Jane Setter on her book, Your Voice Speaks Volumes

Cover for 

Your Voice Speaks Volumes

Interview by Paola Medina González

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/your-voice-speaks-volumes-9780198813842

Paola Medina González: In your book, you address a variety of topics including speech, English history, gender differences, professions which rely on the voice, forensic speaker analysis, and transgender language. What are the sociocultural and ideological links you found between these topics? Specifically, speaking about minority communities of practice, what can we learn from your research?

Jane Setter: The main thrust of the book is to help readers understand that accent and/or voice prejudice is real, and to task them to re-examine their conscious or unconscious bias about this aspect of a person’s identity. Listeners make all kinds of assumptions about people based on the way they speak; these assumptions can be just as biased as those made based on how people look, what they wear, how they wear their hair, whether they have a job and what it is, what music they listen to, and so on.

Paola Medina González: One of the things I was most surprised about in your book was the incorporation of QR codes. Why did you make this innovative decision and how was this connected to your ideas about who might read the book?

Jane Setter: I wanted people to be able to access media other than print so they could really hear (and see) examples of some of the things I have written about.  As an educator, I find visual cues to be invaluable to the learning process.  Phonetics is often thought to be a dry subject and just about sound; I wanted it to come alive so readers could really get a sense of how this technical subject relates to the real world and to them. I always use video examples in my teaching and students have commented on how this helps them understand the content, so I wanted to give my readers that experience, too.

I suppose the book is targeted at anyone who is interested in speech as a social and communicative phenomenon, so that is who I imagine will be reading the book.

Paola Medina González: In your book, you talk about teachers and famous people who change their accents consciously in order to integrate into society. Are there situations in which we change our accent unconsciously? Are these changes imposed by something else, perhaps social factors?

Jane Setter: While several studies and the interviewees in the book show that some people are very much aware of the way they speak and have chosen to modify it, I think most people change the way they speak unconsciously when they move between different social settings.  In general, humans are social beings, and showing you identify with a particular speech community at any one time is a way of being accepted by that community, and getting your social needs met. This could be conscious or unconscious.  An example which is often given is how teenagers speak differently with their friends, their parents and their friends’ parents. I would certainly switch in and out of (slightly) different accents at school or home because of the expectations in those settings, and it becomes second nature if they are settings you are used to.  If you find yourself moving into a new social setting where the speech features are different, you will either chose to try to change, or you may decide not to, depending on how you want to express your identity.  Changing the way you speak to be more accepted by a certain speech community, and to show you accept that community, is called accommodation.

The fact that it is often unconscious is reflected in the accounts I have had from many people over the years who have moved around the UK – or the world – to study and, when they have gone back home, people have told them that they don’t sound like themselves any more.  This kind of comment can make the speaker feel like they have lost part of their identity (rather than gaining a new one), but it is also a reflection of how their social group might feel rejected by the speaker.

Paola Medina González: According to your book, some professions pay more attention to voice and speech inflection. Relating this idea to my own experience, when I studied how to teach my native language, one of my professors used to evaluate us in terms of performance, besides teaching techniques and designing didactic materials. She used to tell the male students that they had a really good teacher’s voice. Female students were not so lucky. What could be the reason for this? Is it true that there are better voices for teaching? Are there better voices according to professions?

Jane Setter: It sounds like your professor was biased against female speech, which is very common indeed, and something I look at in the book. But she may also have been biased against other women in general or felt threatened by them; the negative comments about your voices sound like something called competitor derogation, which people use to make themselves feel more superior.  This is a very complex issue and I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t feel qualified to make further comments.

Concerning whether there are better voices according to professions, I can’t think of any research that looks specifically at this, but I would suggest that stereotyping would play a role in people’s opinions of which voice and/or accent fits which profession best.

Paola Medina González: In many chapters of your book, you say that when people speak, the way they sound plays a role in social relationships. In this sense, there could be cases in which an accent can be linked with social stereotypes and people try to avoid it. What do you consider is the best practice to avoid creating and reproducing negative social stereotypes related to accents? What dialogue do you want your book to establish with people working in education? What can teachers and professors do in order to eliminate the stereotypes associated with some accents or particular phonetic phenomena? 

Jane Setter: Education, education, education!

Again, education is key here. We need to be discussing these issues and helping people understand what their (un)conscious biases are and how they acquire them, so that they can question these biases when they realize they are in the process of making them.  I would recommend this starts as early as possible in educational settings. And it will require those teachers and professors to undergo unconscious bias training where speech is concerned.

We, as people, need to be able to take a step back, appreciate that cultures are different, and try to move towards mutual understanding, rather than making assumptions which can lead to a breakdown in communication.

William Leap on his book, Language Before Stonewall

Interview by Brian Adam-Thies

https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030335151

Background
The Stonewall “Riots” occurred from June 28th-July 3rd, 1969 in New York City, Greenwich Village.   These events began as a result of police oppression and harassment of LGBTQ+ in the Stonewall Inn, a popular bar and meeting place.   The events reportedly evidenced spontaneous cooperation between people of all colors; gender conforming and non-conforming; cis-gender lesbian and gay men; different generations; and people from various socio-economic classes.  The Stonewall moment is said to mark the rise of the modern LGBTQ liberation movements.   Pride Month occurs in June each year to commemorate the events at Stonewall and their significance. Leap’s  book questions whether “it all began at Stonewall” accurately describes U.S. LGBTQ language history. Leap offers multiple examples showing that language before Stonewall was not buried in the closeted but in broad circulation, inflected variously across gender, race, class and other forms of difference, and associated with multiple moments of disidentification, rebellion and refusal before late June,1969.

Brian Adams-Thies: Pride month is based on what you term the ‘anchor ideology of Stonewall’.  This   powerful ideology  has both linguistic and material repercussions.  What inspired you to interrogate the ideology?  How did you come to write this book?

William Leap:. The stories about the events at Stonewall in late June 1969 that  are  presented at Pride events,   in the public media, and in many gay history books explain the event by telling the Stonewall story according to an appropriate, anchoring formula: experiences of “the closet” preceded Stonewall, and pathways to gay liberation swiftly followed, culminating in marriage equality, access to military service and federal promises of security within the workplace. We hear this story and we agree (with Althusser): “that’s good, that’s right, that’s true”.

But as is often the case for ideologies, this version of the Stonewall story  privileges a certain storyline while  excluding nonconforming subjects and narratives. Recent discussions of Stonewall have done much to decenter whiteness and gay/lesbian dominance.  For myself, I have long been  suspicious about the  Stonewall-related stories suggesting that language  before Stonewall was a secret “code,” shared but deeply concealed within the in-group,   unfamiliar if not entirely unrecognizable to outsiders. Through such mean, same-sex desiring, gender-transgressive and similar subjects could safely signal concealed identities to each other in public places —  dropping words and phrases like “[hair]pins”. The events at Stonewall and their aftermath brought this secret code  out of the closet and into the streets, making this linguistic usage public, visible, explicit, and open for anyone to hear.

