Katherine Verdery on her book, My Life as a Spy


Interview by Tim Gitzen

Tim Gitzen: You describe this book—and the process of reading your police file and writing the book—as part memoir. This is evident even in the title, My Life as a Spy. Can you unpack this title a bit more by way of introducing your book to our readers?

Katherine Verdery: The title came to me right after I began to read my file, and it stayed until the very end.  Most of my other book titles have had more than one iteration.  Originally I had “Spy” in quotation marks, but the press preferred it without.  That’s a significant change, since the quote marks made it clear that I was standing aside from that description even as I wrote it, but their argument was that it would make more interesting to leave open the question of whether or not I was “actually” a spy, helping to draw the reader along.

Tim Gitzen: One of the most striking aspects of the book is your incredible attention to detail, and I think much of that is owed to your impressive fieldnotes. From an archival standpoint, I’m interested in your fieldnote-taking and storing process, but I also want to ask about why you decided to write the book the way you did. Here I’m thinking about not only the structure of the book but also how you write each chapter, carefully weaving the police file, your fieldnotes from that time, narrative, and analysis together.

Katherine Verdery: The structure changed several times.  Initially it was in 3 parts with a Prologue and Epilogue: Fieldwork under Surveillance I, 1970s; Fieldwork under Surveillance II, 1980s; and Inside the Mechanisms of Surveillance.  Then I added the “Excursus” before Part III, to record some of my reactions to reading the file, but that left an awkward structure, so I put 1 and 2 into a new Part I (Research under Surveillance), divided the final chapter into two and made them Part II (Inside the Mechanisms of Surveillance), and separated the new Parts with the Excursus.  This gave it a symmetrical structure that I liked, a structure that also reflected my experience through time.

As for weaving the various bits of each chapter together (each one containing interviews, field notes, narrative, analysis, and parts of the file itself), I wanted the experience of reading it to be somewhat like my own process of doing it as a research project: you get bits from the file, it’s paired with narrative contextualization in the time of reading that file, then increasingly with analysis.  In a way, I wrote it to defy the organization of the file itself, which was chaotic and non-chronological.  The way I put things together helped me relate better to the self that was in that file.

When I was doing fieldwork in the 1970s and 1980s, I kept detailed fieldnotes—initially handwritten, then typed—and when I was working on the book I also kept more summary notes of the conversations I had with people.  Unlike my usual fieldnotes, these are dashed off by hand and unindexed, and whereas my usual fieldnotes are typed, used pseudonyms for people, were written in a kind of shorthand, and exist sometimes as a computer file, these final notes are scattered, handwritten, and pretty illegible.  Since the officers seem to have had little difficulty in deciphering my shorthand, I cannot claim that my actual field notes are well protected.  I will probably destroy the notes from this last “research” (2008-2016).

Tim Gitzen: You talk about the mixture of feelings and thoughts you had about confronting or seeking out informants from the file and even some of the Securitate officers. You mention how determined you were to talk to them about their experiences, part investigation but also part cathartic. Can you say more about this experience and your strategies for seeking these individuals out and writing about what they had to say?

Katherine Verdery: First, let me respond to your word “strategies.”  This project took on a life of its own.  It did not begin with a research proposal for funding: it began with my being handed this mass of paper about which I knew absolutely nothing.  I did not “plan” this project, and “strategy” becomes an appropriate word only for my efforts to find the three officers I met at the end.  Much of the time I was just feeling my way.

The two principal informers I interviewed were opposite in that one had already revealed her informing to me even before I had the file, whereas it took me a long time to figure out the other.  With the first one, our conversations helped us to re-experience those moments in our friendship but also to show me what effects her encounters with the police had had on her.  I think her aim in agreeing to talk about it was to exculpate herself as much as possible while still being believable and showing what the whole experience was like for her.  Even now, she cannot think of herself as an informer.

