Statement on the situation in Palestine

25 October 2023

We extend our solidarity to those suffering and grieving the loss of loved ones in both Palestine and Israel.

As scholars of humanitarianism, war, displacement and related fields, we are deeply concerned by the escalation of violence in Palestine.

We strongly condemn the ongoing acts of indiscriminate and large-scale violence perpetrated by the Israeli government against the people of Gaza.

We also strongly condemn Israel’s deliberate blockade and denial of essential supplies of food, water, fuel and other necessities to over two million people in Gaza, half of whom are children and two-thirds are displaced. This amounts to collective punishment and is in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.

We are deeply concerned about measures taken in Europe and elsewhere to repress peaceful protests and silence those who have expressed solidarity with Palestinians, including fellow scholars. This curtailment of freedom of expression undermines the essence of our role and duty as researchers. It is vitally important that we are able to participate in free and critical discussions on matters such as violence and war.

As scholars, we also emphasise the importance of viewing this conflict in its historical and political context, acknowledging the historical inequalities, injustice and violence brought about by Israel’s longstanding occupation of Palestinian territories and maintenance of an apartheid state. We reiterate the need to consider the roots of the current situation in the actions and inaction of European governments before, during and after the Second World War.

It is both possible and necessary to unite against antisemitism and Islamophobia, and to promote the right to freedom, safety and self-determination for both Palestinians and Israelis.

We call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the release of all hostages. We call for all parties to respect international law and allow the immediate and uninterrupted passage of critical humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza.

We call for a commitment from Israel and all European governments to a peace process that ends the occupation of Palestinian territories.

We call for the protection of freedom of expression and the end to any form of censorship in Europe and elsewhere on the situation in Palestine.

———

Antonio De Lauri (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Heidi Mogstad (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Anwesha Dutta (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Laura Nader (University of California, Berkeley), Emily Hume (Chr. Michelsen Institute/NCHS), Ugo Mattei (University of Turin/Hastings College of the Law), Elisabetta Grande (University of Eastern Piedmont), Farhat Taj (University of Tromsø), Marianna Betti (University of Bergen), Estella Carpi (University College London), Lovise Aalen (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Salla Turunen, Jessica Schultz (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Nichola Khan (University of Edinburgh), Astri Suhrke (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Antonius Robben (Utrecht University), Julie Billaud (Geneva Graduate Institute), Don Kalb (University of Bergen), Carmeliza Rosario (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Marco Traversari (University of Bologna), Iva Jelusic (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Alessandro Corso, Luigi Achilli (European University Institute), Valentina Benincasa (Universidad Complutense de Madrid), Livio Senigalliesi, Marie-Benedicte Dembour (Ghent University), Saul Mullard (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Maria Alcidi, Stein Sundstøl Eriksen (Norwegian Institute of International Affairs), Cathrine Talleraas (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Cindy Horst (Peace Research Institute Oslo), Cecilia Salinas (University of Oslo), Iselin Åsedotter Strønen (Univesrity of Bergen), Bjørn Enge Bertelsen (University of Bergen), William Dawley (University of Bergen), Manimala Chanu Asem (University of Bergen), Håkon Larsen (University of Bergen), Mary Anne Karlsen (University of Bergen), Geir Henning Presterudstuen (University of Bergen), Liv Tønnessen (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Heath Cabot (University of Bergen), Mari Norbakk (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Malin H. Kleppe (Western Norway University of Applied Sciences), Karine A. Jansen (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Ana Ivasiuc (Maynooth University), Columba Gonzalez-Duarte (The New School for Social Research), Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (University College London), Aslak Orre (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Kari Telle (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Nora Haukali (University of Bergen), Elisa Giunchi (University of Milan), Elin Skaar (Chr. Michelsen Institute).

Climate Change and Retreatist Anthropology

Laura Nader, in a 2013 interview (De Lauri 2013)—the message of which is no less salient today—stated: “For me anthropology is the freest of scientific endeavors because it potentially does not stop at boundaries that interfere with the capacity of the mind for self-reflection. This is a moment for new syntheses in a world that is both interconnected and disconnected, on a planet where long term survival is at risk. Anthropologists should not shrink from the big questions.” And yet, I argue here, such a shrinking or retreat as I see it, is precisely what we are witnessing as anthropology engages one of the biggest questions of our time: how to slow and mitigate the existential crisis of climate change and related anthropogenic environmental disruptions? I was reminded of this dilemma recently when a colleague and I submitted a book proposal on the anthropology of climate change. The objectives of the book were: first, to apply the critical perspective in anthropology to anthropogenic climate change and the global socioecological crisis (Baer and Singer 2018), and second, to promote a movement toward a socially just, highly democratic, environmentally sustainable, and climatically safe world system. The critical perspective I embrace seeks to go beyond technological adjustments or greenwashed but business as usual responses to the threats of climate change to consider the possibilities for fundamental structural change as the adaptation needed in our time of global peril (Eriksen et al. 2015).

Unmindful of Eric Wolf’s (1990: 558) lament that anthropology often resembles a misguided project in intellectual deforestation, one of the reviewers of the book proposal emphasized that, “Some anthropologists would say that the socioecological perspective is somewhat dated and limited, given the more recent ontological … turn.” While there has been much discussion within and beyond anthropology (e.g., in geography), on the ontological turn, I focus here on the nature of this turn considering current reports on ever-accelerating anthropologic climate change and ever-broadening environment degradation. Drawing on the planetary boundaries framework from Earth system science, Richardson et al. (2023), for example, report that six of the nine planetary boundaries (e.g., biogeochemical flows, ocean acidity, climate) that are critical for maintaining the stability and resilience of the Earth system have been transgressed, suggesting that our planet is now well outside of a safe operating space for humanity and many other species. Drawing on 34,000 studies and involving 270 authors from 67 countries, the final installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC 2023), has been described as “an atlas of human suffering” by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. The report documents the sharply increasing pattern of the destruction of homes, the loss of livelihoods, the fragmentation of communities, impoverization, inequity, and loss of life.

How should anthropology be viewing this natural science reporting? It comes as no surprise to contemporary anthropologists that our discipline now harbors disruptive doubts about our historically foundational notion of culture and much that goes with it. Abu-Lughod (1991), for example, argued for the development and adoption of strategies for writing against culture. Culture, she maintained, was overburdened with the assumptions inherent in the divide between the knowledgeable scholar and the person whose culture was under study. From a feminist perspective, Abu-Lughod asserted that the “self” is formed by being contrasted with an “other.” This self/other binary lies at the heart of our sense of identity and finds expression in various ways (e.g., man/woman; straight/gay; boss/worker; citizen/alien; ruler/ruled). As these examples suggest, critical to this binary is recognition that it undergirds an asymmetrical or hierarchicalrelationship. Because culture is the primary tool for creating the self/other binary, it must be both seen and resisted as a means of enforcing separations that inevitably carry a sense of inequality. For example, the “relationship between the West and the non-West, at least since the birth of anthropology, has been constituted by Western domination” and the domination of Western culture (Abu-Lughod 1991: 52).

In the years after Abu-Lughod’s initial thrust, anthropologists struggled to find a footing on which to sustain their discipline in a gloomy academic world of cutbacks, vanishing jobs, and departmental closings. At the 2013 AAA meeting, however, there was much buzz about an exciting new turn in the discipline (one of many turns over the years in our restless field) that would be the next big thing, a new direction that in a way could rescue culture by recognizing that differences in cultural phenomena are not merely different interpretations of a shared, natural world, rather, there are alternate realities and other ways of beings that exist in parallel with and are of equal value with our own. In short, “reality is historically, culturally and materially located… (And thus r)ealities have become multiple” (Mol 1999:75). Heywood (2017) provides an example. If, during field research, an interlocutor says to an anthropologist that the tree she is pointing to is really a spirit, to record this statement as a cultural belief imposes an anthropological view while violating the individual’s understanding that the object in question is a spirit. The proponents of the ontological rethinking claim that this is a new way of framing cultural difference, one that finally takes statements of our interlocutors seriously. I (Singer 2021) encountered this issue while interviewing a houngan sur pwen (lower-level male Vodun priest) in Jacmel, Haiti. This individual stated that at night he turns into a bicycle and spies on his enemies. To interpret this statement as a cultural belief, when for the speaker it was a statement of fact, is, from the ontological perspective, an imposition of the anthropologist’s understanding onto the interlocutor’s understanding of the world. The turn to ontology, in short, asserts there are “problems with the dominant discourse in prioritizing a particular way of knowing, thus marginalizing (and making absent) other epistemologies and ontologies” (Goldman, Turner and Daly 2017).

Given that for many anthropologists the whole point of our culturalist position historically was an attempt to do justice to other peoples’ ideas, ontology seemed to represent a new foundation for achieving an enduring goal. Moreover, in the shadow of anthropology’s disruptive crisis of representation (Clifford and Marcus 2010, Marcus and Fisher 1986), as addressed by multiple anthropologists in the groundbreaking volume Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation (Harrison 1997), a core theme of contemporary anthropology is the struggle to be a decolonizing discipline. This has entailed recognizing and directly confronting anthropology’s colonial legacies, which have led to the marginalization, exploitation, and erasure of Indigenous peoples, women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and the poor and working classes along with their knowledge and understanding of the world (Allen and Jobson 2016, Bolles 2013).

The ongoing (and no doubt endless) engagement of anthropology with its troubled past—a domain that encompasses everything before today—is very engaging, thought provoking, and in some ways a worthy endeavor but if our goal is addressing the existential threat now facing our species and, indeed, all species, there is a problem, a grave problem. Do we limit our work to the study of the unique factual worlds of other people to learn and give equal weight to their understanding of the world or even seemingly changing temperatures and all that goes with it? Do we, as well, treat the world as understood by elite polluting corporations and greenhouse gas producers as fully legitimate and equal in value to grassroots opponents desperately organizing around the world to stop climate change? One apt critique of ontology in this arena was penned by Bessire and Bond (2014: 446): “ontological anthropology is incapable of accounting for those disruptive beings [e.g., mining, petroleum, and logging company executives and their work forces] and things [e.g., industrial toxins, rising seas, infectious diseases] that travel between [the land/sea/atmospheric homes] of different ontologies. Ontological anthropology avoids recognizing such confrontations, in part, by pressing all analysis of materiality ever further into sacred materials.” An interlocutor may know full well that a tree is a spirit, but that will not prevent a logging company from cutting down the tree, splitting it into flitches, and finishing it as boards to be exported to a wealthy country to replace homes damaged by the ravages of climate change. Nor will it mitigate the loss of sequestered carbon on forcing additional climate change.

Extractivism of this sort, involving the expropriation of natural resources for exportation, is an inherently unequal process driven by the organized use of violence, including assassinating Indigenous environmental defenders (Tran and Hanaček 2023). Moreover, as reported by Retka et al. (2023), the multi-billion dollar a year U.S.disaster-restoration industry takes full advantage of the ready availability of low-wage, undocumented migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, people who flee poverty, violence, and “natural” disasters in their homelands. Hired to clear rubble and rebuild in the aftermath of climate-driven hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, their health suffers from jobsite exposure to harmful toxins like mold, asbestos and lead. There is, in short, what Sidanius and Pratto (2012) call a “circle of oppression” that is foundational to the world economic system, a structure that is hard to understand from the vantage of one location.

In the words of Ryan Anderson (2014), with the ontological turn, anthropologists “have sort of painted ourselves into a corner–effectively removing ourselves from the public sphere… We do this–sometimes–by retreating into our own corners and closed, specialized conversations… [M]y skepticism about the ontology-related excitement isn’t so much about whether or not I find ontology personally useful or relevant. It’s more about whether or not the ‘ontological turn’ fever is just another in a series of inward-looking shifts that further entrenches us in our own little worlds” (Anderson 2014) and away from the big questions.

