Inmaculada García-Sánchez on her Annual Review article

Kids in the middle

Recognizing the important role of children as cultural translators

Originally published:

Linguistic anthropologist Inmaculada García-Sánchez of Temple University studies child language brokers. It’s a term that might evoke an image of kids in sharply pressed business suits, but these kids are brokers in the sense that they arrange and negotiate transactions or conversations on behalf of immigrant family members and other community adults because, often, they speak the dominant language better than their elders.

Their work as language interpreters in their communities is key in business transactions, civic engagement, health care and even their own parent-teacher conferences, García-Sánchez has found. Writing in the Annual Review of Anthropology, she flips the idea that most of us have about children and caregiving. (García-Sánchez defines the term broadly as acting on the behalf of others.) In a discussion with Knowable, she says society should recognize that children are far from helpless and do more to care for others in their families and communities than we give them credit for. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview by Kendall Powell

Kendall Powell: Why should we pay attention to the caregiving that children do?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Giving care is a very complex process that involves many community members and resources — it is a community care network. As language interpreters, children are contributing to the smooth functioning of the institutions that serve their communities: banks, clinics, government agencies. The more we understand the role of children as caregivers and care facilitators, the better we’ll understand how caregiving truly works.

Kendall Powell: How did you get interested in studying children as translators?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: I’ve always been interested in multilingual communities, particularly immigrant communities that are undergoing rapid change linguistically and culturally. Children are at the forefront of those changes in their communities.

Child language brokering is not new — there are written accounts of children doing this in Canada and the US for their immigrant families in the late 1800s. But it has only received attention from anthropologists and sociologists since the 1990s.

There was this idea that children come by translation naturally, largely by mimicking adults.  But language translation is very complex — it contains linguistic and emotional complexity, and it involves managing everyone’s point of view. Sometimes the child is acting as an agent of an institution such as a health clinic, which adds the need to navigate the organization and a layer of social complexity. It’s not simply a natural-born thing!

Translation is really just the tip of the iceberg because it is the visible part. Children are also helping their parents compose emails or double-checking invoices for the family business.

Kendall Powell: How does child language brokering work?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: In immigrant communities, there are never enough official translators. So immigrants rely on an informal network of community members who are willing to do the interpreting. And children are playing a central role in that work.

“The idea that children are ‘helpless’ is quite modern, arriving around the time of the Industrial Revolution.”

Generally starting around age 8 or 9, children negotiate, mediate and translate for their families and other adults and for the institutions or services those adults interact with. This is something that hearing children of deaf parents also do.

Kendall Powell: How do children do this if they are also new arrivals?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: It’s a combination of factors. The rate of language acquisition in young children is going to outpace the parent — especially if they are immersed in the new language through school. It’s also important to note the availability of children. Adults in the community might be working two or three jobs, or they work three shifts of a job, so they are less available for translating help.

Kendall Powell: Isn’t that too much responsibility to put on a kid’s shoulders?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Everybody everywhere in the world recognizes that children are young, dependent and require a lot of help. But in post-industrial Western nations, we’ve sort of overdone this a bit. The idea that children are “helpless” is quite modern, arriving around the time of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle-class, nuclear family. In reality, the abilities of children, and what they should be allowed to do, varies across cultures and over time. For example, even in my mother’s generation in Spain, it was much more common for older siblings and child neighbors to do sibling or peer babysitting than it is today.

In modern times, families have become increasingly child-centric, with the idea that children shouldn’t be allowed to give care. It’s important, too, to note that the childhood that has become normalized is that of white, middle-class people. People tend to think of this “normal” childhood as what is natural and healthy. This is why they immediately characterize any work done by children as “unhealthy” and become outraged by it. But our “normal” childhood right now in the early twenty-first century isn’t necessarily better or healthier or leading to better outcomes than other types of childhood experiences.

Kendall Powell: Where is the line between what children should and should not do as caregivers, then?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: There is tension between children’s vulnerability and children’s competency as social actors. Both are very real. But for me, it’s a huge problem when child language brokering and other childhood experiences are pathologized. Yes, sometimes these situations are very extreme — such as a child translating between a parent and a doctor during an emergency. In my own studies, I have observed that in most high-stakes, stressful situations, adults recognized that child language brokering was not appropriate and they waited for an adult neighbor to help if they could.

