Interview: Ibrahima Thiaw

Ibrahima Thiaw (second left) in the field in south eastern Senegal with a group of archaeology students from UCAD

Dr. Ibrahima Thiaw is Director of Anthropology at Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire /University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar, Senegal. In 2017 Dr. Thiaw’s institution received a Wenner-Gren Institutional Development Grant to support the development of a doctoral program in anthropology. We recently reached out to Dr. Thiaw to discuss what originally drew him to the field of anthropology and to ask him his thoughts on anthropology in Senegal and how he hopes the Institutional Development Grant will help his department.

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

My interests in anthropology are tightly intertwined with my life experience, one that was profoundly shaped by the politics of identity, at home in my native village, in Senegal, my home country, as well as internationally. As a young man, I was struck by modern contradictions within Senegalese society that I experienced from various vantage points. These were most manifest in the tensions between the city and the countryside, between hegemonic and marginalized ethnolinguistic communities, between world religions and local ones, as well as between different class, status and gender groups. All of these have shaped who I am today as a scholar born in a small village in inland Senegal, but who, moved by the tradewinds of academic life, has become a citizen of the global world.

As a child from a rural area and from an ethnic minority group, I experienced the distasteful jokes and forms of cultural othering common in Senegal, and widely accepted today when discussing cultural differences (ethnicity), physical appearance (race), and class, status and gender (social differences), even among well-educated people. As I began my undergraduate schooling in the mid-1980s, debates ignited by Cheikh Anta Diop against colonial anthropology helped me sharpen my consciousness of the role of anthropology in shaping past and present identities, and intercultural interactions. With time, however, I grew weary of Diop’s questionable historical and genealogical readings, and distrustful of narratives rooting identity in authenticity and cultural nationalism. I went into archaeology because I believed in the power of material empirical evidence to explore the human experience and open history to accounts of human life left out of documentary archives. Despite the limits of its different sources of enquiry, anthropology remains a credible window for a long-term exploration of cultural experience, but also a space for creatively imagining different presents and futures. For that very reason, anthropology offers a utopian stance, one that always bears a specific project for collective hopes and future improvements of the human experience via scholarship and education.

Ibrahima Thiaw (front left) and a group of students from UGB talking to a community leader in the northern Senegal

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

Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop, who drew on ancient civilizations (Egypt in particular), archaeology, and bioanthropology to unravel the modern foundations of European political and economic domination, was a major influence on my undergraduate self. In the context of the mid-1980s, these ideas were very attractive to many students of my generation who were exposed to a deep economic and political crisis marked by a series structural adjustments and political unrest impacting severely the academia; to many of us, these turbulences were linked to the expansion of neocolonial and neoliberal economies. I also became fascinated with the work of the French anthropologist, Andre Leroi Gourhan, because it dwelled less on origins and racial identity, but attended instead to the human experience, articulating neatly culture and technological development. In the 1990s, it was the work of my academic advisers, Susan K. McIntosh and Roderick J. McIntosh, that had the biggest influence on my professional growth. Their research in the floodplains of the Inland Niger Delta and the Middle Senegal Valley, which examined the conditions of emergence of early urban settlement, specialization, long-distance trade, identity formation and sociopolitical organization, and their articulations with climate and environmental changes, had a huge impact on my intellectual growth. Their perspectives, I believe, contributed to dismantling the long-held assumptions that Africa and Africans only participated marginally to world’s sociopolitical and economic development, and invited us to look more carefully at African agency in the production of culture at a time of growing interactions with the external world. It is in this context that I discovered the work of Eric Wolf, and Africanist anthropological archaeologists, such as Christopher DeCorse, and Ann B. Stahl, who offered unique insights into the historical anthropology of Atlantic impacts in Western Africa.

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

In Senegal, anthropology has long been associated with colonial-based knowledge; as such, it was embedded in racial and cultural prejudice, and was distrusted for that reason. Anthropology’s roots were in French imperialism and French academia, with a firm commitment to evolutionary thinking, the study of language and ethnic identification and classifications to aid colonial governance, order, and discipline; paradoxically, it was also associated with colonial humanism, often tainted with some form of paternalism. Until now, anthropology in Senegalese academia continues to dwell largely on those cultural classifications that were created and/or fossilized by the colonial library, reifying notions of identity as stable trans-historical entities conveying the ‘substance’ of ethnic identities today. In that, anthropology in Senegal has failed to seriously examine the dynamics of power, history, and cultural change that are inherent to all cultural formations.

