Author Archives: Judith Beyer

Being Muslim in contemporary Myanmar. On community and the problem with ‘communal violence’ – Talk in Paris.

During my upcoming stay in Paris, I will be giving several lectures, the first one taking place at the Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman. Come join me!

March 6, 17h-19h – Salle des étudiants. 1er étage, 96 bd Raspail 75006 Paris.

Organized  by:  Séminaire de l’équipe « Anthropologie comparative des sociétés  et cultures musulmanes » (LAS)

In my talk, I take the example of Muslim communities in Yangon, the former capital of Southeast Asian Myanmar, in order to investigate the various groups’ strategic useage of their religious property (mosques and graveyards) as a form of material, symbolic and political capital. I argue that it is through their religious property that Muslims in Yangon make claims to their right of existence as communities in the public sphere. They thereby manage to fend off both the Buddhist majority, the state and private investors. In a time of increasing ethnonationalism, which results in the destruction of mosques and the writing of discriminatory laws against religious Others, property becomes part and parcel of these communities’ survival strategies. While the creation of ‘communities’ along ethno-religious lines had been part and parcel of colonial and post-colonial state-making, some communities who understand themselves in this way or have come to present themselves in this way, are now being pushed to the very margins of their own society and their own country. Some of them have been denied not only citizenship, but with it the right to exist and their name to even be mentioned. However, religious minorities were among the first inhabitants of Yangon in the 19th century. Burma, as the country was called formerly, had been part of the British Empire during the colonial period of 1824-1948 and was under colonial legislation of British India. Muslims were brought to the country from India in 1840. They worked in the colonial administration, as soldiers or as unskilled workers on the shipping docks. Around 1880, Burma became the third largest destination for Indian workers worldwide. This lecture questions the contemporary portrayal of communities in the country in terms of  ‘communal violence’ only. It traces the historical development of the ‘community’ concept from British colonial times to the contemporary era. Using ethnographic fieldwork data gathered between 2013 and 2018 as well as textual data, legal documents and other sources, I explore why the current invocation of  ‘the Muslim community’ has made living together in Myanmar more difficult.


Amrith, Sunil. 2013. Crossing the bay of Bengal: The furies of nature and the fortunes of migrants. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2009. Community. Seeking safety in an insecure world. Polity.

Cheesman, Nick (ed.) 2017. Interpreting communal violence in Myanmar. Special Issue of Journal of Contemporary Asia.

Freitag, Sandria. 1989. Collective action and community. Public arenas and the emergence of communalism in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tönnies, Ferdinand. 2005 [1887]. Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundbegriffe der reinen Soziologie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Yegar, Moshe The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1972

Anthropological backup: Mateusz Laszczkowski in Konstanz

Happy to announce that during the following months of my absense from my position, Mateusz Laszczkowski, political anthropologist and an old friend of mine, will substitute for my professorship at the University of Konstanz.

During the coming summer term, Mateusz Laszczkowski, who is based at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Warsaw, is going to teach courses in political anthropology. He works on the anthropology of the state, activism, infrastructure and affect. His areas of research are Kazakhstan and Northern Italy. You can see his latest documentary “The Site. Building Resistance” here.

Mateusz will offer a seminar on “The introduction to the anthropology of activism” (BA-level) and two seminars in our new Master programme “Anthropology and Sociology” on the topics of “Politics in Infrastructure: Power, Economy, Society (PIPES)” and “From Zapatismo to Occupy: Anthropologies of Contemporary Radical Activism.”

Welcome, Mateusz!

Masterstudiengang “Ethnologie und Soziologie” in Konstanz. Jetzt zum Sommer bewerben (bis 15.1.2018)!

Unser Masterstudiengang “Ethnologie und Soziologie” ist nun ein Jahr alt – und hat sich bewährt. Wir haben uns innerhalb eines Jahres verdoppelt und in diesem Jahr auch personelle Verstärkung in Dr. Maria Lidola bekommen, die eine Lecturer-Stelle mit 12 Semesterwochenstunden inne hat und einen Großteil der Methodenausbildung übernimmt.

Sie ist ausgewiesene Expertin für Gender, Migration und labor/work und arbeitet in Lateinamerika (Brasilien) und mit MigrantInnen aus Lateinamerika in Deutschland.

Der Masterstudiengang ist der einzige in Deutschland, bei dem qualitative Soziologie und Ethnologie gemeinsam studiert werden können. Unsere Themenschwerpunkte aus der Ethnologie liegen in der Politik- und Rechtsethnologie, der Religionsethnologie und der Migrationsethnologie. Aus der qualitativen Soziologie wird Expertise aus den Bereichen der Kultursoziologie, hier vor allem der Interaktionsforschung und der Ethnomethodologie, beigesteuert. Studierende können sich im Laufe ihres Studiums spezialisieren, profitieren aber von Seminaren aus beiden Fachrichtungen.

Der Studiengang ist stark methodenorientiert und leitet Studierende an, eigene Forschung durchzuführen. Diese wird vorbereitet, begleitet und nachbereitet.

