Archive for December 23, 2015

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Karen Rignall and “Transforming Landscapes, Transforming Communities in a Moroccan Oasis Valley”

Karen Rignall is Assistant Professor of Community and Leadership Development in the College of Agriculture, Food and the Environment at the University of Kentucky. In 2009, while a student at the University of Kentucky, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Expanding Cultivation, Land, and Livelihood Transformations in Southern Morocco,’ supervised by Dr. Lisa Cliggett. She used the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to the Mgoun Valley in southern Morocco in early 2014.

I returned to the Mgoun Valley in southern Morocco in early 2014 to initiate a process of collective community-based learning and dialogue about the social and spatial transformations that formed the basis of my dissertation research there in 2010.  My goal was to use a model developed in the refugee camps of Palestine, to support people’s constructive engagement with the social dimensions of landscape transformation rather than to simply present the results of my dissertation. The ensuing year revealed much about how those social dynamics were in even greater flux than during my fieldwork, and how the politics of knowledge production in my research were bound up with these changing social dynamics. The result was an engaged anthropology project that looked very different from my initial plans but that nonetheless produced a sustained dialogue about subsistence claims, land rights, and political representation and engaged a much wider audience than my initial research had. This project produced new and collaborative learning, building my relationships and laying the groundwork for more research in the future.

The initial phase of the project involved working with a local NGO to hold dialogues with different groups to actively reinterpret the spaces in which they live, spaces that had been transformed through expanded agricultural production and housing construction over the past few decades. Rather than work with the local village development association, however, I decided to partner with the Réseau des Associations de Tinghir pour la Démocratie et Développement (RATDED), a province-wide network of NGOs that included the local groups with which I was familiar but engaged in broader collaborative efforts to link community development with substantive economic and political rights. We began the process of community dialogues but found that the project plan — though intended to counter the standard approaches to local development — was still divorced from the social and political dynamics that were already engaging people in my research communities. There were existing sites for people to reimagine their landscapes. People were doing so in the context of existing informal governance institutions, negotiations over land rights in newly opened up frontiers, and social dialogue forums RATDED was already holding. Our meetings began to appear burdensome and in some cases redundant. The Palestinian model remained very compelling to me, but I understood that I would need to be present in Mgoun on a consistent basis, as the Palestinian program is, in order to fully integrate this project into the processes of dialogue already going on. Though I was able to visit for two months in 2014 and one month in early 2015, this was simply not enough to organically link my structured discussions with the often politically charged discussions others were brokering on the same themes.

Rethinking our approach produced interesting insights about the politics of knowledge production. Since the reflexive turn three decades ago, anthropologists have addressed the issue of power and inequality in the research encounter by emphasizing the dialogic nature of our methods and how our politicized understanding of knowledge can mitigate the claims to authority embedded in more strictly positivist approaches. I had thought that framing my research in this critical tradition would resonate with people’s increasingly politicized approach to land tenure and government representation in recent years. But our interlocutors were less invested in the qualitative, interpretive discussions than in the emerging quantitative results from a study I was simultaneously conducting with RATDED. We were doing a household survey in 18 communities to assess poverty dynamics and the impact of out-migration on land ownership, inequality, and wealth over the past fifty years. Whereas our discussions about my dissertation research appeared at times to rehash issues that people were working through in other contexts, a quantitative view of these processes stimulated broad interest. I was surprised at how such a traditional research approach in the end provoked more active engagement. I came to an uncomfortable realization that dialogic, participatory processes may — though do not necessarily — serve more to satisfy foreign researchers’ desire to come to terms with their positionality than address the concerns of people with whom we work. Residents in the valley, whether activists or not, were comfortable with a traditional research product because it offered them a tool using the same authoritative discourses as state agencies (aggregated statistics, charts, etc.) to substantiate claims that government neglect was a form of structural violence perpetuating poverty and inequality.

