ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment

(P42)

Difference in an interconnected world

Location Quincentenary Building, Wolfson Hall A
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 09:00

Convenors

Keir Martin (University of Oslo) email
Mattia Fumanti (University of St Andrews) email
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Summary

Anthropology must avoid theorising cultural differences as if they were separate from global processes. Instead our task should be to ethnographically explore the ways in which radical differences emerge and are transformed in the context of such interconnections.

Long Abstract

In the 1960s, Mary Douglas famously warned that anthropology as a discipline faced a crisis of credibility if all it did was counter claims to general tendencies in human life with the objection that that does not apply to the 'Bongo Bongo'. Douglas' challenge to the discipline remains pertinent half a century on: pointing out differences between people and exceptions to general trends remains vitally important. But if anthropology is to make a contribution it has to be by virtue of nuancing our understanding of how difference is created within wider patterns of interconnection rather than presenting it as the result of artificially constructed images of total cultural quarantine and separation.

Our aim is to explore, through a variety of ethnographic case studies, the ways in which perceptions of radical differences between peoples can often be understood as being in large part constituted by virtue of their different positions within and experiences of global political economic relationships. Across the world, the people that we work with often share a commitment both to seeing themselves as radically culturally different from certain others, with seeing their lives as inextricably interlinked with those other peoples and with global processes. An anthropology of the 21st century, we argue, has to take seriously the task of theorising cultural differences within the context of such interconnections rather than juxtaposing radical differences and awareness of interconnection as if an acknowledgment of one precluded an acknowledgment of the other.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

'Oriental despot syndrome' and other imagined illnesses of the Iranian diaspora's body politic: exploring the reductive narratives of Iranian diaspora activism

Author: Pardis Shafafi  email

Summary

If the 1979 Islamic revolution was a test of the totality of modernism, and the reversibility of modernity as we know it, what do academics and intellectuals consider to be the 'innate' cultural traits that facilitated it?

Long Abstract

If the 1979 Islamic revolution was a test of the totality of modernism, and the reversibility of modernity as we know it, what do academics and intellectuals consider to be the 'innate' cultural traits that facilitated it? Far from holding Iran up as a socio-political enigma which defied (and continues to defy) Western conventions, or even as a exception to the rule of civil society triggered transitions, this paper will demystify the processes behind the the novel exemplar. Using research amongst diaspora activists and movements abroad the paper investigates trope narratives about political activism amongst Iranians in diaspora- incorporating the same revolutionaries who galvanised the current conditions into existence in 1979- and seeks to provide some insight into what is really ailing the Iranian Diaspora body politic. Moving away from the predominant idea that Iranians are simply culturally undemocratic and favour strong dictatorial hierarchies, more complex ideas about revolutionary fractionism, post-traumatic political engagement and specific class and ethnic experiences of revolution will be polemicised.

Inventing the rules: moral agency amongst the first Papua New Guinean generation

Author: Karen Sykes (University of Manchester)  email

Summary

This paper explores the experiences of the first generation of Papua New Guineans born after independence in 1975, who attended secondary school during the period of structural adjustment programs of the 1990s, and grew up with expectations to fill jobs and carry adult responsibilities after graduation.

Long Abstract

If political maturity comes with the awareness that it is possible to 'break the rules' in order to realize the value of a specific form of association (as Zizek says is the case during these last days of Western capitalism); then for many years adulthood was the normal moral condition for Melanesians of all ages. When national Independence brought the possibility of following the rules, and thereby entering a condition of political immaturity, then adulthood became a problem. This paper explores the experiences of that first generation of Papua New Guineans born after independence in 1975, who attended secondary school during the period of structural adjustment programs of the 1990s, and grew up with expectations to fill jobs and carry adult responsibilities only after graduation. Their accounts of how their prospects have been thwarted not only index two decades of economic turbulence in PNG but also demonstrate how adulthood became a complex stage of life in which jobs are not forthcoming, and life with village kin is filled with everyday dilemmas of mixed obligations. Following Gell (1998) (rather than Zizek), I analyze the instances of moral agency of the members of the current generation of Papua New Guineans, as they meet adult obligations, and thereby 'invent the rules', rather than 'follow' or 'break' them. I conclude, even where education promises Enlightenment and access to international life styles, neither state nor markets ultimately constrain Melanesian knowledge practices to description by any one domain or power.

