AnthroState Talks

AnthroState Talks is our network’s monthly meeting (typically held the first Thursday of the month, at noon GMT/1pm CET/2pm EET) for sharing new ideas, work-in-progress, or completed work with our peers. In an informal setting online, our presenters talk about their work for twenty minutes before we open the floor for questions and discussion. From time to time we will also have general discussions with the theme “the State in the Crossfire.” In these meetings we weave together our insights from past talks as we consider and answer pre-circulated questions. Please see below for a list of upcoming talks, and for summaries of our past talks.

Elizabeth Challinor (CRIA/UNL Lisboa)
Keye Tersmette (Harvard University)

Upcoming Talks

4 May 2023 Marielle Risse

Good Governance and Open Spaces

“Good Governance and Open Spaces” explores a central question that developed from my work on houses and neighborhoods in Oman: how do the federal and municipal government structures create pleasant, well-used public areas within the southern Dhofar region? First I situate my work on housing within three common paradigms: the “happy” city, the Islamic City and the bifurcation within some large, modern Arabian Peninsula cities. Then I discuss how Oman’s financial situation means certain elements (such as lighted walking paths) are possible while others (lavish corniches with water features) are not. Lastly I explain how the government has concentrated on a few basics such as trash pick-up and a few amenities such as shelters in scenic areas, leaving many open spaces for citizens and residents to use as they see fit. The result is an unspoken pact in which residents use open areas as they like within certain self-imposed guidelines which prevents harm to the land. When this pact is broken, the government slowly steps in to restore balance.

Email Keye Tersmette for the Zoom link.

Past talks & summaries

6 April 2023 Elise Massicard

Investigating the state from below: street-level non-bureaucrats in Turkey

The Turkish state has often been considered in the literature as a strong and unified entity, and as a sovereign body largely impermeable to social demands. This talk will present a collective project aimed at reconsidering this idea of the Turkish state, and at studying in depth its links to society (Aymes, Gourisse, Massicard (eds.), Order and Compromise, Brill, 2015). It will also discuss individual research carried out in this framework and devoted to muhtars - the lowest level elected officials in Turkey, recently published as Street-Level Governing. Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey. This book provides an ethnographic study of the everyday state, starting from the premise that the "margin" of state administration is not peripheral at all, but instructive as to how it functions. At the intersection of everyday life and the exercise of power, muhtars offer a personalized point of contact between citizens and state institutions, which produces contracting effects in terms of government. Drawing on this research, the talk will address more general methodological challenges - especially about working on the blurred boundaries between state and non-state -, and discuss the choice and use of conceptual frameworks.

2 March 2023 Livnat Konopny Decleve

This thing, or where dwells the sovereignty of the state?

I will be presenting a paper I am working on based on fieldwork and interviews with Jewish radical left activists who left Israel following their dissent over Israel's policy and their disillusionment with the possibility to make a change. Exploring the interplay between emotions and political stances, the paper demonstrates how these activists perceive the presence of the state as deeply rooted in their bodies and psyche.

Contrary to the literature which describes state power as vertical, this article points to the horizontality of sovereign power and shows that dissidents refer to it using the term 'this thing'. 'This thing' is described as a complex array of practices, emotions, and physical expressions and experiences, which surpass the state and its mechanisms of control. 'This thing' is found not only in the state policy to which the dissidents oppose but also in their means of resistance.

In the talk I'll present some concerns I have trying to debate with Michel Foucault's conceptualization of subjectification and dissent, and Hardt and Negri's work on the Multitude and Empire.

2 February 2023 Klāvs Sedlenieks

David Wengrow and David Graeber’s Dawn of Everything

Klavs offered us a comprehensive and lucid presentation on Graeber and Wengrow’s new history of humanity, with a particular focus on their book’s tenth chapter entitled “Why the State Has no Origin.” He summarised Graeber and Wengrow’s dissatisfaction with the existing theories of state due to which either some states do not appear to be states or the application of the concept of state is derived teleologically from the fact of complexity. What do we lose out on by overlooking periods where states collapse, or disregarding institutions that work on a temporal, even seasonal basis? Graeber and Wengrow instead focus on power, through violence, information, and charisma, the three of which can come together in the modern state, but do not necessarily need to cohere in the future. Even though the reading opened possibilities for the future, hinging on the freedoms to disobey orders, to move away, and the ability to recast social ties, we wondered why in the present moment the state could so have embedded itself as to make us seem “stuck” with it. A focus on the margins, territorial or social, where the state’s reach is less certain, could offer insights here.

12 January 2023 The State in the Crossfire II

1. As we’ve seen in previous presentations and discussions, the boundaries between state and non-state are ever more blurred. How does this affect our fieldwork as we pursue an anthropology of the state?
2. What obstacles do we run into when we study the state and (how) can we overcome them?
3. What texts/theories do you draw on for understanding the state/ your particular field site?

Continuing with our discussions on the state, we focused on fieldwork in situations of potential conflict and/or violence and discussed issues that arise related to access to research interlocutors; ethics; personal safety; and the constraints imposed by funding. While researching interfaces between the police and the groups they target in an attempt to reduce crime, for example, is it possible to gain and maintain trust on both sides when accompanying police in their house visits and project funding requires gaining the perspective of both sides within the same town? How to avoid being seen as a representative of the state? In contexts of more widespread violence, trade-offs need to be made between the ethics of putting interlocutors at risk in the quest for data and in both cases issues of personal safety also need to be addressed.

1 December 2022 Daniele Cantini - Understanding the University anthropologically

Daniele challenged us to reconsider how we normally think about the anthropology of education being solely about education when it may also be a prism to look at the workings of the modern state. Education constitutes another of its pillars next to for example the army and bureaucracy. The university is a central institution in the functioning of the state, funded to provide it with workers (and we made links with feminist critiques of how the domestic sphere produces workers for capitalism). But education is also seen as a right, and the funding and contents of which are also politically contested between government and society which produces its own private universities. The blurred boundaries between state, civil society, and the private sector discussed last month were clear here. The link between knowledge and power also becomes evident when we view universities as playing fields for legitimacy and critique, with hierarchies of disciplines and of universities in which quality may not coincide with prestige. The university is an institution to be understood within its social context, providing social spaces for the construction of identity and as such it also provides a window into how society is “made.” In the specific contexts of Daniele’s research in Egypt and Jordan, issues emerge, for example over who gets to speak in the name of Islam?
We also discussed our own role as academics in higher education and our reluctance identified by Bourdieu to work on the conditions of our own production. So, whatever your area of research, the anthropology of education is of interest to us all!

3 November 2022 The State in the Crossfire I

1. Why does the state occupy your mind - why do you wish to study the state?
2. In what ways does the state occupy the minds of your interlocutors?
3. What is the connection between their interests and yours as a researcher?

The state is constantly in the crossfire of our enquiries because even when we try to ignore it, to study for example, informal relations or acts of citizenship or when it appears to be absent in the field, the state becomes a point of reference for these analyses. We search for the boundaries between state, civil society, and the private sector, question the difference between the government and the state, trying to forge connections between theories and models and the imaginings and performances of the state we encounter in the field. We empathise with our interlocutors’ anger over state intrusions into their private lives, its lack of accountability and violent practices and with their expectations for service delivery and the upholding of human rights. We also conduct research studying up to discover the value of multiple perspectives and experience the relational nature of the state from the inside. We study categorizations and political subjectivities and discover that some people see us as representatives of the state. We juggle with the tensions between our academic goals and the interests of our interlocutors: how do we deal with them, how far can we delve into the unspoken, to what degree should we become involved? The conversation continues...