Category Archives: outreach

Podcast about my book

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.

 

Follow-up on “parasitic professionalism”

This is a follow-up on my earlier post which I published with Allegra on Parasitic Professionalism.

I received an email yesterday from one of the largest finance journals worldwide. Got asked whether I would like to write an article on Myanmar for them. They suggested I could “benefit from this opportunity” to publish with them. This was followed by a detailed description of how to write the article and a strict deadline.

I answered and asked whether the article would be open access and what the journal usually pays its authors.

The reply: “Regarding the fee, I regret to inform you that all the articles published in our journal are contributed from authors and we are unfortunately unable to provide remuneration due to our publisher’s policy. We hope that you will understand and still consider this a great opportunity to get your message across to some of the most powerful and informed business leaders and policy makers in the world.”

They also offered a free subscription for one year and free advertisment of my book or the logo of my organisation in the printed version of their journal.

The email ended with the phrase: “We hope this is acceptable to you and that you enjoy this publication experience.”

I replied:
“Dear xxxx, as an academic scholar, I am a strong advocate of open access policy. As a professional, I think that one should get paid for one’s expertise.
While reaching a large audience with one’s writing is certainly important, exposure and prestige is no substitution for financial renumeration. I am sure that as an edior of “XXXX” you understand this – and I would seriously question your publisher’s policy on this issue. To emphasize: While I do have a steady income and thus would not “need” a honorarium, a lot of scholars whom you can count among “the world’s smartest people” (your webpage) much more than me, do not. It is for them, not for me, that I therefore have to decline your offer.
If you are interested in knowing more about the state of academia worldwide, I suggest reading the following – open-access – articles” (all written by fellow anthropologist – and journalist – Sarah Kendzior):

http://www.aljazeera.com/…/surviving-post-employment-econom…
http://www.aljazeera.com/…/…/2013/09/201391764312806487.html
http://www.aljazeera.com/…/…/2013/03/201331116423560886.html

(Photo: A Sheep Parasite. Open Source Photography / Oregon State University)

On Parasitic Professionalism

I recently published a post entitled “On parasitic professionalism” over at allegralaboratory.net – here it is:

Last month I received an email from an “associate” working at a research institution that caters to the biggest development agencies worldwide: DFID, UN, Worldbank, Australian Aid – you name it.

This associate was doing part-time work at the institution’s “research helpdesk“ and their job was to put together research reports on certain topics of interest to the big development agencies. So far, so good. These reports, however, are to include “expert comments“ from academics. This is where I seemed to come in. The associate asked me to provide the development agency with expertise on a couple of questions related to conflict and security issues in one of my fieldsites: “We often find that even 4-5 lines of pointers and specific comments from experts can be really useful in informing [name of organization]’s thinking and policies.“

In turn, my name could appear in the report “in a list amongst the contributing experts.“ I declined and replied that I only work pro bono for refugees and asylum seekers who cannot afford to pay for my expertise.

There is something seriously wrong with these kinds of requests. The problem is not that this person was asking for my expertise. It is that they did it in the name of one of the biggest development agencies, who was not even their direct employer, but in all likelihood only paid the research institution at which helpdesk the person was working as an “associate,” thus probably also precariously employed.

Who profits from this arrangement? Not I, not the associate – maybe their research institute. In the end, however, the procedure seems to be set up to benefit the big development agencies: They receive an expert report without having to invest a lot of time, expertise, and money themselves. Who knows what revenue they, in turn, can generate with it.

But the kind of knowledge these reports contain is often diluted through a process of what I would call parasitic professionalism: It is knowledge that is being generated by one academic living off the expertise of another academic. The first academic is working for the gross benefit of a third, often corporate, actor who only has to initiate the knowledge extraction at the very beginning in order to then lean back and wait for the results to come in.

These “far-fetched facts” as the German anthropologist Richard Rottenburg (2009) has aptly called the specific kind of genre through which the development industry legitimizes itself, are being produced through chains of translations that make the tracing of original sources impossible. The effort that is being demanded from each person in this kind of knowledge production assembly line seems minimal at first sight: an issue you could summarize in “4-5 lines of pointers” does not sound like a lot of work or even worth asking money for. But we all know that in order to write intelligently about topics such as conflict, rule of law, civil society, or any of the other big themes development agencies are usually interested in, you indeed do have to be an expert in your field. And writing concisely takes a lot more effort than writing longer pieces; anyone who has ever written a research application knows this.

New research in ecology has shown that by laying eggs inside other animals such as aphid mummies, a certain type of wasp has not only found a reliable source of food for their hatching larvae, but in doing so has managed to convert their food into a much higher amount of their own biomass than previously thought it could. The scientists at the University of Exeter refer to this successful type of animal as a “hyperparasitoid” – or “real-life ‘alien’”: a parasitoid that feeds off another parasitoid. Likewise, large global policy institutions feed from their own experts’ capacity to syphon off the knowledge of external scholars, the hosts to which this entire industry attaches itself.

