Feb 13 2017

Book Review: The Anthropology of China: China as Ethnographic and Theoretical Critique by Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang

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In The Anthropology of China: China as Ethnographic and Theoretical Critique, authors Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang call for a new approach to the anthropology of China – one that seeks to bring China specialists into closer dialogue with more general anthropological theories to the benefit of both. This is a timely and important contribution to the field that will particularly serve as a valuable resource for new teachers putting together their first courses on the anthropology of China, finds Loretta Ieng Tak Lou.

The Anthropology of China: China as Ethnographic and Theoretical Critique. Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang. Imperial College Press. 2016.

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the-anthropology-of-china-coverUnlike many anthropology readers that are as bulky as a phonebook, The Anthropology of China is relatively compact: it is only slightly bigger than a small iPad and is roughly the same length as one of the most widely used anthropology textbooks, Thomas Hylland Eriken’s Small Places, Large Issues. You might wonder: why does the size of the book matter? Considering that this book is to be used in classrooms, both price and portability affect its accessibility. Although the former is on the high side compared to other anthropology books, this is a textbook worth investing in, especially for anthropology teachers starting out on their first course on China.

Despite its modest length, The Anthropology of China is packed with useful references and valuable insights. Most importantly, it is the first book that tries to embed ethnographic studies of China in some of the major debates in anthropology. Anthropologists of other regions might ask: what is special about this approach? After all, isn’t anthropology about uncovering ‘the commonalities and specificities of humanity’ through studying particular people and representing ‘their lives through a type of writing called ethnography’ (9)? The problem is that traditionally anthropologists of China are more interested in particularities than commonalities. The tendency to give more weight to Chinese specificities stems from the field’s close affinity with sinology, which until recently was deemed ‘anti-theory’ by some critics. And for those who are interested in both the commonalities and the specificities, the fear of being seen as a reductionist or cultural essentialist silences any attempt to compare and generalise, the necessary processes of theory production. In the midst of this long-standing and unresolved debate about how far insights can be extended to more general principles (9), some anthropologists of China have retreated into writing ethnographies of the particular.


Image Credit: Suzhou main railway station, China (Alexander Mueller CC BY 2.0)

This is why the The Anthropology of China makes a timely and important contribution to the field. Instead of clamouring ‘enough about ethnography’, as eminent anthropologist Tim Ingold sarcastically did in his ‘anti-ethnography’ manifesto, Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang take notice of the discipline’s constant resort to ‘ethnographically oriented particularism’ (McLean 2013) and call for ‘a new way of studying the anthropology of China, namely one based on anthropology as much as on China’ (263). The authors hope that by bringing ‘anthropological studies of China into the field of general anthropology’ (263), it could open up new dialogues for anthropological and ethnographic theories. Likewise, in bringing theories back to the study of China, Bruckermann and Feuchtwang challenge specialists of China to stop navel-glazing and reconsider the ‘value of comparison’ (van der Veer 2016).

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Feb 7 2017

Semi-quantitative mapping in comparative case-study research: Resources, constraints and research design adaptation

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This blog entry discusses the use of a ‘quasi-quantitative’ mapping method as part of comparative case-study research for a PhD, in the context of (unforeseen) constraints and scarce resources. Specifically, I present the challenges I faced working in different contexts, with different resources and in different temporal windows – and the subsequent processes of adaptation of the research design. First, I introduce the PhD research to ground the decision to use maps. Second, I discuss how a method designed for the city where I carried out my PhD (Palermo, Italy) was partially delusional in the city where I developed a second case-study (Lisbon, Portugal) and how I had to steer the research design as a consequence. Third, I reflect on the implications of a (too?) ambitious research design and summarise the lessons I have learnt with broader relevance for comparative case-study research, writes Simone Tulumello


Researching urban fear and planning practice

The main goal of my PhD research (University of Palermo; defended March 2012) was building a comprehensive, critical and exploratory theory of the relationships between urban fear, rhetoric discourses about security, the spatialities of contemporary cities and urban planning practice (see Tulumello 2017). From a planning policy perspective, the aim was to understand if, and how, fear shapes, and is shaped in turn by, planning practice, in between global security discourses and local power relationships. From a spatial perspective, I was interested in unravelling connections between (growing) feelings of urban fear and spatial transformations in neoliberal times. This post focuses on the spatial perspective.

