Democraticize scholarship! Happy Open Access Week!

Let’s celebrate and promote open access to academic research! It’s Open Access Week!

There hasn’t been much publicity around this event here in Norway, not in the anthro-blogosphere either.

So, to start with, here some videos!

Here’s a quick, simple and funny introduction to the concept of open access in universities by the Canadian Association of Research Libraries and McGill University Library.

A very interesting interview with Vincent Gerbaud (University of Toulouse) about his motivation to publish his papers online in public repositories and his experiences

Several Open Access scholars and editors discuss the benefits of open access publishing

The London School Economics has made a nice contribution - the Open Access Week awards.

One of the awards went to anthropologist Deborah James. She has written the most downloaded book chapter in 2009/10: ‘I dress in this fashion’ transformations in sotho dress and women’s lives in a Sekhukhuneland village, South Africa (1996).

The lucky winner of The Departmental award for most improved full text deposit is the Department of International Development, who saw an increase from less than 3 full text open access papers per member of staff in 2008/09, up to 8 per member of staff in 2009/10.

The London School of Economics has an impressive number of anthropology publications in its online repository, but most of them cannot be downloaded, and open access articles are not highlighted.

See also a guest post from the Open Access week 2009: Anthropologists ignore Open Access Week - a report from Wellington and check antropologi.info’s overview over open access anthropology journals


  12:24:00, by admin   . Categories: religion cosmology, Us and Them, globalisation, books

Book review: Religious globalization = Engaged cosmopolitanism?

Can studying religious movements give us new insights into globalisation or even cosmopolitanism? Anthropologist Tulasi Srinivas thinks so.

Antropologi.info book reviewer Tereza Kuldova has taken a closer look at Srinivas’ new book Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism Through the Sathya Sai Movement.


Book Review: Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism Through the Sathya Sai Movement by Tulasi Srinivas, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010

Tereza Kuldova, PhD Fellow. Museum of Cultural History, Department of Ethnography, University of Oslo

Tulasi Srinivas draws us with her book into the intriguing world of a transnational religious Sathya Sai movement, a movement that crosses regional, national, religious and cultural boundaries and thus creates something that she labels ‘engaged cosmopolitanism’.

Through the focus on this religious and cultural movement that has its roots in India and that has managed to grow into a huge global movement with millions of followers and devotees, she tries to resolve what ‘cultural globalization’ might mean in contemporary world. At the same time, she addresses the questions of the nature of transglobal economies of spirituality, affect and religio-cultural identity and the meanings and forms of new pluralism, as they can be exemplified through this movement.

Her detailed ethnographic study based on nine years of fieldwork, makes it clear that processes of globalization cannot be perceived in terms of westernization, as some would like to have it. They must be understood in terms of interactions, flows and movement between variously localized cultural centers and in terms of the resulting variously spatially and culturally localized translations of these interactions, images, ideas and discourses. To put it simply, flows are multidirectional (though I would say, this has never been different).

“Dynamic ethnography”

Tulasi Srinivas is throughout her work making an appealing argument for a ‘dynamic ethnography’, which operates with the concepts of mobile description and multi-sitedness. The problem she tries to resolve in her writing is how to comprehend mobility and how to deal with translocal phenomena and that within a discipline so ill equipped to understand them. Hers is a critical hermeneutic study of religious globalization, where concepts such as complexity, relationality, networks, interaction and affectivity play a crucial role.

Even though this type of logic is generally appealing and without any doubt trendy, there is still something that disturbs me in her work. It might be the constant concern with ‘cultural globalization’ and ‘cultural translation’, even after reading the book I still find myself wondering what exactly does that mean, where does one culture begin and the other end, what is borrowed, what authentic, what reinterpreted? Maybe we are just looking here for artificial isles of safety in a sea of constant flux… The question is - can we not do without these isles?

Hinduism-Muslim culture of saints, Christian teaching + indigenous healing rituals

Let me now provide you with a brief sketch of the book and then discuss one of the chapters in more detail.

