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.
My task is to give a series of four lectures which I will focus thematically on the roles of Muslims in Asia, most generally. One presentation will be directly on my new Myanmar project, the second will be on legal pluralism in Central Asia. The third is a keynote I was invited to give in the frame of a conference on “Grand Narratives in Central Asia” in which I will focus on the role of oral history. The final lecture will be a first attempt to bridge to my newest project which aims at investigating the issue of statelessness in Europe, working with case material concerning Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar who are applying for asylum in the UK.
For the official press release of the University of Konstanz see here.
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.
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.
Location: Monday March 12, 13-16h. EHESS on 54 Boulevard Raspai.
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.
Sean Guillory of Sean’s Russia Blog spoke with me the other day about my book “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan.” You can listen to the podcast online here or download the podcast here.
In our interview, Sean asked me what inspired me to do a study on “custom” (Kyrgyz salt) and how we can understand the concept anthropologically, how it is communicated, what metaphors are associated with it and in what contexts we can observe it in action.
Sean was also interested in hearing my reasons for not anonymizing my main informants, how people in my fieldsite conceive of their history, what the historical trajectories of the local courts of elders (aksakal courts) are, how Soviet life has been unmade after Kyrgyzstan gained independence, how we should understand the role of the state in the countryside and what the roles of elders and their relationship with villagers, politicians and state administrators are.
Finally, we discuss my decision to end the book with a criticism of the concept of postsocialism which, I argue, is not central for understanding everyday life in Kyrgyzstan.
My old school (Alte Landesschule Korbach) published an interview with me this month in their alumni journal. Sweet!