture (it was thought) offers a source of stability. It occupies broad swaths of time and space: associated with a delimited place, and occupying long patches of history. For these reasons, culture makes for a certain level of predictability in the lives of community members.

Source here.

Or does it?

Starting in the 1960s, anthropologists started questioning those assumptions. Marxists pointed out that ever since, oh, the advent of capitalism, or feudalism, or agriculture (pick your favorite starting point), “culture” has been perpetuated by the ruling class. Once the poor get fed up enough, they protest; eventually, they revolt. Then, suddenly, what passed for an enduring model of “culture” turns into a set of values to be challenged, and “culture” — or, one particular version of it — doesn’t seem so reliable or inevitable.

This “Occupy Everything” poster featured on Day 14 of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 summed up a great deal of diverse social justice perspectives that sheltered under the umbrella of the global social movement. Source here.

Around the same time, feminists began pointing out that “culture” has been perpetuated by men-in-power. Once women get fed up enough, they protest; eventually, they revolt. See above.

One can repeat similar arguments focusing on many other oppressed groups: racialized minorities, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, citizenship minorities, language minorities . . .

Nor is oppression the only reason for change. “Culture” also mutates when people from different backgrounds meet up, live near each other, work with each other, eat each other’s foods, dance with each other at street fairs, marry each other, have children with each other.

This ethnic-restaurant map of Queens, NY–an area of 109 square miles/52 square kilometers–hints at the extent to which large numbers of people from diverse cultural backgrounds (21,000 of whom live in every square mile) encounter each other daily.
Source here.

You get the point. “Culture” turns out to be way less permanent, less bounded, less intractable than early anthropologists claimed.

Unlikely neighbors enjoy dancing together at a street fair in the Mountain View section of Anchorage, Alaska — which is currently America’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood. Source here.

Not that the idea of culture is worthless. Contra some serious critics (Lila Abu-Lughod famously urged anthropologists to “write against culture“), I still find plenty of value in the notion. That’s because I see a lot of space between worthless and intractable. Culture can be malleable, adaptable, dynamic, while still remaining rooted in something. And, although the values that buttress culture can change, while they are active, they are powerful. They lie behind many (perhaps, for the privileged few, most) of our decisions.

Still, in pop culture, the current generation of anthropologists’ critiques of what culture is, and isn’t, hasn’t taken hold. Instead, in texts ranging from newspaper articles to corporations’ reports, we easily read disturbingly essentializing claims about “the Chinese” and “the French” and “the Muslims” as if all Chinese people, all French people, and all Muslims were easily interchangeable, eagerly sharing all values and forever speaking with one voice.

Or we read simplistic assertions about “corporate culture” in the halls of this or that company, as if all employees endorsed and enacted daily the corporation’s stated idealistic goals.

Along comes COVID-19.

The maddening “organism at the edge of life” (as virologist E. P. Rybicki describes viruses) that is far too dangerous to appear this beautiful

Of course, the most poignant takeaway of COVID-19 is the tragic demise of its most vulnerable targets.

But alongside the wrenching announcement of the day’s latest mortality statistics, as a cultural anthropologist, I find myself fascinated to read “culture” changing before our eyes — weekly, daily, even hourly. What we took as immutable practices grounded in deep-seated values are turning out to be far more pliable than most of us imagined.

Take the case of exercise. For the first few days of their local “lockdown,” people who got their workout in gyms despaired. How could they stay fit with health clubs closed?

Enter human ingenuity. Gyms have figured out ways to run “live” classes online. The acronym du jour — WFH for work from home — is expanded by some clubs to WFHBT: work from home better together. Buttressing that conceptual adaption is a simple technical one. Don’t have weights at home? How about using any heavy-ish household item you have lying around that you can hold? Say, pasta sauce jars, six-packs . . . or suitcases.

Coach Andrew Samuels of New York’s Mile High Run Club models creativity in suggesting the “suitcase squat.” Source here.

