I’m about to head to the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Minneapolis. For those who are there, I’ll be doing a thing:

Negotiating the Radio: Sensitization, Militarization, and Media Interventions in the D.R. Congo on Friday at 1:45 in the Marquette VII room. Come say hi!

The talk will be based partly on research conducted in 2013 on FM radio come home messaging and the HF radio early warning network. The abstract is a hell of a mess, so rather than paste that I’ll just say that the talk will cover different ways that these radio interventions have created new publics and new ways of communicating for the local population as well as NGOs. This includes come home messaging on the FM radio as well as the spreading of rumors and creating new public audiences, as well as the HF network’s reliance on the military actors and the ways it allows communities to connect with one another.

I’m hoping to continue this research this coming summer, so hopefully it’ll show up at the blog more often. In the meantime, I’ll be in Minneapolis for the rest of the week – hope to see you fellow anthropologists there!

Lastly: another way to resist Trump’s America is to produce and exchange knowledge. Excited to learn from brilliant people this week, because learning is part of learning to subvert and resist.


Research to-go

Exploratory research is supposed to be just that. It can involve chasing multiple leads, pursuing vague hunches, and barking up the wrong tree. In the end, you rummage through your experiences to figure out what your real research will be and then return with a better plan. But it’s also a total mess.

I’ve been in Uganda for two weeks, and will be here and in South Sudan for the next five weeks as well. I’m here with two projects in mind. Firstly, I’m hoping to add to my 2013 research trip here on radio programs, adding some data to that project and reshaping my old thesis into something more publishable. But I’m also (almost) ready to move from radios to a second project which will eventually be my dissertation. Time will tell what this will actually look like, but it will likely be about the presence of armed groups and how they change communities. But who knows, I’m juggling lots of other ideas – barking up trees, as it were.

The thing is, my exploratory work has led me to move around a lot. I haven’t been in any one place for more than maybe five days, and I don’t think that will change by the end of my seven-week trip. Part of this is the logistics of my research – trying to conduct interviews in at least six different towns – as well as the vagaries of bureaucracy – I’m currently in Kampala trying (for a second time) to get some visa documents approved. Luckily, the radio project has a foundation – I’ve got a slew of interviews and notes from three years ago that I can build on. But at the same time, moving so quickly through these places has made it really difficult to do the actual work. As usual, interviews get pushed, new contacts get cultivated, chance encounters change plans. But often I find myself cramming these experiences into a few days. For an anthropologist – someone dedicated to the long-term engagement – I’m still figuring out what it means to move around so much.

I keep reminding myself that this is exploratory – and that’s a huge part of it. Next summer, I’ll likely move around a bit again. The year after that I’ll be much more situated in one or two places that will become the focus of my work. But at the same time, anthropology-in-motion is increasingly a thing. It’s not what I’m doing, per se, and it might not be in the end. But many aspects of my research – the aid workers, the AFRICOM soldiers, the radio recording files, the rebel returnees – move from place to place as well. The debate over how to do ethnography, how to do fieldwork, is one I’m refraining for engaging with just quite yet. (reminder: this is exploratory). But trying to figure out how to be engaged and embedded in the research, while potentially moving around, is a struggle.

As I line up more interviews and ride a five hour bus ride (again), I’ll get a better sense of what this summer is about. In the meantime, this is exploratory.

GWU Anthropology Symposium

Putting you all on notice that my department’s annual symposium is this week. On Friday, April 15th, we will be hosting “Porous Boundaries: Risks and Flows Across Spaces” on campus all day. The symposium will include four panels of presentations plus a keynote speaker, anthropologist Clara Han, whose lecture is titled “Poverty and Vulnerability: Household Events and the ‘Drug Economy’.” The full schedule can be seen here [pdf].


The whole day is packed with good stuff. Like, actually. I’ve seen some of these talks before, and I’m really excited about a lot of the work going on in my department, including community organizing against slow violence in Baltimore, complexities of sex work in India, and the politics of archiving at Howard University. Check out the schedule, there’s good stuff. But I must admit a shameless self-promotion: I’ll be presenting at the tail end of the 2:15-3:45 panel. It’s the same presentation I gave at AES two weeks ago: “Between Justice and Forgiveness: Accountability across Borders in the LRA Conflict,” which looks at the ICC intervention, amnesty and reconciliation initiatives, and the forgiveness-based demobilization radio messages that I researched in my MA thesis.

