Anthropology under my skin

What follows is the text of the presentation I gave as part of the the Reclaiming Anthropology panel during the Anthropology in Aotearoa Symposium held at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, on 11 May 2017.

 

I remember when anthropology first got under my skin

20 years ago now

BA, first year,

Student loan, didn’t care.

I asked my flatmate what I should study.

Endangered Cultures, she said

You’ll either love it or hate it.

She was right.

 

That course challenged us

to think about structures of power.

Colonialism

racism

gender and class inequalities

right here, at home, as well as out there.

We read John Bodley alongside Donna Awatere

(from her activist phase, not her Act Party days),

became politicised with Haunani-Kay Trask,

and got angry with Ranginui Walker.

Ethnocide, ecocide, genocide,

right here, on this land.

We learnt about the violence of progress and development.

Anthropology got under my skin.

It made me uncomfortable.

 

Anthropology made me look at this skin.

White skin.

Recognise its privilege

and think about what it means to live in a settler society

benefitting from ongoing processes of colonisation.

For my first anthropology research project

I delved into the insidious history and practice of colonisation

in Ireland, where my ancestors are from,

and Aotearoa, where some of them ended up.

I channeled my outrage into a song and an essay

2000 words, double spaced

in good English

Chicago referencing.

I got an A+.

 

Later, I learnt the name of the anthropology under my skin:

Anthropology for Liberation.

I eagerly followed Faye Harrison’s work, which asked

how can we decolonise anthropology?

How can anthropology work towards social justice

Emanicipation from racism, gender inequality, class disparaties, poverty, neocolonialism

Liberation of the oppressed and marginalised?

Adding Linda Tuhiwai Smith, bell hooks, and Paulo Freire to the mix,

I wrote to change the world.

2000 words,

double spaced,

Chicago referencing.

 

This was anthropology to be applied.

I tried to apply it when I was a high school music teacher

where it felt like I spent more time talking to teenage boys about

why it wasn’t okay to call each other faggot,

why it wasn’t okay to make fun of “horis,”

than how to play music.

I wondered what they learnt about ethnicity and race in their classes.

One small ethnographic study of Palmerston North schools later, I learnt that

in one school,

the school I worked at,

students were taught that there are four human races:

Caucasian, Mongolid, Negroid, and Australoid.

They did not learn that biological races don’t exist.

They did not talk about Franz Boas

or race as a social construct.

I wrote an essay calling bullshit

2000 words,

double spaced,

Chicago referencing.

I got an A+.

I gave it to the school.

They were polite

but they weren’t interested.

 

They weren’t the only ones not interested in my

anthropology for liberation.

Anthropology’s colonial heritage casts a long, cold shadow.

Studying the Other

as if they can be understood,

rendered knowable to the West.

I went to Papua New Guinea for my PhD without reading Margaret Mead

and ran straight into her legacy

in the 1980s ban on anthropologists doing research in Morobe Province,

still remembered,

and in the sharp questions from people I met

who wanted to critique her work.

I went to Tonga to do fieldwork for a report,

an anthropologist hired for her expertise on culture and development.

My first interview didn’t go well.

“So they’ve sent another palagi to tell me about my culture, have they?”

She asked

“What are you going to do with my knoweldge?”

 

We have been decolonising the arrogant assumptions that animate our practices for a quarter of a century or more;

– that anthropology can produce transformative knowledge

– that anthropology can bring about social change

We’re still working on it.

We need to keep working on it.

 

Anthropology is still under my skin 20 years later,

a tattoo that grows with me.

Post-PhD and after five years of adjunct work I practice my anthropology

at university,

full-time lecturer

student loan up to here.

Juggling managerial assessments of intellectual value

with teaching,

with service and academic care work,

in an increasingly neoliberal environment.

 

Last year I applied for promotion

over the bar,

from lecturer to lecturer.

I almost didn’t get it.

Excellent teaching and service, they said,

but not enough publications.

On track for a PBRF ranking of CNE.

Keep doing everything you’re doing, they said, and

write more.

 

Last year I applied to the Marsden early career fund

for a new research project

on how kid’s lives are transformed through music.

I almost didn’t get it.

“It is understood that the researcher has had two maternity leaves since defending the PhD,” wrote Reviewer 1.

“That would leave approximately three years for publications and other research-related outputs.”

As if I stopped parenting once I returned to work.

As if the work I was returning to wasn’t a series of fixed term,

discontinuous,

part-time,

often teaching-only contracts.

“The publication output of 3 peer-reviewed articles and 1 book chapter is at least half of what it should be,” wrote Reviewer 1.

As if quantity is what counts.

