Jane Goodman on her book, Staging Cultural Encounters

book cover perspective

Interview by Janina Fenigsen


Janina Fenigsen: You’ve written a fascinating account of the 2016 US tour of the Algerian theater troupe Istijmam, which was sponsored by the Center Stage program of the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. How did you come to be involved with this tour? More broadly, what led you to study Arab Algerian theater after writing a first book on Berber/Amazigh music (Berber Culture on the World Stage: From Village to Video)?

Jane Goodman: As I discuss in the book, Algeria underwent a very difficult period in the 1990s, referred to as the “Dark Decade.” That period of conflict escalated during my doctoral research, when I was working in a Kabyle Berber mountain village. I had to leave Algeria at the end of 1993, when it became unsafe for me to remain and unsafe for the village to continue hosting me. When I was ready to return to Algeria in 2008, I was not given permission by the US Fulbright program to go back to the Kabyle region, as it was still considered too dangerous. I had good research and personal connections in the western city of Oran, and it was among the safest areas of the country. For those reasons, I decided to change regions. At the same time, in my earlier research (both ethnographic and archival) I had noticed that Algerians had long been practicing amateur theater, and I was curious about what contemporary theater troupes were doing. Oran is the city where Algeria’s renowned playwright, the late Abdelkader Alloula, had been based (and where he was tragically assassinated in 1994).  I was fortunate to have had a personal introduction to the Istijmam Culturelle theater troupe, which included several members of Alloula’s family and was working in his legacy. Istijmam was only in its second year of existence at the time, but they were already invested in working in an experimental or laboratory mode. The actors were open to me being present for their rigorous daily rehearsals. To them, my engagement was another way for them to experience other disciplinary perspectives and approaches. During my stay in Oran in 2008-2009, I also carried out research with several other troupes (which I’ve written about elsewhere). Fast forward a couple of years: I saw an announcement flash by on email that the Center Stage program of the US State Department was inviting nominations of music and theater troupes from Algeria and Tanzania, the program’s featured countries in 2016. I nominated Istijmam, and when they were accepted, I knew instantly that I wanted to write about the tour. The book unfolds very much in relation to the tour itself: I take up the play Apples that they presented, the historical context of the early 1990s when the play was written, the actors’ engagement with the play some 25 years later, and the genre of the Algerian “halqa” or marketplace theater that inspired both the playwright Alloula and the troupe. I also write about our process as we translated the play from Arabic to English, and, of course, about the various encounters that took place with a range of US audiences on the tour itself.

Janina Fenigsen: You discuss the scenarios of cultural exchange encounters as heavily scripted genres that create “a sense among participants that they have seen it all before”—both comfort and constraint—while noting the potential for a space of critique to open up. You also say that to the members of the troupe, the tour was somewhat disappointing. To what extent and in what ways in their engagements with American publics were they able to break out of the script? Was this particular script more difficult to shake off than those of their other tours? Did they feel that they were able to open up a space of critique at all? if so, in what ways?

Jane Goodman: In the book, I developed the idea of scenarios of cultural exchange from Diana Taylor’s work on scenarios as repertoires of scripted encounters that tend to unfold in similar ways time and time again. I saw this tour as situated within a decades-old scenario of cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy through the arts, which has been informing artistic exchange since at least the early 20th century (and even earlier, if we want to include the worlds’ fairs). As a form of “soft diplomacy,” these exchanges are based on the premise that encounters at the interpersonal level can “scale up” to become signs of good will between nations. The Center Stage program, formed under President George W. Bush, was envisioned as a way to provide a softer, friendlier view of America to countries where populations did not necessarily see the US in a positive light. Yet the scenario of cultural exchange entails a familiar repertoire of encounters or social roles through which the tours are structured, such as meet-and-greet events, classroom visits, workshops, or panel discussions. It relies on all participants knowing the script. Whereas the tours are structured around valorizing cultural difference, in fact, as genres of encounter they are deeply familiar. Although the cultural content itself may be different, the encounters through which a cultural exchange tour unfolds are similar worldwide. If they weren’t, it would not be possible to orchestrate a tour like this successfully. So this is the paradox I take up in the book: Cultural exchange tours are organized around a premise of cultural difference, but in fact they require deep familiarity on all sides with the performances associated with genres of encounter.

As to whether this script was more difficult to “shake off” than some of their other tours, I think that Istijmam felt that they were on display as cultural others more in the United States than they had felt during their work in Europe. In Europe, they were involved in producing an original work with troupes from France and Germany. Participants from the three countries were co-eval: they were all working together in a process of co-creation. But, in the US, Algerians were framed as representing Algerian culture and Algerian theater, but the Americans were not framed as representing American culture or American theater (with one happy exception). Instead, the Americans were, by and large, consuming what the Algerians had to offer, whether it was the play or, especially, the workshops. This was often frustrating for the actors.

