Category Archives: outreach

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 On being prudent

In a recent post for Allegra Lab, I ask what we can do from our homes, to which we are confined these weeks, being overwhelmed, seeing the problematic and political nature of  all these facts and narratives that are presented to us in the Covid-19-crisis.

I have elaborated on three tasks:

First, we can join public debates and be a voice of prudence. This is to help de-escalate discussions where people – sometimes out of sensationalism, sometimes out of hurried obedience and often out of fear – demand that their states take extreme measures of surveillance, deprivation of liberty and sanction. The term “state of exception” has been used to such an extent that we have gotten used to it already – exactly what Giorgio Agamben warned us about.

Second, we can engage with our students and address their sense of insecurity by adapting our upcoming or ongoing courses, seminars and lectures in a way that allows the topic to influence whatever subject we had intended to work on. Since few things are as pervasive as a global pandemic, there is hardly any subject (in anthropology and beyond) which we could not reconceptualize by taking account of COVID-19. As we will have to teach digitally, it is also important to discuss the pitfalls that come with online learning, while making use of newly available resources.

Third, we can practice writing our fieldwork diaries in our homes: Note down how the virus has already impacted our own personal everyday lives, how it has led to a restructuring of our daily schedules, how it has decreased and altered the amount of time we spend with colleagues and friends and how it might have increased the number of hours we spend with members of our household. For those of us who have children, we can observe how they, too, struggle to adapt to a physical world that has suddenly shrunk and to a digital world that has suddenly expanded. We can look outside our windows and correlate how changes in governmental policies become observable in the very way people physically move in the streets. And we can honestly record our own feelings from day to day. We can then come back to these notes at a later stage – just as we do when we come home from the field.

This too, to me, is public anthropology. One directly engages with the media, the second takes up current topics and reworks these with our students for whom we are responsible, and the third collects data diligently in order to be able to draw from this source later on when we have the capacity and the psychological distance required to take a long hard look at what is happening in front of our eyes right now.

Read the full post here. My intro is part of an ongoing series which we have labelled #corona thread.

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.

Paris 2019. Lectures, Conference, Keynote

Conférences de Judith Beyer (University of Konstanz), Professeure invitée de l’EHESS, Chaire sécable de l’Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman

1. The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan

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.

  • Le 12 mars 2019 de 16h à 18h – Université Paris-Nanterre, Département d’anthropologie, salle E105, 200, avenue de la République, 92001 Nanterre

2. The arrival of the Indian Other. On classifying minorities in Burma

Migrants from India have arrived in Burma from pre-colonial times onwards up until the Second World War. They crossed the Bay of Bengal out of personal economic endeavours, but having been categorized collectively by the British colonial state already before they embarked on the steamships to Rangoon, their collective identities travelled with them. Next to looking for work, other migrants relocated there to make use of parcels of land that were given to them as a reward for their services in the colonial apparatus or in the Indian army; yet others took up positions in the higher echelons of the administration in Burma. These people entered a Buddhist polity that had been shaped by centuries of hierarchical modes of royal governance – one which included Muslims and other ethno-religious minorities. This talk traces the different types of classifications and reclassifications that were projected onto and subsequently appropriated by ‘Indian migrants’ in order to shed light on the current situation of ethno-religious minorities in contemporary Myanmar, particularly in the city of Yangon.

Dans le cadre du Séminaire “Dialogues entre recherches classiques et actuelles sur l’Asie du Sud-Est

  • Le 14 mars 2019 de 10h à 12h – EHESS, SR 737, 54, boulevard Raspail, 75006 Paris

3. Accountability and justice in asylum claims. Debating the issue of Rohingya statelessness in British courts.

Accountability is a reflexive technique by means of which actors realize and lay claim to their actions. In order to be recognizable, accountability “depends on the mastery of ethno-methods” (Giddens 1979: 57; 83). If, as Garfinkel put it, “[a]ny setting organizes its activities to make its properties as an organized environment of practical activities detectable, countable, recordable, repeatable, tell-a-story-aboutable, analysable – in short, accountable” (1967, 33; italics in original), then so-called ‘screening interviews’ in asylum cases of stateless Rohingya are a challenge to this principle as they are defined by non-knowledge about the other. When UK border agents and Rohingya meet, their ‘membership’, which forms the basis of all co-production of action (and knowledge) in ethnomethodology, needs to be established ad hoc in the interview situation. What we can learn from those ‘first contact’ encounters and the subsequent travelling of a Rohingya asylum seeker’s file through the court system, is, I argue, how accountability is constantly being produced through interaction and how, as an important by-product of this production process, not only a ‘case’ is decided, but also the validity of the state’s own account is rendered plausible.