As if the entire scholarly merit of my new project,

being considered for an early career research grant,

should be measured by my publication record.

 

That independent,

critic-and-conscience-of-society tattoo parlour

that helped etch anthropology under my skin

is now a chain store in the knowledge economy.

 

Can neoliberalism and decolonisation coexist?

 

Can we decolonise anthropology

work on projects that genuinely move us further toward

an anthropology for liberation

and be publishing machines?

 

Can we decolonise anthropology

address issues of poverty, structural violence, discrimination

work in risky situations

in a risk-averse environment?

 

Can we decolonise anthropology

when our university proposes a policy on Academic Freedom

that would limit us to speaking only in our “field of expertise?”

 

Can we decolonise anthropology

provide opportunities for our students to work towards social justice,

to translate personal experiences into public concerns,

in classes of a hundred, two hundred, three hundred people?

When our university wants to remove the cap on our courses,

increasing student numbers without increasing the number of staff?

 

Can we decolonise anthropology

show students that anthropological knowledge

can make a difference in the world

is necessary in this world

while meeting university measures for graduate employability?

 

Last year my colleagues asked me what I wanted to teach.

Decolonising anthropology, I said.

My new course, Anthropology for Liberation, starts next term.

 

I’ve been thinking about those essays we write,

that we ask our students to write;

2000 words,

double spaced,

in good English,

Chicago referencing style.

That referencing style

makes it easy to cite

peer reviewed academic sources.

That referencing style

does have guidelines for citing

non-peer reviewed sources

but you have to hunt for them.

 

I’ve been thinking about how I can make space

for different ways of learning, knowing, and being,

for recognising the shoulders of different giants.

What happens if I ask students to write an essay

informed by a politics of decolonisation

called “An indigenous view of Wellington”

that requires them to work with different forms of knowledge?

Knowledge that might not be easy to cite using

Chicago referencing style?

 

How you do reference a tattoo?

 

Maybe instead of asking

“how many references do I need?”

students will start questioning what counts as knowledge,

whose knowledge counts,

and where knowledge resides.

 

My new course has a hundred students already.

I’m looking forward to learning with them

and adding to the anthropology under my skin.

#AAA2016 Melanesia Interest Group Business Meeting

Those of you attending this year’s annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association are warmly invited to attend the annual Business Meeting of the Melanesia Interest Group, which will be held on Thursday, November 17, from 6:15-7:30pm, in Convention Center room 206AB.

The agenda is as follows:

  1. Expanding the mandate of our interest group from Melanesia to the wider Oceania/Pacific region:
    (a) Vote for a new name (MIG? OIG? PIIG? Other suggestions?)
    (b) New guidelines for our expanded interest group (including how to ensure our invited session represents our newly expanded mandate)
  2. Ideas for our 2017 invited session
  3. Election of Convenor
  4. Member updates

At last year’s MIG Business Meeting in Denver we discussed expanding the scope of the MIG to include Polynesia, Micronesia, and possibly Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. This is because there is currently no section or interest group representation for scholars of the Pacific more generally within the AAA. We agreed to open up the MIG to AAA members who work elsewhere in Oceania, and that I would begin work on this process.

This newly expanded AAA Interest Group will proceed as the MIG has done in the past by offering a space within the AAA for scholars of Oceania, hosting a business meeting at the annual AAA Meetings, and sponsoring an invited session at each AAA meeting.

Earlier in the year I completed a survey of MIG members and other anthropologists who work in Oceania. 57% of respondents currently belong to the MIG and 92% of respondents indicated that they would join an Interest Group of the AAA that represented scholars of the Pacific region. Just over 50% of respondents indicated that they work in Pacific regions other than Melanesia. These results indicate that an AAA Interest Group focused on Oceania would attract a number of new members.

This meeting will be of interests to all AAA members whose work involves Oceania in some form. All are welcome!

AAA 2016 papers relating to Oceania

The programme for the 115th annual meeeting of the American Anthropological Association (16-20 November) in Minneapolis is now available. I have compiled a list of sessions, papers and meetings that will be of interest to people working in Oceania. Unfortunately I don’t have access to the abstracts or list of venues (this content is restricted to those paying to attend the AAAs), but this is a good general guide to some of the interesting work being presented this year.

If I have missed anything please let me know so I can add it!

