Roosbelinda Cardenas and ‘Articulations of Blackness: Reconstructing Ethnic Politics in the Midst of Violence’

Roosbelinda Cardenas is Visiting Assistant Professor of Latin American Studies at Hampshire College. She received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on  ’Remaking the Black Pacific: Place, Race, and Afro-Colombian Territoriality,’ supervised by Dr. Mark David Anderson, and in 2013 received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her fieldsite and share her research with the community that hosted her. 

Returning to the field is like jumping on a moving train.  After doing my best to clumsily get up to speed, I quickly tried to find a reliable reference point to orient myself.  With the privileges of hindsight and perspective gone, the pace of events was both confusing and exhilarating.  Nonetheless I managed to resist the allure of fresh ethnographic data.  Instead of scribbling field notes incessantly and searching for my voice recorder at the first sign of an engaging conversation, I focused on being in the moment.  I called old friends and asked them to meet me simply to catch up.  Then, after a week of updating contact information and tracking people down, I began the work of planning my engagement activities in earnest.

I had proposed to hold workshops in the three communities where I conducted dissertation research from 2008 to 2010.  These communities were: 1. the rural inhabitants of a legally recognized “comunidad negra” that holds a collective land title in the Southern Pacific; the black residents of an urban shantytown in Bogotá where a large concentration of internally displaced people (IDPs) reside; and a group of leading black activists from two organizations that work for the defense of Afro-Colombians’ ethnic rights to territory. My purpose was to share with them a handful of insights that I had gathered throughout my dissertation work and which I thought would be most useful in furthering their strategies to remap racial and territorial politics in Colombia.

In the rural black community–the Community Council of the Lower Mira River–the timing was particularly auspicious.  The Colombian government was in the process of implementing a sweeping land restitution law to return millions of hectares that had been unlawfully taken from their rightful owners in the midst of the armed conflict.  Although a number of land restitution cases were already under way, the Bajo Mira’s was the first ethnic-specific case that had been presented to the courts and all eyes were on them.  I met with the team of young government representatives who were busy gathering evidence in the field.  In addition to meeting with them to share my insights and written work, I agreed to produce a short report that would be included with the dossier that they were preparing for the courts.

I also met with members of the Community Council board to hold the workshop that I had originally planned.  Although they humored me by sitting patiently through my presentation and activities, it was clear that their attention was elsewhere.  My presentation was focused on an analysis of what I called “green multiculturalism,” or the coupling of multicultural recognition and green capitalism.  I had intended to lead a conversation that would both identify and push the limits of “environmentalism” as the most viable political strategy to protect their territorial rights.  I still think it is an important conversation, but the timing was not the right one.  After decades of being held hostage in their own lands by the criminal advance of the drug trade and other capitalist ventures of global scale, the land restitution process held promise as a tool to protect their territories.  If the government asked them to embody the 21st Century version of the noble savage before deeming them worthy of territorial protection, they were ready to comply.  This did not mean that they were unaware of the deal they were striking or vigilant of the ways in which it might compromise their political vision, but simply that they were taking advantage of an expedient strategy that held newfound promise to change a situation that was no longer bearable.

In Cazucá, the shantytown of IDPs on the outskirts of Bogotá where I have worked for nearly ten years, spirits were high.  I did not prepare a presentation for the group of grassroots activists that I met with there.  Instead of starting the conversation with my own insights, I facilitated a workshop that was based on their own experiences of being black and displaced.  Ten people with a range of experiences as IDP activists attended.  Some were recent arrivals and others were old timers who had literally paved the neighborhood roads with their own hands; there were young mothers and older men; and they hailed from every corner of “black Colombia’s” geography.  For the people of Cazucá, the timing of the workshop was very different than for the members of the Lower Mira River’s black community.  I had the distinct sense that they finally felt “settled” both literally and figuratively.  They had bought homes and started businesses and were no longer on the move.  This meant that they were much more receptive to a critical analysis of their political strategies.  With the hindsight from their grassroots activism, they were eager to start thinking about how to move forward.