This is the reason I view the ontological turn as a form of retreatism. Retreatism conventionally is described as the tendency at the individual level to withdraw from society and its means of achieving societally supported goals. Here I use the term to reveal the ontological turn as a form of retreatism into the particularist cultural anthropology I first encountered when I entered the discipline over 50 years ago. It was in response to the limitations of that orientation for addressing pressing world problems that in my work I have sought to focus attention on building a critical perspective as part of a holistic approach that brings together the microworlds of individual interlocutors, shared sociocultural elements in a social group, and wider fields of power that cross-cut social domains, regions of the world, and points in time.

A component of this framework is recognition that all ontologies are fraught with their own contradictions and rationalize ingroup social inequalities (Htun and Ossa 2013, Richards 2005). Further, it seeks to avoid essentializing the ontologies of Others by considering, as West (2005) does in her account of the Gimi of Papua New Guinea, by considering them as emergent critiques of dispossession, rather than as the timeless and unchanging cosmologies of all members of any social group. Of note in this regard is the work of Myers (2022) on refocusing the term “ecosocial,” a concept that has been used in somewhat different ways by various scholars over time. Myers, based on research with Maasai women in Tanzania, uses ecosocial to refer to the intimate linkages people maintain with their ecological context, or place in the world, including the land, rocks, plants, animals, and spirits found there. She argues that when the ecological context suffers, one’s sense of well-being suffers as well. Climate-related stress, she found, has direct effects on the relationships between Maasai women, their livestock, and the land and is a key driver of individual emotional well-being. Climate-related stressors cause a cascade of negative consequences for the emotional well-being of Maasai women despite the understandings of their historic cosmologies. Finally, the critical framework acknowledges the fundamental importance of social and cosmological change sparked by local resistance, activism, and coalition building to conserve local and broader natural (if human-impacted) worlds (Bormpoudakis 2019).

In this light, it warrants remembering that in its time, although naive to ways the world of nature and of society were changing, historical particularism in anthropology was an effective counter to forced and undeniably racist unilinear evolutionary conceptions. Boas, father of the perspective, emphasized detailed ethnography-driven studies of distinct cultural systems and their unique developmental histories. This orientation dominated general American anthropology until World War II and retained a presence a bit longer in medical anthropology until it gave way to an environmentally rooted variant known as medical ecology.  Ultimately a form of particularism re-emerged in the 1980s as anthropologists came to realize that even with global capitalist penetration and intermingled flows of ideas, peoples, media, and structures, historical processes continue to differentiate cultural patterns. While this is a keen insight, it does not eliminate the impact of the multiple cross-cutting forces that tie logged areas of Amazonia to rising seas circling Florida or coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef to deadly heat waves in India. Ecocrises interactions (Singer 2021) occur independent of human understanding although it is only with such understanding that we can hope to usher in a safer world for all people. A retreat into particularism of any sort leaves our discipline ill equipped to play a role in what may be the last-ditch struggles facing a beleaguered but divided humanity (Singer 2019). Instead, as Bessire and Bond (2020, unpublished, by permission of the authors), maintain: “Our planetary crises do not require less critical ethnography; they demand more. As people across the globe grapple with the uninhabitable remnants of self-devouring systems, ecological tipping points and the widening chasm between luxury and deprivation, anthropological insights matter now more than ever.” To matter in the present, we should always be reflexive but find a path forward, not backward.

References

Abu-Lughod, Lila (1991) “Writing against Culture.” In Richard G. Fox (ed.), Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present.

Allen, Jafari Sinclair, and Jobson Ryan Cecil (2016) “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties. Current Anthropology 57 (2):129–148.

Anderson, Ryan (2014) “On Taking Anthropological turns.” Savage Minds. https://savageminds.org/2014/01/25/on-taking-ontological-turns/

Baer, Hans A. and Singer, Merrill (2018) The Anthropology of Climate Change: An Integrated Critical Perspective. New York: Routledge.

Bessire, Lucas and Bond, David (2014) “Ontological anthropology and the deferral of critique.” American Ethnologist 41(3): 440-456.

Bessire, Lucas and Bond, David (2020) “Should Anthropology Burn? A Response.”

Bolles, A. Lynn (2013) “Telling the Story Straight: Black Feminist Intellectual Thought in Anthropology.” Transforming Anthropology 21(1):57–71.

Bormpoudakis, D. (2019) “Three implications of political ontology for the political ecology of conservation.” Journal of Political Ecology 26(1): 545-566. 

Clifford, James, and Marcus, George E. eds. (2010) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

De Lauri, Antonio (2013) “Think Like an Anthropologist” – A Conversation with Laura Nader.  Allegra Labhttps://allegralaboratory.net/think-like-an-anthropologist-a-conversation-with-laura-nader/

Eriksen, S. H., Nightingale, A. J., and Eakin, H. C. (2015) “Reframing adaptation: The political nature of climate change adaptation.” Global Environmental Change,35: 523–533.

Goldman, Mara, Turner, Matthew and Daly, Meaghan (2018) “A critical political ecology of human dimensions of climate change: Epistemology, ontology, and ethics.” WIREs Climate Change 9: e526.

Heywood, Paolo (2017) “The Ontological Turn.” The Open Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by Felix Stein. Facsimile of the first edition in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Online.

Htun, M. and Ossa, J.P. (2013) “Political inclusion of marginalized groups: Indigenous reservations and gender parity in Bolivia.” Politics, Groups, and Identities1: 4-25.

IPCC (2023) Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[Core Writing Team, H. Lee and J. Romero (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 184 pp.

Marcus, George E. and Fischer, Michael M. J. (1986) Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mol, Annemarie (1999) “Ontological Politics: A Word and Some Questions,” in John Law, and J. Hassard, ed., Actor Network Theory and After. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 74-89.

Myers, Neely (2022) “The ecosocial self, place, and well-being: An ethnographic case study with Maasai women from northern Tanzania.” Social Science & Medicine 2: 199144.

Retka, Janelle, McCabe, Samantha, Huang, Jiahui and Zamudio, María Inés (2023) A warming planet is creating a booming, and dangerous, disaster-restoration industry. Grist, https://grist.org/accountability/a-warming-planet-is-creating-a-booming-and-dangerous-disaster-restoration-industry/

Richards, P. (2005) “The politics of gender, human rights, and being Indigenous in Chile.” Gender and Society19: 199-220.

Richardson, Katherine, Steffen, Will, Lucht, Wolfgang, Bendtsen, Jorgen, Cornell, Sarah, Donges, Jonathan et al. (2023) “Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries.” Science 9(37).

Sidanius, Jim and Pratto, Felicia (2012) Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Singer, Merrill (2019) Climate Change and Social Inequality: The Health and Social Costs of Global Warming. New York: Routledge.

Singer, Merrill (2021) Ecosystem Interactions: Human Health and the Changing Environment. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.

Tran, Delena and Hanaček, Ksenija (2023) “A global analysis of violence against women defenders in environmental conflicts.”Nature Sustainability 6:1045–1053.

West, P. (2016) Dispossession and the environment: rhetoric and inequality in Papua New Guinea. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Wolf, Eric (1990) “Distinguished Lecture: Facing Power – Old Insights, New Questions.” American Anthropologist 92(3): 586-596.

AI’s Truth, Lies, and Ethos

Summary: Conversational artificial intelligence is often a form of storytelling, and underlying some of AI’s stories is an artificial ethos that could be insidious. 

I am a cultural anthropologist and I’ve been ruminating on the cultural impact of artificial intelligence. I recognize AI’s potential for increasing knowledge, productivity, and generating medical breakthroughs. There is no question in my mind that AI will be a collaborative, indefatigable partner for humanity. I am so galvanized by it that this fall I will incorporate AI into the curriculum of my Columbia Business School course, Market Intelligence: The Art and the Science. At the same time, I am acutely aware of AI’s threats, among them job displacement, data breaches, and the annihilation of humanity (a 50-50 chance according to BCA Research). 

I am not writing here about the list Google Bard furnished when I asked it to outline AI’s impact on culture: Democratizing media, improving our quality of life, changing how we work, and challenging our concept of identity. All are worth considering. However, my focus centers on a topic that has long fascinated anthropologists: storytelling and the role of stories as behavioral models and meaning makers. AI’s impact there could be more insidious than the topics it provided. AI’s well documented racism is one concern, but my purview is broader.

For eons, only human beings crafted stories. Anthropologists have observed that stories express the ethos of a culture, epitomizing shared ideas and values, codifying social rules, and encompassing a world view. This essay is a musing – and a provocation – based on the notion that knowledge produced by the conversational AI many of us are now accessing is often a form of storytelling. If we look hard enough, we can discern a kind of artificial ethos underlying some of AI’s stories. 

At its most basic, a story imparts information. Sometimes it is difficult to know when a story is real or imagined, and AI is not aware of the difference. Historical fiction blends fact and fiction by design. If you subscribe to multiverse theory, all stories can be true everywhere all at once. The reliability of stories as information has been fraught and fought over for years. Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories contained tales on the origins of animals’ physical characteristics that aimed to amuse children. Decades later, geneticist Lewis I. Held Jr. was moved to publish a scientific account of animal evolution. In the film, Rashomon, different people witness a horrific event and provide conflicting accounts of what occurred. One interpretation of Rashomon is that facts are subjective and depend on one’s perspective. Science fiction author Ted Chiang writes about the truth in contrast to the feeling of a story, contemplating the merits of what is correct historically versus what is valuable for a community in the present.  Several years ago, comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to denote the sense that something feels true even if it is false. “Fake news” gained currency as a political cudgel in the past decade but dates back to the late nineteenth century. The variability of truth telling was cringingly demonstrated by political consultant Kellyanne Conway when she referenced “alternate facts” regarding the crowd size at Donald Trump’s Presidential inauguration. Need more be said regarding George Santos’ fabrications about his family, ethnic heritage, education, employment, finances, residences, health, and charity work?

What are we to make of stories crafted by a non-human? How can we untangle fact from fiction when we ask AI for accuracy, are provided with fantasy, and the author’s judgement is absent? That is what occurs when AI “hallucinates.” I asked ChatGPT: How can I be sure the information it provides is true? Here is part of its response:  It is important to note that ChatGPT is not infallible and can make errors or provide incomplete or inaccurate information…while ChatGPT can provide useful insights and information, it’s always a good idea to exercise critical thinking and verify information through multiple sources.

Good advice. The problem is that many of us won’t heed it. We’re too busy, too lazy, or too trusting. While AI promises efficiency for knowledge generation, its errors of fact and interpretation can be problematic. My apprehension is elevated when I think about AI’s subtle, unfettered impact on our culture-based ideas, sentiments, and behavior. AI is not yet imparting an ethos consciously but latent meanings and biases can be discerned in much of its content. If AI becomes sentient, will a purposeful ethos follow? Will enough of us decode the ethos embedded in its stories? What impact might an AI ethos have on its human users? How might it alter the character of our cultures? Are we prepared for the possibility that the stories AI concocts and the artificial ethos they convey implicitly could have profound and pervasive effects on who we are as human beings? These questions, which go beyond falsehoods per se, are not only for anthropologists to ask; they are questions for every one of us.

Our reliance on AI’s stories will proliferate the more we tap its breadth and depth of knowledge and relish its speed in providing it. Even if purveyors of AI pause its technological advances to mitigate its risks there is little doubt that AI will permeate our lives. Much of that will enable humanity to live smarter and better. This is a moment when we should reflect on AI’s storytelling facility, be cognizant of the artificial ethos conveyed in some of its stories, and take seriously their cultural implications. Before we buy into AI’s stories, we should recall the ancient Roman who, after being told a compelling but false tale by a market vendor, probably thought, caveat emptor.

