Engaged Anthropology Grant: Pasang Yangjee Sherpa

 

Returning from Pharak

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa is Lecturer in Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. In 2011, while a doctoral candidate at Washington State University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Sherpa Perceptions of Climate Change: Local Understandings of a Global Problem,’ supervised by Dr. John Bodley. In 2013 she was awarded the Engaged Anthropology Grant and returned to her fieldsite in Nepal’s Everest region to start conversations about institutions and researchers involving communities as equal partners in understanding and responding to climate change effects locally.

My doctoral research showed that despite several institutional responses to the effects of climate change being organized in the Everest region since 2004, the northern part called Khumbu and the southern part called Pharak, climate change is still a foreign concept to many. These institutional responses have narrowly focused on extreme events as climate change effects, which have limited our understanding of the wider climate change effects. In some cases, these responses also had unintended negative consequences putting lives in danger. The research  also revealed that Sherpas are aware of and are experiencing environmental changes although differentially based on their socioeconomic and occupational backgrounds. Therefore, I developed this engagement project (December 2013 to January 2014) to start conversations about institutions and researchers involving communities as equal partners in understanding and responding to climate change effects locally.

Along with Medinee Prajapati and assistance from Prashidha Yonzon and Lhakpa Chamji, I conducted a seminar at the Environmental Graduates Himalaya premises with academic scholars, a seminar with the Sherwi Yondhen Tshokpa members, two workshops in Pharak, and informal discussions with community members. Two sets of low-cost weather monitoring stations were also installed in Pharak as pilot project to assess feasibility and usefulness. In this report, I focus on the two seminars and alter the names of my informants.

At a potato field in Pharak

I started the seminar at EGH asking the attendees (40) to describe climate change, its impacts and what we could do to address them. After the discussion, I presented my research showing the need for community involvement in climate change studies as well as the need for the scientists and researchers to work collaboratively with community members as equal partners and stakeholders. Several times during the seminar, I found myself having to defend ethnographic methods and qualitative studies. The seminar concluded with discussions on the application of qualitative research to the study of climate change, which emerged as a topic during our discussion that requires scientific inquiry involving tools such as numbers, graphs and GIS maps.

A week later, the SYT seminar was organized and attended by 19 members from the Everest region, in their late teens or early to mid 20s, currently living in Kathmandu for higher studies. In this seminar, I presented my research questions, methodology, findings, conclusions and recommendations. After my presentation, I opened the floor for discussion.

Dawa from Pharak was the first to comment. He said, “I don’t believe in climate change. I think global warming is real but climate change seems like a phrase that is for others to use to do something.” Mingma from Khumbu then questioned, “Isn’t climate change a problem of the developed and developing countries?” Lhakpa also from Khumbu added, “Since most of the pollution is made by developed countries, what can someone like us do to mitigate the problem?” Instead of answering these questions, I asked everyone what was something they think they need to do and they could do. To this they replied:

With Women in Chumoa, Pharak

“I think we can seek information and learn. Then share the knowledge with others. This is something we can all do,” said Lhakpa. He continued, “If we want to bring climate change awareness to people, we have to run a long-term campaign. It cannot be short-term programs. That will not work.”

Dawa reminded, “Before bringing programs, we should first be clear about what the problem really is. Then, we need to bring knowledge to the local people in practical ways. Our methods need to be different from past climate change activities.”

Mingma explained, “When any program is made or if someone or an institution goes into the community and continue to remind people about what is wrong or what is terrible and ask them to change their ways, of course people are going to be upset…If we need to bring programs to the locals, you have to first [build rapport]. Then only you need to tell them what the problem is. But you also need to offer them an alternative option instead of just telling them what they shouldn’t do. Even worse, people should not be reminded of the same problem over and over again.”

Dawa added, “It has to be in local language. If someone comes and talks in scientific language, it will mean nothing to the people because it will not be understandable and relatable.”

Seminar at the EGH premises

Looking at past climate change related institutional activities, we know that, said Lhakpa, “Just by bringing one or two speakers and speaking for just an hour or two about climate change is not going to make any difference. Especially if the speakers are using different languages and non-local terms, it will do nothing. Instead of that if we run a campaign [and develop course or curriculum at schools that might be more effective.] Also having brochures with pictures might be a good idea. When we were in village, I used to really like colorful brochures and took good care of them. Some people even stick them on their walls because they are good to look at. This way, the message continues to stay with them through the brochures.”