Janina Fenigsen: You point to this disparity in part through the term “celebratory otherness.” There is a rich irony at the heart of the “celebratory otherness” that you describe as underpinning the paradigm of cultural exchange. While in the Center Stage promotional materials for the US audiences the untranslated language tokens of halqa and goual emphasize and evoke the folklorized otherness, the traditions and rehearsal discipline of Brecht’s and Grotowski’s “poor theater” that are at the heart of Istijmam’s practice seem to be erased. How does it work for the members of the troupe themselves? Do they view their blending of Algerian street theater and European performance principles and philosophy as an example of a cultural encounter in its own right? As an evidence of shared human experience? Something else?

Jane Goodman: I drew the term celebratory otherness from Rupert Stasch to refer to the ways figures of cultural difference become marked as folklorized forms of pleasurable consumption. Artistic traditions such as music and theater are among the most common ways that figures of celebratory otherness circulate globally. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong about enjoying other artistic traditions. But celebratory otherness tends to erase more problematic forms of difference. US audiences could see Istijmam’s colorful dress and joyful music making in the streets of New York, but they did not see the difficulty one member had in obtaining a visa to the US. They did not see the behind the scenes labor that the troupe engaged in to be able to create theater with little support in Algeria. The troupe members did seek to make Algerian theatrical traditions known in the United States, and they did want to talk about these traditions with US audiences. At the same time, however, they wanted to learn about what US troupes were doing. This was where the encounters in the US fell short. The Algerians were the only ones understood to be sharing culture.  This made the exchange unequal and incommensurate and is part of what contributed to their being cast in terms of celebratory otherness. Celebratory otherness is one of the systemic, historically shaped ways that the global north has viewed the global south. This is not to say that this was the only way the troupe was seen, but it was certainly part of it, as it is part of the wider scenario of cultural exchange through the arts.

As for Istijmam’s blending of Algerian street theater and European performance principles and philosophy, you are right to suggest that the troupe members also viewed this as an encounter. I write about the ways that their rehearsals in Algeria brought together the space of halqa, or improvisational marketplace performance, with Brechtian principles of identification and distanciation. They saw both of these as evoking a similar kind of space, an example of shared human experience if you will. To them (as well as to the playwright Alloula), Algerian halqa-style performance had been operating for centuries through performance techniques that Brecht, much later, would term identification and distantiation. That is, the street performer would go into and out of multiple roles, identifying with one character and that moving out of that character to go into another. Istijmam adopted this style of performance in their own work, with each actor playing multiple roles. They also brought to halqa theater the embodied discipline they drew from the work of Jerzy Grotowski, which very much influences their brand of physical theater.

Janina Fenigsen: How might the Istijmam actors script the tour and cultural exchange events it involved if given an opportunity? How would you?

Jane Goodman: I imagine Istijmam’s ideal tour as consisting of similar kinds of engagements (performances, workshops, theatrical exchanges), but the balance of activities would have been different. On the tour itself, the performances of the play, followed by audience talk-backs, went well on the whole. Certainly the play would have remained a central part of any tour. But the actors and I would have liked more conversation around it. If the scheduling could have been done in reverse, such that Istijmam would have first presented the play, and then gone into a classroom presentation able to talk with students about it, that would have made for a richer exchange. We all understood that scheduling constraints made this impossible. In fact, even at my own university, the conversations and panel discussions came first, and the play was the last item on the agenda, due to scheduling and travel needs. The exchanges with theater troupes could have been done differently. What performance theorists call emergence – that sense of unexpected, creative novelty that performance can generate – is part of what the actors were looking for. The closest engagement that featured a balanced, two-way, emergent cultural exchange came with the Hartbeat Ensemble, as I write about. Here, the troupes co-created improvisational scenes and participated together in a panel discussion on theater in times in crisis. But it was a brief encounter. The actors would have loved to return and spend focused time with a theater troupe in the US to develop a truly cross-cultural co-creation, as they had done in Europe.

Janina Fenigsen: I view your book as an excellent teaching resource, even more so when paired with the video of the play and guided by your notes that collate the text with the portions of the video. What kind of student audience would you envision for the book? What would you like the students to get out of its reading?

Jane Goodman: I wrote the book with my students in mind. I regularly teach about performance in North Africa and the Middle East, and my students come alive when they see video of the material we’re discussing. Usually I have to do my own searches to find audiovisual support for what we’re reading about. I wanted to include this material in the book itself, so from the beginning I envisioned a multimedia project. The e-version of the book includes embedded hyperlinks where readers can go directly to the specific video they are reading about. Readers of the hard copy can find these links on the book’s website . The website also includes two performances of Istijmam’s play Apples, around which the book is based. For a full multimedia experience, instructors can screen and discuss the play (60 minutes)and then have students read the book and view the associated videos. The website also provides more information about the troupe and the six actors, and it includes ancillary footage both from the tour and from the rehearsal residency the troupe and I held in Algeria in the month before the tour.

