Category Archives: field research

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:

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.

 

Keynote on “Little and Grand Narratives in Central Asia”

Keynote speech “Little and Grand Narratives in Central Asia”

Held at the Conference “Central Asian Studies Inside Out. Challenging Grand Narratives”, organized by l’EHESS and ZMO (Berlin). March 28, 2019. Paris.

In this keynote speech, I engaged with the conference topic of “challenging” and even “disturbing” “Grand Narratives” through an investigation of the tradition of orality and the usage of oral history in Central Asia. These are two interlinked endeavours, as oral tradition has been investigated “as history” (Vansina) and oral history understood as “the voice from the past” (Thompson). Anthropologists (of Central Asia) investigate tradition as “a site of necessary engagement that aggregates people, … informs policy, public debates, law, and representation, and is – despite its often enough strategic inception – affectively powerful” (Beyer and Finke forth. in Central Asian Survey). Examples from Central Asia show how “oral tradition”, especially when mediated by state and media apparatus, can take on “grand narrative” qualities. Moreover, in contrast to how oral history has been treated in the past, namely as history “from below”, of “the everyday” and by “the little guys” (Graeber), thus as “little narrative”, as I call it, it is worth exploring in what ways this method of ethnographic and historical inquiry has the capacity to yield “grand” results.

 

Interview with the ASN

In 2007 I attended one of my first academic conferences, the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN)-Conference in New York, which is held yearly at Columbia University. I enjoyed travelling to New York as I had lived in this city for one and a half years in 1997-1998. It gave me a chance to see friends and my former host family.

I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, particularly meeting colleagues I had gotten to know during my field research in Kyrgyzstan (2005-2006) and, for the first time, seeing “big names” in person whose work I had read as a graduate student and when preparing for my PhD-project. I presented a paper on the imagination of state law in Kyrgyz aksakal courts (lit. courts of elders) — the first part of my ethnographic data I decided to work with. I did not expect winning an award for this that early, but I guess part of the reason why I won is that I just followed my intuition to start with the most fascinating part of ethnography that I gathered during my field research.

Here is the interview with ASN – go check out their new website, too! You will find more interviews with other scholars as well as a bunch of new resources.

Judith Beyer Interview

April 2, 2019

In 2007, Judith Beyer wrote an award winning paper on Kyrgyz legal pluralism. Today her academic focus also includes Myanmar and issues of statelessness.

ASN19 Judith Beyer

ASN: In 2007 your paper “Imagining the State. How perceptions of the state influence customary law in two Kyrgyz communities” won one of the Best Doctoral Students Awards. What was the inspiration for this paper?

JB: I had just returned from 15 months of fieldwork in rural Kyrgyzstan and had to decide which part of the data that I had gathered I wanted to work with first. I decided to start with an extended case study I had found particularly intriguing. Part of my research had been devoted to understanding the type of work of the so-called “aksakal courts” (lit. “courts of whitebeards”, i.e. male elders) in the two villages I was working in. This institution can be described as neo-traditional, although the figure of the “whitebeard” and the assumption that (male) elders, in their roles as household or lineage heads, are capable of solving local disputes, goes back centuries in Kyrgyzstan. The paper drew on a particular case I had participated in, centred on questions of divorce, remarriage, separation of property and child support. What intrigued me most, however, was how – in a rural setting where “the state” was experienced as absent, where the end of the Soviet Union had resulted in the demolishing of the social security system, where there was no police and no formal state court – the local court of elders engaged in what I call “performing the state” by replicating what they imagined to be state court procedures. “There is no state here anymore” was a sentence I regularly heard from my informants. Thus, feeling left to their own devices, the aksakalshad to handle their new role as judges by themselves, a role into which they were pushed by new laws on local dispute resolution, enacted after the country had become independent in 1991. In court sessions they tried to create the appearance of a state court and introduced procedures they claimed were derived from state laws. They also invoked the state apparatus as a threat, specifically when people did not want to heed their decisions. While the institution of the aksakalcourt had been explicitly set up in each village of the country to allow adjudication according to “customs and traditions” as a special law on the aksakalcourts stipulated, the elders acted out imagined state law instead.

ASN: What stage in the graduate program were you at the time?

JB: I was a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, where I was a member of the working group “Legal Pluralism” headed by the legal anthropologists Franz and Keebet von Benda-Beckmann. I was also enrolled as a PhD student at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg from which I then graduated in 2010.

ASN: What happened to this paper?

JB: I published a first version as a Working Paper and a later version appeared in an edited volume entitled “Ethnographies of the state in Central Asia” in 2014 with Indiana U Press, which I co-edited with Madeleine Reeves and Johan Rasanayagam. I also use the ethnographic material in a chapter of my monograph “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan” which I published in 2016 with the U of Pittsburgh Press.

What is your current position?

In October 2014 I have been appointed Professor of Anthropology (tenure track) at the University of Konstanz in Germany.

What projects are you working on now?

From 2010 onwards, I developed a new regional interest in Asia, starting fieldwork in Myanmar. There, I work in Yangon, the former capital of the country, a metropolis of seven million people – quite a change of scenery compared to the Kyrgyz village I used to live in! My interest lies in understanding the positioning of religious and ethnic minorities in this city, particularly Hindu and Muslim groups, their histories of migration from India in the 19th century as part of the final expansion of the British Empire, and their current political situation in a de facto Buddhist state which has had a long history of repressing minorities, particularly Muslims. I am specifically interested in understanding my informants’ strategies of acting as “communities” in order to secure their religious properties as well as to keep a realm of autonomy and self-determination in an increasingly hostile environment. There are, however, numerous overlaps to my research in Central Asia and I have begun to publish comparatively by drawing on my insights from Kyrgyzstan. Most recently, for example, an article on the concept of “transition” that has been so central in scholarly analyses of the entire post-Soviet world and that has now migrated from Central Asia (where I encountered it first) to Myanmar. The article is called “’Transition’ as a migratory model in Myanmar” and has been co-published with Felix Girke.

I am also working on new projects related to the issue of statelessness, both in Myanmar and in Europe. Since statelessness is a problem in Central Asia as well, there might be future possibilities to again link my different field sites with each other.

Teaching on Statelessness

This summer term, I will be back at my University, teaching one course on “Statelessness” at the BA-level for our anthropology and sociology students.  I am particularly looking forward to the two  guest lectures: One by Felix Girke (University of Konstanz) who will be exploring how anthropology has traditionally worked with “stateless” people during colonial times and what has happened in areas and to people in South Omo in Southern Ethiopia where the modern state had been absent for a long time, but has now become a cruel force.

The second guest lecture will be given by Kerem Schamberger from the University of Munich and a political activist, who will present his new book “Die Kurden. Ein Volk zwischen Unterdrückung und Rebellion” (together with Michael Meyen) during the seminar.

 

 

 

Here is the course syllabus (in English, the seminar will be held in German)

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.