I hope those of you in the DC area will be able to join us. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions – scottross [at] gwmail [dot] gwu [dot] edu.

Co-authoring Identities on Social Media

Over at Sapiens, Sophie Goodman has a short little piece on the socially fraught instances when someone tags you on Facebook, attaching your name – and profile – to something you hadn’t intended. The lede notes that “best friends and acquaintances alike contribute to your identity.” This is a fact on many aspects of social media, and one that people are increasingly aware of (perhaps nervously so).

While I remain focused on conflict and development, I’ve had a little side project on social media that recently took shape as a paper on Instagram that I’m tweaking a bit for future use. A central part of my work, though, is looking at this aspect of social media that includes different people co-authoring each other’s identities, and how people either try to police such behavior or revel in it.

Ilana Gershon has written about the former, in an article [gated, PoLAR] on how college students try to “sell” themselves on social media in order to get a job. To get a job in today’s employment market, Gershon says (emphasis added):

many in the United States are now expected to transform themselves into a brand so as to be (and remain) hirable as flexible agents in pursuit of other jobs. To brand oneself as a corporate person these days entails new media practices—orchestrating a single self-presentation across a personal website, Facebook profile, Twitter feed, blog, and so on—which ideally demonstrates that one is a recognizable, consistent, and employable self. To be employable these days is to appear coherent across media platforms, efforts that in practice are undercut for two reasons. First, in one’s daily life one might use different platforms for divergent social purposes. People often have to change their regular media practices when they start looking for a job (and will frequently revert back to earlier practices once they have found a job). Second, on many of these social media sites, the person putatively in control of the profile is not the only one who can contribute content to the profile, requiring the person supposedly in charge to monitor the account and delete potentially inappropriate statements and photos.1

Meanwhile, in Gershon’s other work – on break-up narratives – co-authorship occurs in different ways. If you’re trying to look for a job, you need to make sure you don’t get tagged in party pictures or crass jokes don’t get commented on your page. If you’re trying to break up with your boyfriend, however, you might need help on how to word things or advice on whether text or Facebook Messenger is a better place to start that conversation. Rather than shunned, co-authorship gets sought out. Gershon quotes one college student whose boyfriend broke up with her via MySpace:

So I start messaging him. And my friends come in and ask what is going on. So I say I am sending him a message, he broke up with me on MySpace. And they say, “oooh, let us help!” So it was like a conjoined big breakup letter that everyone was helping me with. Everyone on my floor was helping me with this breakup letter.2

Gershon (and Paul Manning, in the second article) cites Teri Silvio’s animation theory [gated]3, a useful analytic from which to analyze this type of activity. In my own work on Instagram, the “animation” of people’s images, captions, and even decisions to post came up constantly. Here’s a snippet of my work-in-progress on how college students4 use Instagram.

First, Sarah outlines the level of co-authorship in consulting whether she should even post things for others to see:

When I’m not sure if something will get a good amount of likes, I’ll ask a friend – or three – what they think. If they say go for it, I do… Conversations with my friends are more based around the question, ‘Do you think I should Instagram this?’ which is basically asking whether the picture is worthy of being posted. I think both the questions of whether the picture has likes potential, and if it’s generally just a good picture, are implied in that one question. If they say no, then I probably won’t post it.

Second, here’s Emily, who tends to take and edit photos on her own, but captions are another story:

I have two friends who are really funny and witty. I’m not, like… well, I think I’m funny but like nobody else does [laughs]… so a lot of times I’ll think of something and I’ll be like, ‘hey, Linda! Is this dumb? Like, is this funny? Because I think it’s funny.’