The last workshop–with national-level black activists from two major organizations–was the most difficult one.  Unsurprisingly, it was nearly impossible to get all of them in the same room at the same time.  Added to this, were the political differences between the two organizations and the internal turmoil that they were each experiencing.  After much insistence, I finally managed to schedule two separate sessions with the most experienced members of each organization.  I was particularly nervous preparing for these two sessions.  What new insight could I, a foreign white researcher, contribute to a struggle that they knew all too well?  But despite my anxiety, when I finished delivering my presentation, I felt satisfied.  On the one hand, it felt like the culmination of a very long process to which I had committed much of my adult life.  On the other hand, their reactions, which were incisive and receptive, confirmed that critical analysis is an essential part of politics.  Our debates were heated, our memories were rich, and I believe that in the end, our analysis was fruitful.  It was not often that these activists–my friends–took time out from their busy schedules to reflect upon the work that they did.  They were proud of themselves, and they felt inspired to move forward.  We talked about risks and obstacles, but also silently celebrated the victories both small and large.  On the way home, “Maria Elena” a central character in my dissertation said to me “it’s very nice, to have your life’s work laid out in front of you like that.”


Engaged Anthropology Grant: Sarah Hillewaert and “Working Towards the Promotion of Young Women’s Education and Professional Development in Lamu (Kenya)”


Lamu waterfront. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Hillewaert is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. In 2009, while a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Language, Space, and Identity: Linguistic Practices among Youth in Lamu, Kenya,’ supervised by Dr. Judith T. Irvine. In 2013, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to the Kenyan archipelago and share her research with the community that hosted her.

I received the Wenner Gren Engaged Anthropology grant to return to my fieldsite in Kenya and organize activities informed by the results of doctoral research conducted between 2007 and 2010. My dissertation investigated the relation between notions of moral personhood and changing linguistic and material practices among young people living in Lamu (Kenya). Lamu is a Muslim town located on an island by the same name, situated off the coast of Kenya. Formerly a successful center for trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is now marginalized within the national and global economy and faces increasing poverty. With the announcement of the construction of Africa’s biggest international port in the area, inhabitants of the town hope for new employment opportunities and for a restoration of the trade city’s former glory. At the same time, this multi-billion project forms a clear threat to the archipelago’s eco-system and the local fishing industry that has supported local families over the last decades. In my dissertation, I analyzed the different ways in which young people renegotiate what it means to be a virtuous person in this rapidly changing society. In particular, I looked at the different ways in which young people in this Muslim community negotiate the expectations of elders, their own respect for local norms and values, and their desire for change and development – through language, bodily comportment and social interaction.

One unexpected outcome of my research was the insights it provided in the social lives of young Lamu women: the struggles they face, and the range of ways in which they endeavor to negotiate new social positions. As a rather conservative Muslim town, Lamu has always upheld somewhat strict norms of social interaction between men and women, and for a certain period in history the town’s women lived in complete purdah or segregation. Nowadays, women move openly through town and increasingly pursue higher education and employment. Over the last decade, early marriages have been on the decline and education and professional employment of young women are on the rise. However, with these changes came new challenges: stigma surrounding women’s professional employment and public interactions with men, rising divorce rates and an increasing number of single mothers, to name but a few. When I applied for the Engaged Anthropology Grant, I intended to organize a series of workshops addressing issues surrounding girl education and women employment, in which young women and community leaders would actively participate.