Reproductive Rights and the Power of Comparison

Introduction

In 1980 I wrote a piece called “Orientalism, Occidentalism and the Control of Women.” In it I posited that control over women in the West and East was accomplished by pointing the finger at the Other. See, say the Egyptian pundits, “the West controls women by taking away the family name in preference to the name of the male spouse.” And the pundits in the West say, “see, Middle Easterners control women by having more than one spouse.” To which Easterners say that in the West prostitution is legal. Or Westerners say their women still wear veils—not a sign of modern development. Such is the power of comparison and when used by key people, it satisfies the status quo.

The paper was reviewed by two male anthropologists, who suggested that I separate East from West and turn the piece into two articles—one focusing on the state of Western women, the other on the state of Eastern women. The article was not published as I wished in the United States, but rather ended up being accepted for publication by Cultural Dynamics in Belgium. It was then translated into French and later found its way into French Canada before being republished elsewhere. The power of comparison was in this case too much for some American anthropologists, who did not distinguish lay comparisons from those used by academics.

At the time of writing “Orientalism, Occidentalism and the Control of Women,” my purpose was to indicate how images of women in other societies can be prejudicial to women in one’s own society. And while male dogma is prevalent in all contemporary nation states, patterns vary; it is this variation which is crucial to the maintenance of different patriarchal systems. Positional superiority draws attention from the processes that control women worldwide, as in the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade. Thus, there is a need for anthropological comparison in our investigations at the global level. In the United States, the unprecedented overturning of Roe v. Wade after fifty years has been followed by the introduction of possible criminal charges for practicing abortion in predominantly Republican states. There were mid-term elections in 2022 and much talk of women’s reproductive rights. In response, California, Michigan, and Vermont wrote women’s reproductive rights into their state constitutions. 

In many states, there is a loss of abortion rights even for women who are the victims of rape or incest. The contemporary status of American women takes us back to the nineteenth century, with women having to leave their states to find abortion care elsewhere, while also fearing criminal charges for those doctors who might help them, as well as for themselves—as mentioned, even in the case when they are a victim of rape or incest, which are crimes. Even in Texas there are now attempts to criminalize those who sell abortion pills. 

There have been very few comparisons being made with countries outside of the United States, even among those outspoken in favor of women’s reproductive rights. There was, however, much talk about the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which was perceived as unprecedented and, some argue, unconstitutional in a country where all are supposed to be equal.

Meanwhile, out of curiosity about women’s reproductive rights globally, I sat down with a friend who had a smartphone and started to collect data. “What country in the Middle East has reproductive choice for women?” My guess was wrong—not Lebanon. When my mother was in Lebanon the belief was that “It’s not their business [referring to the state],” as she said empathetically at the age of 96. Rather it was the business of the woman, her family, and their religion. Today only one Arab country has pro-choice law—Tunisia. 

We continued with the help of the smartphone, which also provides references for its assertions. “What about the European Union countries?” I asked. What about the United Kingdom? Pro-choice, as is Ireland, which is predominantly Catholic. What about Russia? Pro-choice. What about China and India? Both pro-choice. In Latin America, only Argentina and, more recently, Mexico are pro-choice. Canada, which provides complete medical care for all through government policies, is of course pro-choice.

So what major industrial country does not give pro-choice reproductive rights to women? The United States! And what do such comparisons tell us about the status of women in the United States? It seems that we have regressed to the nineteenth century. American women today do not have control over their own bodies. How could this have happened, and could it be turned around? We could point to former President Trump’s reactionary appointments to the Supreme Court. But how, in the face of massive public support for Roe v. Wade, could the Supreme Court go against the grain despite poll after poll indicating loss of public support for the court? Suggestions have been made to deal with this public loss of support. Some suggest court term limits or increasing the numbers on the court for some abortion rights groups. This is the United States, supposedly a democratic society. Yet the Supreme Court is dictating a ruling that has little support, even among many Catholics and among other religious groups. Despite public opinion, some members of this court are threatening to dictate further on gender issues, this time on cross-gender questions.

In this supposed example of what is happening to women’s reproductive rights, comparison is indeed powerful in revealing a global context. American women in the United States have been demoted in status in the global context. No longer can we brag, as in earlier periods, as I mentioned in “Orientalism, Occidentalism and Control of Women.” No longer can we point the finger.

Extending Comparisons to Other Realms of Culture

Reproductive choice is but one example of how non-anthropological comparison can be used to call attention to something that matters. Another is single-payer social policies (or their equivalents). After all, Canada has had single-payer for decades, as have many European countries. Or maternity leave. But even with Roe v. Wade and a women’s right to choose, if an American woman wants to have a child and work outside the home, paid leave for maternity is not federally mandated. In fact, paid leave for maternity is the norm—except for in the United States (New York Times, 10/6/07). One hundred and seventy countries offer some paid maternity leave; 98 of them offer 14 weeks off with pay. A National Geographic map published in 2007 revealed that the United States is only one of four that does not—the others being Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.

Why is this so? This is not so easy to answer, especially since Americans often brag about the status of women in the United States. Working women may want greater government involvement but many businesses reject the idea of giving paid leave because of the financial cost, even though the idea of the single-income household is now outdated.

California has had a paid family leave policy since 2004, and workers contribute a small percentage of their paycheck to pay for it. I myself had three children while teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, with no maternity leave. My husband, in contrast, could take paternity leave as a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Indeed, suggestions at the federal level that money is a problem is ridiculous given that 170 countries now provide paid leave. 

A second step is public anthropology—reaching out to the American public, much as earlier anthropologists, such as Ruth Benedict, or Margaret Mead, or Clyde Kluckhohn, did. In my own experience, I have delivered hundreds of talks to non-anthropological audiences. Anthropology matters now more than ever, given how powerful modern technologies of disinformation are. We have comparative methods; we do participant observation as ethnographers. There is much to gain from ethnographies—a knowledge of what our country really is today.

Final Comments

In researching this article, I learned a few things about my country that I had not known before—how exceptional the United States is in areas where we are not supposed to be exceptional, that is, how unusual the absence of women’s reproductive rights is globally, how unusual the absence of maternity leave is when viewed comparatively, and how rare student debt—and also medical debt—is in the wealthiest of nations. Viewed competitively, our use of juries in the criminal justice system is honorable, but the United States has more people in prison than any major world power. Comparison is indeed a powerful way to reveal what is really going on in our country—aspects of it that for the most part go unnoticed. Why? Really? Some people say the smartphone obscured what anthropological ethnographies have revealed about the world outside the United States. Smartphones are not so smart.

Americans are taught from an early age that their country is exceptional; to think otherwise, given the number of wars we have been involved in, would not be patriotic. Michael Moore produced a documentary film called Where to Invade Next in 2015 saying that other countries did better. The film was well received but won no awards. We teach that war is patriotic, not a weakness. And, as I learned working on the Carnegie Council of Children for many years, it is not acceptable to say that kids in France are treated better than here. Really? “No Children Left Behind”? Yes, beware of the power of comparison: You might learn something you didn’t know before. 

But the global picture is not always as positive as this article suggests. Pro-choice legislative changes in Ireland and Northern Ireland are very recent. Malta—an EU country—still has a total ban on abortion. Poland has, over recent years, introduced legislation to restrict abortion to only very limited and exceptional circumstances. A focus on legislation also overlooks the many ways in which abortions can be legal but inaccessible (for example, due to “conscientious objection” on the part of healthcare providers). Indeed, much more could be made of comparison of the rollback in reproductive rights that we have witnessed across the world in recent years, and the important role of the anthropologist in documenting, understanding, and fighting against this.

Bibliography

Benedict, Ruth (1940) Race: Science and Politics. NX Modera Age INC.

Case, M. A. (2019) Trans Formations in the Vatican’s War on “Gender Ideology”. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 44 (3): 639–664. 

Gilby, Lynda, Koivusalo, Meri, and Atkins, Salla (2021) Global Health without Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights? Analysis of United Nations Documents and Country Statements, 2014–2019. BMJ Global Health DOI: 10.1136/bmjgh-2020-00465

Graff, Kapur, and Walters (2019) Introduction: Gender and Rise of the Global Right. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 44 (3): 541–560.

Grzebalska, W., and Peto, A. (2018) The Gendered Modus Operandi of the Illiberal Transformation in Hungary and Poland. Women’s Studies International Forum 68: 164–172.

Hanafin, Patrick (2022) An Uncertain Secularisation: Reproductive Rights in Contemporary Italy. Polemos(Rome) 2922, 16 (1): 75–96.

Kluckhohn, Cylde (1949) Mirror for Man: The Relation of Anthropology to Modern Life. N.Y. Mc Grace Hill. 

Mead, Margaret (1930) Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education. New York Morrow. 

Mishtahl, Joanna (2019) Reproductive Governances and the (Re)definition of Human Rights in Poland. Medical Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Illness, 38: 201.

Moore, Michael (2015) Where to Invade Next, documentary film.

Nader, Laura (1989) Orientalism, Occidentalism and the Control of Women. Cultural Dynamics.

Feelings of hurt and hate in post-partition South Asia: A Conversation with Neeti Nair

In the book, Hurt Sentiments, historian Neeti Nair traces a political history of secularism, one which made a virtue out of hurt in twentieth-century India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Nair asks how a religious sentiment of hurt come to define the place of law, culture, ideologies, and belonging in this region. In constituent assembly proceedings, courtroom accounts, media debates, and hate speeches Nair finds tangible answers to this extrasensory claim to hurt. Hurt acquired prominence in sacred-secular politics, Nair argues, not as opposing elements but as co-constitutive forces to the extent that sacred religious thought became paramount to secular imagination. By paying attention to critical events and recurring discussions on the ideas of secular-sacred Nair reveals the slow processual erasure of the place of minorities in majoritarian assertions. An inquiry in history of hurt in Hurt Sentiments eventually explains how the political mobilization and weaponization of this sentiment prompted intolerance, harm and neglect felt most by the religious minorities in these nations.

Neeti Nair teaches History at the University of Virginia and is the author of two books, Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia (Harvard University Press and HarperCollins India, 2023) and Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India (Harvard University Press and Permanent Black, 2011, pbk 2016). She is also Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. I had the opportunity to speak with her about her latest book, Hurt Sentiments.

Saumya: Thank you for your time, I really enjoyed engaging with your work. I wanted to start by asking how did you come about to study the history of hurt sentiments? In the process if you could explain what you mean by the phrase, hurt sentiments?

Neeti: I was inspired to work on a book-length project because of the huge amount of interest that was generated by an article that I wrote in 2013. This article, on the making of section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, examined the enormous support for a law that would protect the founders of religions, and “the religious feelings of any class” of British subjects, from insults or even attempts to insult their religion. It was a very broadly-worded law, passed in late colonial India in 1927, that remained a part of the post-independence penal codes of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

My 2013 article was discussed in both India and Pakistan, among legal scholars, because this law was being used especially frequently in India to censor the writings even of academics. In Pakistan, there was renewed interest in another incarnation of this law, 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code, commonly referred to as the blasphemy law, in the wake of the 2011 assassination of Punjab’s governor Salman Taseer, who was opposed by his assassin for having recommended the amendment of this law.

Saumya: A striking feature of hurt in this book is its extent. From the 1947 manifestation of hate speech in India about who belonged where; the rise of Savarkar’s Hindutva in the 80s; to 1955-56 discussions in Pakistan’s parliament about the egalitarian place of minority Hindus in the ideologies of a Islamic state; a consistent disregard of the Bengali Muslim culture in East Pakistan; Bangladesh’s precarious implementation of secularism in 1971; to subsequent violence around blasphemy laws, and so on. In writing this political historiography, how did you think with the question of scale? When did you come to realise how huge and consequential was this production of hurt in the political realm?

