We invite submissions for the APLA’s monthly column in the Anthropology News Section Notes. This includes the fields of political and legal anthropology, including nationalism, citizenship, political and legal processes, the state, civil society, colonialism and post-colonial public spheres, multiculturalism, globalism, immigration, refugees, and media politics. This 700-word column is an excellent opportunity to publish short research reports, fieldwork updates, short reflective pieces, and to announce new books.
Please also consider submitting pieces that might fit with one of AN’s theme issues:
Health, Wellbeing and Happiness, March 2012 (deadline of Jan 15)
Methods, May 2012 (deadline March 15)
- More recent examples are available via AnthroSource, which requires login
Volume 50, Issue 5 (May 2009)
Elizabeth Krause and Mona Bhan, Contributing Editors
Writing as Politics by Elizabeth L Krause (U Massachusetts-Amherst)
What does writing have to do with politics? Some years ago, when I first became active in APLA, then-president John Bowen stirred up a vision to put the political back in the association. One way to be political—to enact one’s concern with power—is through strategic writing.
Many of us are concerned with doing social science that matters. A good deal of the followthrough involves breaking free from our disciplinary shackles so as to write effectively for a broader public. Disciplines cultivate certain lingo that outsiders cannot easily grasp and result in specialized writing sapped of its soul. Says writing guru Peter Elbow, effective writing entails writing with power.
This sounds easy, but my sense is that the task of writing for a non-specialist audience is quite difficult for most anthropologists. Our training has disciplined us to problematize and critique. We are invested in seeing the nuances in political, legal and social situations. We are trained to use our toolkit of highfalutin concepts and terms. We scorn at simple analyses. We shudder at the thought of “dumbing down” our work. And why shouldn’t we? After all, we trade in intellectual capital. Boiling down our ideas can feel like aiming for the lowest common denominator.
This taken-for-granted opposition between simple and smart is ultimately self-defeating. When we write in convoluted styles, we construct disciplinary walls around our ideas and render ourselves irrelevant to political movements and discussions unfolding around us. Writing for a wider public does not have to mean simplifying one’s ideas. What is needed is clarity of purpose. A 750-word column cannot tackle the same issues as a 7,500-word academic essay. The scope must be narrowed, the purpose refined, the writing streamlined. Simple prose does not have to be simplistic. When done well, it can be eloquent and straightforward.
Anthropologists are trained in interpretation. Much of what we do is translate experiences and struggles from one context to another. We have cultivated and refined our sense of empathy. Those same skills of empathetic understanding can be drawn upon when writing for broader, unspecialized audiences. Writing with clarity can heighten the dignity and humanity of our work. It can also put us on the radar of politics and policymakers.
National Public Radio host Terry Gross once asked poet laureate Grace Paley how political activism entered her poems and stories. Paley offered this insight: “When you write, what you do is you illuminate what’s hidden, and that’s a political act.”
Truth be told, some writing illuminates what is hidden better than other writing. Some writing resonates more than other writing. A key element of powerful writing is voice. And yet as social scientists, each and every one of us has been disciplined. At one or probably numerous points along our long educational and academic journeys, we became puppets and ventriloquists, by force or through assimilation.
To rise to the rank of professional anthropologist we have had to foster an ear for the theoretical canon. When we do our fieldwork, most of us must cultivate an ear for the vernacular in whatever setting we find ourselves. Our fieldnotes reflect those voices. But all too often something happens in the process of translation and conversion. When we come home and write our dissertations, our journal articles and our books, the voices of theory end up trumping the voices of the vernacular.
Beyond the tired critique of inaccessibility, I would like to suggest that our writing strategies undermine the trustworthiness of our voice. Our rapid-fire sideward glances stir up confusion. Only the similarly trained can possibly keep up with us. For many, our professional ventriloquism raises suspicion. It distorts the resonance of our voice. Those readers whom we might persuade sense gaps in our sincerity. Our audiences shrink. Our public profile withers. Recovering voice and nurturing it in our writing, ethnographic or otherwise, is not merely a necessary literary technique but, more important, a methodological strategy for doing meaningful social science and making it matter.
