Crystal Biruk on her book, Cooking Data

Interview by Sheng Long

Sheng Long: In your book, you quoted a Chichewa phrase “kuphika madata” (cooking data) to analyze the global health’s quantification projects in Malawi. Can you briefly unpack what it means by cooking data? How does your ethnography of cooking data give rise to a new theorization of data?

Crystal Biruk: In the opening pages of my book, I discuss how I often heard Malawian fieldworkers use this vernacular phrase to playfully, mostly jokingly, comment on their colleagues’ job performance, invoking it to accuse them of collecting data in a sloppy or lazy way, or of outright ‘faking’ data by writing down numbers into blank spaces on the questionnaire without bothering to ask the questions of research participants. For example, fieldworkers would make this accusation if someone finished an interview more quickly than expected (which signaled, perhaps, that they skipped some questions or made up answers for expediency). In Chichewa, kuphika means to cook or cooking (as in the kitchen); a cooking pot is called mphika. The connotations of –phika signal the practices and processes of cooking food: food, not unlike data, must be prepared in a specific way and under specific conditions in order to be good or edible. We can take this analogy further by thinking of the questionnaire—with its boxes waiting to be filled in and empty household rosters yet unpopulated by names—as a kind of ‘recipe’, a means toward an effective end or desired outcome (whether a perfect key lime pie or pristine dataset!). Before collecting any data from rural households, fieldworkers attended intensive trainings, led by American or European demographers, that spanned 7-10 days and aimed to inculcate good habits (writing neatly, not missing any questions, probing for answers if respondents said, “I don’t know”, double checking the internal consistency of a completed questionnaire, etc). But most of all, fieldworkers were cautioned against “cooking data.” The Malawian fieldworkers thus appropriated this phrase from their employers (demographers), which I read as a commentary on how often and forcefully they were told “Never cook data in the field”: to accuse someone of cooking data was funny precisely because ‘cooked data’ was so feared by their bosses.

From the colonial period to the present, African fieldworkers involved in knowledge production projects ranging from censuses to global health projects have been suspected of fabricating data, and cast as a threat to data quality—these anxieties, of course, embed racist assumptions and stereotypes. Yet, this fear of human error or deliberate mucking up of data in the field relies on a taken-for-granted fundamental difference between raw and cooked data, a binary that my book (building on work by others, such as Lisa Gitelman’s important edited volume “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron) destabilizes. Demographers use the term ‘cooked data’ in two main ways. In the first sense, cooked data are raw data (say, numbers, codes, or other information written onto questionnaires by fieldworkers) that have been processed, ‘cleaned,’ and analyzed according to demographic standards and norms; this kind of cooking is necessary to ensure that data are high quality. In the second moralized sense of “cooking”, however, raw data are deformed, dirty, or made useless as a result of bad data practices, fabrication, or human error. My book contributes to conversations in critical data studies and STS by drawing on long-term ethnographic experiences within survey research projects in Malawi to closely track the social lives of data, in the process illuminating how fieldworkers improvise, reinvent and improve upon top-down standards (a form of ‘cooking’) for data collection as they implement them in the field. From some of the ethnographic vignettes and scenes in the book, I hope readers glean that making good data requires creativity, tinkering, and improvisation as much as it does harmonization and consistency. I hope that my book prompts readers to step away for a moment from arbitrating whether any given data set is good or bad, weak or strong, and toward thinking about how data are constituted by their everyday processes of production and circulation, including social and political contexts. Field research may appear to be simply the systematic collection of information from respondents, but in reality it necessitates a complex and flexible infrastructure of people, equipment, technical and logistical know-how, and so on. Seeing this firsthand can denaturalize the assumptions that data are neutral, objective, or ‘clean’.

Sheng Long: As you say in the book, you are a fieldworker among fieldworkers. Doing research about researchers and fieldworkers, how did you handle your relationship with them? Were there any conflicting moments that led to a compromise of each other?

