What about presenting research findings with cartoons? A few days ago, anthropologists Aleksandra Bartoszko and Anne Birgitte Leseth published a research report as a comic book - together with cartoonist Marcin Ponomarew. And it was a success! Take a look at here http://anthrocomics.wordpress.com
I’ve asked Aleksandra Bartoszko to write some words about it for us. She is one of the first fieldbloggers (check her blog here http://antropyton.blogspot.com ) and has contributed with several posts here at antropologi.info, among others Pecha Kucha - the future of presenting papers? and - in Norwegian - a series about anthropology and art
By Aleksandra Bartoszko, Assistant Professor Oslo University College
What if people don’t get it? How will they interpret it? What will the anthropologists say? – we asked ourselves before publishing the comic book. Not without fear. Not without doubts. Anthropology is about writing. But comics, these funny stories in a newspaper that amuse us during breakfast reading – are they a valid form of presentation of ethnographic findings?
“Public Space, Information Accessibility, Technology, and Diversity at Oslo University College” was a project which I, together with Anne Leseth, started in 2009.
We conducted our fieldwork at the campus of the college to assess the friendliness and accessibility of localities and information services in terms of social and cultural diversity. When we told our colleagues about our work, some of them reacted: “Oh, yet another report that nobody will read”. Not an encouraging attitude, but it challenged us to figure out an alternative way of reaching the audience.
We needed something that would attract attention of people who were “fed up with all these reports” on the multicultural environment, integration, exclusion and inclusion. So we decided to present our findings with a twist. We decided to make an anthropological comic book.
The process of making the comics was challenging yet extremely rewarding. Before we even started to worry about the reactions of the readers and the anthropological community, we asked ourselves how to make an illustrated ethnography.
While working with cartoonist Marcin Ponomarew we experienced something new, the experience that was not possible before – what our readers see when they read our ethnographies. How do they interpret our descriptions, how do they visualize our informants and their environments, and whose version is more real? “The dead of the author” was closer than ever.
We gave Marcin manuscripts. Some drawings he sent us back were very close to what we (or everyone of us) imagined and saw during the fieldwork, some were completely different. Yet, was his graphic presentation less real than if I had drawn the story? We worked with many versions of every story so as to get “the right picture”, to translate ethnography into words and words into pictures. This experience of triple translation gave me a new understanding of relation between the descriptive work of the author and the imaginative process in the reader’s head. As far as I am concerned, writing ethnography will never be the same as it was before this experience.
The book turned out to be a collection of ethnographic situations. Some of the drawings represent situations that we have observed; some of them are situations that we or our informants have experienced. They are often representations of emotions and feelings. A few of them are representations of stories we were told and some of them represent our analysis of documents and situations at the campus. Just as in written ethnography, we have manipulated some situations so as to anonymize the informants. This process was carried out with the same level of precision and ethical consideration as would be performed with written ethnography. Our goal was to tell a trustworthy story.
While working on this collection, various storylines, narrative arcs, drawings, and so forth, we were faced with a series of esthetic, philosophical, and ethical choices. We not only interpreted our ethnographic findings but also presented our view of the world. In some instances, we used irony and humor to clarify situations. These forms of expression also represent our informants’ subjective experiences. They reflect the tone, emotions, and comments that were expressed by the students and employees during our conversations with them.
This book, in both its form and content, breaks with the traditional way of presenting ethnography. Traditionally, anthropology has been a written enterprise. Writing is perceived as the most scientific form of representation of social life. However, other forms of representation exist — not only in other disciplines (like art) but also within anthropology and social sciences.
Anthropological findings have been presented in such forms as photography, film, and material exhibitions. Anthropologists are becoming increasingly inspired to branch out from the written word and use other forms of expression to present their findings. We have learned that there are various ways in which knowledge can be imparted and findings can be communicated. It is well known that the scientific standards of visual anthropology are equivalent to those of the written one.
The challenges related to visual presentation, as well as the lack of anonymity in those products, have been discussed, and these issues remain problematic. However, we believe that the comic book format, with its convincing visual style and preservation of anonymity (i.e., informants do not have to reveal their identities on screen or in photos, thus preserving their anonymity) may be a great solution.
Stereotypes: Culture or money? Cartoon: Marcin Ponomarew
The goals of this comic book were not only to inform and educate but also to entertain and provoke discussion among readers. While working on this collection, we endeavored to set a tone of openness so as to promote reflection and interpretation. In so doing, we hoped that the comic book would involve readers in the dynamic process of learning and create a debate.