Wednesday, November 16

The Persistence of Memory among Maring in Papua New Guinea
Allison Jablonko, Society for Visual Anthropology
Wednesday 11:15 am
(part of the Society for Visual Anthropologys Visual Research Conference) Continue reading “AAA 2016 papers relating to Oceania”

SOMAA Launch Symposium with Marcia Inhorn as Keynote

SOMAA

Call for Papers

SOMAA will be launched in February 2017 at a one-day symposium at Victoria University of Wellington. Professor Marcia Inhorn (Yale University) will be the keynote speaker. The symposium will showcase current work in medical anthropology, with a particular focus on how work from/on the New Zealand context innovates, challenges and contributes to core theoretical debates in medical anthropology internationally. Questions addressed could include:

  • How does the political, legal, cultural and historical context of New Zealand society sharpen or refashion the issues medical anthropology can address and the critiques it can offer wider academic debates?
  • How does research from or on Aotearoa advance debates about ethics, medicine and illness, particularly in areas where medical anthropology has often critically intervened, such as in relation to practices of care, autonomy, responsibility, medicalization, inequality and the body?
  • How do New Zealand’s current neoliberal politics, its state model of healthcare, and its national pharmaceutical regime intersect…

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When Worlds Collide: A tale of parenting and an optimistic undergraduate

I am pleased to welcome guest blogger Jess Thompson to anthropod. In this post Jess shares her experiences of being a parent and university student, adding to our conversation about carework at university.

I wouldn’t say I’m a typical young woman at the mere age of 22; I threw myself into the world of academia at 18 years old like most my age, but I’d already moved to and worked in London for five months after leaving high school. After 2 ½ years at Victoria University I got on a plane and didn’t look back, ventured to Samoa, and volunteered on a development assignment before returning to finish my final papers for my degree this year. En-route, things took a sharp turn with the arrival of my son (Moo) 8 ½ months ago. Three papers short on my Bachelors in Development and International Relations, suddenly I was faced with a situation I had not anticipated; do I work my life around my son, work my son around my life, or just throw it all away and become a full time mum?

Today, the result of finding a middle ground between the former two options exists. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than I could have hoped for. Moo and I are not a nuclear family; I am a co-parent with his dad, a system in place since he was born, and as circumstances arise and Moo gets older, our situation changes as needed. I study part-time, three generations of my family occupy the house I live in, and I’ve not only returned to my volunteer role at GirlGuiding New Zealand as a Ranger Leader (girls aged between 12 ½ and 17), but also taken on an additional role of being a Training Assistant, on the pathway to becoming a Trainer for other Leaders. I live my life as I choose, and integrate Moo into it as required if he is in my care.

From an academic point of view, things have been generally speaking, relatively straight forward. I make the most of the time Moo is with his dad as study time and work care arrangements around lectures and tutorials. But if there was ever a piece of advice read here: you have to be a little crazy and whole lot of adaptable to take an intense 5 week summer paper with a two month old. I would sit at my desk and be working on assignments or catching up on readings with Moo lying next to me playing, or almost begging him to go down for a sleep so I could get an hour’s peace to get part of an essay knocked off.

Photo 1.jpeg
This was one method of essay writing; Moo fell asleep in his bouncinette once while I was sprawling through books trying to work on an assignment on the floor.

A lot of the time I find myself switching between my ‘mum’ headspace and my ‘student’ headspace so things can get done. To my classmates I am a regular student just like them, and it’s only when I talk to people that they realise and sit in slight astonishment that I am juggling study with raising an infant. As an undergrad and Moo being his age it is impractical to bring him to lectures meaning I am in constant reliance of my support networks to look after him. Over time, things have certainly become more manageable; I sit and write this on the couch while he eats crackers, stares at the cat, and pulls half the contents of the bottom of the DVD rack out and throws them on the floor. Needless to say he has now started working out how to move, and I spent much of my exam prep this trimester hoping he wasn’t going to learn how to crawl BEFORE my exam.

Photo 2.jpeg
This was Moo as I was writing this piece; he shuffled off the towel, is secretly a gymnast with legs like that, and was trying to pick up a small piece of cracker on the floor. Had also thrown his homemade drum away made out of an old formula tin.

GirlGuiding has been a part of my life for over 15 years now, and the concept of leader’s daughters in units with me has been quite normal. A lot of leaders are typically mums, however being so young means many of the young leaders I work with are usually students or full time employed, maybe with a serious partner but no kids. Suddenly I’m an anomaly; 22 years old, well experienced, young leader, facilitating/attending/presenting trainings WITH an under 5! I emphasise with here, as in the course of his life, Moo has already come to weekend trainings, is down for two school holiday sessions coming up, and I’m sure a few more in the next few years.

Photo 3.jpeg
I posted this photo on Facebook on the Sunday morning of my first weekend training, captioned: “There should be a blanket patch labelled ‘I survived a GirlGuide weekend as a trainer with a small child.”