And here’s a paragraph straight from my paper, highlighting co-authorship:

The “self” being curated on a primary Instagram account is made up of posts, but also comments, tagged photos, and even the photos one likes appear in a list on her profile. One friend told me that he never posts photos to Instagram, but the section of his profile where it lists “photos of you” gets updated frequently because his friends and sisters tag him often. But the co-authorship of Instagram goes beyond merely contributing to each other’s profiles. Numerous Instagram users noted asking friends for advice on their posts at least on occasion. Lauren sometimes shows photos to friends near her to help select filters, but she knew people who would text photos to each other for advice before posting. She even admitted – “as lame as it is” – that she sometimes brainstorms captions with friends before even taking a photo for Instagram. “We like to plan out our Instagrams, like at night, so, like, if we’re going somewhere where I know I’m going to Instagram, we’re like actually crazy, but we’ll be like, ‘okay, we have to get us doing this,’ like ‘this will get a caption,’ and we’ll make sure that we do it.” Photos posted to Instagram, like other animated characters, are “the creatures of collectives, rather than auteurs” (Silvio 2010:428). And once the photo is posted, the very same friends may go on to like or comment on these pictures, further contributing to the social lives of these photographs.

Co-authorship is definitely a big part of social media – good and bad. While others have shown instances where it’s a place of worry or concern, there are other ways that it is sought out in mediating what ends up online. Here friends (online or off – some people sent photos to each other for approval before posting) don’t run the risk of posting something about you that won’t go over well with others – they’re there to stop you from posting something that won’t go over well.

1. Gershon, Ilana. 2014. “Selling Your Self in the United States.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 27 (2), 282. Emphasis added. 

2. Manning, Paul and Ilana Gershon. 2013. “Animating Interaction.” HauL Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3), 125. 

3. Silvio, Teri. 2010. “Animation: The New Performance?Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20 (2), 422-438.  

4. I changed the names of my interviewees. 


The High Costs of Microcredit

I’m in two seminars this semester – Anthropology of Development, and Capitalism and Neoliberalism – which often overlap in, as you can imagine, some pretty depressing and enraging ways. From the complicity of NGOs in reinforcing the social networks in Rwanda that were mobilized in the genocide to the ways that U.S. bases employ migrant workers in slave-like conditions [pdf], development and neoliberalism have their share of horror stories on their own, and it’s no surprise that the neoliberal mindset makes its way into the development apparatus.

In my class on development, one of the ethnographies we read was Aminur Rahman’s Women and Microcredit in Rural Bangladesh, which outlines how microcredit programs such as the Grameen Bank actually send their clients into cycles of ever-increasing debt as interest mounts. In typical microcredit schemes, peer pressure acts as collateral as peers in microcredit groups ensure debt repayment in order to continue qualifying for loans. Other forms of pressure, from women of higher status trying to form lending circles or from husbands who want access to capital, also force women into the system and into debt in the first place. Rahman outlines how a program seeking to empower women by providing them with loans actually uses patriarchal mechanisms to enroll them and then ensure debt repayment at all costs.

One of many aspects of neoliberalism has been how people increasingly view things in neoliberal, economic terms that had previously been outside of the market. My class touched on a variety of these issues, one of which was the growing black market for kidneys, where the world’s poor are turning to sell organs in exchange for meager amounts of money and poor health while the wealthy jump over everyone waiting on a donor list, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ work to try to document and stop it. As this trade continues, the poor who are scammed into selling a kidney (or who do so out of desperation) wind up with poor health, little money to show for their troubles, and sometimes the stigma of having sold a kidney.

These two specific topics came together in a recent episode of Vice. Featuring anthropologists Scott Carney and Monir Monirauzzaman, the second half of the episode focuses on the kidney trade in Bangladesh, where there are many towns or even families where numerous people have sold kidneys to get by (the first segment, on LBGT rights in Uganda, is also worth watching). The segment, titled “Kidneyville,” features interviews with some the residents of the town of Kalai who have sold kidneys out of desperation. And here’s the connection:

We weren’t surprised to find out that people regretted giving up their kidneys, but we were shocked to hear many say it was to pay off serious debts from microfinance loans which were given to them by local non-profit organizations.