The in-house experts of the hyperparasites reach out to other experts or mid-range research institutes because they themselves have become “too expensive to do fieldwork” as David Mosse described for the case of World Bank anthropologists (2006: 11). “Associates” working for these institutes are then, in turn, aiming at acquiring specialized knowledge from outside experts who might be tenured and well-situated or – nowadays more likely – who might be living in even more precarious conditions.

These “hosts” often offer their free service, hoping that their name being mentioned in a prestigious report of a global development agency might help them on the job market.

Parasitic professionalism is inherently linked to the prestige economy. The term dates back to anthropological writings of Herskovits (1940) and Bascom (1948) in the 1950s where it described “goods through which social approval and social status are gained” (Bascom 1948: 220-221). Sarah Kendzior has recently employed it in the context of university graduates indebting themselves by working in unpaid internships after finishing college, or as underpaid adjunct faculty, hoping that the institution’s prestige will rub off: “But these are hollow victories, designed to suck you dry ….”, writes Kendzior. “Research associates” aim for the same thing as they work for little or no money, hoping that the well-known name of the company or institute they are associated with will help them to move up the career ladder.

In a post on academic precarity at Savage Minds from July 2012, Nathan Fisk (@nwfisk) cited his friend Lane saying “I prefer to think of myself as a virus, any prospective employer as a host.” Nathan then already suspected that “it should be expected that said hosts have something of an immune system.” The point I am trying to make is that academics in precarious living situations are more likely to be the hosts who are not immune at all, but have become easy prey: While it is commonsensical for lawyers and doctors, for example, to demand money for their expertise, no matter how small, in academia this is still considered unusual. But it should not be.

We need to make sure that the knowledge we have painfully acquired over decades, knowledge which is often intrinsically related to our personal development as an academic, is well accounted for.

We need to demand adequate compensation from those who themselves make a lot of money using our analyses. In the end, it boils down to one important rule: For the sake of everyone, do not work for free – especially if you can afford it.

Works cited.

Bascom, William. 1948. Ponapean Prestige Economy. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology  4(2): 211-221.

Herskovits, Melville. 1940. The economic life of primitive peoples. New York: Knopf.

Rottenburg, Richard. 2009. Far-fetched facts. A parable of development aid. Boston: MIT Press.

xxxxxxx

The post generated some discussion and I received emails from colleagues who shared their (similar) experience with me. Some of the comments can be read here below the original post.

 

Neues Masterprogramm “Ethnologie und Soziologie” an der Universität Konstanz

Aus der aktuellen Pressemitteilung der Universität Konstanz:

Lange wurden Berührungspunkte zwischen Ethnologie und Soziologie vorwiegend in Fragen nach Entwicklung, Modernisierung, Globalisierung und Migration gesehen. In jüngerer Zeit kam es vermehrt auch zu methodischen Diskussionen, die durch ein gemeinsames Interesse am Forschungsstil der Ethnographie gekennzeichnet sind. Doch oft bleibt es bei einem kurzen Verweis auf Konstellationen der Wissenschaftsgeschichte, in denen die Unterscheidung zwischen den beiden Fächern keine zentrale Rolle spielte, so etwa in der „Chicago School“ oder bei Bezügen auf Gründerväter der Sozialtheorie wie Marcel Mauss oder Émile Durkheim und neuere Grenzgänger wie Pierre Bourdieu oder Bruno Latour, die mitunter von Vertretern beider Disziplinen für sich beansprucht werden. Insgesamt bleibt die systematische Zusammenführung von Allgemeiner Ethnologie und Allgemeiner Soziologie in der deutschen Wissenschaftslandschaft allerdings weiterhin ein Desiderat”
(der vollständige Text ist unter http://bit.ly/1X3crc7 einsehbar).

Zusammen mit Prof. Dr. Thomas Kirsch habe ich im vergangenen Jahr an dem neuen Masterprogramm “Ethnologie und Soziologie” gearbeitet – im kommenden Wintersemester 2016/2017 kann es endlich losgehen.

Der Master richtet sich an alle Studierende der Ethnologie, Soziologie oder benachbarter Fächer, die kleine Seminare mögen, selbst forschen wollen und in einer der schönsten Gegenden Deutschlands – im Dreiländereck angrenzend zu Österreich und der Schweiz (Bodensee! Zürichnah!) studieren wollen.

Ethnologie und Soziologie – Un amour fou.

In dem zweijährigen Studium ist eine Lehrforschung, die sich über zwei Semester erstreckt, fest eingeplant. Diese kann sowohl in Deutschland als auch im Ausland stattfinden. Die Ethnologie Konstanz hat mittlerweile Expertise in Afrika (Südafrika, Zambia) und Asien (Kirgistan, Myanmar) vorzuweisen und betreut deutsch- wie englischsprachige Abschlussarbeiten.

