Engaged Anthropology Grant: Carwil Bjork-James

Poster announcing academic seminar on The Sovereign Street: The City as a Terrain of Protest

Carwil Bjork-James is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Vanderbilt University. In 2010 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Claiming Space, Redefining Politics: Urban Protest and Grassroots Power in Bolivia,” supervised by Dr. Marc Edelman. In 2015 Dr. Bjork-James received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Public Space, Self-Organization, and Indigenous Values in Bolivia’s Urban Movements”.

My engagement project, centered around an early November trip to Bolivia, brought my research back to the community where I did most of my fieldwork, Cochabamba, Bolivia. My recent work centers on urban social movements in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which became internationally famous for the Water War, a 1999–2000 campaign against the privatization of the public water system that inspired the Goya Award-winning film También La Lluvia. In the years that followed, mass mobilizations taking over central urban spaces were a vital part of nationwide political upheaval, leading to the resignation of two presidents and dramatic political transformations. My dissertation research, conducted in 2010 and 2011 with the support of Wenner-Gren and the National Science Foundation, investigated space-claiming urban protests using oral history interviews, collecting documents, and experiencing the daily realities of protest and political organizing. My research integrates an experiential understanding of mass protest with an analysis of how both racialized and governmental power function in and through public space. By focusing on social life as experienced through the human body, the meanings attached to place, and social movement practices, I explain how race and power are lived and changed through protest.

Booklet: "Voces y Visiones de La Calle Soberana"

My engagement project involved four components: a 38-page booklet Voces y Visiones de La Calle Soberana (“Voices and Visions of the Sovereign Street”), an academic presentation, a community dialogue with activists and academics, and a collection of twenty photos exhibited alongside the community dialogue. The Spanish-language booklet compiles brief ethnographic descriptions and segments of oral history interviews to document how space-claiming protests (especially road blockades) wield power by interrupting economic life, how urban and rural organizations organize internally, and the role of indigenous values in urban organizations. The booklet is illustrated with photographs and was professionally printed. I distributed 100 copies of the booklet in Cochabamba and had conversations with local contacts about producing and publishing an expanded version.

Carwil Bjork-James presents to an audience at the Centro de Estudios Superiores Universitarios (CESU), a multidisciplinary research centre of the University Mayor San Simón

The Engaged Anthropology Grant offered me the opportunity to share my reflections and research conclusions with activists and academics, two groups that are already very much in dialogue. In contemporary Bolivia, the politics of indigeneity, local autonomy, and community self-organization are well articulated and politically influential. The Documentation and Information Center of Bolivia (CEDIB) and the Centro de Estudios Superiores Universitarios (CESU) of the public Higher University of San Simón, which hosted my two events, are two institutions that reflect a local tradition of engaged research and political commitment.

I organized a research presentation at CESU presenting my findings on protest and public space and a community dialogue (or Conversatorio) at CEDIB discussing forms of self-organization among social movements. The presentation, entitled “The City as Terrain of Protest,” was attended by 20 to 25 students and academics. My research shows that the political import of mass protests in Bolivia arises from their interruption of commercially important flows and appropriation of meaning-laden spaces. These protests put forward a new model for governance of their country by inverting the historic exclusion of the indigenous majority and enacting collaborative forms of democracy in the streets.

Community activists, scholars, and advocates participate in a conversation on forms of grassroots movement organization in Bolivia at the Center for Documentation and Information of Bolivia

The community dialogue brought together over 35 community activists, students, academics, and politically involved expatriates to discuss a series of ideas that I presented about the way that Bolivian movements organize. I argued that Bolivian grassroots organizations have two distinct organizational cultures, each with their own internal ethics. Some grassroots organizations are “dense”—including labor unions and neighborhood associations. These groups are bound together by a formal organizational structure and a countervailing ethic that subordinates leaders to the grassroots bases from which they emerge. Others are “nimble,” involving individuals who join voluntarily without a joint decision by the communities where they live or work, and achieve their political effects by networking. While some of these differences and tensions were familiar to participants, I was able to use ethnographic examples to inspire activists to reflect on their own practice. In conversation, we came to a shared acknowledgement of the interdependence of these often-counterposed approaches to political action.

Photography has been an important part of my fieldwork, and I returned from my research in Cochabamba with over seven thousand still images of protests, public events, public spaces, and daily life in Bolivia. This task of re-presenting the process of protest to a Bolivian audience pushed me to make use of these photographs in a new way to illustrate the process of protest as well as to elicit the emotions associated with its most exuberant or affecting moments. The twenty poster-sized images that were hung at CEDIB during and after my presentation and the ten images that are part of the Voces y Visiones booklet range show mass mobilization as simultaneously a personal and collective activity and illustrate how protesters make the city their own.

Poster announcing community conversation on Dense and Nimble Activisms: Organization and Ethics in Bolivian Grassroots Movements

During my visit, several of my former interviewees approached me to express appreciation for making the effort to return the knowledge I gained from my fieldwork to Bolivia. While Cochabamba has attracted a fair number of social scientists from the global North, they observed, the relationship has usually been one way. For my part, engaging with on-the-ground researchers at CEDIB and getting feedback from Bolivian academics was invaluable. I’ve long been aware of the rich academic production within the country about Bolivian social movements, but this fall gave me some of my first opportunities to talk productively about my work with them. It also served to cement several relationships that will be crucial for future ethnographic work, and for dissemination of my forthcoming book in the country whose political life it describes.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Elana Resnick

Sorting through municipal waste on the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria

While a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Elana Resnick received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2010 to aid research on “Waste, Work, and Racialization in Bulgaria,” supervised by Dr. Alaina Lemon. In 2016 Dr. Resnick received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “She Writes the Book of How Much We Suffer: Engaging Waste Management Research Participants in Sofia, Bulgaria”.

“She writes the book on how much we suffer.”  This was the common explanation among the Romani street sweepers with whom I worked about why I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, cleaning streets, and asking them about their seemingly mundane labor.  Despite my insistence that I wasn’t focusing on suffering, this remained a common local understanding of my presence and ethnographic engagement. With the Engaged Anthropology Grant I returned to Sofia, Bulgaria and used collaborative ethnographic film documentation techniques, public presentations, and visual narration in order to share the findings of my dissertation research.

