Tag Archives: statelessness

We-formation. Reflections on methodology, the military coup attempt and how to engage with Myanmar today. Lecture in Paris, 16 May 2023

In this invited lecture, I will discuss my concept of “we-formation” in regard to three different topics: First, as anthropological theory and methodology; Second, as a way to make sense of the resistance against the attempted military coup and third in regard to the possibility of a public anthropology of cooperation in these trying times.

First, I will explore the concept in regard to its theoretical and methodological innovativeness, taking an example from my Yangon ethnography as illustration. We-formation, I argue in my book Rethinking community in Myanmar. Practices of we-formation among Muslims and Hindus in urban Yangon, “springs from an individual’s pre-reflexive self-consciousness whereby the self is not (yet) taken as an intentional object” (8). The concept encompasses individual and intersubjective routines that can easily be overlooked” (20), as welll as more spectacular forms of intercorporeal co-existence and tacit cooperation.

By focusing on individuals and their bodily practices and experiences, as well as on discourses that do not explicitly invoke community but still centre around a we, we-formation sensitizes us to how a sense of we can emerge (Beyer 2023: 20).

Second, I will put my theoretical and methodological analysis of we-formation to work and offer an interpretation of why exactly the attempted military coup of 1 February 2021 is likely to fail (given that the so-called ‘international community’ does not continue making the situation worse). In the conclusion of my book I argue that the “generals’ illegal power grab has not only ended two decades of quasi-democratic rule, it has also united the population in novel ways. As an unintended consequence, it has opened up possibilities of we-formation and enabled new debates about the meaning of community beyond ethno-religious identity” (250).

Third, I will discuss how (not) to cooperate with Myanmar today. Focusing on what is already happening within the country and amongst Burmese activists in exile, but also what researchers of Myanmar from the Global North can do within their own countries of origin to make sure the resistance does not lose momentum. In this third aspect, I take we-formation out of its intercorporeal and pre-reflexive context in which I came to develop the concept during my fieldwork in Yangon and employ it to stress a type of informed anthropological action that, however, does not rely on having a common enemy or on gathering in a new form of ‘community’ that has become reflexive of itself. Rather, it aims at encouraging everyone to think of one’s own indidivual strengths, capabilities and possibilities and put them to work to support those fighting for a free Myanmar.

You can purchase my book on the publisher’s website: NIAS Press.

Here’s the full programme of the Groupe Recherche Birmanie for the spring term 2023:

“Rethinking community in Myanmar. Practices of We-Formation among Muslims and Hindus in Urban Yangon” (NIAS Press 2023) has arrived!

‘Community’, I argue in my new anthropological monograph, was actively turned into a category for administrative purposes during the time of British imperial rule. It has been put to work to divide people into ethno-religious selves and others ever since.

Rather than bestowing on community some sort of positivist reality or deconstructing the category until nothing is left, my aim in this book is to shift the angle of approach: I acknowledge that community (for reasons that can usually be traced historically) feels real to and is meaningful for individuals. Their experiences and their struggles to engage with community are no less real. Through their own classificatory practices, my interlocutors — Muslims and Hindus in urban Yangon — demonstrate that they reason and reflect on symbols and meanings in their own culture as much as anthropologists do. But my approach goes beyond a social constructivist concern over how terms such as community are used, and also beyond a representational approach in which actors are subjected to culture as a system of meaning.

When I talk about the work of community (drawing on Nancy 2015), I reflect on the ways in which individuals accommodate ‘community’ in their acts of reasoning, meaning-making and symbolization. The way my interlocutors in Yangon see and talk about themselves has a historical context that begins in nineteenth-century England, encompasses British colonial India and later Burma itself, and extends into presentday
Myanmar. I then widen the emic perspective of my interlocutors and offer a novel way of describing how a we that does not neatly map onto or overlap with a homogeneous social group is generated in various situations.

What I call we-formation encompasses individual and intersubjective routines that can easily be overlooked, as well as more spectacular forms such as the intercorporeal aspects of the ritual march I described earlier. Attending to such sometimes minute moments of co-existence or tacit cooperation is difficult, but doing so can help us understand how community continues to have such an impact on the everyday lives of our interlocutors, not to mention on our own analytical ways of thinking about sociality.

By focusing on individuals and their bodily practices and experiences, as well as on discourses that do not explicitly invoke community but still centre around a we, we-formation sensitizes us to how a sense of we can emerge .

You can purchase the book on the publisher’s website: NIAS Press.

New blog post: Statelessness, expert activists and the ‘practitioner-scholar dilemma’ for the Critical Statelessness Studies (CSS) Blog Series

I published a new blog post for the Critical Statelessness Studies (CSS) Blog Series of the University of Melbourne.

