"Who cares ... and how? An anthropological inquiry into support" (Halle, D)

3 - 5 July 2008, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale, Germany

The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Department II, invites participants to a conference from the 3 – 5 July 2008 at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle, Germany, to discuss and develop anthropological approaches to the study of social

Ethnographic accounts of life under state socialism offer an instructive case of human ingenuity in the face of pervasive shortage. The ‘supplier state’ that sought to monopolise channels of support in many cases failed to do so thereby facilitating the role of personal networks of support. In fact, the latter came to permeate the state to such a degree that it became a resource in itself, to be distributed through these networks.

Yet the supplier state also provided a sense of stability and security, of guaranteed, however insufficient, supplies. For the last two decades, whether in Eastern Europe, China or Vietnam, many have painfully experienced the erosion of this basic sense of being looked after ‘from cradle to grave’.

Today, the welfare states of late industrial nations in Europe and North America are also undergoing far-reaching reforms. There, high levels of unemployment, ageing populations and cuts in social benefits also erode a sense of stability and security. To what extent is the market here an alternative to personal networks? Clearly, one can observe the “commoditisation of support”, as part of an ever expanding service economy.

This is not limited to Europe and North America but can also be seen elsewhere. As a consequence, in many parts of the world the social gap between those who can afford ‘support for money’ and those who cannot is widening.

As anthropologists, we are interested in people’s inventiveness in organising support and the meanings they afford these practices. What can we learn from places where there is no welfare state? How are notions and moral concepts of support acted out in daily life? What kinds of sources and resources of support are mobilised? Support can mean a state providing for child care or old age, but also a friend offering words of consolation, relatives lending money, a citizen donating blood, a deity protecting a village or a group of elderly offering sociability. Is support always necessarily serious business?

Can support not be organised through play? Local notions and modalities of support will also reflect and shape ideas of the person and its efficacy. The ideal of individual self-reliance in the West is but one example.

Social support has received attention mainly from sociologists and psychologists, especially in health studies and social network analyses. In anthropology, it has featured only marginally and tended to be conceptualised as simply a form of transaction. It is one major aim of this conference to examine and account for the continuities and discontinuities between support and other kinds of transactions.

As a broad frame for our anthropological enquiry into support, we suggest three terms: paternalism, mutuality and charity. Our first term, ‘paternalism’, makes reference to top-down systems of support, be it a bureaucratic welfare state or a locally operating racketeering group. Apart from paternalism, we suggest ‘mutuality’, where support occurs within less or not hierarchically structured relationships. Finally, ‘charity’ is intended to capture those forms of support that are locally considered ‘interest-free’.

The issue of support often arises in the context of dramatic life events. Anthropological studies of life histories, social memory and temporality promise to be one important field here. But legal anthropology, as for instance Keebet and Franz von Benda-Beckmann have shown, can also be a productive perspective on social support. And of course the discipline’s long-standing interest in gift exchange seems essential for any study of the giving and receiving of support. These three domains of inquiry in anthropology are not meant to be exhaustive.

Contact: Markus Schlecker, e-mail: schlecker (at) eth.mpg.de
Friederike Fleischer, e-mail: fleischer (at) eth.mpg.de


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