This linear historical trajectory meshes with Stonewall’s anchor ideology:  the concealed becomes visible, the disguised become revealed. But  , this linear trajectory is not supported by the abundance of evidence documenting the widespread circulations of language before Stonewall within mainstream as well as “marginal” locations. Contrary to the anchor ideology, language before Stonewall was already “ … in the streets.” What Stonewall did was strengthen a more privileged discourse of sexual sameness tied to racial and economic hierarchy and privilege which was already in place before and would soon become    a language of homonormativity.

Having worked with language and sexuality studies for some time, I wanted to tell this story, and bring forward parts of the argument that I left unaddressed in Word’s Out  (Leap 1996).  Language before Stonewall is the result.

Brian Adams-Thies:  What do you mean by queer historical linguistics?  And why is Halberstam’s “scavenger methodology” (1998: 13) a helpful orientation for work in this mode of queer inquiry?  

Continue reading

Michelle LaFrance on her book, Institutional Ethnography

Institutional Ethnography

Interview by Sarah Fischer

https://upcolorado.com/utah-state-university-press/item/3649-institutional-ethnography

Sarah Fischer: You are an English professor, and your book deals with various subfields of the discipline of English, like literature coursework, writing centers, and first-year writing programs. Your methodology, rooted in institutional ethnography, however, seems to cut across several different disciplines. For instance, with respect to your methodology, you write that it “collapses distinctions” (12). How do you see your methodology speaking to fields beyond English? To what extent were your research methods informed by anthropology, for example?

Michelle LaFrance: Good question. I imported institutional ethnography (IE) to Writing Studies from the field of Sociology, where Dorothy Smith, a Sociologist, had developed it as her career work. Writing Studies has a long history of borrowing and adapting methodologies, such as ethnography, attuning those methods to the particular concerns of our studies. We deal primarily with writing, writers, and institutional contexts like classrooms and professional settings that so often also focus on the actualities of writing instruction. IE is especially concerned with the role of texts in the coordination of work and other social practices, so it seemed a natural fit in some ways.

But, I’d also say that most methodologies (and their related methods) are in fact, transdisciplinary, because they are in effect epistemological-orientations that reveal our representational strategies as we construct knowledge. This means that most methodologies can move across what we perceive as disciplinary boundaries (which are more situational and arbitrary than we often presume within local settings).  Ethnographers have worked at length in several fields to think through what it means to adapt methodologies to the unique(ish) contexts of particular fields, sites, and practices. My work with institutional ethnography as a writing studies practice is just one example of how we might take on those processes of adaptation.

I’d additionally say that my work has been most informed by Feminist Critical Theory and Community Literacy Studies, which are also transdisciplinary areas of study and I’m guessing overlap substantially with concerns/conversations active in anthropology. I’m always asking how my projects might help us to make a more inclusive classroom, workplace, or professional experience—most of us have an awful lot to learn in that regard. But I’m largely unfamiliar with the specific conversations unfolding in anthropology, so it is difficult for me to say more than that.

Sarah Fischer: One of my favorite parts of your work is its practical takeaways. For instance, you write that one of your book’s purposes is to “model how to carry out a project with IE” (51). I think after reading this book, scholars, teachers, administrators, or really anyone involved with writing or media in institutional settings, can realize strategies they might implement to uncover, or at least interrogate, the multiple realities of people’s lived lives. What information or advice do you hope people can practically take away from your book? Or perhaps specifically from your discussions of processes of negotiation?

Michelle LaFrance: I’m always glad to hear my work is useful to others. Very gratifying. My primary goal with this book was to offer a practical demonstration of how institutional ethnography as methodology could be put into practice and to offer a couple of models (that uncovered a different type of story). That is because I find the literature of IE to be fascinating, but it does often lean toward the theoretical and can lack practical details about how a study might unfold. And many of us need that road map, especially people carrying out their first study. I find it very helpful to have a researcher lay out for me how they have made key decisions as they assembled a research narrative; that allows me to think explicitly about how I read their work and how I situate their work in relation to the findings of other researchers. A secondary goal here was to demonstrate how important our material actualities are within everyday contexts, especially as these different types of stories can help us to think more holistically and carefully about those we work alongside (our colleagues and our students).

Sarah Fischer: In reading your second chapter in particular, I was very intrigued by your interviews with graduate students; it seems to me that retrieving this type of data required asking students in a less privileged position to openly discuss their frustrations with the systems that employed them. For instance, you mention that one student “did not feel comfortable talking about the linked courses [because] ‘it was too much like biting the hand that feeds [them]’” (62). You use this sentiment to acknowledge the influence these students’ precariousness had on their work in general and to open up a conversation about ruling relations. Can you talk a bit more about your interview process with these graduate students in particular? How did you navigate these obstacles in order to obtain enough data? How did you ensure the students’ comfort and safety?

Michelle LaFrance: I’m hesitant to hold myself or my work up as any sort of model of virtue, here because I have so much to learn about working within power structures and encountering and/or understanding my own privileged enfranchisement within institutional settings. I am a tenured professor who works for an R1, after all—we are an increasingly rare breed and I’ve been nothing if not incredibly lucky in that regard.

But I think one of the important things I wanted to recognize in this project was the way in which our shared contexts seemed to suggest that some people involved with the gateway course and the department had a clear platform (and/or right) to speak about the course, while others truly did not feel that they had that same ability, security, or right. This dynamic—a set of perceptions that TAs with me, but others I interviewed did not, definitely ordered my perceptions and work within the course and analysis of the assignments. . . The hard part about that is that no one—no administrator, no tenured faculty running the course, no one involved on a departmental level—would have said they wanted TAs to feel disenfranchised or as if they did not have the right to speak. Yet, clearly, a good sample of the TAs did not feel they could or should speak up.  It’s hard not to think that this is just the way of employment in today’s educational contexts. Some people are empowered—because of their positions, their certifications, the culture, or their social standing—to speak, to feel some degree of freedom, while others are simply not. I can’t quite say TAs weren’t empowered, that doesn’t seem the right way to think about it. But there was definitely something about power coordinating that site—and I wanted to acknowledge that reality.

I think that this sort of. . . strangely unfocused soft power dynamic. . . is often a missing piece of the way we speak about teaching, our choices as teachers, and so about pedagogy in general in higher ed contexts today—work within a course, with an assignment, and with students can feel quite different based on the ways the institution structures a teaching appointment. Contingency creates these spaces that feel very tenuous for teachers as workers.

As much as I am able, I do try to work from a critical awareness of the politics and social-justice implications of knowledge construction in the sites where I’m working, drawing from the work of feminist theorists, rhetoricians, and researchers (many of whom are also working toward important critical awareness of the lived experiences of people of color and multilingual, LGBTQ and non-binary, and differently abled peoples). I’m hoping that my work makes clear how our projects benefit from attention to the materially coordinated nature of our experiences. That is, how we are all tapped into often unrecognized structures of power (such as tenure and white, heterosexist, or able-ist privilege) . . .  as this move allows researchers to uncover the stories of individuals who may otherwise be erased or displaced.