Upon receiving the grant, extensive conversations with local informants showed that, while education was important to discuss, there was a strong desire to facilitate discussions on the broader social issues that result from the changing economic context and women’s greater involvement in the workforce. While international organizations frequently provide information on e.g. neo-natal care, nutrition or single motherhood, few address these issues from an Islamic perspective. Based on these discussions, we designed a series of workshops, each framed around a lecture given by a prominent (Kenyan) female Muslim scholar followed by group discussions. Topics included (1) single motherhood (2) marriage and divorce (3) child rearing and education (4) health, nutrition and fitness (5) pregnancy and neo-natal care (covered over two days). Speakers included well-known scholars from within Lamu as well as invited speakers from Mombasa, Kenya’s largest coastal city. My informants, together with local aid organizations (such as the Kenyan Red Cross) and community leaders (including the education officer at the National Museums of Kenya and local Muslim scholars), created a list of 60 invitees, based on these women’s active participation in community organizations, their position as community leaders, or their status as active community members, with a preference given to young women.

We scheduled the workshops during the second and third week of July, which coincided with the third week of the holy month of Ramadan. Because it was Ramadan, workshops took place early in the morning from 8-12, to enable women to attend and return home in time to prepare meals for the breaking of the fast. I initially did not have high hopes for attendance: not only do people sleep in late during Ramadan, but the political climate in Lamu at the time also was less than positive. Lamu’s neighboring villages of Mpeketoni and Hindi had been hit by murderous attacks (in which approximately 100 people lost their lives). Not only did one of our invited speakers cancel her trip to Lamu out of fear for additional attacks, I assumed many women would refrain from leaving the house due to the rising tensions in the town. Against all odds, the workshops were a huge success. Not only did all invitees attend, but the speakers candidly spoke about the topics at hand and lively discussions followed the lectures. And on several occasions these conversations continued well beyond the designated time.

Due to the success of the initial lectures, we opened up the last two workshops on neo-natal care such that pregnant women could. Those days over 80 women participated. We concluded the workshops series with an iftar dinner (or breaking of the fast) for those participants who attended all 6 days. During this dinner, plans were discussed, not only for a continuation of similar kinds of workshops in the future, but also for the start of a women’s center in Lamu. The latter would combine a women’s fitness space with a counseling center, providing women with a safe communal space to work out and socialize as well as allowing them to seek support for family matters, without the social stigma attached to seeking professional help. While the workshop series somewhat deviated from the initial proposal, the outcome far exceeded our expectations. The manner in which socially sensitive issues, including divorce, polygamy, and family planning, were discussed was innovative for Lamu, to say the least. The gratitude I received from organizers, scholars and attendees was heartwarming and motivates me to pursue similar projects in future.

Symposium #152: “Fire and the Genus Homo”

The 152nd Wenner-Gren Symposium, “Fire and the Genus Homo” has just recently wrapped in Sintra, Portugal. As always, you can expect a Current Anthropology special issue forthcoming, containing the meeting’s papers and available to all 100% Open-Access.

FRONT ROW: Laurie Obbink, Sarah Hlubik, Meg Thibodeau, Vera Aldeias, Carolina Mallol, Ran Barkai, Xing Gao MIDDLE ROW: Nira Alperson-Afil, Leslie Aiello, Simon Holdaway, Amanda Henry, Michael Chazan, Jill Pruetz, Paul Goldberg TOP ROW: John Gowlett, Richard Wrangham, Harold Dibble, Randall White, Dennis Sandgathe, Francesco Berna, Fatima Pinto


Organizers’ Statement


“Fire and the Genus Homo

Francesco Berna (Simon Fraser University)

Dennis Sandgathe (Simon Fraser University)

We have come to recognize that the nature of human adaptations must be viewed in the context of bio-cultural evolution. For the last 2.5 million years, at least, hominins have evolved both biologically and culturally with these two facets irretrievably entangled. Fire use must be seen as one of the most important of the technological components of this interplay: it has very likely had major effects on our biological evolution, which in turn likely led to other major technological changes, such as the development of clothing and artificial shelter and changes in hominin diet. In fact, the biology, micro-environment, and behavior of modern humans are deeply entangled with fire-use to the point that the survival of our species has come to essentially depend on it.


