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CULTURE        &
POWER

Anthropological comments on major themes relating to both culture and power. 

Political Anthropology

Sovereignty & The State

Migrants & Citizenship

Nuki, Gardener and Smith's article in the Telegraph last year joined the enduring thread of arguments pertaining to who did it better at responding to Covid-19. The article titled, 'Revealed: Why Asia was better prepared to fight the coronavirus than Britain' followed with the sub-caption, "While Britain’s pandemic plan assumes a new virus will be unstoppable, Asian countries focused on containment in a bid to minimise mortality" (2020). 

 

For me, this revealed a symbolic link to the anthropological shift in thought in the 1980s regarding how politics was understood outside of Europe and America. This shift meant there was more awareness as to how deeply problematic it was to assume things about 'the West' and the 'other', which I think the Telegraph article symbolically reminds us of. 

 

One assumption was that the 'West' was somehow more rational than anywhere is the world, which the Telegraph counters by showing the more effective non-'Western' Covid-19 responses. Another assumption was that politics outside of Europe worked is vastly different ways, which the Telegraph also counters by showing that allgovernments wrote pre-pandemic socio-political plans.

 

Though these assumptions are traditional, anti-racist thought "isn't about pretending that colonialism never happened. It begins with not pretending any longer that colonialism and its consequences are wholly in the past" (Hicks). 

 

Political anthropology must therefore be prepared to acknowledge and challenge deep-rooted assumptions as well as rely "more on the observations of a studied apprentice than on the authoritative voice of judgement" (Pandian 2019, 9). Anthropology will then be able to "to sustain contrary ways of imagining and inhabiting the contemporary world" (Ibid, 8), which I believe this is essential to genuine social understanding.

 

Works Cited 

 

Hicks, D., 2021. Decolonising museums isn’t part of a ‘culture war’. It’s about keeping them relevant. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/07/decolonising-museums-isnt-part-of-a-culture-war-its-about-keeping-them-relevant.

 

Nuki, P., Gardner, B. and Smith, N., 2020. Revealed: Why Asia was better prepared to fight the coronavirus than Britain. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/science-and-disease/revealed-asia-better-prepared-fight-coronavirus-britain/>.

 

Pandian, A. 2019. A possible anthropology: methods for uneasy times. Introduction: An Ethnographer among the Anthropologists.

Legal Fictions, Political Exclusion

Coutin's article is an interesting piece that explores how truth can be manipulated through law, and asks about where and how multiple or singular versions of truth are allowed to exist. Coutin argues that "legal truth is constructed rather than uncovered… the 'facts' that police collect and that judges and juries consider are socially constructed" (1995, 550). 

 

I believe that in discussing how legal truths are socially constructed, Coutin's ethnography also links to how certain social groups are deemed more legitimate and therefore their truths are more acknowledged. For migrant groups, they are already stigmaised and their legitimacy and deservingness is consistently called into question. For me therefore, this article is raising a question about who is favoured in the process of legal institutions constructing and manipulating particular versions of truth?

 

This makes a prominent link with a recent musical I saw at the Edinburgh Playhouse called, 'Blood Brothers'. In the show, the legal institution of policing is shown to favour people from higher classes. There is a scene where two boys from two very different classes, are caught throwing stones into someone's window. The boy from the upper class, Eddie, is messing around with the police, pretending that his name is 'Adolf Hitler'. When the two boys are sent home to their parents, we see a very different response from the police. Mickey, who is from a low-income family is yelled and shouted at by the police and truth for Mickey became about breaking the law and being a troublesome child who needs disciplining. However, for Eddie the truth was that he was just having fun and got caught up in the wrong crowd. 

 

This musical presented two versions of the same story, which demonstrates how the state and legal institutions often favour certain types of people and therefore legitimise certain types of truths over others. These truths are then legitimised in the eye of the law and become difficult to challenge. 

 

Works Cited

 

Coutin, Susan Bibler. 1995. Smugglers or Samaritans in Tuscon, Arizona: Producing and Contesting Legal Truth. American Ethnologist 22(3): 549-571.

