Interview: Nomi Stone

Wound Kit, War Simulation.

Nomi Stone is a published poet and doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at Columbia University. In 2011, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Human Technologies in the Iraq War’. Recently, we spoke to Stone to learn more about her fieldwork in the US-built “Middle Eastern” mock villages used for combat training, and the complex lives of the people used to anthropologically construct “the adversary” in the 21st-century American warscape.


Let’s begin with a brief summary of your WGF-supported project.

As an entry point, I offer a scene from the field: a young American Major asks “Ahmed” to remove his shirt and applies a mock wound to the Iraqi role-player’s back and ribs. The insects simmer around the pots of fake blood, and a wasp nearly nicks Ahmed’s new welt. “Rowena”, a local woman who is assisting with the make-up, belly-laughs: “The bees like blood. Beaucoup blood, baby!” In forests, fields, and deserts across America, in what has been called a “hidden archipelago of mini-cities”[1] American soldiers arrive to train their bodies and imaginations for war, before deployment. To habituate the American soldier, Middle Eastern role-players, many of them recent refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, are salaried for their labors and repetitively act-out the contingencies of war. To this end, role-players embody a spectrum of cultural roles and modes: the Mayor; the Villager; the Interpreter; the Local Proxy Soldier; the Mourning Mother. They are called upon to simulate bargaining, fighting, and even dying, like the adversary.

In a new contribution to contemporary scholarship on war, my project explores the ethical, epistemological, and affective ramifications of collaboration and mediation in theaters of the 2003 Iraq War.  I focus on individuals I call “human technologies”:  local wartime proxies, mediators, host nation interlocutors, translators, and pre-deployment role-players employed by the US military as embodied repositories of Middle East knowledge. Drawing on 26 months of fieldwork, my cross-regional, multi-site research spans the extended Iraq warscape, from mock Middle Eastern villages above described; to the Iraqi refugee neighborhoods of Amman, Jordan; and crisscrossing through elite political and military institutions of Washington DC and its satellites.  Focusing in particular on the 2003 Iraq War context, I examine the US military employment of human techne, like Ahmed, within a 21st century posthuman technoscape, and the ramifications of the outsourcing of particular labors to these wartime intermediaries.

Like in the case with my previous research, I am writing a collection of poetry in tandem with pursuing ethnography.  As I write my dissertation, I am writing poems on the lifeworlds of the Middle Eastern role-players who inhabit the simulacra.  From the outset, I have invoked the anthropologist self and the poet self in tandem to read these haunted spaces. I draw upon the lens of the anthropologist to think about, for example, how “authenticity” is referenced by the military through the construction of the sets.  Which gestures – a prayer rug; Arabic graffiti; the call to prayer; and in some simulations, even odors designed to mimic mass graves – generate a sensory apparatus for both the training soldiers and the Middle Eastern role-players inside?  Meanwhile, it is my poet-side who inflects these spaces with the affect, emotion, and sensation that a cursory observer perhaps would not glean. In this recent interview, I further discuss the crucial link for me between ethnography and poetry.  Also, there are several poems at the end of the interview from my new manuscript on the simulations.


Interview: Kristen Pearlstein and “An Analysis of Immigrant and Euro-American Skeletal Health in 19th Century New York City”

Kristen with skeletal collection at the Museum Support Center, Smithsonian Institution

Kristen Pearlstein is a doctoral student at American University. In 2012, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘An Analysis of Immigrant and Euro-American Skeletal Health in 19th Century New York City,’ supervised by Dr. Rachel J. Watkins. We asked Kristen to answer a few question about her grant research working with the George S. Huntington Anatomical Skeletal Collection and exploring New York City’s lost social history through the marks it left on human remains.

Let’s begin with a bit of background. Could you briefly summarize the project you undertook with your Dissertation Fieldwork Grant?

My project compares the skeletal health of European immigrants to Euro-Americans from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to understand the biological impact of socio-economic inequality and poverty in New York City during this time period.  I evaluated the human remains of individuals who were unclaimed when they died and used as dissection cadavers for medical teaching purposes.  The subjects most likely to be unclaimed were individuals who could not afford the cost of a burial, and were generally from a very impoverished segment of the population.

Skeletal health indicators from three ethnic groups – Irish, German, and Italian – were compared to health indicators from indigent U.S.-born individuals in order to determine how perceived social and economic disparities within and between immigrant and U.S.-born groups differentially impacted their skeletal health.  Historical narratives show that different nationality groups had diverse experiences with discrimination and marginalization after migrating to this country.  One hypothesis is that groups which experienced more prejudice had a lower health status.  The Irish, for example, were maligned more than the Germans, and were more often relegated to occupations of manual labor.  Therefore, I expected to observe more indicators of adverse health events in the Irish skeletal remains than in the German or U.S.-born groups.  This physical evidence provides the basic data for my dissertation: the broken bones, herniated vertebral discs, tuberculous lesions, rampant systemic infections, severe arthritis, etc.  I am finding that the U.S.-born group has a similar health profile to the Irish, so an interesting aspect of this study will be discerning why those similarities exist and where there are subtle differences between those two groups.


How did you originally become interested in this particular research question?

My sub-field interest is paleopathology, so my research was going to involve some aspect of human health and history.  I was familiar with this particular anatomical skeletal collection from a long term rehousing project, but I did not envision the focus of this study until I took a history course on health and migration and spent time reviewing how 19th century immigrants were perceived in regards to social status and public health, with more prejudice directed toward some immigrant groups than others.  I became interested in evaluating how these diverse experiences were expressed not just in the historical records, but in the actual skeletal remains.  As I began my search for other studies of skeletal collections from that time period, I realized that hardly any literature expressly discussed immigrants.  So I am excited that my research can contribute to this ongoing conversation about inequality and health and the experiences of different groups.


Abnormal bone formation of the anterior spine due to tuberculosis

How did cultural anthropology and race theory influence your work with the physical anthropological archives?

Previous studies on anatomical and historical collections have utilized a biocultural framework to situate physical evidence within the context of the cultural environment.  This project builds on existing scholarship by combining the historical narrative of social and racial/ethnic bias with the physical documentation of skeletal health.  My research engages in the debate on the relationship between health and social status by examining the interactions between dominant and marginalized groups, and how these interactions are connected to health inequalities.  Much of the skeletal research undertaken in biocultural health studies focuses on ethnically generalized groups, and historical studies in the United States have been carried out on African-American population samples and Euro-American population samples.  These studies highlight the importance of the environmental and historical context for understanding patterns of morbidity and mortality in skeletal populations.

