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On book reviews and back covers

June 5, 2016

I spend ages reading and summarising Bourdieu’s mammoth On the State (2014 [2012]) for a journal review – I was even congratulated by a stranger on a Melbourne tram for reading a book instead of a phone – and now I discover that the whole argument is summed up on the back cover. Will have to pay more attention to such things in future.

PS. A friend on Facebook asked me about the quality of the translation. Here’s what I had to say, in case you’re wondering:

The translator is someone called David Fernbach. I haven’t read the original (not that I’d be any good at judging the quality of the translation) but the English is excellent, doesn’t feel awkward. It’s an unusual Bourdieu (at least for me) in that it’s based on transcripts of his lectures, so it’s got that strong oral feel to it. It’s also been painstakingly edited and proofread. I’ve only spotted one typo so far in 381 pages. A labour of love by the [book] editors, Patrick Champagne et al, [and copy editor].


Notes on the 10th digital ethnography reading (Wacquant 2004)

June 3, 2016,204,203,200_.jpgWacquant, L. J. D. (2004). Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Notes by Edgar Gómez
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under Digital ethnography reading group

Body and Soul, the wonderful ethnographic work of Loïc Wacquant about boxing was the chosen text for the May DERC reading group. Originally written in French, we all agreed that the book captures, in an almost perfect writing style, the spirit of the black boxers from the Woodlawn Boys Club. While writing an ethnography of boxing was not Wacquant’s original idea (he just wanted to exercise and know more about the black community in Chicago), he ended writing two books about it.

The group soon noted the beautiful craft of writing in Body and Soul. As one participant suggested, the book combines three different forms of writing almost to perfection: sociological style, ethnographic style and sociological novella. Body and Soul tells the story of an ethnographer becoming a boxer while using other boxer’s voices to rely on, to learn from. The process of Wacquant becoming a boxer himself is the key of the book since we, as readers, witness what we could call embodied reflexivity. He sweats, gets punched, feels fear and physical exhaustion. This “carnal sociology” is a great example of the process of learning a craft while capturing, theorizing and analyzing this same process. With detailed fieldnotes and compelling arguments that keep the reader interested at all times while unfolding a detailed ethnographic story, sociologically explained, Wacquant was not only able to engage with the community of boxers as one of them but to present box convincingly as an exciting, ritualistic and highly punctuated sport (very much in the sense of Goffman’s theatrical approach).

Wacquant ‘s way of taking notes (and presenting them in the book as almost literary vignettes), his immersion in the field, his respect and admiration for the gym’s members and the way he captured the slang were some of the elements that turned a sociological text into a beautifully crafted book.

In our next reading session (Wed 8 June, 12-13.30, B9-2-9) we will be looking at the extensive methods utilised for a ‘network ethnography’ as documented by by Muzammil M. Hussain in his doctoral research on internet freedom stakeholder gatherings in the wake of the Arab Spring.


Hussain, M. M. (2014). Securing Technologies of Freedom after the Arab Spring: Policy Entrepreneurship and Norms Consolidation Practices in Internet Freedom Promotion. (Doctoral Ph.D), University of Washington. Available from

Wacquant, L. J. D. (2004). Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review of The Manchester School: Practice and Ethnographic Praxis in Anthropology (Evens & Handelman 2006)

May 28, 2016

The Manchester School: Practice and Ethnographic Praxis in Anthropology. T.M.S. Evens & Don Handelman (eds). 2006. Oxford/New York: Berghahn. x + 334 pp.

Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology
Volume 72, Issue 4, 2007

PDF version

This volume revisits the extended-case method, an ethnographic research strategy developed in the 1940s to 1960s by members of the so-called Manchester School of anthropology led by Max Gluckman. The book opens with an introductory section, followed by sections on the theorisation, history and practice of the extended-case method, and concluding with a coda by Bruce Kapferer. The introduction features reprints of classic texts by Gluckman (1961) and Mitchell (1983); the following section engages critically with the method’s enduring strengths and weaknesses, exploring new theoretical possibilities by way of Heidegger, Goffman, Deleuze and Guattari; the historical section traces the method’s mixed ancestry, including its hitherto little known Chicago connections; finally, the practical section assesses the method’s relevance to contemporary anthropological analysis.

