Category Archives: field research

New publication: The state of custom

Together with Felix Girke I published an article in the German Journal of Law and Society / Zeitschrift für Rechtssoziologie as part of a special issue on the occasion of the journal’s 40-year anniversary.

Our article is a re-reading of the German anthropologist Gerd Spittler’s article “Dispute settlement in the shadow of Leviathan” (Streitschlichtung im Schatten des Leviathan) which was published in the journal in 1980 as part of the inaugural issue. In this article, Gerd Spittler strives to integrate the existence of state courts (the eponymous Leviathan’s shadow) in (post-)colonial Africa into the analysis on non-state court legal practices.

We walk the reader through his text (which has only been published in German) and then ask how has the situation he describes for (post-)colonial Africa in the early 1980s has changed in the last four decades. We relate his findings to contemporary debates in legal anthropology that investigate the relationship between disputing, law and the state. We also show through our own work in Africa and Asia, particularly in Southern Ethiopia and Kyrgyzstan in what ways Spittler’s by now classical contribution to the field of legal anthropology in 1980 can be made fruitful for a contemporary anthropology of the state at a time when not only (legal) anthropology has changed, but especially the way states deal with putatively “customary” forms of dispute settlement.

The article is currently accessible through open access on the journal’s website.

Radio Interview for rbb/inforadio

This morning I was interviewed for the German radio station rbb/inforadio on the ongoing state of exception in Myanmar. In the feature “Vom Militär verhängter Ausnahmezustand in Myanmar” I was asked to talk about how the crisis affects me personally as a scholar, but I tried to emphasize what I find most striking in the way the population deals with the emergency: I continue to be deeply impressed by their determination to remain on the streets and to fight the military regime despite the increase in violence. I have clearly stated that all military operations are most likely mounting to crimes against humanity and go against international humanitarian law.

The reporter asked about the possibility for mediation and I stated very clearly that the population of Myanmar would consider this a betrayal to their cause as none of them is willing to enter into negotiations with the military regime. Instead, it is of utmost importance for Germany, for the EU and the UN to not legitimize the military-imposed “State Administration Council” (SAC). Instead, I emphasized that Germany should grant political asylum to individuals who are in danger of persecution, that communication should be established with the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), that the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) should be supported as well as local journalists who are currently risking their lives in reporting the atrocities.

You can read a short summary and listen to the interview on “Vom Militär verhängter Ausnahmezustand in Myanmar“on the radio’s website.

Article for OpenDemocracy: On intergenerational solidarity and intergenerational trauma in Myanmar

In this post I highlight a special dynamic linking the different generations within the ongoing protest movement in Myanmar: The current protests combine the experiences the older generation has had under decades of military rule with the digital know-how of the younger generation that grew up during a decade of partial democratic freedom.

copyright: Kuecool.

For many years, resistance to the military regime centred around the iconic figure of General Aung San and his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently under arrest. This is now changing. The form of resistance is no longer just a “family affair”, I argue. The organization of protests is decentralized, without clear leaders. It involves all generations and brings together very different groups. The rallying cry now resounding on Myanmar’s streets is ‘You messed with the wrong generation.’

Interview with Al Jazeera on statelessness, human rights, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan

Why are human rights defenders being targeted?” asked Al Jazeera Rajat Khosala from Amnesty International, a specialist for advocacy and policy, Tobi Cadman an International Human Rights Lawyer and myself. Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story” draws a bleak picture of the human rights situation worldwide with repression in authoritarian states increasing. Human rights defenders are particularly being targeted. I reported about the current situation of human rights activism in Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar where we have just witnessed a military coup. I also spoke about the situation of the 10-15 million de-facto stateless people worldwide who cannot even claim human rights as they lack a nationality.

“Why are human rights defenders being targeted?” Al Jazeera, February 5, 2021.

I explained the difference between de jure and de facto statelessness and emphasized that the roles of the state system and that of the United Nations need to be rethought when it comes to statelessness in particular and how we can all ensure the adherence to human rights in general. We also touched upon the importance of staying connected digitally as activism is increasingly being carried out online.

In the name of stability. On the coup in Myanmar

Myanmar’s immediate neighbours have reacted very reluctantly in regard to the military coup that began on February 1 2021. Whereas ASEAN member-states have largely declared the coup an “internal affair” into which they would rather not get involved, China said it had “noted” the events and urged the country to uphold “stability”.

Stability, however, is not a neutral or entirely positive concept I argue in this German-language article for the daily newspaper TAZ: it is possible to justify not only repression and coups in Myanmar with it, but even the recent genocide of the ethnic Rohingya.