With the second informer, my motivations were somewhat different.  I found myself furious with him as I read his notes—so intrusive, so revelatory, so contrary to the spirit of what I thought our relationship was about.  Basically, I wanted to tell him off.  But I forced myself to start the conversation in a neutral mode, and it quickly became interesting as he described the process of his recruitment and his ambivalent relation to the officer he served.  When we finished, we both felt huge relief—he because he had been able to explain himself and apologize, I because his account was very illuminating and I was grateful for the length of time he took with me.

I should note that I did not tape record either interview but took notes by hand as we spoke.  The idea of tape recording was still too sensitive for people raised in that society.

Tim Gitzen: Perhaps one of the more surprising parts of the book is your candid discussion of sex and sexuality during fieldwork and how this was being monitored and even leveraged by the Securitate. In this era of the Me Too movement, I was hoping you could speak more to your strategy in writing and including these discussions in the book, the choices you made and reasons for making them.

Katherine Verdery: Here the word “strategy” is appropriate.  Reading my file, I realized how unbelievably irresponsible I had been in the use of my body, and as the book progressed I began to see it as possibly a book about research methodology.  Precisely because such works rarely talk about sex in the field, I thought it might be useful for students to hear what choices I made and why they were mainly a bad idea.  It’s too easy for young people heading off to the field to put their sexual behavior in some compartment other than that of their work, yet it can have significant effects on the people who become implicated in it.  So my reason for including that stuff was pedagogical.  At this point in my life, I don’t have to maintain my dignity any more, so I thought I might just try to be useful to future researchers.  But to the extent that I also saw this book as a record of my experiences in the field, that material was quite important to them.

Tim Gitzen: Throughout the book you allude to resonances the Securitate practices and your experiences have with contemporary security and surveillance practices. What are some of those connections? How do the logics, practices, and experiences you describe in your book speak to the broader security/surveillance-assemblage today? And what advice would you give those either working on topics of surveillance or faced with the possibility of their own secret police file?

Katherine Verdery: The resemblances are not particularly strong, if you think of Securitate surveillance practices as mainly “labor intensive,” whereas what we are experiencing now are “capital-“ or “technology intensive.”  The former relies on making tremendous use of human relationships, the latter does not.  It is a significant difference.  I think the logics and the costs of the two styles are highly divergent.  The main thing my experience shares with today’s is that both means of surveillance produce a much greater amount of information than can be meaningfully mined—more so in the case of high-tech surveillance.  It’s the only thing that keeps me from wanting to slit my wrists.

As for people facing their own secret police file, one of the people I quote in my book is a Romanian historian, Radu Ioanid, who writes, “I don’t advise anyone to confront their Securitate file. It is an absolutely personal decision, difficult and not without consequences.  For me, at least, reading my file was traumatic.”  I can say from experience that a person standing on the threshold of reading their surveillance file has absolutely no clue what it will do to them.  This book took me longer to write than any of the other seven books I’ve published, because arriving at a sense of clarity was so hard-won.  Anyone thinking of doing this should read my book first!

Goodwin and Cekaite on their book, Embodied Family Choreography

Embodied Family Choreography: Practices of Control, Care, and Mundane Creativity, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover


Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

YJB: In arguing that the family as a social institution is achieved through intercorporeal co-ordination among family members in their lived and embodied everyday practice, you draw on data from middle-class US families and middle-class Swedish families. I was wondering about your motivation underlying the selection of these two populations. While you touch upon cultural difference when discussing general metadiscourses, you don’t seem to distinguish interactional data of each country throughout the analysis. If you are more concerned with the universal aspect of haptic sociality in family life, why did you choose the US and Sweden and what occurred as unexpected or interesting discoveries for you in examining these two countries?