The book accomplishes admirably its stated aim, namely ‘to highlight and critically examine the fundamental features of the extended-case method, in order to advance its substantial, continuing merits’. Its editors and chapter contributors demonstrate that the extended-case method is more than a ‘method’, it is a sophisticated mode of research and analysis arising from the long-standing political, institutional and epistemological concerns of Gluckman and his students. It is characterised by a painstaking ethnographic attention to socio-political processes as they unfold across varied contexts over time, with a focus on situations of conflict, or ‘trouble cases’ as Gluckman called them. Generalisation emerges from the data, not from a prior theoretical agenda. While Gluckman’s ‘The Bridge’ was the inspiration, the method’s masterpieces are Mitchell’s (1956) monograph The Yao Village, in which he followed witchcraft accusations in a single village over a period of six years, and Turner’s (1957) Ndembu study where he first developed the concept of social drama.

The innovation lay in bringing under a unified analysis a long series of events that were separated in time and micro-setting. This stood in stark contrast to the existing (and still common today) monographic practice of ‘apt illustration’, i.e., using unrelated ethnographic materials to support an overarching argument. Countering criticisms from Leach and others that the Manchester approach entailed the obsessive collection of masses of data for their own sake, the Mancunians defended – and still defend – the method for its openness to the messy actualities of social life and capacity to yield unexpected insights.

As Kapferer argues in the book’s coda, Gluckman and his associates were ahead of their time not only in theorising social process; their very ethnographic practice was reflexively attuned to the dialectical process of data description and analysis. Their use of situated analysis and extended cases helped to weaken static notions of bounded collectivity such as village, community or society and created a new anthropological lexicon aimed at capturing the flux and uncertainty of political life with notions such as social drama, social field, arena and action-set (see chapter by Kempny). The implications of this shift are, of course, still being worked out today (see Amit & Rapport 2002).

This book is a timely addition to the ongoing rethinking of practice theory after Bourdieu. As pointed out by the editors, American anthropology has long been besotted with aspects of Bourdieu’s theory of practice but has ignored the Manchester tradition. With its ethnographic grounding, attention to situated process, and stress on the latent potentialities of social interaction for the structuring of social life (cf. Giddens 1984), the renewal of this social anthropological tradition signalled by the present study has much to offer cultural anthropologists in the United States and elsewhere. Undergraduate and MA anthropology students will benefit from the book’s seamless integration of historiography, theory and methodology — three domains that are usually kept separate. For PhD students it should be required pre-fieldwork reading alongside one or two of the classic 1950s Manchester monographs where the method and its theoretical import are best developed (e.g., Mitchell 1956; Turner 1957; Epstein 1958). In addition, those interested in placing the book within its direct line of descent should read the edited volumes that followed the 1950s monographs (Swartz et al. 1966; Epstein 1967; Mitchell 1969) as well as Turner’s (1974) magisterial Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors.

John Postill
Sheffield Hallam University, UK

Abyssinian fundamentalism and cyberwar in Eritrea

May 22, 2016

Here is the eighth (8th) set of notes under the theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question that has remained to this date largely hidden from mainstream media, communication and internet studies. This research deserves, in my view, to be read more widely across this interdisciplinary area of scholarship.

Notes prepared by Fran Barone (my emphases)
Used with permission.

John Sorenson, Atsuko Matsukoka (2001) “Phantom wars and cyberwars: Abyssinian fundamentalism and catastrophe in Eritrea” Dialectical anthropology 26:1 pp 37-63.

Fieldwork conducted during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998-2000 (p. 37).

Eritrean nationalists began war against Ethiopia in 1961. Abyssinian fundamentalists in diaspora reject independence of Eritrea and opposing Eritrean independence became an obsession among those in exile. Ethiopian Review founded by diaspora intellectual community in Los Angeles (p. 40).

Abyssinian [Haile Selassie emphasized antiquity of Ethiopia’s pre-19thc name] cybernauts do not develop new discourses via the web, simply a “ghostly repetition of ‘traditional’ views, echoing long-entrenched opposition to Eritrean independence” and commitment to “resurrecting and reinforcing former relations of power” (p. 39).