In such cases, people substitute one space for another. The exercise formerly done in the gym is now done in one’s living room.

But for some urbanites, studios may prove way too tiny to offer space for exercise. City-dwelling coaches are undaunted. Some suggest finding new purpose in a balcony.

Coach Marni W. of New York’s Mile High Run Club demonstrates lunges on her tiny balcony. Source here.

For fitness enthusiasts, daily habits of organizing one’s life around outings to the gym morph into organizing one’s life around coaches’ new online classes. That may entail switching work and sleep schedules to accommodate new class times. But the stable source, here, remains the commitment to “fitness,” no matter where, when, and how. That part of local culture and its underlying values remains stable.

But, for a stronger challenge to “culture,” let’s look at a different physical practice common to most of us: that of ordinary walking. For those who learn to walk competently some time in the second year of life, walking becomes a rote activity by the third year. As adults, we rarely contemplate our gait, pace, or stride. No matter where in the world we live, we have a sense of exactly how much distance we should put between us and the next person in order to avoid being judged creepy or reported as criminal. In a New York City subway, that space might be just an inch or two; in rural Sweden, it might be quite a few feet.

Whatever the interpersonal space bubble that feels “natural” to us while out in the world, we must all now confront our unconscious body awareness as we constantly re-calibrate distance. Keeping six feet from the nearest person may now require crossing the street to avoid being too close to the person approaching you on a narrow sidewalk.

Previously, such an action might have seemed, at best, rude; in some contexts, it could have been deemed racist. (As a short film by Cydney Cort called “Passing” once suggested, even speeding up while walking on the same side of the sidewalk can be motivated by racialized fear). Now, not crossing the street to avoid someone approaching you might be assessed as thoughtless, selfish, even potentially murderous.

Normally, producing such a 180-degree turn in what constitutes proper etiquette doesn’t happen overnight. Anthropologists and sociologists from Erving Goffman on have chronicled the deep-seated values that lie behind bodily practices as basic as walking styles. Those values tend to make somatic habits relatively resistant to quick or arbitrary changes.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed such practices, habitus. He spent much of his celebrated career studying how we experience and embody entrenched assumptions about the world and our place in it, and how these assumptions shape everything from architectural styles to taste in dinnerware.

But with COVID-19, much of what heretofore passed for habitus has suddenly become its evil twin. An attempt at a friendly hug might as well be a curse.

If maintaining a span of two meters from the nearest human may require doing a sort of dance down the sidewalk, suddenly, we are all turning into novice choreographers, performing an awkward solo tango across the street. What was heretofore a routine somatic movement becomes a basis for uncomfortable improvisation.

Perhaps the professional dancer, actor, and jazz musician can teach us a thing or two. All these artists learn the art of improvisation as part of their training. It may seem odd to think of improvisation as something to be learned. But improvisation is actually a discipline that students practice in dance, theater, and music classes. Ironically, it turns out that the art of improvisation is, indeed, a teachable skill, and the rest of us non-artists are suddenly being required to master it. If you’ve got an artist friend or relative, ask them for some tips.

Gwendolyn Baum is one of many dancers now offering online classes — including how to plan for a dance audition. Source here.

Artists are now designing striking face masks, teaching us to find beauty in even this new health requirement while enjoining others to do the same.

Abiquiú, NM-based artist, Suzie Fowler-Tutt, showing off her hand-sewn face mask color-coordinated with her hair adornments. Source here.

Powerful new works of art, such as this one by performance artist, Miles Greenberg, may speak to how many people feel these days — alone, awkward, defenseless, shackled.

This short but moving work of performance art by Miles Greenberg is part of a COVID-19-themed series for Document Journal. Source and video here.

But artists no longer have a monopoly on improvising new ways to cope with unprecedented challenges. Many who never considered themselves especially creative are finding themselves inventing new ways to cope with challenges and celebrate what remains noteworthy.

