All In Your Head

by Mara Buchbinder, author of All in Your Head: Making Sense of Pediatric Pain


This guest post is published as part of a series of author interviews in relation to the American Anthropological Association conference in Denver this past November.

How can anthropology add to our understanding and engagement in the study of chronic adolescent pain?

One of the puzzles of pediatric pain is why its incidence rises so sharply during adolescence. Approaching this puzzle from a purely biological perspective can give us one set of plausible explanations. For instance, some have theorized that the hormonal changes that occur during adolescence contribute to pain etiology. But an anthropological perspective can open up a host of additional explanations, tapping into a range of cultural factors that make adolescence a particularly challenging life stage. For many middle-class Americans, adolescence is marked by mounting academic pressures, increasing extracurricular demands, turbulent peer relationships, engaging in risky behaviors, and sometimes troubles at home. Now, pain medicine has actually done a remarkably good job of acknowledging the wide range of factors that contribute to chronic pain; the “biopsychosocial” model has been a dominant paradigm in the field for many decades. However, anthropology offers a particularly valuable set of methodological and analytic tools for attuning our attention to how pain fits into everyday life. In short, anthropology can help to operationalize a biopsychosocial approach to the study of chronic pain by situating it within an ethnographic context.

How do you suggest we improve the language of how pain is explained to patients?

If anything, I think my research has taught me that clinicians are actually quite good at explaining pain through creative metaphors and explanatory models. Many of them don’t reflect on their explanatory approaches unless explicitly invited to do so, however—such as when prompted by a nosy anthropologist. Like many aspects of clinical medicine, explaining pain is something that is more like an art than a science, and is typically acquired through immersive experience. If there is room for improvement, I think it might come in making more of a clearly defined space for pain in medical school curricula. Pain treatment faces the challenge of not belonging to a single organ system, which makes it harder for particular curricular units to lay claim to teaching about it. (It faces a similar challenge, incidentally, with respect to research funding from the National Institutes of Health.)

What challenges did you encounter while conducting research and interviews?

As an anthropologist ‘at home’ in the field, one of my biggest challenges was in figuring out how to delimit the field. On days when I stayed home trying to schedule research visits or waiting for families to return my phone calls, it often didn’t feel much like fieldwork. It also took me a bit longer to recognize certain local events as critical to my research. For example, I launched my project in the fall of 2008, just as the subprime mortgage crisis was coming to a head. It didn’t become clear until later on how much the national economic climate was influencing the experiences of families in my study—not only to the extent that it affected their ability to pay for treatments that were not covered by health insurance, but also in shaping adolescents’ aspirations and senses of possible futures. Anthropologists often warn students to write everything down early on in a project because ‘everything is data’ and I would agree with this advice, but I have found that it can be harder to recognize certain experiences as data when one’s field site is also one’s long-term home.

Mara Buchbinder is Assistant Professor of Social Medicine and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology at UNC–Chapel Hill. She is coauthor of Saving Babies? The Consequences of Newborn Genetic Screening..


Extraordinary Conditions

by Janis Jenkins, author of Extraordinary Conditions: Culture and Experience in Mental Illness

This guest post is published in advance of the American Anthropological Association conference in Denver. Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Sunday, November 22nd.


How can anthropology add to our understanding and engagement in the study of mental illnesses?

Culture is pervasive in shaping nearly every aspect of mental illness. From onset to recovery, cultural processes are vital to the subjective experience and meaning of mental illness. For example, what would be culturally diagnosed as mental disorder from a clinical perspective is conceptualized differently from the perspectives of people actually living with such problems, that is, those afflicted and their kin. For example, among Mexican-descent families, the problem might be thought of as one of nervios – something that everyone experiences to a greater or lesser extent.  Using this term serves a variety of purposes in terms of the “work of culture.” First, the problem is conceived on a continuum of human experience rather than in terms of fixed or dichotomous categories. Second, since it’s on a range of possible human experience, it is not so severely stigmatized, and more easily incorporated into the family. Third, as we know from studies that I and other researchers have carried out around the world, the social and emotional response to problems diagnosed as mental illness can make a significant difference for who gets better, and who does not. This is critically important. Anthropologically, what has classically been of ethnographic interest — how people conceptualize their world — shapes social response to mental illness that can affect course and outcome. That’s one way that anthropology can make a powerful contribution for theorizing the role of culture in health and illness.