However, the implicit generalization of Black or White blurs additional aspects of marginalization or resistance that may contribute to health disparities within and between groups.  Studies addressing the skeletal health of Whites in a historical context have not considered the stigmatization of many immigrants as ethnic ‘others’ and therefore failed to critically examine all aspects of social marginalization as it relates to health and stress.  Additionally, successful studies have challenged certain assumptions we carry in regards to health and status by showing there is not always a direct correlation between skeletal health and social marginalization. So this study will seek to demonstrate how expected health outcomes in marginalized population groups are impacted by various aspects of resistance, social support, and localized stressors.


New York City, c. 1840.

What picture of 19th century NYC emerged along the course of your research?

The City of New York had a complicated relationship with its immigrants.  On the one hand, the city was totally unprepared for several million new occupants and could not provide adequate housing, sanitation, transportation, job security, or medical care.  On the other hand, New York quickly became the center of American trade and industry.  The immigrant and U.S.-born individuals who were migrating to New York were literally building the city from the ground up, and were producing more goods and services than just about anywhere else in the world.  However, these individuals were expendable.  There was very little incentive for factories or manufacturers to pay heed to occupational hazards and health consequences.  If workers fell ill, they were replaced.  For some occupations, unemployment was a common occurrence for several months out of the year, every year.  Housing often meant small, cold apartments with no windows.  Tuberculosis was still the leading cause of death, particularly among the poor.  So the image I have of 19th century New York City is a very large number of people just trying to survive.  But I may be biased.  I spend most of my time reading about impoverished immigrants, so I cannot speak to how the upper classes were living.


Bilateral osteoarthritis of the knee

What’s one thing about NYC that you think New Yorkers would be surprised to learn?

I think it would surprise many New Yorkers to learn that various ethnic groups tried to use race and ethnicity against each other to gain control of certain industries.  For example, the Irish tried to take control of the docks by claiming the Germans were not white enough to work there.  Both the Irish and Germans were quick to racialize the Italians as ‘other.’  We tend to idealize New York as one big ‘melting pot’ in which everyone who worked hard was quickly assimilated into the American culture.  We often forget there were periods when Eastern European Jews and Italians and Irish were heavily discriminated against based on their ethnicities.

Another interesting fact about New York is that the poor were assigned the same punishment as murderers and traitors after death.  Cadavers were, and are, a necessary part of medical education.  As the number of medical institutions in New York grew, so did the demand for anatomical remains.  Since body donations were not common, early physicians relied on illegal grave robbing and the legally obtained bodies of executed criminals to supply their anatomy classes.  In the mid-19th century, the Act to Promote Medical Science expanded the legal acquisition of bodies to include unclaimed individuals from hospitals, almshouses, and other public institutions who would otherwise have been buried in a potter’s field.  This meant that anyone who lacked the money for a formal burial could be used as a dissection cadaver.  Essentially, the Act targeted and exploited the poor of New York, most of whom were immigrants with no political power to object, and many of whom had a very real fear of the dissection table for social and religious reasons.


What’s next for this project? Do you envision it expanding in any way?

There is more that I would love to do at the individual level with biohistorical data associated with each set of remains.  I think the overall picture would be so much richer if we could find these individuals within hospital records and have a better understanding of when they were treated, what they were treated for, and how they were treated, both medically and socially.  I want to know where they lived, and for the ones without recorded occupations, I want to know what they did.  How big were their families?  Did they board alone?  It might be impossible to dig up this sort of information, but I would love to try.  In terms of the skeletal remains, there is definitely more that I plan on doing.  I particularly want to look at bone lesions in relation to activity.  These remains exhibit a higher rate of periostitis than has been reported in other anatomical collections, and often the location of the periostitis is along an insertion site, such as where the fascia attaches between the tibia and fibula.  It seems to me that inflammation in that area is more indicative of muscle activity than infection.  But why is that reaction more pronounced in this particular selection of skeletons?  What does it mean?  I think future research for this project will delve more into fatigue, muscle overuse, and skeletal stress.



Interview: Susie Hatmaker and ‘Flooded in Sludge, Fueling the Nation’


The "scrubber" - the newest smokestack technology for capturing particulate matter from the smoke emissions. The captured matter goes into a new solid waste holding pond. Image courtesy grantee, 2013

Susie Hatmaker is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. In 2012, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Flooded in Sludge, Fueling the Nation: Generating Power, Waste, and Change in East Tennessee,’ supervised by Dr. Hoon Song. We reached out to Susie to learn more about her project examining how the 2008 Kingston ash spill, and other changes in Appalachia’s physical environment, are connected to an expose ideas of progress and technical development.  


Let’s begin with a bit of background. Could you briefly summarize the project you undertook with your Dissertation Fieldwork Grant?

My project is a genealogy of the largest coal ash flood in US history that traces the intersecting forces that brought it into existence. And, it is a material analysis of the psychological and social processes that render this matter and this event largely invisible.

This grant supported an ethnography of the East Tennessee landscape where the flood took place. I inquired into how the landscape changed over time to accommodate this large body of coal ash waste. I traced various forces that connected in the accumulation of the ash, from ideas about the region’s people, to desires for national power and development. I combined an ethnography of the landscape with archival work at the National Archives and Smithsonian, where I looked into records of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA, a government agency that operates as a corporation, and whose Kingston power plant spilled the waste) and the Rural Electrification Administration, which together ushered in major changes in the relationship among landscape, infrastructure, the nation, and rural everyday life during the 20th century.


What happened in Kingston in 2008?

On December 22, 2008, over 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash waste flooded out of an unlined, earthen holding pond at a TVA power plant and spilled into the adjacent river. I was drawn to this event because it took place in my hometown. I saw Kingston on the news from my new home across the country, and couldn’t easily critique or place what I was witnessing. It shifted my consciousness. It was not related to the topics I intended to study in grad school, but once the flood happened (during the first year of my graduate program) I couldn’t stop thinking about the region, its history, and wanting to know more about how the coal ash came to exist in the holding pond.


How do you connect Science and Technology Studies (STS) and actor-network theory to 20th-century rural Appalachia?

The Kingston plant. Image courtesy Tennessee Valley Authority

This has been the largest challenge in defining this project – that I do not set aside a seemingly “cultural studies” set of concerns about the region’s history (the construction of Appalachia) in favor of my concern with the ash as a physical byproduct and material with its own story. I realized during research that certain ideas about “Appalachia” are essential to both the ways this landscape was developed in the name of modernization, and to the process of rendering this event insignificant, practically invisible. It’s not one of the “major” environmental disasters that we all know by a shorthand name. I hold that there is a key link between culturally salient ideas about “Appalachia” as a relic of the past, something “behind” modern time, and the ways the East Tennessee landscape in its contemporary manifestations is invisible. This is a place of scientific and technological complexity, home to the nation’s largest science and energy labs and a community that formed through the buildup of American modernity, most notably when Oak Ridge (which neighbors Kingston) was built as a Manhattan project site – the place where uranium was enriched for the first atomic bomb.

