Adam Sargent’s “Building Modern India”

My dissertation explores the politics and semiotics of labor in India’s modernizing construction industry.  I conducted fieldwork on a few key sites in the greater Delhi region where I attended to the ways workers, subcontractors and engineers understood their own and others’ productive activities.  Drawing on linguistic anthropology I treat these understandings of productive activity as what I call ideologies of labor, to highlight the ways in which labor is not a pre-given category of action but rather something that is created through acts of framing productive activity.  By analyzing how actors talked about, remunerated and recorded construction work I argue that production was shaped by tensions and translations between divergent ideologies of labor.

Page 99 falls in a chapter that illustrates one such tension in ideologies of labor based on fieldwork at a construction skill-training center in Faridabad.  As I explain earlier in the chapter students and administrators at the center understood the very same productive activities in divergent ways.  For administrators activities like carrying bricks were part of ‘practical’ training that would help students in their future careers as construction site supervisors. Students had quite a different understanding of this same activity, as for them brick carrying was considered ‘labor work’ and had the potential to transform them in a downwardly mobile direction into a laborer.  Thus while administrators attempted to strip activities like carrying bricks of their associations with labor, students often reframed these activities through humor.  Some students would refer to students who were carrying bricks as “laborers” which, as I point out on page 99, both construed the action of carrying bricks as “labor work” and not “practical” while also expressing an anxiety that engaging in such action would transform the actor into a laborer. The humor expressed a particular ideology of labor that was in opposition to that articulated by administrators. The remainder of the dissertation builds on this approach in analyzing production on a self-described “modern” construction site in Delhi.  I argue that the practices of audit and accounting that marked the site as “modern” depended on the productive translations used by subcontractors and others to articulate divergent ideologies of labor to one another.

Adam Sargent. 2017. “Building Modern India: Transformations of Labor in the Indian Construction Industry.” University of Chicago, Phd.


Ieva Jusionyte on her new book, Savage Frontier

Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border by [Jusionyte, Ieva]

Jusionyte, Ieva. 2015. Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Interview by Ilana Gershon

What led you to study the conjunction between security and news reporting in this particular town?

I have first heard about the region encompassing parts of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay–commonly called “tri-border area” or “triple frontier”–through the media. It was portrayed as a dangerous place, a haven of organized crime, where trafficking of drugs and people, contraband, and money laundering were rampant. Having worked as a news reporter, I was aware that journalists tend to write stories that fit into larger narratives, which media organizations adjust depending on market logic as well as on their relationship with the government. We know that the media can both work as a propaganda machine, serving to uphold state ideologies, and it can be used as a watchdog on the political and economic establishment. My decision to go to the tri-border area was motivated by a wish to understand how local journalists, who live in the town about which they write, maneuver and maintain the boundary that divides illegal activities into two categories: those that can be made into news and those that must remain public secrets. Unlike reporters sent by national or international media, who come to the border looking for sensational stories and often reproduce the narrative of the violent and savage frontier, local journalists are also residents of the area, so they are directly invested in solving existing problems of crime and insecurity in their neighborhoods at the same time that they seek to depict the place as a safe destination for tourists. In the book, I show the day-to-day realities of journalists, as they balance between making news and making security, and argue that media practices in a remote border area must be understood within the historical context of state violence in the region.

How does turning to news-making as a fieldsite illuminate a distinctive connection between national identity and national security?

News-making is a key site in which national identity is produced and through which it is circulated. The idea that the press serves as a vehicle for creating nations as “imagined communities” is attributed to Benedict Anderson, and although his thesis has drawn criticism regarding the historical accuracy of his claims as they apply to Latin America, it continues to illuminate the process and the conditions of nation-building. Perhaps nowhere is this as clear as it is in the borderlands, at the edges of nation-state sovereignty, where the airwaves of one country compete against those of its neighbor’s. In the second half of the 20th century, when Argentina, Brazil, and other states in the region became concerned with national security (this was especially notable during the military regimes), the governments began paying much more attention to media broadcasters in border areas: investing in radio and television infrastructure, as a means to spread political discourses emanating from the state’s capital, was akin to defending the nation against a foreign invasion–one that was not carried out by an army of soldiers but advanced by cultural programming. In the tri-border area, this competition was between Argentine and Paraguayan media, transmitting in Spanish, and Brazilian media, transmitting in Portuguese. This battle over airwaves is still ongoing: complaints that signals from more potent Brazilian antennas were interfering with Argentine radio and television broadcasts were recurrent issues debated in town council meetings during my fieldwork–a proof that in the border region questions of national identity and national security continue to be highly contested to this day.