Protest and radical cultural difference

Author: Alex Flynn (Durham University)  email

Summary

Through an ethnographic case study of protest in Brazil, this paper seeks to explore how we can productively theorise cultural differences within the context of interconnections created by global political economic relationships.

Long Abstract

This paper suggests that productive dimensions of protest are premised upon the actions, thoughts, and creativity of actors who see themselves as radically culturally different from certain others, but also recognize that their lives are inextricably interlinked with those other peoples and with wider global processes.

Developed through an ethnographic case study in Brazil, the paper explores how understandings of protest can be expressed in ways which reflect how cultural difference is perceived; within wider patterns of interconnection or as the result of artificially constructed images of total cultural quarantine and separation. One approach can hold core values of the protest as unchangeable and can seek to create perceptions of radical cultural difference between those who 'believe' and those who don't. Another approach can rely more upon constructing partnerships and relationships with those outside protest circles, seeking to include any imagined other in the discourse of change. The paper argues that ideology and difference remain at the heart of notions of protest and yet are opposed in a wider politics of inclusion.

An analysis of the concept of solidarity: exploring interconnections between difference, sameness and imagination in political practices in Greece

Author: Yannis Kallianos (CRESC)  email

Summary

The paper will attempt to trace the socio-political codifications that produce the context in which the concept of solidarity is being mobilized at times of ‘crisis’ in order to consider its significance in an era of continuous social and cultural change in local, national and supranational level.

Long Abstract

The continuous social changes that have been taking place in Greece in the context of 'crisis' worked as a catalyst for the re-evaluation of the concept of solidarity in the public sphere and its re-considerations as a political practice. This paper will attempt to trace these transformations and re-codifications of the notion of solidarity as these play out in various forms of political practice. In the process of this endeavour the paper would explore in which way interconnections between difference, sameness and imagination drive and inform these practices. If in the core of the concept of solidarity is the effort to make visible shared experiences, values and ideas, then, to what extent can difference help contextualize these in an interconnected world? Also, considering that solidarity plays an important role in the way people position in the social field and imagine society either by re-affirming identities or challenging established values what kind of practices does it mobilize or make inert? This paper would engage with these questions both ethnographically and theoretically in order to analyse how these different elements come together to inform political practices.

Two peoples sharing one destiny? The creation of difference among Lebanese and Syrian border residents

Author: Michelle Obeid (University of Manchester)  email

Summary

The paper asks why and how do conceptions of difference emerge among friendly neighbours. Focusing on the Lebanese/Syrian border, the paper analyses how Lebanese residents have come to define Syrians as ‘culturally different’ in relation to recent political shifts in the region.

Long Abstract

The paper asks why and how do conceptions of difference emerge among friendly neighbours. The long-standing slogan 'two peoples sharing one destiny' referring to the connectedness of the Lebanese and the Syrian peoples, and coined by previous Syrian President Hafez Al-Asad, ironically rings true today. While the slogan was deployed to justify Syrian intervention in Lebanon, this rhetorical imposition was met with cynicism by a variety of political groups opposing Syrian politics in the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991). The paper focuses on the northeast of Lebanon where relations between residents across both sides of the border has had a different character than the remaining parts of Lebanon due to the porous nature of the border and the socio-economic relations and ties developed historically.

While until recently everyday Lebanese sociality at the border has incorporated Syrian residents. But the displacement of masses of Syrian persons to the Lebanese side as a result of the civil unrest has altered these relationships. The paper analyses how the Lebanese residents have come to define the Syrians as 'culturally different' and argues that the recent conceptions of 'difference' can only be understood in their interconnectedness to transnational and global processes that include politics between the two states, the relationship of the border to the Syrian regime, the national tensions and polarisations within the Lebanese state and the international handling of refugee movements.