Film still, municipal street sweeping in Sofia, Bulgaria

My Wenner-Gren research specifically examined disposal, collection, processing, storage, cleaning, and recycling of waste in Bulgaria, focusing on the capital city of Sofia.  Fieldwork addressed relations between informal waste collection (individuals collecting discarded objects for re-use or resale) and formal waste management sectors.

Through participant-observation and interviews with individual trash collectors, employees of trash firms and recycling organizations, environmental and human rights NGOs, governmental agencies, as well as through site visits to landfills, my research addresses the potential for continued life amidst waste and material “death.” Investigating waste through a multi-scale perspective, my dissertation looks beyond dichotomies of dirty vs. clean or animate life vs. inanimate objects to show how personhood, sensory phenomena, and life-death continuums are better understood through the study of waste.

Film stills, street sweeping break in Sofia, Bulgaria

The Engaged Anthropology Grant enabled me to share findings from different aspects of my fieldwork with my variously situated interlocutors so that they could learn about the findings from other participants and sites of my dissertation research. I used interview excerpts, documentary film clips, and photographic images to share my Wenner-Gren research findings with four key populations with whom I worked: 1) Romani waste workers in Sofia, 2) NGO representatives and activists, 3) politicians and policy makers in Bulgaria, 4) Bulgarian anthropologists and academics.

In order to make my results accessible to all of my interlocutors, I shared my findings through oral presentation and video documentation. Having already collaborated on creating over fifty hours of documentary film footage about municipal waste labor, I sat with my former colleagues and shared film clips, oral interview excerpts, and explained the findings I made from our work together.

Film stills, street sweeping break in Sofia, Bulgaria

In response to this, they provided critiques, recommendations, and responses. Most of the women I swept with were surprised to see me in person. They explained that my work with them marked the end of an era since most of our mutual sweeping colleagues had either found “indoor work” or moved abroad. Of the forty-two women with whom I worked sweeping streets, only about ten remained on the job. In practice, this meant that I often had to share my findings one-on-one and using Skype and Facebook as mediums for interaction.

I was able to use my interlocutors’ responses to my findings in order to add narrative text to accompany stills and clips from my film footage that I could share with the other research participants: waste company CEOs, NGO representatives, local politicians, as well as with Bulgarian academics. Since the political landscape of Bulgaria had also changed in the years since I completed fieldwork, I was able to meet with former political representatives now working in other positions. This meant that I shared my findings individually and in small groups, including at the offices of environmental NGOs, in the conference rooms of local landfills, and in the boardrooms of waste management firms with which I worked.

Landfill weigh station in Western Bulgaria

I provided short-form synopses of my dissertation and film in a variety of local venues, which catalyzed further conversations about my findings and the changes since my research ended in 2013. Finally, I was able to share my research findings with local academics and I am currently completing a Bulgarian-language publication about my research findings for a Bulgarian anthropology journal.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Paula Tallman

Students from the Universidad Cayetano Peru Heredia (UPCH) signing in the conference participants

While a doctoral student at Northwestern University Paula Tallman received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2012 to aid research on “Stress, Health, and Physiological Functioning in the Awajun of the Peruvian Amazon” supervised by Dr. Thomas W. McDade. Following that Dr. Tallman received an Engaged Anthropology Grant in 2015  to aid engaged activities on “Vulnerability & Health Outcomes in Amazonia: An Innovative Conference Engaging Peruvian Scholars, Policy-Makers, & Indigenous Community Members”.

On the morning of Feb. 25th, 2016 representatives from academic, non-governmental, and indigenous organizations converged on the campus of the University of Cayetano Peru Heredia (UPCH) in Lima, Peru. Edilberto Kinin, an Awajún community member and an economist working for the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment arrived in full traditional regalia. His necklaces, made from Amazonian Huayruro seeds, clinked together as he expressed his excitement at presenting at our conference, “Vulnerability and Health Outcomes in Amazonia”, which was sponsored by the  Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant and UPCH’s School of Public Health.

Results of the collaborative workshop on the 2nd day of the conference

Drs. Paula Skye Tallman (The Field Museum of Natural History) and Armando Valdés-Velasquez (UPCH) organized the event and aimed to cross cultural and institutional boundaries in the pursuit of three objectives. First, we sought to bring together scholars from across the globe to share their most recent research on vulnerability in the Amazon. To that end, we opened our conference with a greeting from UPCH’s Director of Science and Technology, Carlos Zamudio, and we heard presentations from academics from Tulane University (U.S.), the University of Geneva (Switzerland), and UPCH (Peru). Specifically, researchers Giuliana Sanchez and Alejandra Bussalleu discussed their work investigating vulnerability in relationship to dietary changes, public health scientist, Dr. Gabriella Salmon, detailed her team’s research on vulnerability among communities living on the Inter-Oceanic Highway, and neuroscientist David Chaupis Meza spoke about the timely issue of how oil spills create neurodevelopmental vulnerability among indigenous peoples.

Dr. Armando Valdes-Velasquez of UPCH gives an opening speech for the conference.

Second, I wanted to ensure that indigenous voices were central to these discussions, alternating between academic and local perspectives during the presentations. Thus, the presentations were kicked off by Mr. Diogenes Ampam, an Awajún community member and the chief manager of two national parks in the Northern Peruvian Amazon. Mr. Ampam connected environmental concerns to vulnerability through his presentation on “The Forest is Our Life and Our Sustainable Development”. Mr. Ampam’s colleague, Mr. Edilberto Kinin, also a chief manager of a park and indigenous communal reserve, presented later in the morning and focused on how vulnerability is being created by climate change in Awajún communities. Specifically, Mr. Kinin highlighted the vulnerability of women who are often responsible for providing water and food for the household, which are becoming scarcer with climate change.

