Engaged Anthropology Grant: Cheryl Knott

Participants in the post-conference field trip to the Cabang Panti Research Station pose with the conference banner on the front steps of the main camp building.

Cheryl Knott is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Boston University. In 2012 she received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on “Sexual Coercion and Reproductive Strategies in Wild Bornean Orangutans”. In 2014 Dr. Knott received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Gunung Palung Orangutan Project: 20 Years of Research and Conservation”.

On August 6-7 of 2015, the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project (GPOP), with support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, hosted the GP30+ Conference to highlight and celebrate over 30 years of research and conservation work at Cabang Panti Research Station in Gunung Palung National Park. Over the past three decades, over 150 foreign and Indonesian researchers have done field work at Cabang Panti, and we have been supported by countless Indonesian academic and government counterparts. GP30+ was the perfect way to bring all of these people together to share research results, make new connections and emphasize the importance of continuing research and education in and around Gunung Palung National Park. The main event was a two- day Symposium, held at the Mahkota Kayong Hotel in Sukadana, appropriately held in the “Gunung Palung” ballroom, and featured presentations from 15 invited speakers. The Symposium, which was open to current and former researchers and field assistants, local government officials, National Park representatives, and area conservation organizations, was attended by over 100 people. Many of the government officials were hearing about the research station and results for the first time. Invited guests included government officials and Indonesian scientists, who came from as far away as Jakarta.

Dr. Mark Leighton, founder of the Cabang Panti Research Station, speaks on the early days of the research station.

The Symposium opened with welcome speeches from both the Bupati (district head) of Kayong Utara regency and the head of the Gunung Palung National Park Bureau. These opening remarks were followed by a plenary presentation by Dr. Mark Leighton, the founder of Cabang Panti Research Site. He shared the history of the station, from the very first research trip before Gunung Palung National Park even existed to what it has become today. Although Dr. Leighton spoke in English, everyone, even our Indonesian guests who aren’t fluent in English, had a great time looking at his old photos and listening to the stories about the early days of research at

Cabang Panti. The morning session on August 6th continued with a series of presentations about orangutan research in GPNP, with talks by primatologist Dr. Cheryl Knott (founder of GPOP and the Gunung  Palung  Orangutan  Conservation  Program,  GPOCP),  Wahyu  Susanto  (Research Director, GPOP), Andrea DiGiorgio (Ph.D. student, Boston University), and Taufiq Purnama (Indonesian Institute of Sciences).

Edward Tang presents a talk on his vegetation study along the Kubang River.

The second session of the day focused on ecology research. Presenters included Dr. Andrew Marshall (founder of the Gunung Palung Gibbon and Read Leaf Monkey Project), Dr. Campbell Webb (Yayasan ASRI), Mr. Riyandi (Tanjungpura University), Kobayashi (Indonesia/Japan- REDD+ Project), and Edward Tang (former research assistant and GPOCP Environmental Education Coordinator). The presentations were highly varied, touching on topics including the ecology of mangrove forests, the phenology and productivity of the Gunung Palung rainforest, and the avian diversity of the National Park. Together these presentations highlighted the importance of the entire suite of research that has been done in Gunung Palung over the past 30 years.

To share the GP30+ celebration with the entire local community, on the evening of August 6th we hosted a public gathering at Datok Beach in Sukadana. We opened the evening with performances by two traditional musical groups from Tanjung Gunung, which is the village that anyone hiking into Cabang Panti passes through. This was their first public performance, and the crowd very much enjoyed the music. The audience was then treated to a slideshow presentation by National Geographic photographer, Dr. Tim Laman. For nearly an hour, Tim shared photos and stories about the biodiversity of Gunung Palung with the crowd. His photos highlighted the beauty of this rainforest ecosystem, allowing people to see the National Park through fresh eyes, and – hopefully – inspiring them to protect and conserve the area.

GPOCP Staff Jainudin, Mariamah Achmad, and Rudy lead conference participants on a tour of the Education Trail at Bentangor Environmental Education Center.

The second day of the Symposium, August 7th, focused on the conservation work being done in and around Gunung Palung National Park. Presentations were given by Cassie Freund (Program Director, GPOCP), Etty Rahmawati (Yayasan ASRI), Budi Sempurna (Gunung Palung National Park Bureau), Yoshikura (Indonesia/Japan-REDD+ Project), and Juanisa Andiani (International Animal Rescue). These talks showcased the range of conservation work being done in the GP landscape, including environmental education, promoting sustainable livelihoods, and mitigating human-orangutan conflict. After a break for lunch, all of the Symposium participants were invited to GPOCP’s Bentangor Environmental Education Center in Pampang Harapan village for a tour of our educational facilities and to watch a demonstration by our Non-Timber Forest Product artisans. Many of the conference guests had never been to Bentangor before and it was great to have the chance to showcase our conservation center. GPOCP staff led field trips, the artisans taught participants how to make baskets and jewelry, and our guests even had a chance to support rainforest conservation by purchasing traditional handicrafts!