Sarah Fischer: One major theme of your book, which became especially apparent to me in your discussion about the assessment of labor within writing centers, is the desire for justice. Your work seems especially dedicated to rectifying—or at least making strides to one day rectify—academic labor that has been rendered invisible. You pose a profoundly simple yet powerful solution in your conclusion: “I am moved to acknowledge the simple need for better listening and more understanding within our own institutional communities” (135). I am wondering if this desire for justice motivated your research, or if the inherent problematics were revealed only after analyzing your data. To what extent did you conceptualize your research as advocacy work before conducting it?   

Michelle LaFrance: I absolutely see my work as informed by and so informing a next stage of intersectional feminist action and advocacy. When we uncover how institutional spaces erase the disjunctions and actualities experienced by real people, we are shedding light on how we might also then pursue more inclusive and equitable material conditions. As an ethnographer, I firmly believe that action/advocacy grounded in evidence-based storytelling is powerful stuff. I encourage all ethnographers to be brave, bold and visionary about the stories waiting for voice.

Sarah Fischer: And lastly, do you have plans to carry out institutional ethnography on any other sites? Were there any possible archives you were initially considering that had to be set aside due to the material limitations of writing a book?   ​

Michelle LaFrance: I’m currently working in two different community sites in DC and have begun to think through what it means to carry out an IE study of writing and writers in sites that are less formally organized. Historic Congressional Cemetery is the first site. It’s pretty cool—the cemetery has been a fixture of the DC landscape for nearly 200 years, and while it’s still an active burial ground and on the historical registers for national landmarks, it’s also a common tourist destination. (Edgar J. Hoover, John Philip Sousa, Marion Barry, and Adelaide Johnson are interred upon the grounds). In recent years, the cemetery has also become a neighborhood center, hosting a number of community-focused functions each year, such as Dogs Days (an annual fair celebrating rescue and adoption), goat yoga, family movie nights, and seasonal theatrical events. Neighborhood environmental activists have also installed a chain of bee hives on the grounds and encouraged groups of volunteers to plant native species to feed the bees and educate guests about the importance of sustainable practices. But, most famously, Congressional Cemetery is home to the K9 Corp, a membership only dog walkers club, who use the enclosed grounds as an off-leash dog park. It is the overlap of these very active and quite different communities—the Board of Directors, facilities technicians, docents, historical preservationists, dog walkers, beekeepers, gardeners, parishioners, family of the interred, and the people who live in the surrounding neighborhood—that make this site a unique urban environment in which to study writing, writers, and the traffic of texts within and around the concept of community. These groups may share the same site, but rarely share the same values, visions for fair use, or sense of fair play. I’m asking: How then do they use writing to negotiate their ideals of co-belonging and processes of socialization and membership?

I’m also doing some volunteer work in a new neighborhood center that is taking face through a series of community-engaged projects.

I have institutional ethnography baked into my DNA at this point, so while these projects are still pretty amorphous (and the global pandemic has slowed me quite a bit in my ability to join others in their work), the ways institutional ethnography has encouraged me to think as an ethnographer is definitely shaping how I conceptualize my work in these locations.

All of my institutional ethnography projects, to date, were included in the book. I look forward to expanding my sense of how IE may help us to uncover and bring to visibility the ways embodiment (race, gender, class, [dis]ability) coordinate the sites I work in.

Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo discusses Revivals, Nationalism, and Linguistic Discrimination

Revivals, Nationalism, and Linguistic Discrimination : Threatening Languages book cover

Interview by Claudia Matachana

https://www.routledge.com/Revivals-Nationalism-and-Linguistic-Discrimination-Threatening-Languages/Fleming-Ansaldo/p/book/9781138193314

Claudia Matachana: Through the book, you made a distinction between revivalist and revitalization language movements and point that, in most of the literature, the difference between these two terms is not always made. What were the reasons to make this clear division? Or, to put it another way, what was the main motivation to write this book?

Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: We find it necessary to make a division between the two in order to make it clear that while the process of supporting truly endangered languages is basically positive (revitalization), the process of advancing a major language to the discredit of others is fundamentally negative (revival). We are aware that where these have been used interchangeably, our distinction may cause problems. In North America for example, revival is often used for revitalization. Overall the main motivation for writing the book was to clarify that while we understand and are sympathetic to revitalization movements which attempt to prevent languages from disappearing, we do want to critically examine why and how the concept of revival can be used to support movements or policies whose goals ultimately create rather than challenge inequality.

Claudia Matachana: Your book shows how the discourse of language revivals and nationalism is many times disguised as the discourse of linguistic rights for minorities. You point at the difference between the language revitalization that attempts to help a language to not disappear, and the social movements that seek to use a language for gaining power. What do you think are the implications of your study for language revitalization? Is there a message that you want to convey from your book for the people working on language revitalization?

Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: Yes indeed – that while supporting endangered languages, researchers should be careful not to create the underlying conditions for language discrimination. As we say in the book, we are not arguing against language revitalization per se. Rather we want to caution that involvement in and discourses about revitalization/revival should be careful about the exclusionary, purist ideologies that often accompany such movements, and that claims that a particular policy, practice, or ideology supports revival should not be taken as a carte blanche to implement policies with exclusionary or hierarchical effects.

Claudia Matachana: In the chapter dedicated to the language situation in Kazakhstan, one of the interviewed participants (K9) said that he bears a responsibility to his history and language and he cannot just become part of other nation or ethnic group because that would be a betrayal. That idea of linguistic loyalty and betrayal may appear to be related with nationalism. Where do you think that this relationship between language, ethnicity and nation –which, as you show, is not only present in this case– began?

Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: Well, as other scholars have pointed out, the classic formulation of nationalism as “one people, one territory, one language” has its roots in European romanticism, but in each of the contexts we consider, ideas about nation, language, and ethnicity have their own local resonances and histories. In the specific context of Kazakhstan, for instance, conceptualizations of ethnicity/nation have roots in the Soviet “nationalities” system according to which every citizen had to belong to (only one) designated, officially recognized “nationality,” which has somewhat conflated the concepts of nationality/ethnicity in many post-Soviet contexts.

Claudia Matachana: One of the things I found more interesting about your book is that it presents a wide variety of examples that covers different political and geographical situations – Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Catalonia – with a diversity of research methods –interviews, discourse analysis or documented political history. What was the reason for you to choose these diverse geographical locations for your study? How do the different research methods relate to each other and how did you link these specific methods to draw a general conclusion?

Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: We thought it would be most helpful to cover a range of case studies that illustrated our arguments in different ways, and with different dynamics. Some of the languages we examine are the languages of independent states; others, of regions or semi-autonomous regions within other states. Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan are both nations which had to form new policies and interethnic relations post-independence; in one case leading to civil war (Sri Lanka) and in Kazakhstan, to a complex set of hierarchies and interacting social structures. Mongolian is not exactly “reviving,” yet we can still see certain similarities in the kinds of discourses and nationalist ideologies that have been used to underpin the Mongolian context and the other cases. Hong Kong and Catalonia are both semi-autonomous regions where many people want to maintain or increase that autonomy, possibly by achieving statehood.