Being a new trainer, plus learning the ropes with a very dependent young child makes anyone’s stress levels skyrocket. Attending a weekend training, let alone facilitating one, is another kettle of fish when it comes to having Moo coming along; sometimes I wonder who has more stuff packed in the car, him or everyone else. By the time all his clothes, port-a-cot, food, some toys, and pushchair are packed, then somehow it’s my personal bits, plus resources needed to bring along and so on to pack; there’s an entire house in a small car minus the kitchen sink and a fridge almost. (Although I’m getting really good at car tetris.) A conference I attended led me to be ‘that crazy woman pushing a pushchair up and down outside to get the baby to sleep’. Part of one weekend training involved sitting at the back of the room listening to presentations quietly, so to avoid the awkwardness of the occasional squeal or baby noise we sat at the back of the room listening while I bribed Moo with gingernuts on a blanket on the floor. That same weekend I was presenting two morning sessions; Moo was happily sitting watching me present when all of a sudden he fell down from sitting up and absolutely lost the plot while I was mid-sentence. Bringing such young children has become a rarity over time but now there are a couple of us who for one reason or another need to bring children along always/on occasion and that these other little people are a major part of our lives beyond GirlGuiding and they do need to come along and be involved in the training sphere sometimes. Bringing Moo along certainly has its challenges, but he has never hindered the ability to get things done.

Looking to the future is a hard and difficult one. My passions for a very long time have laid with the Pacific and Development, and really making a difference in the world. Once upon a time I saw myself ten years from now potentially returning to the academic sphere having ventured overseas once again and gained some real-world experience. Now as I save what I can from my benefit each week so that in the long run I can afford to buy my first home (big dreams I know, but you can’t give up on your dreams entirely) I’m faced with a future either working within the NGO sector locally for a salary less than ideal doing something I love, or adapt my skills into something else and start a career path down a different track, while committing my spare time into my passions. One day I’d love to return to the academic sphere to add to my study in a postgraduate form, but only when things are a little more stable.

Regardless of where the future is headed, there is one thing I know for sure. We cannot let children hold us back from chasing what we want to do, sometimes the better option is to let our children come along in the chase. From my perspective there’s a lot of occasions where we forget that other people have lives beyond the portion of their lives we know them from, and sometimes these intersect, and other times they are reason things do not happen immediately. Adaptability and flexibility is key, not only from a mother’s point of view but from an everybody point of view. I praise people like Lorena who have the ability to combine their interests with their children and also their professional life. As the concept of professional work changes and how it is represented, from flexi-hours to working from home, surely it is time to bring the sphere of children and where they fit in the bigger picture into it as well. What if we looked at others like real complex humans, with histories and stories untold, friendships and relationships we may not know about, and a vast array of experiences and needs; would our methods of recognising care, how we treat people, and how we go about and participate in our careers and lives differently? I certainly hope so.

AAA 2015 Melanesia Interest Group Business Meeting

As Convener of the AAA’s MIG (Melanesia Interest Group), I want to extend an invitation to all those attending the AAA 2015 meetings in Denver with an interest in Oceania to attend the MIG business meeting.

Date: Thursday November 19

Time: 6:15-7:30 PM

Venue: Room 706 of the Colorado Convention Center
Our meeting agenda is as follows:

  • Convener’s report
  • Incoming convener elections
  • Member updates
  • Proposal for discussion: that we change the scope and mandate of Melanesia Interest Group to become the Oceania Interest Group
  • Proposal for a 2016 AAA panel in honour of Nancy Sullivan

Hope to see you there!

AAA 2015 sessions and papers relating to Oceania

The preliminary programme for this year’s annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (18-22 November) in Denver is out and looks great. With my AAA Melanesia Interest Group (MIG) Convener hat on, I have scanned through the programme and compiled a list of sessions, papers and meetings that will be of interest to people working in Oceania. I’ve cast my net slightly wider than Melanesia to include as many places in the Pacific as I could find, including Australia and New Zealand.

If I have missed anything please let me know so I can add it!

Continue reading “AAA 2015 sessions and papers relating to Oceania”

Negotiating comparison in ethnographic fieldwork

Anthropology, a discipline dedicated to understanding the full range of human experience from as many perspectives as possible, has always been comparative. This comparative aspect was one of the things that initially captured my imagination as a student. I became interested in understanding how issues that affect humans everywhere – such as poverty, inequality and development – appear in different contexts. I believe that to better debate such issues, we need to understand people’s practices as well as context-specific structures of history, environment, society, and culture. Careful comparative analysis can add to knowledge about development and social change by informing debates and contributing to more effective policies and strategies.

Continue reading

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.