Throughout her book, Tulasi Srinivas introduces us to the story of the Sathya Sai movement. This movement is sixty-five years old and draws on a Hindu-Muslim culture of saints and mystics and on several strands of religion in the subcontinent, from Sufi mysticism, popular Hinduism, and Buddhism to indigenous healing rituals, Zoroastrianism and contemporary Christian teaching. The movement is centered on the charismatic personality of Shri Sathya Sai Baba (b. 1926).

sathya sai baba Pictures, Images and Photos
Sathya Sai Baba. Source: Nebbie2006, photobucket

Sai Baba was born in a remote village of Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh and “after suffering a series of seizures and falling into trances, he declared his greatness at the age of thirteen and proclaimed that he was Sai Baba, a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, a Muslim saint from Mahara who had died in 1918” (p. 9). He substantiated his claims by performing miraculous acts, such as materializations of sacred ash that devotees apply on their foreheads. These materializations continue to be central to his practice and are a matter of dispute among the members of anti-Sai movement.

Spiritual travel and “sexual healing”

Tulasi Srinivas maps the way this movement of his following has grown and became popular with people all around the world. She devotes a part of the book to the discussion of the nature of contemporary spiritual travel to the ashram in the village of Puttaparthi and the viewing and experience and magical encounter of darshan (witnessing of divinity) of Sai Baba. She takes us into the world of the global Sai community that stretches from the village of Puttaparthi to Tokyo, London, Hollywood, Mumbai, Bangalore and many other places around the globe and tries to grasp what it means to be and become a part of this global Sai community.

The chapter 4 is noteworthy because of its controversial nature. Tulasi Srinivas poses here the questions considering democracy, transparency and theology within the Sathya Sai Organization and focuses on the discussion of the allegations of ‘sexual healing’ and the ‘strategies of secrecy’ that according to her pervade this organization. In this respect, it is instrumental to read the reactions of the Sathya Sai Organization to her book, and in particularly to this chapter on http://www.saisathyasai.com/tulasi-srinivas/.

This controversy might be of interest to anyone possessing deeper knowledge of the movement and studying it, and it is up to the reader to make any conclusions. However, such critical comments are possibly the result of the fact that Srinivas dared to include the perceptions and views of the anti-Sai movement and did not only restrict her ethnography to the experiences of the committed devotees. On the other hand, how accurate any of the data is, is very hard to judge for anyone outside the movement and without its deep knowledge.

Further, she includes an interesting discussion on the encoded bodily prescriptions in the ashram and the problems they pose to the devotees from different cultures. She understands the failure of certain devotees to abide by the ashram rules as illuminating the “differential understanding of embodiment, salvation, desire and discipline” and believes that it speaks to “problems in cultural translation” (p. 19).

Branding of religious goods

However, the most intriguing chapter is according to me, being keenly interested in material culture, the last one dealing with the paradoxes of the teaching of resistance to the material world on one hand and the excessive consumption of religious objects on the other. In this context, “the material object is rejected as ‘unreal’ and a distraction from the truth of divinity, but the objects themselves become a significant signpost indicating the road to self-transformation” (p. 290).

Tulasi Srinivas shows us nicely how the consumption of these religious objects, be it gifted sacra or bought ephemera, has the power to directly transform the selves and the habitus of the devotees.

The gifted materializations (rings, necklaces, talismans, sacred ash, ambrosia etc.) from Sathya Sai Baba are the most important of the religious objects. “The reception of a materialized object instantly raises one’s standing among the community of devotees, as it is read as a sign of divine favor and an index of one’s active piety” (p. 285).

The materialized objects gifted by Sai Baba are believed to be transformed by the contact with him and thus possess a magical transformative power within them, “capable of transforming people’s bodies and minds from sick to well and from skeptical to devotional” (p. 294). “The gifting of the materialized objects to the faithful is the key element of transformative interaction between deity and devotee, as it is believed to be the material form of the much hoped for transference of the divinity’s grace and power as a blessing to the devotee” (p. 297).

Though gifts are the most important religious items for the Sai devotees, most of them never meet Sai Baba and are thus dependent on the global distributive network of Sai Baba goods, that can be purchased almost anywhere in the world. However, the further from the village of Puttaparthi, the less ‘authentic’ and powerful these objects get.

This chapter thus draws us also into the world of branding of religious goods, and the branding of the movement as such. What began as small business in touristic souvenirs in the 60s was turned into a bigger business in religious souvenirs in the early 70s mostly for spiritual tourists. By the beginning of 80s a huge business in religious objects of international scale, dealing in all kinds of objects, ranging from images, photographs, CDs, books, to jewelry, all featuring Sai Baba, was in place.

