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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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 . 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