During afternoon trip to the Bentangor Environmental Education Center, Jessica Laman (age 11) receives instruction on how to make a basket out of nipah palm reeds from master crasftsman Darwani, as Monalisa Pasaribu looks on.

Following the two day Symposium we were thrilled to have many of the conference participants come visit Cabang Panti Research Station – some for the first time and some after more than 20 years away. Among our special guests were GPOP board members, Dr. Barita Manullang and Pak Darmawan Liswanto (Flora & Fauna International). We also were very honored to have Dr. Dadan Kusnandar, Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at West Kalimantan’s University of Tanjungpura (UNTAN), and UNTAN Docent (Lecturer), Pak Riyandi, join us, along with Dr. Wendy Erb from Rutgers University. It was a homecoming for many former researchers, including study site founder, Dr. Mark Leighton (Harvard University), Dr. Lisa Curran (Stanford University) and her Indonesian counterpart, Dessy Rasel Ratnasari (Simpur Hutan), Dr. Dan Gavin (University of Oregon) and Andrea Johnson (Environmental Investigation Agency). Current researchers and graduate students, as well as additional Gunung Palung National Park Bureau staff members, a team from the forest patrol unit, field assistants, and Cabang Panti staff were also in attendance. On the first night we set a record for the number of people at dinner: 57!

Participants in the post-conference field trip to the Cabang Panti Research Station accompany Dr. Mark Leighton (center back) on a walk to learn about the unique habitat diversity at the Cabang Panti Reseach Station.

One of the highlights of the week was a “Habitat Walk” by Dr. Mark Leighton. As Mark explained during his plenary address at the symposium, he chose to establish the research site in Gunung  Palung  National  Park,  and  specifically the Cabang Panti location,  because  of  its incredible habitat diversity. In just a few hours one can traverse peat swamp, freshwater swamp, alluvial bench, lowland sandstone, lowland granite, upland granite and montane habitats. This gives researchers the opportunity to study the unique animal and plant diversity found within each forest type and to do comparative studies between habitats. During his demonstration, Mark explained how each habitat was formed, what made it unique, how to identify it and which animals and plants were found there. Many of these habitats, such as the alluvial bench forest, are increasingly rare in Southeast Asia, because they are suitable for human settlement.

A rare binturong (Arctictis binturong) seen on a night walk at the Cabang Panti Research Site during the post-conference field trip. Photo by Robert Rodriguez-Suro.

The week was filled with incredibly lucky animal sightings by our visitors. On her first day in Cabang Panti, Dr. Wendy Erb, a primatologist at Tuanan Research station in Central Kalimantan, found and followed an orangutan to its night nest on her own. On her way home in the dark she saw a sun bear! Dr. Dan Gavin caught a great view of our dominant male orangutan, Codet, the only sighting of him by anyone all month. Finally, on the last night of the week-long visit, many of us went on a short night walk close to camp, and were lucky enough to spot a rarely-seen binturong in the forest. Other special events included an evening bonfire on the beach with stories from Cabang Panti lore told all around, long hikes through the forest, and catching up with old friends. Some of the attendees also hiked up to the 948-meter top of Gunung Palung, called “GP 90” which indicates the 4.5 km trail marker. It was a week full of many happy smiles, sweaty hugs and the creation of new memories.

Overall GP30+ was a huge success. We’re thankful to all of the participants who traveled to West Kalimantan to attend the Symposium. We are especially grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation, who made the conference possible through their Engaged Anthropology Grant. Hopefully we can do it again in five years!

NYAS @ WGF 10/24: Re-Framing Punishment [REGISTRATION REQUIRED]

Bob Jagendorf - http://www.flickr.com/photos/bobjagendorf/5685335098/

Join us Monday evening October 24th at 6 PM at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for the next installment of the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Lecture Series. Didier Fassin, Professor of Anthropology at the Institute for Advanced Study and Andrea Barrow from Black Lives Matter will be presenting, “Re-Framing Punishment”.

Please note that, while the event is free to attend pre-registration is required for entry into the building.

Punishment has been studied for centuries by moral philosophers and legal scholars, with a particular emphasis on its definition (notably to distinguish it from vengeance) and justification (with the classic opposition between utilitarianism and retributivism). Based on ethnographic research conducted over the past ten years in France on policing, justice and prison, the lecture will challenge the normative and idealist approach, trying to analyze what punishment is and how it is justified in actual interactions between officers, judges and guards with their respective publics while illuminating what is often the blind spot of the traditional approach: the distribution of sanctions. This inductive method thus makes possible a critique of punishment that resonates with contemporary issues about law enforcement, the penal system and mass incarceration in the United States, and more broadly the punitive turn in most contemporary societies.

Buffet Dinner at 6:00 PM ($20 contribution for dinner guests / free for students).
Lectures begin at 7:00 PM and are free and open to the public.

Pre-registration is required to attend the lecture.