Did we succeed? Judging by the comments we received from the public – yes. We received positive feedbacks from both students, employees at the college and fellow anthropologists. Not only did they concern the esthetical values of the comics or the innovative way of presenting research, but what’s most important we received feedbacks on the issues presented in the comics.
We have been told that the book made people reflect. “So this is how it works”, “I didn’t realize before, that stereotypes are also what I do every day” and “This opened my eyes on the integration issues”, we have heard from the readers. I believe that this is because of the form of presentation we have chosen.
People tend to better understand the complex issues when they are visible. Literally. Sometimes we need to see ourselves in a mirror to see ourselves at all. These comics were like a mirror that made people reflect upon the social and cultural issues without the distance which written texts often are creating.
So, yes, we achieved what we hoped for. If this collection will help to improve the learning and work environment at the college is not entirely up to us, but we shed a light on challenges that need to be solved.
I would not say that comics are appropriate to present work engaged in theory development. But is every anthropological text about theory? We read so many articles, monographs, reports and listen to conference papers which actually present nothing more than ethnographic description. Are they less scientific? Well, this questions should be answered by anthropologists in the nearest future. For if pictures tell and do just as much (or more) as words, we should take a serious look at the condition and purposefulness of writing in anthropology and academia in general.
The Anthropological Comic Book is available online at http://anthrocomics.wordpress.com
UPDATE 4.3.2011: Katarzyna Wala has translated her text into Polish: Komiks antropologiczny
Voice of Freedom / Sout Al Horeya by Amir Eid ft. Hany Adel
(post in progress) While the revolutions in Northern Africa and the Middle East are spreading and the Libyan people
managed are trying to get rid of another dictator, anthropologists continue to comment the recent events. Here is a short overview.
Much has been said about who or what is going to replace Mubarak after he had to step down two weeks ago. In her article The Architects of the Egyptian Revolution in The Nation, anthropologist Saba Mahmood directs our attention to a rather neclected topic: The economic unjustice in Egypt and its connections to “American driven reforms". For since the 1970s, she writes, the Egyptian economy has been increasingly subject to neoliberal economic reforms by the World Bank, the IMF and USAID at the behest of the United States government. Egyptian elites have been beneficiaries of, and partners in, these American-driven reforms:
While there is no doubt that the new order in Egypt cannot do without the civil and political liberties characteristic of a liberal democracy, what is equally at issue in a country like Egypt is an economic system that serves only the rich of the country at the expense of the poor and the lower and middle classes.
The vast majority of public institutions and services in Egypt have been allowed to fall into a dismal state of disrepair. Countless Egyptians die in public hospitals for lack of medical care and staff; Egypt’s universities are no longer capable of delivering the education of which they once boasted. Lack of housing, jobs and basic social services make everyday life impossible to bear for most Egyptians, as do declines in real wages and escalating inflation.
It is these conditions that prompted the workers—from the industrial and service sector—to stage strikes and sit-ins over the past ten years. These workers were an integral part of the demonstrations over the past two weeks in Egypt; various unions formally joined the protests in the days immediately preceding Mubarak’s resignation, prompting some to suggest that this was a turning point in the evolution of the protest.
The role the US government plays will be “enormously consequential":
While the Obama administration has reluctantly yielded to the demands for democratic reform, it is highly doubtful that this administration will tolerate any restructuring of US economic interests in Egypt and in the region more generally.
Egypt was governed as a private estate, explains political scientist Salwa Ismail in the Guardian. Under sweeping privatisation policies, Mubarak and the clique surrounding him appropriated profitable public enterprises and vast areas of state-owned lands.
“Egypt’s protests were a denunciation of neo-liberalism and the political suppression required to impose it", concludes filmmaker Philip Rizk in Al-Jazeera. He has recently completed a documentary on the food price crisis in Egypt and blogs at tabulagaza.blogspot.com.
Protests were according to him the culmination of a wave of much smaller and more localised strikes and demonstrations that had been taking place across the country since 2006.
Saba Mahmood agrees. She goes in her account back to 2004. In The road to Tahir, another prominent anthropologist, Charles Hirschkind, gives us a comprehensive introduction in the history of the Egyptian revolution, starting with the Kifaya movement, that “brought together Islamists, Muslim Brothers, communists, liberals, and secular-leftists, joined on the basis of a common demand for an end to the Mubarak regime and a rejection of Gamal Mubarak’s succession of his father as president". Many of the bloggers who helped promote the Kifaya movement have played key roles in the events of the past two weeks, he writes. (A longer version is available in the Open Access journal Revista de Dialectología y Tradiciones Populares.)