Volume 50, Issue 4 (April 2009)
Elizabeth Krause and Mona Bhan, Contributing Editors
“Birth Pangs” in Palestine and Iraq by Julie Peteet (U Louisville)
My first ethnographic fieldwork was in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, site of the infamous 1982 massacre of Palestinians. As I write this column, Gaza is emerging from a brutal Israeli assault that resulted in the deaths of 1,300 people, injured around 5,000 and caused massive infrastructural damage. In the West Bank, where I work now, Israel continues a 60-year-long pattern of dispossessing the Palestinians of their land and confining them in small, bounded enclaves. As anthropologists in pursuit of greater understanding, we endeavor to embed the local in larger contexts, spatial and temporal. This is certainly an instance in which the concepts of region and history come sharply into focus. People in the region discern parallels between violent socio-spatial strategies in Palestine and Iraq. I argue that the Israeli assault on Gaza was an attempt to remove Gaza and Hamas from any future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, further fragment a future Palestinian entity, and make Gaza a humanitarian problem rather than a political one. The fragmentation, enclavization and isolation of Palestinians are compelling a turn to primordial social groups such as the clan and tribe, problematic categories at best.
Events in Gaza and the West Bank fit into a regional pattern of fragmentation, conflict, demographic upheavals and the crushing of resistance to US-Israeli domination. In the past decade, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon were sites of intense conflict. With the 2006 Israeli assault on Lebanon, then US Secretary of State Rice stated baldly: “these are the birth pangs of the new Middle East.” This vision entailed a violent re-mapping and miniaturizing of space, with serious consequences for demography, mobility and human rights. A new colonial cartography seemed to be taking shape in which dismemberment and staggering demographic upheavals figured prominently. To deliver the new region, a body of knowledge has to be drawn upon. Is a re-Orientalization process discernable? Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind is in a new printing and is read by US military personnel. Philip Salzman’s new book casts the region as essentially tribal, which correlates well with US practices of arming and funding “Sunni tribes,” thus reifying a once rather fluid social category.
Research on the Israeli practice of closure has made dramatically clear the impulse to re-territorialize space, extend Israeli sovereignty, and render the Palestinians politically impotent and spatially incarcerated. Closure includes the erection of a wall, land confiscation, checkpoints and a byzantine system of permits governing mobility, all of which are re-landscaping Palestine and confining its population to small, geographically dispersed enclaves. In Israel, there is a degree of consensus that unilateral separation from the Palestinians is vital for maintaining Jewish security and demographic supremacy. Indeed, separation has replaced “peace” as a goal in much public discourse, and closure is its physical manifestation. Closure’s goal is to remove the land from the Palestinians and reduce their numbers—to make Palestinian places into empty spaces that can then be, through Jewish settlement and the extension of sovereignty, re-populated and re-landscaped as exclusively Jewish places.
Significant areas of the West Bank are being incorporated into Israel by an eight-meter high concrete wall that snakes deep into Palestinian territory, drawing a unilateral border that includes blocks of Jewish settlements on the Israeli side, prevents a territorially contiguous Palestinian state, and separates Palestinian villages from their agricultural lands and from each other. In Israel- Palestine, space, mobility, juridical status and human rights are allocated along ethnic/national/ sectarian lines. Closure crafts spaces where a particular form of power is wielded and a vision of the ethnic, sectarian and national composition of space is enacted.
A regional perspective brings into focus the similarities of spatial practices engaged in by the Israelis and those of US forces in Iraq, particularly Baghdad. Brutal campaigns of sectarian violence following the US occupation have imposed deadly new boundaries across Baghdad. Checkpoints control movement in Baghdad and concrete walls carve out sectarian enclaves, which, along with sectarian cleansings, are transforming once mixed neighborhoods into sectarian compartments. The occupation opened Iraq’s once subterranean social fault lines; sectarian violence propelled millions of people to seek refuge abroad or in other parts of Iraq.
US policy toward the region has been consistent for the past 60 years: unfettered access to cheap oil, unconditional support for Israel, support for repressive Arab regimes and the violent crushing of resistance. In pursuit of this policy, fragmentation of the region and the break-up of states along ethnic-sectarian lines, conforming to an Orientalist imagery of the region as a mosaic of “peoples and cultures” and “tribes,” may be materializing through invasions and prolonged occupations.
