The "illegal" anthropologist: Shahram Khosravi's Auto-Ethnography of Borders

Globalisation means for most people on this planet higher fences and less movement across borders. The new book by anthropologist Shahram Khosravi is an auto-ethnography of illegalised border crossing.

‘Illegal’ Traveller is based on the anthropologists’s own journey from Iran to Sweden and his informants’ border narratives. “Studies of migrant illegality are often written by people who have never experienced it", he writes in the introduction. “My aim has been to offer an alternative, partly first-hand, account of unauthorized border crossing that attempts to read the world through ‘illegal’ eyes:

This book is the outgrowth of my own ‘embodied experience of borders’, of ethnographic fieldwork among undocumented migrants between 2004 and 2008, and of teaching courses on irregular migration and the anthropology of borders. It also emerges from my activities outside academia: freelance journalism, helping arrange events such as film festivals about border crossing, and volunteer work for NGOs helping failed asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in Sweden.

Auto-ethnography lets migrants contextualize their accounts of the experience of migrant illegality. It helps us explore abstract concepts of policy and law and translate them into cultural terms grounded in everyday life.


In my years as an anthropologist, I have been astonished at how my informants’ experiences overlapped, confirmed, completed, and recalled my own experiences of borders. One interesting aspect of the auto-ethnographic text is that the distinction between ethnographer and ‘others’ is unclear.

I haven’t found any reviews yet, but what I have found is a fascinating paper by him, published in Social Anthropology three years ago. The title: The ‘illegal’ traveller: an auto-ethnography of borders (subscription required now open access!).

In this paper he describes his journey from Iran to Europe as “illegal” refugee and theoreticizes about the ‘world apartheid’ we live in according to him and criticizes the ways we think about borders and migration:

Based on a capitalist-oriented and racial discriminating way of thinking, borders regulate movements of people. However, borders are also the space of defiance and resistance.

It is because of this resistance he is still alive. In September 1986 he tried to leave Iran ‘illegally’ for the first time. “I had then just finished high school and I was called up to do military service during the ongoing terrible war between Iran and Iraq. To come back alive from the front was a chance I did not want to take", he writes.

It was a long journey via Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. He ended up in Sweden via human smugglers. They saved him his life.

Human smuggling is in his opinion recurrently misrepresented by the media and politicians as an entirely mafia-controlled criminality. One of his helpers was Homayoun, a 25-year-old Afghani man, an undocumented immigrant, who had lived clandestinely in Iran since he was 15:

According to immigration law, Homayoun was a human smuggler, a law breaker and a criminal. But in fact he saved my life in one of the most dangerous places, under the rule of ruthless criminal gangs, corrupt border guards and fanatic Mujaheddin. (…) Homayoun facilitated my escape from undesired martyrdom in a long and bloody war.

Maybe one can say that the smugglers did what the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was supposed to do? Khosravi tells shocking stories about the UNHCR who seems to be responsible for several deaths, including suicides, among refugees. Almost everyone in the refugee community had the same answer: “There is no point in going to the UNHCR". You won’t get any help. Khosravi’s application was rejected as well. In the view of the UNHCR officer, his “fear of being killed in a horrible war was not ‘well-grounded’ enough.

He tells us the story of Henry’s suicide:

Henry, a young Iranian-Armenian man (…) was an activist within a communist militia, Cherikhaye Fadai, in Iran. But the UNHCR did not believe him. The reason was a wall painting in a corridor in the basement of a prison in Isfahan, where Henry had been detained for several months before his escape to Pakistan. In the interview Henry was asked by the UNHCR official to say what was painted on the wall in the corridor, to test his reliability. Henry had not seen such a painting and consequently his application was rejected. How did the UNHCR officer know about the wall painting? How could she or he be sure that there was any painting at all in that corridor?

Henry was desperate and did not know what to do. Just a few weeks before my departure from Karachi, one morning when the UNHCR officials arrived in their dark-windowed cars, he poured gasoline on himself and struck a match in front of the UNHCR.

With a false passport, Khosravi escaped to India. There he found a smuggler with good reputation, Nour:

During my five months in New Delhi I shared rooms with many persons in transit. All are now residents of Europe or North America – thanks to the smugglers.

He finally ended up in Sweden, a country that he at that time was not able to locate on a world map.