Collaborative workshop on day 2

Later in the afternoon, Mr. Leonardo Tello, a spokesperson for the radio station Ucamara in the Amazonian city of Nauta, gave one of the most dynamic and provocative presentations of the conference. Mr. Tello explored the spiritual repercussions of large-scale development projects such as the hydrovia (water highway) for the Kukama people. Particularly, he explained that Kukuma people envision that the spirits of their ancestors live in the rivers and that when the rivers are polluted or compromised through infrastructure development, the well-being of their ancestors is threatened. This presentation yielded new perspectives on how indigenous health goes beyond the physical body. It also provided an exciting path forward for connecting cultural beliefs to government policy as Mr. Imaina is creating cultural and spiritual maps of the Marañon River to argue that the indigenous cosmovision should precede infrastructure development in the rivers.

Dr. Paula Skye Tallman presents her research on the "Index of Vulnerability"

The third and final objective of the conference was to use the scientific perspective on vulnerability and the indigenous perspective on health to think through the potential repercussions of the construction of a series of hydroelectric dams on the Marañon River. Thus on the second day of our event we had a combination of scientists, community members, and indigenous leaders speak about the potential consequences of the proposed dams. Mariana Montoya from the Wildlife Conservation Society started us off by using interactive maps to show how the dams would disrupt the migration patterns of several types of fish that are central food sources for indigenous Amazonian peoples living downstream.

We also saw that the proposed dams would influence upstream mestizo communities as  Socorro Quiroz Rocha, from the community of Celendin, spoke of the social fragmentation that was resulting in her community as a result of preliminary work by the dam companies. Finally, Gil Inoach Shawit, former president of AIDESEP (the largest national indigenous rights organization in Peru) spoke of the ecological effects that the dams would have on the lives of Awajún and Wampi community members, but he put this issue into the larger context of ecosocial threats to the Amazon such as oil exploitation, mining, highway construction, palm oil cultivation, and hydrovias.

Dr. Tallman and Economist Edilberto Kinin, manager of the communal reserve Chayu Nain

These final presentations inspired the development of inter-institutional alliances that will allow differing stakeholders to work together towards a common cause. For example, members of Remando Juntos, an initiative led by kayakers and conservationists, presented a documentary on their work advocating for the protection of the Marañon River. Mr. Ampam, who works for the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment, invited Remando Juntos to screen their documentary in Awajún communities in the Marañon basin in the coming months. This alliance will bring grass-roots movements based in Lima together with local peoples in the Marañon basis to create awareness of the potential repercussions of the dams, alternative forms of development, and potential avenues for social change.

Post-conference we are creating three concrete products. First, we are working with the Wildlife Conservation Society to produce a one-page informational flyer on the potential social and biological repercussions of the proposed dams on upstream and downstream communities. We will partner with Remando Juntos to distribute these flyers to people attending the screening of their documentary. Second, we are writing an academic article, based on the conference, that is focused on the challenges of working across cultural and disciplinary lines to study vulnerability. And finally, this final report is being translated into Spanish and will distributed via university bulletins in Lima and via radio in the Marañon basin. The aim of distributing this summary is to continue to engage scholars and indigenous peoples in conversations about vulnerability and health in the Amazon and to strengthen the multi-stakeholder alliance that began with this conference.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Douglas V. Armstrong


Figure 1: Allisandra Cummins (Director of the Barbados Museum), Douglas Armstrong (Syracuse University) and Kevin Farmer (Deputy Director, Barbados Museum) at exhibit: “Landscaped of Power, Enslavement, and Resistance: Archaeology of the Early 17th Century Settlement at Trents Plantation, Barbados.” Funded by a Wenner-Gren Engaged Scholar grant.

Douglas V. Armstrong is a Professor of Anthropology at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. In 2012 he received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on “Archaeological Investigation of Early Transformations on Barbadian Plantations”. In 2014 Dr. Armstrong received an Engaged Anthropology Grant  to aid engaged activities on “Archaeology of the Shift to Sugar and Slavery in Barbados: Public Interpretation”.

As a follow-up to Wenner-Gren funded research on early-17th century plantations in Barbados I was asked by the Barbados Museum to organize an exhibit and public presentation of findings.   A Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant provided me with the resources necessary to organize an exhibit and related events aimed at conveying information on the research to the people of Barbados and engaging with the public.  An exhibit titled “Landscaped of Power, Enslavement, and Resistance: Archaeology of the Early 17th Century Settlement at Trents Plantation, Barbados.”  This exhibit was organized and installed at the Barbados Museum in March 2016 with the assistance of Keven Farmer, Deputy Director of the museum.  This exhibit was part of Barbados commemoration of its 50th Anniversary of independence (Figures 1-3)

Figure 2: Exhibit: “Landscaped of Power, Enslavement, and Resistance: Archaeology of the Early 17th Century Settlement at Trents Plantation, Barbados.” March to September 2016, Barbados Museum

The exhibit presented panels and artifact display cases projecting information recovered from three themes of archaeological research at Trents Plantation.  The text, photographs, and artifacts conveyed information on archaeological and historical research exploring the shift from a small-scale farming settlement (1620s-1640s) to a large scale sugar plantation (post 1640s).  This part of the exhibit described the historical research and archaeological studies that resulted in the identification of a pre-sugar settlement at Trents  and explored the cultural landscape of the pre-sugar era.  It used findings from the site to illustrate the small-scale nature of pre-sugar settlement as well as archaeological and historical data which combined to show how plantation farmers and laborers (including indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans) lived in close quarters during the pre-sugar era.   Visitors continued through the exhibit to review comparative data from contexts associated with the planter’s residence to data from the enslaved laborer settlement at the plantation (1640s-1838) and described the abandonment of that settlement at the time of emancipation.  The survival of an unplowed enslaved laborer settlement at Trents provides a unique opportunity to examine life and living conditions on a Barbadian plantation.  Finally, the exhibit presented an unveiling of artifacts from a newly discovered cave site on the property, Trents cave. Evidence from Trents cave, or the “cave of iron and steel”, provides a glimpse at a hidden place of African-Barbadian social interaction, ritual practice, and resistance.