MHG and AC: We will briefly outline the history of the project of Center for Everyday Lives of Families. Kathleen E. Christensen, Program director of the Workplace, Work Force and Working Families program funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, contacted Elinor Ochs to see if she would be interested in establishing a research group to study how middle class American families balance work and family. Elinor established an interdisciplinary group at UCLA and recommended that research collaborators be contacted at two other sites (Sweden and Italy), where there was also an established interest in documenting everyday family life through video recording. Karin Aronsson in Sweden and Clotilde Pontecorvo in Italy became partners in the endeavor. For the US sample some parents were first-generation Latin American, European, or Asian immigrants. Two of the thirty-two US families were headed by gay parents. Both parents in the US sample worked in professions ranging from dentistry, law, and medicine to education, social work, administration, and film dubbing.

We were interested in discovering characteristic features of family life as fully embodied, that is, as corporeal, and our focus and approach was inductive. As part of the inductive, discovery-based approach we outlined the recurrent practices of embodied family choreography in both cultural contexts – practices that in some ways are similar and in some ways vary. Portrayal of discovered similarities can provide an inspiring way of finding the common features of human sociality — the interest put forward by anthropologists such as Charles Goodwin (see for instance his book Co-operative Action, 2018) and Webb Keane on ethics and morality in Ethical Life, 2016. For instance, the interactional organization of hugs, as well as haptic shepherding, is found not only across our two data sets, but has been since documented in various studies on the use of touch in other cultural and institutional contexts as well. Concerning the differences, as mentioned above, we did not engage in an a priori comparative approach, but culturally specific features are pointed in our conclusion. There we discuss such issues as how children in Swedish middle class families are fostered into moral accountability through activity contracts, and how the directive sequences in Swedish data are formulated in a rather robust manner – starting with initial interrogatives and only later, upon noncompliance, are transformed into haptic shepherding. Such organization can be interpreted in terms of the child-orientedness of Swedish society, where children’s agency (and the possibility of making their own choices) is foregrounded. However, we can also see that compliance needs some persuasion, and embodied practices. While haptic shepherding is found in American directive sequences as well, the directive trajectories are not organized in the same way.

YJB: The attention of the book to simultaneous mutual monitoring as well as to sequential trajectories is compelling in studying emergent meaning-making among family members. At the same time, you argue that embodied adult-children and sibling interaction constitute family habitus (pp. 4, 250) and family ethos (pp. 19, 256) through inculcating socially accountable ways of bodily techniques (pp. 13, 258). I appreciate your point that emergent phenomenological experience is situated in and contributes to the broader social order. Would you elaborate more on your ideas about the investigation of everyday interactional processes of ethos and habitus?

MHG and AC: Shaping children as particular kinds of social inhabitants and actors in the family, that is as members who are responsible and accountable, involves “getting things done.” Directives provide the central locus for constituting local social order in the midst of managing or orchestrating routine tasks in the family (hygiene, cleaning, getting dressed, homework). Different choices among various directive and other communicative practices create different types of social actors, social organization and alignments. Negotiations in response to parental directives can take different forms and display a range of alternative sequencing patterns, resulting from factors such as the type of directive given, accounts or reasons given for the directive, and next moves to the directive, as well as the facing formations of participants and stances or affective alignments that participants maintain vis-à-vis one another. As often the activities parents propose are ones that children like to postpone, examination of directive/response trajectories allows us to see how children agentively and creatively orient themselves to a project, stalling and otherwise attempting to derail it, and parents’ responses to such maneuvers. Different types of moral actors are co-constructed through displays of reluctance and resistance, in contrast to willingness to carry out routine courses of action.

YJB: The book draws on video data in order to explore visual, aural, and haptic aspects of family interaction, and I liked the inclusion of drawings of the scenes and spectrograms of pitch and voice quality. For instance, it was fascinating to see the co-occurrence between hug and creaky voice (p. 150), and format tying not only in terms of morphosyntactic forms (p. 202) but also in terms of pitch (p. 88). While the family interaction as well as fieldwork experience is multisensory, the manifestation of data in a written form primarily relies on the visual channel. I was wondering what was particularly challenging during your research given the limitation on the data exposition.