But the vast majority of child language brokering is much more mundane and low-stakes. The child might help an adult order a pizza or fill out a permission slip for a field trip. Also, it is never just the child in these interactions, but rather a “performance team” that involves at least two adults along with the child. In my work studying child language brokering in Moroccan immigrants in Spain, I attended medical visits in which the doctor and the immigrant parent or family member followed along in the conversation and helped the child. Each person brings expertise to the team — the child knows the mainstream language, the doctor has medical knowledge, the immigrant adult has real-world knowledge.

Kendall Powell: Is child language brokering treated like any other household chore by immigrant families?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Yes! There is a lot of negotiation about this within families, just like telling your kid to mow the lawn. Some kids do it willingly and for others, it’s a huge battle. I find in my research that parents get upset when kids don’t want to do child language brokering. It is considered a contribution and seen as a larger responsibility toward the household that is good for the child’s development.

Kendall Powell: Do other positive things come from children doing child language brokering?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Shu-Sha Angie Guan, a developmental psychologist at California State University, Northridge, studied first- and second-generation immigrant college students who had done child language brokering as children. She found that the more brokering for parents that students had done, the better they developed transcultural perspectives, and students who performed more brokering for people other than parents had higher levels of empathy.

In my Moroccan immigrant study in Spain, one of the things that surprised me was how the children would do very tiny modifications in their translations in relation to racial stereotypes or misrepresentations of the Moroccan community’s culture. In one example in a pediatrician’s office, a Moroccan mother referred to spanking one of her children. The nine-year-old neighbor translated that the mother had merely reprimanded the child verbally. The children were aware of the widely circulated negative stereotypes and were inserting themselves to act as advocates and protecting their community from unwanted scrutiny. To me, children’s competency at reading the politics of the situation is mind-blowing.

Kendall Powell: What other surprises do you find with child language brokering?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: With Marjorie Orellana of UCLA, I studied Latino immigrant children in the US who were translating at their own parent-teacher conferences. There was an assumption that the kids would lie to make themselves look good in front of their parents.

But what we found was jarring. Every time I look at that data, I feel like crying. Not only were children not lying or making themselves look good, but all the praise that teachers were throwing their way was going untranslated. So parents were actually getting a worse report.

Kendall Powell: Why was that?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: One hypothesis is that children know that tooting your own horn is kind of narcissistic. So perhaps they were embarrassed to toot their own horn even via translation. Also, it could be that children pick up on the structure of teachers’ language — that teachers often use praise to soften the bad news part of the conference. Maybe they were just skipping to the meat, thinking, “The important part is that I’m doing poorly in social studies, not that I get along with my friends.”

Kendall Powell: You call children “active and competent caregivers.” What other types of care work are they doing?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: In my own research, I’ve seen that children care for each other all the time. They are usually very inclusive — we adults could learn from them. In immigrant peer networks, I’ve seen children organize games in such a way that it doesn’t matter if you just arrived in the new country or what your level of linguistic ability is. I observed children alternating songs for jumping rope between Spanish and Moroccan Arabic so that all could join in.

Kendall Powell: Does doing work like child language brokering make children more successful adults?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: I have not studied long-term outcomes, but I can tell you that when I’ve interviewed children about doing child language brokering, they feel good about working, accomplished and relaxed. They are also developing a sense of autonomy, initiative and empowerment — which ironically, are the things we all want our children to develop.

Jennifer Robertson on her new book, Robo sapiens japanicus

Interview by Daniel White

Daniel White: In addition to the variety of topics you have explored in Japan over your career, you have been researching and writing on robotics for more than a decade now. Given your work has long been noted not only for its archival rigor and ethnographic attention to detail but also for its accessibility, could you outline how you might describe this book’s main arguments to an audience full of the many roboticists you have spoken with over the years? Would you add anything else in addressing your anthropology colleagues once the interlocutors had left the room?