Observation of these seminars among academic scholars and the SYT members show that while both groups realize the need for [investigative] action, there are different perspectives in which such actions are imagined. Among the academic scholars engaged in anthropological sciences, based in Kathmandu and discussing national level climate change, quantitative research and meteorological data are emphasized whereas among educated Sherpa youths in Kathmandu, practical and locally sensitive programs are emphasized. The SYT seminar moreover also showed that Sherpa youths are concerned and informed about climate change issues. They are also actively engaged in their community and thus capable to contribute to climate change studies and programs as equal partners in ways other than how an international scientist, who had been to the Everest region to study Imja glacial lake described to me, a Pharak native, in 2011, “Of course, we will make sure the Sherpas are participating. They can carry the pipes to Imja Lake…”

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 (dsalas@wennergren.org) for more information on our blog interviews.

NYAS @ WGF: Becky Schulthies Audio Now Available!

Monday evening, the Wenner-Gren Foundation welcomed Dr. Becky Schulthies of Rutgers University to present her talk “Re-registering Moroccans Mediatized Temporalities and the Politics of Recognition in State Storytelling” as the February installment of the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section lecture series.

We are pleased to present an audio recording of the talk and following discussion with Sonia Neela Das of New York University.

Stay tuned to the blog for announcements regarding the next and future installments of the lecture series!

Main lecture / discussant comment

Q&A

NYAS @ WGF: Becky Schulthies and “Re-Registering Moroccans”

image courtesy wikimedia commons

The 2013-14 New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section lecture series resumes for the first talk of the new year on Monday, February 10, 2014 at 7:00 PM, as we welcome anthropologist Becky Schulthies of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey and discussant Sonia Neela Das of New York University. Drawing on her research on the anthropology of media reception and the impact of satellite television on family interpretive strategies and domestic cultural production in Morocco, Dr. Schulthies will be presenting a discussion entitled “Re-Registering Moroccans: Mediatized Temporalities and the Politics of Recognition in State Storytelling.”

The talk examines the process by which a Moroccan television producer re-vitalized a public market story-telling register (rhymed prose way of speaking) associated with proverbs and the wisdom of old folks as a vehicle for modernist liberal messaging. It also describes what several instances of Moroccan audience uptake while watching this program reveal about the salient qualities of re-registering.

This event will take place at the Wenner-Gren Foundation Building, 470 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor, New York (at 32nd Street). A dinner and wine reception, free to students, will precede the talk at 6 pm. The event is free, but registration with NYAS is required.

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”.

 

Current Anthropology Special Issue: Alternative Pathways to Complexity

image courtesy Dr. Leslie C. Aiello

The Wenner-Gren Foundation and the University of Chicago Press are pleased to announce the publication of Current Anthropologys eight installment of its popular Symposium Series, “Alternative Pathways to Complexity”. Based on WGF’s 148th symposium held at Axel Wenner-Gren’s former residence of Häringe Castle, Sweden, this collection of articles traces the evolution of the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens and the complex emergence of anatomically-modern humans.

Thanks to Rachel Wiseman of the University of Chicago Press for provding us with this press release detailing this issue’s exciting contents:
Neanderthals and biologically modern humans represent two fascinating case studies in parallel evolutionary experiments. Descended from a common ancestor, they evolved independently for hundreds of thousands of years, during which time some physical differences had developed and a large degree of cultural evolution had occurred. With their large brains and complex behavioral and cultural adaptations, humans and Neanderthals created two distinct avenues for evolutionary change. A new special issue of Current Anthropology examines these separate but corresponding evolutionary courses, from multiple angles.
The most recent installment of the Wenner-Gren Symposium Series, Alternative Pathways to Complexity: Evolutionary Trajectories in the Middle Paleolithic and Middle Stone Age, features fifteen articles, plus an editors’ introduction and a note from Leslie Aiello, President of the Wenner-Gren Foundation. The issue is cross-disciplinary in nature, featuring contributions from archaeologists researching material culture and subsistence; physical anthropologists; a demographer; a geneticist; modelers of cultural evolution; and a climatologist.
The papers included in this supplement help to inform our understanding of why Neanderthals went extinct while modern humans flourished, and, just as importantly, provide a more nuanced look at the elaborate and unique adaptive systems these sophisticated hominins developed. As a collection, these articles explore the hypothesis that modern human behavior did not evolve in a straight line, but that there may actually have been multiple evolutionary trends occurring simultaneously. Answering these questions definitively goes beyond the scope of this supplement, but the scholarship included suggest that we have the scientific tools to research these evolutionary models more thoroughly.
The articles in this special issue “provide an assessment of state-of-the-art knowledge in the Middle Paleolithic of Eurasia as well as the Middle Stone Age in Africa, along with relevant paleoclimatological, genetic, demographic, and biological perspectives” writes Leslie Aiello. “This collection is destined to be an important resource for the future.”
Current Anthropology is a transnational journal devoted to research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. The journal is published by The University of Chicago Press and sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Alex Blanchette and ““Factory Hog Farming, Capitalist Natures, and the New Rural American Frontier”