Stability has been a key metaphor during previous military dictatorships as well: Until 2010, for example, the second out of four so-called “national causes” that the military government under General Than Swe promoted under the title “The People’s Desires” read “Oppose those trying to jeopardize the stability of the state and the progress of the nation.”

It had also been Aung San Suu Kyi herself who, in December 2019 in her role as a member of her country’s delegation at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) left the more legalistic arguments to the specialists for international law, and challenged the legitimacy of the case on the basis of harmony ideology.

In the name of stability,she argued that the principal judicial organ of the United Nations should refrain from interfering in Myanmar’s domestic affairs.

In my recent article, I thus hold that invoking ‘stability’ is more in line with what the military government is advocating than it it is supportive of the civil resistance that is currently beginning to form.

Read the full post in TAZ.

“Sprechstunde” – neues Interview

Die Interviewreihe “Sprechstunde” der Universität Konstanz stellt ProfessorInnen aller Fachbereiche persönlich vor – als WissenschaftlerIn und als Lehrperson. Hier gebe ich Auskunft über meine Professur, meine Forschungen in Zentral- und Südostasien, mein neues Forschungsprojekt zu Staatenlosigkeit in Europa, sowie über unseren interdisziplinären Masterstudiengang “Ethnologie und Soziologie”, der einzigartig in Deutschland ist.

Towards an anthropology of statelessness

As part of my tenure-track evaluation I held a public lecture at the end of April 2020 at the University of Konstanz on the topic of statelessness. I am currently in the process of drafting a funding application that would enable me to work towards developing how an anthropology of statelessness could look like.

I’d like to mention a couple of thoughts here to help me think through this potential new subdiscipline and to raise awareness of what I think is a structural lack at two different levels:

1) within the very concept of the nation-state and

2) within the anthropology of the state.

While the first concerns the prime object of analysis of the anthropology of the state, the second concerns a structural lack within how we have up to date researched that prime object.

I argue that statelessness has so far been approached as something ‘lacking’ in the constitution of those who do not have a nationality — for whatever reason (and there are many). Thus, activists, practitioners, (I)NGOs and other global actors have focussed their attention on ‘fixing’ the lack of the stateless by trying to make sure they, too, receive nationality (or citizenship; I won’t go into details here as to where these concepts overlap and where they don’t). In doing so, statelessness has remained an ‘anomaly’ — something that needs ‘fixing’. But we have neglected (almost entirely) in our scholarly analyses (these are mostly legal, political and almost none anthropological up to date) that it might not be the stateless who need ‘fixing’, but the nation-state itself. This argument has been made by the political theorist Phil Cole (2017), for example,  but needs to be taken seriously and thought through in legal and political anthropology as well for it might provide novel insights into the anthropology of the state.

Understanding statelessness as a structural lack of nation-states

In my tenure lecture, I have argued that statelessness cannot be researched at the ‘heart of the state’ (Fassin) or at its ‘margins’ (Das and Poole) where anthropology has so far located its objects of inquiry when studying the state in a transversal or tangential (Harvey) manner. It rather points to what I – with Lacan – would define as a structural lack in how nation-states are set up and operate. As such, this type of lack is not meant to be ‘filled’. As much as statelessness is not a mode of being that could be ‘fixed’, the structural lack that statelessness opens up statelessnesswithin the concept of the nation-state is not meant to be ‘filled’. It is there on purpose, I argue. Treating statelessness not as anomaly, but as an intentional product in the way the state operates allows for new insights into the state as much as it will move our engagement with the phenomenon of statelessness beyond appeals of ‘fixing’.

As much as statelessness is not a mode of being that could be ‘fixed’, the structural lack that statelessness opens up within the concept of the nation-state is not meant to be ‘filled’.

Despite the fact that we have international conventions in place since the mid 1950s, and despite the fact that more and more states have ratified these conventions and are closing legal loopholes: statelessness continues to exist and in many parts of the world, including Europe, its numbers are increasing. It remains one of the most overlooked human rights violations and it won’t go away, no matter how much the UN wants it to. The project I am currently drafting would bring legal scholars, anthropologists and practitioners together and study the structural lack of statelessness as an intrinsic component of the nation-state.