“I took one loan,” one man says, “but that loan wasn’t fully repaid so I took another loan. I became deep in debt.” Another man describes how a non-profit literally took the roof from over his house since he was behind on payments. He then sold his kidney and then bought his roof back from the NGO. One woman describes how the NGO came after her when her husband killed himself because of his indebtedness.

Development programs that send people into debt in the name of helping them get out of poverty, instead committing them to debt cycles that lead them into another incredibly asymmetrical exchange. And selling a kidney still doesn’t get people out of debt to the microcredit groups, but it could cause health problems, making it harder for the poor to then find work and pay off what’s left of their debts.

Conferences, Conferences, Conferences

A few conference-related items of potential interest.

Firstly, I’m issuing my own brief call for any fellow travelers in justice/reconciliation/Africa/intervention studies by anthropologists thinking about attending the American Ethnological Society this March 31-April 2 in Washington, DC. I’m thinking about submitting a newer iteration of the paper I presented at ASA last year, on reconciliation and accountability, the ICC, and Invisible Children. I’m open to ways of framing it, so if anyone wants to help me cobble together a panel, I’d greatly appreciate it. Deadline is Jan. 31, but you can’t submit until after you register (I know, right?). I’ve heard AES is awesome, and I can’t wait to go – hopefully you’ll come with me! Comment, e-mail, tweet, etc. if you’re down to do a panel together on any of the aforementioned subjects.

On a related note, doing my grad-student-Africanist duty and spreading the word of a couple of Calls for Papers to any relevant Africanist scholars-in-training:

Boston University’s African Studies Center will be hosting its annual graduate student conference this March, with the theme of “Mobilizing Africa: Innovation, Syncretism, Appropriation.” Deadline for submission is Jan. 15, and the conference is March 25-26. I’ve never been, but it looks mighty interesting and is geared towards graduate students, so check it out.

At about the same time, Tennessee State University will be hosting its annual Africa Conference March 31-April 1, with the theme of “Africa in the 21st Century: The Promise of Development and Democracy.” Deadline is Dec. 31, and more details are in the CFP here [pdf].

And lastly, it’s almost that time of year again. I’ll be headed to San Diego in two weeks for the African Studies Association’s annual meeting, where I’ll be presenting a chapter from my MA thesis that is also a forthcoming article in African Studies Review. The paper is on the role of come-home messaging in the LRA conflict, focusing on how come-home radio programs began in Gulu, how they fared in neighboring Lira district, and how they have been transplanted into northeastern DRC. Looking forward to presenting, and if you’re headed to ASA, it’s session IX (Saturday morning), panel I-1, vaguely titled “Accounting for Violence.” Hope to see you there!

Data, Research, and Economics

“Beware the analysis of economists” is pretty much always good advice. It’s advice that I’ve held close whenever I encounter scholarship, especially on the developing world, because I find the reliance on “data” and “numbers” to be somehow more reliable than people to be a farce. Data is, after all, recorded and analyzed and interpreted by people.

That’s why I was intrigued when I saw that Kim Yi Dionne and Laura Seay wrote a short review of Morten Jerven’s new book, Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong. Here’s an excerpt from their review:

Jerven argues that economists have fundamentally misunderstood the trajectory of economic growth in Africa because they mistakenly emphasized the poor patterns of growth in the 1970s and 1980s and ignored the incredible growth in African economies that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. While economists focused on “a chronic failure of growth,” Jerven notes that this phenomenon is “something that never actually happened.” Furthermore, many economists treated Africa as more-or-less a coherent whole, looking to explain differences between African states and those elsewhere in the world rather than comparing African states to one another, furthering the narrative that “Africa” wasn’t growing while ignoring relative growth among African states.

Out of the desire to explain non-growth (even though it was a faulty premise), economists started to focus on income gaps with other parts of the world, which led to studies of other factors that came along with low income. These findings led to neoliberal economic policies mandated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the 1970s and 1980s, which had negative consequences for African economies and people’s livelihoods. In short, poorly done economic research led to devastating policies.