After all, the “Sathya Sai movement is known to be the largest faith-based foreign exchange earner for India, earning approximately Indian Rs. 881,8 million (approx. $5 million) for the year 2002-2003” (p. 12). Srinivas draws us also into the intricacies of the trade in the Sai Baba goods, where the SSSO claims to be the only ‘authentic’ source of ‘blessed’ goods by Sai Baba and where the struggle for perfection of the purchased goods is central.

Engaged cosmopolitanism or Hindu superiority?

To conclude, we can contrast the idea of ‘engaged cosmopolitanism’ which Srinivas uses with a statement of one of my informants, a lady who has been a spiritual tourist for the last 20 years and managed to escape her obsession: “After seeing all these babas and the way they treat people, you realize that most of what is happening is about power and money, the one who gives most gets those materialized gifts, the one who pays most gets to sit next to Sai Baba, in the end it is only a huge money-making industry and highly hierarchical one. And what is worse, the whole agenda of this money-making business is not a peaceful message of acceptance and equality of all religious beliefs, but rather the opposite, namely the superiority of Hindu thought and the Hindu dominance in a global sphere, after all India is shining. And magic, they can do no magic, why don’t they treat the lepers waiting outside their ashrams?” (Interview, 18. august 2010).

Engaged cosmopolitanism? Depends on what you imagine under this term.

This book on its all appears to be well-researched and is without doubt well-written, though at times it might seem too chaotic and the arguments unnecessarily literally twisted. A struggle for more clarity would be advisable. That does not diminish the contribution of the author to the studies in transnational religious phenomena. The book would be of interest to any scholar or student of globalization, religious movements, India, and to anyone interested in the methodological challenges posed by multi-sited fieldwork. And I would say, it is a must read for any Sathya Sai devotee!

Tereza Kuldova


>> Information about the book by the publisher (Columbia University Press)

>> Review by Peter Berger (The American Interest, 3.8.2010)

>> Interview with Tulasi Srinivas (Lokvani 3.2.2006)

See more reviews by Tereza Kuldova, among others 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 That’s why there is peace


Theology's turn to Ethnography: New OA journal "Practical Matters"

I’ve stumpled upon a rather new Open Access Journal called Practical Matters. This publication of Emory University is both interdisciplinary and “intermedia", i.e. multimedia.

The most recent issue (nr 3) is called Ethnography & Theology.

In their introduction, Lerone Martin and Luke Whitmore write:

Many scholars of religion who did not begin their scholarly careers as anthropologists now count themselves ethnographers, or at least state that they employ ethnographic methods.

Many scholars of theology have arrived, and continue to arrive, at the view that to better understand how human subjects experience their lives, rituals, and religious/cultural practices “it is necessary to observe people in everyday life and see how cultural meanings are brought by them to bear on their actual, practical concerns.”

This issue aims to push forward the interdisciplinary conversation around the intersections of ethnography and theology.

This issue includes a 12 minutes video by Melissa D. Browning about theologists on fieldwork with a corresponding paper Listening to Experience, Looking Towards Flourishing. Ethnography as a Global Feminist Theo/Ethical Praxis.

Issue 2 focuses on youth and includes an twelve-minute documentary by Sonia Narang that examines how the practice of the visual arts can involve the religious identities of young people.

In the first issue (topic: imagination), you’ll find a lot of photography, for example Imagining Antarctica by Sandra F. Selby or Luther’s Wedding: How One Town is Rebuilding its Convivial Culture through Imagination and Tradition by Barry Stephenson.

I hope we’ll see more journals of this kind. Another innovative journal I wrote about is Anthropology Reviews: Dissent and Cultural Politics (ARDAC)


  09:52:04, by admin   . Categories: politics, Us and Them, books, Northern America, migration

"Human smugglers fight global apartheid"

High-tech border between USA and Mexico. Photo: Paul Garland, flickr

The limitation of people’s freedom of movement based on their nationality (“global apartheid”) is maybe one of the biggest human rights issues nowadays.

