Category Archives: publishing

New Publication: On ‘the transition’ – in Myanmar and beyond

In a new publication in the Journal of Burma Studies (2018; 22/2), together with Felix Girke, I am returning to an old topic of mine: a critical investigation of the so-called ‘transition paradigm’, which I have explored in the context of post-Soviet Central Asia during the time of my doctoral research. I have published on this topic already in 2006 here, drawing on my data from Kyrgyzstan. In this new article, Felix and I are tracing the genealogy of the transition paradigm across disciplines, regions and decades from Latin America in the 1960s, via Southern Europe in the 1980s, Central Asia in the 1990s to contemporary Myanmar. We argue that

[the transition paradigm] has the potential to become a ‘god-term’ (Burke) as it did in other places … Burke suggests that a god-term is treacherous in that it ‘explain[s] too little by explaining too much (1945:107).

Challenging the concept’s current status within the subfield of Myanmar/Burma studies, our task in this article is to alert a regionally interested and educated audience to debates that have been going on elsewhere already decades ago. Offering the framework of conceptualizing transition as a ‘migratory model’ (drawing on Behrends, Rottenburg and Park 2014), these are some of the questions we ask in the article.For a full version of the article, see here (paywalled; for a pdf contact me!).


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):…/surviving-post-employment-econom……/…/2013/09/201391764312806487.html…/…/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 – 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.


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.


Anthropology between Book and Blog – my latest for Allegra

Anthropology between Book and Blog – Evaluation Criteria and Communication in Academia.
Talk on the Occasion of Allegra Lab’s Website Relaunch in Berlin at the Finnish Institute
19 February 2015
first published at Allegra Lab on March 2, 2015.

I decided to embed my thoughts on productivity in the academic world – both traditional and digital – in the context of a debate that is old, but apparently not outdated. This is the debate about the type of knowledge the humanities are able to produce. This year, a Humanities World Report (HWR) was published in which the three authors – among them the historian Arne Jarrick, who is currently running a project on the long-term global history of law-making – advocated two things that are of relevance to us here today: one, that scholars in the humanities should strive towards strengthening international and interdisciplinary cluster formation where larger thematic complexes can be discussed. Second, they argued that just as in all the other sciences, the goal of the humanities should be “truth finding.”

I will deal with the first proposition first as I think that – worded in this way – this is what Allegra Lab has been doing so far and intends to continue doing in the future: providing an integrative research platform. But according to the report, the most dominant form of such international cooperation comes in the form of Digital Humanities (DH). What is meant by this term is somewhat opaque, as that field is quite diverse. Its most institutionalised manifestations are the so-called Digital Humanities Centres (DHC) which, according to the authors of the report, deal with the following five fields of research:

1) Digital collections, archiving and text encoding

2) Reading and analysing electronic texts

3) Geospatial and critical discursive mapping technologies

4) ‘Big Data’, social computing, crowd-sourcing, and networking and

5) 3D immersive visualisation environments

The authors estimate that there are around 65 Digital Humanities Centres in Europe with 19 centres in England alone, the largest being the University College London Centre for Digital Humanities, “staffed with six directors, ten staff, student, and liaison positions, ten affiliated faculty, and 13 or more affiliated graduate students.” (p. 67). The US has approximately 60 DH centres with world-leading facilities, such as the Harvard University of Digital Arts and Humanities (DARTH), or the Columbia University Digital Humanities Center (DHC).

Scholars carrying out qualitative work within the field of DH, or investigating the impact of digitalisation in people’s everyday lives, have criticised the institutionalisation of these centres and the type of data they are dealing with. They have raised their voices mainly against the lack of cultural criticism in the digital humanities. One such critical voice comes from Alan Lui (2012) of the Department of English at the University of Santa Barbara in the US. He says: “How the digital humanities advance, channel, or resist the great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporatist, and globalist flows of information-cum-capital, for instance, is a question rarely heard in the digital humanities associations, conferences, journals, and projects…” Equally under-debated is how new techniques in the digital humanities such as “distant reading” (Moretti 2000), or “culturomics” (Michel, Shen 2010), both quantitative computational methods of processing millions of digitised books across centuries, impact on traditional ways of close reading, thereby turning the very object of analysis – text – from a form of human expression into a source of (Big) Data.

A form of human expression or a source of (Big) Data?