Another way that anthropology can contribute to our understanding of mental illness is through the notion of “cultural chemistry.” I coined the term to refer to the active ingredients through which conditions — such as schizophrenia, depression, and so forth — can be thought of as a petri dish for the mixing of biology, meaning, desire, and actions that shape responses to psychotropic drugs. As a matter of “cultural chemistry,” psychotropic drugs are subjectively experienced, and culturally represented, differently in different sociaties. For example, they may be “mind food for gastrointestinal nutrition” as Stefan Ecks found in India, or “medication for chemical imbalance,” as culturally peculiar in the United States.

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How could this kind of anthropological understanding aid a worldwide “scaling up” of mental health services?

All this is relevant for current efforts in Global Mental Health to “scale up” treatments around the globe. The primary – and often the only – treatment is psychotropic drugs. These can be useful short-term and in some cases for longer periods, but the use of these drugs is a complicated matter for the afflicted and their families. These difficulties – entailing a variety of paradoxes in the lived experience of taking these drugs (e.g., the “recovery without cure,” or “stigma despite recovery” that I talk about in the book) cannot be brushed aside and indeed must be taken as a significant challenge for the scaling up and implementation of global mental health services as currently proposed. It is critical to actively involve families through engaged listening to the satisfactory and dissatisfactory aspects of their use. Experience-near perspectives must inform interventions to take into account the numerous quandaries involved in understanding the cultural, social, and biological effects of psychotropic drugs. Mental health care that involves psychotropic drugs must be followed ethnographically to determine the cultural, social, and political processes that accompany its use. Partnerships need to be undertaken to develop culturally valid community-based treatments that draw upon and sustain local expertise. Means must be found to complement the use of psychopharmaceutic drugs with psychotherapy for true efficacy. Ultimately, any true scaling up of mental health services worldwide will require economic resources to counteract the structural constraints of poverty and social disadvantage. That formidable fact cannot ethically be taken as so daunting as to justify failure to improve care in all ways possible as soon as possible.

Was there any aspect that surprised you when researching and writing this book? 

Because in the book I am working with an array of my ethnographic studies – the experience of mental illness, refugees fleeing their homelands under conditions of political violence, adolescents hospitalized multiple times by the age of 14 — I needed a means to theorize the reciprocal relations between subjective experience and institutional structures. Looking over all these different situations, I developed the notion of what I call “extraordinary conditions” to refer both to conditions that are culturally defined as mental illness or disorder and also to structural features of socioeconomic and political conditions that produce affliction via entrapment in precarious situations. When I did that, I saw that ultimately thee extraordinary conditions are more about struggle than symptoms. So, across instances of hearing voices, serious depression, troubled emotional environments in families, domestic and political violence, I identify the primacy of struggle — I see struggle as common in the lives of the mentally ill. Indeed, struggle was considered virtually moot during the long period in which serious mental illness, schizophrenia in particular, was considered a permanent and progressively deteriorating condition. Transnational and longitudinal studies such as ours have contributed to changing that. The international movement of “Voice Hearers” is changing that, and my research empirically supports these efforts by highlighting the vital importance of agency, strategies, and creativity in these processes of struggle. Of course, struggles are not always effective, can be non-linear, or be sabotaged by the environment. But my research shows that that people are often remarkably determined in an ongoing active struggle to feel better, be healed, and live their lives. Anthropologically, this endurance — despite acute distress — suggests that the capacity for struggle may be the most remarkable feature of Homo sapiens. This is true in neurobiological and cultural respects alike. Finally, while in no way discounting the reality of neurobiological processes, I am convinced that in the case of mental illness, and extraordinary conditions more broadly as I am define them, there can be no such thing as individual pathology because illness is always also a social and cultural process.


Janis H. Jenkins is a psychological/medical anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, and an internationally recognized scholar in the field of culture and mental health.


They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields

by Sarah Horton, author of They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields: Injury, Illness, and Illegality among U.S. Farmworkers

This guest post is published in advance of the American Anthropological Association conference in Denver. Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Sunday, November 22nd.


You write in your introduction that your book is based on nearly a decade of research on the health of the same group of migrant farmworkers. What are the advantages of a longitudinal approach? 

Originally, I had not intended to conduct a longitudinal study of my interviewees’ health. Yet as I continued to follow the same individuals over time, I was shocked to find that women younger than I had developed hypertension, that men younger than my own father were diagnosed with kidney failure. I came to the realization that my data provided a sequential snapshot of my interviewees’ declining health. And I began to see that understanding the cumulative health insults farmworkers suffered in turn was key to explaining their work ailments—and in particular, why they died from heat at work at a rate higher than any other occupational group.