One month ago I wrote about Shahram Khosravi’s auto-ethnography of illegalised border crossing.

The Democracy In America blog at the Economist draws attention to a related book: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border by David Spener. The anthropologist spent eight years doing field work on both sides of the border.

Armed with latest technology, the U.S. does everything to prevent people from the South to enter its territory. Because border crossing is difficult, 90% of all illegalised migrants crossing into the United States through Mexico hired a smuggler (also called “coyote"). Human smuggling has become a $6.6-billion industry in Mexico.

The press presents human smuggling as a sinister organized-crime phenomenon. Spener argues that it is better understood “as the resistance of working-class Mexicans to an economic model and set of immigration policies in North America that increasingly resemble an apartheid system.

Publishing a book is not always the best strategy to spread knowledge. Therefore it is a good idea to set up companion websites as Spener has done. Here we find border crossing stories, articles and papers as well as images, maps and sounds.

As the Democracy in America blog reminds us: Even reaching the border is hard. Each year some 20,000 migrants are kidnapped for ransom in Mexico. Victims are made to give the phone numbers of relatives, who must pay upwards of $3,000 or more to get them released.

Migrants from Central and South America are particularly easy targets:

Illegal in Mexico, they must evade checkpoints throughout the country and risk deportation if they report a crime. Women and girls—about a fifth of the migrants making their way through Mexico—face additional dangers. Six out of ten are reckoned to suffer sexual abuse during their migration, according to Amnesty International, a human-rights watchdog.

For a global perspective, see the overview by the BBC: Walls Around The World


The “illegal” anthropologist: Shahram Khosravi’s Auto-Ethnography of Borders

More Global Apartheid?

For free migration: Open the borders!Why borders don’t help - An engaged anthropology of the US-Mexican border

Online: On the Margins - An Ethnography from the US-Mexican Border

Interview with Sámi musician Mari Boine: Dreams about a world without borders


  01:14:05, by admin   . Categories: anthropology (general)

Secret knowledge exchange at Europe's largest anthropology conference

A bit more than two weeks ago, around 1300 anthropologists from all over Europe left the university village Maynooth not far away from Dublin. Europe’s largest anthropology conference, the biennial congress of The European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) was over.

As usual, hardly any information about the knowledge that was exchanged at the conference, found its way to the public.

Here is what I found.

Eoin O’Mahony, geographer at Maynooth, sums up the opening keynote lecture by one of the most famous anthropologists around - Talal Asad.

“As far as I can tell", he writes, “the lecture laid out the ground for a new anthropology of terrorism and human rights". Talal Asad “mapped out the economy of liberal human rights where the reorientation of the concept of ‘just war’ made certain peoples’ deaths necessary to safeguard the lives of others".

Asad’s paper, which his speech is based on, is available online (pdf - download it before they remove it!). Or check also an earlier post Selected quotes from “On Suicide Bombing” by Talal Asad.

Philipp Budka 
(University of Vienna) is the only one who has written a report about the conference. It focuses on workshops that deal with media (technology). Several bloggers are among the paper givers, for example John Postill, Alexander Knorr and Gabriella Coleman (who blogged a little bit about her Ireland trip).

Stéphane Voell, blogger at Traditional Law in Georgia, is wondering if it was worth organizing a workshop after not more that seven or eight people showed up. It reminded him on the days when he as a 17 year old was playing in his school band (Text in German only).

Finally, Cicilie Fagerlid explains us why she is calling conferences for festivals:

The more anthropology (or other academic genres) I engage in during a 3-4 days period, the more engaging it gets. Listening to debates and commenting on papers during the day, and discussing, chatting and mingling during the night, with too little sleep in-between high-wire the brain in a very creative and inspiring fashion. The first time I experienced it, weeklong camping on rock festivals was still fresh in my memory, and that experience was what an anthropology conference reminded me of.

Are there some blog posts I haven’t seen? Something about EASA 2010 you want to share?

UPDATE (18.10.10): Digital Anthropology: An EASA Workshop (Heather Horst, Material World 13.10.10)


The Secret Society of Anthropologists

What’s the point of anthropology conferences?

Conference Culture

Conference Podcasting: Anthropologists thrilled to have their speeches recorded

First reports from Europe’s largest anthropology conference (EASA 2008)

Anthropology and the World: What has happened at the EASA conference (2006)?

