Suggested by Public Anthropologist – A World of Babies

Today’s suggested book is A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Eight Societies, edited by Alma Gottlieb and Judy DeLoache. With a first edition published in 2000 and widely read, the almost entirely new, updated edition of A World of Babies confirms the authors capacity to merge ethnography and informed research with original and accessible writing.

Simply put it, the editors explain that the primary aim of the book “is to illustrate how childcaring customs of any community, however peculiar and unnatural they may appear to an outsider, make sense when understood within the context of that society, as well as within its broader geopolitical context. Childcare practices vary so much across time and space precisely because they are firmly embedded in divergent physical, economic, and cultural realities.”

The book also addresses the challenges that poverty and globalization pose for parents. A good example of public scholarship.

A View from Beyond the Ivory Tower: An Addendum to Elizabeth Dunn’s “The Problem with Assholes.”

I am a fourth generation academic. I am the daughter, niece, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of professors.  I left academia soon after I got my PhD, because I had neither the money nor the patience to keep playing the adjunct/visiting appointment/job market game.  I became a teacher.  So my fight is not your fight.  But by way of encouragement, and caution, I would like to add some observations to those of Elizabeth Dunn.

1)            Beware the manipulation of selective targeting, by means of which the assholes corrode the solidarity of their weaker colleagues.  “Well, he doesn’t treat me that way,” as readers may know, is one of the notorious traps that women fall into as they form relationships with abusive partners. In our  highly prestigious PhD-granting department (yes, we two Elizabeths take our inspiration from the same program), the confusion of selective targeting was endemic to maintaining a culture of assholery.  One cohort had a great experience with a professor who was abusive toward another class.  Professors were verbally abusive of different individual students.  Professors who abused some students comforted others when their colleagues abused them, thus winning their undying loyalty – their colleagues may well have been doing the same thing for them!  My abusive advisor was entirely supportive of me for several years – until I became “his student,” formally as well as de facto.  During those years I heard plenty of stories and even witnessed his abusive behavior toward other students – but, I thought, he doesn’t treat me that way, and he was really supportive when Professor X… etc.  I fell into a trap that I had known about before starting grad school, due to recovery from an abusive relationship with a professional mentor outside of academia that I ended by… leaving for graduate school.  What if people who are NOT treated abusively supported those who are?  Assholes who think nothing of bullying one student, or a few students, might reconsider their sense of entitlement if they faced consequences from ALL their students.

“Do not be a bystander!” is a key point in our middle school anti-bullying curriculum.  I have presented scenarios from my graduate school experience in our anti-bullying lessons, and it’s pretty sad to see 8th graders better able to identify abuse and discuss counter-measures than people with PhDs.

2)            I have seen “amplification” work, and it’s awesome.  A professor with whom at least one of my female colleagues had a great advisorial relationship, go figure, quickly showed our class that he was ready and willing to offend anybody – you’re a woman, you’re Jewish, you’re gay, you’re black, whatever, he had something for everyone.  But there were more women in the class than members of the other groups, so we were his main focus.  I don’t know how the guys stumbled onto it, but tag-teaming by male graduate students won us the battle, if not the war.  Two minutes after he dismissed somebody’s point, a hand would go up: “To get back to the point that My Female Classmate made a few minutes ago…[that you dismissed instantly], I wanted to add…”  and then, after another two minutes, another hand:  “But to return to the point that My Male Classmate and My Female Classmate were pursuing [before you cut both of them off]….”   It was utterly supportive and completely disruptive of the professor’s assholery, all without breaking a single rule of academic discourse.   I have never forgotten it.  I am grateful to this day.

3)            At one point, I went to a consistently supportive professor who was being worked half to death by emotionally supporting every victim who came to her, and said, “He behaves in this way because his colleagues allow it, and his graduate students allow it.” She replied, “This is not a confrontative culture, Elizabeth.”  And it wasn’t.  And under the prevailing circumstances she may well have been right to wait for her own, eventually inevitable, turn to be chair – when she, with allies, could, and did, make changes.  But I think the era of Wounded Warriors waiting for their turn for institutional power within the inherited institutional structures is over.  Those institutional structures are collapsing all around us. Is it worth the wait?  How much remains to inherit?

4)            Specifically to Dunn’s first suggestion, “Creating a Disciplinary Code of Conduct:” the most liberating thing ever said to me in response to my describing my situation, to a friend who happened to be ethicist by academic specialty (thank you, Michael Jaycox), was “Oh! That’s unethical.  You know, academics don’t have a code of professional ethics that covers our relationships with students and colleagues.  We are entirely dependent on the mentoring we ourselves received.  One of my professors is working on that.”  In this case the person I was describing was the female enabler (the “F.E.”), an undergraduate advisor not yet mentioned (it’s quite a society, isn’t it?).  His comment allowed me to move from, “How could she have done that to me?” to “How would she have known not to do it?”  I was then, from the safety of my non-academic career, able to approach my F.E. with some empathy.  The empathy was abusively rejected because empathy inevitably implies a wrong having been committed; it is a step forward from utter anger.  The F.E. was unable to face up even to my having been angry, past tense; she was unable to face my clear persistence in thinking that I had been wronged.  She had also been wronged.  That’s one of the ways that assholery perpetuates itself – “I survived, and I decided it was all worth it, so it was all right for me to encourage you to get into the same situation.”*  The F.E. perceived an implied accusation, and was hurt by it, and I can understand that.  But she got an academic career out of it, in a supportive environment that gave her, in due course, institutional power.  That outcome is rare now.  Even at my highly prestigious program, the kind which fills more than half the jobs, as Dunn writes, only about half of the PhDs of my decade got tenure track appointments (this from departmental records that I had the opportunity to scan)**.   And that coveted outcome often comes at an unsustainably high cost — financial, emotional, personal, physical.  Our institutions cannot be saved by people whose professional socialization and working conditions just suck.  Too many anthropologists are people who are either damaged, or damaging others, or both.  We need academics who have not had their spirit sucked out of them by the dementors, who have not become vampires by the bites of other vampires.