Volume 50, Issue 3 (March 2009)
Elizabeth Krause and Mona Bhan, Contributing Editors
To reflect our commitment to fostering a critical anthropology of law and politics, this month’s column features the winner of the 2008 APLA Student Paper Prize, Karine Vanthuyne of Institut de recherche interdisciplinaire sur les enjeux sociaux at l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales. The full paper will appear in a forthcoming issue of PoLAR: The Political and Legal Anthropology Review.
The Pragmatics of Ethnicity in a Globally Racialized World by Karine Vanthuyne (EHESS)
The first time I met Tomás, this 36-year-old survivor of one of the 415 massacres the Guatemalan Army committed between 1981 and 1983 shared the story of his regular trips to Cancún, a Mexican tourist town where he travels to do construction work on hotel building sites. To get there, he explained, Tomás did not ride in the luxury buses “for gringos” that I traveled in every three months, in order to get my Guatemalan tourist visa renewed; instead, he traveled on those “for indígenas” because, he explained, tickets on the latter buses never cost more than 270 pesos, thanks to the absence of air-conditioning and toilets.
Tomás hastened to explain, however, that it is not the physical discomfort of traveling up to 30 hours in these conditions that is the most difficult aspect of the journey; far worse is the fear of being discovered by the Mexican authorities as an illegal migrant during one of the increasingly frequent identity checks en route. So, to avoid being arrested, Tomás not only memorized the minutiae of the forfeited Mexican birth certificate he had bought to facilitate his travels, he also studied the “ways and customs of the Chiapan peasants,” along with their “particular dialect” and an ensemble of gestures and expression “typically Southern Mexican” that he takes care to adopt once he crosses the border into Mexico.
Since the end of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict (1960–96), an increasing number of human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have joined the Mayan movement in its efforts to heal the wounds of Conquest, and the more recent “acts of genocide,” through the “Mayan re-ethnicization” of Guatemala indigenous people. Historically, Indios/Indígenas have been characterized as “traditional,” “anti-modern,” and “backward,” while Criollos (Spaniards born on the American continent), and later on Ladinos (Guatemala’s meztizos), have been defined as “Western,” “modern” and “civilized.” To challenge this racial ideology, the Mayan movement has sought to convert these differences into sources of pride, connotative of the rights of a people.
As other anthropologists’ and my own research demonstrates, Mayan activists have encountered a lot of resistance from the very indigenous peasants they seek to “desindigenizar.” During my seven months of fieldwork in Guaisná, municipio of San Mateo Ixtatán, department of Huehuetenango, I did notice moments of pride in “being indigenous,” and of identification as “being Maya.” In these moments, people like Tomás consciously appreciated and valorized those qualities that were once the object of Ladino and Criollo scorn, even speaking with pride of their ancestral customs. However, because they live in a social universe that continues to be, according to them, arranged according to a socio-racial hierarchy, the multiculturalist ideology of equality between the Criollos, Ladinos and Indígenas that the Mayan movement is promoting is fundamentally undermined in their day-today experience of (1) the severe socioeconomic inequalities that continue to mainly affect Guatemala’s indigenous people and (2) the sustained racial prejudice encountered by Indígenas.
One area where the respective identity discourses of inhabitants of Guaisná and Mayan activists’ align is in their shared vision of a flexible identity as being the key to their survival. In opposition to some Ladino intellectuals, who have long argued that the Maya have not survived the Conquest and are now extinct, Mayan intellectuals have put forward a counter-history. This counter-history stresses Guatemalan indigenous peoples’ historical capacity to adapt themselves to the Spanish- Catholic dominant order “on the surface” (through their “ladinoization” or, nowadays, through their “chiapanization”) while remaining Maya in “essence.”