Neeti: I realized that if I limited myself to reported case law on section 295A, I would not get a grip on the phenomenon of hurt sentiments. So I decided to examine cases of censorship, more generally. That led me to try and understand why Godse’s defence statement was censored in 1949, and to a broader discussion of hate speech at the time of Partition. Section 295A had had its utility, and I wanted to underline this at a time when there was talk of reforming this law. In more recent decades, the law has been weaponized by religious majorities, but this was not always the case.

I also wanted to learn more about Hindus and Christians in Pakistan since this was a common right-wing stick with which to beat the secular left. What might a turn to the archives, necessarily always fragmentary, reveal? So I read old issues of the Organiser alongside Pakistan Constituent Assembly debates. All this was new to me, so I supposed it would be new to my readers. I wasn’t in a hurry to write this book – I already had tenure – and I did want to cover a broad swathe of time, not focus on only one or two decades. Only then could I reflect on change through different eras. But then the Citizenship Amendment Act that amended the law to fast-track Indian citizenship to all religious minorities from neighbouring countries except Muslims was passed in December 2019, and as city after city witnessed huge crowds of Indians chanting the preamble and holding seminars on secularism, I was motivated to finish writing the book. I do feel that there are two books rolled into this one book, and that it will take time for readers to fully absorb my arguments. It took me a long time making them!

Saumya: Your work pays attention to Gandhi and his Hindutva assassin, Nathuram Godse’s India as two completely opposing ideologies. While Gandhi emphasised multifaith India, Godse created fear about the Other. One would think Gandhi’s death by Godse, and the propagation of Hindutva violence would reinstate trust in Gandhi’s acceptance of multiple faith. Yet in the chapter on Gandhi’s assassination and the rise of hurt sentiments you write, ‘Some amount of bigotry seeped into the soil, became acceptable. With Gandhi’s death died an idea of India.’ (p. 34) Could you elaborate on this, especially in the context of the rise of Hindutva magazine, Organiser and the 1979 ironic claim in it that, the Hindutva cultural group “RSS is more Gandhian than any other mass organisation” (p. 57)?

Neeti: Well, the chapter goes on to explain why I think some amount of bigotry became acceptable. Look at the debates in the Constituent Assembly after Gandhi’s assassination!

As for the claim that the RSS is more Gandhian than any other mass organization, this was made in numerous articles and editorials in the Organiser, and also in a biography of the RSS authored by K R Malkani, long-time editor of the Organiser. I think it stems from a fundamental misreading of Gandhi, of reducing his philosophy to one or two messages about which he wrote earlier in his career. Gandhi had a very long tenure in public life, over forty years. It is natural that he changed his views on matters such as a common language for India or on cow slaughter (being abolished by statute). The RSS worked by convenient cut-copy-paste, selectively choosing which of Gandhi’s messages, enunciated in an earlier time, it would reproduce in independent India and then claim to be Gandhian. Critical reading is not an RSS trait; indeed, it cannot be.

Saumya: The Hindutva ideology was not just attacking Muslims in India but also subversive thoughts that did not play by the rule book of Brahminical ideologies in 1954. A portion on the Riddles of Rama and Krishna in B.R. Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism ‘received sustained protests’ by the Hindutva elements such as the Shiv Sena, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Patit Pavan, and so on. They demanded that the portion be ‘deleted for offending Hindu religious sentiments’ (p. 124), and subsequently Dalits were attacked. This conversation arises again in early 1990s when Hindutva political party, the ‘BJP made a bid for Dalit votes.’ How did Hindutva ideologues at once claim to be Ambedkar’s ardent supporters, yet reject his work for hurting Hindu sentiments on Valmiki’s Ramayana? What kind of historical and legislative imagination on hurt was enabled by these (/similar) incidents of Orwellian doublethink, something that has become a characteristic feature in today’s political realm?

Neeti: Selective appropriation of icons happens all the time, and the Hindu Right has done so with Ambedkar. It had to, in the context of Mandal – wherein reservations were extended to Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in jobs in government and public sector undertakings – and its need to mobilize a Hindu constituency for the cause of the Ram temple.

My book’s focus on censorship allows us to clearly track some of these landmark cases and how they contribute to a general sentiment of accumulating hurt, against an alleged perpetrator, howsoever many centuries ago. The charge of Muslim appeasement would be hilarious, if it weren’t so deadly and tragic.

Saumya: In your narration of the 1956 draft Constitution debates in Pakistan on what entailed an “Islamic state,” among many other things, I was most struck by how the sentiments on naming Pakistan by Mian Abdul Bari of the Muslim League and the like were drawing from the history of naming of Hindustan and Bharat further arguing that Islam should be the grounding principle for East Pakistan and West Pakistan. And then we have Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as well as Basanta Kumar Das reflecting on the sentiments of Jinnah that true Islamic thought of Quran and Sunna should not make distinctions between Muslims and non-Muslims (p. 169, 196). We see ideas of secularism vernacularised in this interpretation of Islam as a sacred place of all religions. I was wondering if you could comment a little on how and in what ways your research speaks with/departs from earlier theoretical framings of secularism as a Western import?

Neeti: I haven’t come across an appreciation of how meanings of secularism have evolved, in practice, and in tandem with political developments across the border, for and in South Asia. There is a very large literature on what secularism has been in the West—such as A Secular Age by Charles Taylor —and how it ought to be understood in India—such as Rajeev Bhargava’s Secularism and its Critics, but these are typically reflections on secularism in theory, or on certain developments in legal doctrine – on the maintenance of temples, or on laws against religious conversion, such as in Ronojoy Sen’s Articles of Faith: Religion, Secularism and the Indian Supreme Court and Sumit Sarkar’s Beyond Nationalist Frames: Postmodernism, Hindu Fundamentalism, History. I have tried to situate debates on censorship and hurt in a broader discussion on state ideology, because my archives led me in that direction. Others will ask different questions of the same archives, and different archives, and that is how it should be.

Saumya: It was really intriguing to see the delicate shift you make from historical records to interview (/oral history) as method/source where you spoke with Bangladesh’s first law minister, Kamal Hossain, ‘who had been under arrest and in solitary confinement in West Pakistan for the duration of the war, when secularism became relevant to the Awami Leaguers’ (p. 219) Could you shed some light on how did you decide to include this as part of your methodology and in what ways did this help you advance your thoughts on secularism’s place in Bengali Muslim Bangladesh that was deeply immersed in cultural practices of Bengal (a geographical place) more so than elite politics of West Pakistan?

Neeti: The interview with Dr Hossain happened almost by chance. I was speaking about his recently published memoirs to a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Ambassador William Milam, where I had a fellowship, when the ambassador suddenly offered to put me in touch with him as he would soon be visiting the US. It was only when I met Dr. Hossain and he firmly credited the late prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad with including secularism as one of the four founding principles that I began to search for more writings by Mr Ahmad. That led me to a close reading of old issues of the Bangladesh Observer that carried daily proceedings of the Constituent Assembly and to a two-volume set of press statements brought out by the Ministry of External Affairs in 1971, and to speaking with Ahmad’s daughter and biographer Sharmin Hossain. I gradually gained a deeper understanding of how secularism in Bangladesh evolved as a response to the misuse of religion in politics, not as in any way implying a separation of religion from state or being misconstrued as “anti-religion.” These misinterpretations were deliberate, strategic, political interventions that developed a bit later in the history of Bangladesh.

I find oral histories a hugely significant resource, though I didn’t have as much of a chance to do as many for this book as I did for my first book, Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition in India. Still, I learned a lot from each interview, regardless of whether I directly quoted from transcripts of these interviews.

The Impossible Wait.

On Unsustainable Refugee Livelihoods and the Politics of Time in Humanitarian Governance.

Estella Carpi with Amina al-Halabi[1]

In this short article, in an attempt to question the politics of time that humanitarian governance implicitly rests upon when managing refugee lives, we question the contradiction residing in imposing long waits on refugees who are selected for resettlement. Amina’s account will highlight the paradox of a humanitarian system that asks people, implicitly, to count on means they do not own, while the lack of those means is often the primary reason for applying for resettlement.

Amina is a Syrian woman who has been living in an informal tented settlement (ITS) in a hamlet of northern Lebanon since April 2011, after governmental shelling began to target opposition areas across Syria. Along with her husband and her three children, she is now waiting for resettlement in France. After 12 years in the same ITS, the French humanitarian corridors invited her for a series of face-to-face interviews, and she was eventually selected for resettlement.

Through corridors, refugees can legally enter Europe by being granted humanitarian visas and are given the possibility to apply for asylum afterwards. Normally, once relocated, the selected refugees – mostly women with their children, entire families or (more rarely) single men – reside in facilities or apartments paid by the organisations in charge. While waiting for asylum, refugees can take language classes and navigate future job opportunities, while children can register in schools.

In the history of human displacement, humanitarian corridors have been organised and negotiated by the United Nations or by other NGOs that, at a later stage, require approval from foreign governments. Corridors have also been used during displacement from Syria. In addition to France, Italy has been a common destination for Syrian refugees who aspire to relocate overseas through the corridors. Generally, such relocations happen through complex bureaucratic arrangements in relatively long timeframes. Amina and her family will only be able to leave Lebanon for France after nine months of waiting. The wait is due to facilitators trying to guarantee accommodation and other related arrangements in the country of resettlement.

What livelihoods can Amina and her family rely on while waiting for the long-awaited departure? And, more broadly, what are people supposed to rely on in this timeframe, if the dire living conditions that impede their sustainability – and even their survival – are the ones they need to live in until departure?

Such ways of operating have long taken these ‘impossible waits’ for granted. Corridors are only one example where the impossible wait is presumed. When I was researching livelihood programs in northern Lebanon throughout 2016 and 2017, my interviews with practitioners from the International Rescue Committee pointed to cash for work programmes,through which refugees, especially men, are employed for a period of time (typically six months) – after which they become ineligible for any new temporary job in the following six months. This policy was meant to enable a larger number of low-income refugees to access the same, albeit temporary, job opportunities. In this framework, NGOs act as temp agencies. Local practitioners working through cash for work programmes often voiced their perplexity concerning this policy. Some of them stressed how providing people with precarious sources of livelihoods can, paradoxically, unsettle the ways in which a household has developed their tactics of survival. Over the years, many NGO practitioners have questioned the effectiveness of such policies and practices, with most refugee households being unable to develop alternative means of economic sustainability after completing their period of employment offered through humanitarian programs.

Lebanon is officially a country of transit, having never signed the 1951 Convention for Refugees. Nonetheless, it has ended up hosting nearly one million refugees from Syria and thousands more from Iraq, Sudan and Palestine, to mention only a few. Amina emphasises how everything has become unaffordable. ‘The diesel (mazut) to warm up the house, food, medications for chronic diseases, the cost of rent and of schooling material for the children… The United Nations only help you with some of these expenses, such as food; but, most of the time, you are the one that needs to find strategies to overcome such hardships. Over the last few years, NGOs in Lebanon have been providing less and less aid, and discontinuously’. Economic collapse in Lebanon, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive destruction ensuing from the August 2020 port explosion in Beirut, triggered a large-scale downturn in the country. Humanitarian providers, in this context, sought to tailor their aid and support to a rapidly worsening economic context, but their attempts at readjusting programmes to a severe economic crisis did not go very far.