I’ll definitely be taking a look at Jerven’s book, for what looks like worthwhile analysis of how economics has treated the continent. This review also reminded me of my usual go-to-economics-critique, a brilliant book review from Mike McGovern that I first encountered a few years ago. While technically a book review of Paul Collier’s work, McGovern’s “An Anthropologist among the Mandarins” is a thorough look at a genre, or even a field, that includes points such as:

By insisting on the credo of “just the facts, ma’am,” the books introduce many of their key analytical moves on the sly, or via anecdote. What an anthropological approach to these same questions would insist on is the attempt to see the dynamics of bottom billion politics and economics through the actors’ points of view. This attempt has the positivist objective of fact checking both one’s facts and one’s categories of analysis, so as to be sure that there is some semblance of fit between the motives, incentives, and rationales attributed to actors and those they may actually be using. Collier expresses disdain for such attempts as a kind of misplaced humanism that is easily manipulated by greedy dictators in search of “useful idiots.” However, it is precisely the epistemological solipsism of his morality tale that exposes its greatest analytical weaknesses at the same time that it best explains why it appeals to a broad audience that has genuine interest in understanding suffering in poor countries even while it has little interest in having its sense of its own well-merited success questioned. This is one explanation of how he comes to the point of effectively arguing for an international regime that would chastise undemocratic leaders by inviting their armies to oust them—a proposal that overestimates the virtuousness of rich countries (and poor countries’ armies) while it ignores many other potential sources of political change.


The other

is that the self-assuredness of economists such as Collier may be a part of the problem and not, as they suppose, a part of the solution. For an outsider, the strangest thing about the field of economics is the fact that although it appears to be wrong much of the time, rather than becoming chastened and introverted, most of its practitioners seem to become bolder, drawing strength from their failures as the mythological Antaeus did by touching the ground. Though Collier as iconoclast writes as if prior development policies have been mired in preconceived notions and misplaced sympathy, the advocates of those same policies also thought that they were acting on the basis of sound data that did away with the misrecognitions that had mystified their predecessors. Looked at over the fifty-year span since the publication of W. W. Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, development economics as a field looks far more like literary criticism than like those natural sciences it emulates… The difference between poets and economists, however, is that for poets, as for literary critics, there are rivalries and certainly individual claims to preeminence, but as a general rule, there is an acceptance that there are many ways to write a great poem, just as there are many enlightening ways to read any great poem. Bound as it is to the model of the natural sciences, economics cannot accept that there might be two incommensurable but equally valuable ways of explaining a given group of data points.

Rachel Strohm deserves a hat-tip for finding an open access link to McGovern’s article, the lack of which is the main reason I hadn’t written about it here earlier. In her post, she highlights McGovern’s call to bring ethnography back into policy-writing, another useful argument in the piece.

As economics continues to train its eye on developing countries, it runs the risk of such myopia. And as political science does the same, it has also been taking an increasingly quantitative bent which can encounter the same risks. As Dionne and Seay state, the rise of large data-sets in Africanist political science could require Jerven’s warning that such data is not perfect, and can lead academics astray. This is where I say I’ll try to stick to qualitative research, and when I use numbers, I’ll remember that they’re not guaranteed to be any more right than people’s anecdotes.

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.

Cultural Anthropology’s CAR Feature

The journal Cultural Anthropology has been at the forefront of melding scholarship with the internet. It began going open-access recently, and has been running Hot Spots features for a few years now. Hot Spots are a collection of short essays written, curated, and edited by scholars addressing a specific topic.

I’ve been reading my way through the recent Hot Spots features on-and-off over the last couple of months. My thesis reader, Sara Shneiderman, co-edited a batch of essays on the ‘post-conflict’ in South Asia that is provides interesting insight on an idea (being ‘post-conflict’) across the wide region. Prior to that, there was a feature on protests in Brazil that are worth a look, especially now that the World Cup has brought the spotlight back to Brazil’s ongoing unrest.

But the reason I’m writing this post is to draw your attention to the most recent Hot Spots feature, edited by Louisa Lombard. It is a collection of eleven essays on the current violence in Central African Republic, and it includes some really, really great work that at once problematizes simplistic narratives and helps makes sense of complex issues. If you’re interested in anthropology, history, violence, of CAR, there’s something there for you.