Monthly Archives: March 2015

The concept of crisis and the permanent state of exception

Panel at the German Anthropological Association (GAA), Sept 30 – Oct 3 2015, Marburg, Germany

Organized and chaired by Judith Beyer



Crisis is a temporal concept, indicating a turning point (from the Greek krisis). Its use suggests that it alternates with stable states of being-in-the-world that are predictable and calm. Whereas the anthropological literature of the 1950s and 1960s analysed crisis and conflict in congruence with models of harmony, anthropological research in the last decades has emphasised war, violence and trauma as “existential experiences.” In this body of literature, attention has shifted away from understanding “mounting crisis” as a phase in a sequence of events aimed to restore social equilibrium (Turner 1972). Rather, recent approaches discuss the “ontological alienation” of persons whose bonds “to the everyday world have become stretched, distorted, and even torn; sometimes irreparably so” (Lester 2013). Zygmunt Bauman and Carlo Bodoni (2014) have recently classified “the present crisis” as a crisis of agency and of territorial sovereignty. So is crisis a concept of particular Western thinking and acting – an expression of modernity? Eric Wolf (1999) approached crisis differently, arguing that crises are part and parcel of social life everywhere and that the distinction between normality and crisis is to a large extent fictitious.

Drawing on classical and recent anthropological analyses of crisis for our own research, this workshop seeks to explore the equivalents of the concept from emic points of view. How do our informants conceptualise and word their often precarious ways of living? When do they experience moments of “judgment,” “separation” and “choice” (all synonyms of crisis) in their personal lives? And how do their personal or collective “crises” relate to a more permanent state of exception that increasingly presents itself as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics (Agamben 2003)


Presentations and Abstracts

Annett Bochmann

Universität Siegen

State of Exception versus Local Accomplishments: Producing a Public Bureaucracy during Distributing Rations in a Refugee Camp

Based on audio-visual data I examine practices of the ration distribution in a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand, looking at how food is distributed and how camp inhabitants themselves generate the ‘distribution event’ as a form of a public bureaucracy in its strict sense and miniature examination. These practices exemplify how camp residents generate and maintain a stable social order and rules for the camp.


Patrice Ladwig

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

Dystopia, future-Buddhas and messianistic thinking. States of exception in Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhist millennial movements

By analyzing historical and contemporary material from Buddhist millennial movements in mainland Southeast Asia and their backgrounds in Buddhist cosmology, this presentation discusses possible connections between concepts of states of exception and Buddhist millenarianism as a sign of social crisis.


Theodoros Rakopoulos

University of Bergen

From a “crisis” concept to a concept in crisis? The solidarity economy in Greece

The uses of solidarity as a concept have been exacerbated by the crisis but its analytical validity has not undergone thorough solidification. The rise and current hibernation of the solidarity economy movement is the main case in point to unpack the tensions in the interplay between the local and theoretical aspects of the notion. Referring to my ethnography, I shall elucidate this interplay and explore the movement’s prospects, especially in the current, more friendly, political framework.


Dorle Dracklé

Universität Bremen

Crisis and insecurity: politics, bureaucracy and virtual economy

“Há crise” (“We are living in a crisis”) expresses a general feeling in southern Portugal. In this poor region, people see their lives threatened by the current changes. “Há crise” describes precisely this moment of insecurity and menace, vacillating between various political, bureaucratic and economic strategies and plans for the future.


Tommaso Trevisani

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

From rasval to restrukturizatsiya: Metamorphoses of workers’ identity crises in Kazakhstan’s former Soviet steel town

Since early post-Soviet years of disruption and hardship, industrial workers’ sense of crisis underwent a change towards more individualized discomfort with their social conditions and work identity. Today’s workers’ understandings, reactions and choices, show discontinuity with the past crisis.


Monica Vasile

Humboldt Universität zu Berlin

The Crisis: rhythm and turning points

The paper will explore crises as turning points in relation to rhythm. Lives and work can be perceived as rhythmical, but the rhythms are seldom regular over long spans of time. Taking the example of timber traders in the Romanian Carpathian Mountains, it will be shown how the economic crisis that peaked in 2008 changed trade practices.