We also were keen to include both contexts that had been well-studied as well as less commonly discussed cases. For those contexts which have received little sociolinguistic attention – particularly Kazakhstan and Mongolia – we felt it was especially important to gather new data in the form of interviews, because there is very little published research relating to language ideology, use, and policy in those places. For Catalonia, for instance, there is such a significant body of work that we felt that a limited selection of interviews would have less to contribute to the existing literature. We don’t consider this book the final word on any of these contexts, necessarily – it is a limited account of one aspect of local dynamics in each place. Yet when taken together we believe these cases provide a robust illustration of how revival may play out and what kinds of tools / discourses may be used to advance revivalist (and covertly nationalist) projects, despite the different histories and realities in each place.

Claudia Matachana: Finally, your book shows how language is related to and used for political purposes, specifically its use in nationalist movements and as a tool of discrimination. What do you think is the political importance of these findings? How do you see your book speaking to the current political situation that is lived worldwide?

Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: We hope to be able to unmask what a powerful tool language is and how easy it is to manipulate. We believe that because of its ubiquity, necessity, and close ties to identity construction and expression, language is particularly vulnerable to being misused as a tool for political and social manipulation. In many contexts, language is heavily politicized as a key symbol of national and personal identity, yet many aspects of the sociolinguistic status quo are simultaneously naturalized – it is often considered simply self-evident and unquestionable that these languages must be revived / protected by any means necessary. What we hope to accomplish is disrupt this taking for granted by introducing questions about who benefits and who is disadvantaged by such processes, and how they might potentially be deconstructed and re-imagined to create more inclusive and equitable societies.

JoAnne Yates on her book, Engineering Rules

Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting since 1880 (Hagley ...

https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/engineering-rules

Interview by Michael Prentice

Michael Prentice: Engineering Rules is your third book following Control through Communication and Structuring the Information Age. The first two focused on genres and technologies as part of the overlooked mechanisms in the history of organizations and industries. What drew you to writing now about standards?

 JoAnne Yates: You are right to point out that a common thread in my work has been overlooked mechanisms and infrastructures. I tend to look at a level that other people don’t focus on – that seems too mundane. In Control through Communication, I was looking at communication and genres as an infrastructure for the modern firm. In Structuring the Information Age, I was looking at mechanisms for change in insurance processes related to adopting a new technology infrastructure—in particular, moving from tabulators to computers. Initially, insurance companies wanted computers to act like faster tabulators. Changes in processes to take advantage of the new technology came only slowly and incrementally. In Engineering Rules, the whole private standards system is an infrastructure that our society depends on tremendously. Everything that we do is governed by standards in some way or another. So the whole standardization community and the extensive network of standards organizations loom large in our ability to get things done, but we don’t know anything about them, typically. These people, their organizations, and the standards they set are a hidden infrastructure that most people don’t think about at all. Similarly, most people don’t think about communication systems (including memos and filing systems) and most people assume that when computers were introduced, they started a total revolution, rather than a gradual migration.

Michael Prentice: In the book, you emphasize the importance of voluntary standards. Why was it so important to tell that aspect of the story? Continue reading

Sabina Perrino on her book, Narrating Migration

Narrating Migration : Intimacies of Exclusion in Northern Italy book cover

https://www.routledge.com/Narrating-Migration-Intimacies-of-Exclusion-in-Northern-Italy-1st-Edition/Perrino/p/book/9781138584679

Interview by Daniela Narvaez

Daniela Narvaez: In your book, you reflect on your own experiences as a way of discovering intimacies of exclusion. You start by sharing with your audience that you conducted many interviews in several hospitals as part of a project regarding Senegalese ethnomedicine in West Africa. From this experience you had the opportunity to interview participants who, like yourself, spoke standardized Italian and Venetan. Can you please share more with us about your decision to turn your attention to Italians and their narratives? What led you to start thinking about narrations and their relationship to racialized ideologies?

Sabina Perrino: First of all, I would like to thank you for these lovely questions. In the early 2000s, I was studying the fate of Senegalese ethnomedical practices both in Senegal and in Northern Italy. I was interested in examining how Senegalese ethnomedical practices were adapting to or changing in transnational contexts such as Italy. Ultimately, my goal was to compare them with the ones that Senegalese migrants had available back in Senegal, before migrating to Italy. However, when I started to collect data in northern Italian hospitals and elsewhere, I immediately realized that there was another important ideological layer that needed to be studied: how northern Italian doctors, nurses and ordinary people were reacting to the arrival not only of Senegalese migrants to Italy, but of migrants and refugees’ arrival more generally. Besides sharing stories of migrants’ behavior in hospitals and of the use of their medicine together with Western biomedical cures, northern Italian participants started to share stories about their own anxieties around the changes that the Italian society had undergone since the 1970s when new migratory flows started to enter Italy. Many of my collaborators shared stories about their resistance to these new waves of migrants, often made racialized remarks, and, overall, enacted strong ethnonationalist stances. After my dissertation was completed, I then realized that it was the appropriate time to turn my attention to Italians and to listen to their stories to study these ideological shifts in Italian society. It was the early 2000s when I started to collect these stories, a moment in which, coincidentally, right-wing political parties, such as the Lega Nord (Northern League), were just at the beginning of their path of success across the country.

Daniela Narvaez: In your book, you have shown that through various initiatives, such as using Venetan in public signage, the creation of grammars, dictionaries, folktale- and proverb-themed books, among other efforts, Venetan has been recently linguistically revitalized. However, you also illustrate that this revitalization is not an isolated effort but has been transformed into a political emblem of regional group membership. You explain that “language revitalization initiatives in Veneto have gone hand in hand with the enactment of exclusionary stances concerning migrant groups and other people who are believed not to be fluent in the local language”. What are the challenges and consequences of regional language revitalization in these situations where language is being promoted among their speakers on the one hand, but on the other is being used as a political tool that creates intimacies of exclusion? How do you see your book speaking to the current political moment worldwide in which, as you point out, exclusionary stances and negative stereotypes about migrants circulate at a fast pace? Continue reading

Karen Strassler on her new book, Demanding Images

Demanding Images

https://www.dukeupress.edu/demanding-images

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: Your book is about the image-event, and I am wondering if you could explain what an image-event is, and how you decided which moments in Indonesia to focus on as ethnographic examples of image-events.  You are quite imaginative in how you choose objects of study, and I was hoping you could discuss the process by which you decide what to explore under the rubric of the image-event.

Karen Strassler: An image-event is a political process set in motion when an image (or set of images) becomes a focal point of affective response and discursive engagement across diverse publics. Foregrounding the centrality of visuality in contemporary public spheres, in Demanding Images I trace a series of image-events in which particular images become the material ground of struggles over competing visions of the nation in a turbulent time of political transition. I argue that in Indonesia, and elsewhere, today all politics has become image politics.