How do journalists’ symbiotic relationships with security forces such as police and military officers affect how crime is reported?

Security forces have a strong presence in the border area and they provide a substantial amount of news material for the local media, covering a wide range of topics, from routine crime investigations to military ceremonies and parades to large-scale intelligence operations. It is a symbiotic relationship because journalists need stories (reporters are often asked to produce half a dozen news pieces per day), while security forces want good publicity of their work and readily provide the media with interviews and press releases. However, this convenient arrangement means that journalists rarely ask difficult questions, for example, regarding police impunity, corruption, and complicity with criminal actors and organizations. Usually, crime stories are authored and authorized by the security forces, with the media serving merely as the outlet for circulating the official version of events to the public. But not all towns in the tri-border area are alike. Compared to the Argentine border town of Puerto Iguazú, where local news organizations are rather weak, do not have resources or training to do investigative journalism, and cannot protect reporters if they decided to pursue such stories, some media companies in Ciudad del Este, a larger city on the Paraguayan side of the border, have done important investigations into organized crime. Nevertheless, due to corruption that entangles politicians, business owners, law enforcement, and even the media, critical crime reporting remains severely limited in the region.

Often what is illegal is still socially acceptable, and especially in your fieldsite of a border town. How did journalists engage with this tension?  Did the medium the journalist was using – text or video – affect how they negotiated this tension?

Difference between practices that are legal or illegal and legitimate or illegitimate was very important for my attempt to understand how journalists decided what became news and what information was to remain off the record, as a public secret. Socially legitimate, albeit illegal activities, such as food contraband or smuggling of fuel, were rarely covered in the media. Journalists did not report on practices in which they (or their families, or neighbors) frequently participated. Even the tools of media production–cameras, cassettes, computers–were regularly bought in Paraguay and brought across the border into Argentina illegally, avoiding taxes and other import prohibitions. On rare occasions, when illegal and socially legitimate activities became the subject of news stories, the print media had an advantage over television and even over radio. I learnt this while working on an episode about irregular adoptions and child trafficking for an investigative television program “Proximidad”: people were more willing to share what they knew when the interaction between journalists and residents did not entail the use of cameras or voice recorders.

One of the themes in your book is a running comparison between being a journalist and an ethnographer, and you managed to be both in this Argentinean border town.  You also talk a great deal about how difficult it was to move knowledge that was generally known but not openly discussed into the public sphere.   Could you discuss whether it is a different process for a journalist and for an ethnographer, and if so, how?

Anthropologists and journalists both face the challenge of making knowledge that is familiar to few available to others, but it is important to recognize that our work follows professional standards and ethics that may diverge. Journalists must protect their sources, just as ethnographers promise confidentiality and anonymity to their research participants, so from the point of view of those asking the questions and observing behavior the difference is not that obvious. Yet people who agree to disclose sensitive information, to share their private stories, see a difference between a reporter and an ethnographer. On the one hand, people are more familiar with news media as a genre of representation, and this familiarity can help build trust, although it could also undermine it–people are aware that the media sensationalizes issues. Anthropology, on the other hand, is a mystery. When I arrived to start ethnographic fieldwork, people were reluctant to talk to me about anything illegal because they did not understand what the information would be used for: Would I give it to the media, to the police, or to the government? Would the effects of making it public hurt them? With time, as research participants begin to trust the anthropologist, they are more comfortable sharing what they know. But then it is up to the anthropologist to decide what to do with this newly acquired, sometimes dangerous knowledge. Unlike journalists, who publish stories in order to draw attention to an issue, such as drug smuggling or domestic violence, in hopes that public knowledge about it would lead to changing social or political circumstances that make it possible, anthropologists often use the knowledge they gather to engage in internal theoretical debates with other scholars. This scope of our work, limited to circulating the findings within the academe, is not always clear to the people who share their lives with us, sometimes in anticipation that their knowledge could change the status quo. Of course, there are anthropologists–sometimes called engaged anthropologists or public anthropologists–who try to reach out to broader audiences, make their publications part of public debates on current issues, and push for policy changes, but this public engagement is not (or not yet) considered a defining feature of the discipline.


Gabriele de Seta’s Postdigital China

Page 99 of my doctoral thesis Dajiangyou: Media practices of vernacular creativity in postdigital China is a messy microcosm that is yet quite representative of the whole dissertation. The page is positioned right at the beginning of the fourth chapter, in which I try to describe “contemporary China’s postdigital media ecologies” through the local tech buzzword weishidai [‘micro-era’], a historical moment

in which the Internet, fragmented, ubiquitous and personalized, disappears in the fabric of everyday life.