Another reason I wanted to do this project is because I felt that students could relate to it. Much of the ethnography took place among students just like them in the United States. Universities are among my field sites: the book engages with students from the University of New Hampshire, Sarah Lawrence College, Yale University, the University of St. Joseph, and Indiana University. Students today have almost all experienced performances by travelling groups from abroad. Students can also relate to the six Algerian actors, who, like them, are young people with similar hopes and aspirations. I anticipate that future student readers will recognize themselves (as participants or audience members) and their own institutions (as hosts) in cultural exchange tours like this one. My hope is that readers will come to a deeper understanding of some of the systemic global imbalances that underpin cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy through the arts (despite the very best of intentions on all sides), and to reflect on their own positionalities within a broader global arts community.

Elisabeth Barakos on her book, Language Policy in Business

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Interview by Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà

Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: “Language Policy in Business: Discourse, Ideology and Practice” is one of the first critical sociolinguistic studies on minority language policy in private companies. Why did you decide to explore corporate policies as a site for language policy definition, appropriation and implementation? And why is corporate policy an important arena for debates about, and struggles over, language revitalisation movements in present-day Europe?

Elisabeth Barakos: So, I have always been interested in the everyday politics of minority languages. It all started out with an internship at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, where I worked for the European Charter for Minority Languages – my first touching point with language policy, so to speak. Bilingual Wales in the UK has historically been characterised by language decline and marginalisation vis-à-vis the dominant majority language English. Whilst ample scholarship documents the use of Welsh in education, little do we (still) know about the world of work and the field of the economy more widely. The private sector has been one that struck a chord with me since this has been a space where the use of Welsh is (largely) voluntary, unlike the public sector that is legally obliged to provide a bilingual service. In that sense, I was interested to look at, and explain, what was happening in the field of business in terms of bilingualism. That’s when I also learnt that what I was observing connected to politics and the economy more broadly, and wider structural processes of linguistic inequality and historical domination.

Returning to your question over why corporate language policy is important: I guess the answer lies in the fact that the economic sphere touches on largely every social aspect of life. Private sector businesses in Wales thus serve as a unique and highly relevant terrain in which to investigate opportunities for bilingual practices. Likewise, bilingualism in business raises inherent questions over language rights as well as equality of opportunity, perception and treatment of Welsh vis-à-vis English. And crucially, it also ties to issues of identity, nationalism, culture and belonging.

Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: This monograph clearly demonstrates that language policy has a life beyond the written official document as it is debated, negotiated and implemented by a wide array of social actors in specific socio-political, economic and historical contexts. In order to study language policy as a process, you have proposed a discursive and critical-sociolinguistic approach to the practices, ideologies, and discourses in the promotion of bilingualism in businesses. Could you describe your approach to language policy in context for the blog readers?

Elisabeth Barakos: Yes, so my point of departure has been to move away from text-centred approaches to language policy towards an understanding of language policy as a discursive process that engages people’s discourses, ideologies and practices. A focus on policy-as-text has been quite central in the field of language policy studies and discourse studies more widely at the time. Via my readings of critical sociolinguistic, linguistic anthropological and ethnographic work, I learnt that every text has a context, a history and a dialogic relationship with the social. So looking at policy documents alone didn’t quite do the job for me. Combing texts with data on language policy agents (e.g. business representatives), their views, practices and experiences on the ground and attending to questions of how language ideology surfaces in text, discourse and practice, made much more sense to better grasp what’s at stake in bilingual Wales, for whom, and with which tangible consequences. In that sense, a discursive approach to language policy offers a multi-method and multi-perspective way into analysing minority language communities.

What I am trying to say is that language policy has a life beyond the text. It has a past, present and future we need to consider analytically. How, then, can we do that? By engaging with the people who create, distribute and consume policy, and by situating language policy within its social structure and historical context.

Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: Sociolinguists actively participate in an on-going conversation about language issues involving many different people and organisations with different socio-political and economic interests. I would like to know in what ways you have established relations with Welsh universities and governmental bodies and how your research has been received so far. In terms of researcher positionality, I am curious to hear more about you negotiated your positioning as a researcher who does not speak Welsh with informants during your fieldwork. What did these collaborations and negotiations reveal about bilingualism in Wales?

Elisabeth Barakos: Yes, so at the heart of Language Policy in Business is the premise that language is a focal point for articulating and living out power relationships and that language policy processes are never apolitical. Different voices articulate different claims over language. As to your question how my research has been received so far? I can’t speak for everyone but I hope that policy makers, businesses and scholars working on (minority) language policy have found value in the type of research that I do. To give you an example, the North Wales Economic Ambition Board has integrated my work on Welsh in the workplace into their Regional Skills & Employment Plan. My ongoing connections with the Welsh Language Commissioner’s office have also opened further doors to continuing research, which I really appreciate.

