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.

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Competing Responsibilities: The politics and ethics of responsibility in contemporary life

I’m excited about this upcoming conference on Competing Responsibilities, not least because of the keynote speakers (Nikolas Rose and Cris Shore). Call for papers open now!

Competing responsibilities conference

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Parenting, AAA 2013, and being an anthropologist

Last month I went to the AAA 2013 meeting in Chicago. This was the first time I’d attended an international conference with my family in tow (20-month-old toddler and amazing husband). My husband looked after our daughter during the day but her presence gave me the opportunity to reflect on how being a parent of a young child has changed my experience of conferences, and possibly my future research directions.

I had a great time at the AAA 2013 and live-tweeted from about half of the panels I attended. I didn’t enjoy all of the papers I heard (mainly because I find it boring to listen to people reading articles or excerpts of thesis chapters – there’s an art to this and not everyone has mastered it) but I did appreciate the opportunity to hear some excellent speakers and meet people doing interesting and exciting research.

One of the first things I noticed was the number of children aged three or under with caregivers (mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunties, uncles) at the conference. I’m sure this is due to my heightened sensitivity as a first-time parent but it was great to see toddlers playing on stairs, younger babies in frontpacks, and kids sleeping or just taking it all in from the vantage point of a stroller while their parents gave presentations. What I didn’t see, though, was a parent’s room at the conference venue. Was there one? Could there be in future? What did anthro-parents with toddlers do at changing and feeding times if they didn’t stay at one of the conference hotels (like we did)?

Networking was also a different experience this time around. The 19-hour time difference between Wellington (NZ) and Chicago meant my daughter had a hard time settling, which ruled out any evening social events for me. However, explaining why I wasn’t going to be at a dinner did open up a space for people to talk about their own kids and how they handled going to conferences when their children were young. Plus I got to meet some lovely caregivers looking after toddlers whose parents (usually mothers) were giving presentations, people I would not have felt confident introducing myself to at previous meetings.

I noticed a divide in opinion about whether or not I would continue fieldwork in Papua New Guinea now that I’m a parent. This is something I have been thinking seriously about as I start to develop a new research project addressing vulnerable urban spaces in India and PNG. While no-one questions that I will continue to work in India, PNG is a different story (mainly due to reports of crime, security, and violence). Attending the AAA was good for meeting other anthropologists working in Melanesia and discussing the issues involved in taking children/family on fieldwork trips to PNG. Back at home I’ve continued these conversations with other anthropologists. I would love (and plan) to continue to work in PNG but being a mum is likely to shape future research directions.

I’m curious to hear from others about whether/how being a parent affects your future research plans. Have you done fieldwork with family in tow? Left them behind? Decided against a fieldsite due to safety concerns? I would love to hear about your experiences!

Making the most of the 2013 American Anthropological Association meeting

UPDATE: Since I posted this, the AAA has released a mobile app for Android and iPhone/iPad users. The AAA Annual Meeting Mobile App replaces the hard copy version of the programme in an effort to help make the event ‘greener’. I will probably give this a go before heading to Chicago later this month.

I’m excited about the 2013 American Anthropological Meeting in Chicago next month. I am presenting a paper as part of the session The Spatial Politics of Enclosure: Creating Persons and Publics.

The session organisers, Barbara Andersen (New York University) and Tate Lefevre (Franklin & Marshall College) of the Melanesia Interest Group, have done a great job in putting together an interesting panel (not just because my paper is in it!) and lining up discussants. Here are my paper details:

Title: Negotiating Space: Hope, development, and a politics of possibility in Kolkata (India) and Lae (Papua New Guinea)

Abstract: Hope is a prominent theme in discourses of development. Through its focus on social change, development provides a way of engaging with a hoped-for future of social justice and equality that is embedded in, but moves beyond, present social, political, and spatial enclosures. In this paper I explore how women living in bastis and settlements in Kolkata (West Bengal, India) and Lae (Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea) negotiate space for themselves, their families, and the wider communities in which they live by participating in grassroots-level development initiatives. I discuss how the various social and spatial arrangements ­ in particular, physical and societal enclosures facilitated by structural inequalities ­ that shape women’s lives in each of these cities simultaneously constrain and provide a basis for their actions. I argue that whether or not they achieve their objectives, such initiatives foster a sense of possibility and movement within and beyond the social and physical spaces these women inhabit.

How to make the most of the meeting?

AAA Meetings are always well-attended with multiple streams of panels running from 8am-9.45pm most days. Based on past experience I know that good planning is essential in order to make the most of my time at the conference. There are a range of new tools available now to help plan everything, including the AAA’s personal meeting scheduler and of course Google Calendar. Kerim has written a useful blog post on Savage Minds combining these two process into one #AAA2013 Google Calendar.

A quick look at the preliminary schedule suggests it’s going to take me a couple of hours to work through everything. The search function of the preliminary schedule seems a bit clunky – for example, looking at the Melanesia Interest Group in the ‘search by section’ function only shows the group’s annual meeting and does not list the session above as we have been sponsored by the American Ethnological Society. Also, because the schedule is only ‘preliminary’ I can’t read many of the abstracts to get an idea of what the papers will be about.