MHG and AC: The process of analysis requires to attend to both the verbal modality, where various sensorial aspects (participants’ sensations) can be verbalized and articulated (‘your breath stinks’) and the visual. However, the interpretation of the emergent and detailed character of sensorial corporeal aspects of family choreography are also made possible by numerous and repeated viewings of video recordings. Interpretation of course also involves our own previous corporeal experiences. Visual representations helped us to provide a richer portrayal of embodied and spatial features of family encounters, and using many pictures which are integrated in the transcript (in the places where they occur in an interactional situation) is clearly an important way of presenting the reader with at least visual representations of haptic encounters. Taste smell are, however, not accessible.

YJB: While the book argues that family identity is not given but created through “doing family” (p. 257), the families examined are basically composed of adult parents and young children. It seems as if a certain ideological family image is already shared among western countries, and I was wondering why you chose this family type and this phase of family life in looking into the tension between control and care as well as that between ordinary routine and creative exploration. In other words, what kind of social conditions and cultural ideologies of family are represented in your study and why it was beneficial to focus on these families?

MHG and AC: Our multi-disciplinary project focused on how dual earner middle class families manage the complexities of daily life, balancing parenting and work in the US and in sister projects in Europe. The psychologists in the project wanted to investigate a specific age group with at least two children. They wanted at one child to be at least eight years old. The US study included families of a range of ethnicities and two families were headed by gay dad couples. In Sweden, the absolute majority of families are full-time dual-earner families, and this cultural context provides well-established cultural ideologies of equal parenting responsibilities, an institutionalized early childhood care system, and a strong focus on children’s agentive participatory rights in arenas of social life, including family. In the US, there is greater diversity in how parenting is achieved; some families make use of directive trajectories which display hierarchy and authoritative control by parents, while others verge on being permissive, with children being more in control. Simultaneously, our study shows the complexity of daily life in family and the amount of work and negotiations – with multiple embodied resources – in handling everyday, very mundane tasks.

YJB: The book illustrates how children are socialized to moral personhood through collaborative embodied interaction among family members in a choreographed or orchestrated manner. While the practitioners’ ideological emphasis on individualism and child-centeredness may encourage child agency, it seems to me as if the book’s theoretical approach may as well contribute to the depiction of children’s agentive role. Everyone participates in an on-going interaction as equal participants through mutual monitoring and mutual meaning-making, and can affect the unfolding of interactional trajectories. I wonder whether you think the mutual monitoring is something everyone does or everyone has to do. In other words, what kind of moral person is projected by the theoretical framework itself through the ways of public display of data analysis?

MGH and AC: Goffman (1972:63) defined the social situation as “an environment of mutual monitoring possibilities, anywhere within which an individual will find himself accessible to the naked senses of all others who are ‘present,’ and who find themselves accessible to him.” In other words he was concerned with general principles of any encounter: the interdependent organization of mutual intersecting consciousnesses, inhabiting unfolding time together with the lived experiential world. Mutual monitoring is distinctive from collaboration or being accountable.

As we state early on in the book (p. 19), our concern is with examining family life and children and parents as “mutual apprentices” in routine embodied practices through which they act in co-operation with one another, building the social worlds they inhabit. We examine the active contributions of both children and parents to practices of control, caring and mundane creativity in specific social contexts and conditions for development. We find that parents are learning from their children as much as children learn from parents.


Anna Babel on her new book, Between the Andes and the Amazon


Interview by Diego Arispe-Bazan

Diego Arispe-Bazan: In between each chapter you feature ethnographic reflections that focus on the context of the city of Saipina (where you conducted your research), the people you spent time with there, including some with whom you are very close. Why did you choose this format to highlight those reflections, separate from the chapters themselves?