Further to your question about my own researcher positionality: well, yes, I have written this book and carried out this research, knowingly that I am not Welsh and Welsh-speaking; nor am I British. I am a multilingual with a vested interest in how minority communities negotiate discourses, ideologies and practices surrounding language. So, if you want, I took some kind of outsider perspective on what’s going on “inside the Welsh bubble” (as one of my research participants used to call it). At heart, I always made sure I revealed my background and motivations for doing this research, despite being a non-Welsh speaker, and my participants trusted me with their insights, concerns and worries and shared their experiences and practices.

With the book, I tried to tell a story about Welsh-speaking people’s experiences of their use of the language in the world of work. For what it’s worth, I can only offer one slice of this experience and reality, and my story is certainly not without its limitations.

Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: I really appreciated the multi-layered analysis of the promotion of bilingualism in post-devolution Wales. Based on your corpus of national and corporate policies, how has the concept of bilingualism evolved over time? Which different discourses construct “a truly bilingual Wales” and with what social consequences?

Elisabeth Barakos: Thanks for this question. So, the idea has been since the Welsh devolution in 1999, and probably much earlier, to plan for a truly bilingual Wales, premised on the notion of treating Welsh and English on the basis of equality and on offering a language choice. There is nothing wrong with this ambition. What I could observe though was that many policy discourses and people’s practices turned this principle of choice into a parallel monolingualism, or what Monica Heller has labelled double monolingualism, a homogeneous co-existence of two linguistic systems. Also, what I found was that ‘bilingual services’ and ‘choice’ were often mere policy rhetoric or used as part of corporate branding and PR, whilst the reality showed a consistent lack of active offer for Welsh services and lack of opportunities for its usage. So, say, if you go into a bank in Wales, you may have to actively demand a Welsh language service, that is, ask for a Welsh or bilingual form, rather than being offered it naturally, as you would in English. We can see this classic reproduction of the policy-practice gap here, with English still functioning as the default language.

Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: You close the book with a recent social media campaign to share the benefits of using Welsh in businesses within the broader Cymraeg 2050 strategy to reach 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050. What do you think the future holds for language policy in post-Brexit Wales? Which issues and questions remain open for future research about language policy in minority language contexts from a critical perspective?

Elisabeth Barakos: What I observe is that the notion of linguistic equality and parity of status between Welsh and English remains central. The government’s new strategy Cymraeg2050 is ambitious, if not ideologically vested with fixing speaker numbers, and again, commodifying language. Much work still needs to be done to carve out more spaces for the Welsh language to be recognized, valued and treated with the same respect as English on a daily basis. I am privileged to continue this strand of research as part of a new international project “L’égalité linguistique en temps de transformations politique / Linguistic equality in times of political transformation”, together with colleagues in Canada and Catalonia, Spain. We live in unsettling and troubling times. Brexit and the endemic Corona pandemic have brought new issues to light for Welsh language policy matters and re-shifted priorities for planning for a bilingual Wales. With Brexit, will the Welsh language further decline due to the loss of vital funding programs that used to create sustainable employment for Welsh speakers (such as in agriculture or tourism)? With the pandemic, how do Covid-19 related restrictions affect Welsh-speaking communities? In that sense, critical language scholars need to grapple with what these political, social and health crises will do to languages and their speakers, and what language policy processes can do to alleviate crisis moments and preserve the future of the Welsh language in a multilingual, post-pandemic and post-Brexit Wales.

Nathan Wendte takes the page 99 test

I was intrigued to hear about the “page 99 test,” according to which, the quality of a dissertation can be judged on the content of page 99. As a jaded recent PhD graduate, I have a thing or two to say about the dissertation as a genre, and this test seemed like a good springboard for such a discussion. So first, I present a screenshot of what I believe to be the heart of my dissertation’s page 99:

I have to say, I was less repulsed by this excerpt than I initially feared I would be. The paragraph comes towards the beginning of my methodology chapter where I am introducing the reader to nexus analysis (Scollon and Scollon 2004), a combination of ethnographic and discourse analytical procedures aimed at understanding social practices. In my case, the social practice was ethnolinguistic labelling among Creoles of the Gulf South (Wendte 2020). It is fair to say that this is an important paragraph–clearly defining these terms sets the stage for their operationalization in the remainder of the dissertation. But when performing the test, should we be evaluating the content itself or its characteristics (organization, clarity, and so on)? If we are to evaluate the content, then no, I would have to say that page 99 is not representative of the whole dissertation. Put simply, you still have no idea what it is about based on this page. But if we are evaluating the characteristics of the content (its quality, if you like), then I would humbly hope that it is representative of the whole dissertation. The opacity of the dissertation as a genre meant that I went to a lot of trouble trying to keep it readable and accessible. Page 99 bears some of the fingerprints of this heavy editing process, and I am proud to see them there.


Scollon, Ron, and Suzie Wong Scollon. 2004. Nexus Analysis: Discourse and the Emerging Internet. London ; New York: Routledge.

Wendte, Nathan A. 2020. “A Tale of Two Triangles: Ethnolinguistic Identity among Gulf South Creoles.” PhD, New Orleans, LA: Tulane University.

