Francis Cody on his book, The Light of Knowledge

Interview by Rachel Howard

What was your main goal in writing about literacy activists in Tamil Nadu? And how did your goals change as you learned more about the site?

I had gone to do research on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu with a deep interest in language and political economy.  My graduate education was fueled by the theoretical energy that had gathered around both questions of language ideology and postcolonial studies.  It struck me that studying a movement that promised to deliver enlightenment to the marginalized through written language would enable me to address some of the big questions about power, the materiality of language, and temporality that we were wrestling with at the time.  More specifically, knowing that Tamil is a language shaped deeply by diglossia, I went to study how learning the written variety was meant to empower people.  I sensed a paradox of sorts in a practice that required people to learn a new register of their own language in order to free themselves.  But my goals quickly changed when I realized that the difference between written and rural spoken varieties was perhaps not so important in a context where simply teaching people how to write their own name was such a major effort, and where the literacy movement had also reflected upon its own practice so much in its transition from being a revolutionary movement of sorts to becoming a partnership with government. The literacy had also become a women’s movement, somewhat unexpectedly.  So, following the lead of my interlocutors, I became much more interested in the practice of activism itself.  New and more interesting questions about writing and embodiment, as well as questions about the very practice of mobilizing rural, lower caste women, who are often thought of as the most subaltern, arose from the ethnography as a result.

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Michael Prentice’s Ranks and Files

My dissertation explored how corporate hierarchies are embedded within genres of communication in South Korea. I conducted fieldwork in the headquarters of one of Korea’s largest domestic steel conglomerates where I followed how top managers across expert departments controlled subsidiaries through different techniques. My main theoretical focus in the dissertation was connecting things happening in the “office,” like making PowerPoints and holding meetings, with our understanding of the nature of corporate entities themselves. Following how different departments drew on documents, systems, and projects, as modes of control, I made the broader claim that organizational borders take shape around the categories and pathways traced in different genres.

Page 99 interestingly lands directly on what I called the “pig’s feet” incident. It is one of a few places in the dissertation where I discuss hoesik (sounds close to “way chic”), one of the most visible genres of corporate culture in Korea. Hoesik refers to after-hours eating and drinking between coworkers or partners. The event at hand took place between two Human Resources teams, one from the headquarters and the other from a subsidiary. We met at a famous pig’s feet restaurant off of a back alley somewhere in Seoul. I described how the event brought together two teams through conviviality and consumption in which the overt hierarchical relations between their organizations would be momentarily set aside. It was a generally gregarious time, until an abrupt moment in which a mid-ranked manager from the subsidiary team brought up work. He lamented that the headquarters team made too many requests at the last minute. Interestingly, he directed this to the junior-most member from the headquarters, Ki-ho, who was responsible for collecting files from the subsidiaries. It was a strange encounter: Ki-ho was socially subordinate (in rank) but pragmatically superior (in terms of files). In the chapter, I used this incident to discuss the tension between rank hierarchies (which are made very explicit across speech, writing, and behavior), and organizational hierarchies (which are embedded into modes of knowledge production or even occluded altogether, like in group encounters). Hoesik is normally considered a domain outside of formal work itself, but I argue it was one social genre tied to a broader reorganization of corporate relations between the headquarters and subsidiaries.

Michael M. Prentice. 2017 “Ranks and Files: Corporate Hierarchies, Genres of Management, and Shifting Control in South Korea’s Corporate World.” Phd. Dissertation, University of Michigan.

Michael Prentice is currently a research fellow in the Digital Trust & Security program at the University of Manchester where he is researching cybersecurity issues in cross-cultural workplaces. His book manuscript explores how changes to reform historical issues of hierarchy in the Korean workplace are channeled through changes to communication and interaction. He received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Michigan in 2017. You can reach him by email at

Dev Nath Pathak on his new edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia

CaMP Anthropology blog recognizes that information about books from some regions circulate more widely than books from other regions.   To do our part in rectifying this inequality, we asked Dev Nath Pathak to discuss the analytical interventions his new edited volume offers to our field.