In the end, we opted for a more orthodox presentation of research results, combining the qualitative insights of my dissertation fieldwork with the preliminary findings of quantitative study were had just concluded. In March 2015, I traveled to the capital city, Rabat, to deliver an academic version of the presentation at the Faculty of Letters. With my Moroccan academic mentor as discussant, I addressed a mixed group of geographer and sociologists, but the main group in attendance was the over 50 undergraduates and graduate students who had organized the gathering. Many of them were from marginalized regions such as the southeastern oases, and they responded to the critical use of quantitative and qualitative data to explain socio-economic transformations they had themselves witnessed. We then held a larger colloquium based in the provincial capital of Tinghir, an hour’s drive from the Mgoun valley. I had initially resisted RATDED’s proposal to hold it there, thinking it needed to be in the valley to facilitate attendance. But when the provincial governor delivered a speech at the opening that outlined his development priorities and a major national human rights figure spoke about economic rights as human rights, I understood the import of bringing some of the region’s most marginalized residents to assert their presence in this government center. Over 150 people attended: research participants from my dissertation period and the current study, activists, NGO representatives, and government officials, and we structured the presentation of results so that the research participants were the true focus of the event. The presenter interpreted the powerpoint charts in Tashelhit, the local dialect of Berber, and used primarily non-technical terms to describe our findings. I had expected the elderly farmers and non-literate attendees to feel detached even from this more accessible language, but everyone was riveted. The hour-long presentation provoked over four hours of sometimes challenging discussions about the causes and consequences of structural poverty and inequality, land conflicts, and the role of the state. Participants told me no researcher had ever returned to the region to present their results or ask them what they thought of the findings. They asked for the research report so that they could use the results themselves; even people who were not civil society activists and had a limited command of Arabic (the report will be in Arabic and French) asked for the report so that they could keep it. I am in the process of producing this non-academic report.

This was one of the most meaningful professional experiences I have had, highlighting the need for us as researchers to remain open to all modes of discourse and to truly listen to our interlocutors to make our research relevant in the ways they find significant. This process of engagement, using what could have felt like a “second-best” strategy when our first one did not work out, did more to further collaborative research in the future that I ever could have imagined. I will be returning next year.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Margaret Crofoot and “Exploring the Jungle in the Backyard”

 

A juvenile capuchin monkey (Cebus capucinus) playing shy.

Margaret Crofoot is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Davis. In 2010, while at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, she received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on ‘Do Capuchins Punish Cheaters? Cooperation, Coalitions, and Social Sanctions in Cebus capucinus Intergroup Aggression’. In 2013, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant, which allowed her to return to her fieldsite and lead field trips bringing children from surrounding communities to observe researchers about their work.

Keeping one eye on the capuchins while listening to the excited voices coming slowly towards me up the trail, I always have a moment of anticipation: will they notice the monkeys over their heads, or will I get to point them out? One of the best parts of studying primate behavior at an easily accessible field-site like the one the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute runs on Barro Colorado Island in Panama is getting to introduce visitors to my study subjects and share my discoveries with them. Monkeys overcome even the most extreme teenage nonchalance, and capuchins are particularly mischievous and engaging.

I’ve been doing research in Panama for more than ten years, and  time and again, when people find out where I work—at dinner parties, in taxis, once in a hospital emergency room—I hear stories about the school trip they took to Barro Colorado Island (BCI), all the things they saw, and what an impression it left. The experience of exploring a tropical forest with scientists seems to resonate and have a large and lasting impact. This is why, when the Wenner-Gren Foundation announced their new Engaged Anthropology program, I saw an exciting opportunity to be able to sponsor field trips for schools that would otherwise be unable to afford to come to BCI.

Scientist/guide Betzi Perez giving an introductory lecture to a group of students. Betzi first came to BCI as part of an internship program for Panamanian students run by the Smithsonian, and is now a Ph.D. student at McGill University in Canada.

In the last year, Oris Acevedo—BCI’s scientific coordinator—and I have worked together to bring over 200 elementary and high-school aged students to this international hotspot for tropical research to explore the jungle and learn about the science being done in their backyard. To reach the island, classes transit part of the Panama Canal. They are met by one of the Smithsonian’s scientist guides, who gives a short talk about the history of the research station, and about the animals and plants the students will see in the forest.

The group then heads into the forest to see what they can find.  The Smithsonian’s guides are extremely knowledgeable about the plants and animals that live on BCI, and the research that has been done on them, so forest walks end up as part-scavenger hunt, part-impromptu mini lecture on whatever the group happens to encounter.

A group of 7th and 9th grade science students from the Centro Educativo Básico General Residencial Vista Alegre in the forest on Barro Colorado Island.