 Jennifer Robertson: My address to roboticists would be the same with or without anthropologists in the room, for the reasons that my book is aimed at a broad readership inside and outside of “the academy,” and that—at the risk of appearing immodest—all parties, roboticists and anthropologists included, could benefit from my observations. A key point I make several times in Robo sapiens japanicus (RSJ) is that roboticists and anthropologists researching robotics alike must guard against contributing to hyping gee-whiz robots and to exaggerating the virtues (and vices) of artificial intelligence. With perhaps the exception of iRobot’s Roomba and industrial robots already installed in factories, most robots aimed at non-military consumers are one-off prototypes and not viable, much less reliable, products. Amazing robot videos are heavily edited and speeded up, and the scenarios do not represent real-world conditions and applications.

Just this past month, articles and editorials have appeared in leading robotics journals that provide a reality check for roboticists. To summarize: overselling robot capabilities has proved to be a dangerous strategy resulting in the very recent shutting down of a number of companies whose robots were celebrated in the past several years as revolutionary household appliances. Jibo—Time magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2017”—mentioned in my book, was crowd funded on Indiegogo (for nearly $4 million) but the eponymous company never delivered their product and closed out this year. Roboticists (and, I might add, those who research, study, and write about robots) need to admit their failures and to reflect on how to learn from them.

 Daniel White: In the book you explore how “robots tend to both mirror and embody state and corporate ideologies and priorities” (p. 82). Can you discuss some of the ways these state ideologies contribute to the gendering of robots, especially considering how Japanese roboticists have long embraced theories and design strategies that explore intelligence as a necessarily embodied phenomenon?

 Jennifer Robertson: You’re asking two different questions: state/corporate ideologies and embodied intelligence. First of all, we should not assume that technology per se is liberating; technology can provide certain freedoms, but it can also be experienced as repressive and even alarming. Technology and robotics are not neutral fields. They are infused with values that transcend their usefulness and convenience. Because robots are very complex, very expensive machines, state and corporate funding is crucial for their development, and thus robots tend both to mirror and to embody state and corporate values, ideologies, and priorities which are conservative and tend to reinforce the status quo. As a sidebar note—robotics in the US is heavily supported by the Department of Defense, and today in Japan, robotics are incorporated into the lucrative weapons economy.

Embodied intelligence, as I elaborate in my book, refers to a dynamic coupling of a robot with its environment. Home/personal robots are envisioned as co-existing with humans in spaces designed for the human body, thus they should resemble humans. Among roboticists across national/cultural areas, there is a consensus that intelligence (however that is defined, and there are many working definitions) cannot exist in an abstract form but requires a material body. That material body is almost always gendered, and the gendering of robots is contingent upon what role the robot (humanoid, in this case) is imagined to assume. Since many human roles are gendered, and since most roboticists take for granted the sexual and gendered division of labor—females as homemakers occupying a domestic space, males as breadwinners occupying a public space—their robots are also gendered from the start at the design stage. In short, roboticists (the vast majority of whom are males who have neither taken classes in gender studies nor questioned the social construction of gender) inscribe and reinforce in their creations the binary sexual and gender(ed) status quo that remains for them self-evident. Even gender-neutral robots like Roomba tend to be named and gendered by their owners.

 Daniel White: You survey a number of ways that both robotics engineers and government officials imagine harmonious futures of people living intimately with robots, a notion that strikes some people both inside and outside Japan as somewhat creepy. However, particularly in your analysis of Masahiro Mori’s famous notion of the “uncanny valley,” you suggest that people exhibit a capacity to adapt rather quickly to any “eerie” feelings they may initially feel toward a robot. Can you say more about Mori’s concept and what your reading of its temporal dimensions implies for the politics of human-robot interactions in Japan and perhaps beyond?

 Jennifer Robertson: As I explain in RSJ, what is uncanny about the “uncanny valley” is how this idea has been misunderstood! Mori came up with the idea of bukimi no tani (“eerie-feeling valley”) in 1970 before the production of humanoids. In a nutshell, he proposed that a woman (he deliberately chose a female protagonist) who shook someone’s hand not knowing it was a life-like myoelectric prosthetic, would scream and freak out once she realized that what she assumed was flesh and blood was not. Mori drew a graph that hypothesized as a “valley” the shock of realizing that something one was convinced was an ordinary human was actually an animated mannequin. Subsequently, “uncanny valley” emerged as a condition to avoid in designing robots and was also appropriated by literary critics who grafted the concept onto Freud’s thesis of the uncanny (about which Mori knew nothing). As I argue, even if said woman screamed upon squeezing a prosthetic hand, she would quickly recover—in seconds. We humans encounter differently-abled, “differently” appearing bodies all the time, and quickly adapt to an enhanced “normal.” Perhaps ironically, Mori, who was a teenager during WW2, seems to have forgotten the disabled veterans in his midst, many of whom were fitted with prosthetic limbs. The literature debunking the earlier “natural law”-like acceptance of the uncanny valley hypothesis is now quite extensive.