Missed the lecture? Listen to it now!

 

Symposium #154: “The Anthropology of Corruption”

The 154th Wenner-Gren Symposium, “The Anthropology of Corruption” recently wrapped up in Sintra, Portugal. As always, you can expect a Current Anthropology special issue forthcoming, containing the meeting’s papers and available to all 100% Open-Access.

Front: Smoki Musaraj, Sarah Muir, Anu Sharma, Diana Bocarejo, Laurie Obbink, Fátima Pinto. Middle: Soo-Young Kim, Jane Schneider, Akhil Gupta, Leslie Aiello, Ilana Feldman, Aaron Ansell, Julia Hornberger, Italo Pardo. Back: Cris Shore, Sylvia Tidey, Dan Smith, Alan Smart, Kregg Hetherington, David Nugent, John Osburg.

ORGANIZERS’ STATEMENT

“The Anthropology of Corruption”

Sarah Muir (Barnard College, Columbia University)

Akhil Gupta (University of California, Los Angeles)

 Over the past several decades, corruption has become an object of intense popular concern in otherwise disparate locations around the world. Over the same period, corruption has elicited a robust body of scholarship in disciplines such as political science, economics, and sociology. Meanwhile, anthropologists—wary of reproducing clichéd images of political dysfunction—have often approached the topic with reserve. Recently, however, a corpus of anthropological literature on corruption has begun to coalesce. Examining a variety of illegitimate, illegal, or otherwise irregular political and economic practices, as well as critical discourses about those practices, this literature has developed a properly anthropological approach to corruption. That approach challenges commonplace stereotypes regarding political cultures outside the global North, even as it also takes seriously the vehement complaints about corruption that have energized so many citizens in the global South.

It is an opportune time to take stock of the emergent anthropology of corruption because this literature has now reached critical mass. This symposium will gather together pioneering scholars working on corruption from a wide range of perspectives. The meeting will be aimed both at a stock-taking of where the anthropology of corruption has reached and, more importantly, as a place from which to generate new ideas for future research. The challenges are substantive, methodological, and normative. Participants will offer analyses grounded in research in varying places such as Europe, China, South Asia, Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Our aim is to move across an array of theoretical and regional concerns to chart a set of problematics that will animate anthropological studies of corruption in the coming years.

Toward that end, the symposium is organized around five central themes.

1) Historicizing Corruption: How has the understanding of corruption changed over time in different locations? Why has corruption become such a potent site of social critique in recent years? What are the local and translocal dynamics that have made corruption in the present moment such an important public concern in many different national contexts?

2) The Politics of Corruption: Why does corruption serve as a rallying point for otherwise diverse political parties and social movements? Popular mobilization against corruption is often difficult to locate in terms of left-right politics. How should we assess the possibilities and limits of anti-corruption politics?

3) Social Inequality: How can anthropological approaches shed light on the intersection between corruption and inequalities of race, class, caste, gender, region, language, and ethnicity? While social class often correlates strongly with concerns about corruption, we know very little about the relationship between corruption and other regimes of inequality.

4) Logics of Law and Governance: How is corruption situated with respect to distinctions between legality and illegality? How can we approach the often intimate relationship  between corruption and practices of policing and governance?

5) Normative Evaluation: How is “corruption” as a category produced, deployed, and transformed? How do people extend that category beyond the public areas of everyday life and with what effects?

All five themes are crosscut by a concern with how corruption is represented in academic writing. Self-reflexivity about academic uses of the category of “corruption” distinguishes anthropological work from other disciplines. Throughout the symposium, we will consider how to produce anthropological knowledge about corruption that does not take the category for granted, but constructs a critical perspective on its social life.

 

 

Meet Our 2016 Wadsworth International Fellows: Joanne Munga

Joanne Munga received her undergraduate education at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. Thanks to the Wadsworth International Fellowship she will continue her training with a PhD in physical-biological anthropology at George Washington University, supervised by Dr.David Braun. Meet the previous four WIF recipients in this series.

My focus is on lithic analysis of East African Early Stone Age tools. My previous work involved a morphological analysis of the Lewa Downs tools a site located in Central Kenya. The main reason why I felt the George Washington University (GWU) would be the best institution for me to take my PhD is because they have a very good Human paleobiology doctorate program, which focuses on several areas of studies, from the Paleolithic to hominin evolution and primate studies. I felt I needed a wide array of experience. GWU is also located in Washington DC and is surrounded by so many resources that will help me in my studies, such as the Smithsonian Institute, and also has a wide variety of laboratories with different types of research going on, of which I will be able to visit and learn about all the research going on. I plan to make good use of all the available resources as I pursue my doctorate.

I will use this unique opportunity to specialize further in the sub-field of Paleolithic Archaeology. In particular, I am interested in a focused lithic analysis that can provide in-depth understanding of early hominin technology.

I obtained both my BA and MA in Archaeology from the University of Nairobi, Kenya. I was also a research fellow at the National Museums of Kenya from 2012, and was involved in several field projects throughout that whole time.