Political scientist Moataz A. Fattah lists in the Christian Science Monitor five reasons why Arab regimes are falling. Major societal and demographic factors are at play that in his view won’t go away with a new government, he argues.
Rise to Freedom by Basha Beats and Natacha Atlas
One of the best sources about the current Arab revolutions is the blog Closer. Anthropologist Martijn de Koning is regularily posting round-ups and recruites guest writers as for example Samuli Schielke, anthropologist at Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin.
“If this revolution has taught me one thing is that the people of Egypt do not need to look up to Europe or America to imagine a better future", he writes in his post “Now, it’s gonna be a long one” – some first conclusions from the Egyptian revolution:
“Compared to our governments with their lip service to democracy and appeasement of dictators, Egyptians have given the world an example in freedom and courage which we all should look up to as an example. This sense of admiration and respect is what has drawn so many foreigners to Tahrir Square in the past days, including myself.”
Samuli Schielke has maintained a diary of the protests at Tahrir Square at http://samuliegypt.blogspot.com/ . On his website, we find both photography (among others from Egypt) and several papers, among others Second thoughts about the anthropology of Islam, or how to make sense of grand schemes in everyday life, Ambivalent Commitments: Troubles of Morality, Religiosity and Aspiration among Young Egyptians and Boredom and despair in rural Egypt (what a title!).
The most recent post at Closer is Tunisia: from paradise to hell and back?, a personal account by Miriam Gazzah. She is currently working within the research project Islamic cultural practices and performances: The emergence of new youth cultures in Europe.
Several anthropologists commented on the rape story where CBS correspondent Lara Logan had been sexually assaulted while covering the Egyptian protests. “Two disturbing lines of commentary have emerged: one that cites irrelevant details about Logan’s beauty or her past sexual history, the other blaming Muslims or Egyptian culture for the assault", anthropologist Racel Newcomb comments in the Huffington Post:
Rather than blaming religion, we should work to end underdevelopment, poverty, and a lack of education, problems whose eradication is crucial to a prosperous and healthy society anywhere, whether in Egypt or here at home.
In Empire and the Liberation of Veiled Women, anthropologist Maximilian Forte deconstructs the popular narrative of the West bringing freedom to the women of the non-West.
UPDATE: Fascinating developments. Egypt is inspring US protesters. Check From Cairo to Madison: Hope and Solidarity are Alive. Medea Benjamin writes:
Photo credit: Muhammad Saladin Nusair via Derek Blackadder, flickr
Local protesters were elated by the photo of an Egyptian engineer named Muhammad Saladin Nusair holding a sign in Tahrir Square saying “Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers—One World, One Pain.” The signs by protesters in Madison include “Welcome to Wiscairo”, “From Egypt to Wisconsin: We Rise Up”, and “Government Walker: Our Mubarak.” The banner I brought directly from Tahrir Square saying “Solidarity with Egyptian Workers” has been hanging from the balcony of the Capitol alongside solidarity messages from around the country.
She quotes Muhammad Saladin Nusair who wrote these wonderful lines:
“If a human being doesn’t feel the pain of his fellow human beings, then everything we’ve created and established since the very beginning of existence is in great danger. We shouldn’t let borders and differences separate us. We were made different to complete each other, to integrate and live together. One world, one pain, one humanity, one hope.”
SEE ALSO my first round up: “A wonderful development” - Anthropologists on the Egypt Uprising (updated 6.2.)
More and more journals have gone open access, now it’s time for open access books!
OAPEN - Open Access Publishing in European Networks is an initiative in Open Access publishing for humanities and social sciences monographs. Several European university presses have joined the initiative that aims to improve the accessibility and dissemination of academic books. “The traditional book publishing model", they state, “is no longer sustainable".
Searching for anthropology gives 289 hits, among others these books. All books can be downloaded as pdf-files:
More than one million Egyptians protesting for democracy. Photo: Al Jazeera, flickr
(last updated 6.2.2011, 21:30 - updates in bold - check also new post: Saba Mahmood: Democracy is not enough - Anthropologists on the Arab revolution part II 22.2.2011 ) “The government would come down hard on even the smallest protest, and everyone would be arrested. Now, it’s as if the people are saying, ‘We’re not going to be afraid anymore.’ “I am very, very happy for the Egyptian people. I really am. It’s a wonderful development for the Egyptian people.”