Sarah Muir on her new book, Routine Crisis

Routine Crisis: An Ethnography of Disillusion, Muir


Interview by Kabir Tambar

Kabir Tambar: Routine Crisis is about the aftermath of the economic collapse in Argentina in 2001-2002. What is the significance of focusing your analysis not on the period that we conventionally think of as the crisis itself but more on the years that followed?

Sarah Muir: A lot of people have written about the years of the crisis itself. My aim in focusing on the post-crisis period wasn’t simply to do something different, but to ask how something like a “crisis” becomes a recognizable event, with a particular significance. The premise of the book is that an event doesn’t snap into formation once and for all; rather, an event is continually and recursively constituted through semiotic processes that we can trace. Its spatial and temporal boundaries, its internal poetic structure, its relevant contextualization, its implications and significance–none of these inhere within a particular set of developments, and all of them must be constituted in interactions and interpretations. Benjamin used the image of the tiger’s leap to describe how things from the past can suddenly leap into the present, infusing the present with new possibilities for the future. I wanted to explore that open-endedness of an event’s historical significance and political possibility in concrete, empirical detail.

Kabir Tambar: The title of your book confronts the reader with a startling paradox, and it points precisely to this unsettled nature of eventhood. While it is not difficult to imagine a situation where the routines of everyday life have come under crisis (a crisis of routine, let us say), it is much less obvious to think of crisis as something that has become routinized (hence “routine crisis”). If a crisis of routine might belong to an exceptional moment, a routine crisis carries the full weight of a normalized historical patterning. Can you discuss what is at stake in thinking of our historical moment in terms of this fraught conceptual pairing?

Sarah Muir:  At least since Marx, there has been a robust tradition of approaching capitalism as a system of perpetual crisis, in which a boom-bust logic propels things forward, with crisis serving as the means of reproducing, in somewhat altered form, the social world. What’s striking is that, in Argentina, the centrality of crisis to capitalism is not only an idea that leftist intellectuals entertain. To the contrary: Argentina has been so thoroughly constituted by over a century of repetitive economic crises that the centrality of crisis has long been a palpable, lived fact for all kinds of people. As a result, crisis has become a touchstone that people use to orient themselves as they grapple with the world around them, as they consider questions and make decisions about issues national and intimate, momentous and mundane. In this sense, crisis has become folded into the routines of daily life as the one thing you can count on. My aim was to trace both the emergence and the consequences of that paradox, one that we can now find not only in Argentina, but in many other places as well.

Kabir Tambar: One of the ways that you study this lived experience of routine crisis is through the concept of “crisis talk.” This concept seems crucial to the methodological orientation of the book as a whole. How does attention to language frame your understanding of economic collapse?

Sarah Muir:  Very early in my research, it was obvious that people talked constantly about the 2001-2002 crisis, and that this talk was surprising in two ways. First, it was extraordinarily repetitive, so much so that I quickly found I could predict how a given bit of commentary would unfold. Second, this continual chatter about the crisis didn’t diverge along familiar sociological and ideological lines; people with wildly different backgrounds and commitments talked in remarkably similar ways. Both things struck me as odd until I realized that crisis talk worked as a kind of ritual, one that knitted together particular aspects of recent history into a highly stylized narrative. This narrative worked to ground both speaker and listener in the temporal rhythm of routine crisis. What I try to do in the book is show how that ritual of crisis talk allowed routine crisis to orient economic, political, and even interpersonal practices. In other words, this talk was the site where the crisis of 2001-2002 was constituted (over and over again) as a determinate event with a particular significance. And, it was only by attending to language as a crucial mode of consequential social practice that I could start teasing apart the dynamics of the post-crisis period.

Kabir Tambar: For me, one of the most intellectually creative and generative moments in the book arises in your analysis of corruption. You argue that discourses about corruption in Argentina can be profitably analyzed through anthropological theories of witchcraft. How did you come to make this connection? What sort of work were you reading when you started to develop this formulation?

Sarah Muir:  It isn’t entirely on the surface all the way through, but Nancy Munn’s Fame of Gawa permeates my approach to all the themes I explore in the book. When I first read it, it absolutely bowled me over in the possibilities it opens up for understanding the constitution of time, space, and personhood. It gave me tools for imagining how we could take an idea like Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope and use it in detailed anthropological analysis. While I hadn’t anticipated studying corruption, the topic was omnipresent during my fieldwork. I kept coming back to the way Munn describes Gawan witchcraft as the rapacious consumption of a community’s very capacity to produce value. That notion of witchcraft sounded very much like the way Argentines talked about corruption as eroding the conditions of possibility of national belonging. And, theorizing corruption with respect to value helped me see how it was bound up with the ways Argentines dealt not only with obviously financial and economic matters, but also with political institutions and interpersonal relations.

Kabir Tambar: This endemic and diffuse problem of producing value seems also to lead to a prevalent sensibility toward history, one that you refer to as disillusion with the promises of progress and modernity. It strikes me that one might view this sensibility as entailing a withdrawal from politics. But my sense from your book is that my presumption of depoliticization might be made in haste. Can you talk about whether this historical sensibility harbors a possibility for a kind of politics or a distinctive way of relating to political activity?