Alex Blanchette is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Tufts University. In 2009, while a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for research on “Factory Hog Farming, Capitalist Natures, and the New Rural American Frontier”, supervised by Dr. Joseph Masco. This Engaged Anthropology Grant project developed from Blanchette’s dissertation workplace research on the interspecies nature of industrial life in the American “factory” farm.

Finishing Barn -- A worker inspects the condition of grown hogs. Image courtesy Sean J. Sprague.

Since 2008, I have been conducting workplace research on the nature of industrial life in a 100-mile radius zone of the U.S. Great Plains, one that is made and remade every day to unlock new value in the hog’s body and mind. After becoming the center of operations for some of the world’s largest pork corporations some two decades ago, this region now annually manufactures almost 7,000,000 pigs across all stages of being from pre-life in breeding to post-death as 1,100 distinct product codes. Within the factory farm’s workplaces, the process is not so simple as merely raising and killing “the pig” as a singular organism. Instead, these operations are premised on developing global sales networks, machines, divisions of labor, statistical standardization, ideologies of life, and embodied craft practices to (re-)industrialize the meat, fat, skin, organs, bones, blood, feces, viruses, reproduction, growth, diets, behaviors, instincts, and sentience of the porcine species. Such a capital-intensive intervention into the fissures of animal life and death has drawn thousands of new residents and created a vibrant – though fragile and unequal – cosmopolitan rural community where 26 languages are spoken in the primary school. Reminiscent of a 19th century company town – yet one that is spread over a wide geographical, political, and ecological expanse – it is a place whereby the vast majority of livelihoods have become socially and economically dependent on the industrial pig. If it wasn’t for the pigs, as some residents liked to ambiguously remind me, “this place would be a ghost town”.

In its dominant mythos, the factory farm is supposed to be a space of total confinement. Industrial agriculture’s dreamworld is one where porcine life is hermetically sealed inside networks of biosecure barns hidden in grain fields, backwater trucking routes, and invisible slaughterhouses. Over several years of ethnographic research, however, residents across social classes helped me sense a region where the massive scale of hog life saturates social experience – a place where struggles for justice, cultural politics, and social practice at times congeal on terrains of animality and its traces. Subtle shifts in town odors indexed a different stage of hog life or death, jarring forth memories of past labor. Former opponents of the factory farm wrestled with the fact that they often sell their crops to the corporation to sustain their livelihoods. Records of the slaughterhouse’s work regime and its repetition were sometimes etched onto workers’ bodies. Employees recounted, with great pride of craft and care, how raising pigs made them re-interpret and value their own human domestic lives (and vice versa). Hog diseases were invisibly omnipresent across the landscape, as people were forced to monitor their habits and sociality outside of work to ensure that illnesses would not transfer across their bodies, and lead to new infections in untainted barns of swine. It seemed that workers or managers could always share their own means of sensing the industrial hog in public space – signs that indexed a subtle reading of the mass-production of life, ranging from its totalizing potential to its tenuous margins of return. Rather than being purely confined in barns, the hog could re-orient everyday social perception whether artificially inseminating sows, manufacturing soup base from bones, or sitting on the couch at home.

Quinceañera -- Images being stitched together during the editing process, taken during speeches at an after-work quinceañera. Image courtesy Sean J. Sprague.

