EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution

(P049)

Small places, large issues: thinking through anthropological conundrums

Location M-218
Date and Start Time 01 August, 2014 at 09:00

Convenors

Vered Amit (Concordia University) email
Christina Garsten (Stockholm University) email
Thomas Hylland Eriksen (University of Oslo) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

The mandate of Small Places, Large Issues raises a complex set of epistemological and methodological problems that remain at the heart of the history of anthropology as a discipline and mode of inquiry. We invite contributors to address these conundrums in relationship to their own research.

Long Abstract

In his introduction to anthropology, Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2010:2) characterizes anthropology as a discipline that asks large questions while drawing its most important insights from small places. Eriksen goes on to illustrate the complex entailments of this seemingly simple depiction, in terms of the debates that have, over time, challenged and transformed anthropological concepts and practices. What does 'place' mean within the context of the enormous range of settings in which anthropologists currently conduct research? Is attention to 'small places' always a worthwhile research strategy, or may some 'large issues' require alternative approaches? Is the tension between the universal and particular still a productive stimulus for contemporary anthropological interrogations? Is anthropology still fundamentally comparative? What are the epistemological challenges entailed in comparison? In an age of para, multi-sited and mediated forms of ethnography or ontological turns, is anthropology still a discipline grounded in long term empirical fieldwork? From what other sources of data might or should anthropologists draw? If 'our job' 'must be to make the world more complex rather than simplifying it' (Eriksen, 2010: 329), how do we make anthropology accessible to a larger public?

In short, the mandate of 'small places, large issues', through which many students are first introduced to anthropology, raises a complex set of epistemological and methodological problems that remain at the heart of the history of anthropology as a discipline and mode of inquiry. In this session, we invite contributors to address aspects of these conundrums in relationship to their own research.

Discussant: Jon Mitchell (Sussex University)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Willing and able? Small places and large issues in anthropology

Author: James G Carrier (Max Planck Institute)  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers changes over the past few decades in anthropological orientations and the institutional nature of the discipline and its knowledge. It considers whether these make it more or less likely that we will continue to address those large issues in the study of small places.

Long Abstract

The description of this panel says that the study of small places as a way to address large issues 'raises a complex set of methodological problems that remain at the heart of the discipline'. If we wish to continue to address large issues through the study of small places, then it might be worth expanding our concern beyond those methodological issues. This paper does so primarily by considering changes in the discipline over the past few decades that appear to have affected the likelihood that anthropologists will seek to, and be equipped to, address large issues in their study of small places. Some of these changes relate to views about what anthropological research is for, which is to say the purposes for which anthropological knowledge is produced and accumulated. Other of the changes relate to the ways that anthropological knowledge is organised and institutionalised in higher education. The paper argues that, taken together, these changes reduce the likelihood that anthropologists will want to use the study of small places to address large issues, and reduce the likelihood that they will routinely be equipped to do so.

Spatial and temporal transformations of fieldwork practices

Author: Birgit Bräuchler (Monash University)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic research in diverse localities the paper addresses transitions in the conceptualization of space and time as well as the conduct of ethnographic fieldwork and thus aims to think through one of anthropology's main conundrums.

Long Abstract

The paper addresses transitions in the conceptualization of space and the conduct of ethnographic fieldwork and aims to think through one of anthropology's main conundrums, fieldwork. It shows how transforming notions of space and time can grasp the dynamic relationship between 'small places' and 'large issues' such as indigenous peoples' rights, the increasing importance of new media in both conflict and everyday life, and peace research. It does so by drawing on research I conducted over the last one and a half decades. In the Philippines, I looked at changing resource use among hunters and gatherers; in cyberspace, the societal space constituted by the Internet, I tracked how a local conflict was mediatized and globalized; and in my most recent long-term project, I investigated the still ongoing peace process in the Moluccan Islands, Eastern Indonesia. The respective research interest had major impact on the spatial and temporal set-up of the respective fieldwork, from classical participant observation in one specific locality, to the conduct of fieldwork in a space constituted and imagined through new media, to something I coined Moluccan peace scape that needed to be explored though multi-sited and multi-temporal field research. In this paper, I elaborate on the interplay between planned action and serendipity and how methodology and the respective fields (and its borders) were negotiated in each case in spatial as well as temporal terms and in response to the initial research interest, evolving and transforming research questions and a changing research subject.