The pressing issues are not only to bring together the different subfields of anthropology for disciplinary conversations and revival, but also to decolonize the field by deconstructing its concepts, methodologies and theoretical orientations. A key concern is to work at redefining anthropology’s relations to power, knowledge production, and identity in order to renew and rebuild relations with communities, so that it becomes a problem-solving discipline rather than a source of problems.

After a lot of soul-searching and internal/external critique, it is time that anthropology ceased to be a mere instrument of domination at the service of power — or at best ignorant of power and thus complicit with it — to become a problem-solving discipline. This IDG will engage students on issues of critical importance to modern Senegalese society, including pressing matters of cultural differences and diversity, religious and cultural tolerance, ethics, resource management, environmental changes, gender equality, etc., to assist future policy-making, and propose credible and well-informed solutions to build better futures. This IDG will help us build trust between the disciplines of anthropology and policy-makers on one hand, and on the other, between the disciplines and local communities. In restoring that trust, anthropology is poised to become a usable instrument for governance and public education, and assume a central role in developing a new sense of citizenship, nationhood, and personhood.

Ibrahima Thiaw (extreme left) and a group of students analyzing material in the field lab

Is anthropology a subject that attracts students in Senegal?

Some subfields of anthropology, such as archaeology and linguistics, attract large numbers of students in Senegal, while others, like cultural anthropology and bio-anthropology, because of their quasi-absence in the curriculum, count virtually no student.  Parts of our efforts with this IDG will consist in strengthening the existing curricula in archaeology and linguistics, but also rebuilding the fields and relevance of cultural anthropology and bio-anthropology.

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

The Social Sciences Department of the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN), includes disciplines such as archaeology, history, geography, and sociology. Over the past decades, however, these different scholarly fields remained largely disconnected from one another, quite often ignoring contributions from their colleagues next door. IFAN has also a linguistic laboratory, but it is part of the Department of Languages and Civilizations. Currently, there is need to create new synergies in the organisation of our departments and the training of our students.  This IDG will bring together archaeologists, linguists, cultural and bioanthropologists, not only from the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar, but also from other universities in Senegal, such as the University Gaston Berger of Saint Louis and the University Assane Seck of Zinguinchor, to renew and develop conversations in anthropology. With the support of our different partners from the University of Chicago, Florida International University, Michigan State University, Smithsonian-National Museum of African American History and Culture, Rice University, William and Mary College and, University of Yale, we will develop new curricula that are bettter-adapted to Senegalese culture, politics, and needs in the twenty-first century.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Ji Eun Kim

While a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, Ji Eun Kim received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2010  to aid research on “Building the Future and Mapping the Past: Urban Regeneration and Politics of Memory in Yokohama, Japan,” supervised by Dr. Jennifer Robertson. In 2016 Dr. Kim received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Encounters: The Ethics and Practice of Care in Underclass Japan”.

In the summer of 2016 I was once again standing on the waterfront of Yokohama listening to the waves gently lapping at the pier. Turning my head to the left I could see the skyline of high-rise buildings measuring up to the name of the district as ever, Minato Mirai 21, the Future Port 21. If I turned my back from the sea, just a twenty minute walk towards the inland it would lead to Kotobuki district where I conducted my dissertation fieldwork. Once the nation’s third largest day laborers’ quarter the district had become a stronghold of homeless activism at the time of my fieldwork in 2010. Tracing the intersecting fates of the two districts I was constantly brought back to an incident that occurred at this waterfront which left an indelible scar in local history. In February 1983, when the grand land reclamation project of the Future Port was under way, a homeless day laborer was found bleeding in a garbage can in the waterfront park with his ribs broken to the extent of almost being folded into half. The assailants, the police found out, were teenage boys, who had been carrying out a series of attacks against homeless laborers in the area claiming to, “clean the garbage off the city.” The collaborative activities launched by local organizations in the aftermath of the attacks, from the nightly visits to the homeless to the open-air soup kitchen, were my focal points of engagement and research during the fieldwork period. The view of the Future Port became a reminder for me of the violence lurking behind fantasies about the future. The serenity of the waterfront seemed cruelly indifferent to the struggles of the underclass and local activists.