Anna Babel: The ethnographic interludes were bits of ethnographic writing that didn’t seem to fit with the themes I covered in the chapters, yet were essential to the way that I wanted to tell my story. I felt it was important to highlight the personal side of conducting research with people I have close relationships with and know very well. (This is a theoretical positioning that has drawn a lot of heat from reviewers over the years, so I know it’s an important one to keep hammering away at!) This is also a way of pointing to my consultants’ own stories and biographies and, as I say in the book, how these ideas that seem so very abstract can have quite real consequences for real-life people. One of the reviewers encouraged me to think of them as a story within a story, connecting with each other like a bridge or a web that draws the chapters together. I hope that is something that I managed to do. Also, I realized after I published the book that Bret Gustafson’s New Languages of the State uses a very similar structure, so perhaps there was some unconscious imitation going on there as well.

Diego Arispe-Bazan:  One of the most important interventions in your book, I would say, is the exploration of the sometimes contradictory ways in which people draw from the semiotic field to both perform and construe behaviors and objects as “authentic,” “traditional,” or “local.” You show how culinary choices, pants, and loan words from an indigenous language—which one might expect to be iconic of certain identities—are clustered and re-signified in unexpected ways. Can you say
more about this interplay between structure and its (re)articulation in interaction?

Anna Babel: Yes! Exactly what you said, social structures are both out there and apparently fixed, and also constantly in play and in interaction. It’s pretty neat that we, as human beings, can do this. People seem more invested in the contrasts or divisions between categories than they are in the nitty-gritty of exactly what belongs where, so sometimes things get classified in surprising ways. Rosalind Howard talks about this in her wonderful article “Pachamama is a Spanish word.” In the case of Saipina, my field site, people use loanwords that come from Quechua, Aymara, and Guaraní, but they’re often coded as local/traditional/authentic rather than as indigenous per se. The range of choices and interpretations of cooking and styles of dress is rather dizzying; but I never get tired of hearing people fight over whether plates like tojorí (cooked corn in milk, highland pronunciation) or tujuré (cooked corn in milk, lowland pronunciation) are authentically local or not. The fact that Saipina has this “in-between” positioning makes it the perfect place to negotiate category boundaries and what, exactly, gets included where. The main point that I make in the book is that no category exists in a vacuum; rather, it’s the contrasts and relationships between categories that people use to make meaning.

Diego Arispe-Bazan: Saipina’s in-between status, geographically and otherwise, allows for encounters between Bolivians who identify (and are identified) in various ways: cambas, collas, MASistas, Autónomos, and so on. In Chapter 5, you give examples of explicit discussions of indigeneity and belonging to indigenous groups, but throughout you give us rich accounts of how the sign-markers I mention in the previous question position individuals differently. How might this approach to notions of indigeneity help us rethink extant notions of race in the region?

Anna Babel: It feels kind of daunting to jump in to that discussion! I am always drawing on Marisol de la Cadena’s work, Andrew Canessa, Krista Van Vleet, and other scholars when I think about race and its fluidity and its connections with gender and class. Yet the way that people talk about race in the Andes doesn’t always fit well with the way that I experienced or interpreted it in Saipina. Language really stands out as an example of this; even people who claim to be Spanish monolinguals often know a lot of Quechua, and/or speak a variety of Spanish that is deeply structurally influenced by Quechua. Yet you have to have the right kind of social positioning in order to use that variety of Spanish, or it can blow up in your face. And, as we’ve seen elsewhere, people can simultaneously discriminate against others because of their racial or ethnic positioning and be discriminated against themselves in different contexts. I think you see
this really clearly in the stories of the young people who have migrated to urban centers and find themselves struggling to figure out where they belong. They’re Spanish speakers who probably wouldn’t identify as indigenous, yet they are racialized and treated as bumpkins in the city because of the way they talk, dress, eat, and so on.

Claims to language and ethnicity are constantly being evaluated against other kinds of
positioning – political, styles of dress, and so on. People use different combinations of signs to position themselves from moment to moment or from year to year, depending on what their goals are and what they think they can get away with. I guess what I’m trying to say, as above, is that race is never just about race, just as language is never just about language. It’s all about comparing how everything fits together, and what stands out.