That’s how anthropologist Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban comments the recent protests in Egypt. She has spent six years since 1970 living and conducting research in the Sudan, Egypt and Tunisia and is currently teaching “Arab-Islamic Culture and the West”.
In contrast to Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Norwegian anthropologist Unni Wikan is worried.
She claims that “Mubarak is not a despot” and that he is “considered a very honorable man". In her opinion, Mubarak “did well / prove worthy of the situation in not giving in to the peoples’ voices on the streets". People - especially the poor she has studied for decades - don’t care for democracy. They want stability! Without Mubarak, the “criminal mob on the streets” would lead the country into chaos, she writes. Even today, when more than a million people protested in Cairo and other cities in Egypt, she insisted that Mubarak has the peoples’ support.
Of course, her article “traveled", among others to the Lebanese-American professor of political science As’ad AbuKhalil at at California State University, who posted a Google translation of her article and comments: “I suspect that you will both laugh and cry while reading this piece of rubbish".
UPDATE: Comment by anthropologist David H. Price in Counterpunch: “We can expect Wikan’s incredible claims to be paraded out by Fox News and CNN as part of a distortion campaign to support Mubarak’s efforts to cling to power, all in the name of balance.”
As you might have noticed, Wikan is argueing along similar lines as the Western political elite who is about to lose an important ally in the Middle East. For them, “stability” is more important than people power, as Maximilian Forte and his co-bloggers at Zero Anthropology explain in several blog posts, among others The Fall of the American Wall: Tunisia, Egypt, and Beyond and Encircling Empire: Report #11, Focus on Egypt, Encircling Empire: Report #12, FOCUS ON EGYPT: Revolution and Counter-Revolution and The Song of the Nonaligned Nile (by Eliza Jane Darling).
Forte quotes Hillary Clinton who said that ”our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”
“Let’s be really clear about what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, perhaps soon Israel/Palestine, and now Lebanon and Yemen", he states. “A wall of U.S. supported dictatorships and clients is collapsing.”
UPDATE: How should the West react? “The discussion in the West should focus on the factor we are responsible for and we can influence - the role our governments have played in suppressing the Egyptian people, writes Johann Hari in Huffington Post. “Your taxes have been used to arm, fund and fuel this dictatorship.”
See also Ryan Anderson’s post at Ethnografix Power, realpolitik, and freedom: Egypt and US Ideals about Freedom.
Meanwhile, over 150 academics have signed an Open letter to President Barack Obama, calling on Obama to support Egypt’s democratic movement. (You see the irony here of course… Western leaders fearing for a democratic Middle East. “The hypocrisy of western liberals is breathtaking: they publicly supported democracy, and now, when the people revolt against the tyrants on behalf of secular freedom and justice, not on behalf of religion, they are all deeply concerned", writes Slavoj žižek in the Guardian).
UPDATE: The American Anthropological Association signed a statement of support for Egypt. But it’s mostly about the “losses to cultural heritage” and doesn’t say anything about Mubarak.
UPDATE: Maximilian Forte ay Zero Anthropology criticizes the AAA statement. Archaeologist Rosemary Joyce addresses the issue “valuing things over people” in a very interesting post. She also questions protection of Egyptian antiquities out of concern for their status as “global cultural heritage”.
Anti-Mubarak protesters at Tahrir Square in Cairo 30.1.2011. Photo: darkroom productions, flickr
The keys to understanding what has driven millions of citizens to the streets are the tragic circumstances surrounding the deaths of two young men, writes anthropologist Linda Herrera in her text Two Faces of the Revolution at the blog Closer.
She tells the story of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunesia who “overwhelmed by the burden of fines, debts, the humiliation of being serially harassed and beaten by police officers, and the indifference of government authorities", set himself on fire” and the Egyptian Khaled Said who was brutally murdered by Police.
She stresses that “contrary to a number of commentators in news outlets in North America and parts of Europe the two revolutions overtaking North Africa are not motivated by Islamism.” “These are inclusive freedom movements for civic, political, and economic rights” as this video below shows as well and is described in Robert Fisk’s report in the Independent: Secular and devout. Rich and poor. They marched together with one goal
UPDATE: In the Western hype about Islamists the Muslim Brotherhood, who denounced violence a long time ago has been demonized for too long", says anthropologist Petra Kuppinger. “While militant Islamist groups exist, they are increasingly marginal. The Brotherhood is certainly not one of them.”