5)            It’s change or die, people.  Education from kindergarten through the PhD and beyond has been under persistent attack from the political right since those late 80’s days when we frittered away our seminar time in spurious debates about post-modernism (I thank Ira Bashkow for that point).  That I view the disintegration of academia from the safety of a secure job with a decent salary, here in my poverty-stricken urban school district, depends on this city’s decades of history in the labor movement.  Charter schools?  We FILL that approval hearing room with well-prepared, angry teachers.  Inequitable funding?  We sue the state’s ass.  Unsupportive elected officials?  See you in November.  I may be a fourth generation academic by birth, but after I got the damn PhD, I had the luck to find a job teaching among the grandchildren of factory workers, who understand that mutual respect = survival.  It is a lesson that my community of origin would do well to learn, fast.  Some on the political right, I believe, simply stand back and laugh while we destroy one another, while responsible state legislators legitimately wonder why state budgets should fund Assholery.  Academics, whether privately or publicly employed, are supposed to be public servants, not assholes.  Assholery is indefensible in the state houses, as much as in the Halls of Academe.  State universities educate over 70% of American undergraduates, according the U.S. News and World Report, so when underfunding forces them to casualize and cut, the entire sector is affected.  Departments filling over half their positions with the damaged and the damaging – blindly hiring from the Highest Citadels of Assholery – is an existential threat.  Solidarity is a survival strategy.

*There were other ethically iffy specifics to my situation, which combine to make it unique. However, they also fall under the general question, “How do we think about our personal experiences as we ethically give professional advice?”  A thoughtful answer to that question belongs in Dunn’s suggested Disciplinary Code of Conduct.  I would be delighted to help write it.

**Those records also show that the above-mentioned Supportive Female Professor brought twice the number of students through to the PhD than any other professor in that department, during that decade – another workload reward of being a decent person within a Culture of Assholery.

The Problem with Assholes

Anthropology has an asshole problem. If the recent revelations about misconduct at the journal HAU have made one thing clear, it’s that there is a culture of mistreatment and bullying in the discipline. There is a pervasive elitism that enables some people – those at elite institutions or in structural positions of power – to act like assholes to people who are weaker, including students, junior faculty, and scholars who are deemed unworthy.

The asshole problem is far larger than one editor at one journal. It’s a problem that has haunted the discipline for decades, at least since I have been in anthropology. I remember being a first-year anthropology student at a Prestigious University in the Midwest, sobbing in the bathroom because a Big Famous Professor had stood up in front of the class and delivered a 15 minute lecture on how he was against my being admitted, how he’d seen nothing so far to change his opinion, and how I would never, ever make it as an anthropologist. I was eight weeks into graduate school, and I had had a cerebro-vascular accident on the first day. With one exception, every other woman in my first year class ended up crying that first year, having been keelhauled by a faculty member. It was a culture of brutality that, thanks to the spread of the department’s students to other departments, became a part of the norms of the discipline. We learned it was normal to see people treated this way; we learned to enact those forms of brutality in every day action and we replicated them.

The point here is that assholery is not antithetical to the discipline, despite our self-declared commitments to equality, decolonization, appreciation of the diversity of humankind, and other high-minded principles. Assholery structures the entire discipline from top to bottom, shaping the goals and dreams of graduate students, allowing faculty at every rank to sneer at those in lesser positions (or, God forbid, working outside academia), and determining our formal criteria for hiring, promotion and tenure. We are a discipline of assholes.

Why do I use the word “asshole,” a term so vulgar that it rarely appears in scholarly discourse? Think of it as a technical term. Aaron James is the author of Assholes: A Theory, a brilliant book that defines assholery in rigorous philosophical terms. James uses three criteria to identify an asshole:

  1. He allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systemically.
  2. He does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement.
  3. He is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

Assholes take advantage of other people because they feel that it is their natural right to do so.   They yell and berate other people because they think they are so brilliant or so busy or so moral that they have the right to do so, they deceive other people because they think it’s in the service of a higher good (usually their own), and they demean other people because they feel that they are already superior to them.

Assholes are, of course, the scourge of the modern era. Self-serving narcissists are in every walk of life, from the grocery store to the White House, and assholery has become not only the moral principle behind American life, but the driving force in contemporary capitalism. But assholery in anthropology takes on a special aroma, because of the formal and informal hierarchies that structure the discipline. So, to James’ three general criteria, we could add three special ones to define AnthroAssholes:

  1. They value theory, preferably pitched in impermeable language meant to scare away outsiders and addressed at issues only of interest to those in the In Crowd, at the expense of ethnographic inquiry into other people’s lives. (This, ironically, was the thing HAU was founded to move away from but ended up replicating).
  2. They judge the worth of an idea by the pedigree of the person advancing it, particularly by their past or present affiliations to prestigious institutions.
  3. They engage in what Carlota McAllister has called “bigtiming,” or the ritual enactment of their own status in relation to others both by belittling, ignoring, and excluding others and by ritually anointing those they deem worthy.

