On the Social Condition in War

I recently finished Stephen C. Lubkemann’s Culture in Choas: An Anthropology of the Social Condition in War, and there’s a lot there for interested parties. The book is a dense brick of a book, but there is a lot crammed in those pages, and I found the different directions that Lubkemann goes in really fascinating.

The book is based on about a decade’s worth of research into the numerous ways that people adapted to war in Mozambique. I don’t know that much context about the war, but the narrative that Lubkemann strings together and the arguments he makes are fascinating to scholars of any part of the continent (or indeed anywhere there’s conflict). The backbone of his research is this:

[W]arscapes are often treated as interrupted societies in which the myriad social processes and life projects anthropologists investigate are treated as if they have been suspended. In such contexts coping with violence often becomes the only social task that analysts investigate. Such approaches strip warscape inhabitants of the social multidimensionality that is assumed to shape behavior and inform agency under less dramatic conditions.


War-time social existence in Machaze was never merely a matter of coping with violence; instead, as in peacetime, it centered on the pursuit of a multidimenstional agenda of life projects and “other struggles.” Throughout the conflict an array of “other” forms of gendered and generational social struggle continued to inform interests and orient behavior – migratory or otherwise. In fact, far from exercising singularly determinative force in shaping war-time behavior or proving capable or overwriting prior social and cultural difference, both the meaning and deployment of military violence itself tended to be reshaped by the specific sociocultural problematics that had long oriented the social life of the myriad and highly differentiated local groups throughout Mozambique (323-4).

With that as his jumping off point, he finds all sorts of interesting things in how people pursue life goals throughout the war and even after. The most interesting parts are his work on wartime mobility – displacement and otherwise. This includes the ways that men relied on decades-old migratory patterns (mostly to South Africa) to escape the violence, the ways that women tried to leverage war-time displacement to free themselves from the constraints of bride-prices, how men who remained in South Africa after the war ended tried to negotiate (or not) the dual life of keeping wives in Mozambique but careers (and even other wives) in South Africa, and the back-and-forth that all of these people navigated when trying to deal with ancestors and witchcraft to shield themselves. It’s all fascinating stuff, and at the heart of it is his decision to separate the life pursuits of people (and the contexts in which these are pursued) – what he calls a “lifescape” – from place. People pursue their lives in multiple places, in single places, or along routes between places, and his discussion of this (im)mobility during and after the war is really worthwhile.

One other thing I’ll focus on here is his reconceptualizing of Albert Hirschman’s “exit, loyalty, voice.” Hirschman’s initial idea was that there were three ways that people reacted to a situation that they were discontent with: loyalty, efforts to reach your life goals within the parameters set; voice, efforts to do this by modifying the parameters; and exit, refusing to participate and instead finding other ways to achieve those ends. In his book (mostly chapter 9), Lubkemann adapts Hirschman’s concept by framing loyalty and voice not as two of three distinct categories but by placing them on a continuum – reactions can be more loyalty or more voice, but they rest on a spectrum of participation within the terms.

In the context of this work, Lubkemann uses the continuum to analyze men who attempt to justify transnational life by living in South Africa more and more but maintaining ties to their ancestral land and their families back in Mozambique. Some men returned home after the war; others remained in South Africa but sent remittances or planned infrequent visits to placate families and ancestors; others sought to slowly leave Mozambique behind – one even argued that he had convinced his ancestors’ spirits to move to South Africa with him, thus freeing him from needing to return to his home. These variations of playing-by-the-rules are a useful way of looking at how people navigate these types of situations.

Anyhow, this is preliminary blogging for sure – I just finished the book this morning and felt the need to at least drop a word suggesting it for those interested in these topics. I’ll have to sit on it for a bit as I figure out just how much of the work can be applied elsewhere, but surely Lubkemann’s call for anthropologists to shift the way they study conflict is useful – to all disciplines.


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