Figure 3: Exhibit: “Landscaped of Power, Enslavement, and Resistance: Archaeology of the Early 17th Century Settlement at Trents Plantation, Barbados.” March to September 2016, Barbados Museum

Preliminary work for the exhibit began in the summer of 2015 when I worked with Keven Farmer to frame the scale and scope of the field work that was then just being completed.    Throughout the project the public was invited to visit the site to participate in the project and to learn about our findings.  In advance of the exhibit two articles on the project were published in the Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, and a third in the proceedings of the International Congress of Caribbean Archaeology.

Armstrong, Douglas V., 2015. Cave of Iron and Resistance: A Preliminary Examination.  Journal of the Barbados Historical Society. 61: 178-199.

Armstrong, Douglas V., 2015. Archaeology of the Enslaved Laborer Settlement at Trents Plantation: 2014-2015.  Journal of the Barbados Historical Society. 61: 146-177.

Armstrong, Douglas V., 2015.  Archaeology at Trents Plantation, Barbados. Actas del 25to Congreso International de Arqueología del Caribe. Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueño, el Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe y la Universitad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Piedras. Pp. 1030-1048.

During the summer of 2015 I began to organize the exhibit and I corresponded with Keven Farmer to define dates and to set up the timing of a public lecture.  Initially, the exhibit was set to open in May of 2016.  However, it was decided to integrate the exhibit into the opening of Barbados’ 50th Anniversary Celebration and to also organize a second exhibit examining Barbados’ slave revolt of 1816.   In January 2016 I spent a week in Barbados organizing the Trents – “Landscapes of Power, Enslavement, and Resistance” exhibit and also assisting with the “Freedom:  We Must Fight For It” exhibit.  In March of 2016 I returned to Barbados to work on the installation and on June 24, I presented a public lecture at the museum describing the research and explaining the exhibit.

The exhibit was well received and resulted in interest from organizers of the Smithsonian’s African American History Museum, who visited the exhibit. This has resulted in support for the installation of a permanent exhibit and a joint effort funded by the Smithsonian aimed at capacity building in the area of archaeology, digital databases, curation, public engagement.  This project will be coordinated by Kevin Farmer (Barbados  Museum) and I will coordinate instruction relating to archaeology during summer courses for Barbadian and Caribbean students over the next three years.


Engaged Anthropology Grant: Brendan Tuttle

Examining a photo from the Pitt Rivers Museum

Brendan Tuttle is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Brooklyn College. In 2009 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Lives Apart: Diasporan Return, Youth, and Intergenerational Transformation in South Sudan,” supervised by Dr. Jessica R. Winegar. In 2014 Dr. Tuttle received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “New Histories for a New South Sudan: A Public Anthropology Project”.

For my Engaged Anthropology project I planned to return to my fieldwork site near Bor Town, the capital of Jonglei State, in what is today South Sudan.  When I was first there in 2009 and 2010, the town was a settlement of roughly forty thousand people.  Many had recently arrived after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, which formally ended Sudan’s long-running civil war.  My dissertation research examined the processes by which people in Bor were reconstructing their lives and trying to get by in difficult circumstances, making choices about where to settle, fashioning binding agreements with one another, and looking for humor in their predicaments.  Many people I spoke to emphasized the importance of ordinary routines and life trajectories.  During Sudan’s second civil war (1983-2005) this show of resilience in the face of disaster (riääk) was framed in Bor as a resistance strategy called gum ëlik (‘quiet suffering’ or steadfastness).  By attending to how people caught by violence pursued projects that extended beyond it, I sought to counter ideas of Dinka society as particularly prone to violence—an idea that has often served to elide the role of governments, petroleum companies, international NGOs and financial institutions in the insecurity and instability of the county by attributing violence to local cultural forces.

The outbreak of civil war in December 2013 prevented my return to Bor.  Hostilities began in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and followed the fault lines of unresolved political divisions within the country’s governing party, the SPLM, and the army, the SPLA.  (Many journalists have evoked ‘tribalism’ and ‘deep ethnic divisions’ to explain this war.  It should be underlined that ethnicity was not the cause of South Sudan’s conflicts.  It was the outcome.)  During the following months, Bor and other state capitals in South Sudan changed hands several times in battles fought between government forces and the Ugandan army, on one side, and defected soldiers and armed irregulars, on the other.  By the end of January, 2014, the destruction of Bor Town’s market center was virtually total.  The town was deserted except for the soldiers stationed there to occupy it.

Gurae Map Seri Mario

All of the surviving participants in my dissertation research had evacuated Bor Town and the surrounding countryside by the end of December 2013.  Many relocated across the Nile to a large IDP site in Minkaman (Guol Yar).  Others had travelled south to Juba, and a few joined relatives in Kenya and Uganda; still others relocated farther afield.  In January, I stayed with my former research assistant in a home rented by his uncle on the eastern fringe of Nairobi, and he stayed with me in Juba before departing for South Dakota.  In February, I travelled to Minkaman.  Though I facilitated two workshops in Juba, much of my engagement work consisted of traveling around South Sudan and Kenya and talking with people wherever they were able to meet.  Many discussions were held in my house in Juba.  I met others singly and in groups in their homes, at coffee stands, or in hotels located in the growing informal settlements that ring Juba.  I would generally begin by presenting my dissertation findings and reviewing and revising written portions of the work with participants and then let the discussion develop any way participants wanted.

My interlocutors challenged portrayals of IDP camps and informal settlements as ‘non-places’, and guided my attention toward the many locations where their lives unfolded.  A group of people who had once shared a geographic place, but no longer do, is a common mode of ‘community’ in contemporary South Sudan.  Many of the people I knew best in Bor had been born nearby—where they were bound together by overlapping ties of kindship, marriage, partnership, and friendship—and displaced in the 1980s to varying degrees of geographic and social distance.  Others had come to know each other in refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya and resettled together in Bor after 2005.  Participants in the project drew maps and described the histories of the places where they had lived and the relationships that they had formed there.  These discussions provided a lesson about how the customary anthropological practice of studying in one locale tends to privilege genealogical modes of belonging (particularly in South Sudan) by failing to capture patterns of movement and plural association, the ways in which people live out their lives across multiple places and social fields.