As part of their continuing education, the Smithsonian guides run a monthly seminar series, and they invited me to give two lectures on the behavior and ecology of Panamanian primates, highlighting my work on cooperation in capuchins which the Wenner-Gren Foundation funded.

For me, one of the highlights of this project was hosting a class of students from the Centro Educativo Básico General Residencial Vista Alegre, taught by my former student-intern Nena Robles. Nena worked with me for a year on my Wenner-Gren funded study of group cooperation during territorial conflicts in capuchin monkeys, before going on to get her Masters at the University of Torino in Italy. Helping Nena to bring her students—the next generation of Panamanian scientists—out to the field station where she got her start with research was really the epitome of what I think this outreach project can achieve.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Philip W. Scher and ‘The Politics of Historic Preservation and the Development of Heritage Tourism in Barbados’

Philip W. Scher is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon. In 2011, he received the Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on ‘The Politics of Historic Preservation and the Development of Heritage Tourism in Barbados’. He then received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to his Caribbean fieldsite and share his research with local educators.

In 2012 I spent six weeks conducting research in Barbados as part of a much larger project begun in 2008-2009. Much of my fieldwork involved interviews with educators in Barbados as I sought to gain insights from them as to the role of history and historical knowledge in the formation of Barbadian identities and Barbadian economic and social policies. During many of these interviews teachers expressed an interest in developing training that would allow them to understand the latest intellectual developments in the scholarship of heritage and bring that information to their students and fellow teachers. In the wake of the newly designated World Heritage Site of Bridgetown and its Garrison stakeholders wanted to think strategically about how historical sites are engaged by local constituents, about oral histories of local residents in these spaces regarding who worked there, who built them and who maintains them today and about intangible cultural heritage as a key element in safeguarding these important spaces.

With this in mind, then, two of my colleagues in Barbados, Dr. Tara Inniss of the Department of History at the University of the West Indies and Dr. Alissandra Cummins, Director of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society planned a workshop and lecture that would introduce local educators to some of the basic ideas of heritage studies.  Our hope was to focus on the people who participated in or observed past events in the World Heritage Property and whose memories and perceptions of these spaces are to be preserved as an aural record for future generations. The variety of perspectives generated by such interviews should prove to be an interesting addition to the written historical record and may offset the general perception that these historical sites are preserved either in the interests of the former colonizers or tourists or both. As the workshop began to take shape it was decided, based on feedback, to focus on one specific intangible cultural practice that many in Barbados feel is in danger of disappearing: the Barbados Landship.

Briefly, the Barbados Landship and its partner the Tuk Band are the most commonly seen Barbadian expressive cultural forms at public ceremonies, days of commemoration, visits by dignitaries etc. The Landship is both a Friendly Society of the type quite common in the Caribbean and its diaspora, as well as a performance tradition. It is known for its unique uniforms, parades, and carefully choreographed dances. During the heyday of the Landship, in the late 19th and early 20th century a large number of Landships existed across Barbados and many younger Barbadians today can point to one or another family member that had been involved in some way, most proudly as captains.

Landships are noteworthy because the organization was founded on a creolized replication of the ranks, discipline and orders of the British Navy. Members are known by ranks, are dressed in naval uniforms and march and perform “maneuvers” to the music of the Tuk Band, a fife and drum ensemble.

The Landship presents a unique challenge in the safeguarding of cultural heritage as it is universally touted as being a fundamental aspect of Barbadian identity, yet it has very few practitioners left. The question we wanted to address in our workshop and in the lecture and discussion was: is Landship capable of being maintained? If so, what are the mechanisms by which the tradition may be carried on, if not, what other ways may the tradition be remembered?

The workshop and lecture took place over a three-day period from February 16th to February 19th of 2015. The workshop was held at the University of West Indies and was open to anyone interested in the subject. The lecture and discussion session took place on the grounds of the Barbados Museum. The workshop lasted several hours and was attended primarily by scholars and those interested in heritage tourism, but also by key figures in the Landship movement itself.   The themes ranged from the historical and political context of Landhsip to the UNESCO conventions on safeguarding intangible heritage. The lecture gave an analytical and theoretical framework for understanding Landship in the broader context of heritage studies and was based on my previous research into these issues. The lecture was free and open to the public and was well attended and followed by a lively discussion.