I would very much love to come back to Kenya after my PhD studies and continue doing research and offer my skills to the teaching institutions as well. My desire is that more young archaeologists will become interested in the deep past of our species and want to explore the rich heritage our country has to offer. I love working with younger students joining the Archaeology Undergraduate programs at the Universities, and doing a mentoring program with them is one of the things I would love to do.  We have a huge archaeological collection, and we need research scientists to actually work on all these collections, and who better to work and do research on these than the young upcoming research scientists from the Universities in Kenya.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Samantha Blatt

Samantha Blatt is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Boise State University. In 2011 while a doctoral student at The Ohio State University she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant  to aid research on “Assessing Growth and Development of Prehistoric Amerindians from Incremental Microstructures of Dental Enamel,” supervised by Dr. Paul W. Sciulli. In 2013 she received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Toward a Collaborative Indigenous Bioarchaeology: Engaging Communities in the Relevance, Shared Knowledge, and Interpretation of Prehistoric North America,” 2014, Ohio & W. VA.

During December of 2014 and January of 2015, I traveled back to Ohio to disseminate the results and methods outlined in my dissertation in order to narrow the gap of relevance and accessibility of anthropology research between academe, the public, and the indigenous population under study. This was a three-part undertaking in which my goal was to present anthropology and the trials of research in as transparent (and of course as fun) a light as possible.

One of the most eye-opening experiences of undertaking this proposal was in providing a forum for indigenous communities to learn more about and discuss the results of the 2011 project. Dialogue about the prehistory of Native Americans is all too often a one-sided affair and bound by misunderstanding, mistrust, or impatience. Furthermore, indigenous communities are not often offered very much information about the final results of the studies they advocate. I undertook approval of the American Indian Advisory Council of Dayton to complete my dissertation research and wanted to extent my interaction with this group and other indigenous councils, not only to present the results of my research, but to allow them an advocate ear from the very same researcher. Topics discussed include archaeological ethics, importance of indigenous knowledge to archaeology, and the challenges of communication between indigenous groups and scientists during different phases of research. The purpose was to begin a local dialogue between anthropologists and Indigenous communities in order that these relationships might be strengthened and to foster future understanding and partnership both in Ohio and in my current location of Idaho. This forum was informally carried over to discussions I then had with Paiute members in Idaho who had similar, but more current concerns. I believe that this dialogue has opened up opportunities for collaboration of bioarchaeology and indigenous epistemology in the future.

During my previous work organizing workshops for archaeology and forensic anthropology with underrepresented low-income children from the Ohio and Idaho region, local educators consistently told me that their female students lose interest in science before high school and were excited to meet a practicing female scientist. I have since kept in touch as a mentor to several of the girls I have met in these outreach programs, one of which will be starting college in the fall; the first in her family. This project allowed me to revisit Ohio middle schools and invite Idaho school children to a general presentation about anthropology as science. In addition to this, I presented my findings to The Ohio State University Undergraduate Anthropology Club, a small group of graduate students, and at an informal and non-technical setting at the local Science Café. The Science Café is a public lecture in a café setting which is open to the general public, giving them a chance to learn about new research and engage with the researcher in a relaxed and fun environment. It was a chance to toss the technical jargon for a cup of joe. That experience has since led me to supervise undergraduates in planning and administering hands-on activities for the public at Boise State University’s STEM day festival.

Thirdly, I was able to provide hands-on training in sample processing and analytical methods for local researchers and graduate and undergraduate students in Idaho. These workshop built skills in the identification of dental remains, methods for collecting non-destructive dental impressions, basic microscopy procedures, and analyzing dental enamel microstructures. The workshop will specifically focused on how these methods are of value to bioarchaeology with examples from my 2011 study. I was able to use the same materials I used for my own research in addition to demonstrating microscopic analysis by using a digital, portable microscope. This workshop was particularly helpful to several graduate students who were in the planning stages of similar projects. This also resulted in the compilation of an instruction manual of sorts for recommended materials and supplies and sample preparation. The manual sits next to the histology equipment at Ohio State to this day and I was very proud to make the initial research stages for graduate students a bit easier than they were when I began my dissertation. I plan on making this manual readily available for free download to all researchers via website.

Overall, I believe that completing this engagement project has allowed me to maintain local contacts and make new ones, as well as bring the importance of making anthropology relevant to the public a more devoted aspect of my career. I hope in the future to be able establish more regular dialogues and interactions with bioarchaeologists, the public, and indigenous groups.

Meet Our 2016 Wadsworth International Fellows: Ignacio Sandoval

Ignacio Sandoval received his undergraduate education at the Universidad of Chile, Santiago, Chile. Thanks to the Wadsworth International Fellowship he will continue his training with a PhD in social-cultural anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, supervised by Dr. David Graeber. Meet the previous three WIF recipients in the series.