What my conversations with Tomás point to, however, is that such flexibility has always been socio-racially determined. While this strategy was made necessary in the past by the need of Tomás’ ancestors to be heard by municipal authorities, today, such a flexibility is made necessary by a socioeconomic conjuncture that practically forces Guatemalan peasants to take the road for el Norte in order to survive. And en route to Mexico, the United-States or Canada, the “choice” to be identified as Mateano or Chipaneco is not theirs: the success of their “incarnation” of another ethno-national identity is rather marked by the extremely arbitrary nature of police interventions, which can change the destiny of those “borrowing” another identity in an instant. This situation in turn exposes Guatemalan indigenous migrants to more and greater dangers, since they are likely to take any and all risks in order to reach places they perceive as their only lifeboat.
Volume 50, Issue 2 (February 2009)
Elizabeth Krause and Mona Bhan, Contributing Editors
Teaching the Political in a Time of “Hope,” “Change” and “Country First” by William R Schumann (Arkansas Tech U)
Current political events, no doubt, occasionally enter into discussions in anthropology classrooms, even if only to add a little context to course readings and themes. Given the significance the US elections held last fall, however, I decided to fully integrate a semester-long analysis of the presidential campaigns into my survey course in political anthropology. It was a perfect moment to rethink the boundaries between teaching culture and teaching politics. Not only did a myriad of cultural issues shape the election process (eg, race, gender, discrimination and a defining “real” America), but so too were questions of culture integral to policy debates ranging from immigration to reproductive rights to foreign policy. The following is my account and assessment of a teaching experiment intended to bring ethnographic research into conversation with US politics.
At the start of the fall 2008 semester, I asked my students to develop term papers that analyzed candidates’ policies through discourse analysis and cross-cultural research. Writing on topics as varied as education, religion in politics, and environmental/energy/ security policy, I encouraged my students to identify the cultural meanings and associations inherent to presidential campaign rhetoric. The primary objective was not to prove or disprove what candidates said, I explained, but to observe how politicians utilize cultural knowledge to promote “logical” national interests, including the rights and obligations of membership in a US political community. I first focused students’ attention on critiquing how political speech defines the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in reference to discourses of citizenship, national identity, race, gender and class. By utilizing web-based media and speech transcripts in the classroom, for example, I brought to my students’ attention how candidates used indexical shifts (eg, “we” versus “they” versus “that one”) and historical events (eg, Senator Clinton situating her campaign in the context of the Civil Rights movement at the Democratic National Convention) to forward their claims to represent the public interest.
The second goal was to bring the elections into conversation with cross-cultural readings in political anthropology. Part of this comparison was done through writing assignments, but more importantly it was done through almost daily classroom discussions. A particularly productive example comes from a classroom analysis of Senator John McCain’s “Country First” rhetoric in reference to classic and contemporary writings on Nuer identity politics. Though acknowledging key differences between these cases, my students ably drew parallels between the essentialization of Nuer ethnicity under the circumstance of war in the Sudan and McCain’s reification of militarist American archetypes in his pursuit of the presidency. To paraphrase one student’s analysis: both strictly defined political inclusion and demanded particular beliefs and actions as a consequence of membership.
Later, I administered an anonymous questionnaire to my students (six women and five men, including two minority students) to get a sense of how the course shaped their understanding of the presidential campaign. Encouragingly, a majority reported that analyzing politics through anthropology led them to follow US politics “a lot” more than before and foreign/ international politics “a little bit” more. More informative were the written responses, which were sometimes humorous (eg, “the debates were similar to an Inuit song duel but instead of slinging actual blubber it was metaphorical mud”) and sometimes more pointed. In general, several students wrote that analyzing campaign discourse through the lens of culture revealed to them the social and economic entanglements inherent to US politics.
One of the things I learned from this process is that we must give equal care and preparation to teaching about extracurricular events as we do ethnographic materials if we are to adequately educate our students about how state power is culturally mediated. Another important lesson I took from this teaching experiment is that bringing anthropology and politics into conversation encourages a critical citizenship in students: by the semester’s midpoint, for instance, my students were actively introducing and analyzing election news in the classroom in reaction to the course readings. Even if politics does not feature as prominently in my future anthropology classes, my experience suggests that doing at least some of this work helps to drive home to students our discipline’s relevance in contemporary policy issues. Indirectly, this just may add to anthropology’s commitment to contributing to more just and equitable societies.——————————————————————————————————————————————————————–———
Copyright: American Anthropological Association