Returning to the field site a year after completing my dissertation I originally planned to organize a workshop inspired by the Clemente Course for the Humanities. I had envisioned a trial workshop with invited scholars in the humanities in the hope of fostering conversations about the ethics of care and existential questions beyond the issue of immediate survival. However, after consulting with several long-term activists, I realized that such a project involving external experts could reinforce the hierarchy that was likely to exist between outsiders and local people. Given the increasing media attention to externally funded projects in the district, long-term activists were wary of bringing in external experts who had not gained trust from local residents through prior commitments. Taking into account these concerns I reached the conclusion that an in-depth discussion among long-term activists and supporters about their own views of social engagement in the district would be an exercise worthwhile in itself.

In collaboration with the Kotobuki Workshop (Kotobuki Wāku), a supporters’ network that hosted regular seminars for college students and volunteers, I organized a colloquium under the title of “Living Together (Tomoni ikiru koto).” Coordinated to take place after the monthly flea market on September 10, 2016 the colloquium was hosted in a sheltered workshop located a few blocks away from the market. After offering a brief overview of my dissertation to set the ground I facilitated a discussion among a dozen of participants, most of whom had spent years engaged in respective support activities in the district. Starting with a critical assessment of the title of this colloquium, “living together,” which was a phrase often used by advocates of anti-discrimination, we further discussed the role of collective memory and shared narratives. I asked if embodying the narratives of others, like Hiroshima’s A-bomb legacy successor program would work in our context. One activist who worked for a publishing company noted the difficulty of narrating one’s own story in an intriguing manner. Others remarked that the simple act of listening could heal wounds on both sides, reflecting on their own respective experiences of listening to Kotobuki residents. Another line of discussion followed my question of whether communal burial practices in Kotobuki could work as a model of crafting alternative social ties in aging Japan. A young activist who was preparing to take over her father’s funeral business concurred with me and shared her plans of pursuing environmental activism through alternative burial practices such as scattering ashes in the mountains. Criticizing the family ideology underlying the unsustainable and exclusive ancestral burials another activist and social worker noted how the household registration system caused unwanted disruptions in the living arrangements of impoverished families when they sought welfare assistance. Wrapping up the colloquium, I added that living together in a degrowth and post-labor society might necessitate enacting various forms of mutuality and solidarity.

This engaged project intended to offer renewed insights into the existing activities of engagement in the field site. I hope that the threads of discussion be carried on by the participants as they continue their engagement in the nightly visits to the homeless, the soup kitchen, disability workshops, and youth seminars. In addition to reconnecting with key organizations and sharing copies of my dissertation I was also able to build a new relationship with a group of health activists and assist in their sessions of free medical counseling in the district. Discussing possibilities of continuing engagement in their activities I agreed to write reports for them on topics such as medical support for the Syrian refugees in Germany or mental health care in Korea. All in all, my trial and error during this project led me to rethink what it meant to be an engaged anthropologist in a field with a rich legacy of engaged activities. This engaged project explored the potentials of staying attuned to the rhythms of activities rooted in long-term commitments in the hope of amplifying their reverberations.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Nancy Moinde

Leading a focus group discussions on human-baboon conflict during the guides training workshop

While a doctoral student at Rutgers University Nancy Moinde received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2008 to aid research on “Effects of Land Use Practices on the Socioecology of Olive Baboons,” supervised by Dr. Ryne Arthur Palombit. In 2015 Dr. Moinde received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “The Human-baboon Interface: Implications for Wildlife Conservation and Management in Laikipia County, Kenya”.

In April of 2015 I returned to my fieldsite to carry out my engagement project with the aim of the project being to inform on values that would promote tolerance and foster practices to alleviate conflict towards baboons and potentially other wildlife in Laikipia.

Projects Activities

Local baboon management strategies based on research recommendations

Giving a seminar during the lecture series of the 10 days wildlife management guides raining on the influence of land use systems on human-baboon interactions in Laikipia County.

