It can be pretty difficult, sometimes, to justify your commitment to ‘ethnographic’ methods. Partly, perhaps, because most people don’t quite know what being ethnographic means. But also because ‘being ethnographic’ is often devalued by the very people with whom British social scientists are increasingly encouraged to engage as part of the ‘Impact’ agenda. I do not think I am alone among doctoral students in having struggled to explain to the ‘technical’ and policy experts I encountered during my research quite what ethnography is, and why anyone would bother with it – or listen to someone who had. Soundbites from Bronislaw Malinowski (whose Argonauts of the Western Pacific and Coral Gardens and their Magic constitute the ultimate methodological reference point for many anthropologists) such as ‘ethnography is about researching from “the native’s point of view” and attending to the “imponderabilia of everyday life”’ are (in addition to sounding uncomfortably dated) unlikely to convince someone who is not already on board. Ethnography quite simply produces ‘data’ (or, more appropriately, ‘narratives’) that are not formalized enough for the tastes of many who occupy powerful positions in business, development and government (but see this for an alternative view). Unless, of course, you accept, with Edward Said (and more recently David Price) that ethnography – and the ‘area expertise’ derived from its practice – is implicated in both earlier colonial, and contemporary American, military expansion. So what (if any) kind of relationship might there be between the type of knowledge produced by ethnography, and the wider power structures in which a researcher operates?
‘They’ are prime movers we can observe to spot future trends; like rejecting Facebook. ‘They’ are doing something problematically or exotically different to us. For example sexting or hacking. Or ‘they’ are being radicalised by the Internet. ‘They’ are teenagers. Why youth in particular – we are not similarly fixated by other social groups such as pensioners in this way – what lies behind this phenomenon? Why are ‘they’ an object of enquiry in the first place? (more…)
By Flohuels (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
What do you think was the most-discussed topic on Facebook in the UK last year? The World Cup? Cat videos? Ice buckets? The Kardashians? Sociology Lens?
… Amazingly, it’s none of those. It was, according to someone who ought to know, Elizabeth Linder – Facebook’s Politics & Government Specialist for Europe – Politics. (more…)
Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines are back in the headlines. After a mass march in central London on January 24th, following the Commons debate on scrapping Trident when David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and a shocking 250 other MPs caused a scandal after not even turning up to vote, this long-dormant issue has grabbed the country’s attention. Nukes are now the hot topic of conversation in kitchens, offices and factories across the land, and will surely be a key factor in how people vote in the general election in May…
From Corporate Europe Observatory (http://corporateeurope.org/international-trade/2014/07/who-lobbies-most-ttip)
Many Sociology Lens readers will by now have heard of ‘TTIP,’ the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently being negotiated between the EU and the US. The TTIP negotiations are the direct outcome of a transatlantic High-Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth established in 2011, and the latest in a string of attempts to create an EU-US free trade zone that date back to the early 1990s. Thus far the two issues garnering the most media attention around TTIP have been the lack of transparency surrounding negotiations, and the proposed inclusion of ‘Investor State Dispute Settlement’ (ISDS) provisions in the Partnership. Regarding the transparency issue, when even supportive Members of the European Parliament such as Maria Eleni Koppa complained that they were ‘totally in the dark’ about the negotiations, there were calls for the negotiating mandate to be declassified – precipitating UK Trade Minister Lord Livingston’s curious claim that this was ‘unnecessary’ since the document had already been ‘leaked’ online. But it is in regard to ISDS that the TTIP battle lines are being drawn in earnest.
Meritocracy: a universally available golden escalator to a life of high status and luxury?
When Young (1970) conceived of the meritocracy it was a satirical device to draw attention to a possible dystopian future where everyone is stratified in concrete by their I.Q.: the sub optimal intelligent condemned to a meaningless existence. The meaning of meritocracy has evolved (Allen 2011) to become a discursive device. Politicians from all major parties now clamour for the moral high ground by claiming making society more meritocratic is their political raison d’etre. The Deputy Prime Minister, for example said exactly that; “It’s the reason I do this job” (Clegg, 2012). Indeed meritocracy’s conceptual power is far reaching:
“Meritocracy as an abstract ideal is also a measure of progress, where more advanced societies are held to be those that are more meritocratic. They make fewer decisions based on prejudice and extend opportunity further. Meritocracy is sometimes used as a measure of corruption, where corrupt societies or corrupt institutions are thought to be those that disobey the formula: merit = ability + effort. Meritocratic societies are open and fair, non-meritocratic ones are obscure and underhand. Justice, social cohesion, progress, fairness and transparency, these are the timeless ideas upon which meritocracy is presumed to rest.” (Allen 2011, p2) (more…)
At a health food café in central London, I recently drank my first ‘Bulletproof Coffee,’ a surprisingly ingestible blend of espresso, butter and coconut oil which has a texture not dissimilar to yak butter tea. To be precise, Bulletproof® Coffee ought to be made with a blend of grass-fed butter, Upgraded™ coconut oil (from upgradedself.com) and low-toxin Bulletproof® Upgraded™ Coffee Beans. And it is indeed no coincidence that Bulletproof Coffee tastes a little like yak butter tea. Dave Asprey, the ‘Bulletproof Executive’ was struck with the inspiration he needed to develop the drink during a yak butter tea break on a climb of Tibet’s Mount Kailash. As for why I found it in a health food café – and why all the concern with the quality and composition of the ingredients? Well, Bulletproof Coffee enthusiasts overlap significantly with fans of the ‘paleo diet,‘ which is designed to imitate as far as possible the pre-neolithic dietary ecology to which our hunter-gatherer ancestors were adapted.