In this context, the refugees who are selected by humanitarian corridors are viewed as ‘the luckiest’ in a historical moment in which there is no alternative to day-by-day survival. However, the politics of temporality of such resettlement programmes rests on the tacit assumption that people are capable of surviving while waiting for their opportunity to rebuild their lives elsewhere. Refugees in countries where legal resettlement is not possible (like Lebanon) often lack temporal perspectives and struggle to establish their right to permanence. As scholar Cathrine Brun incisively wrote years ago, ‘this emptying of the future [of refugees] – or the rendering of an abstract future – shows that the emergency imagery decontextualizes and ‘de-situates’ the lives of people experiencing a crisis’. Moreover, it is not merely displacement per se that unsettles people’s ‘ownership’ of any temporal perspective; it is the specific way that displacement is managed: blurring the future and even, as mentioned, the immediate present. Often embedded between economic unsustainability in the receiving countries and the unfeasible return to the countries of origin, refugees tend to be deprived of the right to temporalitytout court

While their means of everyday survival are at an all-time low in today’s Lebanon, Amina and her family still have nine months ahead before their departure to France. Other refugees do not even have a departure date, until which they are asked to survive by relying on their own means. For all of them, tomorrow cannot be a certainty.


[1] A pseudonym has been used on personal request.  

Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) in time of crisis. Observations from ethnographic fieldwork on board LNG carriers  

Introduction

November 2022, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I am sipping evening tea with Dario, an electrician from Ukraine, one of the 25 seafarers working on board a the liquified natural gas (LNG) carrier I have been living and conducting ethnographic fieldwork on for almost a month. During this time, I have been following and observing the daily life and work routines of Dario and the rest of the crew members as well as having conversations with all of them. This evening Dario and I are talking about LNG. I am asking if and how it is different for him to work with this type of cargo than with other liquid bulks like oil, which he has worked with earlier. Dario is eager to answer my question, and he starts talking generally about his role in the transport of LNG. Enabling the transport of LNG over long distances gives him indeed a sense of pride. First, Dario is proud of his own expertise in working with LNG carriers which are different and more technically advanced than other bulk carriers. He did not gain this expertise in maritime school, but through work experience within the developing sector of gas transport in the shipping industry. Secondly, since LNG is difficult to control because it can shift from liquid to vapor and gas and back to liquid,[1] those in charge of its transport must be very good at monitoring and controlling these changes. However, what is making Dario most proud is that through his work, he argues, he is helping make Europe energy independent on Russia and so he is contributing to democracy. 

We live in a time of energy crisis

The last words of Dario stuck in my head. They did make a lot of sense. In fact, we live in a time of energy crisis. Energy markets have been shrinking already since 2021 due to higher competition, overconsumption, production cuts, insufficient storage capacity, and poor redistribution systems.[2] The crisis also means that the price of natural gas has reached a record high pushing for inflation and overall impoverishment of citizens and a forced re-definition and re-dimension of common people’s basic needs. This situation is worsening due to the dragging conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the weaponization of energy infrastructures by Russia, the redistribution of international resources to support Ukraine’s military, and the tightness of regulations around using hydrocarbon revenues for the greater good. In the years to come, energy prices and inflation will keep growing, governments will adopt drastic rationing measures, many smaller industries will have to close, thus giving more power to larger producers that will influence legislation to their interests. The situation will exacerbate power imbalance and social inequality across countries.

In the Western world, Europe is particularly vulnerable. The European Commission’s strategy to decarbonize Europe and its vision for a climate-neutral economy by 2050,[3] fully supported by governments and policy makers is creating serious obstacles to negotiate long-terms contracts with large energy suppliers around the world. Since Europe is unwilling to open new gas extraction sites at home,[4] it is highly dependent on foreign supplies and vulnerable to market fluctuations. This is why a key objective of the EU is to ensure stable access to liquid gas markets for energy independence and security.[5] In this context, LNG is seen not only as a solution to enhance the diversity of gas supply and improve energy security, but also to ensure a smoother transition to a greener economy and to the full use of renewable forms of energy (Lindstad et alii 2020).[6]

LNG, a controversial energy resource.

LNG is indeed a strategic key source of energy. Considering Europe’s current decarbonization strategy, people are made to believe that LNG is the best transitional form of energy, a “greener” non-renewable alternative form of energy. Indeed, LNG is very efficient – in comparison with coal and oil[7] – and can be used in most of the existing infrastructures running on fossil fuel, in contrast to renewable energies which need ad hoc infrastructural apparatus. However, the destructive practices by which most of the natural gas is extracted, like hydraulic fracturing (fracking), are often left out of the picture.[8]

Nevertheless, LNG is indeed an appealing and valuable energy resource as it can to a certain degree enable a “smoother” shift into renewable forms of energy using existing infrastructure and, in addition, can make Europe more energy secure and independent. LNG is a controversial energy resource used in practices of “green politics”. Bruno Latour talks about “green politics” in vision of the new climate regime and the many strategies materialized in legislations, fiscal regulations, and infrastructural projects many countries in Europe are adopting to make energy transition possible. What makes politics “green”, according to Latour, is the pervading, repetitive, almost formulaic statements about green shift, green technology, and green energy in the broader discourse of climate change and energy transition.[9]

In fact, whether LNG is really green, a little green or not at all green, everybody is crazy about it right now, competing for its access and making the energy market implode. Since Russia’s historical export to Europe has been heavily sanctioned and the gas flowing into Europe via pipelines has been drastically reduced,[10] the only way to get gas into Europe is through shipping of LNG in tanker ships from other-than-Russia[11] exporting countries around the world.

Automated shifts in the maritime: LNG carriers, LNG technology, and its carers.

Tanker ships that transport liquified natural gas are called LNG carriers. The number of these ships has boomed in the last 10 years. Major and middle size shipping companies specialized in the transport of hydrocarbons and other liquid bulks are now investing in LNG carriers. They are constructing new ships with safer, more efficient technology. As part of my postdoctoral project,[12] which investigates how the fast automation and digitalization of systems on board LNG tankers change perceptions of work, identity of the seafarers, and create at the same time possibilities but also challenges in many aspects of everyday labor and life on board ships, I had the privilege to conduct ethnographic fieldwork on board two LNG carriers in 2022. The 300-meter ships were sailing across the Atlantic Ocean from regassification plants in Europe to Storage facilities in the USA.[13]

LNG is different from other cargoes as it is “invisible”. Locked into tanks that are never opened unless every 5 to 7 years at dry dock, LNG is unequivocally present and pervasive. In relation to the world of freight and container shipping, other scholars have conceptualized shipping containers as “material objects whose embedded properties change not only depending on the cargo they are carrying, but also through encounters with different climatic conditions” (Leivestad, 2022: 206). The constantly fluctuating properties of LNG under the uncontrollable forces of nature, like sea, weather, and temperature, create a special engagement between the crewmembers and this form of energy.

Since LNG is shifting properties all the time – from liquid to vapor to gas to liquid -, it comes with instruments that monitor these changes on its tanker ships. These are innovative machines, like for instance the reliquification plant, which is a large system of machines able to reliquefy vapor from boil off (BOG) of LNG in cargo tanks. LNG carriers also come with kilometers of piping system, thousands of sensors, and several hybrid engines, which can use different types of fuels and can be powered by electrical batteries. These hybrid ships are considered and labeled “greener” in the maritime world. Even though LNG technology is exciting, is sensitive and vulnerable to unpredictable factors, like weather conditions or updates installed to computer systems. The seafarers working with LNG machines are aware of all these problems. In fact, the special engagement, care, and responsibility they have for LNG extends to the instruments they use to monitor, transport, discharge, and load LNG. Under the pressure to complete operations more efficiently and in the shortest time possible, seafarers must also obey the new environmental regulations – like those under SOLAS –[14] and satisfy cargo owners who require cost-efficient fuel usage. 

Most LNG ships today are classified by IMO according to MASS (Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship) definition, as level 1 (out of 4) autonomous, which means that while some systems and processes are automated, seafarers are still needed on board to operate, control, and maintain them. Nevertheless, fast automation of systems is calling for a drastic reduction of personnel on board ships. For instance, on most ships today you find the Electronic Chart Display and Information System, called ECDIS which has almost totally replaced the use of paper charts and has made many navigation functions automatic. Sensors and alarm and software systems make cargo operations, loading and unloading, fuel usage, berthing, emergency systems, air, and water supplies systems self-regulating and automated to a degree. This automation shift in the maritime industry has drastically reduced the number of seafarers on board ships to 17-30 today compared with the 1950s where you could find cargo ships with up to 80 crewmembers (Stepien 2023).

Still, a ship is not a very complicated or advanced machine besides all the sensors monitoring performances and algorithms rendering operations semi-automated. The basic mechanical principles of marine propulsion have remained the same for 200 years and so do the basic machines that run and keep a ship floating. What has really changed over the years is the type of fuel which a ship uses and the rate at which the ship, or better put, the ship’s crew, carry on operations, like loading and discharging cargo. In the face of accelerated capitalistic needs (Eriksen and Schober 2018), the quantity of cargo per ship has also grown enormously, creating unsustainable monsters (Latour 1996; 2021) like the Ever Given, 400-meter long and 22000 TEU, one of the largest ship containers in the world which was stuck in the Suez Canal for 6 days in 2021. 

Even though technology has developed enormously enabling huge volumes of LNG to be shipped across continents, marine officers, machinists, and engineers remain the main carers for LNG machines. Their responsibilities are structured in such a way that the vast number of machines and systems on board the ship – and the responsibility for them – are redistributed among single individuals by rank, expertise, and level of experience. This organization constitutes partly but fundamentally the hierarchy on board ships. Nevertheless, due to the “novelty” of working with carrying LNG,[15] no matter how individuals are expert or ranked, it is often through teamwork and mutual help that problems are solved. LNG and its machines are indeed catalysts for the establishment of new social relations which involve collaboration, support, and mutual help.

In fact, for seafarers, relating to human experiences is easier than relating to manuals and standardized procedures on how to conduct “optimal” reparations. Crewmembers working both on deck or in the machine department would agree on the fact that both LNG and its machinery are unpredictable and that there is still not yet enough knowledge about the behavior or this mutable form of energy and the consequences it has on the technology and machines it uses. In fact, they experience fluctuations every day. Sensors and automated functions monitoring the cargo often do not give a reason why LNG is expanding, contracting, boiling off, or behaving the way it does. Therefore, learning happens by means of human communication and the exchanging of experiences. Sharing past experiences on similar or different LNG carriers with same or different machines helps broaden the spectrum of possible solutions to problems which might not be recorded in the user manuals, for instance. 

Conclusion: Conducting ethnographic fieldwork on board LNG carriers

Ships are contained, isolated, self-sufficient, highly hierarchical, and very organized villages. This containment makes them into attractive sites for ethnographic observations. Since the shipping world is difficult to access and relatively little known, there are many understudied yet revealing ways in which seafarers relate to the cargo they monitor, care for, transfer and transport it around the world. These relationships between crew members, ship and cargo open an investigation of unexpected social dynamics that can be at the same time conflictual, generative, and contradictory. Borrowing from Latour, ships can be conceived as “cultural objects” (1996) because they break down the object-subject, nature-culture dichotomies. In fact, ships are both technologically advanced material things which are highly dependent on humans but also unpredictable and respondent to often unforeseeable and sometimes invisible factors. They have in a way their own defuse agency and they are often object of anthropomorphizing practices that give them strong individuality and agency. 

