2015 rai postgraduate conference: anthropology and the politics of engagement manchester, 4-5 june

Critically assessing notions of poverty in indigenous society

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Critically assessing notions of poverty in indigenous society

Boana Visser

University of Kent

Based on ethnographic research conducted in Panama, this paper explores the complexity of notions of poverty in an Amerindian society. It seeks to critique the application of a neo-liberal notion of poverty to indigenous societies without considerations for indigenous perspectives and values.


Do indigenous peoples consider themselves to be poor? This question is largely disregarded in accounts on the state of the world’s indigenous peoples, in which they are simply presented as the poorest populations worldwide without reference to their own experiences or interpretations. These accounts, however, are based on a definition of poverty grounded in principles of neo-liberal development and do not provide space for alternative notions of poverty. In anthropological studies of Lowland South American peoples the issue of indigenous poverty is often side-stepped as a main focus and studies on Amerindian notions of poverty are virtually non-existent. This paper taps into emerging debates on whether indigenous groups need saving from poverty, by critically assessing the usefulness of the concept to describe living conditions among Amerindian societies. Based on ethnographic research conducted in Panama, this paper explores the complexity of notions of poverty in Amerindian society. Taking development theory as a starting point, it critiques the application of Western notions of poverty to indigenous societies without considerations for indigenous perspectives and values. If development is aimed toward alleviating poverty, then organisations and governments need to consider indigenous assessments of their own socio-economic conditions. What this paper calls for, then, is a more emic view of poverty which an anthropological approach can help to provide. By making poverty a greater focus of anthropological studies, and thereby examining different notions of the concept, anthropology can provide fresh insights to the fields of economic and community development.

Session Two – C

2.30-4.00 pm

Illness and its Discontents: Concepts and Narratives

Convener: Theodoros Kyriakides

A tale of good psychologist, insensible psychiatrist and terrible doctor. The perception of polish medical system in the narrations of patients with phobias and neuroses

Karol Górski

University of Warsaw

In this paper I will examine the personal narrations of people from Poland suffering from phobia and/or neurosis. I focus on the perception of the contemporary Polish medical system – paying attention to interlocutors' experiences with physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists.


Phobias and neuroses are more and more common anxiety disorders in Poland. Somatic symptoms (heartaches, dysponeas) often lead people to see the physicians, chronic anxiety or panic attacks cause them to visit psychologists and psychiatrists. In this paper, drawing on the in-depth interviews conducted between January and March 2015, I examine personal narrations of Polish citizens with phobias and neuroses. I focus on the perception of the contemporary medical system in Poland. This research is located within the field of medical anthropology with the emphasis on the subjective experiences of suffering people (Kleinman 1988; Frank 1995; Hyden 1997; Mattingly 2007; Corin 2010; Jackson 2010). Research shows that physicians are seen as hostile (stigmatizing people with mentioned disorders) and incompetent (not capable for going beyond the body dimension to localize the patient's problems), psychiatrists are considered as mostly interested in prescribing the drugs (swinging on them the whole healing process), whereas the psychologists (therapists) are seen in the very positive light (offering comfort and understanding, providing language to describe patients' problems). It results in undermining the trust into the physicians and psychiatrists as a reliable sources of knowledge but it leads to elevate the prestige of psychotherapists and psychotherapy itself (see: Jacyno 2007). Referring to Baer's idea of “medical pluralism” (2004), the treatment of neuroses and phobias in Poland can be seen as moving outside the control of physicians and psychiatrists into the surveillance of psychologists.

Anthropology and sexual education: practices, critical perspectives and engagement

Nicoletta Landi

University of Bologna

An anthropological action-research of an Italian public sexual education program for teenagers reveals how sexualities are conceptualised and educated. It cues to discuss the role of public anthropology engaging major ethical and political subjects like human rights and sexual health promotion.


Aim of this intervention is to reflect on the chance, specifically for Italian anthropologists, to get (or not) engaged in public interest topics working inside and outside the academia. Starting from a specific case study – the participation to the development and to the trial of a sexual education program for teenagers – I would like to think about anthropology’s contribution in the debate on sexual education, health promotion and public policies concerning human sexual rights. These issues are not just important anthropological topics, but part of the public ethical and poliltical debate. Cooperation with Public Health Institutions leads to develop and to articulate an engaged anthropological approach, keeping a critical point of view in order to analyse and to reveal power relations in the political social, educational and health public services. In the specific case of sexual education, anthropology can suggest innovative questions and solutions. Ethical engagement is a stimulating matter to deal with: self-positioning and values, which often cross activism, can contribute to create a new scientific way to do anthropology and to be anthropologists. Commending and defending sexual identities, practices and representations plurality should be the goal of those Public Health Interventions that aim to promote sexual and relational well-being. Anthropology has a fundamental and active role dealing with professionals from many other branches of knowledge: renegotiating methodologies and issues in order to empower anthropology’s public recognition and to promote sexual education as human right.