Crystal Biruk: I am grateful to the demographers and Malawian fieldworkers who were kind enough to let an anthropologist tag along in the field (notably, ‘the field’ carries many of the same connotations for them as it does for anthropologists). I knew that in order to understand the particular cultures of science that make up projects like those I spent time with, it would be important to be part of the everyday and repetitive work of fieldwork. Most days, we woke up very early, got into minibuses or SUVs (approximately 6 fieldworkers per vehicle) and headed to rural areas of a given district in Malawi. Once we arrived to a central point near the households from which we would be collecting data that day, a Malawian field supervisor would hand out questionnaires and give each fieldworker a hand-drawn map—crafted by a fieldworker in a prior iteration of the survey—to help them find their assigned household. At the household, the fieldworker would identify their respondent and engage in the interview/questionnaire for anywhere from 1-3 hours. When finished, they would check the questionnaire for completion or internal inconsistencies and submit it to their supervisor for another check. I helped with these checks (and with other tasks in the office and the field) and, thus, became familiar with the kind of ‘assembly line’ on which statistics are manufactured. Some of the statistical claims—the numbers and percentages—that now appear in published papers in demography journals are made up of data points (say, a number written in pencil on a questionnaire page by a fieldworker) that I myself may have checked! This experience helped me come to see statistics not as abstract, free-floating numbers, but, rather, as social artifacts born of hundreds of relations and exchanges. A lot of my fieldwork involved trying my best to ‘touch’ data, to make the abstract tangible, so as to better see and understand them. The Malawian fieldworkers saw me as a novice fieldworker—I hadn’t, in the beginning, accumulated the many years of expertise and knowledge they had, as most of them spend much of the year working for projects like the ones I describe in the book. This made it harder for me, for example, to ‘check’ questionnaires (e.g., to know whether a response about how many kgs of a crop a household had grown last year was viable or not) rapidly and efficiently earlier on. I was, at the time, of a similar age to the fieldworkers, and because I was helping out in small but useful ways, it was quite easy to build rapport and trust.

As a kind of honorary fieldworker, I was privy to many things that happened in our long days in the field—the kinds of deviations from schedules or set plans that occur in all workplaces—but my allegiance was primarily with the fieldworkers. I think in the beginning they were a bit surprised that I kept coming back every day, and over time, they shared with me their grievances and concerns and gripes about what they called ‘living project to project,’ about the lack of employment in Malawi (most fieldworkers had skills and educational credentials that exceeded those needed to do the kind of data collection work they were engaged in), and about the difficulties of being ‘middle-men’ between foreign projects and rural Malawians. Demographers would sometimes inquire with me why the field teams hadn’t visited as many households as required in a given day, and I would have to navigate these encounters carefully. However, as a kind of ‘middle-person’ myself (between project management and the fieldworkers), I also brought suggestions or critiques from the fieldworkers—say, about the wording of a question on the questionnaire that was not working, for example—to the demographers. I reported back to them some of the challenges faced by fieldworkers, especially pertaining to their struggles in dealing with complicated situations or reluctant participants. Fieldworkers were typically too busy and exhausted from the work of fieldwork to make these suggestions or reports themselves. I thought a lot about reciprocity in doing this work, and did my best to not be ‘dead weight’ by contributing to the labor of data collection. As I built meaningful relationships with the fieldworkers around me, of course, we also became entangled in relations of mutual support and drew on our respective knowledge, networks, and resources to help each other achieve our diverse interests.

Sheng Long: Instead of being mere “respondents” in surveys, you have found that Malawians actively participated in the HIV/AIDS research. On the one hand, their cultural practices were interwoven with the research (such as the gift); On the other, they showed great comprehension of these projects, beyond the mystification of indigenous notions (such as the taboo of blood). How do anthropological methods contribute to a different understanding of the Malawians’ agency in these research projects?

Crystal Biruk: For generations, development and global health’s dominant discourse and practices have presumed African lack, neediness, backwardness, or ignorance. Jemima Pierre (2020) discusses this in great detail in her analysis of the racial vernaculars of development in Ghana. In global health worlds, when Africans refuse to participate in research or other projects, dominant explanations always rest on cultural misunderstandings. When frictions arise between health or development projects and participants, it is often assumed that they can be fixed or ameliorated by implementing more culturally sensitive protocols, translating project materials into local languages, or interfacing with locally influential figures. If researchers properly and thoroughly explain a project’s intent and secure truly informed consent, so the story goes, Africans will willingly and enthusiastically participate. In fact, informed consent is often the gold standard for arbitrating whether research is ethical or not. Yet, I found that in Malawi, even when informed consent was secured in proper fashion—that is, rural Malawians were well-informed of the particulars of participating in the survey project and heartily agreed to do so—tensions and conflicts still arose, primarily around the question of reciprocity between research projects and respondents.