In addition to being by nature unpredictable, a ship carrying LNG is even more unruly because of the constantly changing nature of the cargo that triggers unexpectedly all infrastructural systems -mechanical and digital – around it. LNG is an “alive cargo”, the captain of one of the ships told me, this is why Dario was particularly proud of being able through his work to control and contain the behaviors of LNG. In practical terms, the complex relationship between all the crewmembers and LNG is manifested in the way the seafarers monitor the cargo, maintain and repair the machines, the way they plan time and space around the navigation routes, the way they perform safety procedures, and the way they incessantly record and log performances and parameters of the behavior or the LNG. How seafarers talk about and perceive the energy cargo they are responsible for constructs a picture around their lives so entangled with LNG and gives another powerful narrative around LNG. In addition, seafarers play a fundamental yet invisible role in the global and politically loaded LNG discourse today. 

LNG as world demanded, market inflated contested resource, obtained by destructive extraction practices, and used in transitional semi- green energy narratives, fits very well in highly political and contradictory discourses. The controversial impacts of LNG are not only ecological (increasing of hydraulic fracking for the extraction of gas) and not only political (making LNG poor countries more dependent to LNG exporting countries, like the US, and thus more vulnerable and politically controllable).[16] On a micro level, on a level of social relations, LNG can also have controversial impacts on the nature of work on board LNG carriers where innovative technology draws more attention than humans, expectations and workloads are becoming strenuous, and traditional hierarchies are reshuffled making conflicts arise. So far, one of the greatest paradoxes of LNG is reflected in the role seafarers working on LNG carriers play. In face of the global importance of LNG, when so much depends on them right now, they yet remain uncredited, unspoken of and invisible. 

References

Blanchard, R. L. (1978, January). An LNG cargo system simulator for crew training. In Gastech 78 LNG-LPG Conf. Pap.;(Monaco) (Vol. 2).

Latour, B. (1996). Aramis, or the Love of Technology. Harvard University Press.

Blanchard, R. L. (1976). An LNG Cargo System Simulator for Ship Crew Training. In Proceedings of the 2nd International Ship Operation Automation Symposium, Washington, DC, August 30-September 2, 1976. Proceedings expected to be available about December 1976. (Vol. 5, No. Proceeding).

Eriksen, T. H., & Schober, E. (2018). Economies of growth or ecologies of survival?. Ethnos83(3), 415-422.

Klein, N. (2020). On fire: The (burning) case for a green new deal. Simon & Schuster.

Latour, B. (1996). Aramis, or the Love of Technology. Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2007). To modernize or to ecologize? That is the question. Technoscience: The Politics of Interventions, 249-72.

Latour, B. (2011). Love your monsters. Breakthrough Journal2(11), 21-28.

Leivestad, H. H. (2022). The shipping container. History and Anthropology33(2), 202-207.

Lindstad, E., Eskeland, G. S., Rialland, A., & Valland, A. (2020). Decarbonizing maritime transport: The importance of engine technology and regulations for LNG to serve as a transition fuel. Sustainability12(21), 8793.

Stępień, B. (2023). Can a ship be its own captain? Safe manning of autonomous and uncrewed vessels. Marine Policy148, 105451.


[1] LNG is natural gas, predominantly methane, converted to liquid form for ease of storage or transport. The liquefaction process happens at around -162 °C. As a liquid, LNG takes up around 600 times less volume than gas at standard atmospheric pressure, which facilitates its transportation over long distances without the need of pipelines, generally in specially designed ships or road tankers.

[2] Aksjekaffe podcast Episode 94  Øystein Kalleklev «Flex LNG» 18.01.2022.

[3] In line with the European Green Deal and the EU’s 2030 energy and climate targets. https://climate.ec.europa.eu/eu-action/climate-strategies-targets/2050-long-term-strategy_en

[4] Except for Norway who is one of the largest gas exporter countries in the world and the most important source of pipeline gas imports to Europe right now.

[5] Energy union (europa.eu)https://www.lr.org/en/insights/articles/lng-uptake-demands-energy-security/

[6] In fact, countries that have access to LNG import terminals and liquid gas markets are far more resilient to possible supply interruptions than those that are dependent on a single gas supplier, cargoes of LNG are available from many different supplier countries worldwide and finally, the global LNG market is undergoing dynamic developments.

[7] Produces 40% less CO2 than coal and 30% less than oil. Methane burns also more efficiently than coal. 

[8] For some of the many examples of destructive outcomes of gas extraction see: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/fracking-boom-tied-to-methane-spike-in-earths-atmospherehttps://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/14/fracking-causing-rise-in-methane-emissions-study-findshttps://news.cornell.edu/stories/2019/08/study-fracking-prompts-global-spike-atmospheric-methane

[9] Opposition and critique, in turn, use the term green washing (Latour 2007; Klein 2020). 

[10] Around 40% of all pipeline imports to the EU have been controlled by Russia in the past years.

[11] USA, Qatar, Australia and Nigeria to name a few most important exporting countries. 

[12] My postdoc project is part of a larger collaborative project with title “Automation shift in the maritime sector of the oil and gas industry: assessing risk and safety, protecting labor” ASMOG. https://www.uib.no/en/asmog

[13] Each segment of the journey from destination to destination, including time for loading and discharging, takes about two weeks.

[14] Safety of life at sea (SOLAS) is an international treaty that regulates all aspects of commercial ships with focus on safety for all ship operations  https://www.imo.org/en/About/Conventions/Pages/International-Convention-for-the-Safety-of-Life-at-Sea-(SOLAS),-1974.aspx

[15] Even though studies on simulation training on board LNG have existed since the late 1970s (Blanchard 1976 and 1978), there is surprisingly still a lack of training on LNG shipping machines and simulations at maritime schools (https://safety4sea.com/cm-addressing-training-requirements-on-lng-fueled-ships/

[16] The role of the United States is increasingly important in the EU gas supply. Imports from the US are increasing enormously. As part of the Russia-Ukraine war and the related weaponisation of energy supply, the Russian share of pipeline imports has fallen dramatically. Between January and September 2022, the largest LNG exporters to the EU were the United States (44%), Russia (17%) and Qatar (13%).

‘I’ve seen things …’ and other pleasures of war

This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.

“The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there”, Gandalf noted turning his glance towards the moonlit window. “You’ll have a tale or two to tell of your own when you come back”, he added. “You can promise that I will be back?”, Bilbo Baggins anxiously inquired. “No. And if you do, you won’t be the same”, Gandalf replied in a serious, even ominous, voice. 

– The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”. 

– Roy Batty’s death soliloquy, Blade Runner (1982)

Flares, Camp Viking, Bastion. Photo: Author © 

Why do ‘we’ fight? For freedom? For democracy? For peace? You name it, and so politicians readily do. There are justifications of war in plenty. Still, is that really why ‘we’ fight? What about power? What about resources? What about greatness? Surely, these are credible explanations of war. Yet, is that really, really why ‘we’ fight? The answer must depend upon who ‘we’ are, and which fight ‘we’ have in mind. For instance, are we talking about Russians invading a neighbouring country, about Ukrainians defending their homeland, or about ‘foreign fighters’ volunteering for Ukraine’s International Legion? In any event, the dominant political discourse on why the ‘national we’ fight is often radically different from the demotic discourse among those who do the actual warfighting. At least that is the case of those Danish combat troops with whom I, as an ‘embedded researcher’, have conducted ethnographic fieldwork – before, during, and after deployment to Al Anbar, Iraq, and to Helmand, Afghanistan, respectively. 

It’s the adventure, stupid!

Once more, why do ‘we’ fight? Why do ‘our’ troops fight? This question is one I have endeavoured to get to grips with since the heyday of the Danish Helmand campaign. Back then I had a defining moment of ethnographic wonder when I one day, comfortably seated in my armchair, read my newspaper and came across a series of short portraits of Danish soldiers, all deployment-bound for Afghanistan. Particularly one mugshot caught my eye. The caption stated that the young man, depicted in his ‘desert uniform’, had signed up for the coming tour of duty because of the adventure. I almost spilled my coffee. Wait, what? The adventure? Not anti-terrorism? Not good governance? Not women’s rights and girls’ schools? Not even God, Queen, and Country? I carefully scrutinised the soldier’s portrait – a private in his early twenties. He looked perfectly sane and normal. But if he was not somehow retarded how then could he be willing to risk life and limb for the sake of an adventure? How could he be willing to cause death and destruction, not in the name of a greater course, but on the contrary merely in the name of what he seemingly expected to be an exciting experience? I was shocked. I was dumbfounded. I was puzzled. Above all, my curiosity was kindled as if by magic. What was going on? What was at stake? And so, my journey began into worlds of military and warfighting. 

In retrospect, of course, my initial wonder strikes me today as rather naïve. My then modest insight into ‘things military’ (Mohr, Sørensen & Weisdorf 2021) had made me expect the portrayed soldier’s war participation to be in line with the dominant, political discourse on why ‘we’, the Danes, fought in Afghanistan. Instead of recognising the adventurous soldier as one who, however unintentionally, ‘spoke truth to power’ and gave voice to what I, with inspiration from Brown & Lutz (2007), have elsewhere called a ‘subjugated warrior knowledge’ (Pedersen 2017b), my first reaction was one of disbelief. Clearly, I found it hard to accept that the soldier in the news did not fit my discursively informed preconception of ‘our’ troops as a heroic breed of patriots and humanitarians, more noble and more altruistic than the rest of us. All the same, the discursive spell was broken: It is the adventure, stupid! 

The rookie and the veteran

What then is in an adventure? Why is an adventure worth dying for? One place to start looking for answers is in the margins of the battlespace, yet right under our noses, namely in cinema or popular culture more generally. Take, for example, The Hobbit’s Bilbo Baggins and Blade Runner’s Roy Batty. Of course, Bilbo and Roy are fictional characters, still each of them embodies a widespread cultural figure: ‘the rookie’ (Bilbo) and ‘the veteran’ (Roy). The adventurous rookie is dying to see the world and is happily facing the unknown once the existential bargain has been settled in favour of going into the danger zone rather than staying in the zone of comfort. The seasoned combat veteran, on the other hand, has seen their fair share of extraordinary things in life and may thus die with peace of mind. 

‘The rookie’ and ‘the veteran’, I contend, prime ‘our’ young people for going to war in search of happy-ending adventures. ‘The rookie’ and ‘the veteran’ socialise ‘our’ young men and women into war as a place of adventure, a place where there might be a price to pay, yet also a prize to win. Now, it goes without saying that war involves the risk of death and (self-)destruction, yet it is not often said that war also harbours the chance of life and (self-)creation. On this, the ‘bright side’ of war, ‘the rookie’ and ‘the veteran’ enchant the world of war as a place of potentialities and possibilities; a place where one goes in search of experience and pleasure, of feeling alive and undergoing transformation, of self-discovery and self-improvement, of existential well-being and self-becoming (cf. Pedersen 2017a, 2017b; 2019). Indeed, the quest for adventure entails that ‘our’ troops seek out war in the pursuit of happiness, hedonic as eudemonic (ibid.). That is at least so in the case of those Danish ‘grunts’ I have followed. 

War happy

Drawing upon Walker and Kavedžija (2015), I conceive ‘hedonic happiness’ as an inner state of feeling good, a state of satisfaction and enjoyment. ‘Eudemonic happiness’, on the other hand, I understand as a matter of doing good and living a life of human flourishing (ibid.). In short, hedonia emphasises pleasurable sensations and eudaimonia a life of virtue. Yet, as Walker and Kavedžija (2015) remind us, hedonia and eudaimonia need not necessarily to be in conflict: you might feel good by doing good. In a similar vein, Lutz calls attention to a variety of war pleasures, including “the thrill of feeling like a moral victor [and], the pleasure of feeling like you are a good person” (Johais & Lutz 2022: 9). 