Even when read in isolation, this page feels as overbearing as the rest of the thesis, my writing rushing through composite terms and neologisms I deploy in order to pin down glimpses of the sociotechnical reality I thought I witnessed during my sparse months of fieldwork. The first couple of paragraphs are a really bad example of terminological proliferation in social science writing – hardly giving words any room to breathe, I propose a flurry of concepts: “technomorphology”, “weishidai”, “technological imaginary”, “postdigital”, “post-media” and “post-Internet”. Cobbling together my dissertation in a disciplinary context that emphasized ethnographic mystique over theoretical debate, the lexical flourishes offered by barely digested media theory readings made me feel sharper and safer.

My writing then moves to a couple of fieldwork impressions, but only after reframing my whole research project through a disillusioned self-reflection:

I traveled to different locations in Mainland China looking forward to collect the insights of media-savvy and enthusiastic Internet users, expecting to give voice to strong opinions on digital media and their culture. Instead, as time went on, I realized that most people I was talking to deemed my research topic to be extremely vague or not groundbreaking at all: some noticed the importance of an Internet connection only when it didn’t work, to then quickly realize they didn’t even know what they really wanted to use it for (Fig. 35); others were active content creators on different digital media platforms, yet didn’t have much to say about it: “Yes, feel free to use my photos. As for your questions, I would love to help you, but I really don’t have any opinion, I don’t want to disappoint you” (ZuoYou, May 2014, Shanghai).

Eventually, I didn’t use one any of my friend’s photos, and his opinions – even if articulated in small talk rather than formal interviews – kept informing my writing over the years. When I last saw him in Shanghai a few months ago, we spent an entire dinner talking about livestreaming apps.


Figure 35, which appears at the bottom of the page, is a composite of screengrabs from social media posts made by another friend over a six-hour span during which her VPN (Virtual Private Network) software stopped working. Unable to access Facebook, she laments “the hopelessness of not being able to connect to the Internet” through a Chinese-language post on her WeChat account. When her VPN comes back online after a few hours, she writes an English-language post on Facebook noting how “have the network the but again don’t know what to do”. Besides the evident design similarities between the two platforms, and her decision to use different languages on each of them, this constructed image evokes the pragmatic use of software to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship while also resonating with a self-aware disenchantment about the feeling of purposelessness resulting from digital media use.

The page ends with the heading of section 4.2.1, “After digital media”. I clearly remember titling this section as a nod to Mark Hobart’s volume After culture: Anthropology as radical metaphysical critique. His use of the term “after”, in turn inspired by Johannes Fabian, is echoed by Florian Kramer’s definition of “post-digital” as

a contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets, or a period in which our fascination with these systems and gadgets has become historical […].

If page 99 of my dissertation manages to make a point about postdigital China, I hope it is the following: after digital media, there is more digital media.

de Seta, Gabriele. 2015. Dajiangyou: Media practices of vernacular creativity in postdigital China. PhD dissertation. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China.

free download of dissertation available here:

Mariam Durrani’s A Study on Mobility: Pakistani-origin Muslim Youth in Higher Education

Page 98-99 of my dissertation is the introduction to the fourth chapter of my dissertation. In this chapter, I organize my analysis on specific ‘encounters’, or instantiations of contact zones as part of my method to reframe migration processes as mobility. In so doing, my work broadens anthropological scholarship about how migration as mobility connects with gendered academic aspirations and culture-making for Pakistani Muslim youth, specifically focusing on education-driven migration.

During the first few weeks at the Pakistani college campus, the scholarship students, those moving from rural areas to the posh, manicured college campus in Lahore, experienced numerous moments of culture shock. Similarly, the journey from more conservative and Muslim-practicing home environments in the outer boroughs of New York City to NYPC’s Manhattan college campus entailed a similar kind of culture shock, particularly as students ‘carry’ with them mobility imaginaries from beyond the place-bound context. To ethnographically frame these moments of cultural shock/encounter, I refer to Pratt’s concept of “contact zones” to demarcate “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination” (1992:4). Contact zones are conceptualized to understand unequal relations of power between populations. For the students in Lahore, their geographical locations of origin are positioned on the peripheries of the Pakistani state, often from areas that have experienced the weight of the war against terrorism or from rural villages that do not benefit from the state’s urban development programs and policies. For students in NYC, their immigrant status and Pakistani cultural heritage contrasted with the American public city college they attended. Moreover, as students on financial aid, their material conditions poise them as less economically privileged than their upper middle class peers. Their socioeconomic status also determines their schooling background, their family histories, and several other indices that may heighten a sense of asymmetrical social relations. By considering an ethnography of encounters – here encounters with a cosmopolitan, urban set of imaginaries – we can extend our understanding of how unequal power dynamics interactively shape culture-making across sites of difference (Faier and Rofel 2014).