In Chapter 3, I discuss how the bars of soap given by research projects to research participants as a token of thanks for their time and energy became a site of contestation and debate in the field (I also consider the historical resonances of ‘soap’ as quintessential colonial commodity). Even those who gratefully received the soap would comment on the ‘smallness’ of this gift, or suggest they deserved more for the work (using the Chichewa word for labor) they did answering questions. Many suggested they should receive money instead of soap. Further, in commenting on what they saw as lopsided and uneven relations between themselves and researchers, they sometimes accused researchers of being bloodsuckers, or sucking their blood. This accusation fits into a larger transhistorical genre that demonizes dangerous others (colonial officials, researchers, politicians, doctors) who are said to steal or accumulate blood for nefarious ends or to ‘do business.’ These accusations that researchers are something akin to vampires are easily dismissible as conspiracy theories, and often explained by reference to culture, as in “Malawians believe the strangest things” or “Rural Malawians do not understand the value or intent of research”. For me, the potential of ethnography in global health and development worlds is its ability to reveal moments of friction or conflict such as these, and to analyze them outside the narrow frame of a single encounter between one project and a population. In documenting and analyzing critiques of the soap-gift made by those who received it, I observed that participants situated present day projects in historical experiences and legacies of the extraction of data and other resources, pointing out that the benefits that researchers accrue are far greater than those they receive. At first glance, the fraught soap-for-information exchange might seem to highlight cultural tensions between ‘African’ and ‘western’ codes of giving. But upon closer examination, it becomes clear that participants conceive of research as a realm of negotiations over proper distributions of past, present, and future benefits. Rather than cultural misunderstanding or unfounded conspiracy theory, the accusation that researchers are sucking blood or the complaint that a bar of soap is a too small gift are historically informed critiques of a social and political order where some people are always giving and others are always taking. Anthropology of/in global health projects demonstrates that the dynamics that play out in any given project cannot be understood without attending to broader histories wherein data, labor, land, and other resources have been stolen amid broken promises of future gain or benefit.

Sheng Long: Following international demographic research projects, you have traced the traveling of numbers among multiple actors in hierarchical relationships. What are different forms of labor, visible or invisible, involved in the data collection, analyses, and dissemination?

Crystal Biruk:  Indeed, my book tries very much to answer the deceptively simple question, What’s in a number? In so doing, I tried to think at every turn about the materiality and relationality of data, that is, about how any given data point (say, a respondent’s response to the question “How frequently do you use condoms in sexual encounters?”) only comes to exist through nested and complex relations between people, things, and ways of knowing. This is why I arranged the book roughly around what I call the life course of data, from survey design to the circulation of polished statistics in policy forums or published work. Part of my project as I wrote the book was to emphasize the invisible labor of Malawian fieldworkers, whose expertise, as discussed above, was crucial to the smooth running of research projects, yet is rarely credited or acknowledged in publications or policy that result from the data they so painstakingly collect. Since the earliest surveys and research endeavors carried out in Africa, fieldworkers have appeared in archived accounts and discourse as individuals whose ‘menial’ and ‘unskilled’ labor is necessary to field research. Yet, they are framed as instrumentalized as cogs in a larger machinery and homogenized or mentioned offhand as “native assistants” or “data collectors”. I hope my book challenges such depictions and prompts all of us, including anthropologists, to think deeply about how we know what we know, and about how to ‘cite’ and acknowledge all the labor that goes into producing knowledge.

Sheng Long: Citing James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, you similarly frame the medical projects as “seeing like a research project.” What do you observe as the major consequences of “seeing like a research project” in global heath? How do you envision your research as academic and public interventions to these issues and limitations?

Crystal Biruk: Demography, or the quantitative study of human populations, is generally a positivist science rooted in the assumption that reality can be observed, measured, and counted. The questionnaires discussed in my book are tools that aim to do just that. Whereas anthropologists are number averse and harbor suspicions of quantification as a mode of knowing and governance, demographers fetishize numbers. For Scott, seeing like a state means aspiring to make something yet unseen or unknown legible and visible: this transformation from illegible to legible always involves standardization, reduction, and abstraction. The methods used to calculate or organize or map a population or a terrain or a phenomenon always bake in assumptions about who or what is important, about who or what counts, about who or what is valuable (according to Scott, 19th century German foresters’ conception of ‘the forest’ reduced forests—as complex and diverse ecologies and relations—to metricized concepts like revenue yield). In a similar way, demographers build into the design of survey questionnaires assumptions about what is worth knowing, assumptions about what constitutes even the basic units of analysis that underlie the validity of surveys (such as ‘the household’ or ‘poverty’, concepts that, of course, may be defined or imagined differently by, say, an anthropologist!), and assumptions about what good data are. All of these determine, then, what is ‘seen’ or what it is possible to know from the tools, technologies, and epistemologies that constitute quantitative/demographic data. This is why what is seen by an anthropologist may differ from what is seen by a demographic survey project, even if they are looking at the same thing. Yet, the point of my book is not necessarily to elevate anthropological ways of knowing or seeing above other disciplinary modes of knowing. Rather, I hope that my book, in attending closely to the micro-interactions and tacit assumptions and value judgments baked into demographic datasets, might prompt all of us who make, consume, or think about data of diverse kinds to understand them as contingent and partial artifacts of social processes and normalization (‘disciplines discipline us’, as I tell my students!)