The challenges and questions raised with ‘being-an-insider’ first, and then trying to be anthropologist

Daksha Madhu Rajagopalan

University of Aberdeen

A personal, reflexive piece on the challenges and questions raised with ‘being-an-insider’ first, and then trying to be an anthropologist, in regards to a holistic healing system called Aura-Soma.


What does it mean to do ethnography with something you know intimately? If an experience has passed by and you experienced it as a participant, is it possible to turn back months or even years later and academically think through it with a ‘reflexive ethnographic eye’? – Or, does engaged ethnography need to be more pre-planned an encounter? This is a reflexive piece, which raises questions that I faced when thinking through how to write anthropologically about Aura-Soma, a system of wellness, healing, and colour-therapy, of which I am also a practitioner. Do my loyalties lie with being a practitioner or an anthropologist, and what are the possibilities of being both, simultaneously? Thinking through how my training, practice, and personal experience with this holistic-healing system can ‘speak back’ to more academic, anthropological approaches, I also revisit the discussion on the native anthropologist. How can I ask my reader to take my experiences in Aura-Soma on equally credible footing as other anthropological work on embodiment and health? This paper also probes at the extent to which academic credibility comes with distance. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Martin Holbraad have asked in various places how we can take others’ realities seriously; I would add the question of how to take my own reality seriously, when it is a reality far-removed from the me-as-anthropologist self: the tension of engagement and scholarship, but within the individual experience of ethnographic thinking. There is also a dimension of ethics involved; is it even ethical to go back and reflect on what I learned through interactions with others when they didn’t know (and I didn’t know) I was an anthropologist?

Conceptual/ ising breakdowns

Peter Fusezi

Lancaster University
Summary: A paper dealing with assistive technologies developed in a university department. Through ethnographic fieldwork I show how technologies operate outside market and mass production logics.

My presentation is an attempt to explore some of the key troubles that I have so far encountered with the notion and definitional problems of assistive technology. I draw on both particular stories and the more general reflection on the overall course of my fieldwork, that was conducted in a university department, specialised in developing assistive technologies. To start with a definition, one can see assistive devices a special class of technologies, which, as their main feature, enable their users to do things. While this improvised definition sounds vague and problematic, I am convinced that the problems are not only definitional. First of all, the term assistive technology is a tautology, insofar as all technologies are assistive in their effects. I propose that to resolve some of these definitional problems, one has to appreciate that technology and dis/ability, the key concepts of the above definition can appear unproblematic only as the result of extensive socio-technical ordering. In what follows, fieldwork material is mobilised to demonstrate how some of the practices, that normalise commodities, technologies and dis/abled bodies, can become discernible. Assistive technologies, and the way they are connected to their users, can offer an interesting comparison, or even a key, to better understand mainstream technologies. Unlike the latter, assistive technologies usually serve small groups of users, with individuals, whose needs cannot be typified and have often limited abilities to adapt their behaviour as users. Further, assistive technologies are provided and evaluated by the state or charities through the healthcare system. Hence, these technologies represent trajectories of development and distribution, that run outside the standard territories of both mass production and market exchange. This can be also demonstrated by tracing how the metalanguage of frameworks, names and definitions, that were developed to describe mass production and market exchange, breaks down when used to understand assistive technologies

Session Three – A

4.30-6.00 pm

Critical Collaborations

Convener: Peter Fusezi

Engaged anthropologist, disengaged research: activist anthropologist amongst an anti-immigration movement

Annastiina Kallius

University of Amsterdam

While engagement is often seen as the moral duty of anthropologists, it is also problematic. Drawing on a case study from Hungary, I suggest that given the increasing salience of extreme right, localized social movements in Southern and Eastern Europe, there is a need for disengaged anthropological study


Despite the rise of extreme right movements that border vigilantism as a result of popular disillusionment with the central state and austerity measures, anthropological accounts of activism still mostly look at left-wing movements, leading to a problematic relationship with engagement. This paper draws on ethnographic fieldwork among anti-immigration activists in a small village in Western Hungary as well as the researcher’s personal history of activism and engagement in the Hungarian No Border movement. What are the ethical consequences of the simultaneous embeddedness in two seemingly antagonistic social settings? How may an otherwise engaged anthropologist remain disengaged during fieldwork, and what kind of responsibility does that carry towards one’s informants? I seek to tentatively answer these questions by drawing attention to the similarities and differences of the two social movements. The values of the anti-immigration protest and the No Border movement, although seemingly contradictory, converge on multiple accounts: their opposition to the centralized governance of the state, perceived dominance of the European Union, and the resulting opposition to EU asylum policy. Economic policies set aside, however, considerable friction remains regarding the desired nature of the state’s border as well as policies relating to immigrants and refugees. The paper outlines the ethical and practical reasons why, for an otherwise engaged anthropologist conducting research in an antagonistic setting, disengagement becomes a pre-requisite for informed research. This problematization engagement is important, given the increasing salience of extreme right, localized social movements in Southern and Eastern Europe, and the need for disengaged anthropologists studying them.