“It is a revolution without a leader", says Adrienne Pine from the Department of Anthropology at the American University in Washington in the interview below. But that does not mean chaos. She’s blogging at http://quotha.net/
He gives us the bigger picture, conntects the local with the global:
Revolutions don’t happen out of the blue. It’s not because of Tunisia yesterday that we have one in Egypt mechanically the next day. You can’t isolate these protests from the last four years of labour strikes in Egypt, or from international events such as the al-Aqsa intifada and the US invasion of Iraq.
UPDATE: Anthropologist Karl Lorenz from Shippensburg University agrees. He’s not surprised about the protests. He believes that it is too late for reforms from Mubarak, because the people have wanted it for 30 years and it has not been done.
Anthropologist Daniel Martin Varisco wrote two comments All Eyes on Egypt and Yemen is not Tunisia or Egypt. Another anthropologist, William O. Beeman, explains why an Islamic Government in Egypt Might Not Be So Terrible.
UPDATE: Anthropologist Farha Ghannam writes about the rich symbolism of the Tahrir Square: “In a society sharply divided by class and gender, the square has been a place where all feel comfortable - young and elderly, rich and poor, men and women, Muslim and Christian.”
Sociologist Sherifa Zuhur shares her thoughts about the recent protests and how it is received in the West.
Anthropologist Jon Anderson questions the importance of social media - a topic that was also discussed at Savage Minds: Thinking about the importance of communications “revolutions”.
When looking for scientific publications, I made the same experience as Barbara Miller at anthopologyworks. Most articles deal with the (very distant) past. Miller concludes:
Clearly, you will have a better chance of finding out about early cat domestication, prehistoric ships, vessel residue analysis and even infant weaning during Roman times than you will have of learning about the social dimensions of today’s street protests.
I used the single search term “Egypt,” and I chose the publication dates of 2000-2010. Nearly 400 articles popped up. In scanning through them, I found that only 10 percent were related to contemporary social life. The other 90 percent of the references are dominated by archaeology with a sprinkling of biological anthropology as well as some non-anthro sources.
The sociology/anthropology repository of the American University of Cairo hosts several relevant publications.
Mats Ivarsson from the University in Lund (Sweden) has written a paper that sounds interesting: Impact of authoritarian pressure on the political blogosphere in Egypt. He “proposes the hypothesis that an authoritarian state actually will strengthen the quality of the information disseminated in the blogosphere” (pdf)
Then I stumpled upon the thesis Youth and internet in Egyptian party politics : balancing authoritarianism with agency in a condition of negative peace by Tone-Rita Henriksen from the University of Tromsø, Norway (pdf).
This is just a small selection of texts about the ongoing revolution in Egypt and around.
Maybe the best and most comprehensive round-up with links to tons of articles (and less chaotic than this one here) can be found at the blog Closer, compiled by anthropologist Martijn de Koning: Closing the week 5 – Featuring the Tunisia & Egypt Uprising
The Middle East blog tabsir.net has a round up What the Arab papers say
For more round-ups see posts by anthro-blogger Erkan Saka who has been active as usual, se among others Registering a revolution. Hail to the brave people of Egypt. A roundup and - media anthropologist John Postill’s bookmarks - mainly about the role of media in the Tunesia and Egypt uprisings.
There, Gina Cardenas highlights women’s role in her post Egypt: Protesting Women Celebrated Online, a topic that has not been given enough media attention.
Very interesting also Egypt: A Voice in the Blackout, Thanks to Google and Twitter, showcasing the power of Egyptian peoples’ transnational ties and new technology.
I close this post with Global Voices video collection Egypt: Solidarity Pours in from Around the World
“Stupid multiculturalism, no clash of civilisations: When we’re fighting tyrants we’re universalists and building global solidarity. I’m proud of the Egyptians! They understand democracy better than we in the West (Zizek) - “This is the time to support Egypt” (Ramadan)
Check also new post 22.2.2011: Saba Mahmood: Democracy is not enough - Anthropologists on the Arab revolution part II
Demonstration in Sevilla. Photo: No Border Network, flickr
(Draft) "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." These noble words in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights might be true in some distant part on this planet, but certainly not in Europe.
Here, peoples' rights are dependent on their nationality. While I, with my German EU passport may travel and live nearly everywhere I want, people from countries like Egypt, Syria or Pakistan cannot. Europe has put much effort in building different kind of walls to prevent certain categories of people from entering. While wealthier peoples' migration is celebrated, poorer peoples' migration is criminalized. Anthropologist Owen Sichone calls this policy "Global apartheid".
