Tag Archives: outreach

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.

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.

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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.