The dialectics between ethnic and religious frontiers: the case of Romanian Roma in Liège, Belgium

Author: Stefan Daniel Lipan (University of Liège)  email

Summary

Through this paper I'm trying to bring a clearer picture to the way religion intervenes in the ongoing process of ethnic identification, by analyzing how the Pentecostal religion influences the ethnic identity of a group of Romanian Roma located in the city of Liège, Belgium.

Long Abstract

This paper focuses on the complex entanglement between ethnic and religious frontiers. The analysed ethnographic case touches the notion of Pentecostalism - seen as a transnational meta-culture, the most astonishing of religious movements, with more than 500 million worshipers outside the West and with 9 million new 'converted' each year; but also the Roma ethnic group that has experienced, if we might go so far to say, a cultural revolution through massive conversions to neo-protestant religions. For these reasons, I have tried to concentrate my fieldwork and my analysis on these particular shifts by investigating the ordinary and every day experiences, by focusing on self-representations and including non-Gypsies into the study. Thus I have shown how elements like: history, tradition, origins; presence/lack of ethnic political participation; conflict; re-birth; ways of ascribing and auto-ascribing ethnicity - all enter the dialects between the ethnic and religious aspect where they are reinterpreted, re-appropriated and re-employed.

Cultural collaboration in Shetland: coping with and transcending urban-rural radical differences

Author: Rodrigo Ferrari-Nunes (University of Aberdeen)  email

Summary

How do sociomusical experiences afford transcending barriers based on perceptions of ‘radical’ differences? I compare my experiences in two Shetland based projects, ‘Ignition’ and ‘Back from Beyond,’ to explore how urban attitudes about rural communities shape perceptions of cultural difference.

Long Abstract

This paper analyzes audiovisual materials from fieldwork in the Shetland Isles, northern Scotland, where I became an active participant in the local music scene. I focus on research participants' experiences with two large collaborative sociomusical projects that took place in 2013 - 'Ignition,' a production led by the National Theatre of Scotland, and 'Back from Beyond,' a project led by two socially aware and involved local women. I played electric guitar for 'Ignition' and produced two music videos for 'Back from Beyond.' 'Back from Beyond' managed to generate relationships between a sense of place and art by affording collaborations between filmmakers and music-makers inspired by local landscapes. The more 'professionalized 'Ignition' production was perceived as culturally and economically exploitative by locals, especially musicians. 'Ignition' transformed almost beyond recognition a local proposal for a theatre project about road safety conceived after the death of a young Shetland actor in a motor accident. 'Back from Beyond' was purposefully conceived in contrast with 'Ignition,' which housed its professional staff on expensive flats, with salaries while expecting locals to contribute massive amounts of time for no pay. 'Back from Beyond' promoted a number of local musical acts, generated original music videos, audio recordings and dialect poetry, showcased the talents of people with disabilities, compensated production technicians, put up a major concert celebration that compelled more people to create more art inspired by landscapes, and commissioned locally a website where content can be shared and showcased, and where places and artists are credited and celebrated.

Making a difference? Analysing Ni-Vanuatu participation in New Zealand's seasonal migration programme

Author: Rachel E. Smith (University of Manchester)  email

Summary

Integrating ethnographic insights into Ni-Vanuatu participation in New Zealand’s seasonal work scheme, I will argue an analytical approach that comprises complex interconnections and differences can contribute to anthropological theory and political philosophical debates on migration and justice.

Long Abstract

Melanesian ideas and practices have often been typified in anthropological analysis as wholly different from those in the West, turning on almost antithetical exchange practices and notions of power. Even the concept of the Melanesian person has been characterized in radical contrast with Western individualism presupposed in post-Enlightenment political ideas such as liberal democracy, human rights, nationhood and citizenship, and the free market. These ideals have informed migration policies and development paradigms, and the political philosophical debates on whether they are just or unjust.