Two weeks ago, eight Norwegian police men arrested 25 year old Maria Amelie, an award winning book author, blogger and former anthropology student, born in North Ossetia. She had just finished her lecture at the Nansen Academy – the Norwegian Humanistic Academy about being paperless, undocumented, "illegal" migrant. This happened just three months after she had published her bok "Ulovlig norsk" (Illegally Norwegian), and one month after she was named "Norwegian of the Year" by Norway's only cosmopolitan-minded magazine, Ny Tid.
Maria Amelie (her real name is Madina Salamova) is one of those 18 000 illegalized migrants in Norway who live here without any rights at all. No access to healthcare, education or work. They cannot open an bank account, they don't get an ID-number, they actually don't exist officially. Even helping them is forbidden.
Here is a video from Russia Today about Maria Amelie and a demonstration i Oslo for better rights for undocumented migrants. See related news story
Yesterday, despite lots of demonstrations and media attention, she was thrown out of Norway, where she has lived since she was 16, and deported to Russia. For Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and his red-green government, it was important to make clear that they don't tolerate people like her. The Norwegian government is responsible for the deportation of hundreds of individuals and families - usually in the middle of the night without any prior notice. Media in Norway has done a good job in highlighting the plight of these people who all have a unique story to tell.
Norway Expels Migrant Celebrity (Moscow Times, 25.1.2011)
Human rights court slams EU asylum policy as inhumane (Deutsche Wele, 21.1.2011)
‘No One Is Illegal’ Campaign aims to protect Norway’s ‘paperless’ refugees (Women News Network 8.12.2010)
The Dictionary of Man: Will Bob Geldof and the BBC reproduce racist anthropology? was the title of a (rather sceptical) post back in 2007. Now this ambitious project, four years ago described as “the largest ever living record of films, photographs, anthropological histories, philosophies, theologies, economies, language and art, as well as people’s personal stories” is ready for the TV-screens and partly for the web as well.
Human Planet is it called, now focussing on “man’s remarkable relationship with the natural world” with stories from “eighty of the most remote locations on Earth".
The website is beautiful. Stunning photographs, videos, text, music and lots of links to external websites. Unfortunately (not surprisingly, though in our economic system), most people on this planet won’t be able to view the videos (within the UK only, I suppose).
UPDATE: Sian Davies from the BBC writes to me and informs that some videos are availabe worldwide, f.ex Walking on the sea bed (Bajau fisherman, Sulbin, freedives to 20 metres to catch his supper.), Pa-aling divers (One of the most dangerous fishing methods of all. A 100 strong crew in the Philippines dive to 40 metres, breathing air pumped through makeshift tangled tubes by a rusty compressor), and Gerewol courtship festival.
Several anthropologists have been involved. Nevertheless, the question remains how people from around the world are represented. Is it the usual exotisation or has the BBC chosen a more innovative approach?
Have a look yourself - here are two (visually fascinating) videos from the Human Planet YouTube playlist
>> Human Planet Production Blog
Check also the comment on Culture Matters Bob Geldof – the “saviour” of the cultures of the world? (19.4.2007)
Another new initiative - more academic, though, to showcase this planet’s diversity is the Global Ethnographic, “a general interest, peer reviewed web journal featuring the field research and perspectives shaping our social world. Free and exclusively online, Global Ethnographic is multi-media driven and cross-disciplinary, bringing you the scholarly conversations on daily life as it is lived and experienced around the world.”
The website is already online, but the content will be launched the 31.1. 2011.
“The subject of fashion in non-Western world is largely understudied. The whole research community is to be blamed for viewing fashion too narrowly", Tereza Kuldova writes in her new book review for antropologi.info. She has read a new book on fashion studies: Fashion in Focus by sociologist Tim Edwards.
Review: Fashion in Focus: Concepts, Practices and Politics by Tim Edwards, New York: Routledge, 2011.
Tereza Kuldova, PhD Fellow, Department of Ethnography, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo
Fashion in Focus by Tim Edwards is mainly an overview work, summarizing most of the texts predominantly within the confines of sociology that deal with various aspects of the fashion system.
Nilofer: Pakistani fashion in Dubai. Foto: Mark Kirchner, flickr
The book is not a revelation in any sense and it does not develop the theory of fashion in any major way, though one might find traces of such attempts within the text. Considered as a summary of the most influential theories in fashion studies, it is a very good one. The language of the work is marked by clarity of expression, though there is a tendency towards excessive repetitiveness (though again, this might come handy to students)
However, the book considers almost without exception only western fashion, leaving the emerging non-western fashion centers unnoticed and the ‘East’ thus remains simply an (exploited) producer of fashion, rather than being treated as more and more important consumer. Considering the fact that Louis Vuitton’s sales are higher in Asia than in Europe and US together, this is a severe omission.
