EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution


Innovation and continuity in times of uncertainty: bridging perspectives on economic life

Location M-134
Date and Start Time 01 August, 2014 at 09:00


Niko Besnier (Universiteit van Amsterdam) email
Susana Narotzky (Universitat de Barcelona) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

Uncertainty is a ubiquitous reality that demands anthropological attention from differently situated epistemologies that pay attention to innovations and continuities, seek to link ethnographic materials to theoretical concerns, and focus on the interplay between different aspects of people's lives.

Long Abstract

The crisis that the world has experienced in the last half-decade calls for new forms of thinking about ordinary people's economic life and its engagement with social relations, cultural constructs, and political dynamics. People everywhere have had to develop new ways of coping with risk, uncertainty and precarity. Anthropologists have been addressing these issues from differently situated epistemologies and experiences. Our goal is to bring together scholars representing these different approaches and foster a dialogue across epistemologies, nations, and approaches. We are particularly concerned with problems of scale, namely the fact that the decisions of state authorities, corporations, and supra-national bodies are affecting what takes place in people's lives in the intimacy of home and communities. In response to these changes, people may foreground both continuities from the past, whether real or imagined, and innovative forms of social action. We recognize that people's economic worlds involve a great deal more than just economic transactions, and involve a broad range of human activities beyond the purely material which are constituted by different and co-existing regimes of value. We solicit papers that address these issues on the basis of ethnographic data and focus on the particular analytic categories in terms of which anthropologists situated in different epistemological traditions have sought to understand the relevant dynamics. This panel is sponsored by the American Anthropological Association's Committee on World Anthropologies.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Mirroring a world in crisis: emerging utopian/dystopian cultures of a student’s simulation in Bremen

Author: Oliver Hinkelbein (University of Bremen)  email

Short Abstract

Through the use of an innovative teaching method utopian cultures are elicited from the students. How they experience and react to their uncertain futures is mirrored in the simulations and interactions that they produce. The potential and value of this method is critically assessed.

Long Abstract

This paper, based on results of an innovative teaching project, explores emerging utopian/dystopian cultures in the mirror of a world in crisis. In lectures and seminars students study the complexities of culture and economy. A mix of theoretical and empirical work elicits the students’ “own cultures”. At the end of the semester the students meet for a whole day in a simulation game called “one world” where their “cultures” are connected in an interactive way. It is striking that the emerging cultures are “worlds” free of uncertainty, precarity and other markers of a world in crisis. My paper argues that these cultures mirror how students experience a world in crisis and how they react to their uncertain futures with dreams, fictions, utopias and dystopias. On the basis of the contents of these emerging cultures and the interactive dynamics of the simulation game I will show how this can be seen as a way to objectify experiences of uncertainty and make fears communicable. My paper argues that this simultaneously is a way to fictionalize past realities and future expectations. I will explore to which anthropological and daily life epistemologies students relate while producing “a culture”. This includes a critical and reflexive perspective on this process: what does it do for students? How does it contribute to produce a particular understanding of what anthropology studies? These questions lead to answers about the anthropologist’s position when doing anthropology and how innovative teaching methods can contribute to ways how we understand ordinary people’s economic life in a world of crisis.

Uncertain but cool: the transition from Japanese fashion education to creative work in precarious times

Author: Anneke Beerkens (University of Amsterdam)  email

Short Abstract

This paper analyses how labour precarity and Japan’s unique recruitment system affect Japanese fashion designers’ school-to-work transition. It illustrates their balancing act between being “cool creatives” and the institutional structures of the fashion school, labour market, and society at large.

Long Abstract

In most post-industrial societies, regular employment has been gradually replaced by labour precarity (insecurity, irregularity, and flexibility), which not only affects today's working-class youth, but also its middle-class counterparts. Paradoxically, work has become the principal definer of selfhood. In Japan, the increased dominance of temporary part-time jobs (arubaito) prevents young people from reproducing socio-economic structures based on the post-WWII ideals of "family and company." Many choose a career in Japan's popular culture industry, a booming field of substantial international visibility. Yet, despite its economic importance, holders of "cool" but precarious jobs have difficulties gaining recognition as productive members of society.