A longitudinal approach has the advantage of allowing me to witness first-hand the unfolding of the major health challenges migrant farmworkers face: diagnoses of chronic disease made in the Emergency Room after hemorrhages and strokes, of diabetes through chance employer-provided screenings, of chronic kidney disease at its end-stage. It allowed me to “see” the hidden relationships between macro-level forces and the chronic illnesses migrant farmworkers face, such as how immigration and work stresses get under their skin and culminate in higher rates of chronic disease. And it allowed me to trace the connections between migrants’ chronic diseases—which the public health world often treats as though separate, bounded entities—and the illnesses they develop at work, which in turn were shaped by U.S. immigration and labor policies. In short, a long-term perspective helps illuminate the compounded effects of social inequality over farmworkers’ life-course, deepening the synchronic snapshot often provided by ethnographic immersion.

Why do you focus your book on the issue of heat death? What do you want readers to take away about the causes of heat death among migrant farmworkers?

From the perspective of a casual reader of a newspaper over a morning cup of coffee, heat deaths in the nation’s fields may appear an unfortunate and perhaps inevitable by-product of global warming and rising temperatures. What I aim to show in my book is that this perspective naturalizes a public health problem that is socially and politically produced, and therefore entirely amenable to intervention. I show that farmworkers’ historic exemption from the labor protections that middle class Americans take for granted forces them to expend exceptional effort to keep their jobs, all the while recently-intensified immigration control policies entangle them in new forms of legal compromise that make them even more vulnerable at work. Yet, of course, heat death isn’t merely a matter of farmworkers’ vulnerability at work; it implicates a host of other systems—the health care system, the disability and retirement systems, and even our current food safety system—that systematically fail this vulnerable population. This book documents how a web of public policies and private interests create health outcomes anomalous in a modern industrialized nation.

Thus heat death is merely the narrative hook for a broader story about how U.S. policies produce the worse health outcomes and shorter lifespans of migrant farmworkers. Because this book uses farmworkers’ narratives and experiences as the raw material from which to create this critique, it serves as a kind of social epidemiology detective story.

Why do you make your primary focus the changing circumstances of the same set of families over time? How does this change your own positionality and obligations as a researcher?  

A primary aim of this book is unabashedly humanistic—that is, to convey the texture of farmworkers’ everyday lives such that their worlds appear less foreign to readers. To help accomplish this, I follow the lives of a cast of characters over time. This allows readers to acquaint themselves with farmworkers as individuals and to watch as events in their lives unfold. It highlights the diversity in immigrant farmworkers’ experiences, as readers inhabit the shoes of male and female farmworkers and those at varying stages in the life course. Moreover, I also use it with the goal of attribution—that is, of decentering ethnographic authority and giving my migrant interlocutors their due.

Situating my research among migrant farmworkers themselves implies a particular set of loyalties and, in turn, a corresponding set of obligations. While this positioning provided me a window onto the vulnerabilities of migrants’ lives, it also gave me access to the illicit strategies farmworkers must use to circumvent immigration policies, find work, and survive economically. Because intensive engagement with vulnerable populations makes visible a population that often aims to remain invisible, researchers need to carefully consider the issue of dissemination—what we say and before what audiences, what we leave unspoken, and whether academic scholarship should be accompanied by a plan for public dissemination and engagement.

Finally, intensive engagement with vulnerable populations requires action. Witnessing the daily struggles of immigrant farmworkers compels a form of moral engagement that stems from empathic listening. A turn towards advocacy and activism is a logical extension of the norm of reciprocity that underlies anthropologists’ intense engagement with our subjects.

Sarah B. Horton is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Denver.

No One Will Let Her Live

By Claire Snell-Rood, author of No One Will Let Her Live: Women’s Struggle for Well-Being in a Delhi Slum

This guest post is published in advance of the American Anthropological Association conference in Denver. Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Sunday, November 22nd.



Was there any aspect that surprised you when researching and writing this book?

As a white American woman doing research in a slum community, I had anticipated that people would be skeptical of me. Of the white people who showed up in this particular industrial slum, many were affiliated with area NGOs; others were foreign journalists obligated to take pictures of dilapidated homes. For the initial months of my research, many women responded to my questions as if on auto-pilot, having anticipated what I would ask based on what others had before. They knew what white people wanted to know. After the slum was demolished partway through my fieldwork, I followed families to their new homes in neighboring low-income neighborhoods. I was surprised how close I became to families during this period, but even more, the way that families joked about what we held in common even though to me our class differences were even further entrenched by their increased insecurity.

