Rethinking Responsibility

The programme is now out for this weekend’s conference, Competing Responsibilities: The politics and ethics of responsibility in contemporary life. I’m excited to hear keynote speakers Nikolas Rose and Cris Shore, of course, but I am also looking forward to hearing how other presenters are rethinking responsibility and responsibilization as theoretical and analytical concepts. SavageMinds.org recently featured an interview with conference organisers Catherine Trundle and Susanna Trnka which nicely introduces the conference theme.

I was inspired by the conference theme and have developed the paper below (based on my PhD research) to focus on how grassroots organisations become responsibilized in the absence of effective state interventions in urban poor areas.

TITLE:
Responsibilizing grassroots organisations in “forgotten places” in Howrah, West Bengal, India.

ABSTRACT:
In 1991 the Government of India implemented widespread economic liberalisation policies which, as well as contributing to India’s recent economic rise to global significance, had important and uneven effects on various social groups within India. Despite official reports of declining poverty in India, neoliberal ideas and policies have not improved the lives of those living in poverty – many of whom are Muslim – in bastis in Howrah, West Bengal. This paper argues that Howrah’s bastis are “forgotten places,” historically and politically constructed enclaves that are neglected, but nevertheless deeply inhabited, by the state. In these bastis, services that are the responsibility of the state – such as access to education – are not adequately provided for, leaving a gap that NGOs and grassroots organisations try to fill. This paper provides an ethnographic account of what happens in such “forgotten places” by describing the efforts of Howrah Pilot Project, an organisation that seeks to address this gap by running a grassroots-level, nonformal school in one of Howrah’s bastis. Processes of ‘active forgetting’ serve to responsibilize such organisations, but their practices need to be augmented by a responsive state in order to achieve meaningful, long-term, beneficial change.

Advertisements

Doing anthropological fieldwork ‘at home’

A month or so ago I posted some thoughts about what it’s really like to be an anthropologist. Not long after that I was asked to talk to a group of Y12 students (high school students in their penultimate year who had come to Victoria University to learn about future study options) about doing anthropological fieldwork. That talk did a much better job of capturing what for me is one of the most rewarding (and challenging) parts of being an anthropologist: doing fieldwork.

I studied Hip-Hop Culture in Aotearoa for my Masters degree in social anthropology, which involved doing fieldwork ‘at home.’ I had long been a fan of Aotearoa Hip-Hop (I used to co-host the Hip-Hop show on Massey University’s student radio station Radio Control) and became interested in understanding how and why Hip-Hop in New Zealand was different to Hip-Hop overseas, particularly the United States. My thesis was based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork (2000-2002) where I explored what Hip-Hop meant to those actively involved in producing and performing Hip-Hop in Aotearoa.

My fieldwork involved a lot of listening and observation. I went to events (b-boy and MC battles, graffiti showcases, gigs, Aotearoa Hip-Hop Summits), used a technique called participant-observation (sometimes known as ‘deep hanging out’ with a purpose) where I would participate in as well as observe what was going on, took fieldnotes and photos, interviewed members of the Hip-Hop community, and tried to immerse myself in all things Hip-Hop.

Lorena doing fieldwork at the 2001 Aotearoa Hip-Hop Summit
Lorena doing fieldwork at the 2001 Aotearoa Hip-Hop Summit in Auckland

People often smile when I tell them my fieldwork involved going to gigs or watching spraycans while people created graffiti art (making jokes like “I bet that was hard work”). However, this kind of fieldwork is not as easy as it sounds. Daniel Simons’ video The Monkey Business Illusion is a great example of how we often miss a lot of what happens around us:
Continue reading