Both the Laikipia Wildlife Forum, (LWF) and Keyna Wildlife Services, (KWS) work closely together in matters pertaining to wildlife management conservation and policy in Laikipia County. The LWF is a dynamic membership-driven organization of small holders, community groups, and conservancy stakeholders focusing on integrated natural resources management. The KWS is a parastatal – which is the main arm of the government that deals with national wildlife management and conservation issues in unprotected areas. I disseminated baboon management strategic recommendations to both these organizations as they significantly contribute to implementing wildlife management conservation policy as explained in more detail below.

Dissemination of findings through various established LWF Environmental Education and Eco Literacy Program (EEELP) network structures: The LWF EEELP’s main goal is to disseminate information through formal and informal education programs in Laikipia.  Using the established LWF EEELP network, I was able to more efficiently disseminate my research findings through their various networks and membership. Another dissemination strategy the EEELP platform used to inform the public was through online blogs and newsletters. I also trained Conservancy wildlife guides on human-wildlife conflict management as part of the larger objectives of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum Strategic plan 2010-2015.

Publication of research findings using LWF EEELP network channels: I published chapter 4 of my dissertation through the well-circulated local Laikipia Wildlife Forum Newsletter, which is issued on a quarterly basis annually.

Secretariat of the National Primate Conservation Task Force (NPCTF)

Members of the National Primate Task Force (NPCTF). From Left: Prof, Shirley Strum, Dr. Isaac Lekolool, Monica Chege, Lineaus Kariuki (Chair-KWS) and on the Right side: Pam Cunneyworth, Dr. Yvonne de Jong, Dr. Tom Butynski, Peter Fundi and Dr. Nancy Moinde (Taking picture) in the last NPCTF meeting held in the Kenya Wildlife Services headquarters in 29th February 2016. Peter Fundi and Dr. Nancy Moinde (both the Institute of Primate Research) represent the NPCTF secretariat

The NPCTF is a forum where primatologists discuss matters pertaining to primate conservation and management strategies: Information is gathered from various ongoing research projects.  Some of the primatologist in the NPCTF, such as, Prof Shirley Strum (California – San Diego), Dr. Tom Butynski and Dr. Yvonne de Jong (Eastern Africa Primate Diversity and Conservation Programme)  have ongoing research sites and activities in Laikipia and are all members of LWF and the National Primate Task Force (NPCTF).

The goal of the NPCTF is to develop national strategic primate management and conservation guidelines with KWS as the Chair of all national wildlife species Task Forces. The KWS newsletter summarizes the objectives of the NPCTF since its inception in 2013.

Promoting mutualistic values by coordinating students “walking with baboons” onsite visits in Laikipia County

Onsite visit by students from different academic institutions to experience “walking with baboons” project which is part of the “baboon tourism initiatives” in Laikipia County

I taught students about the olive baboon’s social systems, feeding ecology and  the local people’s values towards baboons  in a group of habituated baboons where “baboon-tourism” is undertaken in Il Polei in Laikipia County. Topics also included the cost and benefits of living “with baboons in relation to “baboon-tourism” as a land use ecotourism endeavor. I also arranged for  students from different academic institutions to attend the baboon research project near Twala to learn more about baboon social and feeding behavior from an evolutionary perspective and inform on local people’s values in response to “baboon-tourism” as a viable land use option in Laikipia County.

The Primatology, Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Field School (PWEC)

Giving a primate ecological lectures in the field (pointing the white board) on primate socioecology as part of the Primate Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Field School activities

The PWEC field school offers undergraduate and graduate students from different American and Kenyan universities a unique opportunity to learn about wildlife biodiversity across a range of diverse East African habitats. As the Field Director of the PWEC field school, I contributed to the formulation of an academic syllabus that exposed students to various conservation problems, current debates, and emerging innovative solutions that are contextually and culturally different than any they would  find elsewhere. The guest speakers were selected from a wide range of conservation interest groups and included wildlife ecologists and conservationists. Diverse  guest speakers whose wildlife and community based research activities in Laikipia also participated  and  contributed immensely to interactive discussions and constructive debate on different dimensions of wildlife conservation strategies.

The PWEC field school syllabus  outlines the diversity of conservation management themes from various national and international wildlife ecologist and conservationists whose research is based in Laikipia. Note that the syllabus also includes presentation and discussions I gave to students on my PhD findings on baboon socioecology and interactions with humans in Laikipia as part of the goal of this project.