Sarah Muir:  I don’t think one would be wrong to see depoliticization in the sensibility of disillusion, and there are absolutely important elements of that in the material in the book. And yet, it’s not the whole story. Even as people would proclaim themselves to be fully disillusioned and even as they would reject out of hand the notion that politics might be an arena for legitimate engagement, they also were constantly engaging with political matters. However, the upshot of those politics, whether they skewed right or left, was entirely underdetermined. Looking beyond Argentina, I’m struck by the way disillusion with institutions of various sorts can give rise to intensified demands to raze things to the ground and start anew (for example, the conversation around whether to “let Anthropology burn”) as well as to quiescent withdrawal (for example, Voltaire’s oft-cited quip about tending one’s own garden). So, disillusion doesn’t amount to depoliticization. But it does amount to relationships to politics–and to social life more broadly–that are very different from modernist accounts of history, progress, and utopia.

Merav Shohet on her book, Silence and Sacrifice

Silence and Sacrifice by Merav Shohet

Interview by Annemarie Samuels


Annemarie Samuels: When you first started considering doing ethnographic research in Vietnam, what did you want to focus on and how did this focus change during fieldwork?

Merav Shohet: I’ll be honest, I didn’t come to the study of “silence and sacrifice” directly. I first wanted to study trauma and memory, thinking that Vietnam’s civil and anticolonial war would take center stage for people. I also considered studying Vietnam’s high rates of abortion in light of its two-child family planning policy. But the more I studied Vietnamese, including the literature, memoirs, and films that came with studying language, the more the term “sacrifice” (hy sinh) caught my attention. I was always hearing or reading about it, and so became curious what hy sinh signified for people and why it was so often brought up. At the same time, I remained curious about silences surrounding memories of war, bereavement, Vietnam’s economic transitions, and sacrifice itself in the everyday, since the latter is such a familiar (often guilt-tripping) trope in the Jewish homes I was familiar with.

I found myself drawn to Đà Nẵng because of its history: this was where American troops first landed, and where so many families were split even earlier, some going north to join the Communist Revolution while others remained in place. Many emigres were deployed in Quảng Nam to liberate the South from American occupation, leaving civilian loved ones in Hanoi also exposed to American raids. They returned victorious after the wars, rejoining kin in coastal central Vietnam. I was intrigued by these reunifications, and wondered whether, how, and why they were sustained, and what role tình cảm, which I constantly heard invoked, played here.

The questions that guided my research revolved around how kinship, sacrifice, and tình cảm figure in people’s lives. Who belongs as family? If unity was even desirable, how was it achieved across so many rifts? I was especially puzzled by how people who had so recently been at war—against foreign occupation and invasion, but also against one another—seemed to have buried the past and “moved on” with the simple statement, xông rồi (it’s done). How did it come about that in so many families where brothers, sisters, and cousins had fought on opposing sides, they now appeared happy to eat and celebrate and work together? What accounted for this seemingly facile unity when I was used to rancor toward foes? How did they possibly narrate, and seem to truly believe in linear continuity with the past, given Vietnam’s many ruptures, including colonial occupation, revolution, and now the precipitous transition from communism to late socialist capitalism? What helped bind people together, and where were the fissures?

Also, I think because I’ve always been interested in language and food and emotion, I wanted to understand their roles in producing seeming continuity and tamping down conflict. That’s why I studied the micro dynamics of everyday eating, speaking, and affective norms, rather than focus on so-called big issues like religion, formal education, or politics and state ideology. I did this by combining the methods of linguistic and psychological anthropology, adopting the lens of language socialization to learn how children are raised and become subjectified, along with adults, to sacrifice and display tình cảm. Every 4-6 weeks, I filmed households in their everyday and ritual activities, in addition to engaging in constant participant observation (where I found that ritual pervades the everyday, in the Goffmanian as well as Geertzian senses). To further contextualize my observations and understand more about people’s psychic lives—which I saw as intersubjective rather than strictly internal—I also interviewed multiple family members repeatedly throughout the year, learning of their ongoing concerns as they unfolded over time, contextualized by their relatives’ remarks and interactions. These all brought me to the focus on silence and everyday sacrifice.

Annemarie Samuels: In your book you offer a novel understanding of the concept of sacrifice by showing how it is situated in the everyday. How did you come to understand everyday sacrifice in Vietnam? And what role does silence play in the act of sacrifice?