He explains:

The choice of destination was rarely as it was intended and designed. An ‘illegal’ journey is after all arbitrary. Sometimes the migrants end up in a country just coincidentally.

First of all, the destination was determined by the payment. A few hundred dollars could change the destination from one continent to another. Masoud, a roommate, was Nour’s mosafer (client) at the same time as I was. He had US$500 more than me and today he is a Canadian citizen, lives in Toronto and his children’s mother tongue is English. I am a Swedish citizen, live in Stockholm and my children’s language is Swedish: US$500 destined our lives so differently.

Border crossing is, he continues, is in anthropological sense a ritual:

The border ritual reproduces the meaning and order of the state system. The border ritual is a secular and modern sort of divine sanctity with its own rite of sacrifice. Several hundred clandestine migrants die en route to Europe each year. From January 1993 to July 2007 the deaths of more than 8800 border-crossers were documented in Europe. The Mediterranean Sea is turned into a cemetery for the transgressive travellers.

Border crossing can be experienced in terms of honour and shame:

A legal journey is regarded as an honourable act in the spirit of globalism and cosmopolitanism. The legal traveller passes the border gloriously and enhances his or her social status, whereas the border transgressor is seen as anti-aesthetic and anti-ethical (they are called ‘illegal’ and are criminalised). We live in an era of ‘world apartheid’, according to which the border differentiates between individuals. While for some the border is a ‘surplus of rights’, for others it is a ‘color bar’ (Balibar 2002: 78–84).

Khosravi ends his paper with some “final remarks” from 18 years later (2006), when he arrives at Bristol airport, along with colleagues from Stockholm University. He was convener for a workshop on ‘irregular migration in Europe’ at the biannual conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA).

At the immigration control, he is illegalised again in the name of the “war on terror":

After passing immigration control, I was stopped by a security official who let my blond fellow travellers pass. In the middle of a narrow corridor a mini interrogation began which lasted for half an hour.

My status as a Swedish citizen disappeared at the border because of my face. I answered questions about myself, my education, work, purpose of visit to Bristol. Then she asked about my parents, where they lived and what they did. I was not willing to disclose to her any kind of information about my elderly parents, who have been subjected to persecution by the Iranian state for decades. When I refused to answer her questions about my parents, she threatened to detain me first for nine hours and then, if necessary, for nine days according to the Anti- Terrorism Act.

I protested that she had targeted me because of my ‘Middle Eastern’ look and her selection of suspicious persons was racist. She did not even deny it and said ‘you [me and who else?] want to kill us. We have to protect ourselves’.

Khosravi has published some articles in Swedish, see my earlier post - Ikke kall dem for illegale


More Global Apartheid?

For free migration: Open the borders!

Why borders don’t help - An engaged anthropology of the US-Mexican border

Research in refugee camps: Too political for anthropology?

Nina Glick Schiller: Who belongs where? A Global Power Perspective on Migration (ASA-blog)


  19:42:33, by admin   . Categories: Us and Them, Asia, books, poverty, history

Book review: The deep footprints of colonial Bombay

Three Women of Mumbai. Photo: Steve Evans, flickr

Antropologi.info book reviewer Tereza Kuldova has read another book for us.

“One wonders how little has changed”, she writes in her review of The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890-1920 by historian Prashant Kidambi. The book is in her opinion “a great read also for any urban anthropologist, not only for historians who are the main target group".


The deep footprints of colonial Bombay

Review: Kidambi, Prashant. 2007. The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890-1920. Ashgate

Tereza Kuldova, Ph.D. student in social anthropology, University of Oslo

At times, when you read about old Bombay, about the ‘lost’ times when ‘Bombay’ was not ‘Mumbai’, you are faced with idealized narratives of a golden era, now long gone and mourned. A picture of Bombay is painted in which people of diverse religions, classes, castes and live harmoniously together; it is a picture of a conflict-free era, where rules and obligations are followed and mutual respect prevails.

It is then only refreshing to read an account of colonial Bombay (1890-1920) that confronts us with a much more realistic picture. A picture of Bombay struck by two global pandemics, as well as by episodes of collective violence. A picture of Bombay, where the ruling elites try to handle the ‘unintended city’ – a result of industrialization and intense immigration – and its issues of sanitation, slums, famine, plague, riots, order and criminality.