What happened at the AAA-conference in San Jose 2006 - a round up


  00:00:02, by admin   . Categories: politics, Us and Them, Northern America, journal articles / papers

Thesis: That's why they go to war

Make Peace. Photo: Danny Hammontree, flickr

What if they gave a war and nobody came?” is a popular slogan from the antiwar-movement. But nowadays, when USA with their allies go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, people do come. Lots of people enlist in the military, even voluntarily, especially in the U.S. Why?

Anthropologist Sarah Salameh answers this question in her master’s thesis Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue. A Midwest American Perspective on Troops, War and Nation.

She’s been on a six months’ fieldwork in a small town in the upper Midwest, a rather conservative and patriotic area that struggles with deindustrialization, low wages and unemployment. Salameh - an opponent of the U.S wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - describes the six months “as the most interesting and mind blowing time of my life.”

And it is indeed an interesting and well written thesis about “one of the most understudied groups": white middle-class Americans.

She introduces us to a diverse group of military people:

The many settings the reader is introduced to includes an Army recruiting office, a public elementary school, Memorial Day celebrations, the motorcycle group the Patriot Guard Riders‟ missions, and the celebration of a National Guard unit returning home from Iraq. One gets to know people ranging from Army recruiters to the girls they helped enlisting at the age of 17, the concerned mother of a soldier, and a bunch of rather unconcerned 5th graders performing their patriotic duty decorating their town‟s cemetery with Star Spangled Banners.

One of her findings is the critical distance many soldiers have towards the government.

While in uniform, the anthropologist writes, soldiers are not allowed to speak negatively about the President. But in reality, as Robert, one of the soldiers, told her “The troops fight for the people, the American people, not the government. Neither the troops nor the people like the government.”

The official reason for waging a war is not always relevant for the soldiers. Looking at peoples‟ motives for joining the military, Salameh writes, “underlines the irrelevance of government and politics".

Not one person she’s talked to (around 100) claimed to have joined the military because he or she thinks that this or that exact war is especially just or necessary as it is explained by politicians.

Robert is one of them. He did not believe the official explanation of the Iraq war (weapons of mass destructions). At times, Robert claimed the Iraq war is a quest for oil.

But he doesn’t care:

I am going for other reasons than oil. When I was in Iraq, I built schools, and handed out backpacks and paper to school children. I fixed dams so the people could have electricity. I spent two years totally committed to doing stuff like that.

U.S. Army Soldiers in Iraq. Photo: Scott Taylor, U.S.Army, flickr

The research subjects explained and mostly legitimized the US military presence and their own participation, with a reference to themselves as Americans.

Robert places American politicians outside these “American people. He places himself, as a service member, on the side of and fighting for, the American people, not the government.

The anthropologist explains:

People and troops, the government and the people make up two societies that act according to two different value systems; the politicians according to a rather crooked one, initiating wars on unjust premises and ignoring the will of the American people; the American people according to what might perhaps be termed a more American one, expressed in Robert‟s account as focused on a wish to keep his own family and other Americans safe and free, and help Iraqis towards a better life.

Help Iraqis towards a better life? That’s in the eyes of the soldiers their responsibility as Americans. The USA is in their view a positive example for other countries, an example to follow. It seems to me they are on a kind of religious mission.

This religious dimension is interesting. Salameh discusses American nationalism as “civil religion”:

Much of the (…) USA and its military, can be understood within the context of civil religion, wherein the nation is the focus of belief, and its endeavours overseas is the spreading (missionary function) of the values inherent in the „national belief‟.

One of the dogmas of this “civil religion” is the idea that God has a special concern for America, putting Americans in the role of the chosen people, and America in the role of the promised land:

This is connected to the story of the American foundation, taking the form of myth, where today‟s American‟s ancestors came to this promised land and made a covenant with it, still binding today‟s Americans. The covenant has two aspects: to maintain the concept of promised land, basically to keep the USA free, as underlined by for example Robert, as well as to „export by example‟ the American version of freedom.

Indianapolis War Memorial Shrine Room.
Photo: Carl Van Rooy, flickr

She also describes the flag as totem, and blood sacrifice as an American group taboo.