Merav Shohet: It’s funny, because when I first learned hy sinh translates to sacrifice, I thought of it as parallel to the terms and usages in English and other Indo-European and Semitic languages, where sacrifice is associated with bloodshed, real or symbolic, on the religious altar, as a ritual act of slaughter and offering, or in battle. This is how sacrifice has been theorized in anthropology. When I’ve presented about sacrifice in the everyday and as an ordinary practice of moral care, I’ve sometimes gotten pushback, that this is not the real meaning of sacrifice, or that hy sinh isn’t really sacrifice. I want to push back against such critiques, because in Vietnam, hy sinh does not signify ritual slaughter, but it certainly is equated with patriotic death in war; and despite state efforts to cement the connection between the term and patriotic death, people also continually talk about their parents’—and especially mothers’—sacrifices for them. In many popular representations, and in everyday speech, daughters and sons, poets, novelists, and journalists extoll (their) mothers as virtuous for giving them life (sinh) and continually suffering on loved ones’ behalf.  

I should note that in what we think of as the West, too, sacrifice has this everyday connotation, even if it’s muted in our theories. This is part of why I set out to study sacrifice in the everyday among families, to expand how we think about sacrifice in relation to ethics and sociality. Still, despite several pilot research trips prior to the long-term dissertation project, I had not realized that outside of interviews, sacrifice is relatively silent. People typically do not call attention to their own sacrifices for others. They strive to suffer in silence for the benefit of others, and for an act to count as a sacrifice—whether it’s skipping a meal, disciplining one’s feelings/body, foregoing education, love, health, or even life for the sake of someone dear—there need to be others to notice and talk about it. As in the classic anthropological sense, sacrifice is always a multi-party, intersubjective moral affair.

The silence of sacrifice is not only about who is authorized to speak about or make a spectacle of it (that is, not the person sacrificing). It’s also about the moral weight attributed to suffering or taking on hardship in silence, and retrospectively keeping silent about one’s acts of sacrifice, while cultivating a disposition to embrace silent sacrifice in the first place. In daily life, the term sacrifice is not used much, but the ethical orientation associated with it is developed through communicative and other practices. These instill the sense that mutual, but unequal social obligations between kin and other intimates are natural, ethical, expected, and necessary: discipline and small or large acts of suffering for the benefit of others are to be embraced in silence and with a smile, without resentment. This begins already in toddlerhood, with routine modes of attending to those around you, for example by greeting them according to their (fictive kin) relationship to you, using the correct body posture and reference and address terms. And this disposition to sacrifice continues to be cultivated throughout life. It’s accomplished not by proclaiming something like, “I am teaching you to sacrifice” or “you are learning to sacrifice” or “you should sacrifice more,” but by enacting sacrifice through showing tình cảm, displaying respect to those above oneself and yielding to those below. It includes tending to the ancestors regularly, by maintaining their altar and celebrating their death anniversary and other occasions, which often take quite a bit of material resources and efforts that bind the generations in long-term, ideally loving, debt relations.

I should note that sacrifice and the silences involved in it are gendered and engendering. In Vietnam’s hetero- and cis-normative social milieu, men’s public recognition and praise of women’s sacrifices interpellate and pressure them into the silent sacrifice role deemed to embody feminine virtue. There are also far greater expectations of women than of men to discipline their bodies and desires and forgo benefits and pleasures for the sake of others, especially their children, husband, and elders. Women often participate in these acts of disciplining one another, in part by censuring each other for lacking “tình cảm” if there is any hint of them being less than enthusiastic about giving generously and taking on responsibilities willingly, while praising men more for doing much less. In effect, it is people’s, and especially women’s continual striving to display tình cảm and undertake suffering silently for intimates, without complaint or dissent, that helps bind families together by preserving and narrating as virtuous and mutually beneficial the hierarchies of kinship, gender, and class.  

Annemarie Samuels: Despite tremendous yet subtle everyday efforts to keep families together, you show how sometimes people encounter the limits of love. One of the themes in your book is the friction that the demands of sacrifice may bring. Could you say a bit about the limits of tình cảm (love, care) and how people navigate these limits?

Merav Shohet: Yes, so in the previous question I may have made it sound like there is a closed system of hierarchy and reciprocity that guarantees harmonious relations, as though the different orders of hierarchy neither intersect nor conflict. The expectation/idealization is that intimates, especially those considered kin, will always feel and display tình cảm toward one another, by wanting to help and generously give when others are in need, as well as anticipate each other’s desires and provide for them through acts of care motivated by love. It could be easy enough to posit this structuralist framework and stop there, but this would be ethnographically dishonest. Relations do get messy, and not just when ethical principles come into conflict. Sacrifice and tình cảm are dynamic, not static, and people’s positionalities shift in relation to who they are interacting with and in what contexts. This means that what may look like love from some vantage points may be judged inadequate and even hurtful from another perspective.