International Primatological Symposium and Conference Presentation – January 2016, Held in Nanyuki, Kenya

I participated in a primatologist symposium that discussed issues related to human-non-human primate interactions. Topics on the symposium included human exploitation of animals as resources, their symbolic significance to humans and varied culturally constructed values and agendas around wildlife from different parts of the globe.

Symposium with Primate ecologist and conservationist: The topic under discussion was entitled,

People-primate interactions: understanding ‘conflicts’ to facilitate coexistence.

Participants: Kate Hill (Oxford Brookes University), Nancy Moinde (Department of Conservation Biology, Institute of Primate Research), Joana Sousa (Institute of Mediterranean Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of Evora), Matthew McLennan (Anthropology Centre for Conservation, Environment and Development, Oxford Brookes University), Amanda Webber  (Bristol Zoological Society).

I also presented the results of my  PhD thesis at the Pathways conference. The presentation was entitled “The effects of land use practices on human-baboon (Papio hamadryas anubis) interactions in Laikipia County, Kenya.”

 

NYAS @ WGF 4/24: Unraveling Disciplinary Mind-sets

Join us Monday evening April 24th at 5:45 PM at The Wenner-Gren Foundation for the next installment of the New York Academy of Sciences lecture series. Laura Nader, Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley will be presenting, “Unraveling Disciplinary Mind-sets”. Dr. Nadia Abu El-Haj,
Department of Anthropology, Barnard College/Columbia University will act as discussant.

Please note: the lecture begins at 6:30 PM, and while the event is free to attend pre-registration is required for entry into the building. Please also note that registration for this event will close at 5PM on Friday April 21st. Registration for this event will only be admitted at the door as space allows.

The study of disciplinary mind-sets was in part stimulated by Thomas Kuhn’s book on paradigm shifts, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), in which he distinguishes “normal science” from non-hegemonic paradigm free science. The study of the paradigm of science is a rich academic subject for contemporary anthropology as well as for philosophers and historians of science. The specific focus of my discussion will be the “mind-sets” that inform contemporary Energy Sciences and the challenges that these mind-sets present.

-PLEASE NOTE EARLIER START TIME FOR DINNER AND LECTURE-

Buffet Dinner at 5:45 pm ($20 contribution for dinner guests / free for students).
Lecture begins at 6:30 pm and are free and open to the public.

Missed the lecture? Listen to it now! Formal introductions to speaker and discussant begin at the 5:30 mark.

 

 

 

 

 

Symposium #155: “Cultures of Militarism”

This past March Wenner-Gren once again returned to the Tivoli Palácio de Seteais in Sintra, Portugal for the 155th Symposium“Cultures of Militarism”. As always, you can expect a Current Anthropology special issue forthcoming, containing the meeting’s papers and available to all 100% Open-Access.

Front: Laurie Obbink, Diane Nelson, Danny Hoffman, Leslie Aiello, Daniel Goldstein, Erica Weiss, Maria Clemencia Ramirez. Middle: Alex Fattal, Scott Ross, Brian Rappert, Faisal Devji, Francisco Ferrándiz, Rema Hammami. Back: Andy Bickford, Tony Robben, Danilyn Rutherford, Hugh Gusterson, Catherine Besteman, Ayse Gul Altinay.

ORGANIZERS’ STATEMENT 

Cultures of Militarism

Catherine Besteman, Colby College

Hugh Gusterson, George Washington University

 Anthropological interest in militarism has grown dramatically in recent decades.  These years have seen the collapse of some Cold War client states, the proliferation of militia-led insurgencies, the increasing articulation of counterinsurgency abroad with domestic policing at home in many Western countries, the reformulation of the UN into an institution of militarized peacekeeping and occupation, and a growing awareness of the ways in which militarism as a set of cultural practices and ideologies pervades all domains of social life. The symposium aims to develop anthropological analyses of militarism as it is currently evolving both in the global north and south.  We are particularly interested in the ways the new militarism inflects law, gender, subjectivity, social memory, knowledge production, popular culture, labor, and cultural constructions of security.

Militarism is a cultural system; it is shaped through ideology and rhetoric, effected through bodies and technologies, made visible and invisible through campaigns of imagery and knowledge production, and it colonizes aspects of social life such as reproduction, self-awareness, and notions of community.  We seek to provoke conversations about militarism in its established and emergent forms, probing its genealogies, its facility at colonizing daily life, and its ability to present itself as a response to insecurities it has itself provoked.