Neighborhoods are now organizing weekly shout-outs to thank those who risk their own health daily to care for the sick.

Every Friday night at 7 pm, residents up and down the street of this suburban neighborhood in RI stand outside their houses to clap, bellow, and bang their gratitude for local health care workers. Source here.

And those whose jobs put them daily in harm’s way are, themselves, figuring out the life-saving art of improvisation. In the U.S., thanks to an infuriating two months of inattention to the looming pandemic on the part of the Trump administration, medical professionals at risk of infection because of inadequate supplies are actually making their own masks.

In the U.S., lack of preparation for COVID-19 by the Trump administration propels hospital workers to sew masks. Unsurprisingly, this is feminized labor. Source here.

Workers in plenty of private businesses are also digging deep to find new modalities.

Distilleries that otherwise produce vodka have found a new use for excess alcohol: they are re-purposing that newly-hyper-valued substance into one of the rarest commodities of the day, sanitizing wipes.

Source with video clip here.

Inside supermarkets, managers are getting creative about indicating six-foot intervals delimiting where people should wait on the checkout line.

Meanwhile, gig-economy musicians position themselves outside those supermarkets, where they entertain customers awaiting their turn to enter at safely-spaced intervals.

With all this creativity occurring in the economy, I find all the more reason for us to take another look at the homeless.

And, no, I don’t mean because they are especially vulnerable. They are, but we already know that. We’ve known that for a long time. Too many books have been written about their vulnerability, with not nearly enough done to address it. Here, I’d like to point out something we rarely think about when we consider the situation of those who live on the streets.

By necessity, the homeless are masters of improvisation. From whatever tragedies led to their plight, they must scrounge anew for food and safe spaces daily. As if that weren’t enough, they must often manage these demanding tasks while being stigmatized, mocked, even arrested or assaulted. Although the homeless are more frequently the object of derision than admiration, their life skills in the face of almost unimaginable obstacles are extraordinary. Along with artists, they, too, could teach the rest of us some important life lessons.

As an anthropologist who researches the lives of homeless people in Leipzig, Germany, Luisa Schneider writes in a new poem:

while you wait it out at home

part of an expanding digital universe

connected to those you love

millions of us

have no doors to close behind us

or doors behind which

violence waits

or loneliness

or emptiness

or fear

(Source here.)

Even as many in the middle class (and beyond) are now coming to appreciate for the first time the low-paid workers who (often, invisibly) make their privileged world work — producing payroll checks, bagging groceries, cooking restaurant meals, packing and delivering packages, cleaning houses, teaching children — the one group that remains invisible for their life skills is the homeless. When this COVID-19 state of emergency finally passes, might this moment of global reflection produce new policies of compassion for helping the homeless to find new living quarters, while also helping them adapt their formidable survival skills to new careers?

What levels of grit and ingenuity are required to amass and transport daily this collection of necessary life goods as an impoverished, homeless urban nomad across the streets of NYC? Source here.

*

At the biomedical level, the most urgent lesson of this COVID-19 moment, of course, remains: isolate, isolate, isolate. For understanding the epidemiological challenges of this infectious disease emergency, we can turn to readable digests and thoughtful analyses of the week’s scientific COVID-19 findings such as this one, by the brilliant infectious disease specialist, Dr. Bill Rodriguez.

But that biomedical level has its counterpart in sociological factors — inevitably, given that humans are, above all, a social species.

The new catch-phrase guiding our lives is “social distancing.” For some, the required new habits of isolation are causing great loneliness and worse. For others, the phrase couldn’t be more of a misnomer, as people with access to advanced technology forge ingenious ways to stay in touch with those they hold near and dear. In the global North, Zoom is making geeks of technophobes.

I do not mean to underplay the suffering that the most vulnerable are enduring. Of course, that group includes not just the homeless but also the incarcerated and the medically compromised — the elderly, and those with the now-famous list of “underlying medical conditions” that, especially, stress the heart (diabetes, cancer, obesity, serious organ issues) as well as the lungs (asthma and respiratory conditions).

