Towards an anthropology of statelessness

As part of my tenure-track evaluation I held a public lecture at the end of April 2020 at the University of Konstanz on the topic of statelessness. I am currently in the process of drafting a funding application that would enable me to work towards developing how an anthropology of statelessness could look like.

I’d like to mention a couple of thoughts here to help me think through this potential new subdiscipline and to raise awareness of what I think is a structural lack at two different levels:

1) within the very concept of the nation-state and

2) within the anthropology of the state.

While the first concerns the prime object of analysis of the anthropology of the state, the second concerns a structural lack within how we have up to date researched that prime object.

I argue that statelessness has so far been approached as something ‘lacking’ in the constitution of those who do not have a nationality — for whatever reason (and there are many). Thus, activists, practitioners, (I)NGOs and other global actors have focussed their attention on ‘fixing’ the lack of the stateless by trying to make sure they, too, receive nationality (or citizenship; I won’t go into details here as to where these concepts overlap and where they don’t). In doing so, statelessness has remained an ‘anomaly’ — something that needs ‘fixing’. But we have neglected (almost entirely) in our scholarly analyses (these are mostly legal, political and almost none anthropological up to date) that it might not be the stateless who need ‘fixing’, but the nation-state itself. This argument has been made by the political theorist Phil Cole (2017), for example,  but needs to be taken seriously and thought through in legal and political anthropology as well for it might provide novel insights into the anthropology of the state.

Understanding statelessness as a structural lack of nation-states

In my tenure lecture, I have argued that statelessness cannot be researched at the ‘heart of the state’ (Fassin) or at its ‘margins’ (Das and Poole) where anthropology has so far located its objects of inquiry when studying the state in a transversal or tangential (Harvey) manner. It rather points to what I – with Lacan – would define as a structural lack in how nation-states are set up and operate. As such, this type of lack is not meant to be ‘filled’. As much as statelessness is not a mode of being that could be ‘fixed’, the structural lack that statelessness opens up statelessnesswithin the concept of the nation-state is not meant to be ‘filled’. It is there on purpose, I argue. Treating statelessness not as anomaly, but as an intentional product in the way the state operates allows for new insights into the state as much as it will move our engagement with the phenomenon of statelessness beyond appeals of ‘fixing’.

As much as statelessness is not a mode of being that could be ‘fixed’, the structural lack that statelessness opens up within the concept of the nation-state is not meant to be ‘filled’.

Despite the fact that we have international conventions in place since the mid 1950s, and despite the fact that more and more states have ratified these conventions and are closing legal loopholes: statelessness continues to exist and in many parts of the world, including Europe, its numbers are increasing. It remains one of the most overlooked human rights violations and it won’t go away, no matter how much the UN wants it to. The project I am currently drafting would bring legal scholars, anthropologists and practitioners together and study the structural lack of statelessness as an intrinsic component of the nation-state.

From stateless societies to stateless individuals

Anthropologists have historically dealt with stateless societies as part of Europe’s (and America’s) colonial politics of expansion and exploitation. Most ethnographic monographs centred on ‘acephalous’ ethnic groups or tried to grapple with understanding how groups organized and interacted with one another without a clear leadership or someone ‘in power’. After the demise of colonialism, such work has almost completely come to a halt; the state has come to tighten its grip on ethnic groups to such an extent that there is, by now, no place on earth that would not feel its eery presence. This includes hunter-gatherer societies (Sapignoli 2018) and sedentary tribes (Girke 2018) in rural Africa as much as agrarian groups in Southeast Asia (Scott 2010). However, statelessness has remained an immanent phenomenon worth anthropological attention. My argument is, however, that nowadays we need to focus on stateless individuals (in the sense of an anthropo-logy) more than on stateless societies (in the sense of an ethno-logy). While many groups are de facto stateless (e.g. Rohingya), the de jure status of statelessness is granted to individuals only. In line with an existential anthropology (Jackson and Piette 2015), my aim is to research statelessness not as a historical leftover of group encounters with the (colonial) state, but as an existential human condition that allows us to understands a structural lack of the contemporary nation-state.