Underlying the term “image-event” is the premise that all images are events in the sense that they unfold in time and across space. Against the habit of thinking of images as fixed appearances at a remove from the flow of events, tuning into the eventfulness of images is a way to think about historical contingency and the dynamic, emergent quality of images as they move, mutate, and proliferate. Rather than conceptualizing an event as a clearly bounded temporal unit, I am interested in how images resonate and reverberate, in their ripple effects. This approach recognizes the volatility of images, their tendency to spawn new iterations, their unruly mutability.

Public images are elusive objects for the ethnographer. Traditional anthropological methods teach us to try to determine the “meaning” of an image through a deep engagement with its “context.” This “thick description” of the image usually entails tying images to specific actors and institutions that produce or consume them. But public images don’t play by these rules. They circulate in viral forms without authors and unanchored to particular sites and institutions. In a Bakhtinian sense, they are always alien and overpopulated with the intentions of others, they never belong to anyone except in the most provisional and temporary of ways. By following the image-event, we can see how images are taken up, how they are reworked, how they elicit speech and action, and how they coalesce a set of anxieties, aspirations, tensions, and dreams that otherwise remain inchoate. We can watch how they happen and track their effects.

My process for selecting image-events to analyze was really no different, I think, from what anthropologists typically do as we select from among the many occurrences that we encounter during research, homing in on those that provide analytic purchase, those that promise an opening to a set of questions or problems, relations or dynamics, that we’ve identified as important. Image-events don’t only reveal what’s already there but—like any event we observe ethnographically—allow us to see the process by which tensions, imaginings, and alignments, take form in real time. My choices of which image-events to focus on were of course shaped by my own (necessarily partial) sense of what was happening in Indonesia in the first decade and a half after the end of an authoritarian regime. Inevitably—and again, as with all ethnography—there’s an element of happenstance. For example, I happened to be in Yogyakarta during the months around the extra judicial killings I describe in chapter 5, and watching that image-event allowed me to think about the street as a medium. I chose image-events that, it seemed to me, crystallized and helped bring into view certain key tensions constituting the post-authoritarian public sphere, both shaping and unsettling democratic imaginaries in Indonesia.

Ilana Gershon: How have Indonesians’ relationships to photographs, and images in general, changed since your first round of research on photographs in Indonesia in 1998-1999?   What has been the effect of having such widespread access to technology that lets people not only to take photographs but also alter them? Continue reading

Christina Dunbar-Hester on her book, Hacking Diversity

https://pup-assets.imgix.net/onix/images/9780691182070.jpg

Interview by Héctor Beltrán

https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691182070/hacking-diversity

Héctor Beltrán: In your ethnographic work with voluntaristic open technology communities across hacker and maker spaces, you’re careful not to characterize “hacking” as a single set of practices or cultural ethos. You also make clear that the “diversity work” enacted within these spaces borrows from a range of motivations and strategies.

 How did you arrive at “borders of care” as a way to develop the conceptual work related to analyzing these overlapping, contingent collectives without necessarily essentializing them or reproducing stereotypes about them?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: In a way, this was one of the bigger challenges of the book. I did ask myself whether I was sampling “representative” groups and practices, though I also knew that my story would always be partial and particular. The research process was organically following leads, paying attention to what was happening in cities I happened to be in over the course of several years, traveling to other sites for conferences and meetups, and listening to what folks in sites told me about present-day activities and histories of activism around these issues in their communities. I also of course wound up in a lot of events and settings that don’t appear in the book—sometimes because they were too dissimilar to the phenomena that I center in the book, and other times because you can’t include everything. But this triangulation and iteration is of course informing the analysis. I found Anselm Straus’s “social worlds” analytic useful for thinking about social meaning in distributed, large-scale encounters. It is more important to be conceptually careful about the things I can group together than to try to “sample” everything, which is of course impossible with a distributed phenomenon anyway.

Fundamentally, though, there is a shared impulse here, seeking individual and collective emancipation through engagement with technology. I conceive of the geek impulse to critique and remake their social world as a form of hacking. I write of “borders of care” to illuminate how communities are constituted by their priorities, their care and energies around “diversity” topics. But of course borders suggest limits, and there is a tension here: if the border were drawn elsewhere, these communities would look significantly different (perhaps more like a social movement), and the social world that is the topic of this book might cease to exist or shade into something else entirely.

Héctor Beltrán: By tracing these dynamic communities, you highlight how strategies, politics, and subjectivities move from one domain to another. In particular, open-technology diversity advocates are always close to the profit-oriented pursuit of techno-entrepreneurial development and growth. In this case, market logics and racialized capitalism become the basis for emphasizing diversity.

At the same time, you identify scale as a challenge for voluntaristic spaces. Perhaps a community can develop democratic ideals and corresponding codes of conduct that work in their intimate, carefully cultivated spaces, but scaling these practices to redress overarching structural inequity or promote restorative justice is another story.

Coincidentally, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have established methods for scaling their projects; they combine iterative software methodologies with business acumen to launch their ideas onto the global stage. Are there any practices or strategies that open-technology cultures can appropriate/reconfigure from these techno-entrepreneurs in order to scale their resistant politics, without resorting to product-driven solutions or for-profit ventures?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: Well, I’m not sure how well I can speak to the practices of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but it occurs to me that one of the main strategies they employ is naming and bounding problems discursively such that their versions of reality are accepted by users and by policymakers. For example, one that has clearly been very successful for them is calling companies like Uber, Facebook, and AirBnB “tech” companies rather than transportation, media, and hospitality companies, respectively. This has massive implications for regulation in particular, as they use these strategies to evade scrutiny and accountability. But these framings also have implications for how we think collectively about our society and the modes of intervention that are possible and desirable. One of the things activists can do is to zoom back out when they are naming problems: rather than centering “tech”, articulate social aims people wish to fulfill. This is important for a few reasons. It considers social good (and harm) in its own right, decoupled from “tech” as the be-all, end-all goal, or yardstick for “progress”.

Also, activists can redefine what engaging with technology is. It can be slow, deliberative, resistant to scaling up, ambivalent about “progress” narratives. It doesn’t have to be something that is happening in sprints, or chasing venture capital or intellectual property claims. If slowed down, we can deliberately foreground sociality and power rather than gadgets. From there, it’s a relatively short distance to define social problems in familiar terms for social intervention: militarism, and racial, gender, and economic inequ(al)ity are some of the social issues that advocates for diversity in tech care about and are wrestling with. Personally (and as a scholarly analyst) I think it would be useful to foreground those concepts and articulate them out loud, to bound care differently than it is when phrased as “diversity in tech”. One effect of this may be to have some forms of social intervention by techies break away from being corporate-workplace-friendly, but I think we are at a point where it may be useful to draw some new lines. (Some feminist techies reacted with dismay to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” feminism, for example.)

Héctor Beltrán: You describe a meeting organized by feminist hackers who explicitly attempted to connect open technology culture to decolonial social movements. They’re left wondering why it turned out to be a mostly white gathering. In fact, many of the spaces marked as radical, genderqueer, and/or feminist many times turn out to be permeated by unmarked whiteness.  