I describe and analyse a central characteristic of many ‘expert activists’ working in the field of statelessness: they struggle with what I call a ‘practitioner-scholar dilemma’. Despite the fact that they often do cross disciplinary boundaries and fields of practice in combining scholarly and activist work, they position themselves on one side of an imagined divide. Drawing on Gramsci, I argue that the ‘practitioner-scholar dilemma’ originates in the way the state system structures the very possibilities of engagement with the issue of statelessness. I credit one newly emerging group of expert activists with the possibility to overcome this dilemma…

The article is accessible online on the CSS Blog serie’s website.

New publication: The common sense of expert activists

I published a new research article in Dialectical Anthropology as part of a (still forthcoming) special issue on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “common sense”, co-edited by Jelena Tošić and Andreas Streinzer. The special issue will also feature an afterword by anthropologist Prof. Kate Crehan, an established Gramsci scholar and an important guiding voice during the virtual workshop that Jelena and Andreas organized and afterwards when we circulated our draft papers.

In the article, I follow a group of professionals in their efforts to address the problem of statelessness in Europe. My interlocutors divide the members of their group into “practitioners,” on the one hand, and “scholars” on the other. Relating this emic dichotomization to Antonio Gramsci’s dialectical take on common sense, I argue against a theoretical reductionism that regards expertise and activism as two essentially different and mostly separate endeavors, and put forward the concept of the “expert activist.” Unpacking what I call the “practitioner–scholar dilemma,” I show that in their effort to end statelessness, “practitioners” take a reformist route that aims at realizing citizenship for the stateless, while “scholars” are open to a more revolutionary path that contemplates the denaturalization and even the eradication of the state. By drawing on Gramsci, I suggest that the impasse the group encounters in their work might relate more to the structural constraints imposed by the state within or against which they operate than to the problem of statelessness they are trying to solve.

My article contributes to a body of emergent work in anthropology that explores the intersection of scholarly expertise and activism. It is also the first article that I am writing on the topic of statelessness, drawing on my new fieldwork data that includes written observations, photographs, the recording and subsequent transcription of free-flowing conversations, oral presentations and speeches, journal entries, and textual documents, all obtained from participating in workshops, conferences, and policy briefings in various European settings such as universities in the UK, museums, and event spaces in The Hague and at the European Youth Centre and the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

My ethnographic research is ongoing and involves in-person and online attendance at thematic webinars on the topic of statelessness, in annual stakeholder meetings, and the launching of new reports and other publications.

I am particularly interested in receiving feedback from the people I have been working with as I continue researching the topic of expert activism and statelessness in Europe.

The article is currently accessible through open access on the journal’s website.

Thematic Thread for Allegra Lab on Statelessness, Displacement and Disappearance

For Allegra Lab, I curated a thematic thread on the topic of Statelessness, Displacement and Disappearance. Together with Catherine Allerton, Alice Wilson and Siri Lamoureaux we explore these categories in a total of four blog posts with a focus on who can claim justice on whose behalf and in regard to the various ways in which uncertainty and accountability are being processed.

This thematic thread evolved out of a workshop on Claiming justice after conflict. The stateless, the displaced and the disappeared at the margins of the state, co-organized by Yazid Ben-Hounet (Paris) and myself. The presenters consisted of anthropologists and sociologists and convened for a full day on March 15, 2019, at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris.

In my introduction to this week-long thematic thread, I show in what ways statelessness, displacement and disappearance have become familiar and inescapable features of contemporary politics worldwide. The question of who can claim justice on whose behalf is first of all a question of representation, but also touches on scale, resources and access.

In the first post, Catherine Allerton engages with statelessness and the problem of the invisibility of migrant children and their families in Sabah, Malaysia. Their stories are about vulnerability as much as they are about resilience. Employing the concept of “documentary pragmatism,” Allerton explains that for her interlocutors, the goal is “being safe” rather than being documented.


In  my own post I explore the relation between accountability and statelessness. First, by investigating the case of expert activists in Europe who have declared a fight against statelessness by trying to hold nation states accountable. Second, I look at asylum cases in the UK where stateless individuals have to give accounts of themselves. I argue that while expert activists demand accountability from nation states, it is nation states who demand accountability from stateless people.


If people cannot make claims vis-à-vis the state at all, we pondered the question of what they might be doing instead. One option that Alice Wilson explores in her post is a shift in the very discussions people are having about disappearance: in her case in the context of Oman’s southern Dhufar region. She argues that the possibilities for claims-making, and its potential success, vary within different political environments.

Finally, Siri Lamoureaux explores in her post on displaced Nuba women in Sudan women’s options such as public shaming and the accusation of perpetrators by the so-called “Nubian Queens.” In light of the recent events her post bears particular urgency. Drawing on long-term fieldwork, she then asks “Where are the Nuba queens”, namely those women who “due to (pre/post)colonial histories of divide and rule, and unequal centre-periphery socioeconomic relations, have never donned a white towb?” that has become so emblamatic of the ongoing protests.  “Without denying the sacrifice and suffering of elite women in the protests, displaced women have suffered immeasurably from the Sudanese government’s policies”, she argues.

You can find all posts of this thematic thread here.