As for the consequences of seeing like a research project for global health in particular: as anthropologists and others working in critical global health studies have shown, global health (as assemblage of actors, resources, geographies, and priorities) very much prizes and desires quantitative data such as the numbers discussed in my book. Numbers travel and translate easily and carry an aura of objectivity and self-evident truth that make them a convincing stand in for reality. Yet, when we identify a problem with or through numbers, say high rates of malnutrition, it narrows our imagination of solutions or interventions for that problem. In my current work on the Global Fund’s efforts to ‘end AIDS’ in Africa, for example, I have observed that donors are interested in counting vulnerable populations (such as men who have sex with men, MSM) so as to have a denominator of ‘people at highest risk of HIV’ against which their efforts and interventions can operate. This denominator is the starting point for measuring how many vulnerable people are ‘reached,’ ‘tested,’ or ‘treated.’ Achieving impressive numbers in this regard stand in as proof of success or efficacy, yet, such metrics overlook or exclude from measurement the forms of vulnerability that impinge on, say, an LGBTI-identified person’s life in Malawi. These genres of vulnerability far exceed the viral load or HIV status of that individual. Global health is successful at demonstrating success in targeting narrow, easily quantifiable problems, but, of course, less successful at ‘seeing’ health or other problems as hopelessly entangled in complex contexts and as a product of structural or political failings. In my book, I try to move beyond the anthropological impulse to show, using ethnographic methods, what numbers get wrong or what they overlook. To do so, I examine not so much the finished numbers themselves and what they elide, but rather the criteria and metrics that underscore and determine data’s production and consumption, and measure whether or not they come to ‘count’ as data in the first place. A granular analysis of research worlds in a particular place at a particular time encourages us to more critically engage with the kinds of evidence we too often take for granted, whether inside or outside our discipline or training.


Gitelman, Lisa, ed. 2013. “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron. Boston:MIT Press.

Pierre, Jemima. 2020. “The racial vernaculars of development: A view from West Africa.” American Anthropologist 122(1):86-98.

Jane Goodman on her book, Staging Cultural Encounters

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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.

Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese discuss Voices of a City Market

Jacket Image

Interview by Amanda Kaminsky

Amanda Kaminsky: This book takes a highly unconventional structure. It begins and ends with a scripted dialogue among various stakeholders, while the middle takes the form of a rich collage of voices, photographs, and ethnographic details. What were your goals when setting out to write this book, and what was the process through which you arrived at its final structure?

Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese: Voices of a City Market   is an outcome of the ethnographic research we conducted in Birmingham Bull Ring Market. The book is structured in three parts, and breaks with the conventions of the traditional ethnographic monograph. Part I and Part III represent the voices of characters who engage in dialogue about the research. The characters discuss and debate aspects of the representation of the social life of the market. Part II represents the voice and action, the sound and smell, the taste and touch, of the market over four months. Curating examples of everyday practice in the market enable us to argue that the structure and form of Part II of Voices of a City Market is polyphonic, and represents the heteroglossia of the social and commercial life of the market The text allows the closest possible approximation to real life. It is polyphonic, a diversity of social speech types, a diversity of individual voices. At once a curation and a creation, the text orchestrates the heteroglossic diversity of voices through authorial framing, the speech of narrators, and the speech of characters. These are voices which are not closed or resolved, neither finalised, nor unfinalisable. They are voices that represent the human condition. 

Amanda Kaminsky: Multilingualism recurs as a theme throughout this book, both through your interlocutors’ reflections on their own language use, and through the rich descriptions of market interactions. With the exception of a few phrases in Chinese, however, this book is written in English. What challenges did you encounter representing such multilingualism on the page?

Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese: In other books (such as Multilingualism: A Critical Perspective, 2010) we represented different languages both phonetically and in different scripts. For this book, however, we decided to largely translate speech into English. Translations were checked and re-checked. Our decision was made on the basis that the book would be principally published in Anglophone countries. The multilingual/heteroglossic character of the market was one of the most salient and interesting features of the research site.

Amanda Kaminsky: I am intrigued by the character of the Entrepreneur, who appears in the first and final sections of the book to critique the ethnographic project for its lack of profitability. Where did the idea for this character come from? What do you envision the role of ethnographic research to be within a capitalist system?

Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese: The character of the Entrepreneur is important as a counterpoint to the more-or-less liberal orientation of some of the other characters. The discourse of the Entrepreneur offers resistance, which can be a vital catalyst to creativity. Ethnographic research has potential to reveal the inequalities of the capitalist system. It would be good to believe that it can make a difference, and improve people’s lives.

Amanda Kaminsky: Much of the story that unfolds throughout this book centers on a particular butcher shop within the market. As these butchers weigh mincemeat and slice pork belly for their customers, we gradually learn about their backgrounds, their senses of humor, and their hopes for the future. I’m curious about the role that meat plays in the story you tell. What insights into the modern market experience were you able to glean from focusing on butchers, rather than focusing on another industry within the market?

Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese: The butcher stall was a fascinating research site. However, a fish stall, or shoe repair stand, or tee shirt vendor, and so on, might have been equally interesting. The research told us much about the ways in which people from different backgrounds, with different languages, are able to communicate by deploying whatever semiotic resources are available to them. Commerce and trade were key imperatives in this communicative process.

Yoram Bilu on his book, With Us More Than Ever

Cover of With Us More Than Ever by Yoram Bilu

Interview by Yael Assor

Yael Assor: The book first came out in Hebrew and was then translated to English. I was wondering why did you decide to publish this book first in Hebrew, and why publish it in English at all? Are there any prominent differences between the Hebrew and English versions?

Yoram Bilu: All my books first came out in Hebrew.   Since I find it easier to write lengthy texts in my mother tongue, it would have been awkward not to look first for a local publisher.   But there is also ideology behind it.  Studying phenomena pertinent to Israeli society, I always felt obliged to give priority to local readership (papers are a different story).  This holds for this book as well, as It sheds light, among other things, on the peculiarly Israeli face of Chabad and on significant processes within Israeli society (for example, Mizrachim joining Ashkenazi-based Hasidic groups). At the same time, The messianic surge in Chabad is a golden opportunity to study fundamental issues of religious belief and experience, and this justifies publication in English (e.g. the role of culture in shaping basic cognitive processes through which the Rebbe becomes manifest).  The English version is a bit tighter. 

Yael Assor: On page 259, you write, “Believers experience the Rebbe directly and do not perceive the media that bears his image as standing between the Rebbe and themselves. The ethnographic writing of the anthropologist is a similar kind of mediator; he or she can also vanish from the reader’s consciousness.” Indeed, throughout most of the book, story after story, we read of the Rebbe’s miraculous presence, and to some extent become witnesses of his continuous presence. At the same time, your presence as the ethnographer who mediates these stories to us gets backgrounded. Can you elaborate on your choice to take up this style? Would it be correct to say that by engaging this style, your Chabbad interlocutors were right about your own contribution in disseminating the belief in the Rebbe?

Yoram Bilu: My uncritical  perspective in showering the readers with miraculous stories was not unintended. I wanted them to be immersed in the enchanted world of the Meshichistim, in the messianic ecology they constitute, which I find all-encompassing and at times overwhelming.   By doing so I myself embodied the dialectics of the mediation process.  I agree that some parts of the book can be read as if written from a credulous perspective, though others account for the miracles using social science explanatory models.  Aligning my reply with your next question, I have to qualify the “very experience-near book” designation.  While I sought to depict the inner worlds of the radical messianists, I relied on texts (probably edited thus adding more layers of mediation) more than on interviews and observations.  By doing so, I left unexplored the darker side of experiential worlds of the Meshichistim, where allegedly conflict, frustration, and doubts  also reside.  Focusing on these aspects would have called for a very different book.

Yael Assor: Relatedly, in the Introduction, the two last chapters and the Conclusion, you still take a more distant point of view, discussing your researcher position, contextualizing this study in contemporary theoretical debates and parallel phenomena. Why did you decide to still incorporate this tone in this otherwise very experience-near book?

Yoram Bilu: See above.  Also, my tone has to do with my attempt to calibrate the not-so-compatible fields of psychology and anthropology, which are my combined disciplinary background.  Note, for example, that I use theoretical models from cognitive psychology, such as dissonance reduction or signal detection, as departure points in explaining how the absent Rebbe becomes present.  My critique of these theories in the book is not designed to supplant them but rather to supplement and enrich them by staying attuned to contextual noises which these theories usually discount.  Lastly, I consider myself a modernist at heart, still viewing anthropology as a scientific project (admittedly by stretching the definition of science) and thus necessarily as a comparative one.

Yael Assor: A concept the book centrally engages is “virtual Rebbe.” You argue that “virtual” is not the opposite of “unreal,” but a different form of realness.  Can you expand on how you think this concept contributes to current discussions about “religious imagination,” a term broadly utilized to discuss non-physical dimensions of the cultural life (including subjective and intersubjective experience) of religious movements?

Yoram Bilu: Clinging to virtual worlds is in fact  at the heart of each and every religion.  The sustenance of the virtual Rebbe in messianic Chabad is in this sense just an illustration, albeit uncommon and extreme, of the horizons opened before 21st century believers in cultivating the religious imagination.  The rapid development of virtual realities through new technologies may bolster this imagination – as my book shows.  Does it mean that a contemporary believer enjoys an epistemological edge over a first century believer?   I am not so sure.  One could claim that human imagination – free floating, not bound by technology – could expand rather than curtail the religious horizons shaped by the new technologies.