Divided by caste, class and religion

Reading Kidambi’s account, it becomes obvious that, as he himself says, the imagined ‘ideal’ Bombay is “essentially an exercise in ‘historical fantasy’ that elides over the extent to which the city has always been divided by caste, class and religion” (236). If one has some knowledge of contemporary Mumbai, reading this book makes one realize how little has changed and how deep footprints have the colonial rule left in today’s Mumbai.

Prashant Kidambi’s inquiry into the urban history of Bombay manages to grasp the dynamics of urban change at the same time as it catches the reader’s attention – and that even though the wealth of historical detail can be overwhelming. 

He focuses on three decades in which, in his own words, “the city was restructured in accordance with the dictates of modern urban planning and intrusive modes of governance were deployed in response to the challenges posed by rapid industrialization and massive labor migration” and in which “the city became the site of a vigorous associational culture and ‘modernizing’ social activism that infused its civil society with new dynamism” (p. 9). 

Prashant Kidambi argues, that the city was a ‘contested terrain’, shaped as much by acts of resistance as by the operations of power (p. 12).  Contrary to the “widely entrenched perception that the norms and practices of civil society were solely internalized by the Anglophone intelligentsia and were more or less alien to the cultural worldview and dispositions of the lower orders” (p. 14), the lower strata of society actually took part in the associational civility, the civil society of the emerging Bombay (pp. 157-202).

An interesting part of the book, particularly for an anthropologist such as me, is the discussion of the urban middle class formation in colonial India in relation to the concepts of ‘social reform’ and ‘social service’ and the way in which middle class became formed by these practices.

The distinction between ‘social reform’ and ‘social service’ is I believe useful in this respect.  Kidambi argues that “while ‘social reform’ during the late nineteenth century had largely denoted the internal attempts at ‘self-improvement’ within particular castes and communities, the emergent discourse and practice of ‘social service’ articulated by members of the high-status Anglophone intelligentsia was directed at the destitute, the downtrodden and the disadvantaged” (p. 15).

A leading cosmopolitan commercial center

Kidambi’s account of the colonial Bombay is centered around several topics. Firstly he introduces the reader to the rising city of Bombay, a city that had by 1860 “become, after New York and Liverpool, the largest cotton market in the world” (p. 18) and that “by the last decade of the nineteenth century (…) could justifiably lay claim to being a leading commercial and financial center” (p. 23), where a “highly cosmopolitan culture amongst the business elites” (p. 24) developed. At that time “Bombay was also home to a nascent, but dynamic, English-educated Indian middle class comprising lawyers, doctors, engineers, businessmen, journalists, teachers and clerks employed in mercantile and government offices. This middle class was a product of colonial policies that dated back to the second quarter of the nineteenth century” (p. 26). 

The growth of Bombay as a business and industrial center also “attracted a large, predominantly male, proletarian population”, which “found employment in the cotton-textile industry” (p. 29). However, the “city’s modernization had resulted in ‘two Bombays’, the one inhabited by a cosmopolitan elite that nestled in the fashionable enclaves of the city, the other full of chawls, crowded, insanitary, ill-ventilated slums and filthy lanes, stables and godowns” (p. 36). (One wonders here, how little has changed, when in today’s Mumbai 95% of its population lives on 5% of its space and the richest 5% occupies 95% of the land).

Diseases and segregation: Urban poor as threat

Overcrowding, slums, sanitary issues, disease, increased criminality, all these were the issues that increasingly kept the colonial administration preoccupied. And in 1896 this was only to get more intense as the plague epidemic attacked Bombay. 

The plague and its handling by the administration becomes another interesting topic. Kidambi argues that “for nearly a decade after the initial outbreak in the city, long-standing assumptions that viewed epidemic diseases as a product of locality-specific conditions of filth and squalor exercised significant influence over the colonial state’s war against plague” (p. 50).

These localist perceptions meant that the policies were aimed at sanitary regeneration of the city, cleaning of the infected areas, their evacuation or eventual demolition. Furthermore a notion that Kidambi labels as “contingent contagionism” has developed, which could be summarized as follows: “If plague was a disease either generated by, or nurtured in, filth and squalor, many officials argued, it followed that Bombay’s poor who resided in ill-ventilated, overcrowded tenements would be more susceptible to its ravages. This, in turn, buttressed the belief that it was the poor, rather than the ‘respectable’ classes, who were the ‘natural’ bearers of contagion” (p. 64). “Consequently, the colonial state’s antiplague offensive was in large measure directed at segregating the urban poor, who were perceived as posing threat to the physical well-being of Bombay’s elites” (p. 70). 