 

https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/blood-brothers/edinburgh-playhouse/

Graber’s work on kingship amongst the Shilluk discusses how the transition from one king to another is a period of violence anarchy and chaos, which he describes as the "year of fear", where "the very cosmological order is thrown into disarray” (Graeber, 2011, 120-121). A link can be drawn between Graeber's work to the way the state can be created through the role of spectacle and performance, sometimes even in its absence. The storming of the Capitol is an example of a spectacle that highlights this argument. This spectacle takes place in the interim period between the end of Trump's presidency and the start of Biden’s succession, or "the year of fear". It not only demonstrates the cosmological order being thrown into disarray, but also reveals a moment of tension between the institution of the state and the idea of the state (Abrams, 1988). 

 

The rioters imagine the Capitol itself to be the location of the 'state', imagining the state as something tangible, however in their protest what they are actually struggling against is the idea of the state. What is actually at stake during this performance is a complex collection of ideas as to what the state is believed be. This includes ideas of both Trump and Biden as well as an us/them divide between supporters and traitors, demonstrating that there is no single, locational state, but that it exist anywhere that makes itself manifest (Gupta, 1995).

 

Works Cited

 

Abrams, P., 1988. Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State (1977). Journal of Historical Sociology, 1(1), pp.58-89.

 

Gupta, A., 1995. blurred boundaries: the discourse of corruption, the culture of politics, and the imagined state. American Ethnologist, 22(2), pp.375-402.

 

Graeber, D., 2011. The divine kingship of the Shilluk. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 1(1), pp.1-62.

 

2021. A Reporter’s Footage from Inside the Capitol Siege | The New Yorker. [video] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=270F8s5TEKY>.

"Social media have been praised for their potential for facilitating civic engagement… [and] can help reinvigorate extra-parliamentarian political participation — i.e. participation beyond the rights and obligations of liberal citizenship (e.g. voting)" (Uldam and Vestergaard, 2015). As citizens of a country, we have the ability to politically participate in a multitude of ways and social media has only further facilitated this participation. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram help citizens involve in society both socially and politically. 

 

However, on Monday 4th October "social media services went down for almost six hours - impacting more than 3.5bn users worldwide" (BBC). People were in distress, worried about the sudden disconnect from people, with further fears over a diminished sense of social and political agency. However, because this is not the only outlet for civic engagement or social connection, the mass distress caused by this "media disruption" made me think about how much citizens often take social and political participation for granted. Ticktin's work on immigrants in France highlights that not everyone has the same ability to participate in society, arguing that immigrants are reduced down to mere biological beings with no political agency. These people can only claim refuge through in a fight for deservingness, which is premised upon the ability to prove significant mental or physical traumas. 

 

Works Cited

 

BBC News. 2021. Facebook down: Zuckerberg apologises for six-hour outage. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-58800726> [Accessed 5 October 2021].

 

Ticktin, M., 2006. Where ethics and politics meet. American Ethnologist, 33(1), pp.33-49.

 

Uldam J., Vestergaard A. (2015) Introduction: Social Media and Civic Engagement. In: Uldam J., Vestergaard A. (eds) Civic Engagement and Social Media. Palgrave Macmillan, London. 

Democracy & Elections

This week's lecture on democracy and elections highlighted an interesting point about the mass reliance on the media to understand and ‘get to know’ who we are actually voting for. This is fuelled by a lack of any firsthand knowledge, which the media can harness by creating an image of both who is governing us, as well as who is actually voting. This theme connects to Walley's article on the 2016 Trump elections, which discusses how contemporary media accounts have constructed a definition of the 'working class'. This definition was massively reductive and premised upon a problematic binary of educated and non-educated. 

 

I believe this process of demographic reductionism also comes to the fore when looking at those who are not included in elections, notably migrant groups. Migrants, like working class Americans have become subject to this reductive process of being collectively generalised. The media often refers to migrants numerically, for example, "in 2019, the number of international migrants worldwide – people residing in a country other than their country of birth – reached almost 272 million" (Migration | United Nations 2021). In processes of elections there are masses of people to account for who can vote, however this process of inclusion would not be enabled without another process of exclusion. I believe therefore that elections and the way demographic groups are inevitably funnelled through the media suggests that people can be both demographically reduced within elections as well as outside of them. 

