Tag Archives: theory

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.

Harmony Ideology at The Hague. New Blog Post for Public Anthropologist

Together with Felix Girke, I have just published another op-ed piece on the genocide case currently pending at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. There, The Republic of The Gambia has filed a case against Myanmar, accusing the country’s army of having committed genocide of Muslim Rohingya. We have published on this issue also at OpenDemocracy, focusing on the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who has decided to act as the “Agent” of a high-profile team of lawyers. While her status as an ‘icon of democracy’ is unbroken within the country, especially in Western countries, commentators are grappeling with what they perceive to be a sudden and unexpected shift in her personality since she became “state counsellor”. However, as I have argued in 2017 already, this is in line with how she has always been doing politics.

Yangon, 10. Dec 2019. © B. Mette-Starke

In our blog post for Public Anthropologist, we take a look at Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech at the ICJ on December 11 2019. We argue  that she employs “harmony ideology,” a concept coined by the legal anthropologist Laura Nader in the 1990s, based on her work among the Talean Zapotec in southern Mexico in the 1960s. Later, Nader applied her new terminology to so-called alternative dispute resolution (ADR)-cases in the United States of America.

“Harmony ideology”, so Nader, needs to be understood as a counterhegemonic force with which her Zapotec villagers tried to keep the Mexican state at bay. By pretending that they are a harmonious people and capable of dealing with their disputes internally, they tried to fend off any outside interference. In ADR-cases, Nader showed how “harmony ideology” was used to “outsource” dispute cases that judges thought to be too irrelevant for to be decided in state courts. In the case of Myanmar at the ICJ, however, Felix Girke and I argue that

Aung San Suu Kyi acted as if her country were a southern Mexican village, needing protection from illegitimate legal governance that interfered with its internal affairs, while at the same time embodying the very state apparatus that is now internationally accused of having committed genocide against its own population.

While the Talean Zapotec might have had effective measures for local dispute resolution and good reasons to keep the state courts at bay, the atrocities committed against the Rohingya and the poor record of Myanmar to police itself suggest that Suu Kyi’s harmony ideology at the ICJ is sorely misplaced, we argue. Read the full post over at Public Anthropologist.

Anthropology and existentialism. Back to the individual?

Next to a BA-level course on Indigeneity and Law, I will be teaching in our Master’s Program “Anthropology and Sociology” a thematic course on anthropology and existentialism. After having spent a couple of months in France (Paris, in particular) this year and last year, living in direct vicinity to Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s former “writing ground” (Café Le Flore, Café Les Deux Magots) in St. Germain, I became more and more interested in combining anthropological reasoning with existential philosophy. Next to Sartre, De Beauvoir and other French intellectuals of the mid-20th century, I encountered the work of Albert Piette (who teaches at Uni Nanterre in Paris) whom I only knew as Michael Jackson’s “sidekick” from “What is existential anthropology?” (Berghahn 2015). I slowly read through his oeuvre, most of it only available in French, but some of it already translated into English by now. His creative way of approaching an anthropo-centric anthropology via what he calls ‘phenomenography’ is as innovative as it is radical. He argues against ethnomethodology, against social interactionism and against every other theory that privileges collectivity rather than individuality.

Since the best way to truly understand theory is to teach it, I am looking forward to my seminar where the question “What role does the individual actually play in anthropology?” will stand at the center of our inquiry. We will see that this question needs to be answered differently depending on what decade and what anthropological tradition we are talking about. We will be reading classical  anthropological literature (Malinowski, Benedict, Geertz, Obeyesekere, Rosaldo, Rapport, Lutz and Abu-Lughod) in order to understand how often the individual rather stood in anthropology’s way on the path towards ‘society’, ‘structure’ or ‘systems of meaning’. We will counter these views not only with recent existential anthropological literature, but also with literature from neighbouring disciplines such as philosophy (the old French classics) and existential psychoanalysis (Chodorow, Yalom).

Last but not least I hope to generate  insights into the nature of the relationships we develop with our key interlocutors during field research: Does a stronger focus on the individual’s existence require a change in the way we approach our ‘field’ and collect our ‘data’? How do we reflect on our own role as individuals in the field?

Here is the syllabus to the seminar: