Category Archives: field research

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.

The force of custom. Lecture at the Institute’s Colloquium in Hamburg

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!

And here’s what I will be talking about:

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.

Facebook withdrawal symptoms

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.