On the flip side, around the same time when you were conducting research, my colleagues and I organized a series of events as part of our “Latinxs and Tech Initiativeat U.C. Berkeley, where we were also left wondering, where are all of the white activists? This is truly unfortunate, as we were similarly interrogating the “diversity in tech” discourse, such as the limitations of “technology” as an orientating framework and the drawbacks of focusing solely on increased representation. We even came to similar tensions, negotiations, and conclusions (published in our policy brief) that you identified with your research participants. Needless to say, it might be a lot more productive and enriching for all involved if these different initiatives joined forces.

What can we do to avoid activist fatigue and to get communities to cultivate     meaningful relationships across difference?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: I love this question, and I think it cuts to the heart of what is at stake with this kind of activism. I would love your thoughts on it too. I hope it is not an either/or for regroupment in enclaves versus coalition building, but rather a both/and. It is pretty clear that our present moment demands trust and solidarity across difference. And yet I understand that this is a moment where some people feel that additional burdens of trust (and vulnerability) are too much to take on.

Something you touch on in your report and I return to in the book is that markers of social difference are dynamic—shifting both situationally and across time. This might be more readily apparent to people steeped in anthropological traditions than a lot of people running tech meetups. Of course I do not mean to paper over difference—and real material matters are at stake, experienced differentially. But it can be useful to recall that some of the categories of difference that divide us are doing so in service of a system that harms us (if not all equally), so naming, understanding, and pushing back on that can be to collective benefit. I like where you land with “productive tensions” between cultural scripts; many things can be true or partially true, even when they almost contradict each other—it’s very important to strive to not be reductionist or essentialist.

I quote in the book an activist who says that she thinks hacking communities should be unafraid of tension (which, she specifies, is different from fear). Ultimately I have a lot of sympathy for the challenges that  people in elective/affinity groups who operate on volunteered time face in confronting what is ultimately a segregated, stratified society. It is not easy. The word “ally” gets thrown around a lot, but how do people join forces in practice?

Héctor Beltrán: I like that you identified the shock of vibrantly colored hair as a common geek identifier. Several of your research participants commented that this was a strategy for others to comment on their appearance in a respectful way without resorting to “harass-y” comments. The hair also serves as a way for members in this community to self-identify.

 The irony is that any self-identifying community marker can also serve as a way to inadvertently exclude. Perhaps if I don’t have a shock of vibrantly colored I hair I might feel like I am not the right type of “geek” to participate in this space. Can you tell us more about the dynamics of self-othering and being othered that you witnessed across your research spaces?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: Does one have to do the things that are normed within the subculture? Is this (ironically) another form of gatekeeping? It could be. I felt this tension with my interlocutors sometimes. I had one person I was interviewing ask me about which comics I read, which I think was a friendly effort to “place” me. The answer is none. I don’t know that she actually thought less of me, but I think she was somewhat mystified and even perhaps sad for me.

I also witnessed moments where geeks themselves drew attention to how nerd humor, for example, is potentially elitist, so they’re not fully unaware of these phenomena. Even so, it can be hard to see how the norms that are utterly naturalized for an individual or a group are markers of belonging that can feel exclusionary to people who aren’t acculturated in that way. I quote another interviewee who vividly described how she felt that as a self-identified bicultural Latina, she had to modulate both her cultures of origin and the femininity they emphasized to enter hacking spaces that were more “Anglo or German.” She was laughing about some of this when she relayed it to me, calling the other hackers “goth” and even “emo”! And yet these norms do real work, even to the point of presenting potential barriers or forms of subcultural policing.

Héctor Beltrán: Part of extending the genealogy of hacking is giving recognition to voices and groups who have been historically silenced and marginalized. You make the point, however, that more than just failing to be recognized, the creative and expressive technological tinkering of these groups is often criminalized.

Drawing from the work of Rayvon Fouché and Ben Chappell, you point to the horse hay rake and the lowrider car as examples of “hacks” by members of racialized populations that had to be defended in the face of mainstream ingenuity; these inventions were rarely portrayed as hacking in a positive, agentic sense. I like the lowrider example because Chappell also claims that the hydraulic suspension was not only for show but was a pragmatic modification that allowed cars to ride lower than the California legal limit, but then to be lifted in an encounter with a police officer. It shows how recognition, visibility, and “hacking” are closely interconnected.

What might coding be able to offer marginalized communities along the lines of recognition and visibility?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: This is key. A lot of what we hear is a push to “diversify” tech, as if that in itself will promote social transformation, though the “how” (and to some degree even the “why”) is usually inchoate. I don’t think the critiques I am making about the ambiguity of diversity work in general are especially pathbreaking (I’m leaning hard on a lot of excellent work by, for example, Sara Ahmed, Herman Gray, and others). But how this gets hitched to tech is worthy of consideration in its own right. And here I think it is worth really breaking down the dynamics into their discrete parts.

If “tech” is assumed to be the seat of progress, an incredibly ubiquitous and frankly banal cultural script we encounter every day, that is already importing ideas about who the bearers of said progress are (and aren’t). An uninterrogated “progress” laid on top of the priorities of the U.S. can mean new forms of encoding old traditions of racist policing, for example. But also technology being vested with this power is contingent; there was a time when the term itself meant something like “mechanic techniques and artifacts” and wasn’t vested with progressive power. Social progress wasn’t automatically enfolded into it. My belief is that we could once again decouple these concepts, and we would be richer for it.

At the very least, as long as technology occupies a central role in how we imagine power and progress, we need to do the work to understand how power structures have shaped technological development, counting some groups of people as automatic agents of that power and viewing others with suspicion or hostility. There needs to be sustained attention to power structures and not just a hope that “add X and stir” will fundamentally change technoscientific practices and institutions. In addition, a flip side to recognition and visibility is leaving space for, as you note by way of Chappell, strategically blending in or going unnoticed—and retaining the power to choose when pop up as “visible” versus when to stay more submerged or camouflaged. In a way, this perhaps returns us to the preceding question: to what degree is an “outsider” element necessary for hacking, and for whom does that aggregate or multiply advantages?

David Zeitlyn on his book, Mambila Divination

Mambila Divination Framing Questions, Constructing Answers book cover

Interview by Stephan Feuchtwang

https://www.crcpress.com/Mambila-Divination-Framing-Questions-Constructing-Answers/Zeitlyn/p/book/9780367199500

Stephan Feuchtwang: Is divination a ritual, despite its being improvisatory and dialogic?

David Zeitlyn: I have two problems with this question: the word ‘divination’ and the word ‘ritual’! We know now that there is enormous variation across time and space about what counts as divination or oracle (but for the sake of clarity I will give a rough and ready working definition below). What counts as ritual is also variable and unclear, especially at the margins. So I am hesitant about making big statements about divination, although I am prepared to generalise about the literature on divination (which of course is not the same thing). My conclusion about this is that anthropologists have spent too long talking to diviners, not enough time talking to the clients. In part, this is because of the lure of experts. Diviners often are local intellectuals, curious and articulate so we the anthropologists have gravitated to people like us: those who are both able and willing to answer our odd questions. Clients often have far more pressing things at stake (such as serious illness), and it is easier for them to tell us to go and bother the diviners rather than them. And as clients often travel to consult it is hard to follow up so we may not know what they eventually do with the advice they have been given.