But it also includes the sociologically most vulnerable — the poor. And, in most parts of the world, that means, especially — for historical reasons having everything to do with the past half-millenium of European colonial expansion — people of color. Maps plotting those five groups — the homeless, the incarcerated, the medically vulnerable, the poor, and Black and Brown populations — are disturbingly close to isomorphic.

In a future post, I will explore these sorts of social vulnerabilities in this COVID-19 moment. Here, I want to end on a different note.

COVID-19 is forcing us to do no less than not only reinvent ourselves as individuals, but reinvent components of who we are as communities. For those who fear change but recognize the suddenly urgent need to embrace it, artists and the homeless alike offer powerful models of inspiration.

The transformations now occurring at every level of society will offer anthropologists research topics for years to come — starting with reëvaluating some unexpected benefits of what we might have formerly dismissed as fragility, and what we mean by “culture.”

Source here.

The Blueberry Wars

In elementary school, the first “robin red-breast” of spring signaled warmer days, colorful flowers, and a promise that the school year wouldn’t last forever. I considered robins my friends.

Of late, I’ve come to perceive those same songbirds as my enemies.

This year, thanks to non-stop April rains, the blueberry bushes in our back yard have burst with fruits as they’ve never done before. My husband and I have inspected the branches daily with equal doses of anticipation and dismay as their output has transformed from tiny, hard, green things, to pinkish-purple promises, to blue balls of deliciousness.

Keeping vigilant over every move toward the berries’ sweet inevitability, we’ve had to do more vigorous battle with their other major, neighborhood fans, the robins.

As a delicate bird alights on a twig, I play schoolyard bully and drive her–or, is it him?–away. (I’m embarrassed to say, I don’t know my adversary’s gender.) The robin flits across my neighbor’s yard, only to return a few minutes later.

Philip wickedly points out that some wild chirping in a nearby tree might signal a nest filled with robin babies, and who’s to say I’m not depriving babies of needed nourishment?

Three baby robins in a nest, with open mouths waiting for food.  Source: http://clarksilerfamily.blogspot.com/2016/06/born-into-family.html.

Despite usually being a sucker for all things baby, I don’t buy this bid for maternal solidarity and return to my war of words.

“Shoo! Go find your meal elsewhere!” I holler, clapping my hands firmly for extra emphasis. The call of a future blueberry clafoutis dominates my decision.

*

My Biology 101 level of understanding of evolution assures me that humans sit comfortably atop something we easily term the “food chain.”

Merriam-Webster defines “food chain” as:

an arrangement of the organisms of an ecological community according to the order of predation in which each uses the next usually lower member.

When I picture the food chain, a very human-centric model readily comes to mind. (You can tell I’m not a vegetarian.)

How can my husband and I be competing as equals with a small-brained creature so much lower on the evolutionary scale?

Maybe my human arrogance is misplaced. Given that we seem to have the same taste in fruit, who’s to say birds and humans can’t be classified as equals, at least when it comes to dessert?

Then I remember an image from some fields in West Africa where I used to hang out. Come the growing season, birds showed up en masse, excited about the feast of tiny baby corn and rice kernels suddenly enticing them. But any success they enjoyed would come at the expense of the villagers–subsistence farmers, whose food supply they were stealing.

So, farmers enlisted children from the age of three on to serve as a young army. From dawn to dusk, groups of children occupied the fields. To entertain themselves during any intermittent periods of truce, the children brought along homemade flutes, drums, and dolls. Whenever some birds showed up, the kids took a break from their play time to shoot little pebbles at the flying invaders. Their aim was impressively accurate, thanks to homemade slingshots. Deployed over the course of a couple of weeks by those youthful armed forces, that simple technology–a Y-shaped piece of wood, with strips of red rubber tied to two ends and linked by a small piece of leather, to cup the pebble–saved the year’s crops.