Notice that criticizing the ideas of others is not on the list of asshole behavior. That is both because it is a legitimate function of scholarly discourse, and because in the ritual dance that is bigtiming, criticism is a mark of honor and inclusion, not of dismissal. Assholes know that the real cut in anthropology is not to be criticized, but to be ignored.

One of the major reasons there is a disciplinary nomenklatura in the first place has to do with the way anthropology reproduces itself. More than 20% of the jobs are filled by graduates of the top five placing departments; more than 50% are filled by graduates of the top 15. This has led to incredible elitism, in which the worth of someone’s contribution is often judged by the place they got their PhD or the institution where they hold a job. Those anointed “superstars” have, by the virtue of their position and status, the privilege of anointing others by publishing their work or by naming them to huge and largely non-functional editorial boards whose rosters serve as lists of the nomenklatura. Those with the power to anoint generally anoint others who have the same PhD pedigree, who do work that agrees with theirs, and who circulate in their same networks, which leaves people with degrees from outside this small range of departments, who aren’t in the networks of people from elite institutions, with little chance to break in (see Kawa et. al. 2016, which offers startling statistics on this).

This has created a class system that incessantly reproduces intellectual and social elitism in which people with the social capital to get into a “prestigious” institution in the first place reap more social capital by virtue of their networks. Classism is thus a fundamental platform for assholery. Firing one editor won’t change the disciplinary class system, nor will reorganizing a journal that has the same editorial board, connected to the same networks. We have to break the star system by finding ways to let people who did not go to the top five institutions enter these networks. That means using a conscious strategy to publish scholars from outside elite networks, to invite them to conference panels, editorial boards and visible service positions, and to open the social world of the discipline (AAA parties, etc.) to them. Every Ph.D. producing department, every hiring committee, and every single journal in the discipline needs to make formal commitments for including scholars at community colleges and land-grant institutions.

In the wake of the HAU debacle, many anthropologists have suggested that AnthroAssholery is a manifestation of the discipline’s perennial racism, coloniality, and misogyny. This may well be true. There have been long and very credible explorations of the discipline’s racist history and the ways that has affected its canon and hierarchy. Likewise, there have been significant revelations about the discipline’s enduring sexism. But assholery is not limited to white men, even though they certainly make up a good portion of the assholes. Assholes can be women (I know because I have been one, frequently) and people of color. Some women of color even have a term for white women’s assholery: “Beckyism,” or the crying of crocodile tears after they throw somebody else under the bus to advance their own cause (I thank Kaifa Roland for this information). Assholery is contagious. Once people see an asshole being an asshole and winning, actually gaining power and prestige by being an obnoxious self-interested bully, it creates a huge incentive for other people to emulate that behavior. Assholery has ripple effects as it spreads in the form of disciplinary norms that not only enable, but hyper-value nasty, elitist, demeaning behavior.

To say this a different way: Racism, colonialism and sexism are like the congestive heart failure of the discipline, long-standing but slow-moving problems that will eventually kill it, that we have all known about for decades but have been unwilling or unable to change our habits to address. Assholery is more like a heart attack, an emergency caused by the deeper underlying problem. When an emergency caused by assholes hits, it’s immediate and throws everyone into crisis mode. Limiting assholery does not invalidate the deeper critique of the discipline’s racism or sexism. It’s emergency medicine, meant to stop more damage from occurring while the underlying etiology of the problem can be solved. Thus the immediate question then isn’t why people are assholes (although that’s a problem that has to be understood in the longer term), but how to limit the assholes in the short term, so that we can gain the space to deal with the fundamental problem.

Luckily, there are steps that can be taken immediately. Aaron James suggests that the flourishing of assholery in the general culture is due in part to the weakening of what he calls “asshole dampening systems.” He mentions family, religion, and the regulatory state as three systems that put limits on how much an asshole could do before he was sanctioned. What are potential asshole dampening systems that we could enact as a discipline? This is the conversation we need to engage in now. I propose six, as a starting point:

  1. Creating a Disciplinary Code of Conduct: The AAA has a code of conduct for protecting human subjects, meaning the people we work with in the field. But we have no code for protecting students, contingent faculty, and colleagues. We need a code of conduct that spells out in detail what kind of behavior is beyond the pale and that sets a tone for disciplinary interactions. AAA’s new sexual harassment policy is a start, but we need a policy for harassment that isn’t overtly sexual but is nonetheless harassment. Moreover, we need mechanisms to enforce this code in ways that do not unduly burden the aggrieved party.
  2. Treating Graduate Students as Employees: In some European countries, graduate students are not students, but employees of the university. They get a modest but livable wage, full benefits, and access to all the structures that ensure (or at least attempt to ensure) the fair treatment of workers. It is true that making graduate students into employees would be costly, and would dramatically reduce the number of PhDs granted. Given the state of the job market, wouldn’t contracting the labor supply while treating that labor more equitably and humanely be a good idea.
  3.  Practice Amplification: “Amplification” was the name given to a strategy used by women in the Obama Administration. When a remark made by a woman was passed over, her female colleagues would repeat the comment and give credit to the person who first said it. It worked: Obama noticed and began taking the ideas of women more seriously.   Anthropologists can practice amplification by placing a special premium on publishing the work of people from outside the usual networks and by making special efforts to cite underrepresented scholars and people from outside the top 15 institutions. This not coincidentally tends to also valorize work by women, people of color, and members of other marginalized groups, as the #citeblackwomen campaign has shown.
  4. Creating a Metric for Hiring Beyond the Top Five Departments: In 2016, the top ten Ph.D. granting departments filled 43% of jobs. AAA and EASA should publish this statistic annually, and we should set a target that reduces this number substantially. Members of hiring committees can contribute to this effort by not using Ph.D. granting department as a proxy for the worth of candidates’ work, and by devaluing letters of recommendation from high-profile scholars.
  5. Issuing a Disciplinary Standard for Tenure and Promotion that Valorizes Work Beyond Journal Articles and Monographs: One of the problems that the HAU scandal brought to light was how much young scholars are dependent on editors of the top five journals for progress in their careers. Because departments often demand that junior scholars publish single-authored articles in a top five journal, the editors of these journals have enormous power. If the discipline devalues these journal articles and valorizes other forms of scholarly activity, the oligopoly that runs the discipline will be broken. The AAA Guidelines for Tenure and Promotion Review go in this direction.  We should value work published in wide-circulation media more highly, not less highly, than scholarly journal articles. We should value work in new digital media, including scholarly blog posts.
  6. Change Editorial Practices: HAU had a whopping 61 people on its editorial board, few if any did any actual work for the journal. The editor was editor-for-life. Editorial boards should be small and term-limited, and should have real oversight of the practices of the journal and its editors. Either the editorial board or the board of parent institution should regularly review the financial reports of the journal and provide an ombudsman to deal with complaints of misconduct. Editors in chief, too, should be term limited.