Infrastructural fragmentation in Palermo (photo from the author)

Infrastructural fragmentation in Palermo (photo from the author)

Since 1990s, critical urban scholarship has explored how feelings of fear and rhetoric of security have intertwined with processes of restructuring of urban space, including residential fortification, socio-spatial seclusion, fortification/privatization of public space, exclusionary urban renewal and so forth. Among the theoretical concepts developed are ‘ecologies of fear’ (Davis, 1998), the geopolitics of ‘military urbanism’ (Graham, 2010) and the ‘thematisation’ of urban space (Sorkin, 1992). Such rich literature has nonetheless given limited attention to big-scale, cumulated spatial effects – as noted by Roitman et al. (2010) about works on gated communities. Scarce evidence exists, which reveals the way, and the extent to which, the summation of processes has been segmenting, polarising, fragmenting and clustering wider urban fabrics in ‘ordinary’ cities (cf. Robinson, 2011) – i.e. cities not at the core of globalising trends like Los Angeles, New York, London, Dubai or Johannesburg.

Against this background, my exploratory proposal is twofold. From a theoretical perspective, I have set out a taxonomy to emphasise the cumulative impacts of urban spatialities connected with fear, which I term ‘fearscapes’ to stress the coexistence of political-economic, social and cultural dimensions in their production (Tulumello, 2015): enclosure as spaces of exclusion/seclusion; post-public space for privatization and fortification of public space(s) and buildings; and barrier as fragmentation produced by infrastructural nets. From an empirical perspective, I decided to map the presence of fearscapes in concrete, ordinary urban territories.
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May 23 2016

Flexibility in the field: Reflections on letting go of expectations and learning to work with unofficial research support

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I planned to conduct fieldwork in rural China with the help of research assistants.  I knew I needed advice and translation and hoped that I would find partners and friends to go into the field with me, as I didn’t really want to be alone.  However, I never found reliable research assistants.  I learned to think of my research subjects as my friends and research assistants.  They had as much to teach me as any other graduate student, professor, or guide.  By the end of 10 months of fieldwork, I came to prefer working without official assistants but with local villagers and village leaders.  This post shares some reflections on the challenges of finding reliable research assistants and how to rethink and appreciate the assistance available, writes Elise Pizzi

Working with research assistants, translators, and collaborators is common. The acknowledgements sections of books, papers, and dissertations are filled with thanks for the help received from local colleagues and assistants. When I started my fieldwork in China, I too intended to work with research assistants, co-authors, and collaborators. But I came to prefer conducting fieldwork alone.

I spent 10 months in rural China investigating drinking water management practices. Guizhou Province, in southwest China, is relatively water abundant, but many villages still do not have safe and reliable sources of drinking water. My dissertation explains why water-rich areas sometimes don’t have enough drinking water.

I did not expect to work alone or feel isolated because of my choice of methods when I conducted my fieldwork. In planning my research, most of the people who gave me advice or who had done research in China had a research assistant or a team who went into the field with them. Previous research (Thunø 2006) and posts on this blog (most recently Aurelie Brockerhoff) have effectively discussed the challenges of working with research assistants and local colleagues. But they ultimately benefit from the collaborative experience.

Research assistants can help with translation and interpretation. They provide insights into the community, language, and culture. They help find contacts and convince those contacts to talk to a foreigner. They help with data collection and analysis. They become research collaborators, coauthors, and friends. When I began my research, knowing that my Chinese was imperfect and I could benefit from help and guidance, I did not even consider the possibility of conducting fieldwork without ongoing collaboration. Continue reading

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Feb 27 2015

Between ‘Wizards of Oz’, Madagascari Lemur and Megalomaniac Presidents: The Amusements of Research in Post-Socialist Spaces

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When mentioning that my work involves dealing with several former USSR countries I often get questions on the kind of dangers my research entails. Whilst I do not see particular dangers in what I do, I have to admit that I had asked myself the same questions before my first fieldwork. I stopped worrying only after working out some automatisms, attitudes and gaining an understanding of certain realities that permit me, to a decent extent, to ‘stay safe’. This blog entry shares some experience-based reflections can be useful to minimise risks but it is also intended to discuss why dangers in some ‘exotic’ states are much less than one could think, writes Abel Polese

The former USSR is possibly the largest world area that has opened up to researchers in the past years. Visited by a few fortunate scholars during the cold war, it is now an immense live laboratory offering material for case studies and comparative research where urban studies researchers, inter alia, have been able to mingle for some time now. It is, although to different degrees and with a few exceptions, a widely accessible region and most of the permissions needed to conduct research in the past are now a fading memory.