One future-determining period, the institutionalized transition from school to work, has become a problematic juncture for young Japanese. Japan's unique recruitment and job allocation system (shushoku katsudo), designed as a response to labour shortage during the bubble economy, doesn't match the needs of today's precarious job market. It impedes transition from arubaito to regular employment and restricts inventiveness in companies as well as personal career development.

This paper, based on ethnographic research at Japan's most prestigious fashion school, analyses the way in which Japan's "lost generation" searches for alternative life paths and a new sense of self by focusing on the transition from fashion academy to creative work. It illustrates how, in uncertain times, creative middle-class Japanese navigate between on the one hand their desire for freedom and "cool" selfhood, and on the other hand the institutional structures of the fashion school, Japan's recruitment system, and society's expectations at large.

Innovation-cum-precarity in Istanbul's garment market: new strategies and settings of uncertainty

Author: Luisa Piart (University of Berne)  email

Short Abstract

The death of Istanbul's clothing industry has been repeatedly predicted in the last decade. Small actors seem to enhance its survival at their own expense, through contingent and noxious innovations. The contribution focuses on their critical subjectivities in order to scrutinize this conundrum.

Long Abstract

The current configuration of Istanbul's clothing industry is informed by profound structural changes and important tensions. Turkey is among the world's top five garment exporters. But in spite of these economic performances and unlike other important economic sectors in Turkey, most apparel firms in Istanbul are small size, highly disintegrated and specialized. Marketing strategies that became very popular in the 1990s in international apparel retailing had indeed far-reaching consequences in Istanbul. The so-called "fast fashion" retailers -such as Topshop, Zara, H&M and Mango- abandoned the traditional two-season calendar and turned to continuous production schedules. Since the 2000s Turkish suppliers have to run up smaller batches at shorter notice. They used to turn retailers' designs into finished products and are today increasingly involved in design.

My contribution examines the innovative strategies implemented by different actors of the clothing industry in Istanbul in order to cope with this rapidly changing environment. I argue that the current settings of uncertainty force them to make decisions that both shape Istanbul's garment industry into a market and perform its stability at different scales. Nonetheless these decisions also contribute to blur the division between distribution and production, and simultaneously increase the erosion, informality and precarity of their own working conditions. Based on the ethnographic material collected in Istanbul in 2008-2009 for my dissertation, I intend to question the emergence of these critical subjectivities in Istanbul's clothing market.

Crisis, audit cultures and academia

Author: Dimitra Gefou-Madianou (Panteion University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines ethnographically the recent reforms and audit processes introduced in the Greek higher education system and analyses theoretically their impact and uncertainty brought to the universities, academics and students.

Long Abstract

The recent reforms in higher education and the audit culture introduced have had a strong impact on the public universities in Greece. The quantitative character of educational process and the production of academic knowledge in economic and market terms have raised a number of ethical, social and political issues, thus producing uncertainty. Having suffered multiple exclusions from academia as 'ethnically unhelpful' for the nation-building process, social sciences including anthropology entered a flourishing period of two decades after Greece's 1981accession to the EE and the concomitant opening up of society under successive socialist administrations. Unfortunately, that was the same time when audit culture also made its entrance into the country through the Operational Programmes for Education and Initial Professional Training. The new ideology proclaimed that knowledge had to be 'economically useful' in order to tally with market values and jobs ethics. Moreover, with the recent external evaluation introduced by the Hellenic Quality Assurance Agency in all university departments, academic knowledge became a contested terrain; a vehicle for the orientalising strategies deployed in order to promote the neoliberal restructuring in Greek universities thus promoting uncertainty. In this framework, old hierarchical categories and dichotomies are instrumentalised in order to promote public management on the universities. This, together with the economic crisis still raging in the country, reflects not only a neoliberalisation but also a neo-colonialism ideology. The paper examines ethnographically the uncertainty produced by the crisis and audit processes on the Greek universities and on the subjectivities of academics.

Manifestations of global integration and the socio-genealogical positioning of everyone under not-so-late and late modern capitalism

Author: Patrick Neveling (SOAS, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper moves towards a historical materialist ontology that captures the tensions of the definite and the infinite arising within the capitalist system.