Anthropology has always seen itself as a profession that roots for the little guy. We pride ourselves on our commitments to equality and fairness. In an era of unrestrained social assholery, in which the rich and powerful have come to feel their wealth and power is their natural right, anthropology has the power to throw those assumptions into question. But to do so, we have to save our own discipline from the assholes. This will require some steep uphill battles – but it is well worth the fight.


* Many thanks to Kaifa Roland, Jason Cons, Martin Demant Frederikson, Antonio De Lauri, and Tom Widger for their thoughts on an early draft of this piece.

Question Time

“I think that the anthropology of morality and the morality of anthropologists are two interrelated subjects that cannot really be separated. In this sense, I think that someone who does not have a moral stand is not in a very good position to explore and understand the morality of others. We need a moral compass. For example, if we knew that somebody has intimidated, bullied or even sexually harassed others, how should we behave? I think we should do everything in our power to prevent those actions from happening again and to undermine the social status of the perpetrator. But, in practice, what can an undergraduate or postgraduate student in anthropology do? An early-career anthropologist of morality, like myself, what can I do? A senior anthropologist, what can they do? Thank you.”

I asked these questions at a symposium, “Where is the good in the world?” on May 18th 2016. I have been thinking about these issues, in these terms, since the beginning of my association with HAU – Journal of Ethnographic Theory.

For 2 years, from March 2013 to March 2015, I was the treasurer of HAU. I progressively became aware of its internal disorders. I was never a victim of the abuses (although I came very close just before I left) but some of my close friends and colleagues were. I could not remain indifferent, for I know that being subjected to abuse changes you, and not for the good, especially when no one cares to help. I tried to give my friends and colleagues some support, but I realized there was no way I could do much: there was a general fear that seeking justice was going to have negative consequences on their careers. Some were also afraid of having to defend themselves in court, without the financial means to do so. In short, it was an issue of power and money.

The power and money imbalance was the result of the way HAU was constituted and realized. Power was concentrated in the hands of the Editor-in-Chief because of two main factors: the perception of public support by famous academics and respected institutions, and the HAU constitution. The victims lacked money, because, quite simply, the majority of junior anthropologists live in precarious working conditions. The power resulting from the perception of public support is perhaps the most effective and the most inexplicable factor. The way the constitution enabled Giovanni Da Col to maintain his position of power, instead, is easy to illustrate.

Journals need a constitution to prevent concentrations of power so strong that it unilaterally intimidates scholars. It should contain an article stating that the position of Editor-in-Chief must be subject to terms, to prevent the accumulation of excessive power and influence over successive terms. Such an article was absent from the HAU constitution. We also need another crucial article, one that gives the Editorial Board the power to remove an Editor-in-Chief, or any other member, who breaches academic ethics. Such an article was also absent in the HAU constitution. Hence, even if members of the Board wanted to remove the Editor-in-Chief, they could not.

A more precise statement of the opening question is: what can we do when the constitution of an institution in which unethical deeds have become a public secret does not enable us to intervene? We should probably resign. Then, if everybody else does the same, the institution will lose its power and, by extension, so will the person whose deeds are problematic. But what if we are not sure that everybody else will resign? What if we cannot be sure that there will be enough support to turn this individual action into a collective action? That is exactly the situation in which many of the victims, as much as some members of the Editorial Board, found themselves: maybe they wanted to take action, but the context made them doubt whether it was a good idea. Hence, individual consciousness and courage to intervene is not necessarily the problem. The problem is that we work in a culture in which speaking up against unethical deeds perpetrated by powerful members of our academic network may turn out to be completely useless, and instead punish the ingenuous whistle-blower(s).

We need a system of incentives that encourage victims to speak without fear of professional retaliation. This system should have simple procedures that are clearly explained in the constitutions of journals and societies. It should be obvious that victims of abuses will be supported, they should have no doubt about the support they will get, no matter what. The fact that a media storm was necessary to encourage the victims of the abuses to declare, still anonymously, what they went through, is perhaps the clearest evidence that a system of incentives is currently lacking or non-existent. The lack of a system to encourage ethics of care and inclusiveness means a greater risk of their opposites to concretize: exploitation and exclusiveness, which is what happened.