In particular, my field assistant, Saraswati, sometimes joked that we could have similarities that made us more alike than she to her new neighbors. As we sat out on her stoop one day, Saraswati nodded toward her neighbor joining us, and, with an air of exposé, said that her neighbor was rich. Because her husband had a vegetable stand, she explained, they could eat whatever they wanted! Her neighbor just laughed and then pointed out that Saraswati’s and my bodies had become similar after many months spent together, with me eating lunch at her house. “Look at Saraswati’s family,” the neighbor advised me, with Saraswati chuckling alongside. “They are so dried out”—sukha sukha, another way of saying skinny—“no wonder you look the same if you eat at their house!” Saraswati laughed in agreement and added, “and she eats so much fruit!”

I was hesitant to make such comparisons, knowing that my height towered at least six inches over Saraswati’s, and that I returned daily to a home with full meals and much fruit, a food considered a luxury and boon to health. Through jest, Saraswati and many of the other women to whom I became close dealt with similarity and difference at the same time. They drew attention to the fact that we came from different backgrounds– clothes, money, desires, and traditions—but that our engagement could be real.

What implications does your research have for policy and future research related to health in urban slums?

In terms of policy, this research indicates the importance of policy-makers and interventionists being savvy about the social dynamics that structure women’s health decisions. First, community-based participatory change and advocacy are vital to social change in poor communities. Yet these can’t be the only mechanisms of change that outsiders count on. In many communities, the risks inherent in taking part in collective action are too big. Interventionists must be aware that as vulnerable as women living in slums are, they reason their decisions based on long-term family and personal security, which may have different results than community-based change. Second, in recent years, women’s collectives have become a common vehicle for NGOs to promote pooling of finances and community-based dispute resolution for married couples. Guided by the premise that vulnerable women are best positioned to understand needs within low-income communities, such initiatives also seek to empower the women participating, and in so doing, improve community capacity to address complex problems more broadly. However, my research shows that in slum communities characterized by immense diversity and inequality, interventionists must be aware of the potential for these groups to inadvertently re-instantiate local power dynamics. Therefore, women’s collectives must include steps to safeguard against the abuse of power and protect the anonymity of local women who may seek their help.

People who live in slums are deeply familiar with researchers—as well as the agendas of researchers, which are often focused on their health risks, poor conditions of their living environment, and poverty. Yet beyond the structure of risk-focused surveys, many residents of slums have deep philosophical reflections on their lives—their journeys of migration, hopes for transformation, and the immense social changes that they have experienced in moving to drastically different places during their lives. For the diverse people who live in neighborhoods classified as slums, quantitative research methods play a vital role in capturing the breadth of challenges people face and charting patterns between people and communities. Yet surveys would be well served by including questions that focus on community assets as well as the obvious health deficits. Further, longitudinal research demonstrates that women face multiple family transitions—divorce, secondary marriage, shared parenting, estrangement—that are extremely difficult to report to close associates, let alone itinerant researchers. Yet these under-reported family breaks hold deep significance for women’s overall security, and health behaviors. Innovative methods that ask women to estimate community incidence of family size and kinship practices may be an alternate way for researchers to explore these dynamics without compromising women’s desire for confidentiality.

Are there any misconceptions about the women and families you studies do you most wish to dispel?

Across the websites of NGOs, the funding priorities of international development organizations, and media stories on poor Indian women, the prevailing image of Indian women has them hiding shyly behind their pallus, the end of their saris. In combination with dismal health statistics that show higher levels of malnutrition, poor reproductive health, and domestic violence for Indian women living in slums, this image leaves little room for acknowledging that there is a voice on the other side of the pallu. Because the overwhelming emphasis has been on what is done to women, there has been little question about what exploring women’s perspectives could contribute. Further, the emphasis on the low educational status of women living in slums inadvertently produces the sense that women don’t know what’s good for them. The women with whom I did my research repeatedly communicated to me how much more they have to say than their initial silence in public settings conveys! These women and families are not shy, much less without complex reasoning about their beliefs and health practices. The key is to ensure that women are provided with a forum that allows for prolonged reflection.

Claire Snell-Rood is an assistant professor in behavioral science at the University of Kentucky.

Praying and Preying

By Aparecida Vilaça, author of Praying and Preying: Christianity in Indigenous Amazonia

This guest post is published in advance of the American Anthropological Association conference in Denver. Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Sunday, November 22nd.


What implications does your research have for the anthropology of religion amongst indigenous peoples overall? 

