ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

(Post-) socialist fields

The long journey into the ‘West’ and back ‘home’: East Germans’ narratives of their first border crossing

Dr Anselma Gallinat

On the ninths of November 1989 the borders of the socialist state of East Germany were declared open. The following weeks and months seemed times of euphoria and joy but also constant changes leading to the reunification of the two German states two years later. By the mid-nineties nostalgic feelings and an East German identity had arisen caused by a number of factors including, according to some authors, the hegemonic behaviour of western Germany (Berdahl 1999; Howard 1995). The paper will address this question of the development of a sense of belonging to the past and present east of Germany by returning to the events of November 1989. It will follow Green and King’s argument that: ‘people see what they know about and, if their knowledge changes, they see something different’ (2001: 285).

The socialist state constituted an epitome of boundedness in space and, in contrast to the fast moving West, also in time. With the opening of the border, however, the formerly nearly hermetically sealed up state turned into an open space questioning where ‘home’ now was. The state opened towards its western counterpart, which had long been perceived as the ‘other’. The East German government but also many people often referred to their country and themselves in contrast and comparison to the western sibling.

The paper explores the transition of the place East Germany to a somewhat undefined space, a possible Germany, and then to the ‘east of Germany’ through East Germans’ narratives of their first visit of West Germany. It argues that the spatial experience of crossing the border and of visiting the ‘other’ side had a significant impact on their sense of home. The paper will show that despite the immense transition, which the place East Germany made during these few months the perception of it did not remain fluid, liminal or transient for the people who rather creatively used this journey to redefine their past and present place of life.

The paper will engage with current debates about ‘siting culture’, hybridity and movement (Clifford 1997; Hastrup & Olwig 1997) by linking notions of home and belonging (Barth 1969; Berdahl 1999; Rapport & Dawson 1998) to the relation between experience, place and movement (Green & King; Thomas et al 2001; Olwig 1993).


  • Barth, F. 1969. Ethnic groups and boundaries. Bergen.
  • Berdahl, D. 1999b. ‘(N)ostalgie’ for the present. Ethnos 64:2, 192-211.
  • Clifford, J. 1997. Routes. Cambridge.
  • Cohen, A. P. 1985. The symbolic construction of community. London.
  • Green, S. & G. King. 2001. Seeing what you know. History and Anthropology 12:3, 255-288.
  • Hastrup, K. & Olwig K. Fog. 1997. Siting culture. London.
  • Howard, M. A. 1995. Die Deutschen als Ethnische Gruppe? Berliner Debatte INITIAL 4/5, 119-131.
  • Olwig, K. Fog 1993. Global culture, island identity. Reading.
  • Rapport, N. & A. Dawson. 1998. Migrants of identity. Oxford.
  • Thomas, T.; P. Sheppard & R. Walter 2001. Landscape, violence and social bodies. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 7, 545-572.

A vanished archipelago: fieldwork on gulag memory in post-soviet Russia

Elisabeth Anstett, Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale, Paris

Working in post-soviet contemporary Russia on an anthropological study of the Labor Camp Stalinian System by collecting testimonies on the GULag, I realized the difficulty to trace the spatial and social reality of what is now a vanished archipelago. Indeed, looking for the traces of this multi-sited long lasting institution points to a paradox : despite its “global” large scale past, the GULag experiment seems to have left very few material and local traces in post-soviet Russia. The reluctance to remember revealed by the Russian society obliges even more to ask oneself if the vanishing of the GULag territory is linked to the disaggregation of GULag memory. Is then a material territory required for remembrance and recalling? Furthermore, are geographical categories essential to anthropological researches and analysis, and does anthropology itself need to be located?

We have then chosen to focus on the Volgolags : a network of camps situated near the former forbidden city of Rybinsk, dedicated from 1936 to 1957 to the building of a serial of dams on the Volga river; each of these camps having been finally physically destroyed by drowning. Our sources are firstly interviews of Vologolag prisoners and neighbours carried out in the Yaroslavl region for the last 3 years, and secondly the archives of Memorial Fund which collects and centralizes since the end of the 1980ies testimonies of victims of the soviet forced labor camp system. Together these sources show that the recall of the GULag experiment does not only deal with the traumatism raised by the material and psychological conditions in which imprisonment and forced labor were experienced, but also with long time and large scale uses of secrecy, dissimulation and denial in soviet and post-soviet society. Thus, all witnesses restore what the Volgolag were through an essential and paradoxical detour via a geographical memory which begins with non-critical but precise descriptions of spaces, territories, borders and roads. Topographical recollections show then their essentiality. They seem indeed to represent a privileged way to evoke the GULag, its internal organization and also hierarchies, social bounds and events that took place inside and outside the prison space. Anthropological analysis deals subsequently with them.