I graduated from Universidad of Chile in 2006 with a B.A in Anthropology from Universidad of Chile. After obtaining a M.A in Sociocultural Anthropology at Columbia University in 2015, I briefly taught anthropological theory at Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Chile. My work, strongly post-disciplinary and based in Santiago, Chile, has focused on two topics: (1) the relation between neoliberalism, class transformations and life projects; and (2) the metatheory on social and cultural forms, especially the debate agency-structure. Recently, I started a new focus on sex-gender regimes and their historical becoming.

My current research follows strategies and projects embodied in the life of different families living in Metropolitan Santiago, Chile. I pretend to explore the relations between historical macro-processes and the intimate transformation of agency, subjectivity and temporal dwelling. Particularly, I am interested on understanding the cultural bridges between everyday ethics and political engagement and how they mirror practices of elaboration, resistance and reproduction of the ideological and cultural discourses that had emerged after the neoliberal counterrevolution in the country.

I chose the doctoral program at London School of Economics and Political Science because I think is the best place to pursue several interests that come together in my research. First, the emphasis on the study of capitalism and inequality that had been prominent in the department during the last years. Second, the department’s focus on political anthropology, moral anthropology and the research around personhood and agency was also an important factor. Finally, the possibility of developing metatheoretical inquiries during my studies in the stimulating environment that LSE offers was the final reason for which I chose this program.

After completion of my dissertation, I intend to go back to Chile to keep strengthen anthropological research in the country and to collaborate in the developing of a more diverse and robust anthropological community. I expect to continue my work related to independent collectives of young researchers on the topics of class and capitalism, and also the intersections on political economy and gender-sex formations.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Nicholas Limerick

 

Image courtesy Nicholas Limerick

Nicholas Limerick is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In 2011 while a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Contested Language Ideologies and the Mediation of Indigenous Schooling in Ecuador,’ supervised by Dr. Asif Agha. In 2015 he received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on ‘Workshops on Multicultural Recognition and Quechua Language Use in Intercultural Bilingual Education in Ecuador,’ 2015, Ecuador.

Ecuador is frequently lauded for its successful Indigenous political movements. In 1988, Indigenous activists institutionalized a national-level intercultural bilingual school system that would be run by Native individuals for Native students. My dissertation research, which occurred from 2011 to 2013, showed how these advances have also led to challenges for Quichua individuals who have now become upper-level state agents in the school system. Through years of ethnographic research, including in coordinating offices of Ecuador’s Ministry of Education, my research has considered the shifting roles that Indigenous individuals have had to exhibit, and the emerging publics whom they engage, as they invoke the discourses of the state as Native individuals. I show how their work in the office frequently places them in a double-bind, where speaking in the framings of liberal multicultural recognition, including how they speak in the language Quichua, sounds quite different from notions of linguistic diversity that their Indigenous constituents hold. Such differences contribute to pervasive divides across the organization.

With the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant, I planned to conduct workshops in the offices in the Ministry of Education, and in one school where I conducted research, using the findings of my dissertation to help improve public speaking in Quichua and in Spanish. Though I had returned to my fieldsites since the conclusion of my dissertation research, when I returned to the Ministry of Education in June of 2015, I found that the staff had been greatly reduced. Many of my friends had recently been forced into retirement, or they had transferred to work in other offices in the Ministry of Education or in other provinces of Ecuador. This change is the latest step of educational reform in Ecuador, part of which I have studied in my research.

Image courtesy Nicholas Limerick

Given these circumstances, as well as an unusually tense political climate for Indigenous individuals coordinating EIB, I decided to carry out workshops only with directors and teachers of one of the schools where I have long collaborated and conducted research. In June, administrators of the school and I piloted a Quichua education program that would promote speaking by the students in distinct registers of Quichua in the same classroom. Through the creation of their own books, students attempted to valorize non-standardized registers of communication, culminating in storytelling events with prizes for the students. The directors of the school and I then planned a series of workshops with teachers of the school, to be conducted in August, that would incorporate the results of my dissertation into helping the teachers address linguistic diversity among parents and students.

In August, we conducted fifteen hours of workshops. The workshops had several components. We first discussed the importance of teaching Quichua in general, and supporting vastly different registers of Quichua use in particular, at the school. We then discussed how to interact with parents, most of whom are Quichua individuals from disparate regions of Ecuador. Using recordings and transcripts from my research, we evaluated the speeches of directors of intercultural bilingual education, and also of the teachers’ own parent-teacher meetings. In turn, we collectively elaborated how to speak in a register of Quichua that unites disparate Quichua publics, many of whom have negative opinions about standardized Quichua. We then created materials to teach registers of Quichua that are less common to multicultural and multilingual teaching initiatives in Ecuador. The workshops not only allowed me to test some of my arguments and ideas for my book manuscript, but they created an avenue for reflexivity at the school about how to unite a larger Quichua community through speaking in Quichua. The Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant was indispensable not only for applying my research to the daily needs of my friends in Ecuador, but it also jumpstarted my second project on building community in urban schools.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Rosa Ficek Torres

Recording an oral history

While a doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Rosa Ficek Torres received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2011 to aid research on ‘Migration and Integration Along the Pan American Highway in Panama’s Darien Gap,’ supervised by Dr. Anna Tsing. In 2014 she received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on ‘Collaborations for a Digital Exhibit: Perspectives on Integration from the Margins of Panama,’ 2015, Panama.