While there has always been general interest among anthropologists and archaeologists in the role fire played in human evolution, in the last 10 years new hypotheses and archaeological finds in Africa and Eurasia have sparked a renewed interest in trying to further our understanding. In the 1980s and 1990s the focus of this kind of research was more on trying to recognize the oldest evidence for hominin use of fire.  Recent interest has shifted to the questions about how and when fire use became an established and integral part of all hominin cultures. The first evidence for hominin use of fire does not necessarily mark the point at which hominins learned how to make it and it became inextricably part of hominin technological repertoires. Recent discoveries suggest that the history of hominin use of fire is more complex than previously hypothesized and that anthropologists and archaeologists should be more critical of potential evidence of hominin use of fire.


Based on current bio-anthropological, phylogenetic, and/or archaeological data we believe we could identify four general models for the role played by the use of fire in the evolution of the Genus Homo. These are alternative views on the timing and nature of the adoption of fire use:

  1. Homo erectus was fully adapted to a cooked food diet and had controlled use of fire by or shortly after two million years ago (the “cooking hypothesis”).
  2. Gradual or intermittent use of fire began during the Early Stone Age (i.e., by groups of Homo erectus and early H. heidelbergensis).
  3. Hominins (H. heidelbergensis?) used it first and used it in the process of colonizing higher latitude regions of Europe and Asia at the end of the Lower Pleistocene or during the early Middle Pleistocene.
  4. Humans had complete control of fire only with the appearance of H. sapiens at the onset of the Late Stone Age/Upper Palaeolithic.


Thus, work on the evidence of early fire use is clearly necessary to help answer the fundamental anthropological question: “How did humans become human?” This symposium is designed to bring together scholars who are conducting leading research on the origin of the controlled use of fire and its cultural and biological significance to the genus Homo.


Researchers have begun to collect, review and employ new types of archaeological and biological data and have started to pose new questions about the role of fire in human evolution. There is also a notable increase in the number of researchers who are focused specifically on questions of prehistoric fire use. In past decades most analysis of Palaeolithic fire residues was simply one of many issues individual archaeologists might address in the course of interpreting a site. This was typically done in isolation from data from other sites and from other researchers who may have an interest in the topic, and it was not often directed towards bigger questions of prehistoric fire use.


While access to new data is an important part of the process of assessing the relative merits of these different models, the goal of the symposium is not just to discuss data collection techniques or the interpretation of individual archaeological sites. Rather, the aim is to collectively review the old and the newer data, revise methodological approaches, discuss integrated, up-to-date scenarios for hominin development of fire technology, and develop a theoretical and methodological framework for future research. The objectives of the symposium include:


  • Discussing best possible approaches to select and integrate data collection: what types of data are particularly important for understanding prehistoric fire use and what is the importance of disseminating these data? Should (and can) certain standards of data collection be established? Are there other types of data that we should be collecting?


  • Developing a common understanding of what is meant by the terms ‘occasional,’ ‘habitual,’ and ‘controlled’ use of fire. These terms have become rather entrenched in the literature, but their actual meaning remains ambiguous: different researchers may have slightly different intentions with their use and different understandings of their implications.


  • Developing anthropological and archaeological methodological criteria by which researchers could identify when humans started to use fire occasionally or habitually, and when they developed the technology to create it. These issues have implications for the development of hominin migration/distributions, diet, bio-cultural evolution, and the onset of ‘modern behavior.’


  • Examining the role that cooking may have played in the bio-cultural evolution of the Genus Homo.


  • Addressing questions about the function of fire in pre-modern human adaptations (e.g., specific fire applications, degree of reliance); the role of fire in Late Pleistocene adaptations (Neanderthals and early Anatomically Modern Humans); and the role of fire in the emergence of modern behavior.