Shadow City - Dharavi, Mumbai. Photo: Akshay Mahajan, flickr

The next chapter deals with the Bombay Improvement Trust (1898), which was meant as a solution to the sanitary problems of the city; it dealt with the issues of town-planning, slum clearance, tried to expand the city’s residential area and provide sanitary housing for the poor.

Kidambi concludes that “(b)y the end of the First World War, it was widely acknowledged that the Bombay Improvement Trust failed to redress the civic problems that had led to its creation. On the contrary, most contemporary observers agreed that the Trust’s activities had worsened Bombay’s housing and sanitary problems” (p. 112).  However, “notwithstanding the Trust’s failure to carry out the tasks for which it had been established, its policies has profound, albeit unintended, consequences for the development of Bombay’s spatial organization and social geography” (p. 113).

The emerging importance of the ‘street’

Kidambi goes on to discuss colonial policing strategies and control and regulation of the urban spaces and the perceived threats to urban ‘order’, particularly after the experience of two major riots in the 1890s. He presents an interesting discussion of the emerging importance of the ‘street’ and the life of and on the street and in neighborhoods.

“The street was the principal locus of working-class social life and recreational activities ranging from akharas (gymnasia) and tamashas (street theatre) to the liquor shops where many workers congregated after work” (p. 121). 

He concludes that in the 1890s “the traditional colonial strategy of ‘indirect’ control began to give way to a more intrusive approach vis-à-vis the urban neighborhoods and the emergent plebeian public sphere. The 1902 Police Act vastly enhanced the discretionary powers of the police over a range of ‘public’ activities and urban spaces that had hitherto been unregulated. Their newly consolidated powers, in turn, increased the scale and dimension of conflict between the colonial police and the populace. Consequently, the relationship between the colonial administration and plebeian society in Bombay grew markedly fractious in the years leading up to the end of the Great War” (p. 155). 

Mumbai at night. Photo: Premshree Pillai, flickr

Towards the end of the book, Kidambi takes on topics such as the emergence of the civil society in Bombay and the involvement of particularly the English-educated elite and middle class in various educational, scientific, religious and social reform oriented associations.

He concludes that “the rich diversity of associational activity within Indian civil society rendered its public sphere a ‘segmented’ domain in which the fashioning of the ‘autonomous, reason-bearing individual’ was offset by a countervailing process ‘through which community identities were reworked and reaffirmed’. It also invested urban public culture in colonial India with an intrinsic plurality and polyphony that has continued to inflect its post-colonial career” (p. 201). 

The last chapter of the book is devoted to the question of social reform and social service and the social activism of Bombay’s intelligentsia directed at the uplifting of the depressed classes. These efforts of the educated middle and upper classes were both integral to the process of nation building and also had the effect of strengthening “the claims to public leadership of the educated middle class during the first two decades of the twentieth century. By the end of the First World War, educated men were able to tout their credentials as the ‘real’ leaders of the citizenry far more confidently than during the late nineteenth century” (p. 231).

Relevance for today?

There are several things that I have been missing in the book (but that may be likewise a general problem with the genre of historical accounts).

The book deals with a period of three decades (1890-1920). Except for a brief note in the conclusion there is no reflection on the effects of these three decades on the later developments. One is simply left to conclude on one’s own. It feels as if relating to present days or even decades following the three decades under thorough investigation, would not be rigorous enough.  I would prefer at least some reflections, that would give the reader a sense of continuity and change and put things into a broader context of events that followed and issues that Mumbai is faced with now. This would turn a historical narrative, largely of interest only to specialists, into a reading of relevance for a much broader audience. 

Another thing that at times bothered me was what I experienced as a continual struggle of the author to give the account an appearance of factuality, of presenting matters ‘as they were’ and the very little space left to polemics with one’s own material and the works of others. This appearance of an authoritative account is greatly supported by the referencing system that uses footnotes at the bottom of each page (and not references directly in the text) and by the use of single quotes for both quotations from other’s works and archival materials and author’s own expressions in ‘quotes’. This is not very lucky as the reader very often looses track of who says what. 