Reflections from the polling booth: the temporality of research in small places

Authors: Steffen Dalsgaard (IT University of Copenhagen)  email
Christopher Gad (IT-University of Copenhagen)  email

Short Abstract

With a starting point in a very small place (a polling booth) as a site for ethnographic research, this paper will debate the problematisation of spatial but also temporal scales in the making of one’s ‘field’.

Long Abstract

The conundrums of ethnographic research set forth in Small Places, Large Issues remain important to this day, even if they have been challenged or are in need of reconceptualisation after the popularity of multi-sited ethnography and the proliferation of ethnographic methodology to multiple other disciplines. It is thus not only the spatial demarcation of the (small) field, which is at stake, but also the attention devoted to it over (long) time, which was as much a hallmark of the classic anthropological fieldwork. This paper builds on recent writings that debate how attention to 'temporality' and 'contemporaneity' has become equally problematised as anchoring for ethnographic coherence in the face of new (time) demands on field research. Empirically the paper takes as its starting point how a very small place - the polling booth in a Danish election - works as a technology for temporary and momentary constructions of state-citizen relationships, and how these relationships are contested when faced with modernist imaginaries of digital voting technologies. The polling place thus potentially works as an entry point for shifts in ethnographic scale into important contemporary debates in a democratic society, but it only does so if giving due attention to both time and space as ethnographic sites.

'Why don't you interview him?' Reflections on why seemingly highly relevant life-stories are only significant to a degree in research on the East German past

Author: Anselma Gallinat (Newcastle University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will explore more or less ‘relevant’ life-stories in research on the East German past. A narrative exploration will consider differences between the narratives of informants who saw themselves highly relevant to the project and those who were less certain about their significance.

Long Abstract

In this paper I want to reflect on the contributions of -seemingly- relevant and irrelevant life-stories to a research project on questions of how the socialist past is constructed in eastern Germany today. The government-sponsored discourse of Aufarbeitung, re-working the past, is based in the notion that the GDR was a dictatorship, which is seen as the only morally and historically correct view. Yet, this is not uncontentious and has led to significant debates in public discourse about the character of the past state and society. Working within this realm of institutions engaged in re-working, some of them government-offices, others memorial-museums, it was soon apparent however that directors had clear pre-conceptions of their significance in relation to the research project. At the same time other, clerical staff or informants in other realms such as journalists, often considered themselves irrelevant to the project, because they lacked those 'significant' experiences of GDR-time victimhood or civil rights engagement.

Using a narrative approach this paper will explore what these different life-stories contributed to the research question. It will argue that narrators with a strong sense of relevance came to tell coherent, linear and morally certain narratives - they told particular kinds of stories about the large issue of the dictatorial regime. Life-stories told by those with less sense of their relevance to the project, their 'small' biographies, because they were less pre-considered, were more revealing with regard to complex issues that continue to pose challenges for individuals, researchers and society at large.

Principles of global ethnography: a Malagasy feedback on capitalist globalization

Author: Laurent Berger (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)  email

Short Abstract

This paper presents the ins and outs of the establishment of an aquaculture farm promoted by the Gujarati diaspora and the World Bank at the heart of a Malagasy kingship. It puts forward theoretical and methodological tools to describe and analyze capitalist globalization on the ground level.

Long Abstract

This papers deals with the contribution of anthropology to the global turn in social sciences. On the basis of a Malagasy case-study, it highlights the theoretical and methodological tools which can be used to define, describe and analyze capitalist globalization. First, it focuses on the main adjustments of participant observation to global ethnography (case-extended method, multi-sited ethnography, collective survey, ethno-historiography/archaeology). Second, its puts forward the common issue in social sciences dealing with globalization (how to analyze the rhythms and modalities of structural changes associated with the growth and transfers of wealth, knowledge and populations). Third, it tackles the three main problems to resolve (demarcating the field - which practices, which sites, which populations-, extending participant observation through durations and games of scale, comparing the diversity of case studies). This triple development is illustrated through the way I had to sketch the articulation of factual episodes of the negotiation between the Gujarati diaspora, the Malagasy State, the World Bank and the Antankarana sacred Kingship to implement a shrimp aquaculture project, with the structural time of the social reproduction of this Antankarana polity, as well as the successive cyclical times of the slave trade, the Merina imperialism, the French colonization, the postcolonial independence and the end of the cold War marked by the economic and political liberalization of the Malagasy island.