Yael Assor: Throughout the book you offer a very nuanced analysis of how the Rebbe’s presence is maintained with the help of technological means and in correspondence with contemporary world events and global trends. All this made me wonder about the role of  American neoliberal ideology in informing this dynamic. I was thus curious about your take on this: do you see such connection between American neoliberalism and the Meshichists’ manner of making the Rebbe present? 

Yoram Bilu: Yes, I do see such a connection.  After all, Chabad was reshaped in the 1940s and 1950s in America, with its epicenter in NYC.  Its technological adeptness is but one expression of adopting aspects of the American ethos and style.  In a globalized world Chabad could be viewed as a very successful transnational firm. Note that Harold Blum called Chabad an American Religion.  There are some parallels, I think (with all due differences) between Chabad’s expansion and the growing popularity of Evangelical Chrisianity in various parts of the world – and these similarities are not unrelated to a capitalist, neoliberal theology.

Taxpayer’s Playlist

Filing personal tax returns, with the power of Spotify

Matti Eräsaari, University of Helsinki

Anna-Riikka Kauppinen, University of Cambridge

In May 2020, ahead of the deadline for filing personal tax returns, the Finnish Tax Administration shared a Spotify playlist called ‘Final Countdown’. Featuring songs such as Marianne Faithful’s ‘What’s the Hurry?’, ‘Let’s Get It Started’ by Black Eyed Peas, and ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the playlist provides the soundtrack to shepherd the citizen through the painstaking journey of filing personal tax returns. This is the annual display of fiscal aptness involving an enlightened citizen who navigates one’s tax deductions for household expenses, maintenance obligations, union fees, mortgage interest, and so forth. Somewhat optimistically, the playlist also included The Beatles’s ‘We Can Work It Out’ and ‘We Are Family’ by Sister Sledge, finally ending on Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing’. Appearing like a sports coach on the running track, the Finnish Tax Administration accompanied the playlist with a set of inspirational slogans: “Deadline is approaching! This list will give you a kick. Come on, come on! U can do it! It shall be all right! Believe in yourself! Forward!” (English phrases italicized)

To lighten up what is generally considered as one of the most arduous, time-consuming annual bureaucratic tasks, the Finnish Tax Administration harnessed Spotify to engage with the Finnish taxpaying public. The Spotify playlist is one of the many mediums through which the Finnish Tax Administration has sought to craft an approachable public image. On Instagram and Twitter, they post tax-related memes, in addition to informing about looming deadlines, latest regulations, and answering citizens’ tax-questions. On their Soundcloud page, a series of podcasts called ‘Tax Meditation’ was recently released, featuring a calming female voice guiding the listener through the latest tax rules and advise, whilst their YouTube channel features the“Tax Whisperer”, a bearded hipster breathing tax advice with a playful smile on his face.

Avatars, Spotify playlists and happy employees – IOTA held its first Forum  on Communication | Intra-European Organisation of Tax Administrations
The Finnish Tax Whisperer

It would be hard-pressed to frame these expressions as neoliberal artefacts of bureaucratic self-fashioning (‘getting close to our customers’), because of the element of self-satire that inheres in each and every one of these examples.

So why are the Finnish Tax Administration turning into hipsters now? Lotta Björklund Larsen (2017) has shown how Sweden’s tax agency nurtures or shapes compliant taxpayers who willingly take part in maintaining a Nordic welfare state. In her analysis, this is a question of legitimacy rather than image: the wide coverage of public welfare can only be maintained for as long as the tax agency enjoys the taxpaying public’s full support. The same applies for Finland, where a recent survey revealed a whopping 98 per cent of Finns consider taxpaying important for maintaining the welfare state. Obviously such figures hardly call for the full-scale charm offensive of the Finnish Tax Administration: it is very hard to improve the agency’s high rating.

The adoption of a new, playful public image seems to rather coincide with the introduction of the agency’s new online portal, which automatizes many functions previously settled in person together with Tax Administration officials. The campaign appears to have been highly successful insofar as the portal is concerned: critique has been non-existent. But all this also coincides with wider changes that the Finnish tax authorities are tackling with: in 2017 the Finnish government passed a bill which allows Finnish citizens to own shares in Finnish businesses through nondisclosed foreign securities. At the same time, the tax authorities have, since 2019, allowed high earners to declare their tax records secret; up until 2019 the Tax Administration provided the national media with a public list of Finnish taxpayers who earned more than 100,000 euros in a year. The media, on their part, produced ranking lists of the nation’s highest earners and highest net-taxpayers, a publication appearing every November that some right-leaning quarters call the National Jealousy Day.