Diego Arispe-Bazan:  You bring in lyrics from popular songs as well as visuals from their music videos to pair with your ethnographic data at different points in the book. How did you come across them? Did your interlocutors point them out to you or were they playing on the radio, in your media sphere? I was intrigued about the possible linkages between these instances of entextualization of particular gender and language ideologies and what kind of reception they received in Saipina.

Anna Babel: Nick Emlen pointed out in his review of the book in Anthropological Linguistics that I also use a lot of jokes as data in my book! The songs on the radio, the jokes, and other bits of popular culture that I draw on were very much in circulation in Saipina during my research. Back before cell phones were widespread, everyone listened to the radio nonstop, and there was really only one station that got good reception across town, so we all listened to the same songs all day long. People thought the Patas Kjarkas song (about a young woman who migrates to the city), which I discuss in Chapter 8, was pretty hilarious. It really touched something about the zeitgeist of Saipina at that time. Honestly, people love to laugh, and they often embed elements of social and political satire into their jokes.

The other two songs and the music videos were things that I came across later, when people started posting on social media, Facebook and YouTube. My perception is that the vastly greater access to those “new” media really fractured the unity of the experience that I observed in pre-Internet Saipina. But of course it brought new possibilities with it, too; interacting with people long-distance via WhatsApp, sharing memes, Facebook pages, and so on. One of my younger consultants was showing me a series of videos on YouTube that he had downloaded to his cell phone, back when the Internet was really slow, and I asked him:  “How long did it take you to download these?” “Oh, not long,” he answered, “Maybe an hour or so” — for a three-minute video! Anyway, it just goes to show that people are still sharing and circulating bits of popular culture, just in different ways.

Diego Arispe-Bazan: The political divide between MASistas and Autónomos is one of the crucial axes of identity-making in contemporary Bolivia. However, you also mention that instances of political violence in the past inform people’s perceptions of contemporary political affiliation, especially those who lived through them. How are these trajectories discussed among people in Saipina? And thinking about the semiotic field, how do Sapineños themselves openly discuss the processes by
which circulating metapragmatic evaluations of sign-markers of belonging in general (since you show that political affiliation is imbricated in other aspects of identity) become enregistered over time?

Anna Babel: That’s a tough question that deserves a multi-part answer. Regarding politics, I’ve always been fascinated by stories of the hacienda days, when my older consultants lived in conditions of essentially forced labor, with no rights to land ownership. Land ownership in particular has been a really difficult issue; the 1952 Agricultural Reform Act is still being fought out in the area around Saipina. Only a few years ago a group of agricultural workers brought a lawsuit against one of the large landowners that they eventually won. This is a very touchy subject; even people who are generally in favor of social reform don’t like the idea that it could be their land that is taken away from them. Another touchy subject is drug circulation and processing; that’s been an economic reality in the Saipina area for a good thirty to forty years, on and off, and obviously it’s closely connected to Bolivian politics. So I think there’s not only political violence in the past, but the legacy of past policies in the present that affects people.

I’m not sure that people in Saipina would discuss signs and belonging in exactly the words that you chose, but they definitely get at these topics through jokes and gossip (two of my favorite genres). I think that’s what people mean when they joke about two collas crossing the river Piraí and then the first one trying to prevent the second one from getting out of the water, saying “Go back where you came from!” And it’s certainly there when people make fun of migrants picking up different styles of speech, whether it’s the Eastern lowland camba dialect or peninsular Spanish from Barcelona. It’s also one of the things that underlies discussions of authenticity or lack thereof; people are constantly picking out signs and evaluating whether they fit and why. At the same time, it’s easier for me to see the changes since I dip in and out as a researcher; I can look back at my recordings or my field notes and see that oh, so-and-so said or did something completely different back in 2008. That gives me a different perspective than
people who are living and experiencing micro-shifts in social positioning on a daily or a weekly basis, where things seem more gradual and less noticeable.