The accounts people told about their experiences of migration destabilized depictions of refugees and IDPs as people whose movement is without history, politics, or self-reflection.  People spoke about the hardships of building homes with improvised materials and of raising families without adequate food, clean water, or access to schools.  Many described their struggles to be generous to others: to host visitors, foster children, and support friends and in-laws.  Efforts to live normal lives in these circumstances were partly by way of simply trying to get by.  But the maintenance of ordinary routines, standards of generosity, and lifecycle processes also embodied a refusal to be reduced to an existence totally determined by violence.  In Minkaman, friends told me how difficult it had been to leave their homes unguarded and risk accusations of cowardice by leaving conflict zones (or demanding that family members do so).  One man compared the mounting numbers of IDPs and refugees published each week by the UN to an election return: “They’re defecting! The people are voting against this war with their feet.”

Juba Map Seri Mario

The Engaged Anthropology project allowed me to maintain contacts and share my research.  It also led to new collaborations.  A major goal of this project was to collect and write local histories in order to provide alternative representations of people who are often portrayed as being unable to reflect on their own lives and situations.  One particularly productive collaboration has been with Paul Ruot Kor Wan.  I am currently editing for publication selections drawn from his manuscript, titled “The Myth of Kiir Kaker,” which is based on oral testimonies that he collected during his stay in UN POCs (‘Protection of Civilian’) sites in Malakal and Juba.  Paul Ruot helped me to organize two workshops in Juba in which I presented my research and facilitated discussions of oral history and ethnographic methods.  One participant, who had collected histories that he hoped to publish, recalled his feeling of despair when he returned to Bor to see what of his possessions were salvageable and found his home ransacked and his research and books torn and scattered.  The Engaged Anthropology Grant enabled me to provide electronic copies of books and articles about East Africa, South Sudan, and Sudan on a USB-stick to people who were cut off from these materials by publishers’ paywalls, the cost of academic publications, and the inaccessibility of libraries and postal systems.

Overall, my Engaged Anthropology grant provided me with the resources to reconfirm connections and develop new engagements.  I am grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation and, especially, all the participants who took the time to attend workshops and to speak with me.


Engaged Anthropology Grant: Sandra Brunnegger


Image courtesy Sandra Brunnegger

Dr. Sandra Brunnegger is a Fellow in Law and Anthropology at St. Edmund’s College – University of Cambridge. In 2009 she received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant, to aid research on “Culture and Human Rights in Colombia: Negotiating Indigenous Law”. In 2015 Dr. Brunnegger received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Engaging with Indigenous Legal Systems in Colombia”.

I organized a one-day workshop on indigenous legal systems in Ibagué in Colombia with the support of the indigenous organization CRIT (Consejo Regional Indígena del Tolima or Regional Indigenous Council of Tolima). Leaders from the ACIN (Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca or Association of Indigenous Cabildos of Northern Cauca) and CRIT, community members, asesores (advisers), lawyers and NGO workers attended. These workshop participants represent some of the personal contacts I have forged during my long-term multi-sited fieldwork on the tribunal established by CRIT in Tolima and the Escuela de Derecho Propio Cristóbal Secué (Cristóbal Secué School of Own Laws) initiated by ACIN in Cauca. These two institutions, the tribunal and the law school, are two examples of the many social, political and legal transformations that the constitutional recognition of indigenous legal systems in 1991 has brought about in Colombia. The law school is currently not operating. In a concurrent effort, a law program at the Universidad Autónoma Indígena Intercultural (UAIIN, Autonomous Intercultural Indigenous University) in Popayán, Cauca, has been drawn up and it is headed by a former graduate of ACIN’s law school.

Image courtesy Sandra Brunnegger

The day before the workshop officially started I was sitting with some leaders whom I have worked together with over a decade. We sat over dinner and talked over recent political events, local occurrences and difficulties. Our rich conversations and engagements were so lively that we talked well past midnight. On the next day, the workshop itself hosted and facilitated a lively discussion amongst attendees on the cumulative findings of my research on indigenous legal systems in Tolima and Cauca. This morning session prompted further reflection and instigated discussion on indigenous legal systems in Colombia in the broader sense while also explicitly looking forward to the future of the indigenous tribunal in Tolima.

Image courtesy Sandra Brunnegger

The afternoon was designed around group work. At formal and informal levels, the event was also geared towards facilitating a dialogue and the exchange of knowledge between the two different indigenous organizations CRIT and ACIN and their respective leaders. This exchange of knowledge was also relevant because CRIT leaders have been thinking of setting up its own law school. The group work has proven pivotal in this respect since it involved participants critically listening to each others’ presentations on their own legal practices and their characterization of the challenges they faced, their past activities, future plans and their political visions. Putting these organizations, CRIT and ACIN, into further dialogue represents one strand of my attempt to foster forms of collaboration and communication between these particular organizations’ leaders. In the past I have also connected my two fieldsites in other ways as imparted by some leaders as I moved back and forth in my research between the two localities. With the workshop, I closed one chapter, with my presenting my results, and consolidating the fieldwork contacts, while potentially opening another chapter.



Engaged Anthropology Grant: Caroline Schuster


Former microfinance borrowers continue to share many social connections

Caroline Schuster is a Lecturer at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University. In 2009 she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Making Good Money: Microcredit, Commercial Financing, and Social Regulation in Paraguay’s Tri-Border Area,” supervised by Dr. John Comaroff. In 2014 Dr. Schuster received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Economies of Gender in Paraguay”.

This engagement project is based on my research about women’s microfinance loans in Latin America. As a feminist scholar interested in issues of gender justice, I set the goal of engaging with the microfinance industry by way of outreach and awareness on women’s perspectives and voices in Paraguay. In my research I found that the small-scale loans offered by Fundación Paraguaya, the country’s largest microfinance provider and institutional site of my long-term fieldwork from 2009-2010, had a complex effect for the women who borrowed.