Silke Oldenburg

Universität Basel

Crisis – everywhere or nowhere? Goma’s ‘normal state of exception’ as horizon

Goma in Eastern DRC is a context where critical events have turned into ‘critical continuities’ (Vigh), where crises and ordinary life seem to be interchangeable. This is the background for young people’s comments who often state that they either don’t know “real peace” or that the situation is “just normal

“What is non-traditional after all? Gender, sex, and discrimination in Central Asia”

Panel at the European Society for Central Asian Studies (ESCAS) Conference October 8-11 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland

Organized and chaired by Prof. Dr. Judith Beyer


1. Judith Beyer

Juniorprofessor of Anthropology, University of Konstanz, Germany


This panel seeks to problematize the notion of tradition and retraditionalization in the Central Asian context. The three papers critically investigate the implications of current retraditionalization discourses and practices concerning gender, sex and discrimination. (Re-) traditionalization is often portrayed as a positive dimension of ongoing wider transformation processes, and as a source of inspiration to which people in Central Asia turn to, looking for guidance in how to shape their own future. This panel, however, concentrates on the intended or unintended side effects of such discourses and practices, and seeks to explore in what ways they might lead to an overall re-conceptualization of gender- and sex-relations on the one hand, and to an exclusion, marginalization and criminalization of some members of society on the other hand.


2. Cynthia Buckley

Professor of Sociology, University of Illinois, USA

Framing homosexuality in moral terms: Patterns of potential tolerance among Eurasia’s Muslim populations
Over the past decade substantial shifts in public opinion regarding homosexuality in western Europe, north America and elsewhere match legislative changes legalizing same sex unions and restricting statues limiting the rights of homosexuals. Most recently, Russia and other Eurasian states have been experiencing increasingly restrictive legislation regarding homosexuality and rising tides of anti-homosexual public opinion. Using data from the 2012 Pew Research Center’s Muslim World Survey, I investigate levels and individual predictors of homosexual tolerance in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia. Supporting previous studies on tolerance, bivariate logistic regression indicates that highly educated, female, rural and less religious individuals are less likely to view homosexuality as morally unacceptable in all countries but Russia. However, age patterns among Muslims in Eurasia differ markedly from other national studies. Thinking sociologically about the origins of and trends within tolerance can improve understandings of current public opinion trends and identify likely future trajectories in Central Asia.


 3. Anna Kirey

Senior Program Officer, Public Health Program at Open Society Foundations

LGBT activism in Central Asia at the crossroads after the introduction of ‘propaganda’ bills
In my presentation I would like to provide an overview of LGBT activism in Central Asia with a focus on Kyrgyzstan and some glimpses into three other Central Asian countries. As someone who participated in ten years of emerging LGBT activism in the region, I would like to discuss different influences that contributed to framing LGBT issues before the ‘propaganda’ discourse emerged in post-Soviet space and after the introduction of the ‘propaganda’ bill in Kyrgyzstan. I will also relate this to current developments in Russia and Ukraine and to an overarching discourse on traditional values.


4. Diana Kudaibergenova

PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge, UK

Instagram exposed: Framing traditional and neo-traditional gender perceptions online
The paper discusses (neo-) traditional perspectives and perceptions as framed through the visual platform Instagram in contemporary Kazakhstan. Discussing gender roles in patriarchal societies such as Kazakhstan, I propose researching Instagram on the basis of three levels of framing: an internet-based frame (action), a social frame (traditional perceptions and code of behaviour) and a neo-traditional frame (re-creation of presumably traditional values online). In doing so, I argue that social networks serve as spaces of visualization and re-creation of new forms of traditional and “acceptable” behaviour, lifestyles, self-representation, gender and sexual identity as well as beauty standards. Instagram is both a global space of visual exchange as well as a norm-setting framework on the local level. In this hybrid production of cultural content, youngsters in Kazakhstan are positioning themselves as global consumers of famous brands and glamour but also as guardians of traditional lifestyles. But Instagram also serves as a space for breaking the typical gender roles especially for non-traditional discourses of male gay culture in Kazakhstan.