Praying and Preying is one of the few existing ethnographic descriptions of the Christian experience of a contemporary indigenous Amazonian group, in this case the Wari’. Working with these people for 30 years has allowed me to observe transformations over time and obtain a historical view of their interaction with the Evangelical Christianity brought to them by missionaries from the New Tribes Mission.

It is also the first ethnography of Christianization in Amazonia to debate directly with works produced in the Anthropology of Christianity. This I do through the use of key concepts developed by Amazonianist ethnographers and anthropologists who have foregrounded this ethnographic area, and in close dialogue with concepts derived from Melanesian ethnology.

In my analysis, the concepts of ‘dualism in perpetual disequilibrium’ (Lévi-Strauss) and of ‘perspectivism’ (Viveiros de Castro), which synthesize the instability of bodies and of persons in the Amazonian worlds, are put into dialogue with the Melanesian concept of ‘dividual’ (M. Strathern), as well as with Roy Wagner’s model of the oscillating movements of native symbolization. This allowed me to develop an original theoretical synthesis of a specific cultural transformation. In contrast to notions of syncretism, adoption and encompassment that provide the basis for many analyses of the Christianity of native groups, the present book proposes a model of transformation based on the idea of alternation, in which the Christian and pagan universes alternate according to specific relational contexts.

Do any developments amongst the Wari’ people still surprise you? What were some unique challenges that you faced during your involvement with them? 

Oh, yes! After 30 years working among them, the Wari’ are always surprising me. When I first arrived there in 1986, they did not define themselves as Christians, although they told me that they had been Christians in the 70s. When I went back in January 2002 to start a new phase of fieldwork after a five year absence, they had become Christians again, in response, they said, to the September 11th attacks in the USA and the fear that the end of the world was about to come. Recently some young adults have been studying at an Intercultural University and have begun to be concerned about their culture.

Is there anything on the subject that you would be interested in studying further?

Currently I am interested in the Wari’ interaction with the culture concept taken to them principally through the schools. Over recent years the school curricula have adopted, from primary school onwards, subjects like ‘Ethnic-Historical Identity’ and, at high school and university levels, subjects like Anthropology and the Brazilian legislation concerning education and indigenous peoples. My hypothesis is that this new knowledge is thrown into a complex dialogue with the Christian experience, counterpoising it in the sense of a valorization of former practices condemned by the missionaries, including festivals and shamanism, at the same time as leading to transformations in the same direction as Christianity, especially in relation to conceptions of person and world. The complexity and nuances of how Christianity, science and culture interact among the Wari’ can only be revealed through ethnographic research and, this aim in mind, I began a new phase of fieldwork, focused on school and university life. So I’m embarking on my fourth decade of research among them. As I said earlier, the Wari’ never cease to surprise and excite me.

Aparecida Vilaça is Associate Professor at the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology at the Museu Nacional, UFRJ. She is the author of Strange Enemies, Quem somos nós and Comendo como gente and co-editor of Native Christians.


By Deborah Boehm, author of Returned: Going and Coming in an Age of Deportation

This guest post is published in advance of the American Anthropological Association conference in Denver. Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Sunday, November 22nd.


Do you consider deportees/returnees and their loved ones to be “lost citizens” as you mention in your afterword? How do the many factors surrounding deportation and transnationalism complicate this classification? 

When I first heard a Mexican national use this term, “ciudadanos perdidos” or “lost citizens,” it was not entirely clear what he meant by it. The label seemed somewhat dismissive of his fellow Mexican citizens. But, as my research about deportation and its effects on communities developed, the notion of “lost citizens” became central and ultimately guided my fieldwork. Profound loss—of home, family, community, belonging, membership, nation, and so much more—defines the experience of deportation, for those who are formally expelled from the United States and for the many more who are connected to them through family and community ties. During previous research about migration and kinship, I repeatedly heard belonging, or not belonging, described as fluid or liminal: people situated themselves as “between here and there” or even “from neither here nor there.” The trope of “lost citizens” echoes this idea of geographic movement linked to ambiguous national membership, but in a way that signals how deportation also constitutes exclusion of a new magnitude.

