Making sense of …

Communal sense. The making of ethno-religious selves and others in Myanmar

I am going to present my ongoing work on Myanmar at the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Konstanz on December 6, 2018 at 5pm (Bischofsvilla, Otto-Adam Str. 5).

In my presentation I will give an overview of my book manuscript which is based on ethnographic data I collected over several long stretches of fieldwork between 2013 and 2018. The focus of my book lies on critically reinvestigating the category of ‘community’ in light of new material from Southeast Asian Myanmar. My study is geographically situated in Yangon, a fast expanding metropolis and the home of various ethno-religious minorities whose ancestors built the city when they were shipped across the Bay of Bengal by the British colonial forces in the 19th century. My informants, who are Hindus and Muslims, are often referred to as “Indians” in the literature or simply “Blacks” by the local Burmese population, but in their self-understanding, they are the true founders of Yangon. My interest lies in understanding how, in a local context of imperialism and ethno-religious nationalism, these people organize themselves as ‘members’ of groups that perform and are recognized by others as ‘communities’.

My theoretical aim in this book, and my contribution to wider anthropological and sociological debates, is to develop an alternative angle towards the category of ‘community’ that focuses on how and when exactly a collective ‘We’ emerges. In the social sciences the process of we-making has so far been analysed only as a by-product of the process by which ‘Theys’ are created (Appadurai 2006: 50). The concept of communal sense, which I am putting forward in my book, focuses instead on the successful establishing of community as an effect of we-intentionality (Walther 1923) which become ethnographically observable in moments of communitas, in the articulation of common sense and in the material anchoring of common goods.

Going back to Paris …

In the middle of my ongoing sabbatical, there is some light at the end of the (writing) tunnel:

I will be going back to Paris for a month, almost exactly a year after my last one-month stay.

From March 11 until April 11 I will be staying again at the Maison Suger, writing my book on ethno-religious minorities in Myanmar. My host this time will be the Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman and I will be invited as a Professeure invitée together with other international scholars.

My task is to give a series of four lectures which I will focus thematically on the roles of Muslims in Asia, most generally. One presentation will be directly on my new Myanmar project, the second will be on legal pluralism in Central Asia. The third is a keynote I was invited to give in the frame of a conference on “Grand Narratives in Central Asia” in which I will focus on the role of oral history. The final lecture will be a first attempt to bridge to my newest project which aims at investigating the issue of statelessness in Europe, working with case material concerning Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar who are applying for asylum in the UK.

For the official press release of the University of Konstanz see here.

 

 

The force of custom. Lecture at the Institute’s Colloquium in Hamburg

I’ll be travelling to Hamburg next week (13.11) to present the findings of my long-term ethnographic engagement in Kyrgyzstan. My book “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan” came out in December 2016, almost two years ago. I am still happy with how a decade of scholarship has turned out and am looking forward to hearing comments and feedback from my Hamburg colleagues. Here’s the link to the programme in case you are around. Join me!

And here’s what I will be talking about:

In this talk, I offer a unique critique of the concept of ‘postsocialism’, a new take on the concept of legal pluralism, and a plea to bring ethnomethodological approaches into correspondence with ethnographic data. Drawing on a decade of anthropological fieldwork and engagement with Central Asia, I will focus on describing how my informants in rural Kyrgyzstan order their everyday lives and rationalize their recent history by invoking the force of custom (Kyrgyz salt).

Although salt is often blamed for bringing about more disorder and hardship than order and harmony, as I will exemplify with the example of mortuary rituals, it allows my informants to disavow responsibility for their actions by pushing a model of ‘how things get done here’ to the front. Invoking salt enables actors even as they claim to be constrained by it, it opens up possibilities to conceptualize, classify, and contextualize large- and mid-scale developments in an intimate idiom. It also is a way to communicate to others that one is an expert in and of one’s own culture. An ethnomethodological perspective, as I pursue it, challenges a conception of social order as hidden within the visible actions and behaviours of members of society. Rather, it examines how members produce and sustain the observable orderliness of their own actions.

 

 

The lecture will be in English. Venue: Institut für Ethnologie (Raum 222 im Gebäude ESA W – Westflügel des Hauptgebäudes, 2. Stock). 13.11. 6.15pm.

Facebook withdrawal symptoms

I had thought about it repeatedly. I had deleted the app from my phone several times, only to reinstall it at a later stage. I had opened a second account for “work purposes” and kept the first for family pictures. Turned out, my family is too much anthropology and my work too familiar. Then came the time of personalised ads and whatever I had googled reappeared as an advertisement on the sidebar – and later as a video “suggestion” in the middle of my feed. During my month in Paris I once watched a French baking show. Since then, my account got spammed with cake videos.

What also changed was the tone and style of many posts. Facebook became more political – which in theory is good – but it got political in a bad way where I noticed more and more people simply screaming at each other. The pictures became crueler, too, the trigger warnings more frequent, the hate more direct, and the frustrations multiplied: academic precarity, genocide in Southeast Asia, the clown in the White House, the National Right allover Europe. Posts on these utterly depressing topics were interspersed with cat videos and other moments of cuteness. As if watching Panda babies rolling down a hill would make it all go away. It not only felt increasingly surreal, it was bullshit.