It is difficult to see a place as critical to American modernity, futurity, and development when it is continually positioned as a place of “backwardness,” and “the past within the present.” While Appalachia is a place where hikers and nature lovers seek rustic authenticity and American heritage, Oak Ridge is today a toxic Superfund cleanup site and the river that links it to Kingston is lined with the radioactive waste.

I use an STS/ANT approach to discuss how cultural narratives of Appalachia shaped the possibilities that planners and the national government could reasonably imagine for this terrain. That is to say, I look at how certain ideas combined with the presence of materials (such as coal, timber, and the many rivers and streams) to physically put materials, people, and terrain into motion.

I consider the invention of Appalachia (to borrow a phrasing from anthropologist Allen Batteau) not as simply a discursive construction, but as a socio-material process that emerged from a combination of human desires and physical realities. I view this as a trajectory in the network of forces that allows for the buildup of the coal ash. In each chapter of the manuscript, I describe physical conditions of everyday life, feelings, and ideas that put this matter into motion. The ash, in my writing, is both real and metaphorical – it is the main character in a story I am writing about the visible and invisible forces that give it life as a residue of the desire for power.


While working in the archive, you discovered a sizable collection of “propaganda films” created by the TVA. What was the content of these films? What sort of imagery did they deal in?

photo of an Appalachian family from the TVA archives. 1933

TVA was a major undertaking of the New Deal, and hinged on the creation of a new publicly funded government agency that basically took control over the entire Tennessee River and surrounding valley lands, built over 20 dams in a couple of decades, and later built coal-fired and nuclear power plants. This entailed massive displacements of communities, the creation of a system of huge new lakes, and federal regulation and policing of lakes, rivers, streams, and waterfront properties – all by this new agency, its managers, and its own police force. TVA also spearheaded the spread of electrification in its early days.

To convince the national population of the merits of this unprecedented level of federal control over life and land, there was a major corresponding propaganda campaign. What I found after watching dozens of these films is that they essentially created an origin myth to justify the necessity of intervention. The films repeatedly portray the local population pre-TVA as blighted, backward, and in need of assistance. They do not show things like Friday night dances, where people played live music, shared pies, and had fun. They didn’t show the kinds of active learning that took place on the farms and in schools, or the community as an organized entity that shared resources. The focus of the films was on lack of surplus capital (poverty), dirtiness, lack of “proper” clothing and shoes, etc. These films generally only portrayed the most desperate faces of rural, Depression-era poverty. In the collections of TVA’s in-house photographer, I was able to see a much broader picture of the pre-TVA landscape, including larger farmhouses, buildings, and local technologies that illustrate a more dynamic and economically varied region than the propaganda films allow.

The propaganda narrative focused solely on promoting the notion that this large-scale government intervention was necessary to bring the region into modernity and to spread light and power to the poor. Dam building is shown as a heroic act in the films, and workers appear like soldiers fighting a domestic war. Explosions of earth are heralded with triumphant music to signal a new era for this region. Once the dams are erected, scenes show peaceful panoramas of the newly created lakes and ordered recreation, indicating the ideal configuration of people, infrastructure, and environment.


You admit to encountering an overwhelming amount of information during your work in the archive and in the field. How do you decide “which stories to tell”?

landscape view from across the ash holding cells with the smokestacks from the plant in the background.

I faced this most glaringly in the TVA archives. To give an example, TVA has several branches – power, agriculture, biology, geology, and many more. In the files of the power manager alone there are over 900 boxes. Similarly in fieldwork, I have notes on more interesting and compelling moments than I will be able to share. But while I may not get to directly cite all of these stories, reading them, and being immersed in them in the archive and in the field, all heightened my sensibilities about what to say and what is appropriate and accurate.

Recently, when writing a chapter based on my tour inside the Kingston Steam Plant, I found myself writing at length about a painting I saw there, which was noted by my tour guide as his “favorite part” of the plant. I could not stop writing about it, and this essentially became the focus of the chapter. I did not anticipate seeing this painting, nor did I plan to address it in my chapter outline, but in the process of writing, this is the story that worked. I found that through this singular, simple observation and encounter, that I could bring many ideas to life. As I work through the material and outline the writing, I find that it is mostly intuition and instinct that guides me toward figuring out what works, what to include, and what to exclude. It is very important to me that each story in each chapter serves the thesis of the project, and that the stories allow me to highlight the themes that run through the entire work. I have to consistently work to find the balance between rich, deep storytelling and showing a breadth of research. But a compelling story is more interesting to me, even if it is highly singular, than a compilation of copious amount of data and citation. This is especially true if I know that a particular story stands as a great example of a broader theme that recurs in this landscape and runs through the rest of the larger work.


What’s next for this project?

Right now I am working to finish writing this as my dissertation. I have an essay (“On Mattering”) out for review with a journal that I am excited about, and will share with the Wenner-Gren Foundation once it is published. After I graduate in May, I plan to focus on finding a publisher for the work and releasing it as a book.


Are you a current or past WGF grantee and interested in sharing your experience with us? Contact Daniel ( for more information on our blog interviews.

IDG Interview: Dr. Jhon Picard Byron of Université d’État d’Haïti

Main building of the Faculty of Ethnology. At the front stands a bust of Dr. Price-Mars, founder of the institute, who became faculty in 1958.

The Wenner-Gren Foundation is pleased to announce the latest institution to receive the Institutional Development Grant, which supports the growth and development of anthropological doctoral programs in countries where the discipline is under-represented. To attain their goals, the Université d’État d’Haïti (UEH) will be partnering with scholars at the University of Kansas, Teachers College (Columbia University) and other anthropologists from around the world. We spoke to Dr. Jhon Picard Byron, director of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology in the Faculty of Ethnology, UEH, to learn more about his background, his department, and the state of the discipline in his country.


First can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in anthropology?

When I finished my coursework at the l’Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1996, I wanted to work on the ideas of 1946. That year marks an important moment of the 20th century in Haiti, the height of the ideology of Noirism with a movement that removed President Élie Lescot from power and led to the inauguration of President Dumarsais Estimé. I was not able to start this work on the thought that founded the movement of 1946. But, my thinking about that brought me to research the great Haitian thinker Jean Price-Mars, whose text Ainsi parla l’oncle, published in 1928, had a profound impact on subsequent Haitian thought.

An anthropology lecture audience composed of students from across UEH.

My work on Price-Mars inspired me to work on all of Haitian Ethnography (for example, Lorimer Denis, Emmanuel C. Paul, Louis Mars, Jean-Baptiste Romain) and my interest for all foreign anthropologists who worked in Haiti (like Herskovits, Bastide and Métraux).  For this, I use an approach that combines the history of thought, intellectual history, history of ideologies, and anthropology. Representation and political discourse are my broad research interests. So, I arrived in Ethnology through the history of the discipline and in the spirit of understanding a thinker who marked the 20th century with his scientific and political work.