Domestic life and shared indebtedness – cooking and caring for friends, anthropologists, and co-borrowers

As I argue in my book, Social Collateral: Women and Microfinance in Paraguay’s Smuggling Economy, even the seemingly technical financial aspects like credit scores, loan contracts, payment schedules, and debt collection, worked together to create gendered interdependency through “social collateral.” In other words, while normal bank loans usually require some sort of physical asset to underwrite the debt as collateral, microfinance is unique in supposing that women’s mutual support and group pressure will guarantee repayment. I argue that even the humdrum technical aspects of loan underwriting have powerful – and gendered – causes and consequences. At the same time, those financial processes were invisible when women were taken to be naturally hyper-obligated – bound by kinship and caring roles. The powerful appeal of the iconic “woman entrepreneur” justified these specialized development loans while gendered financial labor simultaneously went unnoticed. I hoped to showcase feminist research on the economy to open a conversation.

Credit services, including informal money lending as well as institutionalized microcredit, continue to be ubiquitous in Paraguay

Even though I had been in contact with a robust network of feminist scholars in Paraguay and Argentina, I found an unexpected hurdle. For this group of professional women, their unstable work – often in short term, flexible, and project-based contracts – made the seemingly straightforward task of organizing a symposium extraordinarily complicated. Two researchers had moved abroad with their families. One was on short-term assignment as the ‘gender specialist’ attached to a larger development project. Two more were uncontactable because their professional affiliations had lapsed.

My failed symposium exposed precisely the double-bind that went to the heart of my research. As I argue in my book, Paraguayan labor economists conclude that women work predominantly in low-paying positions in small and microenterprises because of their “flexibility” (flexibilidad). According to this line of reasoning, flexibility allows women to fulfill family obligations as well as work for income but also means that they must settle for jobs with a high degree of precariousness and limited social security and pension access. But the recourse to “flexibility” in labor theories, as feminist economists like Drucilla Barker have pointedly argued, is bundled up with a broader value judgment about women’s work, and the apparent inevitability of women’s social and kinship obligations.

In the end, the very labor dynamics that inspired my engagement project ultimately frustrated my efforts to organize a symposium thematising women’s work. Simply put, it was shaped by the gendered and gendering expectations about women’s economic lives that I am dedicated to challenging in my broader scholarship.

Ciudad del Este, Paraguay

At an impasse, I changed course and built my Wenner-Gren engagement project around the single institutional framework that had remained constant throughout the past 10 years of my ethnographic research: the microfinance non-government organization (NGO) Fundación Paraguaya. The momentum created by 18 branch offices, nearly three hundred employees, long-term capital investments, and a sustainable financial model, put the organization on firm footing since it was founded in 1985. And while many on-the-ground staff changed quite quickly, a dedicated group of core senior managers were key contacts as my research unfolded from 2006-2016. Again, this came as no surprise as I had come to see these financial practices as regulatory forms.

My ongoing collaboration and engagement with Martín Burt, the charismatic CEO and founder of the organization, put me squarely in the uncomfortable ambit of development consulting. The now-classic distinction made by Arturo Escobar between development anthropologists and anthropologists of development, where the former was considered to be complicit with neo-colonial aid interventions and the later were considered theoretically principled scholars, was in reality unsettled conceptual terrain. How to bring my anthropological study of Committees of Women Entrepreneurs who borrowed money from a Paraguayan NGO back to the organization in a way that was meaningful and also critically engaged?

Tellingly, the result of my engagement project was actually yet another reversal. Instead of unilaterally sharing my research results, in our conversations Martín and Fundación Paraguaya instead updated me on how my earlier anthropological engagement with the NGO had reshaped some of their strategic priorities and programs in the years since I had wrapped up my long term fieldwork. I spent three weeks in Asunción learning about how my early participation as an outside consultant and researcher had reframed Fundación Paraguaya’s focus on a holistic approach to poverty alleviation. While I was certainly alarmed by the way my research on social collateral had been captured and converted into new financial products, metrics, and values, I was forced to reckon with a wider meaning of engagement beyond simply sharing what I had written with professional colleagues who shared many of my social science assumptions. The indeterminate zone between development anthropologist/anthropologist of development left no straightforward answer to how my collaborators should read what I write or vice versa.

[“Fundación Paraguaya’s Poverty Stoplight – an early collaboration]

In her edited collection on When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography, Caroline B. Brettell argued that, “Ethnographic authority survived under the cloak of distance and difference because the ‘natives’ never knew what had been written about them” (Brettell 1993: 10). My initial effort to bring my writing back to the field of development in Paraguay was a failure, and for reasons that had been anticipated in my own research. Meanwhile, my interlocutors at Fundación Paraguaya had been in conversation with my research all the while without my having known.

Working towards a different concept of ‘being there’ in fieldwork, George Marcus wrote that, “We don’t need more conferences or seminars but a different style and process of training anthropologists, also a rethinking of the standard forms and functions of writing in anthropology.” Being challenged by these reversals gave me new ways of thinking about what engagement means. Writing with my counterparts and collaborators in the field forced me to confront the fact that my training in ethics and field work methodology left me unprepared to actually deal meaningfully with engagement, and not just with my feminist allies, but also with industry partners in the field of development and finance. The net effect was to compel me to reckon with my own social collateral in the fieldwork context. In fact, could social collateral – and the webs of obligation that we invest in others – offer a vocabulary to talk and think about anthropological engagement writ large?

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Kathleen Rice

Screen capture from The Storytelling Film.

While a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, Kathleen Rice received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2011 to aid research on “Purity, Propriety and Power: Negotiating Lobola and Virginity Testing as Sites of Gendered and Generational Power among Xhosa South Africans,” supervised by Dr. Janice Boddy. In 2015 Dr. Rice received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “In My Youth We Cared About Each Other: An Oral History Film of Xhosa Elders”.