Deportation creates an absence or void that cannot be denied and is unlikely to ever be entirely remedied. In this sense, the man’s term was an accurate one: deportees are indeed “lost citizens.” Deportation shuts people out of their homeland and also closes the possibility for future lives and imaginings in ways that are much more devastating than the migrations that preceded it. So, “lost citizens” are perhaps best understood as those who experience loss or those who lose precisely because of state action in the early 21st century. In other words, although the category of “lost citizens” emphasizes those who cross borders rather than the institutions that create and fortify them, concrete government policies and politics have directly produced the current global milieu of exclusion. The category of “lost citizens” implies an almost nomadic detachment from place, but for the millions of people affected by deportation, these are forced disconnections that prevent migrants from ever acquiring formal citizenship within countries to which they in fact belong.

In what ways has deportation, chaotic by nature, also become paradoxically ordered? Has this changed since you began your research?

Deportation is characterized by multiple contradictions: policies meant to expel migrants from the nation can strengthen one’s ties to it, a legal process explicitly focused on individuals reaches far beyond the person being deported, government action ostensibly designed to create “security” results in unprecedented insecurity in the lives of millions of people living in the United States. Similarly, despite chaos in every stage of deportation, there is an undeniable order to it, especially given that it is carried out through intentional and orchestrated government action. This kind of structured chaos has intensified since I first started fieldwork. When I began research focused on deportation in 2008, migrants and those of us working with them were hopeful that some form of immigration reform or federal legislation would come to fruition. However, with current legal challenges to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents), a pledge from the leadership of the U.S. Congress not to consider any form of immigration legislation, and xenophobic actions in communities throughout the country, such reform seems unlikely if not impossible in the foreseeable future. And, as the likelihood of reform has dwindled, the extensive apparatus that supports ongoing deportations continues to grow: the privatization of detention and prison facilities, coordinated efforts between different levels of government and law enforcement, and federal programs such as Operation Streamline and Expedited Removal combine to create mass deportations that are certainly ordered and likely to expand in the years to come.

Is there anything on the subject that you would be interested in studying further? 

I recently started a new project specifically about immigration detention. Although deportees I interviewed often spoke of their memories of detention, much of my research has focused on migrants’ lives before and after federal custody, on both the migrations that brought them to the United States and the effects of the deportations that forced them to leave. Now I intend to study detention itself, and the implications of heightened policing and incarceration of foreign nationals in the United States. A relatively small group of scholars has presented provocative research on this topic, but because of difficulties gaining access, ethnographic work in detention facilities can be very challenging to conduct. But—perhaps precisely because of these barriers to access—ethnographic study seems more urgent than ever. Anthropologists are well positioned to provide critical perspectives on detention and to bear witness to the growing prison industrial complex in our country that increasingly intersects with immigration control.

Deborah Boehm is Associate Professor, Anthropology and Women’s Studies/Gender, Race, and Identity at University of Nevada, Reno, and the author of Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality among Transnational Mexicans.

The Para-State

By Aldo Civico, author of The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads

We’re celebrating University Press Week #UPWeek by taking part in their scholarly press blog tour, which wraps up today. Today’s blog tour theme is #PublishUp: Presses in Conversation with Authors”. Please visit these excellent scholarly publishing blogs and learn more: Indiana University Press, Oxford University Press, George Mason University Press, University Press of Colorado, University Press of Kansas, University of North Carolina Press, West Virginia University Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, Fordham University Press, and University Press of Georgia.

This guest post is published in advance of the American Anthropological Association conference in Denver. Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Sunday, November 22nd.


How did you gain access to these leaders? How did you get them to trust you?

My first encounter with a paramilitary leader was with Doble Cero. Before meeting him, I had spent my summer in 2003 to collect the testimonies of survivors of a massacre in a town near Medellin. One morning, Doble Cero’s men had penetrated that town and randomly killed several innocent women and men. When I told a journalist that I wanted to understand the need for such spectacular violence, he offered to make contact for me with Doble Cero and I accepted. We spent a day together in the mountains where he was hiding. The encounter shifted the focus of my interest from the victims to the victimizers. At the time, my fieldwork was made possible by the fact that the paramilitary had announced their demobilization and this made it safer for me to access the areas under they control.

I believe I was able to gain their trust because I have been always very transparent about the motives and the objects of my research, and because I was just willing to listen to them for hours. I discovered that these people in their lives had rarely found someone genuinely interested in their life experience and be ready to listen to them. For some of them, sharing their experience with me proved to be cathartic. Including for Doble Cero who, as I tell in my book, was killed after a few months we first met, and while he was sharing his life history with me.

From your research, why do you think some countries have paramilitary groups rather than promote the creation of new political parties to initiate change?