In my earlier work with Danish ISAF troops, I have explicitly explored eudemonic happiness in the case of my interlocutors’ struggle for becoming what I have described as ‘virtuous warriors’ (Pedersen 2017b). By contrast my interrogation of hedonic happiness has only been implicit, namely in the case of the ‘desire for the real’ – real combat, that is (Pedersen 2017a). However, the current, reinvigorated focus of a major research project (WARFUN) on the relationship between war and fun (De Lauri 2022; Johais & Lutz 2022; Mogstad 2022) has encouraged me to revisit my empirical data on contemporary Danish expeditionary forces and look at them through the analytical lens of hedonic pleasure. Accordingly, what has materialised is a range of pleasures, including what we may call ‘the thrill of destruction’, ‘the fun of a gun’, ‘the excitement of fighting’, ‘the love for being one of the guys’, ‘the pleasure of feeling like a hell of guy’, and ‘the satisfaction of having been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt’. I will look further into these pleasures in a different context (The War and Experience Conference). 

Tales and spectacles

For now, I restrict myself to attend to what we may refer to as ‘pleasures of tales and spectacles’, thus taking us back to Bilbo and Roy, that is, to the pleasure of having stories of one’s own to tell, and to the pleasure of seeing remarkable things. In the case of my OIR material, these pleasures are voiced, among others, by Private First Class ‘Larsen’,[1] then serving with the Jutland Dragoon Regiment’s Viking Coy, a mechanised infantry company. Larsen was deployed as Guardian Angel providing force protection to a Company Training Team stationed at Al Asad Airbase. A few months into the tour, which was his first, Larsen shared his thoughts on the deployment, while we enjoyed the cool night breeze outside Larsen’s quarters in Al Asad’s Camp Tripoli: 

“If this should have been an adventure, which I would have loved it to be, then we should have been doing like the Norwegians who get out [of the camp] and get to see more … Surely, that sounds considerably more exciting. Then you do also have that as draw: You get to see Iraq. Then you can say, ‘I’ve been driving round in Iraq for half a year and seen what it looks like’.”

Inquiring into what extent he had signed up to OIR for the sake of the deployment bonus, Larsen promptly replied:

“I would have done it for less money as well. After all, it’s because of the adventure, although there is not much adventure in it. But one does always set off hoping. Surely, we have seen things. It is a funny place, right?  We are never going to see anything like this anywhere else. So, in that sense, there has been a very tiny adventure in it. Surely, we have seen something that resembles a ghost town … Once it was a huge camp [nicknamed ‘Camp Cupcake’ (2003-2011)] with swimming pools and all sorts of things built by the Americans. We were out having a look at it. It’s almost like Chernobyl where things have just been deserted … It’s special. It’s very strange. You return home with that. At least you get to see those things.”

HESCO barrier, ‘The Twilight Zone’, Al Asad Airbase. Photo: Author © 
Normandy Can City, ‘The Twilight Zone’, Al Asad Airbase. Photo: Author ©  
‘Camp Cupcake’ no more, ‘The Twilight Zone’, Al Asad Airbase. Photo: Author ©
Indoor swimming pool, ‘The Twilight Zone’, Al Asad Airbase. Photo: Author ©  
Bunker, Al Asad Airbase. Photo: Author ©

As for my ISAF material, the pleasures of tales and spectacles are expressed, for example, by Gunner Private ‘Lyngby’.[2] He served with the Guard Hussar Regiment’s 1st Light Recce Squadron and deployed with the Force Protection Section ‘Fenrir’. It was Lyngby’s first tour of duty; a tour that would take him into the Helmandi ‘theatre of operations’ at the time when ISAF’s war was drawing to a close. Shortly prior to the deployment, a sunny summer afternoon at Almegaard Barracks, home of the 3rd Recce Battalion, Lyngby let me in on his anticipations of the coming tour:

“I’m just looking forward to experiencing it all; experiencing being deployed to Afghanistan … What is it actually like down there? … I’d be lying if I returned and didn’t say it was awesome to be part of it … Then you’re just a little more. After all, it’s not that many who have been down there. Then you can say you’ve tried it … It will also be exciting to see Camp Bastion. What the heck is that? It’s quite a monstrosity, right? … It is bloody well not kid’s stuff. It’s huge. The outer perimeter equals the distance of a Marathon race. It’s quite impressive.”

Enroute from the Cook House to Camp Midgaard, Bastion. Photo: Author ©
In the ‘sandbox’, Fox Range, Camp Bastion. Photo: Author ©

Lyngby and Larsen might not have any fantastic tales of trolls and dragons to tell, and they might not have seen anything as spectacular as space combat. Nevertheless, they did seem to find pleasure in the not quite so dramatic tales and spectacles that their deployment was offering them after all. But what then is so pleasurable about such pleasure? First, to judge from the interview snippets above, tales and spectacles, I suggest, harbour the pleasure of seeing things with one’s own eyes, the pleasure of ‘being there’, the pleasure of learning for oneself what it is like ‘for real’ (Pedersen 2017a), whether that be Iraq, or Afghanistan, or simply a tour of duty. Second, tales and spectacles, it appears, involve the pleasure of feeling awed in the presence of large-scale war infrastructures like Al Asad and Bastion; the pleasure of feeling one’s sense of self enlarged through attachments to ‘things miliary’ among one’s own or allied forces. Third, tales and spectacles seem to entail the pleasure of having rare experiences and becoming remarkably experienced; the pleasure of becoming a ‘who’ by virtue of the ‘what’ one has experienced at war (cf. Jackson 2013); the pleasure of feeling special, like a somebody (a veteran) rather than a nobody (a rookie); the pleasure of having tales of one’s own to tell and perhaps, however wishful, even becoming ‘the most interesting person in the room’. 

More than meets the ear and the eye

To be sure, the study of war pleasures calls for further elaboration elsewhere, empirically as theoretically. Here, I conclude this reflection by noting that my preliminary investigation into pleasures of tales and spectacles tends to be collapsing the distinction between hedonic and eudemonic happiness. There is more to the adventurous longing to see the world than pleasurable sensations of war wonders: Existential well-being and human flourishing, for instance, and thus the pleasure, with Jackson (2013), of experiencing oneself as acting upon the world rather than being acted upon by others; and, as I add, the pleasure of imagining, or even experiencing, oneself as self-transforming and coming into one’s own as an experienced individual and seasoned veteran.        

References

Brown, Keith & Catherine Lutz. 2007. Grunt Lit: The Participant-observers of Empire. American Ethnologist 34(2): 322-28. doi.org/10.1525/ae.2007.34.2.322

De Lauri, Antonio. 2022. The Experience of War: The WARFUN project. WARFUN Diaries 1: 2-4. Bergen: Chr. Michelsen Institute. 

Jackson, Peter, director. 2012. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Warner Bros. Pictures. 2 h, 49 min. https://www.warnerbros.com/movies/hobbit-unexpected-journey

Jackson, Michael. 2013. The Politics of Storytelling: Variations on a Theme by Hannah Arendt. 2nd edition. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Johais, Eva & Catherine Lutz. 2022. Is There a Place for Fun and Pleasure in War Research? A Conversation between Eva Johais and Catherine Lutz. WARFUN Diaries 1: 8-11. Bergen: Chr. Michelsen Institute. 

Mogstad, Heidi. 2022. ‘Are You Heading to the Fun Zone?’: Notes from the Polish-Ukrainian Border. Allegra Lab, November 22. https://allegralaboratory.net/are-you-heading-to-the-fun-zone-notes-from-the-polish-ukrainian-border/

Mohr, Sebastian, Birgitte Refslund Sørensen & Matti Weisdorf. 2021. The Ethnography of Things Military – Empathy and Critique in Military Anthropology. Ethnos 86(4): 600-615. doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2019.1687553

Pedersen, Thomas Randrup. 2017a. Get Real: Chasing Danish Warrior Dreams in the Afghan ‘Sandbox’. Critical Military Studies 3(1): 7-26. doi.org/10.1080/23337486.2016.1231996

Pedersen, Thomas Randrup. 2017b. Soldierly Becomings: A Grunt Ethnography of Denmark’s New ‘Warrior Generation’. PhD dissertation. Dept. of Anthropology, Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen.

Pedersen, Thomas Randrup. 2019. Ambivalent Anticipations: On Soldierly Becomings in the Desert of the Real. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 37(1): 77-92. doi.org/10.3167/cja.2019.370107

Scott, Ridley, director. 1982. Blade Runner. Warner Bros. Pictures. 1 h, 57 min. https://www.warnerbros.com/movies/blade-runner

Walker, Harry & Iza Kavedžija. 2015. Values of Happiness. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5(3): 1-23. doi.org/10.14318/hau5.3.002


[1] ‘Larsen’ is a pseudonym. 

[2] ‘Lyngby’ is a pseudonym as well.

Winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2023

The winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2023 is Gwen Burnyeat for her book The Face of Peace. Government Pedagogy amid Disinformation in Colombia

Gwen Burnyeat is Junior Research Fellow in Anthropology at Merton College, University of Oxford. The Face of Peaceis an engaging journey into the complexity of Colombians’ peace efforts and challenges. Moving between different scales of inquiry, Burnyeat explains the intricacies of the government-public relationship and the dynamics and failures of liberal peace-making. A great ethnography and a precious reference for comparative analyses on peace processes.

——

Antonio: Would you like to share with us the personal and professional trajectories that brought you to the publication of The Face of Peace?

Gwen: The questions that led to this book came out of a long trajectory of living and working in Colombia, and of being embedded with sectors of Colombian society who were trying to find ways to end the country’s fifty-year armed conflict and build a more peaceful future. I spent six years in Colombia before starting a PhD, initially as a practitioner in human rights and peacebuilding organisations, then as a scholar. My background was in literature; I retrained as an anthropologist at the National University of Colombia after working as a conflict observer in the north-west region of Urabá, really to try to understand the Colombian conflict that I had been experiencing on the ground. 

My first research project, which I did for a Masters at the National, was about the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, a grassroots community of cacao farmers in Urabá who, trapped between left-wing guerrilla, right-wing paramilitaries and state armed forces, declared themselves neutral to the conflict as a strategy of self-protection. This project led to my first book, Chocolate, Politics and Peace-building: An Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia (Palgrave Macmillan 2018), which argues that the community’s everyday farming work illuminates their political identity as a peacebuilding organisation, and my documentary, Chocolate of Peace (2016). The Peace Community were victims of state violence, as most of the violations carried out against civilians in that region were done by state armed forces in alliance with paramilitaries, and a third of that book is about the way the community perceive the state. This made me interested in the state itself, because for the community the state was the ultimate other,so for my PhD I turned from victims of the state to studying the state itself. 

When I was studying at the National and living in Bogotá, I joined Rodeemos el Diálogo (ReD), literally “Let’s Embrace Dialogue,” a nonpartisan civil society organization founded in 2012 to support the peace negotiations which began that year between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC guerrilla. We held hundreds of “peace breakfasts” and other events to inform ordinary people about what was going on in the negotiations, bringing experts from all sectors (government, guerrilla and paramilitary ex-combatants, victims, academics, artists, activists, journalists, and others) to share their perspectives on peace and create a culture of dialogue across difference, as a way of peacebuilding from civil society. 

In retrospect, it was a very innovative and important thing to do, because peace-making at a national level brings up all sorts of emotional quagmires at the societal level. Wars, especially long-lasting ones like Colombia’s, engender all sorts of divides in society: political, social, economic, regional, and between people with different experiences of the conflict. The only way these differences can be processed is through spaces of dialogue: slow, repetitive, exploratory, calm, safe. The opposite of politics, which happens fast, in the public eye, often superficial rather than deep.