The new militarism operates through a variety of legal and territorial regimes.  Arrangements of occupation, as in Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, coexist with the U.S. archipelago of hundreds of foreign military bases.  Meanwhile the replacement of state militaries throughout the world with militarized non-state entities that may operate outside of national and international law, such as militias, private security contractors, pirates, and even NGOs is shifting militarism in some contexts from a set of state-sanctioned and controlled structures to a contested, often opaque, set of negotiations and confrontations between actors responding to the demands and desires of leaders who may or may not have any legal or official political recognition.  How can we make sense of an emerging world order where powerful military entities are ascendant that may not represent the interests of states and who may not be responsive to international agreements concerning warfare? What is the role of law in this emergent world order?

We will also discuss the implications of new military technologies.  These include drones and surveillance technologies that enable targeted killings and renditions outside of formally declared warzones, as well as technologies to shield and re-engineer the human body.  Military practice is also inflected by new media technologies and the projects of memorialization they enable. How are militarized acts and atrocities recorded, analyzed, remembered, archived?  What are the implications of the new relationships being forged in the US between military and popular culture creators, such as Hollywood films, video game companies, and toy companies?  How does cultural production through military-entertainment professionals shape the militarization of knowledge, subjectivity, and cultural memory?

We would also like to explore the expansion of militarism into other social domains through the broad militarization of security, such as in policing, border security and migration, humanitarian interventions, and responses to natural disasters. Police forces in the US adopt heavy military materiel produced for war; US military forces train police forces in African and Middle Eastern countries; humanitarian interventions in the Balkans, Haiti, and African countries are now routinely conducted in collaboration with or through institutions run by military organizations; immigration control across southern Europe, the US-Mexican border, and in Israel makes increasing use of military technology, tactics, and practices to police the movement of people.

We aim for a symposium and, beyond that, an outstanding special issue of Current Anthropology that, while anchored in the perspective of anthropology, brings together in conversation analyses from different disciplines (including geography and political science), perspectives from the global south as well as the north, and analytic frames grounded in a range of epistemologies.

Meet Our 2017 Wadsworth International Fellows: Fatemeh Ghaheri

Fatemeh Ghaheri received her undergraduate education at the University of Tehran, Iran. Thanks to the Wadsworth International Fellowship she will continue her training with a PhD in archaeology at the University of Texas at Austin, supervised by Dr. Arlene Rosen.

During  my  undergraduate  and graduate career  in archaeology at  the  University of  Tehran  and  Tarbiat  Modares in Iran a number of academic and research experiences strengthened my desire to pursue graduate work.

My research background includes studies of non-elite architecture, site function and landscape in Iran around 500 BCE in Achaemenid lands among non-elite and elite levels of society. Among other issues that I explored in my investigations is the role that environmental and natural elements played in the distribution of ancient sites in the western part of Iran. By examining the relationship between geography, environment and topography, and human settlement distributions and types I explored how humans chose their settlements regarding environment and geography cautiously.

In my current research I will use phytolith analyses to analyze the impact of ancient empires on agriculture and land-use. I will also study the impact of imperial control on local peasant agricultural production. I would like to compare this type of agriculture with farming choices made by peasant farmers who might tend to choose special types of plants because they are a more reliable source of food and would guarantee a reduction in risk in the event of unexpected and unpredicted droughts and floods. To study these plants and plant-based products and analyze the impact of imperial control on land-use and agriculture, I will collect phytolith data through my field work in Iraqi Kurdistan at an on-going excavation of an Assyrian-period town site. I will then conduct phytolith analyses on these samples in the Environmental Archaeology Laboratory in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

What impressed me most about The University of Texas at Austin’s graduate program in the department of Anthropology are the diverse, multidimensional and interdisciplinary research interests of the faculty members and their expertise in such different approaches. Fostering fruitful discussions with other departments will surely broaden and enrich my skills as well as my general understanding of the issues.

 

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.

NYAS @ WGF 3/27: Close Encounters: The Dilemmas of Contact for Isolated Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon

Photo by Anna Spiers

Join us Monday evening March 27th at 5:45 PM at The Wenner-Gren Foundation for the next installment of the New York Academy of Sciences lecture series. Dr. Glenn H. Shepard Jr., staff researcher in the Human Sciences Division at the Goeldi Museum in Belem, Brazil will be presenting, “Close Encounters: The Dilemmas of Contact for Isolated Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon”. Dr. Janet Chernela from University of Maryland will act as discussant.

