ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Mobilities and modernities

Localities and pastoralist mobility: locating the Karamojong ethnographically

Ben Knighton, OCMS

Mobility is a not a new factor for people anthropology has tried to describe. Anthropology may have missed the degree of mobility and actors absent from the fieldwork, not least concerning nomadic pastoralism, whose past goes back 9,000 years. One issue the paper will cover then is the location of actors who adhere to the same cultural identity despite territorial separation. Who constructs the cultures of Karamoja? Is this done externally more than internally? What is is the difference between internal notions of territoriality. Then different methods of fieldwork eg. Demography, sound recordings, PRA used in Karamoja that reflect what is considered important eg. Kinship, story, development, ecology. The mobility of the research also need reflection as there are advantages and disadvantages of following wherever people lead you or coming in and out of a particular place: in this respect time and place need to be considered together. The tentative conclusion is that mobility does not nullify the need for the ethnographer to search for order and coherence in the social and symbolic worlds of informants. To abandon the search is to do less than the actors themselves. Even if the ethnographer fails, more is learned in the attempt than the mere repetition of the first voices that are encountered.

The discomforts of ‘home’: influences and imaginings of rural pasts and urban futures in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (for further definition – work in progress)

Richard Sherrington, University of Manchester

Migration in Tanzania is often described as circular; that people move from their rural places of origin to the towns and cities, and then after some time, return ‘home’. My own research conducted in Dar es Salaam (2001-03), the largest and most populous city in Tanzania, suggests that these past renditions of the migratory process are now incorrect. The process is much more complex than presently understood. In this paper I explore some of the complexities involved in the decision making processes of staying in the city or returning home. In particular I discuss how imaginings and memories of ‘home’ and visions of urban futures (in places which will never be ‘home’) influence those migrants planning to stay in Dar and those that will return home.

My findings suggest that most people do aim to stay in the city. For some however kinship and marriage obligations disrupt notions of autonomy and choice of place of residence as powerful agents and ideas exert their influence forcing people to return ‘home’ often against their own wishes. When returning home to the village people often plan to make life as comfortable as possible, and if they have the means, invest piecemeal in their home village, in an attempt to take some of the trappings of urban life with them. The majority of people who, on the other hand, plan to stay in the city do so with a belief that money is easier to obtain than in the village home places; by accessing money they aim to ‘self-develop’ and through certain consumption practices and displays of wealth achieve the status of ‘modern person’.

Accompanying these ambitions and choices are memories and imaginings of what a better life constitutes and what, on the contrary, a worse life entails. These imaginings often evoke feelings of ambivalence towards places. Home is the place nostalgically associated with comfort, kin, and an abundance of food and drink available without the need for cash. It is also the place where money is in short supply, work is hard, and there are fewer goods and services available. The city, as ‘not home’, is the place where everything requires cash, food is impure, theft and violent crime are common, and where one is often surrounded by non-kin. It is also the place where services such as schools, clinics and hospitals and electricity are available. More importantly, it is the place where money is available and income-generating opportunities are greater. I argue that people are rejecting certain traits which are considered ‘rural’ by actively pursuing modern and urban futures. This has implications for how we should conceive of spaces designated as rural, urban, and home.

Karen refugees in the Thailand-Burma borderlands: refugee camps and imagined places

Ananda Rajah, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore and RAI Fellow in Urgent Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, University of Durham

The Karen are an ethnic minority group in Burma who have fled the ethnic conflict and civil war in the country. Karen refugees began arriving in Thailand in 1984, reaching a peak in 1995 with the collapse of the headquarters of the insurgent Karen National Union (KNU) and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) after a major offensive by the Burmese Armed Forces. There are now approximately 133,000 refugees located in seven camps along the Thailand-Burma borderlands.

Karen refugee camps in Thailand are connected by formal institutional networks, informal social networks (some of which extend to villages and towns in Burma), conventional information flows and electronic means of communication. Some Karen refugee self-help organizations are in fact linked to the larger world and other refugees who have successfully sought asylum in the West through the Internet and e-mail. The largest Karen refugee camp along the Thailand-Burma borderlands functions as a cultural, educational and organizational centre, a major node in the network of refugee camps. A diversity of Karen communities (Sgaw, Pwo, Christians of various denominations, and Buddhist-animists) exists in these camps, some of which are staunchly committed to the Karen nationalist vision, whilst others seem disillusioned with this vision. Those who still retain their nationalist commitment have, as their principal geo-political referent, Kawthoolei, the quasi nation-state that Karen nationalists have aspired to for over forty years. Those disillusioned with this vision entertain new imagined communities and places — in Thailand or the West. These imagined spaces co-exist with the hard reality of refugee camps as locales of everyday life.

This paper examines the various constructions of space and place in Karen refugee experience and imagination, and undertakes a reconsideration of conventional anthropological fieldwork methods in relation to the possibilities and constraints of studying refugees in the Thailand-Burma borderlands.

‘The field’: materiality and imagination

Katerina Kratzmann, Institut for European Ethnology, Vienna

In my current research I am confronted with a theoretical and methodological problem, I would like to elaborate in the lecture. My recent study is about undocumented migrants in Vienna, and as you can imagine it is not that easy to locate this field. I am concerned with the question, what relationship undocumented migrants and the Austrian society have. What do they know about each other? Which dominant pictures circulate in the discourse and which consequences does this form of migration have for the nation state and it’s claim for sovereignty and democracy. To find some answers to my questions I went “into my field”, the city of Vienna, where one particular questions arose: What understanding of space underlain my research activities?