Nevertheless, reading this book was enjoyable and would be definitely a great read also for any urban anthropologist, not only for historians who are the main target group. 

>> information about the book by the publisher (Ashgate)

>> read the first chapter of the book (pdf)

>> read another review: Bombay on the brink of modernity (Hans Schenk)

>> Article by Prashant Kidambi: ‘The Ultimate Masters of the City’: Police, Public Order and the Poor in Colonial Bombay (Crime, Histories and Societies 2004)


Tereza Kuldova: Networks that make a difference. The production of social cohesion in Lucknow, North India

Colonialism, racism and visual anthropology in Japan: Photography, Anthropology and History part II

How the Ganges boatmen resist upper-caste and state domination

Sheds light on the collaboration between science and colonial administration in Naga ethnography


  01:50:24, by admin   . Categories: Saami, persons and theories, Arctic / Northern Regions

Researching in "non-prestigious areas" - Robert Paine 1926-2010

(via anthropologyworks) British-Canadian anthropologist Robert Paine died at the age of 84. Eveybody who’s interested in the Northern and Polar areas will know his name.

He sent his most recent article for publication just weeks ago. Last year his second volume on the Saami Camps of the Tundra came out. It was nearly 40 years ago he went to Northern Scandinavia for the first time. The Far North was a non-prestigous area in anthropology at that time.

Joan Sullivan has written an informative obituary in The Globe and Mail, that at the same time tells us something about the history of anthropology and the changes the discipline has gone through:

The discipline was very different then, and there was little funding for research outside the purview of Britain’s Colonial Social Science Research Council.

This did not deter him at all. He went off to study the Saami, then called Lapps, in Northern Scandinavia. “He had £50 in his pocket, and he went to the English seaport of Grimsby, to see if he could get a berth", said his partner Moyra Buchan.

“In a pub he met an English skipper who asked if he spoke Norwegian. And he lied quite blatantly and said yes. The skipper took him on to read magazines to him. Robert said he made most of them up!”

He worked odd jobs, eventually as a reindeer herder, learned to speak Saami, and immersed himself in that life for three years, even marrying a Saami woman, Inger-Anna Gunnare, with whom he had a son.

You can learn more about his research and anthropology in old days in an one hour long video-interview that Piers Vitebsky conducted with Paine in 1986 (also available as download)

“Robert was an anthropologist of the old school. A fieldworker. At his core, he was mistrustful of conclusions that weren’t ultimately based on the researcher’s own conversations with individuals in the field", wrote another famous arctic anthropologist, Jean Briggs, on Paines’ tributes page at Memorial University, Canada.

It seems that there are no articles by him online, but his work is presented or referred to in several theses or papers that are freely available, for example in Living With Risk and Uncertainty: The Case of the Nomadic Pastoralists in the Aru Basin, Tibet by Marius Warg Næss, In the Reindeer Forest and on the Tundra. Modern Reindeer Management and the Meaning of Local Ecological Knowledge by Helena Ruotsala (published in Pro Ethnologia 18), Do Fences Make Good Neighbours? The Influence Of Territoriality In State-Sámi Relations by Scott M. Forrest and Claiming reindeer in Norway: towards a theory of the dynamics of propertyregime formation and change by Cassandra Bergstrøm.


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

Blog: The Sami People of Northern America

Why Siberian nomads cope so well with climate change

“But We Are Still Native People” - Tad McIlwraith’s dissertation is online

Inuit play makes fun of anthropologists


New: Search Open Access Anthropology Journals

I’ve reorganized the overview over open access journals and added a search feature. Now you can search the contents of around 100 journals in anthropology and related fields. It seems to work, have a try!


  15:46:30, by admin   . Categories: politics, Us and Them, Asia, anthropology (general), ethics

The return of colonial anthropology?

“A dysfunctional ethnic and tribal brawl has been the norm in Afghanistan for centuries. Afghanistan is a mess. ” Who said that? A frustrated U.S. military officer? No, a professor of anthropology, Robert L. Moore.

In his article Tribes, Corruption Ail Afghanistan in The Ledger he shares his concerns about the difficulties for “us” (=the U.S. military) to “push this contentious country into the 21st century” and turn it into a “normal, stable country” that will be “governable in the way that most nations are".