Drug war zones in Mexico: small places, large issues in a complex social field

Author: Sylvia Karl (Philipps-University of Marburg)  email

Short Abstract

Which insights can anthropology provide to a broader understanding of “Drug Wars”? Drawing on the concept of “Drug War Zones” I will argue that these fields are small places that raise large issues about power, violence, il/legality, transnationality and cultural production.

Long Abstract

Within just a few years, large parts of the Mexican territory have become immersed in a "Drug War". Images and discourses of violent drug cartels and military and police forces fighting each other are circulating on the global media. But what lies behind such media images and what insights can anthropology contribute to a wider understanding of conflicts such as "Drug Wars"? Drawing on the anthropological concept of "Drug War Zone" (Campbell 2009) that describes complex social fields where different actors fight for places, power, people and the meaning of drugs and violence, I want to elucidate larger issues that emerge from these seemingly small places. How are legal and illegal spheres and agents intertwined from local to transnational levels? How do narcos (drug dealers) become a "cultural persona" (Edberg 2004) who construct themselves and are constructed in marginalized sectors as "social rebels"? How do language and communication change when new and dehumanizing phenomena of violence become visible? What kind of new social realities evolve when narcos, resistance movements, victims' groups and government agents share one contested place? What kind of cultural productions arise - ranging from music, films, new saints and a mode of living known as narco cultura - that form new spaces of identification? And how are issues of poscoloniality, hegemony and gender related to "Drug Wars"? Furthermore, the contribution wants to discuss how anthropological research in Drug War Zones calls for specific methodological approaches that can cope with a complex field of actors and risks, violence, mistrust, silences and invisibilities.

What can two small places say about large issues concerning the working class?

Author: Eeva Keskula (Tallinn University)  email

Short Abstract

Based on fieldwork among miners in Estonia and Kazakhstan, this paper aims to understand the benefits and problems of comparative anthropology, understood as doing fieldwork in two small places while addressing larger issues of the working class.

Long Abstract

This paper aims to understand the value of comparative projects in anthropology. The comparative aspect of usually means that comparing our case with others, or with abstract, general concepts. Doing fieldwork among mining communities in Estonia and Kazakhstan, I explore what two small places can tell about larger issues and whether working in two post-Soviet sites allows larger generalisations and better analysis than working in one place. A tension between universalism and particularism emerges when trying to understand what mining communities share globally as well as the differences stemming from contexts. Working within the framework of the legacy of Soviet industry, there are many similar structures in Estonia in Kazakhstan. But why compare a nationally owned mine in Eastern Europe to a private, global one in Central Asia? Considering the differences between the circumstances, what is the benefit of that disjunctive comparison? Furthermore, is it fair to apply the Euro-American perspective of industrial development to Central Asia and apply Western concepts such class to either of the cases? Doing fieldwork 'at home' in Estonia and in a 'foreign' place in Kazakhstan also have implications for the nature of fieldwork and comparison. Is it acceptable to use dualisms such as 'East' and 'West' when discussing the two geographical locations and what kind of ideas might this lead to? The paper draws on the ideas of comparative anthropology based on Lazar, Strathern, Dumont, Eriksen.

Disjunction: caravans and the complexities of connections

Author: Hege Leivestad (Stockholm University)  email

Short Abstract

Ethnographically exploring the caravan through issues of mobility, home and consumption, this paper examines the term disjunction and discusses the role of (dis)connection-making as part of anthropology’s comparative ambition.