The Beng knew what every farmer has known since the advent of agriculture. Never mind brain size or evolutionary scales. For that matter, never mind cute images of birds as characters in children’s books. (Think, Make Way for Ducklings). A food competitor is a food competitor.

It’s true that a more “live and let live” approach to the natural world might re-orient the food chain toward a more cooperative image–say, a non-hierarchical circle, rather than a tiered pyramid.

Still, like farmers everywhere, Beng villagers don’t romanticize the quest for food. Once humans figured out how to plant seeds, everything changed. We’re not just digging roots and killing animals wherever we may find them, we’re setting out clearly demarcated territories for what we consider our food sources–and defending those boundaries not only against our human neighbors, but against other species, as well. If that means chasing away cute robins from our blueberry bushes, so be it.

In the U.S. these days, it’s common for urbanites to dismiss rural residents as less sophisticated–at best, country bumpkins; at worst, ignorant racists. But knowledge comes in many forms. From their distant perch in the rain forest of West Africa, Beng farmers–as rural as they come–have, as usual, taught me a thing or two.

Goose Lessons

What can an anthropologist (who specializes in humans) learn from an unlikely species (like a goose)?

Plenty, it turns out.

My husband and I went goose-banding the other day, thanks to my husband adventurous spirit in discovering a creative, public-outreach program organized by our coastal state’s Department of Environmental Management (“DEM”).

Knowledgeable staff from that department’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife instructed a small group of citizen-scientists how to herd geese scattered around a large pond, via a strategically managed caravel of kayaks.  

These three kayakers took one path, while two other kayakers took a different path toward geese scattered around this large pond. Eventually, all five kayaks rounded up some 70 geese and converged as a caravel. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

The geese are moulting their flight feathers right now. For a few vulnerable weeks every summer, they’re stuck in the water and can’t fly. Scientific teams takes annual advantage of this brief, flight-less period to herd them for identification. (Biologists band nearly 150,000 geese in North America each year.)

In early summer, Canada geese lose their flight feathers, revealing these blood-filled ribs bereft of feathers. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

In their temporarily terrestrial state, the birds are easily guided by kayaks that surround them to funnel the creatures ever more tightly into a compact group.

Once nudged gently to a small spot along the shore, our geese found themselves directed into a square enclosure assembled on the spot by more volunteers and staffers. 

Geese herded by kayakers on the eastern edge of Long Island (North Fork, NY) three years ago [photo source here]
Staffers and volunteers building a temporary enclosure to keep the herded geese in a small space while awaiting being banded. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

Thus corralled into a manageable space, the geese next endured the more intrepid volunteers among our group learning to wrangle them, one by one.

My husband, Philip Graham, was among the volunteers who risked getting scratched after entering the pen to catch individual geese. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

 The wrangler then gently handed her temporary prisoner off to a staff partner.

This volunteer bravely caught dozens of geese, handing each to a staffer outside the pen, to band the bird. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

The partner then sat with the goose and managed to clip an aluminum band, imprinted with a unique number, around one leg of each goose.

Staffer clamping a numbered band onto a goose’s leg. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

Then the goose endured gentle poking around under its tail feathers to have its sex identified.

Two staffers identifying a goose’s sex. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

Other volunteers (including yours truly) recorded the tag numbers, along with the bird’s age (adult/juvenile) and gender.  

I found my scholarly niche–recording data. [photo by Philip Graham]

Later that day, the scientists on the team would share the data with a federal registry office staffed by biologists–the Bird Banding Laboratory of the U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division, in Laurel, Maryland.

At some time in the future, if a hunter shoots one of those geese (or anyone encounters one of these geese anywhere), s/he should contact that lab to share the goose’s banded number. Scientists will use the data to understand more about the lifespan, habits, and vulnerabilities of the geese. Perhaps global warming-induced change might be inferred. As the lab’s website explains:

Because birds are good indicators of the health of the environment, the status and trends of bird populations are critical for identifying and understanding many ecological issues and for developing effective science, management and conservation practices.