Stay tuned …

 

 

#corona On being prudent

In a recent post for Allegra Lab, I ask what we can do from our homes, to which we are confined these weeks, being overwhelmed, seeing the problematic and political nature of  all these facts and narratives that are presented to us in the Covid-19-crisis.

I have elaborated on three tasks:

First, we can join public debates and be a voice of prudence. This is to help de-escalate discussions where people – sometimes out of sensationalism, sometimes out of hurried obedience and often out of fear – demand that their states take extreme measures of surveillance, deprivation of liberty and sanction. The term “state of exception” has been used to such an extent that we have gotten used to it already – exactly what Giorgio Agamben warned us about.

Second, we can engage with our students and address their sense of insecurity by adapting our upcoming or ongoing courses, seminars and lectures in a way that allows the topic to influence whatever subject we had intended to work on. Since few things are as pervasive as a global pandemic, there is hardly any subject (in anthropology and beyond) which we could not reconceptualize by taking account of COVID-19. As we will have to teach digitally, it is also important to discuss the pitfalls that come with online learning, while making use of newly available resources.

Third, we can practice writing our fieldwork diaries in our homes: Note down how the virus has already impacted our own personal everyday lives, how it has led to a restructuring of our daily schedules, how it has decreased and altered the amount of time we spend with colleagues and friends and how it might have increased the number of hours we spend with members of our household. For those of us who have children, we can observe how they, too, struggle to adapt to a physical world that has suddenly shrunk and to a digital world that has suddenly expanded. We can look outside our windows and correlate how changes in governmental policies become observable in the very way people physically move in the streets. And we can honestly record our own feelings from day to day. We can then come back to these notes at a later stage – just as we do when we come home from the field.

This too, to me, is public anthropology. One directly engages with the media, the second takes up current topics and reworks these with our students for whom we are responsible, and the third collects data diligently in order to be able to draw from this source later on when we have the capacity and the psychological distance required to take a long hard look at what is happening in front of our eyes right now.

Read the full post here. My intro is part of an ongoing series which we have labelled #corona thread.

#corona: Views from an anthropology of the state

This is from my twitter thread which I started on March 9, after having returned from Singapore and Myanmar. I am saving it here for better readability and for those, who do not use social media.

Here are my thoughts on the corona virus from the perspective of an anthropology of the state: Having just returned from 2,5 weeks of short-term fieldwork in Southeast Asia (Singapore and Myanmar) I noticed the following:

When we look at the policies of authoritarian states such as Singapore and Myanmar we can see highly diverse tactics in how to deal with an epidemic or pandemicSingapore: closes its borders, monitors its citizens, checks every persons temperature at the airport and at hotels. Provides sanitizing gels everywhere, cleans public spaces regularly several times a day. Informs on all media channels how to wash hands, keep distance, when to stay home and whom to call. The population not only cooperates, but even copies the state’s measures (e.g. in restaurants, in gyms, and malls). Singapore reports all cases early. As a result, the growth rate of new cases has slowed down and the number has almost remained the same since February.

Myanmar – in contrast: no checking of temperature at airports, no entry denial to travellers from high-risk countries, no information beyond a couple of posters in downtown Yangon. No cases reported until today. No trust in the government, but a lot of rumours.

Then I return to Germany and I find: people buying toilet paper (?) and pasta in large quantities. People still not understanding how to sneeze and when to stay away from crowds. People stealing sanitizing gels even at my university – with the result that none are provided. Due to Germany’s federal system, there is no centrally communicated measurement in place, but an endless trickle-down of bits and pieces of news – all in the form of recommendations, none binding, in many cases not adhered to. There is a lingering sense of defeatism. There is also a slight sense of panic. The hoarding of toilet paper and the sanitizing gels standing in for trying to substitute danger with purity. The buying of pasta seems to be a post 2WW phenomenon, though. None of it is rational behaviour, but driven by fear.

Authoritarian states such as Singapore, China, but also Israel switch into command mode, and its citizens obey as there is no other option. They fear the state more than the virus. In authoritarian states such as Myanmar (and the current US) there is politics by denial: Business as usual, nothing to see here or to report. And in democratic states such as Germany, it takes an epidemic such as the current one to see where the limits of governmental agency are:

The downside of upholding individual freedom is that we are on our own.