Roads let us access new landscapes, meet people, reach resources. But they do more than that. Roads make landscapes, refashioning social relations and geographies as people, things, and ideas come into contact. Tracing the encounters that take place because of, and along, lines of transport and communication can help us understand what happens when people and places are connected by technologies in new or different ways. My dissertation research considers the social effects of roads, asking how social collectivities emerge, how power and difference shape spaces of belonging and exclusion through and with these material routes.

Workers hired from roadside communities

With support from a Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant, I traveled to Panama to research a road built to integrate a peripheral area into the national culture, political system, and economy. This road was built in the 1970s to connect Panama to its easternmost province. Migrant peasants from central and western Panama settled along its edges, attracted by tales of abundant land free for the taking. Meanwhile, government planners saw the settlers as agents of modernization. They replaced forests with fields and pastures, establishing relations of property and production that would—planners hoped—drive development while also extending state power into a marginal region. The road was the central figure in these transformations, bringing settlers and state institutions in, taking products out.

Through oral histories of migration and community formation I found that settlers, who soon found themselves stuck on a deteriorated road that signaled isolation and government abandonment, integrated themselves anyway. They used forest materials and communal labor to build schools and rural aqueducts, fundraised for journeys to the city to petition the government for teachers, engineers, and plastic pipes, and maintained the road with stones and gravel dug up from the rivers. However, these oral histories also complicated ideas of integration as the expansion of state power, national culture, and capitalist relations by showing how the indigenous and afrodescendent people who were already living in the area contributed to the making and remaking of the highway, at the same time that these contributions were obscured in settler narratives. Moreover, settlers themselves adapted to the new landscape at the same time that they transformed it. The road, rather than being a force of assimilation, is heterogeneous, brought to life by diverse histories and mobilities that transform its materiality and meaning.

Presidential speech authorizing road work

I returned to Panama in July and August 2015 to share my findings with the communities where I had done research. The road, which during fieldwork in 2008 and 2009 had been repaired and paved with asphalt, had again deteriorated. And yet again machines rumbled, earth was moved, and orange-vested crews worked on repairs to its surface. Among local residents, dissatisfaction with the previous constrution company’s performance had turned into bitter disappointment once the new pavement fell to pieces. This time around, people were determined that things would be different. During the ceremony authorizing the initiation of roadwork the president of the republic gave a speech that echoed promises made repeatedly since the 1960s: the road would facilitate the transport and comercialization of agricultural products, he said, bring economic and social development, and integrate a province that had been isolated from national development. In the audience, members of the vigilance committees that were forming in roadside communities greeted each other with handshakes and slaps on the back. They were organizing to ensure that the road was properly remade. For them, that meant learning which materials were going to be used to rehabilitate the road, and from which local source, and taking samples to a laboratory for independent analysis using their own funds. The transitability of the road depended on the right materials.

Residents of surrounding communities attending ceremony

It was within this context that I carried out the activities related to my Engaged Anthropology Grant—amidst roadwork, amidst a collective feeling of guarded hope, a sense of progress-in-the-making that seemed at odds with the insistent, cyclical deteriorations of the road and the repeated disappointments and setbacks local residents had experienced. I held a series of meetings in communities in which I presented my dissertation findings, reviewed and revised written portions of the manuscript with informants, and conducted oral history workshops where community members were able to narrate their accounts of development on their own terms, identifying the themes and stories that most mattered to them. These oral histories were recorded and assembled into DVDs that were distributed to community members, civil society leaders, and teachers for use in the classroom.

The goal in documenting these histories was to provide alternative representations of a region that is often stereotyped in the media and popular imaginations as a backward province. People think that there is nothing here in Darien, that there is no development, that we’re living in the wilderness, residents often noted. The oral histories worked against these representations by offering counter narratives of a kind of development different from that promoted by the government—of people organizing and using their own time and resources, drawing on forms of communal labor, to build rural aqueducts, schools and churches, petitioning the government for technical assistance and supplies to complete the works. These narratives help us situate the current rehabilitation of the road, people’s keen interest in the work, and the vigilance committees within a history of development where people had to make do and find ways to survive in the absence of the development that had been promised, and that had enchanted them. If things were going to be different this time—if the new pavement lasted and the road indeed reduced inequality in the region—it would be an achievement of local communities, not something that was formulated outside and handed to them.