The book project that emerges from this dissertation centers on the notion of the “factory” in the factory farm, the politics of lively standardization, and workplace relations underlying the making of the modern pig. However, in the summer of 2013, with support from the Engaged Anthropology Grant, I was able to return to this research site with a photographer to begin production on a series of exhibits developed with reference to residents’ diverse insights into the region’s broader public sensoria. Initial engagements were varied, premised on both learning new ways to depict the region and contributing to ongoing community projects. I conducted discussions of the dissertation’s findings with key informants – especially those who are not from English-speaking backgrounds – eliciting commentary, support, and critique for future iterations. At the same time, many older friends whose ideas and practices animate parts of the dissertation have since moved on to other places. This certainly complicated some planned forms of dialogue and engagement, but it allowed us to contribute to new community efforts that had emerged since 2010. For example, this included writing newspaper biographies and photographs for a festival organized by migrants originally from South Sudan and Ethiopia who had settled in the area. These conversations also served to inform initial approaches to the visual subject matter, whether they depict a boar stud, growing farm, truck wash, a public gathering space, or a living room.

Plant -- Images being stitched together during the editing process, overlooking the cut floor of a slaughterhouse. Image courtesy Sean J. Sprague.

In opposition to both the exposé and the PR image, whereby the camera is marshaled to transparently capture the essence of the factory farm, the goal of this visual project was to intensify the multiple ways of sensing scenes of concentrated human and animal life. While any photograph is both real and constructed, this project embraced the medium’s indeterminacy in order to highlight the cultural politics that are present within the factory farm (and not just launched against it from outside). To differing degrees at each site, managers selected and prepared scenes prior to our visit, making the images partial records of an ideal aesthetic. Workers often posed in modes of embodied intimacy and craft knowledge that industrialization relies upon, and that standardization can never fully eradicate. My photographic collaborator refined a technique that enabled him to adjust and construct minor details of images. Facing each setting for over an hour at a time, he took up to 1,400 photographs of sections of a site – say, from a slaughterhouse’s catwalk – in a way that enables him to later digitally stitch together large-scale and incredibly detailed images (see second and third images), while subtly adjusting the time, tenor, scene, and subject of the interspecies interactions depicted (for example, in terms of a person’s bodily positioning or a knife movement). Indeed, the resulting images can be viewed as drafts subject to an ongoing editing process. We plan to initially exhibit images in this host community (and perhaps others like it) to both build conversations around the broader research through public talks, and to elicit commentaries from employees and residents across social classes and local communities on the depicted scenes and their representation. As part of an ongoing engagement project, these interpretations, commentaries, and reflections would then become central parts of the overarching presentation of future public installations or exhibits in urban locales around the industrialization of human and animal life.

Deborah Wadsworth, WGF Trustee, has passed away

The Wenner-Gren Foundation is saddened to report that Deborah Wadsworth, member of the Board of Trustees, died on December 24, 2013.  Deborah was a close friend of the Foundation for many years before formally joining the Wenner-Gren Board in 2006.  She cared deeply about the Foundation and her contributions to the Board’s deliberations will be missed.   We extend our sincere condolences to her family and friends and to all who were fortunate to have known her.

2013: Year in Review

2013 was another successful and productive year for the Wenner-Gren Foundation!

Some highlights from the past twelve months:

We began posting Engaged Anthropology Grant reports on our blog, so everyone can get a chance to see what engaged research looks like.

We revealed the new Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship in Ethnographic Film, to support innovative anthropologists working in visual media in memory of past president Paul Fejos.

We kicked off hosting the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section Lecture series for the 2013-14 academic year, featuring fascinating talks from some of the leading researchers in the field.

In addition to the regular issues, we released a new Current Anthropology Symposium Supplement, Potentiality and Humanness: Revisiting the Object in Contemporary Biomedecine, available as always completely open-access.

It was a great year for Anthropology. Stay tuned for even more in 2014!

 

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Ashley Hazel and “Communicating Disease: The Patterns of Sexually Transmitted Disease Burden Among Namibian Pastoralists and Why It Matters”

Waiting for the meeting to start in Omuhonga.

Dr. Ashley Hazel is a postdoctoral researcher in anthropology at Stanford University. In 2008, while a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Sexually Transmitted Disease, Ecology, and Reproduction among the Tjimba/Himba: A Pastoral Community in Transition,’ supervised by Dr. Bobbi Stiers Low. Following her fieldwork research seeking to measure the prevalence of two common STDs—gonorrhea and herpes—and identify significant ecological and behavioral risk factors for disease in her host community, she received Wenner-Gren’s Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her field site and share her findings.