While China’s effort has been written about as “collective”, as in this article, it was really a top-down decision by a few officials that was adhered to because people fear the state. While we in Germany are still enjoying our individual freedom to ignore governmental recommendations, an unintended side-effect of surveillance and micro governance in authoritarian states is that it ultimately aids health care measurements and helps curb epidemics and pandemics. And a side-effect in democracies and other authoritarian states is that the upholding of individual freedom comes at a prize, as does the complete denial of the issue. The two are actually close. That is, when it comes to epidemics, Germany and Myanmar have a lot in common!

March 24: I’ll continue: “Queremos o melhor para população. Se o governo não tem capacidade de dar um jeito, o crime organizado resolve” – This is a statement from organized crime in Rio, Brazil who enforced a nightly lockdown because they would take care of the population, in contrast to the government. Also, ISIS has warned its people not to enter “the land of the epidemic” (aka Europe ) and layed out a “sharia directive” that includes how to wash your hands properly.

We live in interesting times when organized crime and terrorists care more than the state.

tbc…

 

 

In honour of Baiyz Apa (1927 – 2020)

On January 27, 2020 at 4.20am, my  beloved Kyrgyz grandmother, Baiyz Apa, passed away. She had been waiting for this moment for the last five years, asking Kudai (Allah) to please bring her home. I lived in her home for one and a half years between 2005 and 2006 and have frequently returned in 2008, 2010, 2015 for further ethnographic research and whenever it was possible. The last time I “saw” her was in December 2019 when her great-grandchildren recorded an Instagram videomessage of hers for me. Who would have thought this to be possible? I carried out research at a time when there were only two telephones in the  village: one at the mayor’s office and one at the peregovornyi punkt – the post office. Both almost never worked. When I wanted to talk to my parents or grandparents in Germany, I needed to travel for 40km into Talas town and hope for either a mobile signal or use one of the telephones there … Now Baiyz Apa was on Instagram, telling me that we have not seen each other in a long time. She was right. I could see that she was very weak but her mind was sharp as always. I showed her message to my son, whom she named when he was born. She gave me two options — Aralbek or Zhangybek — the first indicating the child to be the  “leader” of Aral, the village we all lived in, the second meaning that of a “new leader.” Of course I chose the second.

It was through her blessing, I believe and she believed, that he came into the world. I remember very clearly how I had asked her in 2010 to please give me a bata so that I would give birth to a child. And she did. But beyond her blessing, Baiyz Apa has given me many other things: It is through her that I truly came to understand what growing up in one of the remotest parts of the Soviet Union must have meant for a woman. It was through her that I understood that as a woman one can do ANYTHING. She gave birth to 11 children … the first 4 died. After the fourth death, she consulted with the village imam at a time when “being a Muslim” was forbidden in Kyrgyzstan. He advised her to pray — so she began to learn to “read namaz” five times a day and thanks to Allah, her fifth child — a boy — lived. After him, she had six other children and also adopted a daughter.

It was probably half way into my fieldwork (which was devoted to understanding legal pluralism in Kyrgyzstan) that I realized how interesting Baiyz Apa’s life history was. And I asked her whether she would like me to write it down for her. She said “if it helps you with your work, I will.” And so it was not out of self-interest, but of generosity that she agreed to dig deep into her memories and tell me story after story after story for weeks on end.

I had been smart enough not to impose a linear structure onto the way she was telling her life story by not asking her to go back as far as she remember and start from there until we would have reached the present time. In contrast, I had asked her to start from the most important event in her life. What was she most proud of? And she began to talk about how she had managed to marry off all of her children as a single working mother. Her husband had been much older than her and had died early, so that she was left with the burden of not only working full time in the Kolchoz, but also raising her children alone, being responsible for her household and —  everyone familiar with Central Asia knows how difficult this is — finding money and ways to participate in the life-cycle rituals: births, birthdays, graduation ceremonies, marriages, funerals, mourning rituals, to only name the most important ones. I also vividly remember her story about how much she wanted to go to school and how she walked for hours on end from the pasture down to the valley each morning in the dark to attend the village school there, together with only boys. How she was married to a man much older than her since all younger men had gone to the war — partly fighing in Germany — maybe against my own grandfather at the time.