The situation remained an open secret for many years and those who knew what was going on did not intervene early enough. I think it is fair to say that no one involved is entirely exempt from at least some degree of responsibility. A widespread but ill-managed sense of guilt might perhaps explain the vitriolic tones of many comments circulating on social media in the past few days. Personally, I perceived a lot of fear, presented in a variety of ways, as suspicion, hate, and panic. The Statements of the Board of Trustees, the tweets of @haujournal, and the supposed “leak” of emails, show the authors acting like important chess pieces frantically moving to the corner squares of a chessboard. Although this is perhaps an apt metaphor for a productive confrontation of arguments, we cannot hope to build a better ecology for our discipline in this climate.

Every one of those who have had something to do with this regrettable affair now needs to sit for a moment with their own consciousness and think about the people they have interacted with.

There are people who were afraid to say “help me.” They were able to come forward last week and is important to continue to give everybody the space to do so. At the same time we have to pave the way for people to say “I am sorry.” We should not be too concerned about accusing, defending our reputation, finding culprits and punishing them. We should be much more concerned with listening to our own inner voice and asking ourselves, “have I hurt someone?”, “have I failed to intervene?”, “have I done enough?”, “am I afraid to say sorry?” If we feel we have someone we should apologize to, we should probably just do it. Now. It might surprise you how easy it is, in retrospect.

What I am trying to say is that the HAU Affair is not the result of a single person’s deeds, but that of a context, a culture, a climate of fear. If we want to recreate the Society of Ethnographic Theory we need to change the atmosphere in which such a society will be able to grow and thrive. How do you feel about your colleagues? Trust? Fear?

Calling for anyone who dares to care to come forward, in private or public, give an apology, receive it, and maybe reciprocate it, might perhaps appear to be too idealistic. But I’ll do it anyway.

Suggested by Public Anthropologist – Private Oceans

Today we suggest the reading of Private Oceans. The Enclosure and Marketisation of the Seas by Fiona McCormack.

What does neoliberalization of oceans mean? What implications does it have on fishing communities and endangered fish species? How does the privatization of ecosystem services work? And what long term effects does it have?

Through fieldwork conducted in New Zealand, Iceland, Ireland and Hawaii, McCormack develops a comparative study of the dynamics driving the profound changes unleashed by a new era of ocean grabbing.



Assessing the Anthropology of Humanitarianism: Ethnography, Impact, Critique

What is the aim of an anthropology of humanitarianism? How is anthropology addressing the growing convergence of policing and aid? To what extent does the humanitarian imperative to save lives influence the work of the ethnographer in the field? What is the relationship between moral anthropology and humanitarian ethics?

In this workshop, we will address these questions by developing a comparative reflection along three main axes:

1. The ethnography of humanitarianism;
2. The impact of anthropology on the broader field of humanitarian studies;
3. The need for a political critique of humanitarianism.

The main aim of the workshop is to assess what anthropology has been able to produce in this field of study and explore the future developments and articulations of the discipline in a world where humanitarian exceptionalism is becoming the rule in a number of spheres of ordinary governance.

Organizer: Antonio De Lauri (Chr. Michelsen Institute)

Conceptually, we consider the construction and reproduction of “crisis” as a key element in the analysis of contemporary humanitarianism. As several researchers have emphasized, to describe something as “humanitarian crisis” implies facilitating specific forms of action to the detriment of others; enabling the public to think a contemporary issue (i.e. human mobility) in one way, but not in another. More than that, once a crisis is qualified in specific terms (i.e. the humanitarian crisis), it directly calls for a power that is able to manage and administer it. In opposition to a historical narration that is “disrupted and episodic” (A. Gramsci), humanitarianism corresponds to a universal narration that creates a constant nexus between crisis and the politics of exceptionalism.

The workshop places particular emphasis on the use of ethnography as a crucial instrument to investigate humanitarianism in practice. Building on the idea of ethnography as political critique, we ask what the ethnography of humanitarianism is able to reveal and produce. Ethnography does not simply hold potential for a theoretical critique of humanitarian politics, but is a form of action itself in its evidence-making practices and in its relational dimension. To understand the point of view of the “ethnographic subject” in the realm of humanitarianism means to be aware of a number of different institutional and political subjectivities who deliver “aid” as well as a wide range of social and political actors who “receive” it. At the same time, ethnography reveals a complex map of social interactions that questions the simple equation giver-receiver. Participants will reflect on the main opportunities and the main challenges of doing ethnography of/within humanitarianism, in terms of political concerns, methodological questions and ethical issues.


Erica Caple James, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology and Urban Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Andrew Gilbert, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, McMaster University.

Synnove Bendixsen, Postdoctoral fellow, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen.

Lauren Carruth, Assistant Professor at the School of International Service, American University, Washington DC.

Carna Brkovic, Lecturer and Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Regensburg.

Katerina Rozakou, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Amsterdam.

Alexander Horstmann, Associate Professor in Modern Southeast Asian Studies, University of Tallinn.

Julie Billaud, Post-Doctoral Associate, University of Sussex.

Nefissa Naguib, Professor of Anthropology, University of Oslo.

Ekatherina Zhukova, Visby Programme Postdoctoral Researcher, Lund University.

Heike Drotbohm, Professor, Heisenberg Chair of Anthropology “African Diaspora and Transnationalism,” Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

Jon Harald Sande Lie, Senior Researcher, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

Nichola Khan, Reader, University of Brighton

25 – 26 October 08:00 – 17:00 | CMI, Jekteviksbakken 31

Organised at CMI with funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

If you wish to attend the workshop, please contact

Suggested by Public Anthropologist – Against Charity

This time’s “everybody must read” book is Against Charity by Daniel Raventos and Julie Wark.

The book is both a critique of institutional charity as based on the unequal relationship between giver and receiver and a defense of kindness, understood as a call for equality and fraternity.