Meet Our 2015 Wadsworth International Fellows: Suvanthee Gunasekera

The Wadsworth International Fellowship provides the opportunity for students in countries where anthropological education is underrepresented to receive world-class training at a university abroad. In the final post of a series meeting this year’s cohort (here’s the first and second) we meet Suvanthee Gunasekera. A native of Sri Lanka, Gunasekera pursued her undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Colombo and will begin work on a doctorate in Biological Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champlain.

Although we never see them with the naked eye, microorganisms play an important role in shaping human biology. My fascination with human evolution and variation was ignited during my undergraduate studies in Zoology at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. I was intrigued by the role of microorganisms in the development of human physiology, and by how the immune system detects and responds to infectious agents.

An interest in the interactions between humans and pathogens was the stimulus to undertake an epidemiological study to detect Human papillomavirus (HPV) in oral and pharyngeal cancer patients where the results of the study suggested HPV as a strong aetiological agent in developing oral and pharyngeal cancer in Sri Lanka. This aroused my curiosity of how infectious agents cause cancers, how such pathogens are transmitted and why they are expressed so variably in infected humans. The project also prompted me to try understand the biological differences in human populations and to investigate the manner in which they have evolutionarily diverged at the level of the immune response.

Soon, it came to my realization that the field of Biological Anthropology would best suit my research goals. Now, it is my desire to be one of the few fortunate individuals studying host-pathogen interactions to better understand human evolution and to produce basic research that can be applied not just to Biological Anthropology/Human Evolutionary Biology, but can also be useful in the development of products and strategies to reduce the global burden of infectious disease. With a particular emphasis on questions relating to human immune system diversification and co-evolution with pathogens, I will conduct research that combines immunologic, genetic, cell biology and bioinformatic techniques to better understanding human evolution. I believe that examining how past pathogen outbreaks and life experience affect present day immune function variation in humans will not only enlighten the study of human evolution, but also help deepen the connection between Anthropology and fields concerned with modern day disease challenges in humans.

NYAS @ WGF, October 26th: “Persistence between the Longue Durée and the Short Purée: Archaeological Perspectives on Colonialism and Indigeneity in New England”

The second installment of this season’s New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section Lecture Series will take place this coming Monday, October 26th, at our offices. We welcome Stephen W. Stillman, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Historical Archaeology Graduate Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, along with discussant Bradley Phillippi, Professor of Anthropology at Hofstra University.

An anthropological understanding of colonialism and indigeneity in the Americas requires confronting several important questions about the connections between time, materiality, place, and people. How do archaeologists and other anthropologists measure culture change and continuity and at what scale, and why is the question framed in that way? How do people engage their pasts to live through their present and anticipate their future, and why has that been harder to visualize for archaeologists than for cultural anthropologists? What are the implications of these concepts and interpretations on pressing political and heritage issues today? This presentation will explore some potential answers to these questions, using an example of a collaborative archaeological project since 2003 between the University of Massachusetts Boston and the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, a Native American community in Connecticut that has occupied its reservation lands since 1683. I argue that a notion of “persistence” may provide some relief to these questions (or more appropriately perhaps, dilemmas), not only as both an interpretive and a lived practice that resolves some tensions of the “longue durée” of indigenous history and the “short purée” of colonialism, but also as a perspective growing out of on-the-ground community engagement with indigenous communities today.

As always, the 7:00 PM lecture will be preceded by a reception at 6:00 PM. Registration with NYAS is not required.

Meet Our 2015 Wadsworth International Fellows: Elif Irem Az

The Wadsworth International Fellowship provides the opportunity for students in countries where anthropological education is underrepresented to receive world-class training at a university abroad. In the second of a series of posts introducing this year’s new cohort of fellows (here’s the first), we meet Elif Irem Az of Turkey, whose work concerns militarism, gender and violence and will be studying for a doctorate at Columbia University.