Ethiopian Review promotes “fantasy of Abyssinian fundamentalism” and hatred of Eritreans (p. 41). Central theme of fundamentalist discourse is need to exact revenge against those who rejected Ethiopian identity (p. 42).

Long-distance nationalists living in exile from Ethiopia experiencing media images of war and famine either their sense of Ethiopian national identity with membership in ethnic-based groups, or take “refuge in the fantasy of ancient Ethiopia” and “dedicate themselves to the notion of re-establishing the greatness of this shadowy entity” (p. 44-45).

In 1994, Eritreans home and abroad voted for independence, despite Ethiopian opposition (p. 47). Even after Eritrean independence, Ethiopia’s “long-distance nationalists remained committed to the ghost of their dismembered homeland and saw themselves playing a central role in its resurrection” (p. 49).

Border dispute in 1998 between the two countries results in mass, violent deportations of Eritreans from Ethiopia. Long distance nationalists post messages of support on the web, dismissing the fact that many deportees were Ethiopian citizens that posed no threat (p. 50).

“A February 1999 AFP report from Nairobi characterized the conflict as a “phantom war” in which journalists were unable to verify contradictory press statements from Eritrean and Ethiopian offices” (p. 51), with fabricated stories posted to the internet by Ethiopian and Eritrean government propagandists. “Given these unverifiable events and phantom sources, the conflict seemed to acquire the ghostly dimensions that postmodernist Jean Baudrillard once claimed for the Gulf War: Baudrillard asserted the war ‘did not take place’ but only existed in the virtual reality created by mass media.”; yet “first-hand reports did indicate the ghastly extent of carnage in the Horn.” (p. 52)

“On the streets of Addis Ababa and in the diaspora, Ethiopians cheered this devastation as a great national victory. In ferociously-jingoistic postings, Ethiopian cybernauts made it clear that destruction of Eritrea in 2000 was pay-back for Eritrean victory in 1991 […] Ethiopians, including those in the diaspora, responded to these events with joy and demanded even more violence, as indicated by a flood of e-mail messages.” (p. 54)

In addition to Ethiopian and Eritrean government official and semi-official sites, opposition groups and individuals in diaspora operated their own discussions and archives: “Identity issues were central in discussions that flooded Ethiopian websites. Exiled Ethiopian cybernauts were jubilant at destruction in Eritrea and urged the Ethiopian government to recapture it and to inflict revenge”, considering death and slaughter as appropriate punishment (p. 55).

No counter-narrative was developed in diaspora, no postmodern boundary transgression online: “Ethiopians who viewed these developments from the diaspora experienced a renewal of their own fantasies of national identity. Neither the experience of life abroad nor the supposedly boundary-transgressing qualities of cybercommunication created any alternatives to Abyssinian fundamentalism among Ethiopian exiles” (p. 60).

Photo credit: Ivana Kidd

Islam, broadcast media, and the remaking of religious experience in Mali

May 22, 2016

The Malian preacher Cherif Haidara. Photo credit: haraniani dembele

See below a seventh (7th) set of notes under the theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question that has remained to this date well hidden from mainstream media and communication studies. This research deserves, in my view, to be read more widely across this interdisciplinary area of scholarship.

Notes prepared by Fran Barone  (my emphases)
Used with permission.

SCHULZ, DOROTHEA E. 2006. “Promises of (im)mediate salvation: Islam, broadcast media, and the remaking of religious experience in Mali” American Ethnologist, 33(2): 210–229.

Fieldwork: in the southern towns of San, Segu, and Bamako (Mali) between July 1998 and March 2004 (altogether 19 months) (p. 223).

Over the past 20 years, new religious leaders/charismatic preachers gaining prominence and a “pervasive presence of Islam in broadcast media” has seen “the mushrooming of local radio stations since the establishment of multiparty democracy in 1991” (p 210).