Raventos, a Spanish economist, and Wark, an Australian/Spanish human rights activist, develop a reflection that transcends disciplinary boundaries (anthropologists will be particularly familiar with the analysis of the “gift”) and promotes concrete instances such as the universal basic income. Against Charity is accessible and engaging. It presents a position not all readers will necessarily agree with, but one that everybody should certainly be fully aware of.



Teaching humanitarianism in Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy

In an attempt to reflect on some lectures I have delivered on humanitarianism in Lebanese, Turkish, and Italian universities over the last three years, I would like to advance a few reflections on the “public afterlife” of my experience of teaching, the language I used in those classes, and the response I received from different cohorts of students. Delving into the afterlife of my humanitarianism classes allows me to tease out some of the current epistemological challenges of my primary area of studies and underscore the very importance of de-centring the humanitarian discourse.

Humanitarianism was born from the will to assist crisis-stricken populations and alleviate their suffering, thus humanitarian intervention has historically been a symptom that states are not doing too well. As such, speaking of and teaching humanitarianism cannot produce the same effects everywhere, especially when the framework used to explain theories and concepts is not culturally customised, but is rather drawn on the one developed in British and Northern American universities and institutions.

The act of teaching humanitarian ideologies, policies, and practices is thus necessarily an act of social positioning. It is about positioning the social and public Self as a teacher, and it is about the teacher presupposing the social positioning of her own audience.

More generally, in order to teach, we all rely on what Pierre Bourdieu used to define as “linguistic capital”, the set of linguistic capabilities, ways of expressing oneself, and embracement of normative terminologies which characterise everyone’s speech. In that sense, we are all linguistically political when we choose a term at the expense of another one.

As lecturers in class we own the biggest linguistic and epistemic power: But is the language I use legitimate in response to different students and backgrounds? I am not a native English speaker myself, but having received my postgraduate education in humanitarianism in an Australian university, English is my mother tongue for teaching humanitarianism. This became a factor which is worth reflecting on, especially when I delivered lectures in countries diversely familiar with the English language, and where English is not the official language.

What shapes the cultural pattern of students across Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy is certainly not their very national origin, but I here refer to an overarching cultural framing of a multiplicity of backgrounds that come to forming an identifiable “academic culture” within different countries. It is in this sense that I will now compare my teaching experience in Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy.

In this post, my primary goal is to explain how this long established theoretical framework, that increasingly populates academic books and media outlets, does not meet its listeners identically. I believe teaching humanitarianism particularly tests the students’ cultural dispositions – dually meant as both habitus and cultural capital – with respect to teaching something like physical quantum theory or algorithms. This is not because quanta and algorithms are bereft of imperial history: Let’s think of the way such scientific studies emerged, of the social classes in which they became objects of study, and the way these studies were funded and even traded worldwide. Rather, what I mean is that speaking humanitarianism overtly puts down the veils of the relationships between Others, breaks down the Other and the Self, demolishes certainties between the Self and the Other through the exploration of the necessarily dialogic act of assistance provision and aid reception.

Likewise, teaching exposes the lecturer to multiple encounters at once. The encounter with the students first – the immediate interlocutors of the teaching frame. Second, the encounter with one’s own society at large, which may identify with a single geographic space or more than one – as the teacher, by conveying knowledge and, hopefully, triggering critical stimuli, comes with an experiential baggage accumulated in one or more societies that historically shape the teacher’s way of thinking, speaking, and building the teacher-student encounter. Third, it is also an encounter with the multiple societies of the others, that is all of the societies “summarised” into the intellectual presence of each student in class.

It is exactly this collective moment, made of several encounters at once, that characterises the ways in which humanitarianism is both individually thought and culturally nuanced.

In light of this, each academic culture frames displacement, migration, and humanitarian action differently. The latter are undoubtedly tied up to broader politics and social processes which often intertwine, but each of them is differently thought and responded to in Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy. I experienced solipsism when I lectured in Turkey, as I realised how unfamiliar the students were with my Anglo-centric way of explaining humanitarianism-related topics. The most responsive to my lectures were the Lebanese students, who seemed to be highly familiar with the catastrophe discourse. This therefore led me to further reflections, as the fact that Lebanon has historically been more exposed to crisis than Italy and Turkey did not sound entirely convincing to me. There are, in fact, two factors that contribute to the students’ response to humanitarianism delivered in the form of an academic framework: The first is academic literature, and the second is postcoloniality – which, surely, to some extent, underlies the former. In fact, the Anglo-centric character of the humanitarianism framework – as it is globally discussed nowadays – is fully reflected in the academic literature which is delivered to students. Neither literature nor students themselves are bereft of political history.

Lebanon, having become home to several refugee groups, has often been studied in international academia in the context of the catastrophe discourse. Thus, humanitarianism has framed a large part of local learning about external interventions, especially since the years of the 1948 Palestinian Nakba. In this vein, even local infrastructures and local populations in Lebanon have drawn greater academic attention when turning into humanitarian spaces, host communities, displaced people, or migrants. Contrarily, Turkey is a country where catastrophe does not need to be there to justify tough security, anti-democratic measures, and political states of exception. Therefore, Turkish scholars have set up a mostly legal and policy-oriented framework for discussing refugee influxes and humanitarian practices,. The catastrophe narrative neither needs to strengthen a state which is already centralised and has rather enhanced domestic accountability by carefully gate-keeping refugee-populated areas, international support and involvement in domestic humanitarian affairs. In other words, in Turkey refugee influxes have been studied as a means to capture domestic changes, e.g. in market, employment, and housing. In Lebanon, however, the very goal of humanitarian research has long since revolved around refugees and NGOs themselves. Scholars of humanitarianism now increasingly address Lebanese people, governance, and services in light of the Syrian crisis. However, local people and services are still approached in the light of their response to crisis and given their relationship with refugee-related issues. In Italy, humanitarianism-related issues start stimulating academic curiosity in the wake of the Kosovo war in 1999, the 2001 western intervention in Afghanistan, and more recently, the migration flows from African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. Often unfamiliar with the anglo-centric ways of setting and naming the humanitarian framework, Italian students increasingly find themselves in the need to manage a foreign language and tackle diverse conceptual universes (mainly published in English) before encountering humanitarianism in their own language and academic culture. It is indeed meaningful that domestic emergency crises and humanitarian management – such as the earthquakes in central Italy– have primarily been tackled through the lens of disaster and risk reduction.