Im Anschluss an ein erfolgreiches Masterstudium steht einem Beginn in der Praxis oder aber einer anschließenden Promotion nichts im Wege!

Alle weiteren Informationen sind auf der Homepage der Ethnologie in Konstanz zu finden.

Direkt zur  Bewerbung geht es hier.

Workshop: Practices of Traditionalization in Central Asia

“Tradition” has frequently been invoked in the context of Central Asian nation-building projects and there has been a tendency to investigate it “from above” by focusing on elites, political actors in powerful positions, and intellectuals who are often encouraged or urged to perform and write in the name of the nation. This body of literature has yielded important insights into the rational motivations behind invoking “tradition”. In this workshop, we aim to transcend this body of scholarly literature by offering exciting new anthropological research that complicates the assumption that state power can and will monopolize tradition. Practices of traditionalization can thus be both inclusive and exclusive, integrative as well as divisive. While elites might be imposing their views and interests and try to force others to accept them as the (new) rules of the game, demotic actors always have the capacity to re-interpret and challenge top-down models. Investigating tradition from the perspective of practice allows one to study how tradition comes into being in the first place, how it gets legitimized but also how it is challenged, refuted or claimed.


In a workshop on November 16-18 2017, a group of Central Asia scholars came together to discuss a special issue we are intending to submit to Central Asian Survey (CAS) on practices of traditionalization. Tradition does matter in Central Asia: it aggregates people, motivates individual and collective action, informs policy, public debates, law, and representation, and is – despite its often enough strategic inception – affectively powerful. Hence, working from the understanding that there are no structural differences between the inventions of demotic actors and those of elites, we focus instead on the practical ways in which tradition is put to use, by whom and for what ends. 

Continuing to highlight the importance of tradition in ongoing nation-building processes, the attention of our special issue will lie on the ‘everydayification’ (paraphrasing Weber’s Veralltäglichung) of tradition, in arenas ranging from political demonstrations (Beyer and Kojobekova), industrial workers’ gatherings (Trevisani), UNESCO meetings (Coskun), local councils (Gonzales), institutions of religious education (Müller), minority communities (Ptackova), the household (Cleuziou), and even the internet (Kudaibergenova). Stay tuned!

I am going to Paris: Fernand Braudel Associate Directorship

In 2018, I will spend one month as Associate Research Director (Directeur d’Études Associés) at the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme (FMSH) in Paris.

The Fernand Braudel Associate Directorship is an international mobility programme at Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme in Paris (FMSH) (for more information see here). It has been created in 1975 upon the initiative of Fernand Braudel.

During my stay, I will give lectures at the Collège de France (EHESS/CNRS), the Centre d’Études Turques, Ottomanes, Balkaniques et Centrasiatiques (CETOBAC), and the Centre d’Étude des Mouvements Sociaux (CEMS-IMM) while continuing to write my book on ethno-religious communities in Myanmar’s former capital Yangon. Ideally, I will just have returned from follow-up research in Myanmar, with fresh insights from the field.

Thanks to Prof. Stéphane Dudoignon, Dr. Yazid Ben Hounet and Prof. Baudouin Dupret for supporting my application!


Research Granted: How to become an activist in Myanmar and South Africa

The German Research Foundation (DFG) has granted 4 PhD positions at the University of Konstanz for a joint comparative research project on “Activist becomings in South Africa and Myanmar.“ I will supervise 2 PhD projects on Myanmar while my colleague, Thomas Kirsch, will supervise two projects on South Africa. We hope that the outcomes will provide new knowledge concerning practices of democratic participation in the midst of urban and postcolonial crisis.

The project is definitely a precious contribute to the infrastructural turn and could serve as a model of research in very different parts of the world and in different social and political circumstances (anonymous reviewer)

With a focus on material and non-material infrastructure, our project seeks to provide new theoretical and methodological tools to study political formations, thereby contributing to an anthropology of activism, infrastructural studies, political anthropology, anthropology of democracy and African and Asian studies. The research project explicitly seeks to disseminate knowledge and build bridges between scholarly research and activism – something I am really excited about!

Saints in politics. On imaginaries of power, gender and the dilemma of Aung San Suu Kyi

This week I published a post in openDemocracy on Myanmar and its “State Counsellor” Aung San Suu Kyi that focuses not on the horrific situation we are currently observing from the safety of our screens, but on our own expectations and imaginaries that we have regarding leader-figures in general and female politicians in particular:

Hillary Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi. 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

“In the case of Myanmar, we are in danger of reducing a complicated reality to an imaginary that we try to bring into being through sheer desire. We attribute the qualities required to make change possible to a person who is then expected to be both saintly and powerful. That person is thus saddled with the impossible task of doing what is morally just, while at the same time acting strategically in order to maintain the power required for any sort of political action.”

In the article I further list three reasons why Aung San Suu Kyi’s saintly status has become a burden to her and argue that when we are demanding Aung San Suu Kyi to both embody the state and continue to ‘do the right thing’ we delude ourselves by projecting qualities onto politicians who have no intention of embodying them.

Read the full article here.