From my observation in Colombia, paramilitary groups were formed not to fight for change, but quite the contrary: to maintain the status quo. They were created by an alliance (what in the book I call an intertwinement) between cattle ranchers, multinational corporations, the military, drug lords and the state in order to repress any dissident voice. These are forces that operate in marginal areas of the state, in spaces of exception that are produced as untamed and where law is suspended. In regions across Colombia, the paramilitaries became the private army of an emerging regional elites, who purposely used them to increase and consolidate their political and economic power. The paramilitary represented a political project.

Thus, the fight against the armed insurgency became the justificatory discourse that enabled the formation and the consolidation of a political project that has been quite successful in Colombia.

Was there any aspect that surprised you when researching and writing this book?

I started my career a long time ago, in the anti-mafia social movement in Italy. I lived several years in Palermo, in very complicated and painful years, when prosecutors were killed with car bombs. One of the surprises in doing fieldwork in Colombia was the comparison that emerged between the “Cosa Nostra” and the paramilitaries. Both organizations are at the same time inside and outside the state; against and in favor of the state. They are both an articulation of legal and illegal powers. In fact, the intertwinement between organized crime and the state is immanent to the Mafia and the paramilitary phenomena. It’s the defining characteristic. This not only brought me to think about the nature of the paramilitaries and of the Italian Mafia, but also to wonder about the essence of the State that seems not to have problems to ally with war lords and with organized crime in areas that it produces as unruly. And this, of course, doesn’t apply only to Colombia or to Sicily.

Aldo Civico is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Rutgers University. Between 2005 and 2008, he facilitated ceasefire talks between the government of Colombia and the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN).


Waste Away

By Joshua O. Reno, author of Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill

We’re celebrating University Press Week #UPWeek by taking part in their scholarly press blog tour through this Friday. The tour is based around a daily theme, with many of our publishing colleagues participating daily (look for our blog tour post this Thursday). Today’s theme is “The Future of Scholarly Publishing”. Please visit these excellent scholarly publishing blogs and learn more: Indiana University Press, Oxford University Press, George Mason University Press, University Press of Colorado, University Press of Kansas, University of North Carolina Press, West Virginia University Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, Fordham University Press, and University Press of Georgia.

This guest post is published in advance of the American Anthropological Association conference in Denver. Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Sunday, November 22nd.


What initially drew you to studying waste management and waste workers?

The activity of wasting is as routine a part of everyday life as are eating and speaking, yet has attracted considerably less anthropological attention—when it has, moreover, it is typically considered subsidiary to these other activities (the taboo leftover that is considered inedible, the ambiguous phenomenon that is difficult to represent…). Following structural and symbolic approaches to “dirt,” more focus has gone toward what we choose to categorize as filthy or unnecessary, and very little toward what becomes of it after we do.

Waste management interested me as a novel way to explore this topic, especially in the context of North America, given the sheer amount of waste produced and the controversy surrounding the preferred method of disposal: sanitary landfill. As with other types of infrastructure, the critical role of waste management in shaping our lives only becomes apparent when it is functioning poorly. I was drawn to study waste workers because of their access “behind the scenes” to the hidden world of waste management upon which the rest of us depend. I wanted to research waste workers whose task it was to make our waste (and the labor they do with it on our behalf) invisible.

As with other types of corporate enterprise, the privatization of waste disposal in North America helped to create a translocal market, which has disconnected waste producers even further from the people and places that manage their discards. While there is growing awareness of the shipment of toxic waste from wealthier to poorer countries, people outside Michigan are typically unaware of the decade-long burial of Canadian waste in privately owned Michigan landfills. I wanted to research waste activists who sought to challenge Canadian waste imports and politicize the shipment of waste away that most of us take for granted.

Did you encounter any unique challenges while conducting research and interviews?

For my research, I worked as a laborer or “paper picker” at a large mega-landfill on the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan. Afterword, I associated with local activists who were demonstrating against pollution from the landfill site and its controversial Canadian waste contracts. On the one hand, it was a challenge getting used to the labor. I expected it to be physically unpleasant, and it was, but it was also difficult learning how to work with and for others.

A landfill paper picker’s task is an impossible one: to keep the landfill tidy. It was hard to satisfy the demands of the landfill’s managers and regulators, though fulfilling social obligations to coworkers was equally difficult. We always had to be ready to listen to one another gripe, to calibrate our efforts so as not to stand out by working too hard or too little, to tease one another without crossing the line and offending someone’s dignity and pride. I was relieved when I shifted attention to local residents and their demonstrations, but this proved challenging in other ways.