His main point: Afghanistan is an ethnic and religious mess:

Afghanistan is a mess. It is populated by a multitude of ethnic groups, the dominant ones being Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Turkic. Many of these groups are further subdivided into traditional tribes whose members regard loyalty to their tribe or clan as more vital than loyalty to any nation or government. Alongside these tribal and ethnic divisions are religious differences that separate Shi’a from Sunni Muslims. The upshot of all this is that Afghanistan is not governable in the way that most nations are.

“In this harsh landscape", he continues, “our efforts to “stabilize” Afghanistan cannot bring about rapid dramatic change":

There are areas of Afghanistan, mainly non-Pashtun regions, where the Taliban are deeply distrusted and in these areas our troops might be welcomed. But would our fighting on behalf of, say, Tajiks (who, by the way, are ethnic cousins of Iran’s Persians) help solve Afghanistan’s long-standing problem of ethnic conflict? It is more likely to simply add another dimension to the dysfunctional ethnic and tribal brawl that has been the norm in Afghanistan for centuries.

Ethnic mess – apartheid as ideal? U.S-military="us". “Anthropology= serve those in power” - Sounds like 19th century colonial anthropology!

Over at Zero Anthropology, Maximilian Forte gives an overview over European press coverage of U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System and its embedding of civilian social scientists in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Sheds light on the collaboration between science and colonial administration in Naga ethnography

Army-Anthropologists call Afghans “Savages"?

“No wonder that anthropology is banished from universities in the ‘decolonized’ world”

The dangerous militarisation of anthropology

The Five Major Challenges for Anthropology


  23:45:51, by admin   . Categories: Europe, books, anthropology (general), music

The world's only anthropology professor of indie music?

Arctic Monkeys @ Explanda del Estadio Azteca. Photo: monophonic.grrrl / Mariel A. M., flickr

“Ask the indie professor” is the name of a new series in the Guardian. The indie professor in question is Wendy Fonarow. At a music festival she was recently introduced as “the world’s only professor of indie music”.

“I’m not sure if I’m the only indie professor, but I’ve spent the last 18 years recording, examining and writing about the culture of indie and the international music industry”, Wendy Fonorow writes in her opening post. Her book “Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music” tackles questions such as “Why are drummers the most ridiculed band members?”, she adds.

The readers of this new series are invited to ask questions. “So if you are curious about why cassettes are the new vinyl, or whatever else takes your fancy, here is your chance to ask”, she writes. “And please someone ask me about why Americans think they invented indie.”

After one day, there are already more than 250 comments.

The Guardian presented her book two years ago.

Here is what she according to the Guardian writes about indie culture and religion:

“Religious narratives show up in all expressive forms, from politics to music. I see a lot of the religious narrative of Puritanism in the indie music scene; the idea that, to have the pure divine experience, it has to be direct and unmediated. So the smaller and more intimate a show is, the ‘truer’ fans believe their experience was, compared to someone who saw them later on in a bigger venue. That’s why so many people claim to have seen the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club. You can also find the aesthetic of Puritanism in the way indie people present themselves, such as childlike clothing, this idea of returning to the golden age of childhood or the musical past.”

Or here about music as ethnicity:

One of my ex-students once said ‘music is my ethnicity’. People want to find other people who are like-minded so instead of finding their ethnic identity through birth they find it through aesthetic preferences and that becomes their identity. For each one of those music movements, there are modes of display. Desmond Morris talked about how different earrings can signify where you are in the age grade of certain tribes in central Africa. To outsiders these displays are subtle or hard to notice at all.”

Interesting! But it seems the anthropologist is extremely fond of theory and might tend to over-analyse her informants. Here is how the Guardian begins the presentation:

Remember that time you were crowd surfing at an Arctic Monkeys gig and thought you were just having a drunken laugh? Rubbish! You were, in fact, being “collaborative in a unique social space, expressing super-intimacy with strangers and rejecting the self-aggrandising that comes with stage-diving”. Oh yes you were. And that time you were standing at the bar and thought you were just, well, thirsty? Not at all: you were probably just “proving your credentials as an industry professional” or “communicating to others a disinterest in the act”.

These are the theories of professor Wendy Fonarow, anthropologist at UCLA in California and the author of Empire Of Dirt: The Aesthetics And Rituals Of British Indie Music.