My Engagement Project took the form of a subtitled film composed of a series of oral history interviews with elders from the rural Xhosa community where I carried out fieldwork for my doctoral project. Shortly prior to my doctoral fieldwork, local leaders decided to collect video-recorded oral history interviews with village elders. The impetus for collecting these stories stemmed from an awareness that local elders had lived under Apartheid and through the years of transition, and have watched their children and grand-children grow up in the new South Africa. As elders continued to pass away, community leaders became increasingly concerned that these valuable memory were being lost. Accordingly, video-recorded oral histories were envisioned as a way of preserving the experiences and wisdom of these elders. And according to community leaders, this wisdom is vital for guiding the younger generation, who are widely perceived by their elders as being wayward and in need of guidance.

A few months before I began my doctoral research, community leaders appointed a young local man named Thembela (a pseudonym) with the responsibility of collecting these interviews. With the assistance of a local NGO, the community had secured funding to purchase a video camera, and to bring a documentary filmmaker from Johannesburg to train the young local filmmaker. However, several months into my fieldwork I learned that the project was not moving forward.  Speaking with Thembela, I learned that he felt ill-equipped to pose questions of elders in a manner that would elicit the desired form of open-ended reflection. To overcome this obstacle, the NGO director (a non-Xhosa South African who resides in long-term in the area) spoke with community leaders and then approached me to ask if I would be willing to assist Thembela with the project. From the NGO director’s perspective, my skills as an anthropologist might be useful in successfully carrying out the interviews. Furthermore, my dissertation research broadly focused on the gendered and generational politics of social reproduction, and in particular on how local people navigate domestic and intimate relations in a time of economic precarity and rapid social change.  Therefore, from the perspective of community leaders my expressed interest in elders’ lives reflected the spirit of the envisioned project. I was pleased to be invited to help, and agreed to assist Tembela in collecting the interviews.

Over the following months Thembela and I worked together to collect ten oral history interviews with elders. The interviews range between twenty and ninety minutes in length, and are all in isiXhosa (the local language). The content of these interviews covers descriptions of daily life in youth and young adulthood, experiences and reflections on the years of transition from Apartheid to non-racial democracy, differences and similarities between their life experiences and those of their contemporary young people, as well as wisdom that that interviewees felt motivated to impart to youth. Most interviews feature rich personal anecdotes.

The project remained unfinished when I left the community in 2012, but at that time Thembela was diligently working on editing the interviews. However, Thembela ended up leaving the community for personal reasons, leaving the project unfinished. Accordingly, my Engagement Project entailed completing the film –now referred to in the village as the Storytelling Project, – and also using the film as a reference point for sharing my dissertation research with the local community.  To that end, with Wenner-Gren support I edited the videos to create a short film with English subtitles. For this, I required the assistance of a translator, as elders speak a version of isiXhosa (the Xhosa language) that is rich in metaphor, and is consequently difficult for me to interpret without assistance. Through the South African Translators Institute I was able to connect with two excellent translators: Mr. Jeff Nyoka, and Nombeko at Bohle Language and Translation services. With their assistance, I was able to complete the film.

With the film complete, I returned to the village in March 2016. As the full version of the film is over four hours long, I hosted a showing of segments of the film was in the local library. The showing was open to all interested members of the community, and everyone was informed that the full film would be left in the library. Following the showing, I used content for the film as a reference point for a discussion the findings and implications of my doctoral research.

A copy of the film, as well English and isiXhosa transcripts of the interviews, are accessible in the community library. I intend for them to remain there, and will be available to future researchers, the local community, and members of the South African public.  At the time that I am writing this, four of the ten interviewees already passed away, one within the past few weeks. Independent of my own research interests, I hope that these interviews will be of value to the friends and family that these elders have left behind.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Layoung Shin

Image courtesy DDingDong

While a doctoral student at Binghamton University Layoung Shin received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2012 to aid research on ”Performing Like a Star: Pop Culture and Sexuality among Young Women in Neoliberal South Korea,” supervised by Dr. Deborah Elliston. In 2016 Dr. Shin received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Beyond the Rhetoric of Child Protection: Challenging Age Regulations as a Strategy for Queer Youth Movement”.

LGBT Youth Shelter Ddingdong

Ddingdong is the shelter for young queers, which just opened in Winter 2014, supported by nongovernmental organizations. Since this institution is the one that is most closely related with my concern on working class queer youth, I visited Ddingdong in July and met activists, Ryu Eun-chan and two others (Eun-chan was one of my informants during my 2012-3 field research.) From the visiting and the conversations with them, I could learn about the development of the institution that had occurred during the last three years after my visit of South Korea in 2013.

Image courtesy DDingdong

With regards to sharing my research result, we shared the idea that challenging age boundaries for the rights of teenagers to be independent (at least such as opening cell phone, bank account) necessary and required, but it might not be easily achieved sometime soon. Instead, the Ddingdong has been providing alternative resources for helping them, providing counseling, medical care, and temporary places to stay.

My suggestion on queer youth movement also was to build alliances between queer youth and working class (marginalized) youths, so that they can work together for basic concerns on economy, job, and shelter/home, that is fundamental for basic survival of marginalized youth, beyond gender/sexual identity. They have been already constructing connections with one another. I thought, therefore, it is more appropriate for me to support their activities that have already been going on. Therefore, I provide $200 to the Ddingdong, for continuation of their collaboration with other youth organizations for marginalized youth, and find ways to tackle age restrictions at least some areas.

Il-cha and Fan-cos activities

For the second part of my project, I met two groups of il-cha participants who helped me the most during my fieldwork research; Inae and Inyang from the Aplus, and Changong and Heesu from the Exciter. I originally planned to support having a united event of il-cha teams, but I found that their activities have stopped since Spring 2015. As I indicated in my proposal, il-cha activities were in recession due to not only economic difficulties to open their own events, but also due to the increased stereotypes and prejudices on them even among LGBTs in Korea.