 

Works cited 

 

Walley, Christine J. 2017 Trump's election and the “white working class”: What we missed. American Ethnologist. 44(2): 231-236.

 

Migration | United Nations 2021. United Nations (available on-line: https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/migration).

Populism & 'The People'

Duno-Gottberg's article on 'The Color of Mobs: Racial Politics, Ethnopopulism, and Representation in the Chávez Era', highlights a very interesting point about the maintenance of colonial legacies. Duno-Gottberg discusses how processes of racialisation in Venezuela contradict the national project by maintaining legacies of colonialism, which he points out are racism, racial discrimination and the degradation of labour.

 

In Singapore, we see a similar process of maintaining colonial legacies, which is exemplified through contemporary processes of racialisation. Singapore's colonial legacies are slightly different however, and involve the institutionalisation of race that is still a present reality and a legacy from colonial times. Singapore follows a racial structure known as CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian or Other), where citizens have to identify as one of the founding races in order to belong (Hoong 2021). 

 

In both Venezuela and Singapore, race is essentialised and is very much a contemporary manifestation of colonialism. This racial essentialisation as a reality in both countries has also become a way of understanding 'the people'. This process removes intricacies of a group, and ignores intersectionality by grouping many complex identities. It is a process that can appear as one that includes however this is only at surface level, as it is a much more exclusionary process through its essentialisation.  

 

Works Cited

 

Duno-Gottberg, Luis 2011 The Color of Mobs: Racial Politics, Ethnopopulism, and Representation in the Chávez Era. 271-297. In Venezuela's Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture under Chávez. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

 

Hoong, C. 2021. Categorising Singaporeans by race: The CMIO system is 100 years old and needs an update. The Straits Times (available online: https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/the-cmio-system-is-100-years-old-and-needs-an-update).

Representing Violence

This week's theme asks a question about how anthropology should and can represent violence, whilst further asking whether we can write about violence without sensationalising it. This reminded me of the recent Netflix documentary series, 'Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel' (Berlinger 2021). This 4-episode mini series centers around the death of Canadian tourist, Elisa Lam. I think that both Elisa Lam's documentary and also Ghosh's text, 'The ghosts of Mrs Gandhi', highlight how difficult it is to know how best and via what medium we should use to represent violence so that it is both accurate and simultaneously sympathetic. 

 

The issue with representing violence as a documentary series is that the audience almost expects it to mimic a fictional TV show, where there is anticipation for an exciting and dramatic climax. In watching reactions to the documentary on YouTube, I found that people were surprised and to some degree disappointed when they found out that Elisa was not killed by a raging serial killer or psychopath but by her own mental health. I feel as though this medium of a documentary series therefore stylises violence in such a way that it has become romanticised and sensationalised. I do not believe that this documentary has provided enough justice in representing Elisa's death. This makes me wonder if Elisa's story would have been better told via a different medium so as not to glamorise violence in the way that it has. Ghosh's text this issue in discussing how there is a difficult balance between trying not to problematically represent violence as an aesthetic phenomenon, neither as an apolitical spectacle. This comes to life in the documentary as it demonstrates how significantly medium can have an impact on the way violence is told and received. 

 

Works cited 

 

Ghosh, Amitav. 2018 [1995]. The ghosts of Mrs Gandhi: Amitav Ghosh looks back at the 1984 massacre of Sikhs. Scroll.in.

 

Berlinger, J. 2021. Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. Netflix.