Dans le cadre de la conférence co-organisée par Yazid Ben Hounet et Judith Beyer “Claiming Justice after Conflict: The Stateless, the Displaced and the Disappeared at the Margins of the State”

  • Le 15 mars 2019 de 10h15 à 11h15 – FMSH, Salle A3-50, 54 Bd Raspail 75006 Paris

4. On little and grand narratives in Central Asia

In this keynote speech, I engage 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 will call it, it is worth exploring in what ways this method of ethnographic and historical inquiry has the capacity to yield “grand” results.

Dans le cadre de la Conférence “CASIO 2.0 : Disturbing Grand Narratives” organisée par l’EHESS et ZMO (Berlin).

  •  Le 28 mars 2019 de 10h à 12h – PSL, Salle du Conseil, 60, Rue Mazarine, 75006 Paris.

Going back to Paris …

In the middle of my ongoing sabbatical, there is some light at the end of the (writing) tunnel:

I will be going back to Paris for a month, almost exactly a year after my last one-month stay.

From March 11 until April 11 I will be staying again at the Maison Suger, writing my book on ethno-religious minorities in Myanmar. My host this time will be the Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman and I will be invited as a Professeure invitée together with other international scholars.

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.



When in Paris …

As a promise to my host, the Maison Suger, located in the pittoresque St Germain district in a little side street just around my new favorite coffee place, I will submit a short statement about how I spent my time in Paris. So here it is:

Doing being writing — one month in Paris.

entrance to the Maison Suger – a haven for working in peace while living in the middle of Paris


my writing space at Maison Suger.

In this one month in Paris, I managed to get more writing done for my book than in the entire last year! After a full semester of teaching and finishing off a series of articles, reviews and reports, my goal had been to begin my stay in the French capital with nothing else than having to give a series of lectures in the seminars of the people who kindly supported my application to the Fernand Braudel Fellowship at the Fondation Maison de Sciences de l’Homme (FMSH) and, once done, to write.

All in all, I gave three lectures, the first on March 6 in the frame of the general anthropological “Séminaire de l’équipe Anthropologie comparative des sociétés et cultures musulmanes” (LAS) based at the Institute (IISMM) under the direction of the following anthropologists:

This tells you already a bit about the set-up of French academic institutions. It is a bit like the Russian system, to be honest, where you have an Akademia Nauk (an Academy of Science) and the Universities. Teaching takes place at the universities, research gets done in the academy – which in itself consists of myriads of ‘networks’, ‘laboratories’, ‘seminars’, ‘colloqus’, ‘séances’, ‘interventions’, ‘conferences’, and so on. No wonder BrunoLatour came up with ANT.

doors of knowledge at the FMSH / EHSS building (right)

I gave up trying to understand all the acronyms and who belonged where and only memorized the address and who had been inviting me to give a talk! Yazid Ben Hounet, whom I have known from our time together in the project group “Legal Pluralism” at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology took me for lunch to a small Afghan restaurant before my lecture, so I was already happy when I began presenting (can I just say: “Thank you, Paris!” for the amazing variety of foods I have eaten in those few weeks?). The title of my talk was “Being Muslim in contemporary Myanmar. On ‘community’ and the problem with communal violence” and I have written about it already here. The audience consisted mostly of anthropologists with an interest in Islam, but there were two experts on Myanmar who had joined that day as research on this Southeast Asian country is still very rare. I was particularly happy for their feedback, but also positively challenged by the questions of the non-regional experts.