Drawing on my ethnographic research with a ni-Vanuatu community participating in in New Zealand's seasonal migration scheme, I will argue that understanding such processes demands an analytical framework that admits of the complex interconnections between global capital, migration and remittance flows, as well as social relations and transactions within and between local communities. Furthermore, such an approach must recognise the differences and inequalities that result from, sustain, and may be used to justify international political policies and economic processes, at inter-governmental, organisational, and interpersonal levels. How are arguments based on nationality and economic inequality used to legitimise political exclusions and employment restrictions? By what (or whose) standards can we adjudge fair exchange or distributive justice between nation states, and between employers and employees? And what of the resulting economic differentiation and inequalities emerging within and between communities? I will discuss how ethnographic insights into ni-Vanuatu perspectives and experiences of seasonal work can contribute to anthropological theoretical frameworks and political philosophical debates on migration and justice.

Tolai cultural perspectives and global economic relations as differentiated unity

Author: Keir Martin (University of Oslo)  email

Summary

This paper explores how Tolai perspectives on their position with the world economy reveal neither an absolute radical separation from nor an absolute identification with its supposed values, but instead a differentiated unity in which moments of identity and contradiction come in and out of being.

Long Abstract

Tolai people in Papua New Guinea's East New Britain Province often propose seemingly contradictory opinions about their culture and its relation to Western culture. On the one hand their culture is sometimes presented as radically different from that of Westerners and guided by an underlying ethic of reciprocity as opposed to the alleged self-interested value system that underpins Western culture. On the other hand they often argue that their culture has been 'Westernised' either totally or to a significant degree. Rather than one perspective or the other being dominant or closer to an underlying truth, it is the interplay between these two perspectives and the reasons why different perspectives are asserted in different contexts that is key to understanding the changing nature of contemporary Tolai sociality. An ongoing contest over the limits of reciprocal obligation is expressed in terms of concerns over the resilience of Tolai culture and the transformative power of Westernisation. And Tolai themselves constantly discuss the ways in which their position within a global political economic system helps to shape the ways in which that ongoing contest plays out in East New Britain. Exploring debates over customary ritual and land tenure practices, this paper explores the ways in which Tolai perspectives on their position with the world economy reveal neither an absolute radical separation from nor an absolute identification with its supposed values, but instead a form of differentiated unity in which moments of identity and contradiction come in and out of being depending upon particular contexts.

"Taramo, where winning is easy": work and self in Namibia's fortunational capitalism

Author: Mattia Fumanti (University of St Andrews)  email

Summary

Recent debates on Africans’ engagement with and understanding of neo-liberal capitalism stress their radical difference from those in the West. Instead this paper by stressing both interconnection and difference aims to explore emergent ideas of work and self in Namibia’s fortunational capitalism.

Long Abstract

The much rehearsed concepts of 'occult economy' and 'millennial capitalism' have characterized Africans' experiences and practices of neoliberalism as radically different from those in the West. In response to this characterization I want to argue instead for an understanding of Africans' engagement with neoliberal capitalism as neither radically different nor totally encompassing. Here I privilege an analysis that focuses on the complex articulation of difference in an interconnected world via an exploration of the relationship between fortune and capitalism, and between work and self. In particular I am interested in the ways in which the emergent emphasis on contingency and play, fate and luck in neoliberal discourses and practices, contribute to the (re)-making of ideas of work and self, and their relationship, in Africa, and elsewhere. My ethnographic evidence comes from fieldwork conducted amongst young people living in Windhoek, Namibia's capital. Ambitious and enterprising these youth have transformed their knowledge of IT and the media into an online and TV competition called Taramo Live. In the course of this paper I will reveal how this youth in responding to the emergence and consolidation of 'Fortunational Capitalism' (Festa 2007) in Namibia articulate ideas of work and self through the constant creation, performance and imagination of their own biographies. In exploring work and self within emerging idioms of fortune my argument aims to bring the fore a more nuanced understanding of African's engagement with neoliberal capitalism in the context of rapid socio-economic transformations.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.