Director of school with copies of the oral histories

And yet, the accounts people told about their experiences migrating to an unfamiliar place, the loneliness, the malaria, the hard work of building homes with handsaws and axes, of raising families without adequate water supplies, reveal other kinds of histories that destabilize narratives of development, of progress marching forward because it has to. These oral histories hold the shadow of a suggestion that some places should never have been settled at all. At least not in the way that settlers had gone about doing things, clearing forest to the extent that deforestation and loss of biodiversity are the current enviornmental buzzwords, boosting productivity with pesticides that poisoned the already meager water supplies, locating homes and communities in sites that were terribly inaccessible, far from rivers and coasts that offered alternative means of transport—practices that led to the growth of villages and towns with electricity, paved roads, schools, health centers, gas stations, supermarkets, and restaurants, but that also created a situation where you never know if water will run when you open the tap, where pastures extend for hectares but you can’t buy a decent cut of meat, where former landowners who farmed for their families as well as the market now work for uncertain wages after selling to ranchers or teak companies. Things had changed a lot, people reflected in their oral histories. One woman, like many others, recalled feeling despair when she reached the land that would be her new home, breaking down and crying with the realization that it had all been a big misunderstanding, that the stories about good free land were partially true at best. Todo parece un sueño, she sighed. It all seems like a dream.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Kevin O’Neill

 

Image courtesy Kevin O'Neill

Kevin O’Neill is a Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. In 2006 while a doctoral student at Stanford University, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant  to aid research on ‘Producing Christian Citizenship: Evangelical Mega-Churches in Postwar Guatemala City,’ supervised by Dr. James Ferguson. In 2010 he received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on ‘Two Ways Outs: Christianity, Security, and Mara Salvatrucha’. In 2014 he received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on ‘Secure the Soul: A Public Conversation,’ 2015, Guatemala.

July 2015 proved to be a whirlwind. The Engaged Anthropology Grant supported a wide range of events, big and small as well as private and public. These were conversations, meals, moments of outreach, and student mentorship programs that connected colleagues and collaborators. The fieldwork itself shuttled between several sites in Guatemala City and the United States. Each opened a window into a tightening relationship between new forms of Christianity and gang prevention. One field site was Guatemala’s prison system, in which prison chaplains provide prisoners with psycho-theological support. Another field site was a reinsertion program for ex-gang members. The program connected former gang members with jobs in the formal economy. And yet another field site was a growing number of Christian drug rehabilitation centers that often house active gang members in the hopes of converting them out of gang life. There are other field sites, but this selection gives a quick sense of the different actors that my fieldwork engaged. And the aim of the Engaged Anthropology Grant was to bring some of these actors together, to have them engage my work but also each other. In this regard the month proved a tremendous success. There were meetings with prison chaplains and prisoners, hours spent with students at my host university, and long conversations with gang ministers as well as prison and drug reform commissions. All of it culminated in what I think was a poignant and powerful TV interview between me and my main informant. But more on that in a moment.

The Post-Ph.D. Research Grant supported research for the 2015 publication of Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala. The book makes the argument that underlying Central American efforts at security is a sense of Christian piety—that is, an aspiration to be a better person. It is this Christian piety that provides Central American security with its moral coordinates. At the center of this argument sits the story of a key informant, a man that I call Mateo. His life connects the book’s various chapters. A deported gang member from Los Angeles, Mateo has been the subject and the object of Christian piety most of his life. He gained tremendously from prison chaplains while serving time in Los Angeles and yet he also served as a prison chaplain in Guatemala City; Mateo has worked for reinsertion programs while also having engaged these very programs as a former gang member; he has also been held inside a Christian rehabilitation center and yet months later found himself working for one. Yet more than just connecting the research’s ethnography with a single story, his life also embodies a sense of Christian piety—this idea/aspiration/affect that one should always strive to be a better person.

Image courtesy Kevin O'Neill

Secure the Soul ends with Mateo adrift. Aging out of not just gang life but also Central American security programs, the book ends at a moment of indecision. It is not clear what Mateo will do with the rest of his life. And yet while my research ended, Mateo’s life obviously kept on going. And there was a rough patch. He lost his house. A member of Barrio 18 stabbed him with a screwdriver during a street fight. And he ended up in prison for three months on trumped up drug charges. But then, true to Mateo, he turned his life around, connecting with a missionary project outside of Guatemala City. He now supports the ministry’s activities while also preaching to youth. This includes a weekly television program.

For those familiar with the book, Mateo’s life history provides Secure the Soul with its narrative spine. And for those familiar with ethnography, a project like that entails a tremendous amount of not just trust but also time. Mateo and I spent hours thinking through and recording his life story. Sometimes this took place while walking the streets of Guatemala City and other times this took place on his couch, with Mateo stretched out as if in the middle of a therapy session. And so it came with great excitement to learn that Mateo not only had air time but that we would also be able to spend that time talking about Secure the Soul—with the roles reversed. He would interview me.