The Dynamics of Interactions between Archaeologists and Local Communities in Sudan

Rebecca Bradshaw

SOAS, University of London

This paper presents a selection of results from three seasons of ethnographic research that sought to investigate the political economy of archaeological heritage sites in Sudan. The results discussed here emerged from observations and conversations in which I asked, ‘In what ways do archaeologists interact with the communities in which they live? Despite repeated declarations of their ‘apolitical’ status, field archaeologists adopt multiple, highly political and ‘un-archaeological’ roles when interacting with members of Sudanese communities. They operate as ‘employers’, ‘humanitarians’ and ‘guests’, and often struggle to reconcile one personality with another. Members of the community, too, find themselves having to negotiate being at once ‘employees’, ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘hosts’; conversions that are problematic as power dynamics shift significantly with each role. To take one salient example, the practice of employing Sudanese (semi)nomadic men to work as archaeological labourers affects the operation of informal economic loan systems such as sandook and ishtrakiyya, which are typically controlled by the sedentary populations living next to the Nile. New networks of economic inter-dependence (and new fiscal calendars) are thus created and established power structures become distorted as previously marginalized people achieve new forms of influence over the village economy. This paper argues that the intersection of the roles described above --and more importantly the specific impact these roles have-- fundamentally politicize the interaction between archaeologists and members of Sudanese communities. Therefore, it is the author’s conviction that the principles that underpin theoretical shifts in the object of excavation should also apply to archaeological practices in the context of excavation.

Veiling the media: the case study in ethnographic journalism

Pina Sadar

Durham University

The paper delves into the concept of ethnographic journalism through the prism of a PhD study on Islamic veiling in the UK and media pieces that have emerged from it. Focusing on methodology, ethics and impact of ethnographic journalism, the paper aims to explore collaborative potentials between anthropology, media and the public.


The media have been increasingly attracting anthropological interest and attention, and have turned into a nascent fieldsite for academic research. Whilst anthropological engagement with the media is commonly a strictly analytical one, this paper focuses on their collaborative potential. The largely overlooked concept of ‘ethnographic journalism’ (e.g. Aliefendioğlu, 2011; Hermann, 2014) builds upon the anthropological understanding of complex relationships between people and the media. It moreover brings forth the profound knowledge of and insights into the topics that are commonly subjected to misrepresentations and over-simplified media discourses. As such, ethnographic journalism represents a welcome alternative model for resisting and reforming conventional journalistic epistemology based on neutrality and objectivity. It proposes a distinct mode of narration, accentuates emic perspectives and offers a holistic approach towards framing the topics. This ethnographic journalistic practice is explored through the prism of a specific case study – my PhD project on Islamic veiling in the UK and media pieces that have emerged from it. Following the trajectory of my own research, the paper explores the need for ethnographic journalism, sketches methodological approaches and reflects on theoretical and practical ethical dilemmas. It moreover focuses on the impact of ethnographic journalism for the research participants, communities, anthropology and the media.

Towards an Anthropology of Testimony: working against silence of Egyptian Counter-Narratives

Sabine Bauer

The Austrian Academy of Sciences

Four years after the revolution Cairo is shaped by military controlled narratives, which are confronted by social media, the re-appropriation of public space or everyday practices of resistance of the revolutionary youth. As these processes are silenced by the state, it is the duty of anthropologists to bear witness and work against the process of silencing.


The revolution in 2011 in Egypt demanded the liberation of a corrupt system based on military rule and its replacement by “bread, freedom and social justice.” This liberation from stagnation and oppression was not realized during the past four years. However, the activists on the square experienced the regaining of their voices after years of being silenced. The many civil movements, artists and journalists, as well as “everyday resistance” proof new spaces for cultural self-expressions. Despite the tries of their crackdown by the “new” military rule through either direct force or the embedding into threat-to- national-security-frames and moral panic, these forms of civil activism are still ongoing and are now connected to international audiences through social media, diaspora networks or new alliances after the revolution, allowing for new forms of agency and transnational solidarity and giving space for alternative encounters to what is happening in Egypt. As the most powerful actor within the narratives about the legacy of the revolution and the contemporary history of the country, the Egyptian Army became a gate keeper to choose how the revolution should be remembered and which voices should be heard or neglected. This process happens simultaneously with a process of violently silencing counter voices. However, there is new agency that new social media provides in order to physically store counter memories. I argue that in research contexts, where memories and narratives of marginalized groups are threatened to be forgotten or silenced, anthropology becomes more than just simple recording of behaviour patterns and meanings. Anthropology of testimony becomes a moral duty in order to give voices to the once overheard by global politics and media representation. By avoiding joining the canon of silencing and working against forgetting, anthropologist can take an active role in knowledge production. This is where our moral duty starts and where our presence becomes meaningful.