The peace talks took place amid staunch opposition from the right-wing Democratic Centre party, who complained the government was negotiating with terrorists. Anyone trying to explain the peace process, as we were in ReD, had to contend with their disinformation campaign. They told people that the peace process would turn Colombia communist, end private property, and impose “gender ideology” on schoolchildren, turning them gay and destroying families. Then, when the peace deal was signed in 2016, President Santos decided to hold a referendum on it, and this disinformation intensified. On 2 October 2016, Colombia voted ‘No’ by just 50.2% to a peace deal which was celebrated internationally as the most complete peace accord in the world, as it promised not only to disarm the FARC but also to address various structural reforms to prevent future violence, such as land reform, tackling the drug trafficking which has fuelled the conflict, and providing redress to the over 8 million victims of the conflict. This happened just a few months after the Brexit vote in my own country, the UK – and a few months before the election of Donald Trump. 2016 was the year that ‘post-truth’ became the Oxford Dictionary ‘word of the year’ – and since then, global concern over disinformation has spiralled.

I started my PhD two days after the referendum, and the referendum came to dominate my research. While lots of people were wondering how the ‘No’ vote had been so successful, I was more interested in how the “Yes” had lost. I became interested in the role of the government in the referendum, the way that they had tried to counter disinformation using rational explanations, which they called peace pedagogy, and the role of government-society relations in the peace process. 

I spent 13 months embedded in the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace (OACP), the branch of the presidency in charge of peace talks, observing their everyday work and life in the office and travelling with them to peace pedagogy sessions around the country. My book is a study of an attempt to do what many people say that governments around the world should be doing more of –education to counter disinformation, for people to know “the truth.” It focusses on the experiences of the government officials in charge of this peace pedagogy strategy and the challenges they faced in translating the peace accord for public opinion. As is now increasingly obvious, and as neuroscientists and psychologists have been telling us for a long time, people don’t form political opinions based on rationality but emotions, identity, culture, and history. I explore the problems of liberal fantasies about using rationality as an antidote to disinformation. There are many wonderful scholars working on populism, but fewer on the way liberalism reacts to what it perceives as post-truth politics. I’m convinced that we have to look harder at this, and in particular, I think we have to question our assumption that explaining is not political.

Antonio: What is exactly peace pedagogy?

Gwen: As the peace process in Havana progressed and more information and disinformation circulated publicly, ReD and other civil society groups began to do peace pedagogy, a term that emerged organically to describe the act of giving talks to different audiences to explain what was being negotiated. When the referendum was announced, peace pedagogy gained the emphasis of encouraging people to make an informed decision with their vote. The term filtered into government discourse, and a designated peace pedagogy team was created in 2013 in the OACP, the office that provided technical support to the government negotiating team in Havana, led by Sergio Jaramillo Caro, Santos’s High Commissioner for Peace, and chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle. My book is about government peace pedagogy, but many civil society organisations did peace pedagogy in their own way, and continue to do so.

Essentially, government peace pedagogy involved officials from the OACP travelling the country giving talks in-person to different audiences: from rural communities in village sports halls in conflict zones and students at universities, to the business sector in local chambers of commerce, personnel in state institutions, and local and national media. Through the four years of negotiations, government peace pedagogy evolved, and they developed myriad creative strategies, from workshops with local NGOs and online webinar courses to booklet summaries designed for specific groups, such as women, ethnic communities, conflict victims and religious organisations. This is a world first in peace processes: there is a sub-field of Peace Studies called Peace Education, but this refers to educational processes to solve conflicts non-violently. Peace pedagogy, as it was referred to in the Colombian context at that time, was defined by an emphasis on dissemination of official information. This is why I think it’s so important to learn from it, as it’s clearly only going to get more important in peace processes worldwide, as spoilers use disinformation more and more as a strategy to derail negotiations.

But one of the most important findings in the book is the problem of distrust. In speaking as the government, OACP officials had to contend with a historic distrust in the state, which is pervasive in Colombia, due to the state’s role as a perpetrator in the conflict, and to widespread narratives about state “abandonment” and “absence,” referring to a perception of lack of state presence in certain regions of the country. In speaking from the government, the officials were already at a disadvantage. Additionally, they believed they were trying to counter disinformation with facts, and that this was a purely technocratic exercise in explaining – but speaking from the government is always a priori political, because citizens project onto them all the complex emotions and imaginaries they have around national politics. Peace pedagogy was always-already political because it took place in a context of problematic state-society relations.

Antonio: Can you tell us more about the ethnographic and multi-scale research conducted for this book?

Gwen: The government officials I worked with often talked about the difficulty of “giving face,” in Spanish dar la cara, a common Colombian idiom meaning both to be present in physical encounters with someone, and to assume responsibility for something. The officials would say things to each other like, “it’s not our fault the peace process is falling apart, but we’re the ones who have to go and dar la cara, give face to people in the regions.” Giving face as the government means being on the receiving end of the many perceptions that Colombia’s diverse audiences have of the government, in a context of historic distrust in the state. For me, multi-scale research has to do with taking the micro-level observations which anthropology is so good at and connecting this up with macro-level politics, and looking at how the two intersect and produce each other.

In the book, I connect the experiences of individual officials which I documented in my fieldwork with the production of the idea of the government in the public eye. I do this by taking the emic category of “giving face,” to explore how all governments “face” society, and I propose a related analytical concept, “the face of the government,” as a framework for thinking through government-society relations. As Santos’ central policy was the peace process, I argue that the “face” he sought to “give” from his government was a face of peace, hence the book’s title. But the face of the government isn’t just created by Santos and his public relations efforts, but rather by a whole ecosystem of people, institutions, policies and actions. The face of the government is a construct, but “facing” is also a process, in the sense of coming face-to-face with people in personal encounters, and in that of assuming one’s responsibility, as in “facing the music.” 

I use this framework of the face to highlight the role of government-society relations in the Colombian peace process. Overall, I argue that while Santos dedicated great efforts to negotiating with the FARC, his government failed to invest the same efforts into building a government-society alliance for peace, and that this was the fatal flaw in the peace process.

Antonio: What were the main challenges in your research?

Gwen: When I approached the OACP about the possibility of doing fieldwork within the institution, I was followed the idea of “studying up,” Laura Nader’s idea of turning the anthropological gaze to the study of the powerful. This is a challenging positionality. It is easier to identify with, and to feel sympathy for, the marginalised or the oppressed, and anthropological research commonly focusses on experiences of inequality, exploitation, and local forms of critique and resistance. In many ways a government trying to make peace is more other to an anthropologist than a victim. Studying the powerful does not imply agreeing with them; it means recognising them as human beings, product of and reproducing Colombian culture. I had to apply the same openness, the same critical but non-judgmental eye, the same empathy in my approximation of the OACP as I had with the Peace Community, while not losing sight of the responsibility of the institution and its members in Colombia’s destiny.

The OACP generously accepted my proposal to spend a year embedded with them, partly because they saw international academic expertise as a source of knowledge and support to the peace process, and partly as they saw my experience with the Peace Community and ReD as relevant and useful. My embedded engagement was possible because I was ultimately supportive of the OACP’s overall objective to consolidate the gains of the peace process. I would have been unlikely to receive the same access under the subsequent Duque administration, especially given my trajectory with pro-peace and left-wing organisations. Likewise, being embedded in the institution under an administration I politically disagreed with would engender more complex ethical challenges to fieldwork. Participant observation inside governments is therefore deeply contingent.

Antonio: What are your future plans?

Gwen: I’m very lucky to have a three-year research fellowship at Merton College, University of Oxford, which gave me the time to turn my PhD into the book, and also develop my new research agenda. My new work is on the role of stories in political divisions in Colombia and the United Kingdom. Both countries held referendums in 2016 (on the peace accord and Brexit), leaving enduring identity divides, and fostering widespread narratives about each society being more divided than ever. Four months of pilot research in 2021-22 in Colombia exploring experiences and perceptions of polarisation among people from across the social and political spectrum made clear to me how lived experiences of political divides are integrated into everyday life and sociality through stories, from anecdotes over dinner tables and narratives shared in WhatsApp chats to politicians’ speeches. I now want to apply questions generated by my work in the conflict context of Colombia to the non-conflict but increasingly divided context of the UK, transcending traditional thematic categorisations such as north/south, conflict/non-conflict, to learn lessons on peacebuilding in divided societies by studying the two together. 

Combat Sex: Pleasure of War in Africa

This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.

Traditional war practices, such as killing are not easily linked with sexual intimacies in war. The image of a soldier is that of a rough-ridding macho-man driven by the desire to kill characterised by bigotry. While this is somehow true, this is not the image presented in this text. The blog post is interested in an intimate and romantic soldier in the context of war in Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo war, fought between 1998 and 2002. The focus is on intervening forces, the Zimbabwean soldiers, whose stories of war were embedded with intimate sex with civilian Congolese women in war. This Democratic Republic of Congo war has been referred as the “Great War” in Africa and/or the “Africa World War” (Reyntjens, 1999; Rawlence, 2012). This is premised on the number of intervening countries and forces in the war: Rwanda and Uganda countries supporting the rebel forces fighting against the Democratic Republic of Congo government, supported by Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia. This was fought for five consecutive years, and millions of civilians lost their lives, including soldiers and rebels. 

The burgeoning scholarship interest on war continues to present war as always a social, economic and a politically destructive experience. This is real. However, war has intimate moments. Thus, while the dominant discourse on and about war is that it is about killing and decimating the perceived enemies, sex in war makes our understanding of war and being in combat as a pleasurable experience. Thus what makes sex pleasurable is not just the act of doing sex in war, but how an exciting experience is made possible in the face of adversity and the certainty of death. Soldiers are not just instruments of killing, rather they do establish long term and intimate relationships with civilians in the context of war. The strong academic and policy position is that sex in war is rape, yet soldiers do establish sexual romantic relationship with civilian women in the context of war. The social processes involved in the context of war is quite similar in the context of peace. Such practices help us to understand that even though soldiers’ intention in war is to fight and kill, killing in war is inextricably linked with moments of intimate sex. 

The idea here is not to refute the presence of rape in war by soldiers against civilians, and or civilian against civilians, but to have a discussion on a grey area about war, which even scholars skirt around, and the media included. The question on intimate sex in war, by soldiers, reveals to us issues about soldiering in its totality in the context of war. Oftentimes, soldiers, and men are presented as perpetrators of sexual violence, without an understanding that they are law abiding citizens even in spaces in which they can act otherwise. Infantry soldiers are often accompanied by the military police in war. The military police enforce discipline on soldiers fighting in the war. The military police do represent the arms of the state, which can arrest, detain, and ensures that the due process is followed in prosecution, even in war. Thus, apart from soldiers being moral agents, they abide by the laws which guide them in the context of war. It is not entirely true that soldiers are left rogue in war, instead, military commanders, and military police prepare ‘standing orders’, which guide and control soldiers to act within the specific confines of the law. Any soldier who goes against the ‘standing orders’, is heavily punished and corrected. 

War is a window of opportunity for soldiers to meet and establish intimate relationships which sometimes goes beyond the context of war. Soldiers do understand and make a distinction between rape, other forms of sexual violence and intimate sex. The ability to make a distinction between rape and intimate sex, is drawn from them being humane. Thus, having guns and carrying them does not easily cause men to lose the morality of sexual relations. Soldiers in war do go out and beyond the trenches, dressed in civilian clothing, meet civilian women and date. In turn, soldiers bring-in civilian women in the trenches of war, as part of wartime companionship. 

It is therefore important to understand that sex in war is a social practice in the context of war which is characterised by emotions of being humane. War does not completely eradicate the ways in which intimacies are understood both in theory and in practice. 

References

Rawlence, B. (2012) Radio Congo: Signals of hope from Africa’s deadliest war, One World, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

 Reyntjens, F. (1999) Briefing: The second Congo war: More than a remake, African Affairs, 98, 391: 241-250