I started my training in Haiti in Philosophy (Ecole Normale Supérieure, Université d’Etat d’Haïti, 1996). I obtained my bachelors and my masters in that discipline in France (Université Paris X, 2000; Université Nancy 2, 2001). I completed a master’s degree in political sociology as well (Université Paris 7, 2005). My doctoral dissertation was in Ethnology (Université Laval, 2012). I have been a lecturer at UEH since 2001 and have been teaching Political Philosophy since then, ethnology since 2010.


Who have been the anthropologists that have been most influential in your own personal formation and why?

I have a great debt to Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a Haitian-born anthropologist who taught at Johns Hopkins. He situated Price-Mars within the principle intellectual currents of the 20th century in Haiti, particularly the indigenists (noirists as well as Marxists). Professor Bogumil Jewsiewicki, a Canadian anthropologist who worked in the Congo/Zaire, also influenced me a lot. The ideas of Professor Jewsiewicki about the ‘pertinence of memory’ and of ideology in general, continue to inspire the work that I do.


A Masters student in Anthropology at UEH.

Can you tell us a little about anthropology in Haiti? What are the pressing questions and concerns for the discipline there?

Since the 19th century, there have been Haitians who have conducted ethnographic work in the country.  They gathered data and described the experiences and practices of Haitians.  At that point, they began studying vodou. In 1941, they did establish the first institution of higher education where people could study anthropology. The Institute of Ethnology was similar to the institution established by Mauss and the other students of Durkheim in France in 1925. The Institute of Ethnology changed to become a Faculty in 1958 when Duvalier came to power.

The Haitian school of Ethnology lived dark days during the dictatorship. It still suffers the consequences of the serious institutional crisis that the country has experienced since the fall of Jean Claude Duvalier in 1986.

The struggle we have undertaken since 2012 at the Faculty of Ethnology is to bring about another renaissance in ethnology, similar to that of the period of effervescency and intellectual productivity that was alive in Haiti during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

Until then, anthropologists had produced research on Vodou, the peasantry, and culture in general. Now, they should work in other questions such as migration, economics, etc. Anthropology should help to determine the limitations to Haiti’s prosperity, and what positive factors can aid in its progress (democracy, social change, building social ties throughout society).

I think that there are many research questions that anthropologists in Haiti are concerned with. A first question is how to reorganize anthropology and separate it from sociology in a manner that would give it autonomy as a discipline within the social sciences. The second question is how to broaden anthropology to encompass all aspects of life in the country. The third question is how anthropology will be able to reflect on itself, and on its history. Such discussions in Haiti will contribute to the debates that have developed in contemporary anthropology since the 1980s. Overall, anthropology in Haiti needs to work on new objects and fields of inquiry and new theories.


International seminar on the history of ethnology in Haiti. Lecture by Professor Stéphane Douailler (University of Paris 8 ) on Antenor Firmin, January 22, 2014.

Is anthropology a subject that attracts students in Haiti?

When I consider at the role anthropology can play in helping the country prosper, when we train anthropologists in this way, I believe that the Department of Anthropology in the School of Ethnology could attract more students. The department offers a curriculum that blends sociological and anthropological disciplines. In June 2013, 131 students completed the courses of the program in anthropology-sociology, but, from 2009 to 2013, fewer than 50 students obtained their bachelor after defending a bachelor’s dissertation. We will be able to increase the number of bachelor degrees when we expand these offers to four sub-disciplines of anthropology. That way, we can give students not only diplomas, but skills that subsequently can help them find work.


Can you tell us about your department, its specialties and how the award will help your department as it moves forward?

The Department of Anthropology and Sociology of the Faculty of Ethnology at the UEH is a department that offers a Bachelors of Science degree in Anthropology and Sociology.  This year (2013-2014), the Faculty established a Masters program in social anthropology. In 2014, we began working to build a doctoral program in anthropology in conjunction with the Doctoral School of UEH.

The IDG will allow us to create a true Department of Anthropology in the Faculty of Ethnology that links with the four subdisciplines (biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, archeology and linguistics).  Already, we have in this Department a bachelor’s and a master’s level in cultural anthropology. The overall vision includes a doctoral program that would develop alongside team-based research in a number of areas such as medical anthropology, economic anthropology, political anthropology, legal anthropology, and urban anthropology. We will strengthen the research in the Faculty especially that which is underway since 2012 with a team of the laboratory LADIREP (Language, Discourse, and Representations) working on a project called “Ethnology in Haiti: Writing the History of the Discipline to Support its Renewal”.


Interview: Tom Widger and The Youth Suicide Epidemic in Sri Lanka

Tom Widger is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Sussex. In 2005, while a student at the London School of Economics, he received a dissertation fieldwork grant to aid research on ‘The Youth Suicide Epidemic in Sri Lanka: Causes, Meanings, Prevention Strategies,’ supervised by Dr. Jonathan Parry. Coming off recent publication of his research in South Asian Studies, we asked Dr. Widger about his project and his experience with the Wenner-Gren grant.


How did you first become interested in questions surrounding suicide, and what drew you to look at Sri Lanka specifically?

Well actually I was drawn to anthropology first, then to Sri Lanka and finally to the study of suicide. During my undergraduate degree in archaeology I’d taken a course in archaeology and anthropology, and read Jean Briggs’s Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family, which simply fascinated me. Then I read a very different book, Anthropology, Development and the Post-Modern Challenge, by Katy Gardner and David Lewis. Both books together showed how long-term ethnographic fieldwork can produce extremely detailed descriptions of day to day life while still offering a rigorous method for addressing real-world problems – and it’s that approach I’ve tried to use in my own work.

After graduating in 2000 I applied to the MSc course in social anthropology at the London School of Economics. At the same time I joined a youth development programme run by Voluntary Services Overseas, a British charity. They’d partnered up with national youth organisations in Sri Lanka, Thailand and South Africa, and I just happened to be posted to Sri Lanka. I lived with a family in a village 70 kilometers north of the capital, Colombo, and worked alongside social workers. One of the issues they engaged with was youth suicide. What struck me at the time was not just the sheer prevalence of suicide in the local community but the ways in which it was so taken for granted. Having only read a bit of Durkheim by that stage I knew very little about social scientific, much less anthropological, theories of the problem. My acceptance letter for the LSE came through during this time and from that point I pretty much decided what my MSc dissertation would be about, as well as subject for a PhD!



Interview: Dr. Joe Watkins of the National Park Service

image courtesy University of Oklahoma Libraries

Dr. Joe E. Watkins formerly held the position of Coca-Cola Professor and Director of Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He has been involved with the Wenner-Gren Foundation for over a decade, participating in numerous workshops and conferences, and is now stepping into a new role with the National Park Service as Chief Supervisory Anthropologist of Tribal Relations and American Cultures. We got in touch with Dr. Watkins to learn more about his new position, the challenges it presents, and his thoughts on anthropology outside the traditional academy.