Anthropology between Book and Blog – my latest for Allegra

Anthropology between Book and Blog – Evaluation Criteria and Communication in Academia.
Talk on the Occasion of Allegra Lab’s Website Relaunch in Berlin at the Finnish Institute
19 February 2015
first published at Allegra Lab on March 2, 2015.

I decided to embed my thoughts on productivity in the academic world – both traditional and digital – in the context of a debate that is old, but apparently not outdated. This is the debate about the type of knowledge the humanities are able to produce. This year, a Humanities World Report (HWR) was published in which the three authors – among them the historian Arne Jarrick, who is currently running a project on the long-term global history of law-making – advocated two things that are of relevance to us here today: one, that scholars in the humanities should strive towards strengthening international and interdisciplinary cluster formation where larger thematic complexes can be discussed. Second, they argued that just as in all the other sciences, the goal of the humanities should be “truth finding.”

I will deal with the first proposition first as I think that – worded in this way – this is what Allegra Lab has been doing so far and intends to continue doing in the future: providing an integrative research platform. But according to the report, the most dominant form of such international cooperation comes in the form of Digital Humanities (DH). What is meant by this term is somewhat opaque, as that field is quite diverse. Its most institutionalised manifestations are the so-called Digital Humanities Centres (DHC) which, according to the authors of the report, deal with the following five fields of research:

1) Digital collections, archiving and text encoding

2) Reading and analysing electronic texts

3) Geospatial and critical discursive mapping technologies

4) ‘Big Data’, social computing, crowd-sourcing, and networking and

5) 3D immersive visualisation environments

The authors estimate that there are around 65 Digital Humanities Centres in Europe with 19 centres in England alone, the largest being the University College London Centre for Digital Humanities, “staffed with six directors, ten staff, student, and liaison positions, ten affiliated faculty, and 13 or more affiliated graduate students.” (p. 67). The US has approximately 60 DH centres with world-leading facilities, such as the Harvard University of Digital Arts and Humanities (DARTH), or the Columbia University Digital Humanities Center (DHC).

Scholars carrying out qualitative work within the field of DH, or investigating the impact of digitalisation in people’s everyday lives, have criticised the institutionalisation of these centres and the type of data they are dealing with. They have raised their voices mainly against the lack of cultural criticism in the digital humanities. One such critical voice comes from Alan Lui (2012) of the Department of English at the University of Santa Barbara in the US. He says: “How the digital humanities advance, channel, or resist the great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporatist, and globalist flows of information-cum-capital, for instance, is a question rarely heard in the digital humanities associations, conferences, journals, and projects…” Equally under-debated is how new techniques in the digital humanities such as “distant reading” (Moretti 2000), or “culturomics” (Michel, Shen 2010), both quantitative computational methods of processing millions of digitised books across centuries, impact on traditional ways of close reading, thereby turning the very object of analysis – text – from a form of human expression into a source of (Big) Data.

A form of human expression or a source of (Big) Data?

The authors of the Humanities World Report (HWR) argue that “[t]he skepticism and even outright hostility to digital humanities evidenced by some blog literature might be a unique phenomenon within the humanities” (emphasis added). They continue to wonder: “Strangely, much of this debate is not published but articulated in blog posts and other short web-based forms, which do not encourage the writers to fully argue their case” (emphasis added). If we apply this statement to the work Allegra is doing – namely blogging – it means that blogging is understood by the makers of this encompassing report not as a form of publication, but as an “articulation.” This does not sound bad at all, but it is then right away denounced as “limiting” and gets juxtaposed with “publication.”