The postcolonial character of Lebanon vis-à-vis Turkey and Italy also sets up different student responses to learning humanitarianism in class today.

The French colonial mandate in Lebanon between 1920 and 1943 consistently shapes today’s student response to humanitarianism; familiar with postcolonial governance and catastrophisation as a way of understanding the current humanitarian discourse, my Lebanese students seemed to rely on categories of thinking which easily suit the humanitarian framework. The colonial mandate and the intervention of international assistance providers to back domestic parties and local communities gradually overshadowed the pre-existing thick network of local community services in academic literature. The present literal inundation of international crisis managers in Lebanon makes local students suitable interlocutors on the humanitarian mainstream narrative as well as its critiques.

In Turkey, humanitarianism has been acquiring international colours way before the beginning of the Syrian refugee influxes and the latest intervention of several humanitarian agencies. The 1915 Armenian genocide and deportations from Ottoman Turkey prompted the first cases of foreign charitable assistance in the region, in addition to the international refugee regime set up to deal with the massive displacement caused by the First World War. Overall, Ottoman authorities were reluctant to accept unconditional international assistance because they did not want to see their political power undermined. Traditionally decentralised and domestically managed, humanitarian services to forced migrants during the Ottoman Empire were mostly delegated to local communities, making the contemporary humanitarian approach to crisis and assistance unsuitable in the Turkish context. Nevertheless, while the Turkish government has already been pursuing a politics of intervention in Somalia since 2011, the recent intervention of international humanitarian agencies inside Turkey in response to the Syrian crisis is unprecedented.

Italy seemingly looks to humanitarianism with an ambiguous gaze. Past colonial governors in the Horn of Africa, and historically imbued with the Christian Catholic culture of assistance to the vulnerable, Italian students responded to my humanitarianism classes with the curiosity of the potential missionary. Approaching the catastrophe discourse to understand how new migration flows are shaping politics and ethics in the Mediterranean doorway, Italian students tended to associate humanitarianism either with human rights – which would require several political steps ahead – or with philanthropic charity. Italian students were rather inspired by the future possibility of doing good, and focussed on humanitarian sentimentalism, such as the pros and cons of compassion: Humanitarian governmentality, managerialism, donorship, and bureaucracy seemed to scarcely inhabit their humanitarian imaginary.

These reflections of mine also suggest that alternative humanitarianisms should be taught at school to unlearn their “alternative” – that is non-mainstream – character. This can be done if students are also allowed to develop contents and critical consciousness in their first language too. Skipping these stages leads to the imposition of one among many possible understandings of – and ways of teaching – humanitarianism. Individual responses, cultural patterns, ideologies, and material circumstances will always colour humanitarianism differently. The teacher’s challenge should be expanding the students’ gaze across political histories, human behaviours and moral expectations, while conveying one’s own identity peacefully. This is certainly not an easy job.

This research has been conducted in the framework of the project “Analyzing South-South Humanitarian Responses to Displacement from Syria: Views from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey”, funded by the European Research Council under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation agreement no. 715582.

Woe to the Poor: The Sad Face of America

Guai ai poveri: La faccia triste dell’America [“Woe to the poor: The sad face of America”, Gruppo Abele) by Elisabetta Grande, a professor of comparative law at the University of Eastern Piedmont (Italy), is a fresh take on America’s “War on the Poor”.

Engaging, well written and suitable for a non–expert audience, the book is both a detailed account of the USA’s stubbornly high rate of poverty, and a critical analysis of the politics that produced it.

From the very beginning, the author gives a full statistical picture of the subject: despite the recovery of the US economy, extreme poverty has been growing continuously for over forty years. According to conservative estimates of the US Census Bureau, in December 2014 almost 21 million people (men, women and, more shockingly, children) lived with an income that fell below half of the federal poverty threshold.

Unmasking the myth of poverty as a natural phenomenon by considering the economic, cultural, political and legal forces that lie behind it, Grande goes far beyond the depiction of a doomsday scenario.

The meticulously quantitative description of poverty in the essay is enriched by several life stories of real people stuck at the bottom of the economy.

Although the author doesn’t explain in detail the methodological tools she used to select and textualize the stories, the book is informative about the struggles of people who lost their jobs, homes, families and lives, often for reasons that go far beyond their personal choices and responsibilities.

A refined jurist, the author insists on the role of legislation in creating poverty, focusing particularly on the intertwining of the market and the law.

On one hand, the new rules of the international market favored what she defines as “extractive globalization” against workers, a form of globalization that led to a progressive loss in their contractual power, a decrease in their salaries and benefits and a general decline of their working conditions. On the other hand, the American legal system didn’t intervene to redress the situation: no longer conceived as re-distributors of wealth and distancing themselves from all forms of impositive progressiveness, the American fiscal policies eased the adverse effects of globalization. Establishing tax deductions for the rich and reducing fiscal pressure on capital gains, they ended up favoring the interests of the corporations and the unchallenged domination of the market.