I will always remember  Baiyz Apa for her straightforwardness. In Kyrgyzstan, it is sometimes not customary to tell things as they are — something I learned the hard way, being extremely straightforward myself. But we were very much alike in this way. She would speak out and she would speak up. When once a thief stole the potatoes out of her house’s cellar during spring, she faced him after the villagers had caught him; and while he had returned all the sacks and wanted to ask for forgiveness, she made him take them back and plant them on his own land. Her family was not happy about this as these potatoes had been meant for planting and it is on the potato harvest that villagers in Aral base their life-cycle economy. But she would no longer have what a thief had touched, she said. She was strong- willed and proud, that way …

Baiyz Apa refused to speak Russian during the Soviet Union although she perfectly understood. She never bowed down to authorities. When she worked in the Kolchoz as an accountant (schetchik), she managed to go around ‘the system’ without entering into moral conflict with her religious belief to which she sticked no matter how unusual it must have been for a woman to pray while the state preached atheism. She worked on an opium plantation in the mountains, she drove a tractor, she flew to the southern part of the country at a time when many women had never even set foot outside of their villages.

Most of all, however, she was the kindest, funniest person I came to know in Kyrgyzstan. I will never forget how the night before one of my departures from Aral, she had worked until the morning hours  to finish a shyrdak and a töshök — two traditional Kyrgyz carpets and cushions — for me to take home. Her daughter-in-law had told me how she dripped black tea into her eyes to “stay awake.”

Baiyz Apa is home now. I am happy for her. She told all of us not to cry for “an old woman.” Usually I listened to her, like a good daughter or granddaughter would. But in this case I cannot. I will always miss her and I am grateful to have met her.

Her life history which I wrote down was published in Kyrgyz in 2010. I release the pdf-file of her book Baiyz Apanyn Zhashoo Tarzhymaly here – in honour of Baiyz Apa and for everyone to read, beyond Aral and the other villages where the book has been distributed to.

Anyn arty kairluu bolsun!

 

 

Harmony Ideology at The Hague. New Blog Post for Public Anthropologist

Together with Felix Girke, I have just published another op-ed piece on the genocide case currently pending at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. There, The Republic of The Gambia has filed a case against Myanmar, accusing the country’s army of having committed genocide of Muslim Rohingya. We have published on this issue also at OpenDemocracy, focusing on the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who has decided to act as the “Agent” of a high-profile team of lawyers. While her status as an ‘icon of democracy’ is unbroken within the country, especially in Western countries, commentators are grappeling with what they perceive to be a sudden and unexpected shift in her personality since she became “state counsellor”. However, as I have argued in 2017 already, this is in line with how she has always been doing politics.

Yangon, 10. Dec 2019. © B. Mette-Starke

In our blog post for Public Anthropologist, we take a look at Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech at the ICJ on December 11 2019. We argue  that she employs “harmony ideology,” a concept coined by the legal anthropologist Laura Nader in the 1990s, based on her work among the Talean Zapotec in southern Mexico in the 1960s. Later, Nader applied her new terminology to so-called alternative dispute resolution (ADR)-cases in the United States of America.

“Harmony ideology”, so Nader, needs to be understood as a counterhegemonic force with which her Zapotec villagers tried to keep the Mexican state at bay. By pretending that they are a harmonious people and capable of dealing with their disputes internally, they tried to fend off any outside interference. In ADR-cases, Nader showed how “harmony ideology” was used to “outsource” dispute cases that judges thought to be too irrelevant for to be decided in state courts. In the case of Myanmar at the ICJ, however, Felix Girke and I argue that

Aung San Suu Kyi acted as if her country were a southern Mexican village, needing protection from illegitimate legal governance that interfered with its internal affairs, while at the same time embodying the very state apparatus that is now internationally accused of having committed genocide against its own population.

While the Talean Zapotec might have had effective measures for local dispute resolution and good reasons to keep the state courts at bay, the atrocities committed against the Rohingya and the poor record of Myanmar to police itself suggest that Suu Kyi’s harmony ideology at the ICJ is sorely misplaced, we argue. Read the full post over at Public Anthropologist.