Now what is problem with that? Well, it shows us that even within the field of digital humanities there is an inclination towards traditional modes of publishing. What has been revolutionised are the digital methods with which data can be collected, archived, processed, and analysed. What has not been revolutionised, apparently, is the way in which this sort of new and often “Big Data” is then published and /or debated. The reason for this is no secret and here critical voices from within digital humanities as well as those coming from outside join in the laments: academia does not, by and large, recognise digital forms of publication. To publish digitally means taking a risk for researchers who are in the early stages of their career and have tenure track positions that come with specified evaluation criteria. This also includes, as I have shown, people working within DH, which apparently continue to focus on “traditional” ways of publication such as peer-reviewed journal articles and monographs. Online publications or engagement in digital networking can be mentioned in a scholar’s self-report, but they are not key to the evaluation as such. They are also not of interest to the universities or research institutes in general: I received two emails recently asking me to fill in my last year’s publications. In the drop-down list there were all sorts of possibilities mentioned, even non-textual based publications. But it was impossible to register online journal publications, or photographs or films, for example. So again: what has become digital is the data processing, not the debate.

What has been revolutionised are the digital methods with which data can be collected, archived, processed, and analysed. What has not been revolutionised, apparently, is the way in which this sort of new and often “Big Data” is then published and /or debated.

This stance also has significant impact on obtaining funding for digital initiatives such as Allegra Lab. While there is ample money for digital technology, there seems to be little appreciation within traditional third party funding institutions of the potential benefits engendered by online platforms for publication. While I personally have succeeded, for example, in getting money from funding institutions for digital equipment such as cameras, voice recorders, and software programmes, the same institution did not see any value in financially supporting an online publication platform where young researchers could present their findings and engage in conversation.

The authors of the Humanities World Report (HWR) conclude their report by arguing that “[t]he real challenge of digital humanities still lies ahead in asking new research questions enabled by the technology, training researchers to identify and utilise the potential, and developing a critical sense of the explanatory power of new technologies” (p.83). This might be the case, but even after all of these challenges have been met, there still lies another, maybe even bigger challenge, namely to publish, disseminate and debate the results so obtained in an equally digitalised form. This will continue to pose a problem as long as young researchers, who are particularly prone to new digital ways of communication, are discouraged from publishing outside the established framework of journals and publishing houses.

While there is ample money for digital technology, there seems to be little appreciation within traditional third party funding institutions of the potential benefits engendered by online platforms for publication.

Homi Bhabha

I now come to the second point made by the authors of the report. They described the humanities, alongside all other sciences, as “truth seeking academic disciplines” (p. 184). Their assessment was challenged by Homi Bhabha recently at a conference organised by the Volkswagen Foundation in Hanover. Borrowing the term “thick ethical concept” from the British philosopher Bernard Williams, who developed it in his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1986), Bhabha referred to the humanities as the “thick concept of contingency, convergence and veracity” – notions he has stressed throughout his work on post-colonialism. The humanities are contingent because they are able to reflect upon their spatial and temporal situatedness, they are converging in the sense that they cut across disciplines and fields, and they strive towards veracity – and not truth.

I think one can apply Bhabha’s characterisation to the type of work Allegra Lab has been carrying out and continues to strive for – both in terms of the texts our authors produce as well as in the way we go about circulating and discussing the knowledge so generated. The strength of academic blogging and other forms of digital networking lies in fulfilling these characteristics as outlined by Bhabha as being good as (and possibly even better than) traditional modes of publication. Our job as blogging anthropologists is to convince people out there that whether we read our texts closely or from a distance, they should be published digitally – and open access, of course – but this is another debate.

Literature cited

Holm, Poul, Arne Jarrick, and Dominic Scott. 2015. The Palgrave MacMillan Humanities World Report 2015. Accessible here.

Lui, Alan. 2012. Where is cultural criticism in the digital humanities? In: Matthew Gold (ed.). Debates in the Digital Humanities. University of Minnesota Press. Accessible here.

Michel, Jean-Baptiste, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden 2011. Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books. In: Science. 331,6014. Pp.176-182.

Moretti, Franco. 2000. Conjectures on World Literature. New Left Review. Pp.54-68. Accessible here.

Williams, Bernard. 2006 [1985]. Ethics and the limits of philosophy. Abingdon: Routledge.