Violence & Narrative

Processes of Racialisation

Power, Resistance & 
Protest

Violence puts a lot of pressure on ethnography, as it very difficult to portray both accurately and sympathetically. I believe personal experience adds an interesting angle to the presentation of violence to ask how it is justified. In relation to this, Ralph's text on 'The torture letters: Reckoning with police violence' makes an interesting link with Renato Rosaldo's work on 'Grief and a Headhunter's Rage' (2014). For Rosaldo, the violence of headhunting almost becomes justified when his personal relationship to grief changed. Headhunting was something Rosaldo did not completely understand before he lost his wife during fieldwork. The grief that Rosaldo felt connected him to the headhunters and changed his perception of violence as it now became something not so abstract. It was understood and justified, which altered how the violence of headhunting was presented ethnographically 

 

Similarly with Ralph's text - though not his own - who brings to life how personal experience can have an effect on the way violence is presented. The text asks whether the police brutality and torture Andrew Wilson experienced during his trial was justified, however implies that it wasn't. Both texts have presented violence in a very sympathetic, sorrowful way through an intimate storytelling narrative that alters how violence is told and understood. It raises a question about whether a different narrative was to be used, whether violence would be justified in a different way?

 

Works cited

 

Ralph, L. (2020). The torture letters: Reckoning with police violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Part 1 The Black Box, pp. 13-56. 

 

Rosaldo, R. 2014. Grief and a Headhunter's Rage. In The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief R. Rosaldo(ed) , 167-178. Duke University Press.

Anzaldua's letter, 'Speaking in tongues: A letter to third world women writers' (2004) is an insightful text that breaks down the often pseudo-intellectual walls of anthropology that end up restricting certain people from the discipline. Anzaldua says that she writes to rewrite miswritten stories, to document what has been erased and also for a sense of agency. This is because for so long "in high literary places, the beginning woman of colour is invisible both in the white male mainstream world and in the white women's feminist world" (80), which is why Anzaldua is urging women of colour to find their muse within and no longer let themselves be tokenised. 

 

This drive for autonomy by people of colour is essential in unpacking racism in the media, which often exists as a place where people learn about the world and solidify often distorted truths. A clear example of this is Michael Vaughan who is an English cricket coach and commentator, whose racist remarks have recently surfaced. "Rashid, a Yorkshire player and senior member of England’s one-day team, said he had heard Vaughan say to four Asian players: “There’s too many of you lot, we need to do something about that” (Sherwin 2021). 

 

This connects to the paramount importance of Anzaldua's work because she helps encourage and give a voice back to minorities still struggling against white men. Vaughan denying these racist allegations also connects to Anzaldua's commentary on why white men fight. She answers it is "because we shake and often break the white's comfortable stereotypic images they have of us" (81). 

Works Cited

 

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 2004. Speaking in tongues: A letter to third world women writers. Pp.79-89 in Browdy de Hernandez, Jennifer (ed) Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean. South End Press.

 

Sherwin, Adam. 2021. "BBC under pressure after Adil Rashid backs Michael Vaughan racist comment allegation". inews.co.uk. https://inews.co.uk/news/michael-vaughan-denies-racism-claim-as-adil-rashid-corroboration-puts-pressure-on-his-future-with-bbc-1301574.

Mavhunga's text, 'Vermin Beings: On Pestiferous Animals and Human Game' examines the colonial project in former Rhodesia, where European colonisers would essentialise 'natives' as vermin. Becoming essentialised as vermin would subject entire human groups to either be cleansed or exterminated by colonisers. 

 

In looking at contemporary events such as Black Lives Matter, we see that this imagery of human vermin still holds true despite an end to colonialism as colonial legacies are merely contemporary realities. The murder of George Floyd sparked a powerful, but violent social movement as well as a series of protests revealing that this imagery of vermin still exists (Beckett 2020). Black people are still being disproportionately killed and impacted by police brutality than any other racial group in America, which is representative of the fact that colonial essentialisations of race and power are still present today and is also why power, protest and resistance are continuous social phenomenons. 

 

Works cited

 

Mavhunga, Clapperton., 2011. Vermin Beings: On Pestiferous Animals and Human Game. Social text, 29(1), pp.151–176.

 

Beckett, L. 2020. At least 25 Americans were killed during protests and political unrest in 2020. the Guardian (available on-line: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/31/americans-killed-protests-political-unrest-acled, accessed 29 November 2021).