Daniel White: In the text you skillfully weave together histories of technology, the life sciences, and art in illustrating how the boundaries between artificial and “natural” life in Japan are differently drawn. For example, in your discussion of the biologist Makoto Nishimura’s famous “proto-robot” Gakutensoku in 1928, you suggest that many scientists in Japan have long held the attitude that robots and humans exist “in a network of animate entities” (p. 13). This point seems critical to your broader discussion on how cutting-edge technologies can actually serve in the reproduction of tradition. I wonder, then, what happens to this particular cultural attitude as it comes into contact with certain globalizing aspects of robotics research and design in Japan, especially as researchers in Japan increasingly collaborate with students and researchers from abroad?

 Jennifer Robertson: Should “something” happen? The spiritual/existential orientations of individual roboticists, from Shintō’s animism and Buddhism’s moral system, to the Abrahamic monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, do not seem to affect the ways in which they collaborate in the laboratory. What inhibit “global” intersections and synergies are the constraints imposed by, to use an ever relevant phrase, the military industrial complex (aka the state). Moreover, collaboration with non-Japanese researchers (in Japanese and foreign laboratories) can yield innovations that can be applied and adapted to Japan-specific conditions and needs.

 Daniel White: Your ethnographic writing style has been incredibly consistent over the years, characterized, as you describe, by a “reticulate aesthetics” that is “eclectic, genre-crossing, discipline-crossing,” and held together by a coherence that “comes from the interlaced elements and not via the superimposition of a particular theoretical edifice” (p. 31). Given your own training in art and art history, as well as your illustration of how roboticists integrate artistic elements from manga, anime, and theater into their own design practices, were you ever tempted to experiment in terms of ethnographic design, such as by incorporating some of your own artwork? Could you discuss what role you see for artistic experimentation in today’s practices of ethnographic writing and the communication of anthropological research?  

 Jennifer Robertson: I see myself as creative in identifying and demonstrating montage-like linkages that generate a new awareness or interpretation of events and socio-cultural phenomena. That I am able to do so is because I have accessed and amassed over decades of rigorous, interdisciplinary research, lots of ethnographic, historical, literary, image-based, and musical data and media that are instrumental in crafting comprehensive backstories and generating manifold “dots” to connect. Among these data and media are artworks that evocatively address and redress the role(s) of technology in society. Thus, in RSJ, I refer to the work of Japanese feminist artist Miwa Yanagi (specifically, her photography series Elevator Girls, 1994-1999) and Korean-American artist Nam June Paik’s Robot K-456 (1964-1982). I do not simply include artworks as self-evident or as mere illustrations, but as a non-textual mode of interrogating, in this case, social applications of robotics and human-robot interactions. I did include one of my own collages in a recent article (“Looking Ahead by Going Back.” Anthropology News website, July 18, 2018) to illustrate Prime Minister Abe’s imagination of the future Japanese extended family, including its robot members. The bottom line for me (or my “approach”) is my fiduciary responsibilities as a scholar. I have always initiated a research project based on my experience or fathoming of rhetorical, expressive, local dynamics that intersect in ways to form distinctive patterns which inform the structure and content of a book or article. I do believe that there is a lot more that anthropologists can do to experiment with various literary strategies in crafting their ethnographies to create more dimensionality and texture in their description and (re)presentation of local phenomena. These include montage—my own use of which was informed by John Dos Passos, whose U.S.A. trilogy (1938) I read while writing my doctoral dissertation—as well as various typefaces and fonts, popular lyrics, and a variety of images from which information is extracted, to name a few. Reading more literature and less social science is critical in learning how to craft an ethnography!

 Jennifer Robertson is Professor of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan. Robo sapiens japanicus is available from the University of California Press.

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.