During my undergraduate studies in Political Science and International Relations at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, my compulsory courses largely focused on quantitative research methods and grand theoretical narratives, which usually disregard the experience and subjectivity of both the subjects of the study and the researcher. As a result of my disappointment towards the mainstream research practice within political science as well as of my active involvement with the feminist movement(s) in Turkey, in the later stages of my undergraduate education, I gravitated towards sociocultural anthropology, a discipline which takes into account the significance of self-reflexivity and textuality.

I enrolled in the Master of Arts program in Cultural Studies at Sabancı University in the fall of 2012 with a full scholarship and teaching assistantship, and received my master’s degree in September 2014. Owing to my experience at Sabancı University, teaching is of great value to my academic life.

My master’s thesis entitled Military Masculinities in the Making: Professional Military Education in Contemporary Turkey was on military masculinities and professional military education in contemporary Turkey, and I have ongoing interests in militaries, militarism, gender and violence.

The connections between the body/self and labor in Turkey are central to my current research interests. In my doctoral work, I plan to focus on the intersections of the ongoing rural transformation in Aegean Turkey, national and international agricultural regulations of the neoliberal era, public discourses and policies on coal mining, and mineworkers’ understandings of the body as the self and as labor, and of life and death. Finally, I hope the interplay between fieldwork, ethnographic writing and fiction to be a fundamental concern of my research and writing.

White Activists in Indigenous Australia: Discussion on Anti-Racism, Solidarity and Humanism

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Robert Samet and “Engaging Journalism”

Robert Samet is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Union College. In 2008 while a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Writing Crime: Journalism, Insecurity, and Narratives of Violence in Caracas, Venezuela,’ supervised by Dr. Sylvia Junko Yanagisako. In 2013, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant.

One year ago Venezuela was at a crossroads. The death of President Hugo Chávez altered the country’s political landscape and there were questions about what the future held. Today it is in crisis. Soaring inflation, plummeting oil prices, and scarcity of goods have helped fuel frustration and political unrest. No one feels the current predicament more than Venezuelan journalists. My dissertation research (2007-2009) examined the press and the politics of urban violence in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas. It used crime reporting as a window onto the dynamics of political engagement among journalists, editors, and media owners. I applied for the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant to conduct a series of follow-up workshops during the summer of 2014 about the promises and perils of engaged journalism in these times of political uncertainty.

As I prepared for the workshops, it became apparent that the environment for journalism in Caracas had changed dramatically since my last visit in 2013. Political polarization is nothing new in Venezuela; however, there was a heightened sense of professional precariousness among journalists working in both the public and the private sectors. There were good reasons for this. Over the past two years, government proxies bought out many prominent opposition news outlets. This accompanied a wave of firings and retirements, which have shaken the profession. When I began research on journalism in Caracas in 2006, it was arguably the most robust, open, diverse, and politically dynamic media environment in the world. Although reports that “press freedom” is dead in Venezuela are premature, there is no doubt that the space for journalistic engagement has constricted considerably. This should be cause for concern not just for the opposition but for the government as well. Auto-critique was essential to the success of the Bolivarian Revolution, and its gradual disappearance is foreboding.

What kinds of journalistic engagement are possible under the current conditions? Workshop participants discussed a number of different definitions and strategies for engagement, which I highlight here.


I. Definitions of Engagement

Over the course of the workshops, journalists offered three different definitions of engagement: engagement as confrontation, engagement as collaboration, and engagement as solidarity. By far the most common definition was engagement as confrontation. Journalists saw themselves as advocates for ordinary citizens against the wrongdoings of powerful persons and institutions. In this capacity, it was essential for journalists to engage publicly with the problems facing the country. However, this particular mode of engagement was becoming increasingly fraught. Consequently, journalists had begun thinking about engagement as collaboration with audiences and their peers.  This took the shape of online forums and reciprocal strategies with other journalists. Finally, some workshop participants argued that professional solidarity was a third way to think about engagement. Journalist unions were crucial to the continued protection of the profession and could offer a mode of engagement that sought to preserve the integrity of their work.