Odessa, 1 May picnic, making post-socialist spaces accessible (Photographed by the author in 2006)

Odessa, 1 May picnic, making post-socialist spaces accessible (Photographed by the author in 2006)

This, however, does not mean that postsocialism lacks ‘exotic’ features or characters; the three mentioned in the title refer to: 1) the abundance of political elites – Heads of State are the most visible ones but their entourage tries hard to catch up with them – with, let’s say, unconventional habits and taste; 2) the possibility to find a ruling elite completely disjointed from reality, as in the case of the lemur chiefs of the ‘Madagascar’ animation movie and 3) the fascination of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ (Verdery 2005), this pointing at the fact that in an officially strictly controlled system there is a large margin of manoeuvre and officers will often make decisions on the basis of their personal perspective advantage, or lack thereof.

After more than ten years of fieldwork between the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, I wanted to share a reflection or two that could be useful to those visiting it for the first time or are simply curious to read about other colleagues’ experiences. I will refrain from mentioning the place where things happened for two reasons. The first is to guarantee the safety of informants, of people that have helped me, and possibly my own. The second is because most of the examples may apply to a wide range of situations and geographical locations. The difference is not the approach but the degree to which this may be used.

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Dec 10 2014

The homecomer and the stranger: Reflections on positionality and the benefits of an insider-outsider tandem in qualitative research


Based on the experience of conducting field research in Kazakhstan, I reflect on the challenges of working in a cross-cultural insider-outsider differentiated team. My work with my colleague Eva Kipnis on this research project highlighted that the research team dynamics not only needed detailed attention in a research design, but also required consideration during data analysis. I realise that being an insider or an outsider is not a dichotomous relationship, and that applying particular methods, such as debriefing and memoing, helped give each other equal weight in the collection and interpretation of data. Besides memoing and debriefing, it is the informal conversations between the two researchers, talking about any questions, thoughts or ideas in detail between interviews that helped us do greater justice to our research and our participants, write Aurelie Bröckerhoff.

“… the homecomer’s attitude differs from that of the stranger. The latter is about to join a group which is not and never has been his own. He knows that he will find himself in an unfamiliar world, differently organised than that from which he comes, full of pitfalls and hard to master. The homecomer, however, expects to return to an environment of which he always had and-so he thinks-still has intimate knowledge and which he has just to take for granted in order to find his bearings within it. The approaching stranger has to anticipate in a more or less empty way what he will find; the homecomer has just to recur to the memories of his past” (Schütz 1945: 369)

On a 15-hour train journey across Kazakhstan, Eva and I review the interviews we had just conducted during the day. Reflections on the last interview with high-ranking policy officials (‘interview 5’) end in a heated discussion on our interpretation of what we had just heard. This is partly due to the fact that Eva, a Kazakhstani who speaks Russian (the lingua franca) and grew up in the country, has different insights into the subcontext of our conversations to myself, a complete newbie to Kazakhstan.

Visiting Karaganda in Kazakhstan (2). Photographed by Aurelie Bröckerhoff

Visiting Karaganda in Kazakhstan (2). Photographed by Aurelie Bröckerhoff

More specifically, during this interview, Eva perceived the many questions about her upbringing, her family and friends, as veiled threats posed to ensure that we comply with the interviewees’ strict rules of not linking interview data to the organisation interviewed. I, on the other hand, saw these essentially as opening ‘small talk’. Our different interpretations may be down to the fact that Eva is what Schütz (1944/45) has referred to as a ‘homecomer’, and I, on the other hand, am a stranger; in short, Eva, as a national, has more sensitivity in picking up situational cues and interpreting these.

Visiting Karaganda in Kazakhstan (1). Photographed by Aurelie Bröckerhoff

Visiting Karaganda in Kazakhstan (1). Photographed by Aurelie Bröckerhoff

As another example of the impact of the differences in our positionality on interpretation, a point made by several of our study participants regarding the cultural aspects assigned to marijuana consumption (also referred to as anasha in Kazakhstan) proved a particularly challenging data point for us to reconcile. Specifically, participants (even in one same interview) voiced conflicting opinions and views on the role and meaning of marijuana in society: while on the one hand, our participants expressed highly negative views on marijuana and clearly viewed it as an entry drug, they also, on the other hand, referred to marijuana as part of the Central Asian cultural landscape. For Eva, this conflict was a natural one that did not need particular attention in the data analysis, whereas to Aurelie it raised some issues around perceptions of drugs that from her own experience and perspective would benefit from further analysis.

The notions of ‘homecomer’ and ‘stranger’ put forward by Schütz 50 years ago are in need of updating to reflect, for example, modern means of communication and travel. Despite this, they still resonate with the on-going debate about insider and outsider research in ethnographic fieldwork. Continue reading

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