Using example of Malian preacher Cherif Haidara, “attention is devoted to the expanding culture of mass-mediated entertainment and to the ways consumer objects and new technologies for mediating religion define and reconfigure the terms on which Islam “goes public”, that is, comes to (pre)occupy public debate and imagination” (p. 212)

French colonialism and post-colonial period gave rise to religious specialists popularizing “the articulation of an Islamic normativity, formulated in response to the institutions and rationale of the colonial state (p. 213).

Political changes: “Underneath the apparent continuity of Traoré’s 23 years of military and (after 1979) single-party rule, changes occurred in the normative and institutional foundations of politics” with Islam emerging as a powerful moral idiom of “common good” (p. 213). “Other developments, in particular, the loss in credibility of Traoré’s regime under the effects of neoliberal economic reform after the mid-1980s, contributed importantly to the normative vacuum that heightened the appeal of Islam as a credible, alternative normative reference point for public order” (p. 213)

“At present, a range of Muslim actors enter into open competition with representatives of “traditional” Islam and draw on new means and media to do so. These Muslim “activists” lack traditional credentials of religious authority yet capitalize on their European or U.S. school background or their education in the Arab-speaking world to mobilize a large following” (p. 213-214). They seek to “carve out a separate normative space by defining their own role as that of moral watchdog removed from the interested stratagems of politicians” (p. 214).

Changing media landscape: “Whether the sermon audiotapes are broadcast on local radio or circulate among supporters of Islamic moral reform, they have the potential to challenge or subvert official representations of Islam because they circulate along channels that largely evade governmental control”, thereby creating a counter-public (p. 215).

Small media is not always enough, so preachers seek “access to, and the selective co-optation of, state institutions remains a crucial battleground of intra-Muslim controversy” (p. 215).

The “success of these media preachers seems to revolve around the intricate and very particular connection between their styles of reasoning and the technology of mediation they employ” (p. 216)

The partial privatization of the organization of the hajj, formerly controlled by the state, has led to many hajj travel agencies competing by marketing on radio, TV and cars. Preachers can be seen as similar entrepreneurs via cassette and audio recordings. The tapes are both religiously significant for their listeners and as established commodities exchanged for money (p. 217-218).

Particular technologies of mediation, once embedded in structures of commercialization, do not simply serve to disseminate or broadcast a moral message to a wider constituency. Rather, they transform conventional forms of religious sociality, and […] allow for new kinds of religious engagement and spiritual experience” (p. 220)

Different types of media adjust level of publicness and type of audience. E.g. audio cassettes are “small media” whose circulation is not centrally controlled, so they reach a wider audience and are prized for their intimate nature and voice of the preacher (p. 220). Style and format of the radio programs and recordings is also shaped by popular commercial entertainment culture (p. 221).

That Haidara’s teachings are so popular among people of various backgrounds suggests “that, along with the popularization of religious debate, Islam has become an element of commercial, mass-mediated culture” (p. 221) as a consequence of economic and political liberalization over the past 30 years. Islam no longer plays the same role as a group or ethnic identity, but designates a personal, individual conviction to be professed publicly (p. 221).

Changing notions of religiosity need to be “understood by reference to recent changes in the relationship between state, media, and market” (p. 222): “these movements share some features that identify them as different versions of the same regime of religious practice. They all emerge in response to a combination of historical conditions, such as the challenges to established religious authorities since the colonial period, the weakening of alliances between state and religious establishment, and, very recently, political opening, combined with the liberalization of the media landscape and of the economy. These changes allow for a greater intermingling of religious experience, economic enterprise, and everyday consumption practices” (p. 223).

Throughout the Muslim world, “the increasing engagement with emblems and products of a commercial, mass-mediated Islam does not dilute believers’ religious conviction. […] These new forms coexist with and draw on established notions of religious practice, rather than replace them in any simple, unidirectional teleological development toward “more modern” attitudes” (p. 223).

See other media and change posts…


Power, culture and the state press in Ghana

May 21, 2016 is a sixth (6th) set of notes under the broad theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question that has remained to this date well hidden from mainstream media and communication studies. This research deserves, in my view, to be read more widely across this interdisciplinary area of scholarship.

Notes prepared by Fran Barone
Used with permission

Hasty, Jennifer. 2006. “Performing power, composing culture: The state press in Ghana” Ethnography 7: 69-98.