At Memorial Day sacrifice was a central theme. “What soldiers in the Army do is to give up their life for others‟ freedom", an army recruiter explained.

Tony‟s 5th graders stood up, faced the flag on the left side of the blackboard, put their right hand on the left side of their chest and said the Pledge simultaneously with the principal‟s voice. Everybody knew the Pledge by heart and said it out loud: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands: one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

But do people in Iraq and Afghanistan really want their help? What about the widespread opposition towards the US wars?

This question is not very relevant for the research subjects. Even if the the people the USA tries to help reject the help, the USA‟s efforts are legitimate.

“It is as if the people on the receiving side of, what by the Americans is presented as „help‟, are not in a position to judge whether what the US presence offers is good or bad", Salameh comments.

This remembers of what Edward Said describes as orientalism.

People in the Orient have frequently been portrayed as more passionate, more violent and barbaric, as well as culturally determined. This „savaging‟ of the Orientals has justified European and American imperialism throughout history, often presented as a civilizing project.
And in the very same act as „the West‟ thus diagnoses other countries as less developed, „the West‟ also categorizes them as passive (they are weak, ill), thus allowing for a paternal role.

For the research subjects, there are “good others” and “bad others” in Iraq and Afghanistan:

There is the „good Other‟ who takes the form of some sort of deprived, but possible, allied and member of the „free world‟; in the accounts above termed „innocents‟, „civilians‟, „the people‟ (of Afghanistan and Iraq), or simply „Afghanis‟ and „Iraqis‟. Opposed to this, exists a „bad Other‟ that cannot possibly be helped, thus only fought. This bad Other carries many different names, among them „terrorists‟, „insurgents‟, „extremists‟, „radicals‟, and to a varying degree also the Iraqi and Afghani „leaders‟ and „government‟ are included.

Although nationalism is important, she stresses that she does not claim it is the only, or the most central factor. There are many individual factors (escaping from smalltown life etc). Economic incentives are often central when people decide to join the military in the first place, and “a thesis could have been written on economy as incentive alone"".

Sarah Salameh is currently turning the thesis into a book where she will include on all those other factors as well (see my short email interview with her, Norwegian only).

The whole thesis is available online.


Thesis: That’s why there is peace

Secret rituals: Folklorist studied the military as an occupational folk group

Embedded anthropology? Anthropologist studies Canadian soldiers in the field

War in Iraq: Why are anthropologists so silent?

Military anthropologist starts blogging about his experiences

More and more anthropologists are recruited to service military operations


The Best of Neuroanthropology (etc)

One of the - in my view - most interesting anthropology blogs, Neuroanthropology, has recently celebrated post #1000 and made a list over their Top 100 Posts - based on page views (there is also a list with their personal favorites).

At the same time, the blog has moved to http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/. They are now part of the new Public Library of Science: PLoS Blogs, “a serious and powerful voice for open-access scholarship and education". Neuroanthropology bloggers Daniel Lende and Greg Downey hope to “act as a voice for anthropology in a scholarly and public forum built around science and medicine".

Neuroanthropology is one of the rather few outward looking anthropology blogs - writing both for fellow researchers and the interested public. There are many in-depth magazine style posts - and not only about neuroanthropology - often regarded as one of the most exciting research fields.

One of the most recent posts deals with the question: How does language affect thought and perception? while others discuss The Pitfalls and Pratfalls of Criminals or The dog-human connection in evolution or the Neuroanthropology of Morality.

Public Anthropology is a popular topic, see for example On Reaching a Broader Public or Glory Days - Anthropologists as Journalists or Student Websites and the Classroom: Anthropology Online.

A lot to explore and learn!


  02:11:47, by admin   . Categories: Asia, development empowerment, ecology nature

Floods in Pakistan: On silent anthropologists and real heroes

Photo: Giro555 / Samenwerkende Hulporganisaties, flickr

Anthropologists are following in media’s and politicians footsteps: They care less about the floods i Pakistan than for the Tsunami in Southeast Asia, the Katrina floods in the USA and the earthquake in Haiti.

A quick search reveals nearly complete silence. While several anthropologists mention the desaster or call for help, they don’t contribute with any analyses.