From stateless societies to stateless individuals

Anthropologists have historically dealt with stateless societies as part of Europe’s (and America’s) colonial politics of expansion and exploitation. Most ethnographic monographs centred on ‘acephalous’ ethnic groups or tried to grapple with understanding how groups organized and interacted with one another without a clear leadership or someone ‘in power’. After the demise of colonialism, such work has almost completely come to a halt; the state has come to tighten its grip on ethnic groups to such an extent that there is, by now, no place on earth that would not feel its eery presence. This includes hunter-gatherer societies (Sapignoli 2018) and sedentary tribes (Girke 2018) in rural Africa as much as agrarian groups in Southeast Asia (Scott 2010). However, statelessness has remained an immanent phenomenon worth anthropological attention. My argument is, however, that nowadays we need to focus on stateless individuals (in the sense of an anthropo-logy) more than on stateless societies (in the sense of an ethno-logy). While many groups are de facto stateless (e.g. Rohingya), the de jure status of statelessness is granted to individuals only. In line with an existential anthropology (Jackson and Piette 2015), my aim is to research statelessness not as a historical leftover of group encounters with the (colonial) state, but as an existential human condition that allows us to understands a structural lack of the contemporary nation-state.

Stay tuned …

 

 

#corona: Views from an anthropology of the state

This is from my twitter thread which I started on March 9, after having returned from Singapore and Myanmar. I am saving it here for better readability and for those, who do not use social media.

Here are my thoughts on the corona virus from the perspective of an anthropology of the state: Having just returned from 2,5 weeks of short-term fieldwork in Southeast Asia (Singapore and Myanmar) I noticed the following:

When we look at the policies of authoritarian states such as Singapore and Myanmar we can see highly diverse tactics in how to deal with an epidemic or pandemicSingapore: closes its borders, monitors its citizens, checks every persons temperature at the airport and at hotels. Provides sanitizing gels everywhere, cleans public spaces regularly several times a day. Informs on all media channels how to wash hands, keep distance, when to stay home and whom to call. The population not only cooperates, but even copies the state’s measures (e.g. in restaurants, in gyms, and malls). Singapore reports all cases early. As a result, the growth rate of new cases has slowed down and the number has almost remained the same since February.

Myanmar – in contrast: no checking of temperature at airports, no entry denial to travellers from high-risk countries, no information beyond a couple of posters in downtown Yangon. No cases reported until today. No trust in the government, but a lot of rumours.

Then I return to Germany and I find: people buying toilet paper (?) and pasta in large quantities. People still not understanding how to sneeze and when to stay away from crowds. People stealing sanitizing gels even at my university – with the result that none are provided. Due to Germany’s federal system, there is no centrally communicated measurement in place, but an endless trickle-down of bits and pieces of news – all in the form of recommendations, none binding, in many cases not adhered to. There is a lingering sense of defeatism. There is also a slight sense of panic. The hoarding of toilet paper and the sanitizing gels standing in for trying to substitute danger with purity. The buying of pasta seems to be a post 2WW phenomenon, though. None of it is rational behaviour, but driven by fear.

Authoritarian states such as Singapore, China, but also Israel switch into command mode, and its citizens obey as there is no other option. They fear the state more than the virus. In authoritarian states such as Myanmar (and the current US) there is politics by denial: Business as usual, nothing to see here or to report. And in democratic states such as Germany, it takes an epidemic such as the current one to see where the limits of governmental agency are:

The downside of upholding individual freedom is that we are on our own.

While China’s effort has been written about as “collective”, as in this article, it was really a top-down decision by a few officials that was adhered to because people fear the state. While we in Germany are still enjoying our individual freedom to ignore governmental recommendations, an unintended side-effect of surveillance and micro governance in authoritarian states is that it ultimately aids health care measurements and helps curb epidemics and pandemics. And a side-effect in democracies and other authoritarian states is that the upholding of individual freedom comes at a prize, as does the complete denial of the issue. The two are actually close. That is, when it comes to epidemics, Germany and Myanmar have a lot in common!

March 24: I’ll continue: “Queremos o melhor para população. Se o governo não tem capacidade de dar um jeito, o crime organizado resolve” – This is a statement from organized crime in Rio, Brazil who enforced a nightly lockdown because they would take care of the population, in contrast to the government. Also, ISIS has warned its people not to enter “the land of the epidemic” (aka Europe ) and layed out a “sharia directive” that includes how to wash your hands properly.