In this chapter, I discuss an incident of ethnic-based harassment faced by a participant on the Lahore campus. Pashtun freshmen students frequently are seen as minority students and can be identified based on their use of Pashto and/or sartorial choices and mannerisms. In this incident, Zahid’s experience of ethnic- based harassment offers an example of the more problematic encounters that can occur where the ethno-linguistic category of ‘Pashtun’ carries an additional set of identity categories, such as less urban and less cosmopolitan. While these students are physically mobile and have moved to Lahore, the stereotypic social personae of the Pashtun student compared to the Karachi-origin urban student can create social barriers that inhibit interpersonal mobility and communicative exchanges. These kinds of contact zones highlight the rural and urban (imagined) social types that are still very much observable. The more valuable or privileged social persona of Karachi-origin students often raise class-based anxieties for the Pashto-speaking youth, and vice versa Karachi-origin students, who might very well have their own village-to-city migration, are keen to highlight their cosmopolitanism. Similarly in NYC, I track Muslim student narratives about facing racially motivated encounters which have become especially worrisome in the last few years as anti-Muslim racism increased in the America. Other vignettes in this chapter follow such stories of encounter and how the diverse student populations in Lahore and New York City interpret these moments, manage their emerging identities in relation to structural power inequities that often marginalize migrant youth within and post-college, and negotiate difference and community-building in their respective urban locales.

My larger project argues that the rural to urban migration pattern and concomitant social imaginaries remained significant for both intra- and inter-national movements, here focused on the college campus as the primary contact zone. Through student narratives regarding their mobility aspirations, I analyze emergent and locale-specific discursive and embodied practices in relation to transnational, gendered, and piety-based markers of belonging. In this, I found that these practices often reified and critiqued traditional and modern forms of patriarchy. This study shows that how migration is but one part of larger subject-making processes observable among Pakistani-origin Muslim youth, allowing a deeper understanding of how transnational Muslim youth re-fashion their social identities and professional aspirations in the contemporary political and social climate.

Durrani, Mariam. 2016. A Study on Mobility: Pakistani-origin Muslim Youth in Higher Education. Phd dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Works Cited

Faier & Rofel. (2014). Ethnographies of Encounter. Annual Review of Anthropology, 43(1), 363–377.

Pratt. (1992). Arts of the Contact Zone. Profession: 33-40



Laura Bunting-Hudson’s The Art of the Hustle

While traditionally the neoliberal economic system has been characterized as one which militates against poor people and those that are oppressed, my research analyzes how ordinary people are using the political economy combined with resistance politics for their own advantages. This dissertation explores the political economy of rap music in Bogota, Colombia and how groups use diverse transnational business strategies in order to develop a new entertainment industry there. My work explores the social organizational strategies of multi-national rap polities, based in Bogota, as they utilize new forms of digital technology, and their street smart entrepreneurial skills to distribute popular music as well as to start horizontal business firms, in order to challenge the status quo within their communities.

On page 99, my dissertation is describing the ideology of many of the most successful rap groups in Bogota, Colombia. It illustrates the rappers counter-cultural system of values that comes from street codes one often finds in international street gangs. The rappers use these ideas in order to form a group of resistance artistic poets (rap) who believe in using the capitalistic system, forming a strong transnational network of Spanish rap elites and establishing businesses based on the groups ideology, in order to try to create societal change. In this section, I use FG Bailey’s concepts from political anthropology and Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. Combining these theoretical frameworks allows for the ethnographic data to reveal the way that games are played by the rap polities, to demonstrate how the groups are organized, form networks, maintain those orders and the threats that rap polities encounter, in their aims at garnering fame, money and societal power. The stated goals of many of the rap polities are to challenge the current political and economic elites in Colombia whom they believe are an oligarchical regime, that unjustly take advantage of the people and resources of Colombia. The rap artists believe that by forming their own businesses, being able to create social and political solidarity around the dissemination of their messages contained within their music through mass communications networks and working hard for progressive change, Colombia can become a more equal and just nation. This dissertation showcases the rap artists quest for this kind of greater equity and justice in Bogota, Colombia.
Bunting-Hudson, Laura. 2017. The Art of the Hustle: A Study of the Rap Music Industry in Bogota, Colombia. Ph.d. diss. Teachers College, Columbia University.