Julia Ticona on her book, Left to Our Own Devices


Ilana Gershon: If you found yourself talking to a voice actor in a coffee shop about your book, how would you explain what it was about?

Julia Ticona: They’d likely have more to tell me than I’d have to tell them! After asking a few too many questions about their gigs and the tech they use, I would simply say that Left to Our Own Devices is about how workers like them use digital technologies to make a living. Over the past few decades, we’ve all become more aware about the pressures toward more and more precarious work. In the recovery from the Great Recession, as jobs returned, we saw stark differences in the quality of these jobs, they were part-time, with few benefits, unstable schedules, and came with titles like contractor, temporary worker and seasonal associate. In reality, these changes have been brewing since the 1970s. What I show in the book is the way that digital technologies, especially smartphones, have quietly become the hidden infrastructure that facilitates these new kinds of work.

For the landscapers, retail workers, and freelance writers I interviewed, digital technologies were central to their abilities to navigate precarious labor markets. Across social classes, these workers all constructed what I call “digital hustles” that were creative and resourceful responses to insecure labor markets. The digital hustle is a complex project that requires a vast amount of unpaid labor to coordinate schedules, maintain their clients and cultivate new forms of income, maintain their connectivity, and comply with the rules of online and workplace norms. I also found that while the deft and savvy use of digital technologies was an economic imperative for workers across many different types of labor markets – their practices weren’t only oriented toward the market, they were also oriented toward the self. Precarious workers’ digital technologies also played an important role in their construction of identity and dignity. From promptly answering text messages from clients to adeptly finding internet when your data runs out, executing a successful digital hustle proved that they were good at their jobs.

Digital technologies are important to these workers’ ability to survive, but it’s also important to point out that this doesn’t mean we can give everyone a phone and call it a day. Digital technologies in precarious work gave me a window to understand the cracks in a system where individuals are being literally left to their own devices to deal with economic insecurity. These technologies are so consequential because we’re relying on them to solve social problems they were never meant to solve. More access and more phones aren’t going to be the thing that saves us, a social safety net that is either completely or mostly decoupled from work might be…but also, yes please let’s also have the phones and internet too.

Ilana Gershon: How do you think your methodology affected what you were able to learn?

Julia Ticona: The book is based on 100 in-depth ethnographic interviews with high and low wage precarious workers that I conducted in four different cities in the US. Ethnographic interviewing is an interviewing technique as well as a way of understanding interviews as a unique kind of social interaction. This method draws on traditions in both sociology (my home discipline), and anthropology. It encourages me to understand interviewees’ answers, not as straight-forward reporting of what happens when they use their technologies to hustle for work, but meaningful accounts that can tell me about the larger cultural frames that people use to make sense of their work and their lives. More concretely, when I’d ask people to tell me stories about a time when a coworker used their technologies in a way that annoyed them, I interpreted these answers for what they could tell me about how the interviewee understood certain activities as trespassing the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate tech use in their specific context, not as evidence of what their colleagues were doing at work. As a result, this method is particularly good at understanding interviewees’ use of cultural expectations to make sense of their own lives but has limitations in that I wasn’t able to observe these interactions as they unfolded in context.

In-depth interviews – and to an extent, many other qualitative methods – are shaped by the ways interviewees interpret us and our role in the context of the interview. As a researcher, I participate in my interviewees’ process of meaning-making, and how what they understand shapes what they decide to tell me in ways that go far beyond shallower understandings of “trust” and “rapport” – which is how these issues are often addressed in qualitative methods training. There’s a long tradition of White ladies like me studying marginalized people, and several of my interviewees referenced the complicated legacies of this tradition. There is no space outside of these tensions, no method or research design that can “solve” for these legacies and differences in power. For me, grappling with this serves as a productive limit to my ability to claim knowledge about any person or social process, and a reminder that I share expertise with the participants in this and all research projects.

Ilana Gershon: Your book complicates more simplistic accounts of the digital divide, exploring how people experienced forms of predictable instability in terms of digital access.  How were people’s experiences of work affected by the kinds of digital access they had?

Julia Ticona: More recently, the story researchers have been telling about the digital divide recently is that it’s not really about access, because the costs of connectivity have come down and more people are accessing the internet on their phones. This has led many social scientific researchers to study other important kinds of inequalities – in skills, participation, motivations – but I’m really not done studying access. There’s a lot more critical work to be done on what we’ve called the “first level” of the digital divide.