Image courtesy Layoung Shin

While il-cha disappeared from the scene, fan-cos continued. There  have been a similar number of participants and events since my fieldwork in 2012-3. But again, the issue for this fan-cos is that it is hard to make it public due to discrimination, stereotypes on their gender nonconformity and non-heterosexuality. They have been promoting and sharing their events only through SNS, like Twitter, which makes it hard for newcomers to find their existence. For instance, even I, who have been following almost all fan-cos events and individuals’ twitter accounts, did not know about some of the events they were preparing during my stay in South Korea. I could know about one of their events, only through Yoohee, my interviewee. Likewise, without personal contacts, exclusive involvement within the community, fan-cos cannot but isolate themselves from potential fan-cos participants, which is the reason the size of fan-cos has been reduced.

Image courtesy Layoung Shin

That was the reason that I proposed opening up a website. Yoohee, one of the oldest fan-cos event organizers, also agreed on that opening the website for fan-cos would be the best way for promoting fan-cos in the long term. It could be the hub of the events, accumulating information, and resources together. Luckily, Yoohee and two other members of her team are professional website developers, and they agreed to take care of the website. As one of the most popular and oldest fan-cos team and participants, they will take responsibility maintaining the website as well as fan-cos subculture in general. So I decided to hire them for the united fan-cos website development and maintenance for at least one year, as the boost of fan-cos event development.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Nidhi Mahajan

Lecture at Fort Jesus Museum

While a doctoral student at Cornell University, Nidhi Mahajan received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Merchants of Mombasa and the Making of a Shadow Economy,” supervised by Dr. Viranjini Munasinghe. In 2016 Dr. Mahajan received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Illegality and Maritime Trade in Coastal Kenya: A Public Dialogue on Economic Transformation”.

Fort Jesus is an imposing structure that lies atop a coral ridge with a sweeping view of Mombasa’s harbor – an ideal point from which to watch ships pass in and out of the Swahili port city. This was indeed, one of the purposes of the fort, designed to look like a person laying down, their head to the sea. Built by the Portuguese sometime between 1593 and 1596, to secure their position in this part of East Africa and their ambitions across the Indian Ocean, the building is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Upon visiting the fort, now a museum, one cannot help but be struck by a mural presumably done by unknown Portuguese mariners from the sixteenth century – hand-drawn images of ships, mythical sea creatures, sailors, and the sea – carefully preserved within the museum’s walls, natural light in the display room playing tricks on one’s imagination, the past casting shadows upon the present. The fort marked the violent entry of the Portuguese into the Indian Ocean. Where once no state claimed authority over the sea, the Portuguese in the fifteenth century (followed by the Dutch and British) wed cannons with trade, and altered the shape of history. Trade that was once carried on freely across the Indian Ocean, came to be regulated by colonial states who ruled with the force of the gun.

My dissertation project examined the contemporary resonances of this long history of tension between Indian Ocean trade networks and the state in East Africa, focusing on the creation of a shadow economy in the Indian Ocean. Examining the entanglements between the sailing vessel or dhow trade and multiple regulatory regimes in the western Indian Ocean, I argue that these trade networks have been pushed into a blurry realm between legal and illegal trade by states as they pose a threat to state sovereignty. When I returned to Kenya in 2016, it was fitting that the Fort Jesus Museum became a space for engagement. While the museum is usually where objects such as ivory, jewelry, and intricately carved furniture from the Swahili coast are carefully displayed in glass cases, the photo exhibition I curated for the museum emphasized a humble object – the mangrove pole.

Mangroves poles from the swamps of the Lamu archipelago in northern Kenya were once harvested and exported out to the Middle East, where they were used for structural timber in homes. Sailors from Oman, Iran, and India would arrive in Lamu with goods like carpets, food stuffs, dates, furniture, and porcelain and carry back cargoes of mangrove poles, animal hides, ivory and even enslaved peoples from these shores. While scholars have written much about these luxury goods, mangrove poles, a key export from the Swahili coast have rarely been examined by scholars. This mangrove pole trade however, structured economic life in Lamu, employing a large number of its residents as cutters, porters, merchants, and transporters. While the mangrove pole export trade came to an end in the 1980s, as the government of Kenya banned the trade citing concerns about environmental conservation, many of those involved in the trade viewed its illegalization as wrapped up in other political economic concerns. Some say that the trade was banned to prevent ivory smuggling, while others believe it was a way for the state government to purposefully impoverish this community that lies at the margins of the Kenyan state. Regardless, the mangrove pole trade is well-remembered in Lamu, even if it remains undocumented.

As part of my engagement project, I curated a photo exhibition for the Fort Jesus Museum titled “From Swamp to Sea: The Mangrove Pole trade on the Swahili Coast.” Using photos in the archives of the Museum as well as private collections, the exhibit pointed to the complexities of the trade and its regulation. It opened on 19th July 2016, in Mombasa and will travel to other museums in Lamu and Malindi, on the Kenyan coast. On the day of the opening, I presented a lecture on the trade and its history in an effort to share my research with the community. Residents of Lamu and Mombasa present at the opening expressed their surprise on seeing an exhibit of a quotidian good in a museum, the curator of Fort Jesus even exclaiming, “We must think of history through these everyday objects!” as we discussed the political and economic ramifications of the trade and its ban.

For the rest of the project, I shared the results of my research with both, my interlocutors and the academic community in Kenya. I presented a public lecture “The Contemporary Dhow Trade in the Western Indian Ocean,” to residents of Mombasa at the Friends of Fort Jesus Seminar program. Against the backdrop of the fort, we discussed shifting regulatory regimes in the Indian Ocean, smuggling, and neoliberal economic transformations that threaten communities of seafarers and merchants across the Indian Ocean littoral.

These discussions then shaped a talk at the British Institute in Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, where I gave a seminar titled “A Sea of Suspicion: The Dhow Trade and Dispossession in the Western Indian Ocean.” Attended by academics based in Nairobi, the talk gave me the opportunity to communicate research findings to specialists of East Africa who don’t work on the Swahili coast, but are nonetheless engaged with broader debates about political economy in the country.

This engaged anthropology grant therefore enabled me to return to Kenya, to build on old connections and forge new ones as I communicated my work in different formats to the academic and non-academic community in Mombasa and Nairobi.