So much for the day’s mechanics, and the long-term goals of this worthy scientific project.  

As for me, here’s what I learned from thinking about our day’s outing as an anthropologist. 

1. Geese are the subject of powerful human stereotypes.

“Mean,” “stupid,” and “herd-like” recurred as assumptions readily evoked by friends and neighbors who heard about my husband’s and my plan to go goose-banding.

A large flock of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) taking off from the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state

2. Geese are widely reviled in urban and suburban America.

From my non-scientific sample of friends and neighbors, I conclude that geese are commonly condemned for their repulsive, slippery, and pervasive droppings on lawns, outdoor running tracks, and park greens alike. Nor did my friends express admiration for their loud honking.

Goose droppings are the frequent subject of cartoons

In fact, my pals all expressed grave disappointment on learning that my husband and I declined to kill all the geese we encountered at close range.

3. Conflicting stereotypes describe humans’ attitudes toward geese.

Despite their image as dirty, loud, aggressive beasts, geese also enjoy a fleeting reputation for their graceful, “V”-shaped migrating flights. As long as they remain far overhead, humans seem willing to cut them some slack and enjoy their passing beauty.

Classic, “V”-shaped winged migration of Canada geese

4. Geese aren’t as dumb as they seem.

Inside our pens, some birds climbed on top of others, making thoughtful efforts to turn their mates into ladders and escape over the top of their pen.

Well, it’s true that they failed at these efforts. Perhaps their brains required just a few more synaptic connections to discern that they needed one more storey of goose floor to reach over the pen’s top edge.

Still, I admired some of their perseverance.

The goose on the left has perched on the backs of its buddies, trying to scramble out of the enclosure. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

5. Geese don’t just represent factory-like replicas of their species.

The birds we banded actually displayed individual personalities.

When we herded them into the pens, a few squawked mightily. Some even stuck out their tongues and hissed. Others vaguely whined. Some complied with docility. Most remained quiescent, thinking their private goose thoughts.

The goose in the foreground was among the most vociferous squawkers. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

6. Geese feel emotions.

As the kayakers approached the shore, the staffers instructed us to hide quietly behind the marsh grasses.

If the birds spotted or heard us, the staff warned us volunteers, the geese would become scared. That might stress them even more.

Several of us volunteers hid behind these tall marsh grasses lining the shore. From behind this dense green wall, our view was quite limited. Reciprocally, we remained hidden from the view of the approaching geese, to avoid scaring them any more. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

7. Age matters.

While the adults in our pens varied impressively in their behavior, the goslings collectively seemed far less variable. In fact, they all appeared vulnerable. They found themselves easily trapped under the weight of the larger, older geese. I’m sure I even noticed some of them sweating. The biologists in our group became nervous about the risk of the juveniles being crushed to death and instructed the wranglers to extract the babies first.

Thankfully, they were all rescued in time.

*

So what did I learn about humans from my day hanging out with these water fowl?

It’s true that Canada geese occupy a far lower point on the evolutionary scale than do humans.

But that’s precisely what struck me about the occupants of our temporary enclosures.

Even the (evolutionarily) lowly Canada geese are complicated, intentional, worthy of respect for individuals, and defy our essentializing stereotypes.

Shouldn’t the same apply in spades to our fellow humans?





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?

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)

 

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.

A Tale of Two (Ad) Campaigns

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

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

But . . . those images.

Dove Beauty Campaign-Diverse Women in Underwear

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

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

Dove Ad-Diverse Bottle Sizes & Shapes

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

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

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

Pirelli Tire Ad

And bottles of beer.

Woman as Michelob Beer Bottle Ad

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

Suddenly, Dove didn’t get it.

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

Dove Ad-Black Woman Becomes White

 

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

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 10.41.26 AM

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 11.06.31 AM

Or, as one ad concludes: “Own it.” 

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 11.06.02 AM

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

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

« Older Entries