How did you get involved with the National Park Service?

Well, I applied for the job and was hired. It’s never that simple, of course. There were lots of other applicants for the position, and many of them within the Park Service system. I like to think I was hired based on my background as an archaeologist who practices social archaeology – I have always been interested in the relationships between archaeologists and the Indigenous groups with which they work (or don’t work), and know that much of what I do is anthropological archaeology. I look at the people in the past instead of just the archaeological material culture those people left behind. When I heard about the job offering, I thought it sounded like a challenge. The Supervisory Anthropologist position was challenging enough, but the newly formed Tribal Relations and American Cultures program seemed to offer an opportunity beyond the “normal” job of a federal anthropologist.


What exactly is the role that you’ll be stepping into?

I will be taking over the Tribal Relations and American Cultures program which oversees the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) program, the Parks Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Parks NAGPRA) program, and the Parks Ethnography program.

The Tribal Historic Preservation Officer program was established to help Native American tribes become fully partners in the preservation of historic properties on lands owned or controlled by the tribes. With more than 140 THPOs across the United States, the program helps strengthen tribal perspectives in the national historic preservation program. The Parks NAGPRA program was set it to help units of the NPS meet their statutory obligations under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. Activities range from conducting inventories and summaries of collections under the control of NPS facilities to returning human remains and other particular classes of materials to Native American tribes. The Parks Ethnography program was established to help park superintendents and other Parks employees gain enough information about the people who have relationships with National Parks – either specific parks or the National Park Service in general. Uninformed Park superintendents run the risks of inadvertently making decisions adverse to particular sets of stakeholders – American Indians, local townspeople, and even tourists – which might increase conflict between parks and the American public, reduce support for NPS, and perhaps even legal suits.


What do you bring to it as an anthropologist?

Perhaps the primary thing I hope to bring to the job as an anthropologist is my ability to look at broad picture ideas that influence the relationships that groups hold with parks – Park managers need to try to manage limited resources for optimum return; American Indian groups often have relationships of past land use in areas currently encompassed by national parks but now precluded under Park policies; land owners around a Park have different relationships than those who do not have economic stake in the process. Visitors to the Park have a privileged relationship in many ways but are only there for a short period of time in comparison to the others. I believe it will be my job to provide guidance on differing perspectives and ways of dealing with the possible conflicts while at the same time trying to improve the Parks’ responses to the needs of the different people involved with the National Parks.


What do you think the future holds for anthropologists working in non-academic sectors?

I think working in the non-academic sector is perhaps the area of the widest and most rapid growth for anthropologists. The government sector always needs anthropologists because it has such direct relationships with people. Private industry also needs anthropologists to help them understand the various cultures they will encounter as globalization continues to occur. Social and cultural anthropologists can provide key insights into the human animal to help organizations better understand the complexities of inter-relationships and human thought. It definitely is a growing industry, regardless of what some uninformed politicians might believe.

Interview: Dr. Andrew Irving & “New York Stories”

Dr. Andrew Irving is Programme Director at the Granada Centre of Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester. Recently he has been working on an experimental art/anthropology research project supported by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation entited “New York Stories” revolving around questions of inner expression and lived experience in urban space. We had a chat with Dr. Irving to learn a little more about this unorthodox fieldwork and its relevance to the broader discipline.


I’d like to begin by setting the scene and learning a little bit about the project as a whole. Could you give a brief summary of your research in New York City? What were the aims of the project?

The original intention behind New York Stories was to extend my previous research that tried to understand the thinking and being of people close to death—especially in relation to the sometimes radical transformations that take place when confronting one’s own or another person’s mortality—for example, transformations in the perception of time, existence, religion, otherness and one’s body. This was for my original doctoral research in the late 1990s that compared living with HIV/AIDS in Africa and the USA.

At the time AIDS was seen as a death sentence, however the development of effective antiretroviral medications radically transformed people’s lives. Antiretrovirals re-opened time, space and society for over 100,000 people in New York alone, triggering a massive shift of mind, body and emotion across the city away from death and toward life. Having experienced intense, life-threatening episodes of illness and often having made irreversible life decisions, the people I worked with had to learn how to ‘live’ again but unsurprisingly many found it impossible to return to previous ways of thinking and being, and made substantial life style changes and career choices that affect how they live today. Thus the aim of New York Stories was to re-establish contact with persons from my original doctoral research to understand how they learned to re-establish their lives and maintain social and existential continuity while living in a future that few imagined they would survive to see.


How did you become interested in these questions revolving around interior expression?

Its been a long standing interest and one of the primary aims was to think about how all social life, including illness, is mediated by complex streams internally represented speech, moral commentary and imagery that are not always externalised or publicly articulated. Inner expression is central to experiences of illness and a primary means through which people understand their condition, negotiate periods of crisis and debate things such as suicide, that may not even be shared with close friends or family.

However a major new strand was introduced because one of the anonymous Wenner-Gren reviewers suggested the project needed to introduce a comparative perspective by considering the inner dialogues of the general population. I thought this was a very interesting idea but completely impractical and basically put the thought to the back of my mind. Then one of my main informants, a photographer and teacher called Frank Jump, who was diagnosed with HIV at 26 and told he only had a few years to live, made exactly the same point as the Wenner-Gren reviewer. This presented a huge challenge that is probably best expressed with a photograph.

I have an extremely simple question about it that nevertheless places us beyond the limits of anthropology and even of science and human understanding itself. The question is what are these people thinking?

What for example is the woman in the right thinking? Or the man in sunglasses and the man behind him as they walk towards us? Or the man in the centre in the white shirt or in fact any of these people? What is the empirical content of their thoughts? As with any crowded city street, people may be engaged in diverse, or even radically different, forms of inner speech and imagery, with one person trying to remember if they locked their front door while others are respectively fantasising about an actor, deciding where to go for lunch, communing with a dead spouse or dealing with a major life change, such as having lost their job. Or as documented in Ethnography, Art and Death (Irving 2007) they might be walking around a city looking for a place to commit suicide, or have just received an HIV diagnosis and are confronting the uncertainty and contingency of their own existence in a public place (Irving 2009, 2010, 2011). In each case the person remains a social being and is required to act accordingly but their inner dialogues and lifeworlds are not necessarily made apparent to the wider world.  Accordingly, the extent to which the people we see in streets, parks and cafes are engaged in the same practice remains an open question and reinforces the idea that the seemingly congruent social activities we observe in a city are differentiated by diverse modes of inner dialogue and expression that remain uncharted across the social sciences and are rarely, if ever, the focus of ethnographic research or anthropological monographs.