In general the two activities produced a focus on what we began to define as heritage relevance. That is, many were concerned not only with heritage as a set of cultural practices that could be preserved in some kind of static way, but in creating opportunities around traditions that increasingly kept such activities relevant to younger Barbadians; and not simply as aspects of the expansion of heritage tourism products.

The generous support of the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant provided us with the opportunity to begin to develop a conversation about heritage in the Caribbean that expands beyond both economic utility or simple preservation tactics and school programs. This conversation, we hope, will continue and will add sophistication and nuance to government policies about the future of Barbadian culture and heritage. The grant has also fundamentally improved my own thinking about the subject of Caribbean heritage and resulted in an article about Landship that includes many of the ideas generated in the workshop.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Benjamin Valentine and “Fostering Multi-Vocal and Interdisciplinary Approaches in Indian Archaeology Through Broader Engagements with Indus Civilization Migration”

Benjamin Valentine is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. In 2011, while a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Isotopic Perspectives on Migration and Identity: A View From the Harappan Hinterland,’ supervised by Dr. John Krigbaum. Last year, he was awarded the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to his fieldsite and share his research on this ancient Indian civilization with a diverse group of experts and laypeople.

Writing about the enigmatic nature of the Indus (or Harappan) Civilization, John Keay wrote in India: A History (2000), “Here too was a society with a distinct and extensive culture but, barring some not very helpful bones, no people, indeed without a single name.” His puzzlement is in many ways justified, but his characterization of the bones is due for an update. Although the South Asian peoples who authored one of the earliest urban societies left behind very few burials and skeletal remains, the bones that have been discovered are yielding surprising insights on the ways that individuals contributed to patterns of interregional interactions during the third millennium BC. By analyzing archaeological human tooth enamel for isotopes of strontium, lead, and oxygen, I have helped fill in the missing life‑histories of migration and mobility for individuals in the Indus Civilization cemeteries at Harappa (Pakistan), Farmana (India), and Sanauli (India). I have had the privilege of developing new models of early urban interaction using new analytical methods on some very old bones, but the bones cannot speak back to me and offer up their own interpretations. As a Wenner‑Gren Engaged Anthropology grantee, I was able to return to India and find out how my fellow academics and laypersons alike found meaning in the biogeochemical data.

I travelled to visit my colleagues in the Indian cities of Pune, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, and Delhi and spoke with diverse audiences to share the results of my work. I gave formal talks, participated in more casual fora, and solicited individualized feedback in the hopes of learning new ways to enrich the isotopic narrative. Likewise, I spoke with physical scientists, established archaeologists, students, and laypersons with each group offering a unique perspective and sense of how to proceed with the research. I shared my hypothesis that an ancient institution of fosterage helped to connect disparate peoples and discussed the potential impacts of this practice on broader cultural trajectories of continuity and change. The responses were variable, but several themes emerged. Some people perceived a new kind of legitimacy and command of the past in the application of multi‑disciplinary scientific methods. For others, the scientific narrative deserved no special weight. In considering the individual‑level data generated by isotope analysis, many people dwelled on what the personal experiences may have been like for the ancient migrants, their birth communities, and the receiving societies. Often, the inference of emotions in the distant past (typically revolving around familial separation) appeared to influence perceptions of the fosterage hypothesis as more or less credible. To various degrees, many I spoke with found elements of modern or historical practices in archaeological behaviors and vice versa.

Whether speaking with colleagues in the Archaeological Survey of India and the academy or more general audiences in the Center for Art and Archaeology in Gurgaon and elsewhere, the grant program also gave me an important platform for stimulating new dialogues on topics that to some have seemed obscure or inaccessible. Physical scientists at IIT Gandhinagar in Ahmedabad and laypersons alike seemed to appreciate the new perspectives on an old subject. Of course, many of the most engaged responses came from students at the Institute of Archaeology in Delhi and Deccan College in Pune. The biogeochemical methods that I used for my doctoral research remain uncommon in Indian archaeology, and students were quick to grapple with both the practical and theoretical implications of isotopic techniques for the disciplinary status quo. In this, I am hopeful that my Engaged Anthropology experience has helped to foster a more multi‑vocal archaeology and broadened the ways that people can engage with the past.