We live in interesting times when organized crime and terrorists care more than the state.

tbc…

 

 

In honour of Baiyz Apa (1927 – 2020)

On January 27, 2020 at 4.20am, my  beloved Kyrgyz grandmother, Baiyz Apa, passed away. She had been waiting for this moment for the last five years, asking Kudai (Allah) to please bring her home. I lived in her home for one and a half years between 2005 and 2006 and have frequently returned in 2008, 2010, 2015 for further ethnographic research and whenever it was possible. The last time I “saw” her was in December 2019 when her great-grandchildren recorded an Instagram videomessage of hers for me. Who would have thought this to be possible? I carried out research at a time when there were only two telephones in the  village: one at the mayor’s office and one at the peregovornyi punkt – the post office. Both almost never worked. When I wanted to talk to my parents or grandparents in Germany, I needed to travel for 40km into Talas town and hope for either a mobile signal or use one of the telephones there … Now Baiyz Apa was on Instagram, telling me that we have not seen each other in a long time. She was right. I could see that she was very weak but her mind was sharp as always. I showed her message to my son, whom she named when he was born. She gave me two options — Aralbek or Zhangybek — the first indicating the child to be the  “leader” of Aral, the village we all lived in, the second meaning that of a “new leader.” Of course I chose the second.

It was through her blessing, I believe and she believed, that he came into the world. I remember very clearly how I had asked her in 2010 to please give me a bata so that I would give birth to a child. And she did. But beyond her blessing, Baiyz Apa has given me many other things: It is through her that I truly came to understand what growing up in one of the remotest parts of the Soviet Union must have meant for a woman. It was through her that I understood that as a woman one can do ANYTHING. She gave birth to 11 children … the first 4 died. After the fourth death, she consulted with the village imam at a time when “being a Muslim” was forbidden in Kyrgyzstan. He advised her to pray — so she began to learn to “read namaz” five times a day and thanks to Allah, her fifth child — a boy — lived. After him, she had six other children and also adopted a daughter.

It was probably half way into my fieldwork (which was devoted to understanding legal pluralism in Kyrgyzstan) that I realized how interesting Baiyz Apa’s life history was. And I asked her whether she would like me to write it down for her. She said “if it helps you with your work, I will.” And so it was not out of self-interest, but of generosity that she agreed to dig deep into her memories and tell me story after story after story for weeks on end.

I had been smart enough not to impose a linear structure onto the way she was telling her life story by not asking her to go back as far as she remember and start from there until we would have reached the present time. In contrast, I had asked her to start from the most important event in her life. What was she most proud of? And she began to talk about how she had managed to marry off all of her children as a single working mother. Her husband had been much older than her and had died early, so that she was left with the burden of not only working full time in the Kolchoz, but also raising her children alone, being responsible for her household and —  everyone familiar with Central Asia knows how difficult this is — finding money and ways to participate in the life-cycle rituals: births, birthdays, graduation ceremonies, marriages, funerals, mourning rituals, to only name the most important ones. I also vividly remember her story about how much she wanted to go to school and how she walked for hours on end from the pasture down to the valley each morning in the dark to attend the village school there, together with only boys. How she was married to a man much older than her since all younger men had gone to the war — partly fighing in Germany — maybe against my own grandfather at the time.

I will always remember  Baiyz Apa for her straightforwardness. In Kyrgyzstan, it is sometimes not customary to tell things as they are — something I learned the hard way, being extremely straightforward myself. But we were very much alike in this way. She would speak out and she would speak up. When once a thief stole the potatoes out of her house’s cellar during spring, she faced him after the villagers had caught him; and while he had returned all the sacks and wanted to ask for forgiveness, she made him take them back and plant them on his own land. Her family was not happy about this as these potatoes had been meant for planting and it is on the potato harvest that villagers in Aral base their life-cycle economy. But she would no longer have what a thief had touched, she said. She was strong- willed and proud, that way …

Baiyz Apa refused to speak Russian during the Soviet Union although she perfectly understood. She never bowed down to authorities. When she worked in the Kolchoz as an accountant (schetchik), she managed to go around ‘the system’ without entering into moral conflict with her religious belief to which she sticked no matter how unusual it must have been for a woman to pray while the state preached atheism. She worked on an opium plantation in the mountains, she drove a tractor, she flew to the southern part of the country at a time when many women had never even set foot outside of their villages.

Most of all, however, she was the kindest, funniest person I came to know in Kyrgyzstan. I will never forget how the night before one of my departures from Aral, she had worked until the morning hours  to finish a shyrdak and a töshök — two traditional Kyrgyz carpets and cushions — for me to take home. Her daughter-in-law had told me how she dripped black tea into her eyes to “stay awake.”

Baiyz Apa is home now. I am happy for her. She told all of us not to cry for “an old woman.” Usually I listened to her, like a good daughter or granddaughter would. But in this case I cannot. I will always miss her and I am grateful to have met her.

Her life history which I wrote down was published in Kyrgyz in 2010. I release the pdf-file of her book Baiyz Apanyn Zhashoo Tarzhymaly here – in honour of Baiyz Apa and for everyone to read, beyond Aral and the other villages where the book has been distributed to.

Anyn arty kairluu bolsun!

 

 

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: