Workshop: Practices of Traditionalization in Central Asia

“Tradition” has frequently been invoked in the context of Central Asian nation-building projects and there has been a tendency to investigate it “from above” by focusing on elites, political actors in powerful positions, and intellectuals who are often encouraged or urged to perform and write in the name of the nation. This body of literature has yielded important insights into the rational motivations behind invoking “tradition”. In this workshop, we aim to transcend this body of scholarly literature by offering exciting new anthropological research that complicates the assumption that state power can and will monopolize tradition. Practices of traditionalization can thus be both inclusive and exclusive, integrative as well as divisive. While elites might be imposing their views and interests and try to force others to accept them as the (new) rules of the game, demotic actors always have the capacity to re-interpret and challenge top-down models. Investigating tradition from the perspective of practice allows one to study how tradition comes into being in the first place, how it gets legitimized but also how it is challenged, refuted or claimed.

 

In a workshop on November 16-18 2017, a group of Central Asia scholars came together to discuss a special issue we are intending to submit to Central Asian Survey (CAS) on practices of traditionalization. Tradition does matter in Central Asia: it aggregates people, motivates individual and collective action, informs policy, public debates, law, and representation, and is – despite its often enough strategic inception – affectively powerful. Hence, working from the understanding that there are no structural differences between the inventions of demotic actors and those of elites, we focus instead on the practical ways in which tradition is put to use, by whom and for what ends. 

Continuing to highlight the importance of tradition in ongoing nation-building processes, the attention of our special issue will lie on the ‘everydayification’ (paraphrasing Weber’s Veralltäglichung) of tradition, in arenas ranging from political demonstrations (Beyer and Kojobekova), industrial workers’ gatherings (Trevisani), UNESCO meetings (Coskun), local councils (Gonzales), institutions of religious education (Müller), minority communities (Ptackova), the household (Cleuziou), and even the internet (Kudaibergenova). Stay tuned!

I am going to Paris: Fernand Braudel Associate Directorship

In 2018, I will spend one month as Associate Research Director (Directeur d’Études Associés) at the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme (FMSH) in Paris.

The Fernand Braudel Associate Directorship is an international mobility programme at Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme in Paris (FMSH) (for more information see here). It has been created in 1975 upon the initiative of Fernand Braudel.

During my stay, I will give lectures at the Collège de France (EHESS/CNRS), the Centre d’Études Turques, Ottomanes, Balkaniques et Centrasiatiques (CETOBAC), and the Centre d’Étude des Mouvements Sociaux (CEMS-IMM) while continuing to write my book on ethno-religious communities in Myanmar’s former capital Yangon. Ideally, I will just have returned from follow-up research in Myanmar, with fresh insights from the field.

Thanks to Prof. Stéphane Dudoignon, Dr. Yazid Ben Hounet and Prof. Baudouin Dupret for supporting my application!

 

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.

Workshop: The Future of Central Asian Studies

co-organized by Judith Beyer (Konstanz) and Madeleine Reeves (Manchester).

The last three years have seen a flourishing of anthropological and historical monographs on Central Asia. We propose an innovative workshop format that seeks to launch several of these recent monographs and to use a discussion of their findings as a basis for reflection on the future of Central Asian studies. The workshop will facilitate a series of focused discussions that emerge from bringing the texts into conversation with one another.

How can material from Central Asia inform conceptual debates about order, knowledge, modernity, empire, religion and resources in the widest sense? What can be gained from drawing together anthropological and historical scholarship on law and empire, or dynamics of peace and conflict? How can we better integrate the history and anthropology of Afghanistan to allow comparison with the rest of Central Asia? The book panel discussions will be videotaped and edited versions of these discussions will be made available to an international audience.

For a full programme see here.

 

 

Teaching: Neotraditionalisation, indigeneity, and the problem of authenticity

I will be teaching a MA-seminar within our joint MA-program “Anthropology and Sociology” at the University of Konstanz this coming winter term (course is in German). Here is the announcement:

Scottish kilts, Japanese ninjas, African body painting and Halloween in America: are these traditions genuine?

This question seems to be relevant at first sight, but from an anthropological point of view, it is not the most pressing. When dealing with such ‘traditions’, we should rather seek to understand which actors, in which context, when and for what purpose present a certain practice, a discourse, or an object as ‘traditional’. ‘Tradition’ has been regarded as a counterpart to ‘modernity’ especially from the 19th century onwards. The term was coined negatively, as an obstacle that had to be overcome. Soon, though, ‘tradition’ also came to be romanticized.

Within the framework of colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the concept gained new relevance worldwide. By its application, selected practices could be classified as intrinsic parts of people’s ethnic or local identities. Commonly, even practices that only emerged as part of (and in response to) colonization became classified as ‘traditions’. The famous criticism of these processes speaks of the ‘invention of tradition’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).

The subsequent scientific debates were largely concerned with the concept of authenticity, and with it the assumption that traditions had a pure origin and were always at risk of being falsified, mixed, or forgotten. This point of view has also been critically reflected in anthropological debates.

In recent decades, the importance of ‘tradition’ has been examined especially in the context of nation-building processes, as many of the newly emerged post-colonial states are strongly recruiting the idea of ‘traditions’ to promote a stable cultural collective identity. Currently, ‘tradition’ is also being actively promoted in the context of recognition claims by representatives of indigenous groups – but this has at times also been to their disadvantage. In this seminar, under the rubric of ‘neotraditionalisation’, we will focus on the critical reception of the concept of the ‘invention of tradition’, especially the problem of authenticity, on the role of ‘tradition’ in nation-building processes, as well as on current debates on indigenous movements as well as the negotiation of ‘tradition’ at an international level (e.g., non-governmental organizations) and its adjudication by state courts.

Workshop on Divergent Resource Claims in Plural Ecologies

A group of German anthropologists has met at the Institute for Advanced Study in Konstanz last weekend to carry out the third (out of six) workshops within the framework of a DFG-funded network on “Contested plural ecologies. Anthropological perspectives on Southeast Asia.” After having convened in Heidelberg and Passau already, Konstanz hosted the third gathering in which we continued exploring human-nature-relationships, taking into account recent theoretical debates in anthropology.

Workshop participants in Konstanz. July 8, 2017.

This workshop, entitled “Divergent resource claims in plural ecologies”, was convened by myself and Birgit Bräuchler (currently based at Monash University, Melbourne) and focused on how ambivalences and contestations between local, national and international rights and claims inform ecological policies and power struggles at the respective levels. Given the rising demand for cultural rights and the plurality of ecologies within and across countries in Southeast Asia, a regional comparison can shed new light on debates about diverging normative orders, the translation of individual and collective human rights, and the (sustainable) management of a broad range of resources.

In the papers, we geographically covered Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar. The ‘resources’ under investigation reached from urban land, waterscapes, religious buildings, rice fields, beaches, eaglewood nursery programs, forested mountains, to gardens and coral reefs. For a full programme of the workshop see here.

The group profited enormously from the two external discussants: the legal anthropologist Prof. Dr. Keebet von Benda-Beckmann (Amsterdam) and the environmental anthropologist Prof. Dr. Greg Acciaioli (Perth). Both are experts on Indonesia and provided thought-provoking individual feedback to all papers.

The group will convene next in Berlin at the Humboldt University in November 2017.