Fieldwork based on working for the press in Ghana in 15 months of fieldwork between 1995 and 2002 (p. 72) [bulk of fieldwork in 1997, see below].

Ghana “is a prime example of African political renaissance” emerging from 10 years of military dictatorship in 1991 under which “most private media were either banned outright or harassed out of existence” (p. 71).

“Ghanaian national modernity went public only through the appropriation of tradition. Contemporary Ghanaian journalism bears the traces of this process” (p. 74) even after journalism was democratized in 1991.

Throughout the 1980s-90s, Ghanaian journalism differed from American journalism by emphasizing not the best lead information to ‘grab’ the reader at the beginning of an article, but, under the Rawlings dictatorship, the rhetoric of the government and official announcements shape the way the story is presented and give it legitimacy (p. 76-79).

Stories about local events like a festival turn out “not to be about the festival at all, but rather about the definition of development and the articulation of state authority with local subjects” via a chain of quotes by notable officials (p. 83).

State journalists therefore struggle with the contradictions between their lessons at journalism school and what they have to do working for the state press, such as always portraying the state in a favorable light (p. 84) “However, this interpretation misses what is most provocative about journalism in Ghana, both historically and culturally. Yes, Daily Graphic journalists are under pressure to give favorable publicity to the state; but that pressure is exercised through a set of cultural understandings in such a way that journalists do not recognize themselves as mere puppets of propaganda” (p. 85).

News media and the post-colonial nation: “I am not arguing that the difference of Ghanaian journalism is essentially cultural; but rather that a specific version of African culture has been summoned and reinforced in the historical development of news media in Ghana” (p. 87) While the type of news reporting in state papers might look like propaganda, “state domination of the Daily Graphic operates through a set of cultural notions locally recognized as redemptive and liberatory, given their historical role in projects of anti-colonial independence and nation-building” (p. 88).

“By 1997, when the bulk of this fieldwork was carried out, the democratic reforms dictated by the 1991 constitution had failed to restructure the practices of ‘house style’ that govern the production of state news. In light of such conclusions, anthropologists as well as development and policy experts are compelled to consider the local, cultural contradictions that surface with the global spread of liberal democracy and the celebrated emergence of civil society in Africa and elsewhere” (p. 88).

Photo credit: Today GH


Rumours and the reinvention of the Internet in Ghana

May 21, 2016

Family Love Internet Cafe.

See below a fifth (5th) set of notes under the broad theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question that has remained to this date well hidden from mainstream media and communication studies. This research deserves, in my view, to be read more widely across this interdisciplinary area of scholarship.

Notes prepared by Fran Barone
Used with permission

Burrell, J. (2011). User agency in the middle range: Rumors and the reinvention of the Internet in Accra, Ghana. Science, Technology & Human Values, 36(2), 139-159.

8 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Accra, Ghana in 2004 (p. 5).

Many young Internet users “expressed the conviction that it was being widely used by clever, young Ghanaians (and others) to acquire thousands of dollars, the latest fashion, or the newest technologies by duping unsuspecting foreigners” (p. 1).

Common internet scam rumors end with the scammer leaving, where “his gains provided a jumpstart to legitimate, sustainable, and prosperous adult status” (p. 7).

Internet scammers describe their activities as stealing from the very rich (e.g. American celebrities with millions of dollars) and giving to the poor (themselves) (p. 9). This type of behaviour is framed as self-preservation, especially where the government does not provide formal institutions for developing skills (p. 10). Interviews suggest that not nearly as many people actually perform scams.

“While scholars champion the value of the new digital technologies drawing from arguments about our unstoppable transformation into an ‘‘information society,’’ they often fail to consider how the aspirations and motivations of new populations of users must be enrolled for this to take place” (p. 15).

The case of internet scamming rumours “shows how users are capable of deriving some novel utility from a technology not just as isolated individuals but in a way that alters the technology for other users. They do not depend upon gatekeepers to the design (such as engineers or project managers) to accomplish this” (p. 16). Instead, the rumours are self-perpetuating and determine how people approach the technology.

Photo credit: Eve Andersson