There is indeed some good anthropological evidence showing that diets of contemporary hunter-gatherers – including those that are high in animal fats – reduce the risk of chronic ‘diseases of civilization’ like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. There are however equally good reasons to question the notion that we and our food species ended our evolutionary relationship before the neolithic revolution. (And using studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer populations to make claims about ‘paleo’ lifestyles can easily slip into ahistorical retellings of what Adam Kuper terms the myth of primitive society.) So what really intrigues (and frankly disturbs) me about Bulletproof Coffee is precisely the extent to which it comes wrapped up in a discourse that you might term ‘paleo-primitivism.’ In telling the story of Bulletproof Coffee’s origins, Dave Asprey marries his enthusiasm for the paleo diet with a depiction of Sherpas as ‘ubermen’ or ‘a race of Bulletproof genetic freaks.’ Asprey’s fascination with both yak butter tea and the genetics of the Tibetan ‘ubermen’ is presented on his website in terms of his interest in biohacking. The biohacking discourse surrounding Bulletproof Coffee seems to reveal quite neatly something about the idea of the ‘hacker’ that Brett Scott recently discussed in a piece for STIR Magazine. The figure of the hacker exemplifies collective possibilities for creative and mischievous subversion of contemporary capitalist organization – but it can also reflect an avowedly individualistic, masculine libertarian drive towards self-empowerment through those same stifling structures. (more…)
Protestors gather outside the CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador) in Quito, Ecuador.
Yesterday, in Quito, Ecuador, hundreds of Indigenous people from around the country, including those from the Amazon, the Sierra and the Coast, gathered outside the offices of CONAIE (the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), in the north of the city, to continue the fight against a government plan to close the organisation’s headquarters. CONAIE is among the largest and longest standing Indigenous organisations in Ecuador, and its work focuses on defending the rights, territories, culture and lives of millions of Indigenous people who make up approximately 25% of the country’s population.
I am writing this blog post to encourage academics and activists from around the world to sign the open letter, drafted by CONAIE, in support of the organization and the indigenous peoples that it represents in their struggle to maintain control of the building, which is a key strategic part of the indigenous political community. (more…)
Christmas Shopping, Regent Street
In Payback, her reaction to the debt-fuelled financial crisis of 2007-08, Margaret Atwood rewrites Dickens’ Christmas Carol for the present day. She invites us to join ‘Scrooge Nouveau’ in his Tuscan villa, as he is visited by the Spirit of Earth Day Future. Scrooge Nouveau is confronted by two possible futures – one of ecological harmony and regular debt jubilees, the other unfolding in a lifeless desert where he sees himself fighting with other hungry survivors over the corpse of a house cat. Our modern-day miser finds himself doing desperate back-of-the-envelope calculations: should he invest in alternative energy and desalination plants, and so make a killing if the good future materializes, or corner the tinned food market and build himself a bunker in preparation for the bad? Atwood’s re-telling works as a neat parable of what Michael Hudson and Max Haiven take the contemporary financial services sector to be: a ‘pathologically self-obsessed form of economic planning.’ The financialization and securitization of our very life-cycle is reflected, as Jane Guyer observes, in the sector’s core products – its ‘student loans, 30-year mortgages, health insurance, and so on.’ The Christmas and New Year mediascape is likewise shot through with a pre-emptive financial futuricity. Flipping through British broadsheets this week will reveal festive ‘share tips for 2015‘ from the ‘best stock-pickers’ around. Monocle – essential reading for the transnational flâneur on the fly – has the ‘Forecast’ edition out too. In its pages we are introduced to the future of defense innovation, wearable medical technology, and even the science fiction scene – alongside the ‘politicians and entrepreneurs worth inviting out for a drink.’
Monocle’s anticipatory look at fashion and technology reflects an eminently financial temporality. It was, after all, the Wall Street fortune tellers of the early twentieth century who made the figure of the forecaster a recognizable and respectable one. There is, though, another way of experiencing time that may be foregrounded at this time of year. (more…)
Since August in the UK we’ve been commemorating the outbreak of WW1. The various reasons for this memorialising overlap, but they can reflect an individual’s political Weltanschauung and attitudes to the Great War. For some, the 800,000+ Tommies who died sacrificed themselves in a heroic struggle against the forces of militaristic totalitarianism represented by Germany. While for others, the WW1 represents plutocrats sending young men to their deaths while many industrialists and manufacturers profited from Britain’s war economy only to then lead us, via economic ruin, to another war 21 years later.
There’s less cynicism about the Christmas Truce. This means it’s been hijacked by everyone from supermarkets to UEFA and restaged as a football match to market their values (incidentally there is little evidence any football match took place let alone one between German and British and Commonwealth troops). Although for many combatants the truce was primarily a magnanimous gesture to bury the dead, it was a reality and, indeed, in some sectors of The Western Front, it lasted for longer than Christmas. Troops in these instances were threatened with execution if they didn’t reengage in killing the enemy (for more listen to eyewitness accounts in the Imperial War Museum’s Archives). (more…)