I remember while I finished my PhD (2009), I harvested strawberries on Facebook every day. They were ripe after three hours. Other fruit and vegetables took longer. I think I spent an average of 3-5 hours daily in the FarmVille app. I now wonder how much faster I would have finished the PhD had I not played. I was not the only one – half of the doctoral candidates I knew at the time were virtual farmers. It was unclear which labour felt more unreal: sowing words or sowing seeds.

Facebook also became part of my fieldwork in unforeseen ways. In Myanmar, the mobile phone market is among the fastest growing worldwide. For most people in Myanmar, Facebook IS the internet. The police looks for their villains by posting on Facebook, the monks preach online, the government publishes official announcements there first. Hate speech, fake news, ad hominem attacks amongst academics – all happening in and regarding Myanmar.

But there are positive sides, too: Facebook has been the fastest way to stay in touch with informants, find new people and fix appointments. Everyone is online. When I could not attend an important mourning procession in fall 2017 as I was not fit to fly to Yangon due to a sinus infection, my informants positioned themselves with their cell phones at different parts of the event and “recorded live”. Laying on the sofa, I “stood” in the middle of a flagellation ritual and could chat parallely with another informant who watched from further up the road while taking notes of what I saw on the screen, saving videos others were putting up of the same event. I am still processing what kind of data I generated that day.

So Facebook has been amazing. To stay in touch with friends and colleagues, to network and organize, to lobby and advertise (Allegra Lab! Go check it out!). But while there has always been the good, the bad and the ugly about it, the ugly seems to have increased in the last year.

I am also under intense time pressure now and should no longer be sowing likes and harvesting hearts. I got a book to finish and while Facebook is an immense data accumulator and this data easily harvested, there is just no time to properly preserve the fruits thus gathered. And winter is coming.

So I am weaning myself off. I harvested email-addresses of all those with whom I was connected only via messenger up to date. To not lose contact, to remain in each other’s lives. It will be more difficult, no doubt, and less colorful and likeable, but if I manage, it will also feel less intrusive and nose-pokey as I often felt when “following” people…

So I have saved all my data, said goodbye, and deleted the account. Facebook’s policy is to keep all data still available for a period of 14 days. If you log in again within this time frame, the account is back up and you are back in. I have – subconsciously – already opened the page three or four times in the last 24 hours. It’s not only a habit. It’s an addiction.

I am using twitter and Instagram as methadone. So if you see me on Facebook, kick me out, gently, but kick me out.

Yesterday I went harvesting strawberries again – in real life.

When in Paris …

As a promise to my host, the Maison Suger, located in the pittoresque St Germain district in a little side street just around my new favorite coffee place, I will submit a short statement about how I spent my time in Paris. So here it is:

Doing being writing — one month in Paris.

entrance to the Maison Suger – a haven for working in peace while living in the middle of Paris

 

my writing space at Maison Suger.

In this one month in Paris, I managed to get more writing done for my book than in the entire last year! After a full semester of teaching and finishing off a series of articles, reviews and reports, my goal had been to begin my stay in the French capital with nothing else than having to give a series of lectures in the seminars of the people who kindly supported my application to the Fernand Braudel Fellowship at the Fondation Maison de Sciences de l’Homme (FMSH) and, once done, to write.

All in all, I gave three lectures, the first on March 6 in the frame of the general anthropological “Séminaire de l’équipe Anthropologie comparative des sociétés et cultures musulmanes” (LAS) based at the Institute (IISMM) under the direction of the following anthropologists:

This tells you already a bit about the set-up of French academic institutions. It is a bit like the Russian system, to be honest, where you have an Akademia Nauk (an Academy of Science) and the Universities. Teaching takes place at the universities, research gets done in the academy – which in itself consists of myriads of ‘networks’, ‘laboratories’, ‘seminars’, ‘colloqus’, ‘séances’, ‘interventions’, ‘conferences’, and so on. No wonder BrunoLatour came up with ANT.

doors of knowledge at the FMSH / EHSS building (right)

I gave up trying to understand all the acronyms and who belonged where and only memorized the address and who had been inviting me to give a talk! Yazid Ben Hounet, whom I have known from our time together in the project group “Legal Pluralism” at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology took me for lunch to a small Afghan restaurant before my lecture, so I was already happy when I began presenting (can I just say: “Thank you, Paris!” for the amazing variety of foods I have eaten in those few weeks?). The title of my talk was “Being Muslim in contemporary Myanmar. On ‘community’ and the problem with communal violence” and I have written about it already here. The audience consisted mostly of anthropologists with an interest in Islam, but there were two experts on Myanmar who had joined that day as research on this Southeast Asian country is still very rare. I was particularly happy for their feedback, but also positively challenged by the questions of the non-regional experts.