What I found striking and what I have noticed in all my presentations (which all happened to be on Muslims), was how often people in the audience would use my ethnographic material or the arguments I was making in order to think about contemporary French society: veiling, divorce, polygamy, secularism in general … or, to be more precise, laïcité. I attended a roundtable on secularism in Asia which, in my view, was actually about secularism in France by means of reseach in Asia … so the topics of my talks, on Muslims in Myanmar and in Central Asia, raised interesting questions and comments in the audience.

The second talk was on legal pluralism in Central Asia, taking the example of the local funeral economy in northwestern Kyrgyzstan. I have summarized my argument here. This invitation came from Baudouin Dupret, a legal anthropologist and the only other person I know who tries to approach legal anthropology with ethnomethodological tools (as I have been trying to do). The talk took place in the seminar “Transformations de la normativité islamique” and we went out for lunch afterwards in one of the many restaurants in the area around Boulevard Raspail. What I came to cherish were long lunch breaks with colleagues — always accompanied by a glass of wine!

reading in cafés. People actually do it here!

The final talk I gave took place at the FMSH building and it was my favorite one. I had the opportunity to speak in front of an audience who had all been to and carried out fieldwork in Central Asia. It is very rare for me these days to speak to other regional experts as I am based at a sociology department and in a German context where research on Central Asia is only done only sporadically. It wa thus s a pleasure talking about the main arguments of my book “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan” — and to see that people actually understood what I was trying to say, and seemed to have enjoyed the presentation, too. Thank you to the organizers of this talk, Stéphane Dudoignon, Carole Ferret and Isabelle Ohayon for inviting me. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my co-presenter that afternoon was Olivier Ferrando, an old friend whom I had not met for several years!

After my lecturing obligations had been met, I was left to my own devices; which meant that I could dive into the books and articles I had brought along. I started writing my historical chapter for my new book on ethno-religious minorities in Myanmar and hope to use the remaining days in Paris to push it as far as possible. The Maison Suger has provided ideal working conditions to make this possible!

an inspirational goddess of writing

Since I am in the lucky position to start a 10-month sabbatical afterwards, my goal is to carry the “French writing spirit” with me back to Konstanz, install myself there and keep up the tradition of meeting colleagues for lunch regularly!

Merci, Paris!






Research Granted: How to become an activist in Myanmar and South Africa

The German Research Foundation (DFG) has granted 4 PhD positions at the University of Konstanz for a joint comparative research project on “Activist becomings in South Africa and Myanmar.“ I will supervise 2 PhD projects on Myanmar while my colleague, Thomas Kirsch, will supervise two projects on South Africa. We hope that the outcomes will provide new knowledge concerning practices of democratic participation in the midst of urban and postcolonial crisis.

The project is definitely a precious contribute to the infrastructural turn and could serve as a model of research in very different parts of the world and in different social and political circumstances (anonymous reviewer)

With a focus on material and non-material infrastructure, our project seeks to provide new theoretical and methodological tools to study political formations, thereby contributing to an anthropology of activism, infrastructural studies, political anthropology, anthropology of democracy and African and Asian studies. The research project explicitly seeks to disseminate knowledge and build bridges between scholarly research and activism – something I am really excited about!

Saints in politics. On imaginaries of power, gender and the dilemma of Aung San Suu Kyi

This week I published a post in openDemocracy on Myanmar and its “State Counsellor” Aung San Suu Kyi that focuses not on the horrific situation we are currently observing from the safety of our screens, but on our own expectations and imaginaries that we have regarding leader-figures in general and female politicians in particular:

Hillary Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi. 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

“In the case of Myanmar, we are in danger of reducing a complicated reality to an imaginary that we try to bring into being through sheer desire. We attribute the qualities required to make change possible to a person who is then expected to be both saintly and powerful. That person is thus saddled with the impossible task of doing what is morally just, while at the same time acting strategically in order to maintain the power required for any sort of political action.”

In the article I further list three reasons why Aung San Suu Kyi’s saintly status has become a burden to her and argue that when we are demanding Aung San Suu Kyi to both embody the state and continue to ‘do the right thing’ we delude ourselves by projecting qualities onto politicians who have no intention of embodying them.

Read the full article here.