Please note: the lecture begins at 6:30 PM, and while the event is free to attend pre-registration is required for entry into the building.

The Peru–Brazil border region harbors perhaps the world’s largest remaining refuge for isolated indigenous peoples, sometimes referred to as “uncontacted tribes.” Over the past few years, an increasing intensity of sightings, encounters and conflicts as well as sensational international media coverage has raised international awareness about their status, their unique vulnerabilities and the growing threats to their territories and ways of life. This presentation pieces together what little is known about the cultural history of isolated indigenous peoples in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, separates fact from fiction in popular media representations about them, analyzes their rapidly evolving interactions with outsiders, and weighs the complex opportunities and threats they face over the next decade.

-PLEASE NOTE EARLIER START TIME FOR DINNER AND LECTURE-

Buffet Dinner at 5:45 pm ($20 contribution for dinner guests / free for students).
Lecture begins at 6:30 pm and are free and open to the public.

Pre-registration is required to attend the lecture.

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.

Upcoming March – April Conferences

The 13th SIEF (Societe Internationale D’ethnologie Et De Folklore) Congress on “Ways of Dwelling: Crisis Craft Creativity”

March 26-30 2017

Gottingen, Germany

Image courtesy SIEF

With members from across Europe and a growing of attendees from other continents, the intent of this conference is to foster international exchange and increase the visibility and contributions of ethnological anthropological research across national boundaries. Rather than displacement and mobility this congress focuses on the challenges posed by masses of people seeking to make temporary or permanent homes in new places. Themes to be explored include urgent topics in the ethnographic disciplines: free and forced migration, social integration, urban transformation, heritage and heritage loss. Bringing these research programs into conversation with old and new work on craft and creativity, the goal is to energize crisis-driven thinking by demonstrating how anthropological and ethnological research can contribute to intractable problems.

 

13th Meeting of Historians in Latin American Mining (MHLM) “Interdisciplinary Dialogues and Challenges Around Past and Present Latin American Mining”

April 4-7, 2017 

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Image courtesy MHLM

This April for it’s thirteenth conference the Meeting of Historians in Latin American Mining (MHLM) will be held at the Institute of Anthropology, University of Buenos Aires. This will mark the first time MHLM has held its conference at an anthropological institution. Traditionally the MHLM conference is organized by institutions more related to historical discipline. It’s within this setting that MHLM aims for a more interdisciplinary conference than in years past.

While Argentina doesn’t have a tradition in mining studies as compared to Mexico and Chile local researchers have recently shown a growing interest in this issue, especially archaeologists and historical anthropologists. As is the case this years conference will allow to expand and improve the investigations developed here by learning from experiences, theories and methodologies already applied in other regions of Latin America.

MHLM intends to open a discussion on the ethical, political and social problems regarding mining strip projects developed currently in different regions of the continent, which have caused serious social and environmental conflicts. These conflicts have questioned the benefits of mining, highlighting the negative impacts to the environment and the cultural and archaeological heritage and also to the development of social and economic life of the workers and other inhabitants of the mining area. Therefore, social application plans are expected from these discussions.

Keynote speakers will be addressing the current status of research in pre-Columbian, Colonial and present mining as well as the development of the investigations on this subject and the history of the meetings.

 

European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association Annual Conference

April 6-8, 2017

Paris, France

Image courtesy EHBEA

The European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association (EHBEA) was established to meet the growing demand for a European platform for human evolutionary research. This April EHBEA will be holding their sixth annual conference in Paris, France at the Ecole Normale Superieure where in which researchers from the fields of human behavioral ecology, evolutionary anthropology, cultural evolution and evolutionary psychology will gather together for an exchange of ideas and to develop new research networks. The goal of this years conference is to highlight research on social cognition in evolutionary anthropology.

Dan Sperber (Central University of Budapest) and Rebeca Bliege-Bird (Stanford University) will deliver the keynote.

The conference will also feature two panels presenting work that link social cognition and evolutionary anthropology. In addition there will be to two poster sessions, the second of which will include awards for “Best Poster on Social Cognition in Evolutionary Anthropology”.