Her book has received a lot of positive reviews, while Pichfork reviewer William Bower is less convined by the book and its language. Check also Wendy Fonarow’s website at http://www.indiegoddess.com/


”Eurovision produces a new form of unity”

Hindi Film Songs and the Barriers between Ethnomusicology and Anthropology

Reggae, Punk and Death Metal: An Ethnography from the unknown Bali

Multimedia Music Ethnography of Yodelling and Alphorn Blowing

“Pop culture is a powerful tool to promote national integration”


Thesis: That's why there is peace

The Rumi Darwaza ("the Turkish Gate") in Lucknow. Foto: Himalayan Trails / Rajesh, flickr

Why are some areas of this world more peaceful than others? In her master’s thesis Networks That Make A Difference, anthropologist Tereza Kuldova explains why the Indian city of Lucknow has remained peaceful throughout its history, even throughout such events as the Partition of India in 1947, and the demolition of Babri mosque in 1992 by Hindu nationalists in Ayodhya, less than 100 km from Lucknow.

“In contrast to the vast majority of studies concerned with communal violence in general and the Hindu-Muslim violence in India in particular, I opt the opposite point of departure, the one of communal peace”, Kuldova writes who is currently PhD fellow at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo and author of several book reviews here at antropologi.info.

The heart of the peaceful nature of Lucknow is according to her “a particular blend of local history and networks of economic dependency which cut across the boundaries of class, caste, religion and locality. These networks are produced by the local embroidery industry, known under the name Chikan. Chikan is a traditional Muslim craft, and traded mostly by Hindu businessmen. In the last two decades there were more and more Muslims among the traders and Hindus among the embroiderers.

Chikan embroidery. Foto: Joey Berzowska, flickr

The Chikan industry gives employment to about 20 percent of the city’s population. It integrates people of different origins – rural, urban, lower class, middle class, men, women, Hindus, Muslims and creates according to her “an incredible network of mutual dependency, obligations and expectations".

Religion is often used by political leaders to polarize people. It is rarely the main source of conflicts. These economic networks of interdependency, writes Tereza Kuldova, neutralize the polarizing strategies of the political leaders and lessen the chances of the occurrence of the communal tension. They lead to the “priority of the processes of togethering” as opposed to the “processes of othering":

The growth of the industry and these networks, especially after 1990s, that is noticeably connected to the emergence and the ideology of the Hindu nationalism, has at the same time prevented the negative effects of this ideology, which have been violently felt in Lucknow’s neighbouring areas. This happened by expanding the cross-cutting networks and by turning a craft, which could have possibly been labelled as a “Muslim” craft, into a “traditionally Indian” craft. Chikan has been turned into embroidery which is worn by both Muslims and Hindus to express their Indianness, sense for tradition and fashion.

Additionally, Lucknow is by its inhabitants imagined as a peaceful and tolerant city, as the city of the Nawabs, rulers who bridged faiths:

Almost all accounts of the oral history that I gathered began like this: “In the times of Nawabs, the arts and architecture flourished, it was the time when a Muslim king danced as Lord Krishna…now where you can see that”. The Nawabs thus became associated with secularism; it is them who made Lucknow a “peaceful, clean and a neat city”

You don’t have to be born in Lucknow to be a Lakhnavi:

This imagination of anything or anyone as “Lakhnavi” goes in result beyond the dichotomy of Muslim vs. Hindu; it is rather about belonging to a particular place, which is populated by “Lakhnavis”, first and foremost.

The most persistent logic of the reasoning of why Lucknow is a peaceful city thus goes (tautologically enough) in the field as follows: “Lucknow is a peaceful city, because it is Lucknow, Lakhnavis do not fight, it has always been like that here and anyone who comes here just has to adopt that culture” (From a conversation with a Hindu businessman, 25.3.08.)
The discourse of the mythical past seems to work hand in hand with the economic structures and the social and economic networks in the city, creating both economic and discursive basis for the establishment of “relaxed” communal relationships.

As consequence of her findings, Tereza Kuldova encourages anthropologists to think rather and in terms of identifications than identities and in terms of networks than dichotomies:

Through the Chikan industry and through Chikan as a commodity, we can learn something about the fluidity of the social systems, about change and continuity, about the importance of the cross-cutting networks, about the discourses which govern the market and people’s choices and last but not least about the experience of modernity in India.