II. Outlets for Engagement

1)     Denunciation: In the past, the practice of denunciation was the principal means by which Venezuelan journalists attempted to exercise influence over the political arena. Among crime journalists, denunciations took the form of victims’ testimonies against police corruption, gang violence, and government neglect. It was widely agreed that editors, pressured from above, had begun cracking down on this practice. Although journalists believed that denunciation remained one of their most powerful tools for political engagement, they agreed that it had become necessary to reserve it for only the most extraordinary cases. Whereas before it was common to publish denunciations that were not backed by strong investigation, such testimonies now demanded hard factual evidence. Some even said that this was an improvement over past practices in which the press used victims to launch ad hominem attacks. 

2)     Online engagement: Although Venezuelan journalists have been using social media for as long as their peers in North America (especially Twitter and Facebook), the current situation has amplified the importance of online communities as sites of journalistic engagement. Workshop participants identified three main developments. The first was the rise of peer-to-peer engagements with readers. More than ever, journalists found themselves responding directly to comments and queries from audiences. The second was the incorporation of citizen journalism into the practice of professional reporting. Reporters said that readers and viewers were important sources of information with whom they increasingly collaborated. Third and finally, there was a boom in for-profit online news outlets. Journalists had some hope that these new outlets might at least temporarily make up for some of the license that they had lost in other spheres.

3)     Professional Organization: Within the newsrooms, unions and professional associations were a critical tool of empowerment. In particular, the workers’ unions played a strong role in protecting journalists and fostering professional solidarity. Although reporters were openly divided on the prospects for activism on the part of these unions, it was clear that they were an important locus for journalistic engagement.

4)     Collaboration: Finally, a group of crime reporters argued that collaboration between reporters was also a form of engagement that was too often overlooked or demeaned as “pack journalism.” Among crime reporters, journalists from competing news outlets worked together to cover stories and often shared information. Responding to my own writings on this subject, they pointed out that working in teams allowed them to be more thorough in their investigations, to engage more thoroughly with the victims of crime, and to cover a much larger swath of material than would otherwise be possible.


In addition to debates about journalistic engagement, the workshops also provided an opportunity for the participants to offer comments and critique on the research that I conducted with the help of the Wenner-Gren Foundation (2008-2009). Two of my current chapters were translated and circulated in advance. They provided a platform for a grounded conversation about what has changed and what remains the same in the field. The Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant afforded the rare opportunity for research participants to offer feedback on the framing and execution of the book manuscript in progress.


Engaged Anthropology Grant: Socializando “Guerrilla Marketing” in Colombia


Alex Fattal is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University. In 2009, while a Ph.D. student at Harvard, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Guerrilla Marketing: Information Warfare and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels,’ supervised by Dr. Kimberly Susan Theidon. Last year, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant, enabling him to return to his fieldsite in Bogota and share his research with the community that hosted him. 

Over the course of late July and early August 2014, I traveled to four cities in Colombia to share the findings from my dissertation research, Guerrilla Marketing: Information War and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels with Colombian scholars and policy-makers. That research was funded in part by the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s Dissertation Fieldwork Grant.

I presented my conclusions in a political context in which peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have reached an advanced stage. Provisional agreements have been signed for three of the five agenda items. This made my research into the individual demobilization of FARC combatants all the more germane to my audience. I shared my work at four different universities: La Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín, ICESI Universidad in Cali, la Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla, and the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. The audiences were very engaged in my presentations, often asking lively questions about Colombia’s much-anticipated “post-conflict” future.

Much of the discussion that my presentations generated spun around the implications of my research for the current peace process in Colombia, and how representational practices are playing a crucial role in the political struggle to support or undermine the peace process. Although it is an ongoing story, one of the primary conclusions from the discussion was that the Santos Administration needs to do a better job of communicating the progress that is being made in the negotiations, rather than assuming a reactive posture to those who have cast aspersions on the process and doomed it to failure.