My rough and ready definition: I am using the term divination in a very general sense for any arcane or occult means by which people gain arcane knowledge (Aune 2005, Zuesse 2005). Arcane knowledge itself is knowledge that is not available from everyday, practical activity and is more or less esoteric or occult in character, often about the future. (In other words, this is not a study of how some people find water sources (water divination or dowsing)).

Stephan Feuchtwang: More than other dialogical processes, such as conversation, is divination bound by a set of symbols?

David Zeitlyn: Here I think you and I are in agreement: there is more going on than ‘just conversation’. If I were trying to advise you about a course of action then I set out my opinion and try and explain why I have come to that conclusion. In many forms of divination, especially when there are texts of procedures to be followed then as well as engaging with these procedures, I have to be attuned not only to Stefan’s input but the contribution (actual or potential) of other people, critically other diviners who may say that my opinion is worthless because I have not followed the procedure correctly. The possibility means I have to be careful to do ‘things right’ guarding me against criticism from my peer group of fellow diviners. As Pascal Boyer is arguing in a paper in Current Anthropology (2020) this also connects to a way in which the results are seen to be trustworthy – because the procedures have been followed correctly the results are seen as not being just ‘something I say’ (just my opinion) but something I am reporting, the source of the opinion, the illocutionary author is not the diviners but as it were the mechanism (technique), and if performed properly then it is credible because it is not biased and partial as humans all too often are.

I discuss all of this in Chapter Three.

Stephan Feuchtwang: Why is a client-centred analysis only about the problems clients bring to diviners and not also about those symbols?

David Zeitlyn: I think it doesn’t have to be but in my case I am both trying to redress the imbalance and reflect Mambila practice. Mambila diviners (those doing spider/ crab divination commonly known as ŋgam du) will talk happily and extensively about the symbols on the leaf cards that are used. These are similar in design to those used by neighbours such as the Yamba and other groups to the south  (examples have been documented from many groups over the years). However in actual practice those meaning seem not to be referred to. This is a puzzle which I think relates to the diffusion of this specific form of divination over the long term: (And I note ŋgam reconstructs as a proto-bantu term for doctor/ specialist). But granted my emphasis on what clients, and in my case Mambila clients do in and with divination if they don’t use the available symbols then I don’t think it right to insist (or impose) on a symbolic reading In the book there is a Mambila myth which explains why you cannot (strictly why you can no longer) talk to spiders. But as I point out the myth takes for granted that the spiders know things without ever explaining the source of their knowledge. I would be delighted were a Mambila scholar to do more work on their sets of symbols (I am not sure is there is a singular system: that seems to me to be one of the things that such a scholar can discuss) but that is not what I have done in the book, which ends up being more of a sociology of the issues that people (mainly Mambila) use the divination to help resolve and something about how they talk about these things. The talking about these things has two parts: in the process of doing divination, that is the process of divinatory consultation, there is a set of issues of how you frame the question being asked, and how you respond to the answers given as you frame new questions. In this part of the book I consider parallels with Harold Garfinkel and see how ostensibly contradictory answers are taken as being prompts either to change or widen the question frame. Towards the end of the book I report  some life history interviews that I have done quite recently. These were looking at the role divination has played during ‘life crisis’ moments in peoples’ lives. The responses were interesting: even diviners seem to have been quite reluctant to divine. And more people than I expected said things like ‘tried it, didn’t like the answers, never again’. So there seems to be variation in Mambila society about things like divination that has to temper how I generalise about them. Now that seems a good concluding point for an anthropologist: generalise with caution!

 

Kimberly Chong on her new book, Best Practice

Best Practice

Interview by Johannes Lenhard

https://www.dukeupress.edu/best-practice

Johannes Lenhard: Your book is continuing a so far relatively short line of monographs in anthropology started by perhaps Caitlin Zaloom (Out of the Pits, 2006), Bill Maurer (Mutual Life, 2005) and Karen Ho (Liquidated, 2009) tackling the wide sector of finance. What is your specific focus and intervention in the anthropology of finance with your study of management consultants in China? 

 Kimberly Chong: Although there is an established anthropological literature on high finance, by which I mean the work and expertise of finance professionals such as investment bankers, traders, and fund managers, rather less has been said about how financial value, financial logics and financial ideologies get transposed into non-financial spheres. In Best Practice I look to provide a corrective of sorts, by examining the work of financialization practiced by management consultants in China.

My research can be divided into two parts. Firstly, my book provides a close range analysis of how labour and work has been transformed under the aegis of financialization. I am interested in the forms of evaluation that management consultants instantiate in their clients, as part of their endeavour to create ‘high performance organizations,’ and which link notions of performance to financial value. Moreover, I explore how this linkage is circumscribed by practices of organizing and managing, and how it leads to the devaluation of certain kinds of labour. As well as being poorly paid, such labour is rendered precarious and vulnerable to outsourcing. Secondly, my book examines the specific instantiation of financializing a hitherto non-financial entity. The global management consultancy in which I carried out fieldwork was parachuted into Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to prepare them for initial public offering on international stock exchanges. It has been hired to install IT systems which are designed to operationalize ‘value-based management’, that is management with the overarching objective of creating shareholder value. Yet, as I demonstrate in the book, the way in which the consultants, most of whom are actually Chinese nationals, understand their work is not in terms of evangelising the gospel of shareholder value, but rather as a dream of state capitalism. They see their work as making SOEs, and by extension China, into a paradise – a place of modernity and development, on a par with advanced Western nations. This does not necessarily represent a weakening of, or disruption to, processes of financialization, rather I show that local structures of meaning can be appropriated to enact financialization.

Johannes Lenhard:-  You position your book squarely at the intersection of the anthropological study of ethics and the economy (closely related to Max Cam); what I would want to know more about is how you think about economic ethics (as opposed to ordinary ethics or the ethic of the ethical turn for instance)? What does ethics mean in the realm of the economy? 

Kimberly Chong: I carried out fieldwork during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the 2007/8 financial crisis. During that time I was disturbed by narratives, from the media and within academia, which suggested that the financial crisis was somehow causally linked to a kind of moral deviance. People were too greedy! We need more women in finance! The problem with these kinds of arguments is that they fail to recognise that the very system in which financiers are operating legitimate and circumscribe certain forms of action. As Janet Roitman has argued robustly, perhaps the financial crisis was not a crisis at all but rather the financial system working as it was intended. If that is so, then changing the people would not be the solution. Also, it would be very difficult for management consultants to do their jobs if they really thought they were perpetually creating harm, waste, or fraud. This became even clearer to me when, in another research project, I studied the decision-making of fund managers. For both management consultants and fund managers, it is important to have a belief that their actions are the right thing to do, or at the very least, have positive efficacy of sorts. I’m not saying that what they do is always right but having the belief that it is right or commendable in some way, is very important if management consultants are to stay management consultants. The way in which they claim moral righteousness or ethical legitimacy for their actions, may, of course, vary between different actors.