Session Three – B

4.30-6.00 pm

Methodologies and Explorations of Youth

Convener: Louise Laverty

A Space “In-Between”: Liminality and Landscape on the Thailand-Burma Border

Courney Wittekind

University of Oxford

This paper explores the use of visual auto-ethnography as a means of mediating the processes through which displaced children negotiate their social liminality, within the liminal space of the borderland.


This article explores the experiences of migrating youth along the Thailand-Burma (Myanmar) border through the lens of “in-between-ness,” seeking to understand how their social liminality relates to the liminal spaces in which they move. I analyse young people’s engagement with physical space and the built environment to establish how the experience of existing between social categories produces—and is produced by— “liminal landscapes” (Andrews and Roberts 2012), such as borderlands and state peripheries. I show how youth find their way in a world of liminality, producing ambiguity between social and spatial binaries, and embracing the sense of risk and power tied to the prospect of existing “betwixt and between” (Turner 1967). In seeking to reconcile the materiality of space with the immaterial processes by which it gains meaning for migrating youth, this research places a particular emphasis on methodological questions associated with collaborative ethnography and the utility of “auto-ethnography” in the form of photography. In this paper, I argue that visual methods, as a particular form of collaborative research, invite an opportunity to more fully integrate geographical and socio-cultural approaches to liminality, highlighting not just the social nor the spatial elements of life “in- between,” but allowing both modes of analysis to coalesce.

Potentialities and politics of youth-centered methodologies: Youth and tourism in the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Carolina Meneses Zamora

Susan Frohlick

University of Manitoba


In the context of global tourism in Costa Rica, I explore the potentialities and politics of youth- centered methodologies, as part of my research engagement in critical discussions about the cultural agency of youth, and the disruption of stereotypes about Afro- Caribbean young people.


As both a researcher and community member of a Caribbean town in Costa Rica, my (Meneses Zamora) academic interests have emerged within the context of economic exchanges and cultural encounters that take place there. In this region inhabited in the present by people of diverse nationalities, global tourism holds a particular promise for youth. This is especially so for the local Afro-Caribbean and other ethnic minority youth who historically, in comparison with youth from dominant Costa Rican society, have had limited access to employment and educational opportunities. Aiming to understand the impacts of tourism in the lives and subjectivities of this population, I explore the potential, and also the ethical concerns, in using a youth-centered methodology. I am part of a project led by a Canadian anthropologist (Frohlick), and together as a Canadian-Costa Rican team we aspire to create and facilitate spaces and strategies for local young people to actively participate in this reflection of their lives. With this aim, we are willing to explore the use of visuals methods for meaningfully engaged local youth in our research process. In my paper I relate our concerns to wider debates in the anthropology of youth, more specifically, a recognition of non-adult centric discourses and also questions of youth agency. One of the main questions we grapple with is whether or how youth-centered methodologies hold the promise to disrupt and reformulate stereotypes about poor, racialized young people.

City Play in Cairo

Paloma Yáñez

University of Manchester

This paper focuses on Mini-Medina, a simulated real-size city scenario for children to learn about the mechanisms of a city, imagining their ideal city and their role in society.


Play, although very present culturally in Cairo, is seen as a form of entertainment rather than an endogenous human characteristic. As such any debate of play is excluded from educational policies and consequently from the schooling system. This came to my attention in 2012 when I contributed to the creation of the first play-based educational scenario in Cairo. This project was inspired by the mini city educational model, present in over 70 countries of the world, and took the name of Mini-Medina ('mini-city' in Arabic). The project aims to create a simulated real-size city scenario for children to learn about the mechanisms of a city, imagining their ideal city and their role in society. During childhood every child goes through a process of discovery in which they make sense of themselves and the world around using their experience and imagination. This film is a journey shown in two screens contrasting the different roles children can take in the city and later how those roles transform as they grow up. Exploring the different interpretations and desires towards everyday life that children have in the city, revealing how in play the child learns to adapt to culture while acquiring tools to recreate and reinvent society. The film, shot in Cairo, seeks to portray the different ways children have of playing the city and play in the city, experimenting with the thin line that distinguishes play from reality.

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