Finland recently published everyone's taxes on 'National Jealousy Day' |  World Economic Forum
Finns turning out for National Jealousy Day

However, since 2019, the transparency of these lists has become subject to doubt. Both changes, owning shares through non-disclosed foreign securities and making tax records secret, signal a departure from a long-standing policy of high-degree public accountability. At the same time, the public demand for the transparency of tax records remains – in 2020, Finnish newspapers did investigative work on those high-earners who declared their tax records secret, publishing separate lists of these individuals and demanding answers for their decision.

Where the Tax Administration enjoys a remarkably high public support, even the slightest threat to public accountability matters. Against this background, the Spotify playlist for filing personal tax returns, Tax Meditation and Tax Whisperer craft an image of the kind of public institution that engages in self-deprecating humour, isn’t too glamorous (for example, the ‘sports coach’ on the running track with Europe’s ‘Final Countdown’ in the background), and that could still be considered as being on the ordinary taxpayer’s side. Whether a product of an outsourced marketing consultancy or an internal PR brainstorming session, the newly released social media artefacts of the Finnish Tax Administration demonstrate the shifting dynamics and affects of state-citizen fiscal relations. In Finland where playfulness does not quite capture how citizens engage with the Tax Administration in practice (with utmost seriousness!), filing personal tax returns with the power of Spotify and engaging in meditative practice listening to Finnish tax legislation signals the newly found possibilities of digital media for shaping taxpayers.


Björklund Larsen, Lotta 2017. Shaping Taxpayers: Values in Action at the Swedish Tax Agency. New York: Berghahn.

Sheena Kalayil discusses her book, Second-Generation South Asian Britons

Interview by Kim Fernandes

Kim Fernandes: In your book, you argue that your participants (who are parents of dual heritage children and are themselves bilingual British South Asians) have a “relationship” with the Heritage Language. You intentionally use relationship as a metaphor to acknowledge the dynamic and often shifting ways in which one’s identity and the use of language are connected. For anyone who may not yet have read your book, would you be able to say a little bit more about what inspired this framing?

Sheena Kalayil: My starting point within this research was to try and find out whether people maintained their Heritage Language(s). As I began to listen to my participants talk about how they view their Heritage Languages, I began to reflect on my own experiences with Malayalam, my Heritage Language, and to realize that it was indeed a relationship. While I was talking to my participants, I also saw my own understanding of narrative inquiry shift. All of the participants – well, except for one – were older than me, by at least a little bit. They were all in what I would describe as ambitious or prestigious jobs. Their jobs all required a particular set of professional skills, and they were not going to let me write the story of their lives. They wanted to tell their life stories in their own way. So, our interviews were very much jointly constructed between us. The participants were driving the narrative of their lives, deciding what they wanted to talk about in the interview setting, and the way they were talking helped me construct this idea of having a relationship with their identity and language.

Multilingualism is very complex, and it should not be investigated through one approach. In my book, I wanted to show that monolingual interviews with participants can provide just as rich, just as useful, if not more useful, insights into the study of multilingualism and multiculturalism. In particular, I wanted to address the discourse around multiculturalism in the UK, which I think differs from US discourse in some ways. A lot of people assume that because the UK is multicultural, it will be a multilingual country. And while the multiculturalism is celebrated, it is also often considered a problem – you’re celebrated on the one hand and problematized on the other. If you’re an ethnic minority, even if you’re married to a white monolingual person, society expects your family to be multilingual, and there’s a sense of disappointment in situations where this isn’t the case.

Kim Fernandes: What inspired your choice of narrative inquiry as a method for the book? How did you work to build a narrative environment that allowed participants, as you point out, to move away from strictly linear understandings of space and time, and to instead generatively reconsider the ways in which language learning intersected with their understandings of time and space?

Sheena Kalayil: You know, in another life, I would have loved to be an anthropologist, and have done an ethnographic study. But with this study, it wasn’t the right time in my life to do that, and I wouldn’t have been the right person to be doing it. For me, a researcher has to really believe they are the only person who can be doing the study that they are doing. Being a writer, too, storytelling is important to me – and so the idea of just letting people tell their stories was very appealing to me. I began by reading about narrative research, but I came up against very canonical approaches. When I thought about them, I also thought, well, if somebody asked me those questions (say, for instance, about the one critical incident that had really got me thinking about my use of Heritage Language), I would not be able to pull out just one incident, because our lives are made up of so many incidents. I was also thinking about the ways in which we don’t really understand what’s happening when we are young, and often, you only get a sense of what happened as you grow older. So, too, there’s a retrospective building of a story. The other thing I took on board was that my participants are busy people and not everybody is comfortable with talking about themselves – so I didn’t want to start a research project which would die a quick death because people either found it too onerous to participate or I just wasn’t setting the right tone.