Aung San Suu Kyi goes to court

On December 8 2019, Open Democracy’s Transformation-series published an op-ed written by Felix Girke and me on the upcoming court hearing between The Republic of The Gambia and Myanmar in The Hague at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) from December 10-12 2019.

Flickr/Jason. CC BY-NC 2.0.

No other than Aung San Suu Kyi, the “State Counsellor” of Myanmar will be travelling to the Netherlands to personally respond to an international case that has been put forward by The Gambia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The case concerns atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims since 2016 by the Myanmar army.

Felix Girke and I argue  — contrary to much current reporting in Western news — that it is not surprising but in line with how Aung San Suu Kyi has been doing politics ever since she returned from the UK in 1988, that she personally wants to attend and respond to this case.

What counts as political in Myanmar is deeply personal: “the focus of her personal engagement is not the world, but her own country. She shoulders the burden … but at the same time avoids the hard task of changing Myanmar’s trajectory” we argue.

Read the full article over at Open Democracy.

Anthropology and existentialism. Back to the individual?

Next to a BA-level course on Indigeneity and Law, I will be teaching in our Master’s Program “Anthropology and Sociology” a thematic course on anthropology and existentialism. After having spent a couple of months in France (Paris, in particular) this year and last year, living in direct vicinity to Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s former “writing ground” (Café Le Flore, Café Les Deux Magots) in St. Germain, I became more and more interested in combining anthropological reasoning with existential philosophy. Next to Sartre, De Beauvoir and other French intellectuals of the mid-20th century, I encountered the work of Albert Piette (who teaches at Uni Nanterre in Paris) whom I only knew as Michael Jackson’s “sidekick” from “What is existential anthropology?” (Berghahn 2015). I slowly read through his oeuvre, most of it only available in French, but some of it already translated into English by now. His creative way of approaching an anthropo-centric anthropology via what he calls ‘phenomenography’ is as innovative as it is radical. He argues against ethnomethodology, against social interactionism and against every other theory that privileges collectivity rather than individuality.

Since the best way to truly understand theory is to teach it, I am looking forward to my seminar where the question “What role does the individual actually play in anthropology?” will stand at the center of our inquiry. We will see that this question needs to be answered differently depending on what decade and what anthropological tradition we are talking about. We will be reading classical  anthropological literature (Malinowski, Benedict, Geertz, Obeyesekere, Rosaldo, Rapport, Lutz and Abu-Lughod) in order to understand how often the individual rather stood in anthropology’s way on the path towards ‘society’, ‘structure’ or ‘systems of meaning’. We will counter these views not only with recent existential anthropological literature, but also with literature from neighbouring disciplines such as philosophy (the old French classics) and existential psychoanalysis (Chodorow, Yalom).

Last but not least I hope to generate  insights into the nature of the relationships we develop with our key interlocutors during field research: Does a stronger focus on the individual’s existence require a change in the way we approach our ‘field’ and collect our ‘data’? How do we reflect on our own role as individuals in the field?

Here is the syllabus to the seminar:

Upcoming term 2019/20: Teaching on Indigeneity and Law

This winter term I will be teaching a course on indigeneity and law for our BA-students at the University of Konstanz.

While in the colonial era the alleged “backwardness” of  “natives” or even  “savages” was taken as an opportunity to deny them their right to their land, today “indigeneity” is a term used by indigenous people themselves in order to assert their rights (to land, natural resources, cultural self-determination, etc.).

In this seminar, we explore the nexus of indigenity and law by reading anthropological texts on indigeneity (and related concepts such as ethnicity). On the other hand, we learn about legal sources for such claims-making through which the rights of indigenous peoples get articulated in recent decades (for example UN resolutions, current court decisions, …).

We will also read two different types of (auto-) ethnographic texts: on the one hand the life story of a Guatemalan indigenous woman, Rigoberta Menchú (Burgos / Menchú 1984) and on the other the recent monograph of the indigenous anthropologist Audra Simpson (2014) “Mohawk Interruptus. Political life across the borders of settler states “to the Kahnawà: ke (Haudenosaunee / Iroquois Confederation) in Quebec.