Long Abstract

The political economy of capitalism leaves people with no choice as it is designed to incorporate any mode of production on any scale. But humans are able to sense the world they live in in infinite ways. This paper moves towards a historical materialist ontology that captures the tensions of the definite and the infinite arising within the capitalist system.

Matching my ethnographic case study, I map and analyse a middle-range temporal scale, the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Around the time that a South-Korean farmer chose to commit ritual suicide on a fence in the Mexican city Cancun that separated angry protestors and the delegations to the World Trade Organisation's summit talks on August 10th 2003, some 1,000 demonstrators marched through the Mauritian capital Port Louis relating their lives and times to the negotiations in Cancun and the effects agreements would have on the manifestations of Mauritian global integration. Letters signed by thousands of Mauritians were handed to ministries, speakers charted the achievements of social movements in Mauritius in regard to human rights (i.e. universal pension/unemployment benefits, education, right to employment) and warned about the abusive relations of communal and family structures that people have to turn to in times of hardship. The best move to capture what was said and done, I argue, is to analyse the event that the demonstration was as a conscious choice among the infinite ways of sensing the socio-genealogical position of actors and institutions in colonial and postcolonial Mauritius.

Mitigating uncertainty with trust and respect in banana-growing communities on the Dominican-Haitian border

Author: Kimberly Wynne (University of Oslo)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork among Dominican and Haitian neighbors and coworkers in the Dominican Republic, I show how a national issue of border insecurity and economic dependency is negotiated at the local level and how moralities are enacted through the everyday mitigation of mistrust.

Long Abstract

Haitians have long been migrating to the Dominican side of Hispaniola to fill the country's demand for workers in the production of agricultural exports. Though Haitian migrants and their descendants have become a significant part of the population, their presence sparks an ongoing debate as the state struggles to balance the economic need for migrant workers with the political desire to exclude Haitians from Dominican society. In this paper I show how this balancing act is negotiated at the local level among Dominicans and Haitians who rely on each other for economic gain.

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in small banana-growing communities of northwestern Dominican Republic, I explore how Dominican residents negotiate the nagging threat of residing and working among Haitian migrants whose numbers are steadily increasing. In spite of an acknowledged economic dependency, Dominican residents feel threatened by the unregulated flow of Haitians into their communities. I argue that Dominican residents cope with their feelings of distrust and uncertainty by cultivating a moral superiority over their Haitian neighbors through everyday activities such as joking, gossiping, and personal grooming. The careful balance of trust and respect necessary for economic livelihoods breaks down when a moral transgression occurs such as the physical or spiritual attack of a Dominican by a Haitian. A process of moral reasoning follows as residents attempt to restore a sense of security. By focusing on moments of moral reflection, I shed light on how residents coping with precarity creatively respond to moral shifts impacting their communities.

Emergent forms of social economy: old or new paradigm?

Author: Marta Lobato (Autonomous University of Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

Capitalism and high finance within an increasing inter-connected world and rapidly changing socio-cultural dynamics provokes and engages with economic diversity, inequality and value-building processes that are in need of explanation; how can the anthropology of economy make sense of such complex reality?

Long Abstract

The global political and economic turmoil Southern Europe has experienced since 2008 proposes a series of interesting issues that the anthropology of economy could tackle in an illuminating manner. Social and economic changes brought about by the credit crunch and the severe austerity measures advanced in Southern Europe have left us with images of unprecedented social unrest, but also with the emergence of new socio-economic initiatives that try to amend the gaps that the formal economy is leaving behind. Interestingly, such phenomenon seems to be twofold and operating at different levels within society; State actions prompted by neoliberal policies are provoking changes in people's purchasing power and statuses, thus opening up new opportunities in areas the formal market had not previously overseen. Similarly, grassroots initiatives with a strong ideological component that have arisen either as a response to the increasing process of neoliberal policies and the global capitalist market during the 90's or as a direct response to the ongoing economic crisis, are also attempting to counteract the nature and consequences brought about by the present system. In both cases, there is interplay of different regimes of value, by dragging the economy to a more familiar and accountable sphere of life, but what form is this interplay of regimes of value taking? Could previously widely used analytical concepts such as "embededdness", "globalization" or "spheres of exchange" throw some light in the configuration of these emergent forms? Where does the so called "social economy" fit in?