The only piece by an anthropologist that deals specifically with the floods consists of rather dubious culturalisations: Cultural wisdom in crisis by Kashmali Khan from Oxford University, published in the Pakistani Tribune.

But while I am writing these lines, suddenly an interview about the flood pops up at the great blog Anthropologyworks. Pakistan expert Maggie Ronkin (who’s recently taught on Justice and Peace in Pakistan and Social Development in South Asia at Georgetown University) interviews Fayyaz Baqir, Director of the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center in Islamabad.

Fayyaz Baqir describes the floods as “the worst in the entire world during the past hundred years". But he is eager to add - and this is the interesting part in my view - that we “are underestimating the resilience, resourcefulness, and capacity of the people to cope with the disaster due to the presence of hundreds of formal and informal institutions and mechanisms that help people on a day-to-day basis.”

This capacity and the will to help is echoed in several stories in Pakistani media.

“In the last 10 days", Zeresh John writes, in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, “I’ve seen Pakistan come together in ways never seen before.” “It is an overwhelming feeling", Zeresh John adds, “when people unite for a cause. When in an instant, strangers no longer remain strangers":

The Pakistani youth has risen and literally stepped out on the streets to help their countrymen affected by the flood. (…) Each day brings a relentless and constant chain of support. Where the monetary contributors stop, there is a group of people ready to take over by running to crowded bazaars everyday to buy food supplies, clean drinking water and medicines. From there yet another massive portion of the population is stepping in to pack those supplies and load them into trucks to deliver them to the affected areas.
As Pakistani authorities failed to provide the necessary leadership needed and with no proper coordination in the relief efforts, the civilian population of Pakistan has taken it upon themselves to do what they can in the face of this crisis; in the process, developing a conscientious society that we’re all proud to belong to.

But these stories are not told by the media, a reader comments:

“I live overseas and this post was quite educational for me. How is it that none of our TV channels are highlighting this spirit ? All I’ve seen so far are stories about corruption, fake camps and immoral feudals diverting the flow of flood waters to their benefit. Our free media seems to be failing miserably by promoting only the demoralizing but sensational stories.”

My favorite story is written by Shabnam Riaz in The News: The Real Heroes (see also cached version). She is also writing about “a spirit-lifting experience in this whole nightmare": Pakistan’s youth, young men and poor laborers who help other people:

Small, scattered groups of young boys and men had formed where the rain was the harshest and was threatening to sweep away cars along with their occupants. (…) They worked in unison, all of them had a single purpose and that was to rescue other human beings. (…) They waved at us, hurriedly preparing to help the next hapless driver who was blindly careening into their path. We waved back with euphoric ‘thank you’ but they had already become busy in helping others.
I was touched beyond words. These young men were poor labourers who were most probably hungry as a day full of rain would not have given them a chance to earn their daily wage. I am sure that none of them were owners of a vehicle either. But their dedication to help the other members of society who definitely had more material possessions than they had, without any contempt at all, told me something. It told me that deep inside they were people of substance. Those individuals who had their moral compasses pointing in the right direction.
It also told me something else; that in fact, these were our heroes. Also, these people who slog from sun-up till sun-down for a meagre amount that could hardly put a decent meal on anyone’s table, are our actual role models.

Here another story about how people help themselves (video by Al Jazeera)

Save Pakistan from the catastrophe is the title of an earlier article where anthropologist Fazal Amin Baig calls for action. Fazal Amin Baig wrote it earlier this year in the aftermath of a heavy landslide that took the lives of 19 people and displaced more than 1,500 people. “The year 2010 witnessed a natural disaster, which did not indicate a good omen to the people of Pakistan.” Unfortunately, the anthropologist was right.

Check also Dawn’s excellent special section about the flood and the updates at Global Voices and al-Jazeera and don’t forget to help.

For an excellent example of how to contribute as social scientists, see my earlier post on anthropologists on Katrina.

(update: Pakistan: Netizens In Action Helping Flood Victims. (Global Voices 24.8.2010))


Why we need more disaster anthropology

When applied anthropology becomes aid - A disaster anthropologist’s thoughts

“Disasters do not just happen” - The Anthropology of Disaster (2)

After the Tsunami: Maybe we’re not all just walking replicas of Homo Economicus

Haiti Earthquake: Worldwide solidarity, a common humanity?

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