What I found striking and what I have noticed in all my presentations (which all happened to be on Muslims), was how often people in the audience would use my ethnographic material or the arguments I was making in order to think about contemporary French society: veiling, divorce, polygamy, secularism in general … or, to be more precise, laïcité. I attended a roundtable on secularism in Asia which, in my view, was actually about secularism in France by means of reseach in Asia … so the topics of my talks, on Muslims in Myanmar and in Central Asia, raised interesting questions and comments in the audience.

The second talk was on legal pluralism in Central Asia, taking the example of the local funeral economy in northwestern Kyrgyzstan. I have summarized my argument here. This invitation came from Baudouin Dupret, a legal anthropologist and the only other person I know who tries to approach legal anthropology with ethnomethodological tools (as I have been trying to do). The talk took place in the seminar “Transformations de la normativité islamique” and we went out for lunch afterwards in one of the many restaurants in the area around Boulevard Raspail. What I came to cherish were long lunch breaks with colleagues — always accompanied by a glass of wine!

reading in cafés. People actually do it here!

The final talk I gave took place at the FMSH building and it was my favorite one. I had the opportunity to speak in front of an audience who had all been to and carried out fieldwork in Central Asia. It is very rare for me these days to speak to other regional experts as I am based at a sociology department and in a German context where research on Central Asia is only done only sporadically. It wa thus s a pleasure talking about the main arguments of my book “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan” — and to see that people actually understood what I was trying to say, and seemed to have enjoyed the presentation, too. Thank you to the organizers of this talk, Stéphane Dudoignon, Carole Ferret and Isabelle Ohayon for inviting me. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my co-presenter that afternoon was Olivier Ferrando, an old friend whom I had not met for several years!

After my lecturing obligations had been met, I was left to my own devices; which meant that I could dive into the books and articles I had brought along. I started writing my historical chapter for my new book on ethno-religious minorities in Myanmar and hope to use the remaining days in Paris to push it as far as possible. The Maison Suger has provided ideal working conditions to make this possible!

an inspirational goddess of writing

Since I am in the lucky position to start a 10-month sabbatical afterwards, my goal is to carry the “French writing spirit” with me back to Konstanz, install myself there and keep up the tradition of meeting colleagues for lunch regularly!

Merci, Paris!

 

 

 

 

 

The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan

In this third lecture that I will be giving while residing in Paris as a DEA-fellow, I will  present the key findings of my recent book  “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan” (2016, Pittsburgh University Press).

In this monograph, which covers a decade of anthropological fieldwork and scholarly engagement with Central Asia, I take up a particular counterintuitive perspective by looking at how my informants in rural Kyrgyzstan order their everyday lives and rationalize their recent history. I reveal how rather than conforming to a predictable ‘post-socialist’ pattern, my informants instead show a great capacity to hierarchize and create order on their own terms.

My approach investigates the ways in which actors tactically and persuasively invoke different kinds of law to constantly create a hierarchical model of socio-legal order in which the umbrella concept of custom (salt) comes to dominate their everyday life.

Invoking salt enables actors even as they claim to be constrained by it, it opens up possibilities to conceptualize, classify, and contextualize large- and mid-scale developments in an intimate idiom. It also is a way to communicate to others that one is an expert in and of one’s own culture.

I thus offer a unique critique of the concept of ‘postsocialism’, a new take on the concept of legal pluralism, and a serious plea to bring ethnomethodological approaches into correspondence with ethnographic data.

Location: Monday March 12, 13-16h. EHESS on 54 Boulevard Raspai.

Shari’a, tradition and the state in Kyrgyzstan. Competing repertoires of order: the case of mortuary rituals

This will be my second lecture while I am in Paris, this time as part of the “Séminaire Transformations de la Normativité Islamique” organized by Professors Baudouin Dupret, Nathalie Bernard-Maugiron, Jean Philippe-Bras, and Marième N’Diaye

Jeudi 8 mars de 10h à 13h, en salle de réunion de l’IISMM (96 boulevard Raspail, 1er étage)

Abstract:

In Central Asian Kyrgyzstan, shari’a and tradition are best understood as two interrelated répertoires of order. Historically, they have developed alongside each other and the population has learned to reclassify social practices or local institutions that might be regarded as unlawful or illegal by Islamic clergy on the one hand or the state on the other by reinterpreting them ‘according to custom’. I refer to this process as ‘customization’.

In this lecture, I will use the example of elaborate gift-exchange practices during mortuary rituals in order to show how imams, state officials and the local population try to grapple with the disputed social practice of giving large carpets during funerals and mortuary rituals that is considered against shari’a and also contradicting new state regulations. Nevertheless, gift exchange continues and has even intensified in the last decade.

This lecture investigates emic local understandings of shari’a and tradition and positions these in the context of a changing social and economic environment where formerly Russian and Soviet state practices aimed at curbing ‘irrational’ local behaviour and where nowadays remittances from Central Asian labour migrants fuel the local ritual economy.