I quickly realized that a researcher should not just bank on the commonalities they might share with participants and assume that they are able to ask any kind of question or talk about anything. I’m not comfortable talking about a lot of my own life or family dynamics, so I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable answering certain questions. I was also aware that there were many things that I didn’t have in common with my participants. At one point, then, I decided to think of a narrative inquiry on my own terms. That is, asking people to tell their lives using interviews as my research tool and adopting a theoretical framework which respected how they chose to drive their narrative. I believe this approach allowed me to do the participants and their narratives justice. And through the messiness that arises from semi-structured interviews, I never felt like I was imposing my own research strategy or structure on the data. Instead, after transcribing the interviews and using Bakhtin’s theories of chronotopes, I was able to pick the aspects of the interview that the participants themselves were trying to highlight to me.

Kim Fernandes: At the beginning of the book, you describe an episode from the BBC radio program, Mind Your Language, where there is a particular disconnect between the topics that researchers are typically interested in when studying multilingualism and the rich everyday linguistic experiences of a range of Heritage Language speakers whose interests are typically not represented in research. You also talk about how writing this book was a way for you to center the voices of people like you that is, highly educated second-generation South Asian Britons from a range of professional backgrounds whose experiences with multiculturalism and multilingualism are often not the focus of research. Could you tell us a little bit more about what kinds of audiences you’d imagined when preparing this book?

Sheena Kalayil: I am a minority in the UK, and I’ve married outside of my linguistic, ethnic and religious community, and I have what are termed dual heritage children. So, all of these things are very close to me and my participants. But at the same time, I am very much an outsider. I wasn’t born in the UK, and I didn’t go to school here, I didn’t have that kind of formative upbringing that many of my participants did. Research that I was reading focused on particular types of South Asian communities – living in close linguistic and religious communities, working-class – because they are rich sources for research into multilingualism and cultural identity. But by focusing on those rich sources, there were a lot of people in the UK who were flying under the radar of most researchers – as I noticed from my own milieu, from my friends and this comes back to your question about who my audience is. My first audience was really myself. As a researcher of color in this country, I felt like I had a responsibility to add to the corpus through my ethnographic perspective as an insider-outsider. I felt like this allowed me to develop a different perspective on multiculturalism and multilingualism from the well-trodden research routes within existing conversations. So, the second audience for the monograph was also the academic community. However, I also firmly believe that the way I write and present the data is accessible in ways that might be of broader interest to those interested in a wide range of related issues, even if not directly as students of linguistics.

Kim Fernandes: Right now, with COVID-19, a lot of interviews are increasingly being conducted over Zoom or Skype. I noticed, though, that even prior to this moment, you’d chosen to do a combination of in-person and Skype interviews for you book. What influenced the choice of interview location, and in turn, how did that shape the nature of the narratives shared with you?

Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really interesting question. I was worried that if I insisted on in-person interviews, I would narrow the scope of my participants for a number of reasons. I had to fit interviews into my daily life and couldn’t afford to pay a substantial amount of money for travel. I didn’t want to limit my research to the area I live in, Manchester, but I wanted a breadth of the South Asian experience, linguistically and geographically in the UK. So, while it would feel absolutely normal now to set up the Zoom interview, I realized when doing my research that the two kinds of interviews were different, but it wasn’t that one was better than the other. Meeting people online, in a way, allowed me to be a more considerate interviewer: I could fit in the Skype interviews around their daily routines. I felt like online interviews allowed me to touch on things that were sensitive to people of South Asian heritage, such as love marriages, arguments with parents over raising children, and so on, while also being respectful of my participant’s space.

I do think, as well, that what the online interviews did was focus the interview very closely on the participant and their language experiences, in ways that may not have been possible with in-person interviews, and this might be a consideration for research in the future. I hope this also means that we can move away from thinking about in-person ethnographic work as the only way in which to collect putatively authentic data.

Kim Fernandes: I noticed in the book that caste only come up a couple of times, with one participant. Elsewhere, you mention status and race, and their relationship to language, but there is almost no discussion of caste as a fairly significant oppressive, hierarchical system across South Asia and South Asian diasporic communities. Can you say more about how caste did – or didn’t – come up in your own conversations, analysis and writing, particularly with regard to how it influenced participants’ relationship with language?

Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really good question, and I think it’s interesting that I haven’t been asked that before. Caste hasn’t played a major role in my life, and it wasn’t at the top of my agenda. However, when I was gathering participants for this study, I could tell from their last names about their caste – and one participant, as you mentioned, brought up her own caste. It wasn’t a question that I asked, since I wasn’t planning on asking my participants about their caste or religion. But being South Asian, of course, meant that religion did come up at some point with the participants. Given the contested nature of caste in the homeland, I felt that in the UK, caste may not have been as prominent a feature, even though there were numerous hints relating to caste and religion throughout. In future research, this is definitely something I’d like to look into.