We have even seen that what is usually considered as unchangeable identities, particularly in the Indian context, namely the religious identities, are as mutable as any other. They are identifications, that might be at times stronger, at times weaker and at other times they might be replaced by new ones. People play with these identifications in a similar way as the popular Bollywood cinema does. (…) The concept of identification thus, being much richer, gives us more space to acknowledge the discursive shifts, which occur when the identifications are played out. At the same time as it acknowledges the situational and relational character of identity.


The network approach reminds us of the complexity of the social life and its situations, as well as of the impossibility to divide and classify the flow of social and economic interactions into clear-cut categories. (…)
Anthropology in general and I believe this study in particular, “has the authority and the ability to collapse a number of counterproductive dichotomies: the local and the global, the virtual and the real, the place-bound and the “non-place”, the universal and the particular. In real-life settings such contrasts evaporate” (Eriksen 2003: 15). “The “India”, where the past is inserted into the present and then projected into the future, questions the colonial dichotomies of “India” vs. “West”, “modernity” vs. “tradition”” (Favero 2005:24).

>> download the thesis


Why more scholarship on war than peace?

- Highlight the connections between people!

How to challenge Us-and-Them thinking? Interview with Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Mahmood Mamdani: “Peace cannot be built on humanitarian intervention”

An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence

Applied anthropology: A wedding ceremony in support of durable solutions in West Timor

Presenting 2nd generation Multi-Sited Ethnography


For more anthropology of climate change

Photo: The World Wants a Real Deal, flickr

In the recent issue of Imponderabilia Heid Jerstad criticizes the lack of anthropological research on climate change. Climate change is only present on the margins of anthropological research, Jerstad claims. A similar critique was formulated by Simon Batterbury in his article Anthropology and global warming: the need for environmental engagement.

But several climate anthropologists have been in the news recently. In an interview with the Borneo Post, anthropologist Bob Pokrant addresses climate change in Borneo. To tackle the climate change issue, he proposed using the ‘adaption approach’ instead of the ‘mitigation approach’:

By mitigation, we mean reducing the sources of greenhouse effect. By adaption, we mean recognising that climate change is happening and then work out a programme to reduce the social vulnerability of those affected. We have to empower the people to take the future in their own hands. In countries affected by climate change most, their people’s capacity to adapt must be built up.

Fight global warming ‘with traditional methods’, urged Pietro Laureano. architect, town planer and anthropologist. Traditional water management methods from the Sahara and Ethiopia and Iraq’s Babylon area could be used alongside newer technologies such as solar power to prevent desertification and energy wastage. See also interview with Laureano and his paper Traditional Techniques of Water Management a New Model for a Sustainable Town and Landscape. From the First Water Harvesting Surfaces to Paleolithic Hydraulic Labyrinths.

Environmental anthropologist Kenny Broad was interviewed by Hawaii 24/7. As an anthropologist “his focus is bridging the physical and social aspects of science, specifically the human-environment relationship along coastlines and the impacts of climate change.”

For as Linda Connor says, climate change is a cultural crisis, - an aspect that in her opinion is ignored in much of the technical, economic and political talk of policies and solutions.

A few weeks ago, Susan Crate’s research on climate change in Siberia was presented. On her website lots of papers can be downloaded, for example the most recent one Bull of Winter? Grappling with the Cultural Implications of and Anthropology’s Role(s) in Global Climate Change (pdf). Together with Marc Nuttall, she edited the book Anthropology and Climate Change. From Encounters to Actions. See also interview with Nuttall on CBC News “Human face of climate change: Weather out of its mind”.

At the University of Copenhagen, anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup is the leader of the interdisciplinary climate change research project Waterworlds. In an interview, she explains the relevance of historical anthropology for today’s climate change.

See also Climate Change and Small Island Developing States: A Critical Review by Ilan Kelman and Jennifer J. West (Ecological and Environmental Anthropology, Vol 5, No 1 (2009)) and Waterworld1: the heritage dimensions of ‘climate change’ in the Pacific by Rosita Henry and William Jeffery as well as information about climate refugees and my earlier post Why Siberian nomads cope so well with climate change. For even more literature see Bibliography for the anthropology of climate change.

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