Long Abstract

Over the past decade, anthropologists have shown an increasing interest in critically questioning the discipline's comparative endeavour, including how the issue of context has been taken for granted as part of anthropology's epistemological project (Gingrich and Fox 2002). Through an examination of the term disjunction, this paper engages with the issues of comparison and context, and, more specifically, with how we make connections and disconnections as an essential part of anthropological knowledge production. Drawing upon research on European caravanning, the paper ethnographically illuminates the complexities of connection-making in a field where the starting point is a hybrid material object; a home on wheels and the various ways people use, dwell in, and relate to it. The caravan and the practice of caravanning, I show, presents the anthropologist with a range of interrelated issues and problems concerning home, (im)mobility and consumption. By unpacking the caravan in light of methodological strategies commonly employed in studies of material culture such as commodity chains and circular approaches, I discuss how our expectations to make connections permeates ways of conducting anthropological research in fields where "place is no longer given". If, as Hylland Eriksen (2010) argues, the most important anthropological legacy is to make the world more complex, can a concept of disjunction be just as analytically challenging when critically examining the way we construct (dis) connections between places, objects and human beings?

Sport and the claiming of individuality: finding oneself in the crowd

Author: Noel Dyck (Simon Fraser University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers sport as a paradoxical means for claiming individuality. The ‘large issues’ this opens up can, I argue, best be illuminated by studies of the ‘small places’—individual lives, particular activities, specific arenas, and networks of activities—which anthropologists explore.

Long Abstract

Sport and individuality have long tended to be relegated beyond the pale of 'legitimate' anthropological concern, but the logic of this arrangement is being undermined by ethnographic undertakings within these two distinctive fields of inquiry. Building on the achievements registered in each, this paper considers sport as a popular but paradoxical means for claiming individuality. On the one hand, sport entails distinctive forms of embodied participation in specific types of localized activities. These may be taken up in order to draw attention to the particular careers and distinctively personal accomplishments of individuals as athletes, coaches, or spectators. On the other, it increasingly features the globalization and mediation of commodified sport events promoted and consumed across space and time. In view of this, what forms of individuality can sport nurture, and how might these in turn shape sporting practices? 'Large issues' such as these, the paper argues, can be powerfully illuminated by studies of the 'small places'—individual lives, particular activities, specific arenas, and networks of activities—within which anthropologists are interrogating sport and individuality.

Globalization's sole

Author: Caroline Knowles (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

Following the micro-scenes constituted along the trail forged by a pair of flip-flop sandals from Kuwaiti oil fields to a rubbish dump in Addis Ababa, this paper ponders alternative versions of globalization from those with which we are familiar.

Long Abstract

This paper explores globalization from some of the more offbeat the small places in which it is constituted. It is based on an empirical study which follows the trail drawn by a pair of plastic flip-flop sandals from the oil fields of Kuwait and the spine of hydrocarbon economies, to petrochemical factories in Korea making plastic granules, to the Chinese factories in which they are manufactured, and on to their most important emerging market, in urban Ethiopia, from where they find their way to the city's landfill site. Along this insignificant back-road, which threads through the small places in which lives are lived, we glimpse another version of globalization from the one commonly proffered by globalization theorists. These small locales along the trail disrupt, and reconfigure from inside the logics of travel on the journeys of everyday life, what globalization might be. Globalization from this vantage point is more precarious, fragile, shifting and micro-context contingent that it at first appears.

Legal mobilisation, legal scepticism and the politics of public sector unions in Botswana

Author: Pnina Werbner (Keele University)  email

Short Abstract

My paper addresses the debate about the effectiveness of the law and of court judgements in the face of brute politics. I argue that sceptical legal anthropologists have failed to recognise that court trials are part of a wider social mobilisation and campaigns for social justice

Long Abstract

My paper, drawn from my book The Making of an African Working Class (Pluto Press 2014), addresses the debate about the effectiveness of the law and of court judgements in the face of brute politics. Botswana is a small country, but it raises issues of wider significance for legal and political anthropology. I argue that sceptical legal anthropologists have failed to recognise that court trials are part of a wider social mobilisation and campaigns for social justice (on the USA seeMcCann 1994; Snarr 2011). Legal mobilisation during the public sector strike in Botswana in 2011 was, the paper argues, only one strategic part of a more comprehensive campaign to call on government to pay its workers a living wage. The paper calls for anthropology to re-examine some of its assumptions about the role of the law in postcolonial nations. Despite the possibility that judges may be biased or vulnerable to political influence, and despite the courts' restricted ability to implement their judgements - it is nevertheless the case that ethics, morality and the law, when mobilised alongside concerted political and civic activism, play a critical role in advancing the cause of citizens' rights against an apparently all-powerful government.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.