Love, money and care in post-Soviet Havana

Author: Heidi Harkonen (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

Large-scale economic transformations may change and create complicated consequences to intimate relationships. In post-Soviet Cuba, structural shifts have highlighted uncertainties in individuals’ experiences of love and care.

Long Abstract

Economic transformations may create shifts in intimate experiences of love and sexuality. While discussions on the potential commodification of social relations have marked anthropological approaches to economic change for long, recently love has received attention as the site for exploration of the possibilities, restrictions, contradictions and ambiguities involved in large-scale processes of change.

Since the 1990s, material issues have become particularly significant in Cuban social relations. The fall of the country's closest ally, the Soviet Union, launched the island into severe economic crisis, forcing the state to make several concessions to the socialist ideology. State services were ruthlessly cut, the country was opened to tourism and day-to-day life became increasingly monetised, as money was needed for acquiring goods and services that were once provided by the state. Everyday survival has come to depend increasingly on individuals' own activeness and inventiveness and on the support available by personal social bonds. Gender relations in particular, have become suspected of being marked by relationships of "interest" as opposed to more emotional bonds.

This paper seeks to complicate the idea of commoditised social relations by exploring how lower-income Havana residents negotiate Cuba's current structural changes through gendered understandings of love as intertwined material-emotional exchange of care. Such practices draw both on longer-term cultural imagery and developments particular to the post-Soviet era. The paper argues that a focus on care, which is simultaneously material and symbolic, pragmatic and emotional, provides a nuanced approach to the complexities brought by extensive economic changes to intimate relations.

'What if the worst happened?' Life insurance in London as technology of care

Author: Sofia Ugarte (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile)  email

Short Abstract

How do Londoners experience the life insurance market to control uncertainties and limits of mortality and loss? This paper shows how policyholders turn into immortal figures that extend kin relations beyond death, exceeding its actuarial rationale via alternative temporalities and kin assemblages.

Long Abstract

Life insurance is a market device that entails a multiplicity of social and cultural phenomena of different scales. This paper aims to illustrate the way policyholders and their families experience the life insurance market living through kinship ties of care in London, in order to harness the uncertainties and limits of mortality and loss. A life insurance policy is a private contract people subscribe to, along with paying monthly premiums, to get money if the policyholder dies unexpectedly. For Londoners, taking a life insurance policy is an anticipatory action that helps families cope with the irreducible possibility of early death, controlling and sustaining caring relations across time among intimate kin. Through the transformation of the policyholder to an immortal (monetary) figure that extends relations beyond death, life insurance becomes a "technology of care" that mediates and bonds intimate kin in absence. These findings contribute to the understanding of life insurance as a significant practice that transforms Londoners' lives beyond the economic and actuarial reasoning behind it, specifically its temporal constitution and experience as well as the kinship assemblages that underpin it.

Bridging food scarcity: negotiating neoliberalism in Croatia

Author: Nila Hofman (DePaul University)  email

Short Abstract

The reorientation of public funds in the 1990s created many hardships for Croatian workers. Many workers had their salaries withheld for months if not years as they continued to teach high school, deliver the mail and manufacture consumer goods. I examine how Croatian women responded to the challenge.

Long Abstract

Based on ethnographic research conducted in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia (2011-2013), this paper recalls the experiences of working Croatian women whose salaries were meager or entirely frozen in the latter part of the 1990s until the most recent neoliberal reforms in the new millennium. I discuss the strategies these women adopted to secure their livelihoods and provide caregiving to their loved ones. Specifically, I present examples of women using their knowledge about food-foraging and preparation—passed down from one generation of women to the next and symbolically associated with national patriotism—to bridge the food shortages. I am particularly interested in examining how economic realities ignited new consumer and caregiving strategies. I offer an integrated analytical framework that captures the cultural underpinnings of labor, gender and consumer experiences. By doing so, I set out to challenge the conventional approach of treating labor/gender and consumption/gender as two separate units of analysis. I demonstrate that using labor, gender and consumer analysis—as a blended approach—helps to reveal the gendered expectations of caregiving and practices enmeshed in patriotism. My study also offers examples of women's actions both transgress, and enact, neoliberal models of capitalist globalization

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.