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by Dev Nath Pathak

Max Weber was right when he perceived the powerful role of intuitive notions in scientific pursuits. A quest for culture and politics, their interface, and hermeneutic significance, in the chequered cartography called South Asia indeed solicits unbridled intuition. Following this, it could be said that our edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia: Performative Communication, published by Routledge (India) is a consequence of conceptual flirting and empirical lusting. It contains several bouts of intuition provoked by the soliloquies of individual scholars as well as conversations among them. And what does it seek to know– what is South Asia, if seen through the prism that collapses the binaries of power and performance, politics and culture, structures and meanings? Indeed the binaries do not exist, and never existed, insofar as it was about what we become though our diverse performances. We become citizens as we participate in the electoral performances, we become ethnos as we participate in festivities in rites of passage, we turn objective as we perform our own empirically sound researches and we are deemed deviant as we enact the Dadaist idea of anything goes. Even though we recognise that the format in which we play our roles entails binaries of good and bad, black and white, oppressor and oppressed, and even bourgeoisie and proletariat- we are performing with the complexity of Bourdieu’s habitus. Our being and doing are too finely intertwined to be viewed in separation. Often one thought that in a controlled performance in a proscenium theatre, the power relation is indubitably clear. Was it so? The relation of the scripted and the scripting always sprang surprises on us. It is just like the relation between structure and agency in theoretical discussions in social sciences, which cannot be mistaken for a linear, zero-sum power game. It is complex and fluid, despite the institutional determinacy and structural clarity most visible. This is very much what Emile Durkheim shows, that the normal and pathological stride together. Continue reading

Brooke Duffy on her new book, (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love

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Interview with Ilana Gershon

In your book, you persuasively argue that the social media producers you studied are not dupes conned into promoting others’ brands, but rather are involved in a system that provides “dubious reward structures”  (221) for producing this kind of social media content.   What does your book reveal about the dubious reward structures that shape the ways in which these people labor?

On a near-daily basis, I come across media/pop culture articles that hype social media-enabled “dream jobs” and celebrate the lifestyles of  (pro) bloggers, Youtubers and Instagrammers. These individuals are the beneficiaries of the social media economy’s seemingly meritocratic talent system and its most dazzling prize: a career where you can “get paid to do what you love.” However, the cultural fascination with digital fame draws attention away from a much larger class of social media content creators who aspire to turn their talents into a lucrative, and fulfilling career. They produce creative content (often repackaged to flow across platforms) and promote themselves in earnest. But, of course, only a few achieve such staggering fame and entrepreneurial success.

The book focuses on the feminized creative industries—including beauty, fashion, styling, and design—and most of the social media producers I interviewed were young women. I learned from them that investments in time, energy, and even money serve as prerequisites for success in these fields. Certainly, it takes strategy, creative vision, and dedication to build up one’s digital brand: creating and editing content, ratcheting up followers and likes, generating “buzz.” All of these activities require sufficient leisure time: amassing—and maintaining—tens of thousands of followers is no easy feat.

Aspirants, moreover, are encouraged to attend industry events and parties (scholars describe this necessary networking as “compulsory sociality”) and participate in various kinds of instruction/training (I recently came across this how-to guide) to prepare themselves for an imagined future. There’s even a summer camp for aspiring YouTube stars! These activities require sufficient economic—and often social—capital, so it’s important to keep in mind the role that class plays in shaping content creators’ opportunities.  Time and money are necessary to stage, shoot, and edit visual content. One of my interviewees explained that while the blogosphere is “a free domain,” it requires various resources: “You’re really spending your money on clothes and your camera equipment, and I know some people hire photographers…”

Despite these preconditions of economic, social, and aesthetic capital (looking the part!), I reject the “cultural dupe” argument (that is, the argument that people are unwittingly exploited). After all, the promises of the aspirational labor system propel the activities of so many of us (in the epilogue, I draw comparisons to the work we do as scholars in the digital era). In the popular imagination, at least, any of us can vie for success.

What I find especially concerning about the current aspirational economy is the extent to which it requires us to keep consuming and promoting—all while producing new content that ultimately benefits retail brands and platform owners. This lopsided system amounts to what Andrew Ross described as a “jackpot economy.” Model workers, Ross argued, are obliged to be “self- directed, entrepreneurial, [and] accustomed to precarious, nonstandard employment”—all in the hopes of “producing career hits.” Yet as with any jackpot, the “glittering prizes” are won by only “the lucky few.” The system succeeds both despite—and because of—profoundly highly lopsided nature.

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