Such politics, Grande remarks, were all but inevitable. A different model, that she defines a “generative globalization”, potentially linked with new egalitarian and redistributive policies, was deliberately rejected.

Guai ai poveri takes into account a further cause of the explosion of poverty in the USA. In what is probably the most striking part of the essay, the author reflects on the negative public discourses regarding poor families entailed in the government actions against poverty.

Looking at the cultural and symbolic representation of the poor is all but an abstract academic exercise, as the perceived beneficiary of policies bears practical consequence on how the policies themselves are designed. Breaking the continuity with the compassion towards the poor that characterized other historical phases like the New Deal and the years of Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan’s presidency spread skillful propaganda that turned those in greatest need into dangerous criminals or lazy parasites to be punished and removed from the streets.

In the same period, several prototypes of poor emerged. One of the best known is the so-called “Welfare Queen”. Introduced in the 1970s by Ronald Reagan, it referred to (black) single mothers accused of defrauding the government by accumulating welfare checks through false names and addresses.

Such stereotypes helped dismantle the USA welfare system carried on by bipartisan politics, from Reagan to Bill Clinton. In 1996, Clinton signed a sweeping welfare reform bill that cut off economic support to poor mothers, which was guaranteed by the American government since 1935. Since then the number of people living in extreme poverty ($2 per person, per day) has more than doubled.

A further stereotypical representation of the poor that Grande analyzes is the homeless. Although homelessness has been growing constantly over the past 35 years, she exhaustively discusses how its social composition has drastically changed in recent years. Unlike the image of the elderly, white, male, homeless drunkard, the homeless population today is mostly made up of families, and the fastest growing category of homeless people is children. Almost 50 percent of homeless people have a degree and between 30 and 40 percent work full or part time.

The homeless are now “a population within the population”: not only they have grown in number, but since the 1990’s they have become a target for “zero tolerance” political, legal and cultural practices.

The author builds a strong argument that the negative representation of the poor has systematically destroyed the protective barriers built over a long history of social struggles and policies, gradually transforming the “war on poverty” into a “war on the poor.”

The book’s title: Guai ai poveri, “Woe to the Poor” can refer both to the criminalization of poor people and to  the problems that poor people face in the contemporary USA, where people can be arrested if they are caught sleeping in a park or begging.

Guai ai poveri contributes to the understanding of the failure of the trickle-down theory’s rhetoric, as it makes clear that despite the growth of the USA GDP, wealth didn’t reach everyone. Although it doesn’t directly delve into current political issues, such as the recent election campaign, the book offers a good key to understand why Donald Trump was elected. This is highly relevant in Europe too where more and more countries seem to be embarking upon a similar path.

As already mentioned, the essay explores poverty in the USA focusing on the legal system that deliberately produced it. Needless to say, the new politics of poverty and the social representation of poverty are complex, multifaced and highly interdisciplinary subjects. It would be therefore interesting to investigate further some of the key issues that Elisabetta Grande raises.

A growing body of interdisciplinary feminist scholarship on governments and neoliberal policy have produced rich analyses on how poverty has been, and still is, gendered and radicalized not only by politicians but also by influential people. In Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture sociologist Eva Illouz suggests that, for many years, The Oprah Winfrey Show perpetuated a negative representation of the Welfare Queen, presented as an obstacle and a burden to the emancipation of black women. It would be thus interesting to investigate further the role of the emergent American black middle class and intelligentsia in retrieving the stereotype of the Welfare Queen.

Secondly, in 1996, drawing on a survey sample of Baltimore residents, sociologist George Wilson documented that Americans distinguished between different types of poverty. Asked about the causes of poverty, respondents pinpointed three different groups: welfare recipients, migrant laborers, and the homeless. They explained the existence of the homeless in primarily structural terms (no good schools, low wages, lack of jobs), welfare recipients in predominantly individualistic ways (lack of thrift, lack of effort, loose morals) and migrant laborers with a mix of structuralist and individualistic patterns. It would be pertinent to check whether Wilson’s assumptions are still valid today.

Finally, what role does the so-called, and well known, “Protestant work ethic” play in shaping cultural and religious belief about inequality, social hierarchies and poverty in contemporary North America? Weber’s concept, a classic in the literature which attracted widespread debate and criticism during the last century, clearly represented a subtle rhetorical device for politicians like Donald Trump, who embody the mainstream work ethic narrative to an extreme. After all, in the USA there has been a consistent emphasis on individualistic success stories that are romantically cast as the hallowed conquests of strong and patriotic men. For this reason, rather than approaching the Trump phenomenon as an already constituted object that simply awaits any analytic attention, cultural anthropologists are (perhaps belatedly) investigating what vision of work, consumption, saving, wealth and poverty the 60+ million who voted for Trump embraced.

In the age of Donald Trump and of nationalist populism in Western Europe, many academics showed their will to further debate the role of social sciences in the contemporary political landscape. As Paul Stoller wrote in a recent Huffington Post blog post, “Now is the time for ethnographers to step up to the plate and communicate our powerful insights to our students and to the public. Now is the time to craft a powerful counter-narrative that will ensure a viable future for our children and grandchildren.”

More analyses on the structural changes that the Western countries are facing are needed. More studies on the reconfigurations of power, wealth, and identity in today’s global neoliberalism are required now more then ever. Guai ai poveri perfectly fulfills these goals.