The aim of the seminar is to be able to trace  historical and current connections between processes of Othering and those of Self-culturalization in the name of “indigeneity” from an anthropological perspective, as well as to understand the central role of law in doing so.

Here is the syllabus of the seminar.

Thematic Thread for Allegra Lab on Statelessness, Displacement and Disappearance

For Allegra Lab, I curated a thematic thread on the topic of Statelessness, Displacement and Disappearance. Together with Catherine Allerton, Alice Wilson and Siri Lamoureaux we explore these categories in a total of four blog posts with a focus on who can claim justice on whose behalf and in regard to the various ways in which uncertainty and accountability are being processed.

This thematic thread evolved out of a workshop on Claiming justice after conflict. The stateless, the displaced and the disappeared at the margins of the state, co-organized by Yazid Ben-Hounet (Paris) and myself. The presenters consisted of anthropologists and sociologists and convened for a full day on March 15, 2019, at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris.

In my introduction to this week-long thematic thread, I show in what ways statelessness, displacement and disappearance have become familiar and inescapable features of contemporary politics worldwide. The question of who can claim justice on whose behalf is first of all a question of representation, but also touches on scale, resources and access.

In the first post, Catherine Allerton engages with statelessness and the problem of the invisibility of migrant children and their families in Sabah, Malaysia. Their stories are about vulnerability as much as they are about resilience. Employing the concept of “documentary pragmatism,” Allerton explains that for her interlocutors, the goal is “being safe” rather than being documented.

statelessness

In  my own post I explore the relation between accountability and statelessness. First, by investigating the case of expert activists in Europe who have declared a fight against statelessness by trying to hold nation states accountable. Second, I look at asylum cases in the UK where stateless individuals have to give accounts of themselves. I argue that while expert activists demand accountability from nation states, it is nation states who demand accountability from stateless people.

 

If people cannot make claims vis-à-vis the state at all, we pondered the question of what they might be doing instead. One option that Alice Wilson explores in her post is a shift in the very discussions people are having about disappearance: in her case in the context of Oman’s southern Dhufar region. She argues that the possibilities for claims-making, and its potential success, vary within different political environments.

Finally, Siri Lamoureaux explores in her post on displaced Nuba women in Sudan women’s options such as public shaming and the accusation of perpetrators by the so-called “Nubian Queens.” In light of the recent events her post bears particular urgency. Drawing on long-term fieldwork, she then asks “Where are the Nuba queens”, namely those women who “due to (pre/post)colonial histories of divide and rule, and unequal centre-periphery socioeconomic relations, have never donned a white towb?” that has become so emblamatic of the ongoing protests.  “Without denying the sacrifice and suffering of elite women in the protests, displaced women have suffered immeasurably from the Sudanese government’s policies”, she argues.

You can find all posts of this thematic thread here.

 

New publication on political activism, gender and tradition in Kyrgyzstan

As part of an upcoming special issue on “Practices of traditionalization in Central Asia”, which I have co-edited with Peter Finke from the Anthropology Department at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, I have written an article with my colleague from Kyrygzstan, Aijarkyn Kojobekova, on the interlinking of gender, tradition and political activism in the case of two very unusual kinds of activists: We expose the various motivations and tactics pursued by aksakals (lit., whitebeards) and by a movement of mature women called OBON (lit., Women Units for Special Purposes) as they participate in politics, and the role tradition plays in these activities.

We argue that aksakals actively draw on tradition even in the political realm to avoid being derogatorily labelled ‘elders on duty’, whereas OBON women position themselves as economic and political actors but are subjected to discourses and practices of tradition by others. While both aksakals and OBON women have been central to political action in Kyrgyzstan in the last two decades, this article is the first to compare and contrast these two categories of unusual activists. The comparison reveals a perpetuation of culturally recognized gender roles even when these actors go beyond their ‘traditional’ realms of competence.

You can access the full article online here (behind a paywall; contact me for a personal copy).

The printed special issue will come out in September 2019 with articles by Tommaso Trevisani, Juliette Cleuziou, Dominik Müller, Jarmila Ptackova and Diana Kudaibergenova.