There was an ongoing dispute between the landfill and this helped perpetuate rumors and allegations (on both sides) that I knew to be untrue or unfair. Moreover, the landfill was located on the border between two townships. The more rural, less wealthy, more diverse community where the landfill was located depended upon host fees they received from the site; most of the activists came from the more suburban, whiter, and wealthier community to the east of the landfill, which received none of these benefits, but had to deal with odors and traffic problems. It was quite a challenge to negotiate these different interests and power relations and to present a balanced view of this ongoing and unfinished struggle.

What ideas about our relationship to our waste do you most wish for readers to take away from your book? 

We are used to imagining ourselves connected to the fate of industrial producers: everything from Marxian value theory to fair trade campaigns help us, to varying degrees, feel morally accountable for other peoples’ welfare and the possible exploitation they face. When we think of the disposal of a good, rather than its production, we are more often encouraged to imagine ourselves in a relationship with “Nature,” in the abstract, and forget the many people and communities who take our waste away, and work and live with the consequences. This partly has to do with mega-landfills, like the one I studied, because they are designed to disappear into the landscape and be forgotten—by making the things we dispose of swiftly vanish, they distort our relationship to the things we keep (which appear to transcend process and time) and to one another.

Pro-recycling and anti-littering efforts, while laudable, tend to individualize responsibility for waste, rather than help connect us to other people. What I most want readers to take away, therefore, is that waste management infrastructure is a social relationship between us and those exposed to waste products on our behalf. So any discussion of how to reform our collective waste habits should take these other people into account. Similarly, any discussion of disposal technologies, including alternatives to landfill, should consider not only their technical and environmental aspects, but also how they shape our social and moral imaginations.

Joshua O. Reno is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University.


By Janet McIntosh, author of Unsettled: Denial and Belonging Among White Kenyans

This guest post is published in advance of the American Anthropological Association conference in Denver. Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Sunday, November 22nd.

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Was there any aspect that surprised you when researching and writing this book? 

When I was conducting research for an earlier project on Giriama and Swahili of the Kenya coast, a couple of the elderly former settlers I knew would occasionally uncork statements that rocked me back (e.g. “I don’t know how you grub about with those people…”). It was naïve of me, but I was initially startled they were still walking the earth saying such things 40 years after Independence. As I got into the project, I was then surprised to find many more complex shadings—especially among younger white Kenyans, who often struggled to reconcile the disapproval they sometimes felt from Kenyan critics and western scholars with their sense of themselves as good Kenyan nationalists. A few people felt themselves almost cornered by the effects of the colonial legacy on their own psyches. One of my respondents put himself into therapy because he had strong romantic feelings for a Kikuyu woman but couldn’t act on them because, he felt, he had been twisted by colonial racism. Tom Cholomondeley, whom I interviewed in Kamiti Prison during his murder trial, was the ultimate colonialist villain to the Kenyan media, at the same time I found he had been reading Ngugi wa Thiong’o and some highly critical histories of colonialism in his cell. He really had to wrestle with the question of how much guilt to own and how to locate himself in history. Of course I also found some of what you’d neatly predict, but there was immense murk in the white Kenyan subjectivities I encountered.

Did you encounter any unique challenges while conducting research and interviews? 

Anthropologists don’t often study the subjectivity of elites; they don’t occupy that “suffering slot” Joel Robbins has aptly identified. It’s easier to caricature elite points of view than to get intimate with them—and it’s methodologically tricky to get intimate with such perspectives (particularly, I think, in living people as opposed to people one encounters in the archives), because as you get to know and sometimes actually like them it can be harder to step outside of the way they see the world. It was hard for me to capture both the ways in which white Kenyans (often) experience themselves as good people with good intentions, including their many affable relationships with Afro-Kenyans, and the ways in which they are often embroiled in all kinds of racial problematics emergent from the colonial order of things. Hard as well to describe how and why they don’t see what they don’t see without sounding smug (I’m an elite white too, after all). From time to time my audience members have self-separated into two camps: “You’re going too easy on these people” and “You’re being too hard on them.”

Is there anything on the subject that you would be interested in studying further?

This work brought me into contact with white Zimbabweans and white South Africans, all in situations unique to their nations, but still with some resonances with white Kenyans. I just gave a talk, actually, about some of the heated and contradictory responses to left-leaning urban white South Africans learning isiXhosa (and promoting themselves as remarkable for learning it). We’ll see what my fieldwork future holds.

Janet McIntosh is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University and author of The Edge of Islam: Power, Personhood, and Ethnoreligious Boundaries on the Kenya Coast.