In this respect, my ethnography is not unique to Vietnam. It points to systemic gender, class, and age inequities that we see across many contexts. In Vietnam, but likely elsewhere as well, the idealization of asymmetrical reciprocity through the valorization of (silent) sacrifice, together with the ways in which it unfolds in practice, helps explain how a status quo of inequality is often maintained, not just through relations of power and exploitation, but also through the collusion of those who love/care. One of the major ways that people navigate the troubled waters of tình cảm and the ways that women, especially, are burdened with the mandate to show tình cảm is through narrative. In telling and enacting stories in interactions with one another, people make moral claims on each other. Attending to the ways in which these stories unfold helps illuminate the ways that love and care are not so innocent and can hurt as well as help those involved. In the monograph, I recount participants’ stories of care and the conflicts embedded within them, to show how kin grapple with the limits of love or tình cảm through narrative as well as ritual acts and occasions, where people and principles come in contact, and often friction, with one another.   

Annemarie Samuels: These moments of friction may be recognized through what you call “sideshadowing narratives”, right?

Merav Shohet: Yes, so sideshadowing is a somewhat obscure term, and yet quite generative, I think, for describing those experiences when people consider multiple perspectives and possibilities, rather than stick to just one unitary and consistent way of understanding their lifeworlds. We witness how ethics unfold in ordinary life by attending to both the content and the structure and grammar of stories, as these clue us in to people’s entanglements, shifting or consistent affective and moral stances, and thus their evaluations of their own and others’ actions, thoughts, and feelings. In the face of war, reconciliation, and political-economic transformations, life was full of contradictions, moral ambiguities, and personal ambivalences.

People’s narratives, which constitute (rather than merely reflect) their experiences, likewise were not always linear and hermetic structures with a clear beginning, middle, and end, a clear resolution of events, and a clear moral stance about those involved. People did often formulate foreshadowing and backshadowing narratives, which rely on hindsight to see events in the past as foretelling and determining what is yet to come, and judging protagonists accordingly. They did so to minimize confusion, ambivalence, or uncertainty, positing the present and future as direct outcomes of the past. But other times, people left the future more open-ended, and regarded the past and present as also laden with alternate possibilities. Their sideshadowing narrations juxtaposed incommensurate realities, considered paths not taken, and contemplated what might have been or still could be, had acts and circumstances been (interpreted and) responded to in different ways. A bit more encompassing than “subjunctive narratives,” which leave events and possibilities open-ended, sideshadowing narrations rendered not just the future, but also the past open to alternative ways of unfolding, allowing me to hear silences embedded in characters’ oftentimes not fully articulated conflictual relations and frictions surrounding love and sacrifice.

Annemarie Samuels: You use the method of family-centered ethnography. What does this method add to person-centered ethnography? And how may this method help us to find out how people think of family in the first place?

Merav Shohet: This is another great question, thank you. As I noted earlier, the research drew on multiple methods. Language-centered methodologies allowed me to gain insight about the ways in which people’s affects, desires, values, actions, and so forth are mediated and constituted through embodied, communicative interactions, as well as their material environments and historical contexts. Person-centered interviews, which involve multiple, open-ended discussions with participants over a period of months, help get a sense of people’s subjective worlds, as these unfold and change over time. A family-centered ethnography extends this lens to consider not just how individuals navigate their internal and external worlds, but how it is through their situatedness within historical and social contexts, including the kin group, that ethical lives are constructed in interactions (real or imagined) with intimates and other relatives, and in relation to a past that stretches beyond individuals’ personal lives.

Quite a bit of ink has been spilled on kinship and relatedness, and I would never claim that I have an authoritative approach to the study of families. With the advent of reproductive technologies, anthropologists have moved away from thinking of families simply in terms of ‘blood’ and ‘marriage,’ or as bastions of social solidarity and harmony. More recently, anthropologists have theorized families both as the locus of care absent in institutional settings, and as sources of conflict that, along with structural inequalities under neoliberal capitalism, may be the root of social and moral breakdown. I draw on all these perspectives to denaturalize categories like the family and recognize the ways it sometimes stretches relatedness, while other times its bounds are constricted and made exclusive. In short, what family even means and to whom remains in doubt, along with how belonging is achieved, who counts as a member, of what configuration, in what context, and on what grounds.  

As an ethnographer, I was continually confronted with the problem of which set of perspectives and ethical aspirations to privilege, since often there are disagreements within the group, and even in the way a single character narrates these in different contexts. What counted as moral care in some circumstances or from some perspectives could alternately be seen as a form of discipline, violence, abandonment, or exclusion. Rather than privilege individual or unitary perspectives, I found myself attending to the plurality of voices within families, as well as to the entangled disagreements, inconsistences, contradictions, and ambivalences that people articulated (in what I discussed earlier as sideshadowing narratives). This approach allowed me to highlight members’ ethical reasoning and moral sentiments revealed in the grammar of micro- and macro-narratives, all the while refusing to reduce ethnographic insights to reductive categories of what constitutes kinship. A family-centered ethnography that closely examines social situations from the perspectives of the different stakeholders involved, without assuming their unity or conformity, I think, offers insights about care, morality, and ethics, as well as the ways that gender, class, age, political, and other hierarchies crosscut one another, patterning life in complicated and often messy and contentious ways. It reinforces, finally, the feminist insight that public ethics are to be found in the after-all-not-so-private domain of families’ always political home lives.