In terms of approach, I analyse how ethical coordinates for action are produced through systems which involve both people and things – documents, charts, IT interfaces – through which value is ascribed and produced. I show how economic value is always produced in concert with ethical values, the latter serving to legitimate the production of the former. As exemplified by the trope ‘best practice’, management consulting is the business of creating ethical injunctions through which their interventions are judged and valued, but then naturalized as value-free (in other words, ‘the best’).

Johannes Lenhard: Similar to Stein’s closely related monograph on consultants in Germany, you also have a strong focus on the idea of work. What kind of work is it that consultants are performing (also in relation to Graeber’s notion of ‘bullshit jobs’)? What’s the significance of that work particularly in the Chinese context and how do you see that work (and its impact) changing? 

Kimberly Chong: I start the book with a vignette which shows new consultants learning to face down the tricky question of what management consultants do. This is presented as almost unanswerable in part because of the rather particular nature of  management consulting which I argue is highly performative in character. By performative I mean, following the likes of Judith Butler and Michel Callon, that consultants are in the business of producing – performing – economic realities in which they can substantiate their claims to expertise, and thus the legitimacy of their interventions.

So what does that mean in practice? A lot of management consulting is about selling and instantiating systems of evaluation, or ‘performance management,’ which allow them to make claims about improving efficiency, and create imperatives to restructure, outsource or downsize. These systems generate a huge amount of work to run and maintain – there are people whose job it is to set up the system, others who monitor it, others who create policies to optimise performance within it. And for people whose performance is being measured, such systems significantly impact their experience of work which then becomes subordinated to the fulfilment of performance targets and legible measures of productivity.

Although Graeber doesn’t mention management consultants specifically, it is probably not unreasonable to say that they have fundamentally changed the nature of work, especially given the scale of their influence – there are few large organizations that haven’t hired a management consultancy at some point. Certainly, consultants have helped to produce jobs whose value is so tightly hewed to the production of certain kinds of representations – such as ‘best practice’, ‘high performance’ – that the content of these jobs becomes hollowed out of meaning.

In China the emphasis on performance marks a shift away from organizations run by principles of hierarchy and political or social connections. Many of my interlocutors told me they wanted to work in a global consultancy because they deemed it to be fairer, more meritocratic, and they explicitly linked these claims to performance management. In many ways they pose an interesting counterpart to the ‘bullshit jobs’ view; although many of them did question impact of their work on their clients, the meaning of their jobs came from the broader frames of value in which they were inscribed. As well as being more meritocratic, some Chinese consultants appreciated consulting as a way of honing their professionalism and expertise. Denigrated under socialism, expertise has been rehabilitated in the post-Mao era, and the fortifying of one’s professional capacities, even if this is done in a global company rather than domestic one, is seen as a means of contributing to the nation and China’s strength.

Johannes Lenhard:- I am also curious about documents in the consultants’ jobs. They use PowerPoint slides (both electronically and in print-outs) a lot.  How do people talk about expertise in relationship to these slides?  Were some people considered more skilled than others with PowerPoint, and how did people assess that skill? And given that these slides were so ubiquitous, how did these documents function to shape the work day and flow of information? 

Kimberly Chong: One cannot overstate the importance of PowerPoint! It was the main medium of written communication, not just with clients, but also within the consultancy. This meant that everyone developed their skill in using PowerPoint– support staff like HR, as well as consultants. Moreover, the legitimacy of one’s expertise was tightly linked to the use of PowerPoint, and this included my own expertise – in the book I mention how I had to present my own pitches for access and research collaboration through PowerPoint. So yes it was ubiquitous. At the same time, some PowerPoints are more important than others, an obvious example is the proposals for new business, which are very slick. Although within academia it’s fashionable to talk down PowerPoint, my time in consulting has meant I have seen what can be achieved with this technology. Or rather despite this technology. PowerPoint is not a graphic design software, which makes it very hard to make visually spectacular documents. It was not uncommon to have slide decks with over one hundred overlaid images – tiny arrows, shapes, lines – which would comprise intricate diagrams, flow charts, graphical representations. This is meticulous work and requires painstaking attention to detail.

One might wonder how useful it is to have highly educated employees spending so much time doing what is essentially intricate formatting work. However, these documents were crucial to performing and enacting economic realities. As I show in the book, PowerPoint diagrams such as ‘Change Tracking Map’ constitute a kind of epistemological intervention through which consultants substantiate certain claims about their expertise. Other PowerPoints play an important role in training consultants and socialising them into particular ideas of their own control and potency in conditions of uncertainty. For example, in training they are exposed to slides that contain charts and graphs which model the delicate matter of client relations in a pseudo-scientific manner.

Johannes Lenhard: Finishing with a methodological question, let’s talk about elites. You had issues with access which is nothing new when ‘studying up.’ Continuing an ongoing debate re-invigorated by among others Souleles, what were your specific issues with accessing your informants? What did you do about them and what were you still not able to do and study? 

Kimberly Chong: There were many challenges. I networked tirelessly for six months before I obtained access to a global management consultancy and my problems didn’t end once I had my entry pass. As all ethnographers of organizations know, access has to be continually negotiated and renegotiated during fieldwork, and at all levels of the hierarchy. Second, there was the challenge of studying an extremely large organization, which at the time, had over 4000 employees in its China arm. Third, how do you get people to talk to you in an environment where confidentiality is highly prized and where people come and go all the time (as consultants ‘roll on and off’ client projects)? I felt strongly that I needed ‘legitimacy’ – a position within the organization that allowed my interlocutors to make sense of me, and thus feel comfortable talking to me about their work.

The way I managed these multiple challenges was by collaborating with the consultancy. I become a member of its Human Capital Strategy Programme which was described to me as an initiative of ‘corporate culture’, hence certain employees felt that, as an anthropologist, I’d be well suited to joining. But this did not solve all my problems. Although I was able to obtain access to their ‘client sites’ which is where consultants actually spend most of their time, I was never allowed to speak to their clients and ask them what they thought about the interventions that were being prescribed to them. This was perhaps inevitable, given I was dependent on the management consultancy, and thus would not be allowed to do anything that could potentially compromise their relationship with clients. But having restricted or partial access is, to some extent, the same for all anthropological research. We can never have as much access as I we would like, and often one’s positionality has a big effect on what we can see and participate in. I don’t see this as a problem, as long we are clear about this in our writing.

Lastly, I want to mention something that isn’t often written about and that is the pace of fieldwork when your interlocutors are very busy people working under intense pressure. Because I could almost blend in with my interlocutors – I was a similar age, ethnicity, and educational background – I did. At one point I had worked four months with not one day off, like many management consultants do, and was still writing fieldnotes in the evening. In the end I paid the price with my own health – both in terms of physical and mental health. Looking back, I realise that in some ways the ethnographic method isn’t suited to this kind of fieldsite, and this is something that we should be cognisant of, and we should modify our methods accordingly. For me, I think taking regular breaks from the field, and not feeling like I should stay as long as possible, would have been helpful.