However a couple of sessions run by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology stand out, this one in particular:

Special Event: Genres of public writing in political and legal anthropology: Addressing Multiple Audiences
Participants: Thomas Hylland Eriksen (,University of Oslo); Ghassan Hage (University of Melbourne); Susan Hirsch (George Mason University); Linda Layne (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)
Date: Thursday 21 November 2013
Time: 12.15pm
Venue: Chicago Hilton, conference room 4E

I haven’t started planning my time yet and might end up doing so the old-fashioned way with pen and paper on the longhaul flight from NZ to the USA (although this might not be practical with a 20-month in tow). I am keen to hear from others about conference planning – what tools or apps work well, and which should I avoid? If you are going to the AAA 2013 Meeting, how are you planning your time?

Bloggers and Digital Anthropologists Unite at AAA

I’m going to the AAA in Chicago this year and am keen to meet other blogging and tweeting anthropologists. There are a few of us here in New Zealand and it will be great to meet others from all over the place! I’m not presenting on digital anthropology but will blog and tweet from the conference as I can.

Changing India: From Decolonization to Globalization Conference 2013

I am looking forward to the inaugural conference of the New Zealand India Research Institute, which starts tomorrow. The conference theme is Changing India: From Decolonization to Globalization and it will critically examine the changes that have taken place since Independence.

I am just putting the finishing touches on the following paper, which I plan to develop into a journal article:

Bastis as “forgotten places” in Howrah, West Bengal, India

Abstract:
Kolkata’s poverty is world-famous. Howrah, located on the opposite side of the Hoogly river and Kolkata’s twin city, fares worse. Howrah’s bastis (slums) have been described as “deplorable”, “dirty”, “filthy” and “overcrowded” since the late 1800s. India’s recent rapid economic growth has not improved the lives of those living in poverty – many of whom are Muslim – in Howrah’s bastis. This paper argues that Howrah’s bastis are “forgotten places”, historically and politically constructed habitats that are neglected, but nevertheless deeply inhabited, by the state (Lee & Yeoh, 2006: Fernandes, 2010). In these bastis, services that are the responsibility of the state – such as access to civic amenities – are not adequately provided for. It discusses how such “forgotten places” leave a gap that NGOs and grassroots organisations try to fill, and draws on ethnographic fieldwork to describe the efforts of Howrah Pilot Project, an organisation that runs grassroots-level development initiatives in one of Howrah’s bastis. Such organisations can be viewed as a response to processes of ‘active forgetting’ but need to be augmented by a responsive state in order to achieve meaningful, long-term, beneficial change.

Check out the rest of the NZIRI 2013 Conference Programme to see what else people will be talking about.

Live-tweeting at academic conferences

With the Anthropology and Agency Honours Student Conference taking place at Victoria University this Monday, I have been thinking about how we could use Twitter. I crowdsourced a hashtag for the conference on Twitter (#AAHSC thanks to @prancingpapio) and in last week’s class mentioned that they would be welcome to use it to tweet from the conference. I like making anthropology public and this seemed like a good way for me and my students to share research findings, get the hang of live-tweeting, and practice presenting anthropology to a wider audience on Twitter as well as at the conference.

After class finished I remembered last year’s #Twittergate. I’m not sure what sparked it but in September and October 2012 academics used this hashtag to debate the ethics and etiquette of tweeting and blogging live from academic conferences (journalist Steve Kolowish from Inside Higher Ed summarises the debate which led The Guardian’s Ernesto Priego to list 10 rules for live-tweeting from academic conferences). Issues raised during the debate included privacy, control over ‘publishing’ unpolished ideas and research findings, accuracy of information, and respect (‘academic assholes’ use Twitter too).

Having followed some conferences from afar through hashtags on Twitter, I can appreciate why some don’t like live-tweeting. There is a real skill to summarising someone’s research ideas clearly, concisely, respectfully, and in a way that makes sense to those not at the conference. This is a skill I want to develop myself and in my students.

I want to encourage good live-tweeting habits at #AAHSC – basically all of the ‘do’s’ on Vanessa Varin’s excellent crowdsourced article on live-tweeting etiquette. When I open the conference I will inivte the audience to tweet using #AAHSC and briefly go over Varin’s list (which includes clearly identifying speakers, using Twitter handles, and careful listening). I plan to use Storify to collate the tweets after the event.

What ethics and practices do you follow when live-tweeting from conferences?

The art of asking conference questions

Asking a ‘good’ question is an important skill for anthropologists. It is something we practice in a variety of situations – at conferences, during classes (as students and lecturers), at meetings, in conversations with employers and clients, throughout the research process, when we write, as we supervise students or staff, and when we reflect on our teaching. Since my annual ‘conference season’ is almost upon me I have been thinking a lot about the art of asking conference questions.