You experimented with a number of unorthodox fieldwork methods, many of which incorporated various pieces of fairly ordinary technology, such as cellphones. What was the process of developing these new methods? Were there any that were attempted, but later retooled or scrapped altogether?

I’ve been interested in experimenting with different methods in order to think about how different forms of inner expression—such as inner speech, unarticulated urges and desires, inchoate and non-linguistic forms of thought and much else besides—relate to people’s social lives, externally observable actions and material surroundings. As conventional social scientific methods are often too static to understand or represent the fluidity of inner dialogue and expression, especially when living with illness, social disruption or bodily instability, I’ve attempted to develop mutual research aims and methods alongisde the people I’ve been working with

The methods I used to get a sense of the general thoughtscape of New York City was very simple and I collected more than 100 interior dialogues of random strangers as they moved around the city. I divided the city into different zones of thought, eg streets, bridges, cafes, squares, transport, and I stood at different points in the city and asked people what they were thinking about in the moment immediately before I approached them. I then invited them to wear a small microphone and narrate the stream of their thoughts as they continued their journey or activity. I found it surprising not just the level of interest in the nature of the project but by the amount of people, from all walks of life, who said yes.

Below are 4 short videos of random strangers encountered in the city taken from the full-length recordings that range from 15 minutes to 1.5 hours.


The Lives of Other Citizens: STREETS


The Lives of Other Citizens: BRIDGES


The Lives of Other Citizens: CAFES


The Lives of Other Citizens: SQUARES


In terms of failure, obviously, there is no objective, independent access to someone else’s consciousness or experience—more colloquially put by Clifford Geertz as the impossibility of looking inside someone’s head—and so all the methods I’ve experimented with, including the one in the videos above are doomed to fail. But we also know that failure is essential to the creative process and also essential to research, fieldwork and understanding other people, and opens up all sorts of opportunities. The most recent method that was an out and out failure was an attempt to do simultaneous, choreographed ethnography in multiple places where I programmed all my informants cell phones to go off at random intervals during the course of a single day. The idea being that when the cell phones beeped people would record what they were thinking in that moment, and wherever they were, into the cell phone and also use the cell phone to take a photograph, but it didn’t really work because the technical aspect interrupted the stream of thought and by the time they had found the phone, switched on the camera app, fumbled with the recording button etc, the flow was gone and so I ended up getting lots of inner dialogues of people asking themselves technical questions and so forth.


What did you learn most about the participants?

As mentioned there is no objective access to consciousness (even if it’s our own consciousness, as Kant pointed out) but even in these short excerpts it is apparent that New York’s streets, cafes, bridges and squares are complex sites of experience and expression, that at times can be highly dramatic or theatrical, except we cannot see or hear the myriad inner dialogues that are going on underneath the surfaces of people’s public activity.  The videos can only offer the tiniest glimpse into those realms of experience that can be articulated and approximated through words and images within a public, narrative encounter, and thus cannot claim to provide a comprehensive approach to people’s lived experiences of the city. Not all thought processes take place in language and routinely incorporate various non-linguistic and non-symbolic modes of thinking and being that operate beyond or at the threshold of language. The narrations are necessarily subject to many layers of self-censorship and the act of recording would have substantially influenced the content and character of the material in indeterminate ways. Nevertheless, as the person walked through the city narrating their thoughts it soon becomes apparent that there are as many ways of thinking as there are of speaking and by accompanying people on their journeys or as they sit in cafés or walk across bridges we are offered a glimpse into the different modes of internally represented speech, sensation, mood, emotion and memory that constitute the everyday social life and thoughtscape of the city.

Bronislaw Malinowski in a famous photograph taken during his fieldwork in the Trobriands.

Meredith’s thoughts in the video, for example, stretch from the trivial to the tragic over a few short steps as she begins by looking for a Staples stationary store to buy CD covers, then shortly after is dwelling on a friend’s cancer diagnosis she learnt about the previous night. Meanwhile, she looks over the road and notices a cafe she likes to watch people in. Thomas is concerned with people’s prospects in the current social and economic climate and his thoughts are organised as a sustained social analysis and argument about the position of working people and the historical migration of black workers from the agricultural south to the industrial north. It tells us a lot about the historical constitution of thought and consciousness and quite a few inner dialogues were explicitly linked to the global economic uncertainty and national security that has over-shadowed many people’s social lives since 9/11 and the banking crisis. Tony’s thoughts, as with many other inner dialogues I recorded, concerns the centrality of social and personal relations to everyday life. Tony is a writer and video artist, who walking to his house, his thoughts emerging in staccato bursts: as he walks quicker and his blood circulates faster he begins to get more argumentative with himself as he negotiates a significant life event and keeps returning to the same words suck it up or let it go.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard

As an anthropologist, perhaps the key things I learned were how difficult it is sometimes to “read” people on the street –or anticipate the content of their inner dialogues and existential state by outward appearance alone—and even though I had written about this in my work on suicide and so forth, the subject matter of people’s inner dialogues often came as a real surprise. I initially thought I would be able to guess which of the strangers walking along the street would participate but soon realised how bad I was at this.  Whereas I imagined I would get lots of hipsters or artistic types to participate and virtually no-one else, in the end I got hardly any hipsters and found that a great diversity of people of all kinds said yes, making me realise how hard it is to read strangers. Even walking speed or appearing in a rush was not a reliable indicator of who would/not say yes. Importantly, you also come to realise the extent to which fieldwork is a performative practice that relies on one’s own body. Some days I would ask five people and four of them would say yes, other days I would ask twenty and only one would say yes. The most obvious variable in this was me, and how I used my body to approach people (especially as I’m tall, dark haired and look quite intense). It made me think of the classic fieldwork photos of Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard in the field and how their bodies must have been equally integral to the kinds of fieldwork data and evidence they collected and based their theories on.


A lot of the methods you employ, as well as the subject matter itself, might not strike laypeople as falling under the rubric of “anthropology” (it almost seems more akin to an art installation). For those who are confused, how would you explain your work’s connection to the concerns of the broader discipline?

The capacity for a complex inner lifeworld that encompasses ongoing streams of inner dialogue and reverie, as well as non-linguistic or image based forms of thought, is an essential component of being human and central to many everyday actions and practices. Simply put, without inner expression there would be no self-understanding or social existence in any recognisable form—and yet it is largely a terra incognita for anthropology or is seen as irrelevant or intangible—rather than an empirical phenomenon that is directly constitutive of people’s lives experiences and actions and worthy of investigation. As such anthropology is at risk of only telling half the story of human life.