I also extended my engagement with Colombian audiences, as planned, with a few regional and national media outlets. In addition to the presentations I gave interviews to campus media groups, and local and national media outlets such as El Universal and Semana. I only hope that I was as articulate as I implored the government to be. I advocated for a radical reorientation of the current model of demobilization in anticipation of the collective demobilization to come. (I have crystallized my policy recommendations in a paper I put together with Colombian colleagues here).

My thesis research also included a documentary film project that is in the middle of production. I shared a very rough cut of that visual ethnography in each of the four cities. The film, Dreams from the Concrete Mountain, enters into the psychological worlds of former combatants who have been both perpetrators and victims of the country’s ongoing civil war. The film project centers on a series of interviews with former insurgents inside of a truck that I have transformed into a camera obscura. That space becomes an intimate place for recounting life trajectories entangled with the social problems that are the root causes of the conflict, and the armed confrontations that are its most visible symptoms. Audiences were intrigued by the filming technique and impressed the direct style of narration, stories they might have heard before but through the words and framings of experts and others who speak as surrogates for ex-combatants. The dialogue that emerged around the film gave me a series of ideas as I continue to shoot and edit this project, and injected me with enthusiasm that the project is fulfilling its main goals: to humanize and complicate the figure of the former guerrilla fighter.

I am extraordinarily grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for enabling me to share (or socializer, one of my favorite Spanish words) with Colombian scholars, students, and policy makers. I would like to acknowledge the help and support of my hosts at the Universidad de Antioquia, Universidad ICESI, Universidad del Norte, and Universidad de los Andes, more specifically the colleagues that helped make it happen: Jonathan Echeverri (Antioquia), Inge Valencia (ICESI), Diana Rico (Norte), and Pablo Jaramillo and Monica Espinosa (Andes).

Engaged Anthropology Grant: ‘Medicine, Morality and the Market: A Workshop’

Denielle Elliott is a member of the Health & Society faculty in the Department of Social Science at York University. In 2008, while at the University of British Columbia, she received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to  aidresearch on ‘Safari Research and Field Science: The Spatial Politics of HIV Vaccine Clinical Trials in Kenya’. In 2013, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to follow up her research by returning to her fieldsite and conducting a multidisciplinary two-day workshop in Kisumu, Kenya to discuss the ways in which medicine, morality and market values are entwined.

This collaborative workshop between Maseno University’s Department of Anthropology and myself aimed to offer an opportunity for local Kenyan scholars to discuss the ways in which medical research is conducted in East Africa. The Kisumu region in the province of Nyanza in Kenya was called a “laboratory” by Dutch NGO Wemos, reflecting the amount of medical research being conducted in the area by foreign organizations like Liverpool University, the Wellcome Trust, the CDC, the US Army’s Walter Reed Project, among others. This massive assemblage of research in the area has multiple, sometimes contradictory, effects on local communities and organizations providing care and health services to Kenyans.

Our collaborative workshop offered a space for creative, productive, and engaging conversations about medicine, the global flow of capital, and local unintended effects of medicine and the market on values, culture, and morality. More importantly, participants in the workshop felt comfortable talking openly and critically about both the positive and negative consequences of medical research in western Kenya.

The workshop was held at Maseno University’s City Campus, in Kisumu, Nyanza, Kenya December 9   and 10 2014. We had papers delivered by 12 participants (faculty and graduate students from East Africa), 35 people in attendance, and the keynote was given by Professor Omar Egesah from Moi University in Eldoret.

Dr. Omar Egesah’s keynote discussed the politics of global aid and humanitarianism, and highlighted  local tensions in the ways in which aid and global health research are rolled out in East Africa. They keynote offered many questions for debate and discussion during the questions period. The themes he raised – inequities, ethics, and local governing structures – were revisited throughout the workshop in both discussions and the papers being delivered. In many ways, the workshop worked towards decolonizing medical research in Kenya by shifting the power relations in who gets to define local health and research priorities.