This omission is however not the mistake of the author summarizing the existing work, the whole research community is to be blamed for viewing fashion too narrowly, as a modern particularly Western phenomenon, focusing on consumption while neglecting production. With the exception of a handful of anthropologists, the subject of fashion in non-Western world is largely understudied and production and consumption remain separated in most of the studies.
The author is of course not unaware of the situation and to fill the gap he includes a chapter (7) on the production of fashion. There is a nice section that says it all in a few lines, let me quote:
“Fashion, even in its second-hand market versions, is sold according to illusion or the notion that dresses, jackets or shoes are somehow invested with the transformative magic to make us more than what we are, that clothes may somehow make up for what we lack or more simply help us to fulfill our fantasies. Fashion’s production is a grim reminder that they are no such thing, that they are just material assembled and sold, often at a rip-off cost to our pockets and at the expense or the exploitation of someone else” (121).
However, one might want to add, even though clothes and other fashion objects are in principle just assembled materials, their power over the minds of the self-fashioning individuals and the magic has real effects. Thomas’ theorem works here perfectly, ‘if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences’.
Though as a person involved in the research on production and consumption of fashion in India I was looking forward to this chapter in particular, I was disappointed to a degree. The author hardly goes beyond stating the “popular”, i.e. ‘fashion production is exploitation’. Yet, as my own fieldwork can tell, it might be both, exploitation and empowerment. The omnipresent idea of a dreadful sweatshop is without doubt true to reality in some cases; however the incredible variety of destinies within fashion production can hardly be reduced to it.
A balanced and empirically grounded view is what is needed here. Only an in-depth qualitative research seems to be able to reveal the actual processes and meanings of and within the incredible complex rollercoaster of fashion industry. It appears as if too much of the theorizing done in the book is from the table, based on one’s perceptions, local bias, and readings of other scholars equally speculating from the warmth of their office chairs.
Edwards however makes up for certain omissions by paying attention to other rather neglected topics within the fashion studies, and that is men’s wear, children wear and recently also the topic of media, celebrities, designers and desire. In the third chapter he turns his attention towards the case of western suit, discussing topics of gender and masculinity in relation to the evolution of suit as a nexus of the consumption of men’s fashion in the West. There is a nice point in the chapter that Edwards makes about the oscillation of men’s dress throughout centuries from extravagant and lavish to simple and modest and back, he calls it “playboy” vs. “puritan” tendencies (45). These concepts might have broader application, not only being useful in conceptualizing the recent rise of the ‘metrosexual’ man, but also in conceptualizing fashion in other non-Western contexts.
In the fifth chapter he then turns towards the children fashion. This chapter being based on the actual original research by the author is definitely one of the more interesting. It draws on interview material with retailers, designers and consumers of children fashion in UK. It touches on the topics of branding of child wear, increasing fashion consciousness of children and the relationships between parents and children as consumers, as well as the tendency of parents to turn the child into a “mini me”.
Children fashion show in Singapore. Photo: Choo Yut Shing, flickr
Edwards concludes that in respect to children fashion in the UK market “the overwhelming key variables were age and gender and not class, geography or ethnicity” (100), which is hardly surprising. However what is possibly new (though the question remains to which degree) is “the rise of a more adult sense of fashion consciousness in the children’s clothing market, whether in terms of the wishes of some parents to dress their children more fashionably or in terms of wider trends of ‘mini-me’” (100).
The last chapter is then devoted to a trendy and until recently also neglected topic of desire, designers, branding and celebrities. He presents a good introduction into this topic, but it also becomes obvious that it is an area which needs more thorough investigation. Let me give you a tasting of this chapter in a quote that at the same time in a way makes obvious why fashion needs to taken seriously as a research object. It is “the combining of the desire for a designer label – whether sexual or more diffuse – for another person that turns contemporary fashion not only into a process of desiring objects but one of desiring subjects. More problematically still it also becomes a process of desiring subjectivity per se. Not only is the fashion consumer a desiring subject who desires both objects and other subjects but a desirer of alternative forms of subjectivity” (158).