Following anthropologists such as Michael Jackson, Vincent Crapanzano, Nigel Rapport, Daniel Lende, Henrietta Moore and Tanya Luhrmann, I would say that the problem is less with social-scientific methods or measures per-se but (i) narrow historical and disciplinary definitions of what is considered empirically admissible or worthy of investigation, and (ii) the tendency to categorise inner expression as a western, immaterial or literary phenomenon, rather than a fundamental phylogenetic capacity central to daily life and practice across the world. I think it’s fair to say that social-scientific disciplines have hitherto neglected to consider the crucial role of inner speech and expression in shaping people’s social, cultural and moral interactions, and in my case are methodologically unprepared to research how illness, crisis and other disruptive life events are mediated by complex realms of inner experience and expression that are not publically expressed.

This presents a deep-seated problem for disciplines like anthropology that are based on empirical evidence because it is primarily a methodological and practical problem rather than a conceptual one. In terms of fieldwork the problem is how to capture the transient, stream-like and ever-changing character of people’s interior expressions and experiences as they emerge in the moment. Early modernist writers such as Dostoyevsky, Joyce and Woolf actively strove to reconstruct and represent the complex but hidden inner conversations and lifeworlds that accompany social life, and to achieve something of the ‘humane significance’ of art, Rodney Needham argued that anthropologists should try to write with the introspective insight and perspicacity associated with the modernist novel. However there is a crucial difference of course in that unlike poetic, literary, or artistic attempts to understand and represent people’s interior dialogues and streams of consciousness, an anthropological approach to interiority has a duty to offer truthful and empirically justifiable accounts of people’s experiences, thereby raising significant epistemological, methodological, and ethnographic problems. In other words, furthering understanding about the role of internally represented speech in social life (or illness) needs to be grounded in empirical data across a range of lived experiences rather than addressed speculatively or by abstract theory alone.

By bringing a detailed ethnographic focus to this field, I’m hoping that the kinds of art/anthropology project I’m engaged in here will open up a new research area and provide an opportunity for a critical rethinking of the ontological and evidential status accorded to people’s experiential interior within social-science and anthropology. For my main research area this means how people across a range of social, cultural and religious groups, use inner speech to cope with serious illness and crisis, psychological and bodily disruption, establish continuity and make critical life decisions.

But at the same time I’m getting more and more interested in the everyday urban life side of things that were unexpectedly emerged and opened up in this Wenner-Gren project. I also think there’s an audience for this kind of anthropological project beyond the academy, as I haven’t really started writing this up for publication and yet its already been reported on by Scientific American, NPR, Voice of America, the Village Voice and in Europe and the UK, while the videos, despite being on the experimental side of anthropology, have been watched by thousands of people per day, showing that there is a substantial public interest and appetite for anthropology out there.


What’s next for this research? How might you see this project expanding in the future?

I am thinking of constructing a 2.5 mile x 2.5 mile piece of Sonic Ethnography in downtown Manhattan where I collected most of the dialogues that will use, as its initial database the 100 inner dialogues of strangers that I recorded for this project. I’ve been collaborating with an electro-acoustic composer and an app designer in order to make a custom designed LOC app for the project that will run on apple/android devices. This will mean that the inner dialogues can be downloaded (via the LOC app’s GPS Locative-Audio) onto the exact co-ordinates of the original locations where the dialogues were recorded. This will enable anyone with a smart phone and the app in the physical vicinity of the Sonic Ethnography to live-stream and access the thoughts of other citizens. The LOC app is will be designed to incorporate 3D directional audio technology, which means that as people turn their heads, change direction, move their bodies in space etc., they will automatically hear different inner dialogues and locate where they coming from. This will allow for body movement to act as a ‘live mixing’ system of other people’s thoughts as the person moves through the city. It is also possible to make the Sonic Ethnography dynamic so that the LOC app’s Dynamic Content Server will automatically evaluate environmental variables (such as time of the day/night, commemorative days, atmospheric conditions, weekends) so that different databases of inner-dialogues become triggered that reinforce/play against time, rhythm, weather, quality of light etc. I’m obviously based in Manchester but I was actually considering applying for a Wenner Gren Engaged Anthropology grant to construct and run this Sonic Ethnography over the summer next year in New York so that citizens and tourists of New York alike would be able to wander around the city with someone else’s thoughts in their heads and engage in an anthropological understanding of the city.

Interview: Joseph Julian Ziems Weiss

Joseph Julian Ziems Weiss is a PH.D. student in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. In the fall of 2011 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Unsettled Co-Existence: Political Community and Everyday Life on Canada’s Northwest Coast,’ supervised by Dr. Jean Comaroff. We touched base with Joseph to learn more about his research on the remote archipelago of Haida Gwaii and the tricky game of sovereignty that plays out amongst its inhabitants. 


Could we begin by learning a bit about your fieldsite?

map courtesy wikipedia

My project is focused on Haida Gwaii, an island archipelago just off the coast of Western Canada. Haida Gwaii (which means literally “Islands of the People”) is the traditional territory of the Haida nation, whose people have inhabited the islands since time immemorial. It’s also claimed by the Canadian government on behalf of the Crown and forms part of the province of British Columbia. The islands are pretty rural, with only one major paved highway connecting its communities together, mail that comes by ferry, and completely appalling grocery store prices. Logging roads veer off from the highway like veins, reflecting the islands’ recent history as a major logging center. But even with the bald patches left by a century of logging in the tree cover, the islands are one of the most beautiful places on Earth, something I think would still claim even if I wasn’t just a bit biased.

Haida Gwaii’s population lives in small towns dotting the islands, the largest of which has a population of about 1,200. There are two Haida reserve communities and about four other towns with by and large split populations. That said, segregation was far more pronounced in earlier colonial times, and there’s a still sense that some of the non-reserve towns are basically “settler” communities. My work’s located principally in Old Massett, the Haida community on the north end of the islands. Old Masset’s on reserve, but the neighboring formerly exclusively settler town of Masset isn’t, and you really get a sense of the colonial history of the place when you notice that all the grocery stores, the credit union, and amenities are located exclusively “uptown” in Masset. My day-to-day is spent mostly in Old Massett as a volunteer at the local Elementary school, but one is always moving between communities for public events, to see friends, or even just to get the mail or pick up groceries. It’s an interesting place to live and, of course, to conduct research.


Interview: Ana Maria Vinea and ‘Between the Psyche and the Soul’

Street vendor selling amulets (blue, at top) of the type targeted by Quranic healers. Courtesy interviewee.

Ana Maria Vinea is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. In 2010 she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Between the Psyche and the Soul: Mental Disorders, Quranic Healing and Psychiatry in Contemporary Egypt,’ supervised by Dr. Talal Asad. For this installment of the WGF blog interview, we’ll take a step into the world of Quranic healing and Vinea’s work tracing the boundaries of and treatments for ‘mental disorder’ in contemporary Cairo.


I’d like to start with some scene-setting. What is Quranic Healing, and what other kinds of healing practices does it share space with in contemporary Egypt?