Most undocumented migrants are definitely “moving targets” (Welz) and I would like to argue the following point: my field is characterised by two things at the same time. At the one hand side it is a “meeting place” (Massey). It is nothing new that the field is not congruent with a community or one social layer in society, but it has to be emphasised that the metaphor “meeting place” stands for the simultaneous presents of divers imaginations about space and it’s meaning. And at the other hand side my field is a highly culturally encoded space, which is given ascription like: crime, danger, rough, etc. The fact that space is culturally encoded means, that certain people stay away from certain places and that certain places “belong” to certain groups. This seems to be a bit of a mystery and contradictory. How can space be both: a mixed “meeting place” and a culturally encoded space for certain people?

This two sides have both an impact on the definition of “the field”, and I would like to show in the lecture how they influence the research and it´s theoretical and methodological funding. I don’t think, that traditional methods and theories have to be dismissed completely, but it is definitely necessary to stretch the understanding of the term „the field“ in anthropology. Nowadays there is no longer a self-contained solid field, where anthropologists could go or travel to, but an unstabel constantly changing field as a process, we can analyse and describe. Space is not the vessel of culture, and the field is not the vessel for the object.

Can anthropologists study second homes or only live in them?

Dr Nathalie Ortar

This paper is based on field works carried out in France and Russia on second home owners. The main topics studied are how these people build up their identity and what role the family plays. I started my field work in rural France in two villages. After working a few years on this topic in France I got the opportunity to work on the same type of population in Russia in the area of Yaroslav.

This work leads to quite a few questions:

  1. What does it mean to live in more than one residence ? Which house is the home in such conditions ? What impact does the surrounding environment have on this population?
  2. How can the anthropologist study such populations ? Is this discipline appropriate to deal with such subjects ? How is the fieldwork feasible?
  3. How can this type of mobility be described ? Is it related to a nomadic way of life or to a new way of living?
  4. How is the comparison possible when the political, social and economical backgrounds are so different ? Has the comparison any meaning ? If it has any meaning is it possible to generalise the results?

 This paper will try to answer those questions which combine the themes of the localities, mobilities and methodologies.

Construction of home and sense of belonging in a group of highly mobile employees of an international organisation

Magdalena Nowicka, Institute of Sociology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany

The paper addresses the question of construction of home and sense of belonging under the conditions of extensive mobility. In particular it asks what is a relation of the individuals to a place and how stability is being produced under the condition of liquefaction of old boundaries.

 The paper presents the preliminary results of the Ph.D. research project conducted in a group of employees of an International Organisation, which is a part of the United Nations System. It runs projects and has offices in over 100 countries all around the world. The selected group is characterised by extensive mobility. All of the interviewees have changed their place of residence at least once. Most of them have moved more than once between the countries. In average, they change countries of residence at least 3-4 times during the course of their life, some of them have changed their locations over 10 times. All of them travel at least 100 days a year for business, staying abroad from 5 days to 3 weeks long.

 The research has shown that the individuals locate themselves primarily within socio-technical networks and that the essential qualities of a place play little role in their decisions to settle down. The main theses of the research include the one of the non-territorial principle of fixation, flexibility of fixation, and mobile localities. The paper concentrates on the last thesis. 

 The paper combines the empirical evidence with the theoretical postulate of spatially conscious sociology (Sayer) and methodological cosmopolitism (Beck). The aim was to escape the global-national-regional-local perspective and look at the localities as not spatially but socially bound. Further, the theoretical considerations were inspired by the Georg Simmel's concept of qualities of space.

Pastoral culture and world culture: the modern mobility of the Wodaabe of Central Niger

Dr. Elisabeth Boesen, Center for Modern Oriental Studies Berlin

“The nomad“ has become a metaphor of the post-modern way of life. This not only because real mobility constitutes an essential quality of post-modern life but also because the nomad represents a genuine attitude of resistance and its innate creativity. One would have expected that this newly fashioned “nomadology” would also bring about a renewed interest in traditional forms of mobility like pastoral nomadism. At the same time it is understandable why these traditional nomads do not appear in contemporary reflections on mobility or translocality. Their mobility does not represent a mode of participation but a state of marginality, that is of exclusion, while their sphere of life, in the present case the Sahel and the desert, is even in a globalised world seen as a periphery or at most as a transit-space.

It is, however, remarkable that the “modern” forms of mobility which members of pastoral nomadic groups also produce have up to now been more or less ignored by academic research. For several decades Wodaabe men and women, like other Sahelian nomads, undertake seasonal travels to urban centers. One reason for this lack of interest may reside in the fact that these nomads have not been recognised in their specificity because they do not differ from peasant migrants in the quality which is crucial in the eyes of the researchers, namely their rural provenance. In the case of the Wodaabe-migrants, however, this explanation seems scarcely plausible, as their outer appearance as well as their urban activities prevent them from disappearing in the mass of migrant workers. The fact that Wodaabe urban life has been more or less ignored may also relate to the somewhat ambigious status which they occupy in this milieu. The urban Bodaado oscillates so to say between seasonal migrant worker, merchant, peripatetic, hunger-refugee and traveller. It therefore seems to be justified to define their mobility as “modern”, that is as participation in modern or global processes of exchange. I will show, however, that in the case of the Wodaabe this association of mobility and modernity/globality is questionable. Their modern movements which lead them in part to rather modern localities, namely into the world of tourists and white ex-patriates, must also be understood as a manifestation of a conservative attitude to life.