The authors of the Humanities World Report (HWR) argue that “[t]he skepticism and even outright hostility to digital humanities evidenced by some blog literature might be a unique phenomenon within the humanities” (emphasis added). They continue to wonder: “Strangely, much of this debate is not published but articulated in blog posts and other short web-based forms, which do not encourage the writers to fully argue their case” (emphasis added). If we apply this statement to the work Allegra is doing – namely blogging – it means that blogging is understood by the makers of this encompassing report not as a form of publication, but as an “articulation.” This does not sound bad at all, but it is then right away denounced as “limiting” and gets juxtaposed with “publication.”

Now what is problem with that? Well, it shows us that even within the field of digital humanities there is an inclination towards traditional modes of publishing. What has been revolutionised are the digital methods with which data can be collected, archived, processed, and analysed. What has not been revolutionised, apparently, is the way in which this sort of new and often “Big Data” is then published and /or debated. The reason for this is no secret and here critical voices from within digital humanities as well as those coming from outside join in the laments: academia does not, by and large, recognise digital forms of publication. To publish digitally means taking a risk for researchers who are in the early stages of their career and have tenure track positions that come with specified evaluation criteria. This also includes, as I have shown, people working within DH, which apparently continue to focus on “traditional” ways of publication such as peer-reviewed journal articles and monographs. Online publications or engagement in digital networking can be mentioned in a scholar’s self-report, but they are not key to the evaluation as such. They are also not of interest to the universities or research institutes in general: I received two emails recently asking me to fill in my last year’s publications. In the drop-down list there were all sorts of possibilities mentioned, even non-textual based publications. But it was impossible to register online journal publications, or photographs or films, for example. So again: what has become digital is the data processing, not the debate.

What has been revolutionised are the digital methods with which data can be collected, archived, processed, and analysed. What has not been revolutionised, apparently, is the way in which this sort of new and often “Big Data” is then published and /or debated.

This stance also has significant impact on obtaining funding for digital initiatives such as Allegra Lab. While there is ample money for digital technology, there seems to be little appreciation within traditional third party funding institutions of the potential benefits engendered by online platforms for publication. While I personally have succeeded, for example, in getting money from funding institutions for digital equipment such as cameras, voice recorders, and software programmes, the same institution did not see any value in financially supporting an online publication platform where young researchers could present their findings and engage in conversation.

The authors of the Humanities World Report (HWR) conclude their report by arguing that “[t]he real challenge of digital humanities still lies ahead in asking new research questions enabled by the technology, training researchers to identify and utilise the potential, and developing a critical sense of the explanatory power of new technologies” (p.83). This might be the case, but even after all of these challenges have been met, there still lies another, maybe even bigger challenge, namely to publish, disseminate and debate the results so obtained in an equally digitalised form. This will continue to pose a problem as long as young researchers, who are particularly prone to new digital ways of communication, are discouraged from publishing outside the established framework of journals and publishing houses.

While there is ample money for digital technology, there seems to be little appreciation within traditional third party funding institutions of the potential benefits engendered by online platforms for publication.

Homi Bhabha

I now come to the second point made by the authors of the report. They described the humanities, alongside all other sciences, as “truth seeking academic disciplines” (p. 184). Their assessment was challenged by Homi Bhabha recently at a conference organised by the Volkswagen Foundation in Hanover. Borrowing the term “thick ethical concept” from the British philosopher Bernard Williams, who developed it in his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1986), Bhabha referred to the humanities as the “thick concept of contingency, convergence and veracity” – notions he has stressed throughout his work on post-colonialism. The humanities are contingent because they are able to reflect upon their spatial and temporal situatedness, they are converging in the sense that they cut across disciplines and fields, and they strive towards veracity – and not truth.

I think one can apply Bhabha’s characterisation to the type of work Allegra Lab has been carrying out and continues to strive for – both in terms of the texts our authors produce as well as in the way we go about circulating and discussing the knowledge so generated. The strength of academic blogging and other forms of digital networking lies in fulfilling these characteristics as outlined by Bhabha as being good as (and possibly even better than) traditional modes of publication. Our job as blogging anthropologists is to convince people out there that whether we read our texts closely or from a distance, they should be published digitally – and open access, of course – but this is another debate.

Literature cited

Holm, Poul, Arne Jarrick, and Dominic Scott. 2015. The Palgrave MacMillan Humanities World Report 2015. Accessible here.

Lui, Alan. 2012. Where is cultural criticism in the digital humanities? In: Matthew Gold (ed.). Debates in the Digital Humanities. University of Minnesota Press. Accessible here.

Michel, Jean-Baptiste, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden 2011. Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books. In: Science. 331,6014. Pp.176-182.

Moretti, Franco. 2000. Conjectures on World Literature. New Left Review. Pp.54-68. Accessible here.

Williams, Bernard. 2006 [1985]. Ethics and the limits of philosophy. Abingdon: Routledge.