Quranic healing—in Egyptian Arabic, al-‘alag bi-l-Qur’an, which translates literally as therapy or treatment with the Quran—is a popular healing method in contemporary Egypt, which, as the name indicates, centers on the Quran as the main therapeutic tool. In grounding their practices, Quranic healers draw on centuries-long traditions of using the Quran for healing, alongside other methods, all the while reworking and systematizing them in new forms. Quranic healers, as many Egyptians, are convinced that the Quran, as the Word of God, can cure any disease including physical and mental ones. In their daily practice however, they concentrate on a restricted number of afflictions, deferring for the others to physicians and psychiatrists. These afflictions are jinn possession (mass), black magic (sir), and the evil eye (asad), with the first two being considered the most widespread and serious ones. Both these afflictions presuppose the ability of jinn—a type of sentient, invisible creatures whose creation by God from fire is mentioned in the Quran—to harm humans, either directly, by entering their body and possessing them, or indirectly, from the outside.


Interview: Leonard Ndubueze Mbah and ‘Emergent Masculinities’

Leonard Ndubueze Mbah is a Ph.D. student in African history at Michigan State University. In 2011 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Emergent Masculinities: The Gendered Struggle for Power in Southeastern Nigeria, 1850-1920,’ supervised by Dr. Nwando Achebe. We contacted Mbah to learn more about his project investigating the shifting historical dynamics of gendered power in Ohafia, Nigeria.


Let’s begin by setting the historical scene for your research. What was the hypothesis that you set out to test?

Growing up as a child, I heard folktales of the ‘in’-famous “Abam warriors” (a term used to refer to Ohafia and Abam warriors) who fought with obejiri or what the Ohafia call akparaja (machetes), which they hauled into their enemy forces, magically decapitating several heads at once. In these folktales, Abam warriors personify two identities: dimkpa (brave warrior) and dibia (medicine men). In college at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, I experienced two phenomena that would shape my dissertation focus. The first was the “Bakasi Boys Movement,” which was a young men’s vigilante organization. The Bakasi Boys held public spectacles where they executed criminals through decapitation. In these scenarios, they also displayed bravado: the vigilantes landed powerful machete blows on each other and fired gun-shots at each other to show that they were spiritually immune to physical injury. This immunity display became known as oda eshi (spiritual bullet-proof). The Bakasi Boys (many of whom came from the Ohafia region) sought to resurrect two prototypes of masculinities from pre-colonial Igbo society: the medicine-man (dibia), and the warrior (dimkpa). I was curious of any possible connections between traditional masculinities and these atavistic performances. Second, I witnessed the Ohafia war dance (iri aha). The lead dancer carried a basket of human skulls, the dancers were dressed as fierce warriors, they moved like leopards, and they mimed the act of cutting off human heads and stowing them in an imaginary pouch. The war dancers portrayed Ohafia as a land of brave warriors, an image that resonated with the folk-tales I heard growing up. Indeed, this was the dominant social image of the society: a society of warriors without women. The status of women in the society was left to the imagination.

Mural Painting at Obu Ndi Ezera, Asaga Village, Ohafia. Photographed by Interviewee.

However, I soon began to make acquaintances with Ohafia people: fellow students and college professors. I learnt that the Ohafia-Igbo are the only society in Southeastern Nigeria with a matrilineal kinship system, which placed women in an especial position of socio-political significance: in the acquisition and distribution of property, in marriage and divorce practices, in the ownership of children, and in the practice of a gendered socio-political system. My friends told me that Ohafia women are very powerful and that in fact, the men feared them. I wanted to understand what seemed to be a phenomenal contradiction: brave warriors afraid of their women. Like British colonial officials astounded by the Igbo Women’s War of 1929, I wondered, “Who were these Ohafia women?” In published literature on the Ohafia-Igbo the major historical outlines are the Atlantic slave trade and British colonialism. The literature give a sense of why Ohafia was a militant society, mention their role in slave production and their relationship with the Aro slaving oligarchy, as well as the structural workings of the kinship system, but none of them examine female power and authority. None of them account for internal factors of historical change in the society. All of them suggest that the only form of masculinity in the society was the warrior and that an adult male was considered a “man” only when he went to war and cut a human head in battle. But I had also read that the British colonial government abolished head-hunting in the late 19th century.

So I had a lot of questions: Are there no more “men” in Ohafia-Igbo society because of the cessation of head-hunting? Was the warrior the only form of masculinity in pre-colonial Ohafia-Igbo society? Were Ohafia-Igbo women really powerful, socio-politically and economically? Were they subservient or complementary to men, or were they more powerful? After two pre-dissertation research trips in the summer months of 2009 and 2010, it became clear that the meaning of “cutting a head” had changed over time: In the era of head-hunting (a practice that developed as a psychological means of defense for a society surrounded by truculent non-Igbo neighbors), adult males were conferred the title of ufiem (masculinity) when they went to war and returned with a human head. In the course of the Atlantic slave trade, men who captured slaves alive were said to have “cut a head” and conferred ufiem. Upon British colonial rule, Ohafia men who returned home with a school certificate were also said to have “cut a head,” as were those who returned from civil service with insignia of modernity and success. Second, besides the warrior, ufiem was a diffuse concept immanent and manifest in leisure practices, economic endeavors (trade, agriculture, hunting, and traditional medicare) and political activities, and was contested daily in the society’s kinship relations and gendered politics. Third, besides being the major breadwinners of their families and forging a matriarchy of matrilineal ancestresses, Ohafia-Igbo women possessed the most powerful socio-political institution in southeastern Nigeria — Ikpirikpe Ndi Iyom — a women’s council, combining the powers of umuada (assembly of daughters), otu inyomdi (assembly of wives), and a “female king.” Moreover, they performed political strategies that were more effective and powerful than those of their men, and commanded greater political obeisance from both men and women.

Still, I had more questions: What kind of structures enabled Ohafia-Igbo women to achieve greater measures of power than men during the pre-colonial epoch, and what did this portend for men? What is the indigenous logic of masculinity in Ohafia-Igbo society? How was ufiem — the beliefs, attitudes, behavior and actions that define the gender category of men — constructed and how did understandings of ufiem change over time? Were all forms of ufiem equal or were some more powerful than others? Did any form of ufiem attain a hegemonic character and how? What were the relationships between the constructions of masculinities through institutionalization and performance, and female performance of political power? How did Igbo men appropriate new ideas, opportunities, and institutions introduced through the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism to inform their contestation of female dominance?  What forms did gendered power struggles take in Ohafia-Igbo society, and what were their consequences? What were the internal forces of social change in the society? How do we talk about individual African innovation, adaptation, and agency in the face of the Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism without bellying the ills of these capitalist interventions? Yet, how do we account for the impact of European exploitation of Africans without relying on assumptions of aggregated African communities, bound by collective identities, and lacking in self-aware individual subjects? What were the dynamic relationships between indvidual agency and social constraints?