In particular, I have been thinking about a blog post on one of my favourite blogs, The Thesis Whisperer. Earlier this year Inger Mewburn (aka the Thesis Whisperer) wrote about Academic assholes and the circle of niceness, a post which resonated with a LOT of people. The post talked about academic colleagues who are ‘rude, dismissive, passive aggressive or even outright hostile … in the workplace’ and many of the comments focused on the kind of aggressive and nasty behaviour that audience members at seminars and conferences can display.

You are probably familiar with this behaviour. There are those who ask questions to show how much they know (and, by implication, how much you don’t) about your topic. Others have a particular axe to grind about x, y, or z (which may or may not be related to your presentation). Some basically are just assholes and make it really, really hard not to roll your eyes as their ‘question’ turns into a 3-5 minute statement on … what was it they were saying again?

I am not interested in the kinds of questions academic assholes ask. They are generally neither constructive nor helpful, and they close down the discussion rather than opening up new possibilities for ideas and understanding. I am much more interested in the art of asking ‘good’ questions.

I think the art of asking ‘good’ conference questions involves:

  1. Taking your role as an audience member seriously. This means actively listening to and engaging with the speaker’s ideas.
  2. Considering the Strategies for constructing a question outlined by George Washington University. These include: listening for questions posed but not pursued by the presenter; listening for keywords; listening for the larger theory/issue the presentation addresses; making connections among presentations; and drawing upon your own experience and knowledge.
  3. Asking to inquire, not to impress. This tip comes from a post on Eduhunch.com about the art of asking questions and essentially says ‘don’t be an asshole’.
  4. Being constructive. This is about opening up possibilities for discussion. A constructive question could probe for more information, give the speaker an opportunity to expand on something there wasn’t time to address, or suggest new ways of thinking about a topic.
  5. Being courteous. Start your question with what you found interesting about the presentation. Try not to interrupt as he or she is answering, and when the speaker has answered your question, thank him or her for the response.
  6. Being clear. This can be difficult, especially if you are still formulating your question as you are talking. However it is important to ask your question as clearly and concisely as you can in order to generate a thoughtful response.
  7. Timing. Is your question something that the speaker will be able to respond to during the time set aside for discussion? Do you want to ask about something specific that might be of interest only to you and the speaker? Do you have a serious concern about an aspect of the presentation, one that is likely to undermine or discredit the speaker? If so, you might consider asking your question in a one-on-one setting rather than in front of an audience.

I enjoy question time at conferences and often learn as much from the questions and responses as I do from the presentations themselves. I appreciate a ‘good’ question as an audience member and speaker, and admire those who have perfected the art of asking questions. (Disclaimer: this is not an art I have perfected myself! I always think of brilliant questions a day or so after the event.)

What do you think? What strategies or tips do you have for asking ‘good’ conference questions?

VUW Anthropology Honours Student Conference 2013

I am currently coordinating one of the Honours courses in VUW’s Cultural Anthropology Programme. In it, the students design and carry out an independent research project on a topic of their choice. Part of the assessment involves them giving a seminar about their work. This year the students will present papers based on their research in a 1-day Anthropology and Agency Honours Student Conference.

Why a conference?

In other courses the students make hour-long presentations (often in pairs) to one another on various aspects of their work. Since they will become quite proficient in making long presentations by the end of the year, I decided to see if they wanted to do something a little different and run a conference instead.

I love going to conferences and have also spoken about my research at less formal events (such as Rotary and Save the Children meetings). I believe that it is important for anthropologists to be able to speak about their work in a range of public settings and thought it would be fun for the students to get involved in organising their own conference.

My teaching goals for this conference are:

  • to complement the oral presentation skills they are developing in other courses
  • to provide them with further career training
  • to provide them with an opportunity to try out their ideas and gain feedback on their work in a constructive forum
  • to showcase what our Cultural Anthropology Honours students are doing to other students and staff.

How we organised it

I pitched my conference idea to them after the mid-year break. Everyone seemed keen so in July we decided on a date, time, and conference theme. Although no two research projects are the same, we had noticed in earlier class discussions that a number of people were addressing the concept of agency in some form, so this seemed like a good theme to loosely link the papers.

Students will present 15-minute papers in panels of three followed by a 15 minute panel discussion where the audience will ask questions of the presenters. This format seemed less scary for first-time presenters, and panel discussions can be a good way to draw out connections and links between the papers.

The students all sent me abstracts which I collated into a booklet to distribute at the conference: Anthropology and Agency Honours Student Conference Abstract Booklet. Some also volunteered to take on the role of session chair, which involves making sure everyone keeps within their allotted time and facilitating the discussion. Through this conference students will gain experience in:

  • writing abstracts
  • conference organisation
  • writing and presenting short papers
  • answering questions ‘on their feet’
  • asking thoughtful, constructive, critical questions of their fellow presenters
  • tweeting updates with the #AAHSC hashtag (for those so inclined)

The VUW Anthropology Society has organised a post-conference gathering at Hunter Lounge. (The VUW Anthropology Society is also on Facebook.)