It was an amazing experience. As we sat waiting for the camera to turn on, for us to go live, I turned to Mateo. Filled with pride for his life but also for what we had done together (in regards to the book) it suddenly hit me how far this project had gone. I can still remember the first time I met Mateo in a Guatemala City church. I can also remember the first interview we ever did together. And as the producer counted us down from ten to one, to signal the start of the show, I turned to Mateo with no small amount of astonishment—about his life and this book. I asked him how he felt about it all. Feeling rushed by the counting and slightly distracted by the glare of the lights, Mateo just smiled and said, “Look, bro, it’s my turn to ask the questions.” And so he did.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Amy Brainer

 

Image courtesy Amy Brainer

Amy Brainer is an Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. In 2011 while a doctoral student at the University of Illinois-Chicago, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Same-Sexuality and Family Relations in Taiwan,’ supervised by Dr. Barbara J. Risman. In 2014 she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on ‘Reimagining LGBT Family Issues,’ 2015, Taiwan.

In October 2015, with support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, I conducted two parent workshops and a symposium around the theme ‘Reimagining LGBT Family Issues’ in Kaohsiung and Taipei. These activities build on my previous fieldwork with queer people and their families of origin throughout Taiwan. (In the grant title and in this report, I use ‘LGBT’ and ‘queer’ interchangeably to refer to a range of non-normative sexualities and genders. My informants vary in how they describe these aspects of their lives and the lives of their family members.) The title of the grant is perhaps all the more relevant in light of the US Supreme Court decision on marriage and the tidal wave of ‘marriage equality’ efforts that have come to define LGBT family aspirations, often excluding the more diverse forms of sex, love, desire, and family formation which are endemic to queer communities globally. With regard to LGBT family of origin issues, emphases on sexual disclosure and pathways to familial acceptance almost completely dominate the field, obscuring more complex family dynamics and practices that often do not center around the ‘coming out’ model. Through the grant activities, I looked for ways to facilitate a more comprehensive conversation about sexuality, gender, and family change, in ways that would be relevant to Taiwanese queer activists, practitioners, and families.

Image courtesy Amy Brainer

I opened the parent workshops in Kaohsiung and Taipei with a brief report on my research findings, followed by a more semi-structured conversation about LGBT parent-child relations in Taiwan today. It was apparent right away that although the parents listened politely to the report, their interest and excitement surrounded the opportunity to share their own stories one by one. During this experience, I felt as if the parents were still the ones ‘giving’ and I the recipient, and I briefly struggled to reconcile this with my wish to use the grant to ‘give back’ to the community. I had to step further out of my academic box to recognize what perhaps should have been obvious from the start—that what I have to ‘give’ such parents is not, in fact, a report, or the larger context I sought to provide for their stories, but rather a platform from which to speak about their own lives. The value of the workshop, for them, was in the ritual of testifying, of being heard, and in the creation of a space where their voices could be amplified. Questions I posed to the parents also sparked some animated discussions as they compared life experiences. One particularly interesting stream of our conversation concerned variation in the experiences and needs of mothers of T (butch) versus po (femme) lesbian daughters. As I am currently writing a new analytic chapter about this issue, this was a rare opportunity for me to workshop my ideas with mothers themselves.

Image courtesy Amy Brainer

I culminated my trip with a symposium on queer family issues arranged to coincide with the International Lesbian and Gay Association-Asia conference in Taipei. The event was advertised locally as well as to conference participants from other parts of Asia. I used this opportunity to give a more structured talk about my research results, followed by an open forum for participants to speak on family issues that they perceive to be critical and/or under-examined in the areas where they live and work. I highlighted the dearth of attention to material inequalities as a source of family pressure for queer women and their heterosexual mothers. In particular, I identified housing insecurity and the gendered distribution of family work and resources as key lesbian family issues emerging from my data. These results resonated with many audience members, who shared personal stories relating to the findings and analysis. In addition, many people expressed an interest in reading the book (now a manuscript in preparation), confirming to me the importance of making this work available in Chinese.

Hosting the symposium during ILGA-Asia opened up a regional conversation that was particularly generative. Participants shared about their work in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Singapore. Many of the questions and comments drew comparisons among diverse Asian contexts. Opportunities for collaboration also emerged. For example, a filmmaker connected with an NGO addressing similar family issues; I received an invitation to visit an organization in southern China and to consider conducting comparative fieldwork there. The presence of practitioners added another meaningful dimension to the workshop, as therapists shared about ways in which the topics discussed related to work with clients in their respective countries.

Image courtesy Amy Brainer

Largely through the generous spirit of my hosts and participants alike, the grant activities met my larger goal of nurturing collaborative relationships not only across geographic regions, but also across the borders that often separate research from activism. I am excited about the new networks that emerged from this symposium. I also appreciate this opportunity to pay respect to long time activists whose work paved the way for my own. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the ongoing support of the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, which co-sponsored and advertised my event. Hotline’s dedication and passionate activism around diverse queer issues is among my greatest sources of inspiration as a scholar and as a queer woman, and I value every opportunity to share with and learn from this group. I am deeply grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for funding this research and the return trip.