Anmeldungsfrist ist der 15. Juli 2016. Hier geht es zur website: https://www.soziologie.uni-konstanz.de/studium/studiengaenge/ethnologie-und-soziologie-ma/

 

Doing Fieldwork in Myanmar

On April 1, 2016 I co-organized a one-day research workshop on “Doing fieldwork in Myanmar”  with Dr. Felix Girke and the anthropology department of the University of Yangon. The event brought together 24 participants from Myanmar and German-speaking countries. Eleven PhD and MA students presented first findings from their on-going anthropological fieldwork in the country. The topics ranged from labour and migration to religion, livelihood, and cultural heritage ( see the final programme ). A major focus rested on questions of method and fieldwork practice. The students debated challenges and obstacles that they experienced while carrying out their research. More senior scholars guided them in further developing the conceptual frameworks of their studies.

After fifty years of authoritarianism, Myanmar has only recently become accessible for foreign researchers again. These students are thus on the forefront of a new generation of anthropologists carrying out long-time qualitative research in this Southeast Asian country. The University of Yangon itself had been off limits for most foreigners until 2014.

In our effort to bring about a Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Konstanz in Germany and the University of Yangon in Myanmar, this workshop was an important first step towards  more institutionalized collaboration and academic exchange.

The spider

The thought crept into my mind today and refused to let go of my brain. It said “What if we have no f*ing clue?” Going to bed with images of crying fathers holding their children – ‘Are they dead? Oh thank God, only sleeping!’ – , waking up with stories of rotten bodies, locked into a van used for transporting poultry. Heaps of rotten meat. This is not happening in Syria. This is Syria happening in Europe. Those who survived are here. But what if the war that was carried out on their backs will follow them? Did it ever occur to you that Europe is not facing a “refugee crisis” but is already part and parcel of several wars that have forced hundreds of thousands of human beings – like you, like me – to leave everything behind to save bare life? Their crisis is our crisis, but we don’t pay the price yet that they have already paid. But we might, if we don’t act.

I feel I am responsible at least in part for their desperation. Because as a German citizen I have voted for a certain party, have legitimized a certain type of government, because my taxes are used in ways I cannot control any more. Because I live in an area of Germany, which is profiting from the military industry that is located all around me; that exports weapons, drones and military equipment to I don’t know where. The thing is, there are people who do know, who are responsible, who profit, who might even believe that this is needed for ‘security’, ‘stability’ or – probably the most honest reason – because a lot of German citizens earn their money with these kinds of endeavours.

Recent demonstration in Constance, Germany against the military industry located on the shores of Lake Constance in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Photo credit: Felix Girke

Recent demonstration in Constance, Germany against the military industry located on the shores of Lake Constance in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Photo credit: Felix Girke

This morning at a local farmer’s market in my small picturesque town in Germany an elderly woman approached the mostly well-off clientele with a request to donate whatever they could afford for “refugees from Syria.” She offered small bouquets of rosemary in return which she had collected from her garden, I overheard. I felt anger. In fact, I became so angry, I had to turn away. What made me angry was not her compassion and her initiative of wanting to “do something.” Where would we be without people like her? Or so many others in Greece, Italy, Jordan, Serbia – all devoting their lives to ease the suffering of thousands. My current anger is directed towards the nebulous “system”, towards “those in power” whom I consider responsible … but how do you hold “them” accountable? There is no way to trace the origin of a ‘crisis’, which has reached the scale of what we are witnessing right now, everyday. How can you prevent our grandchildren from accusing us that ‘they knew, but they did not do anything’ – Germany has been there before. So what to do? Donate money, children’s clothes and food products? Check. Write letters to politicians? Check. Be thankful for every calm and sunny summer day and hug your own child a little longer? Check. But still. The thought won’t go away: We have no f*ing clue how to make this stop.

Looking outside my window, I see a large spider spinning its web, waiting patiently for prey. I still want to believe we are not trapped. We are the net.

Photo-by-uditha-wickramanayaka-flickr-CC-BY-NC-2.0-330x330

Update on September 3, 2015:

In the last days I have began to communicate with a couple of people who do amazing work in different parts of Greece and Germany right now. All work privately and have financed their support for refugees through crowdfunding. Please consider helping them, and donate whatever you can .

1. Help for refugees in Molyvos    (you can also contact molyvosrefugees[at]gmail.com)

2. Natasha Tsangarides

3. Blogger für Flüchtlinge

4. Flüchtlinge Willkommen

5. Jillian York (she collects money and transfers it to Budapest so that technical supplies such as cell phone chargers can be bought for refugees currently stuck at the train station; also: check her own page for another list)

6. Eric and Philippa Kempson (they have set up amazon wishlists with important food products, medical supplies, clothes,…)

*****