The soviet forced labor camps example reveals methodological and epistemological problems common to many contemporary anthropological fieldworks. It especially brings to light questions linked to multi-sited historical objects, and pleads in favor of multi-located networked ethnographies that could allow to make a simultaneous restitution of both local specificities and global unity of such objects.

Do different rules necessarily result in alternative fields? Considering the field in and of play

Tom Carter, University of Wales College, Newport

Baseball is a passion in Havana. Habaneros will play in any available urban space where they can create a field in which to play. These "sandlot" games result in unusual configurations of both rules and fields of baseball. Similarly, the notion of "the field" as an anthropological location in which anthropologists enter to engage in ethnographic study has become increasingly problematic over the past few years. This paper begins by briefly looking at the concept of field in other disciplines to explore possible permutations of the anthropological use of the concept. Most commonly conceptualized as a place, the field is the location an anthropologist travels to conduct research in a location from which the researcher then returns "home" to write about. But exactly what and where is this field? From this breathless survey, I use my own ethnographic research to consider questions of what constitutes a "field". During the initial stages of research in Havana, Cuba, it quickly became apparent that predetermined definitions of "the field" were completely inadequate. Furthermore, the more I tried to draw clear boundaries, especially geographic boundaries of "the field", the more those lines became blurred by individuals deliberately transgressing such limitations. Drawing on several years of work on the entangled relationships of the Cuban state, nationalist discourses and sporting practices, I explore how "the field" has mestatized, transformed, and moved into locations, times, and questions that I never had any intention of visiting. These experiences have led to me to consider whether the field and its boundaries are solely our own creations, artificial, arbitrary, and, therefore, effectively meaningless, that we impose on others. Are fields, then, merely conveniences for us to simplify and make complex phenomena fathomable and classifiable or can fields be better defined, conceptualized and understood, perhaps using something other than spatial assumptions to define it? Since traditional anthropological objects of study have seemingly become more mobile with increased awareness of globalization processes, any geographically based definition of a field appears to be problematic as well. The question is whether "the field" in the anthropological sense can ever be an actual place? In other words, where exactly does/do the field(s) of Cuban baseball end? As a core tenet now being reconsidered, how we come to conceptualize and define "field" and "fieldwork" will affect every aspect of how the discipline of anthropology is practiced.

Struggling to belong: Soviet elderly immigrants WWII veterans in Israel

Sveta Roberman, University of Edinburgh

This paper explores a role that past plays in the construction of immigrants’ identity in a new place.

The case study of the group of elderly immigrants from the former USSR who arrived in Israel in the wave of immigration of the nineties is in the focus of this presentation. Finding themselves in the situation of multiple marginality in the new country, the elderly immigrants are looking for ways to belong to their new society and state. In so doing, they turn to their past of Red Army soldiers in the Second World War, and that past provides an important anchor in constituting their identity in the new place - Israel. It is in the practices of commemoration of their WWII past – the foundations of museums, creating of monuments, commemorative rituals, that the identity of a person who belongs is created in the present.

In this paper I will focus on one of the arenas of commemoration – the annual veterans’ Victory parade which was held in Jerusalem in late nineties and beginning of 2000s. Analysing the semiotic texture of the ritual, I will show how the official history and immigrants’ memory meet, and a new historic narrative, with a veteran as its main hero, is created. Connecting between the heroic past of a veteran and her/his immigrant present, the parade creates the world of meaning in the elderly immigrants’ life, and constitutes a ‘moment of belonging’.

I would claim that it is the interplay of historic, social and individual contexts – the Soviet veteran ethos, immigration and the old age, militaristic and nationalistic Israeli discourse, that mobilises the soldiering identity from the past and makes it play a central role in the Soviet veterans’ identity struggle in Israel.