Further the book includes summaries of both classical, modern and postmodern fashion theory, as well as a discussion on fashion, feminism and fetishism and ideas on the politics of dressing and self-expression. It is apparent by now that the book will make a good resource for students of fashion in various disciplines and it might thus stimulate further development of fashion theory, not less because it points towards the blind spots in the theory and towards areas that need to be investigated with greater sensitivity.
See more reviews by Tereza Kuldova, among others Religious globalization = Engaged cosmopolitanism?, The deep footprints of colonial Bombay and Hindi Film Songs and the Barriers between Ethnomusicology and Anthropology or Colonialism, racism and visual anthropology in Japan: Photography, Anthropology and History and my look at her master’s thesis about the Chikan embroidery industry in India That’s why there is peace
Why does anthropology tend to focus on “exotic others"? Why this obsession with Africa? How come calls by well-known anthropologists such as Paul Rabinow to “anthropologize the West seemed to have not brought forth much fruit? How racist is American anthropology?
Kenyan anthropologist Mwenda Ntarangwi discusses those and other questions in his new book Reversed Gaze. An African Ethnography of American Anthropology.
Yes, Ntarangwi has conducted an anthropological study of American anthropology! An important undertaking. He has studied textbooks, ethnographies, coursework, professional meetings, and feedback from colleagues and mentors. He “reverses the gaze", he stresses: Whereas Western anthropologists often study non-Western cultures, he studies “the Western culture of anthropology".
He is especially interested in “the cultural and racial biases that shape anthropological study in general".
In the preface and introduction he writes:
If anthropology truly begins at home as Malinowski states, how come, as I had thus far observed, anthropology tended to focus on the “exotic"? How come only a small percentage of fieldwork and scholarship by Western anthropologists focused on their own cultures, and when they did it was among individuals and communities on the peripheries, their own “exotics” such as those in extreme poverty, in gangs, ad others outside mainstream culture? (…)
This book is a personal journey into the heart of anthropology; representing my own pathways as an African student entering American higher education in the early 1990s that I knew very little about. It is a story about my initial entry into an American academic space very different from my own experience in Kenya, where we followed a British system of education.
It is also a story hemmed within a specific discourse and views about anthropology that can be best represented by remarks from fellow graduate students who wondered what i was doing in a “racist” discipline. (…) Troubled by this label, I consciously embarked on a journey to find more about the discipline.
He critiques dominant tenets of reflexivity, where issues of representation in his opinion are reduced to anthropologists’ writing style, methodological assumptions, and fieldwork locations. Inherent power differences that make it easier for anthropologists to study other people ("studying down") than to study themselves ("studying up") are rendered invisible.
Ntarangwi seeks to contribute to the process of “liberating the discipline from the constraints of its colonial legacy and post- or neocolonial predicament". As long as the bulk of anthropological scholarship comes from Europe and North America and focuses on studying other cultures than their own, the power differentials attendant in anthropology today will endure.
I have just starting to read and took among others a short look at the chapter about the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA).
“I believe it is at the AAA meetings that the anthropological ritual of what we do as anthropologists is best performed", he writes:
Just as America has become an economic and political empire, American anthropology has consolidated a lot of power and in the process has peripheralized other anthropologies, forcing them either to respond to its whims and hegemony or to lose their international presence and appeal. The American Anthropological Association (AAA), I argue, is an important cultural phenomenon that begs for an ethnographic analysis.
It was in 2002, four years after his graduation that Mwenda Ntarangwi attended his first AAA-meeting. It was held in New Orleans. Already at the airport, he realises it is easy to spot anthropologists:
They were dressed casually, many were reading papers, and majority wore some exotic piece of jewelry or clothing that symbolized their field site - either a bracelet from Mexico (…), a necklace from a community in Africa, a tie-dyed shirt, or a multicolored scarf.
His observations from the different sessions he attended remind me of my own impressions: “Conference papers were written to make the presenters sound more profound rather than to communicate ideas", he writes.
But there were interesting panels as well, among others about “marginalization and exclusion of certain scholars and scholarship on the basis of their race". There were, he writes, “discussions of how Haitian anthropologists challenged the notion of race but were never “knighted", as was Franz Boas, simply because they were Black".
He also attended sessions where the speakers were using data collected ten or twenty years before and yet were speaking of the locals as if representing contemporary practices.
Ntarangwi went to the 2007 annual meeting as well. He was very much interested in seeing how well the meeting itself reflected in its theme “Inclusion, Collaboration, and Engagement.”
I’ll write about it next time. I’ll take the book with me on my short trip to Portugal. I’m leaving tomorrow.