In chapter 2, I detail the ways that low-wage workers face forms of what Louise Seamster and Raphaël Charron-Chénier have called “predatory inclusion.” These forms of inclusion happen all over the economy, wherever people are blocked from accessing something necessary – housing, student loans, and in the case of my research – the internet. Predatory inclusion happens when internet and mobile providers – who excluded people from access for many years – facilitate access for these populations on terms that cancel out the benefits of inclusion, like when they offer phone leasing programs that seem to make phones more affordable by breaking up the huge up-front cost over time, but actually end up charging people more than the price of a phone if they had been able to pay for it all at once up front.  Whether we see it in the student loan crisis or in paying for a smartphone, these are forms of exploitation of the poor. The book makes the argument that it’s not only exclusion from access that creates social inequalities – but inclusion too.

Ilana Gershon: What does comparing low wage and high wage workers’ use of digital technologies let you know about class divides in the contemporary United States?

Julia Ticona: One of the things I wanted to do with the book was to shift the perspective from thinking about digital inequalities to primarily one of thinking about the problems that come from exclusion to thinking about the terms on which people are included into connectivity. This wasn’t only because more and more people are including themselves into these networks, but also because it makes it much more clear that this is an issue that doesn’t only affect those who struggle with connectivity, but also those who hardly ever have to think about it. I wanted to tell a story about the shared experiences that precarity engenders, while also attending to the vast differences in the contexts where people find themselves and the resources they have to cope with precarity’s consequences. One of the most striking places I saw this sense of “shared, but different” was when I asked people – usually at the end of an interview – about their current phone & internet plan, and if they liked it. Everyone knew their provider – T-Mobile, Verizon, and so on – and I’d ask casually if they knew how much their bill was – nearly every high wage worker I interviewed wasn’t quite sure how much they paid and gave me a ballpark, while most of the low-wage workers not only told me about the plan they currently had and exactly how much it cost, but also the companies they were considering switching to and their prices. Comparing the experiences of workers across class allowed me to examine the role of privilege, not only the role of constraint, in shaping people’s relationship to their work and their technologies.  This is increasingly important, otherwise we’re left thinking that anyone with a cell phone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Our current system of connectivity is set up to allow some of us to ignore or forget the privileges we have that set us up for success with our technologies and our work, this forgetfulness is a moral hazard of living in precarious times and one I hope that comparative research like mine can help push back against.

Ilana Gershon: How do people’s class position affect what counts as a digital skill and the kinds of skills people develop to navigate contemporary work?

Julia Ticona: In some of the more celebratory accounts of the gig economy – the high wage workers I interviewed – freelance IT consultants, creative directors, and communication strategists – seem to be the winners of the new economy. Their intellectual and creative skills are in high demand, they’re adept at using technology to do their jobs and market themselves, and they enjoy freedom and flexibility of independent work. But, when we compare high and low wage workers, what I found was that it was the context of their work, rather than any special individual skill, that go a long way to explain their success. In chapter 3, I talk about an interview I did with a highly paid government contractor who openly searched LinkedIn for new jobs while in the office because she knew that if anyone saw her, they wouldn’t even blink because she also needed to network for her current project. Meanwhile, I talked with a retail worker in a consumer electronics store who was encouraged to use her personal phone to look up pricing for customers because the store’s desktops were hopelessly outdated. She needed to fill in some required paperwork and was using her phone behind the front desk and her manager saw her and thought she was ignoring a customer and passing the time on her phone and gave her a stern warning about it.

I show the ways the institutions of high-wage gig work allowed high-wage workers to exercise the so-called skills that were punished in low-wage workplaces. Instead of skills, I offer the idea of “digital privilege” to point out that the very same skills in the hands of individuals in different classed institutional arrangements, are received in very different ways. It’s this privilege, not skills, that made their digital hustles look smooth and seamless. Constraint and hurdles to access aren’t the only things that shape digital inequalities, privilege does also, and only understanding one side of that equation leaves out some important parts to our understanding of these phenomenon. 

Ana Croegaert on her book, Bosnian Refugees in Chicago

Cover Image

Interview by Dejan Duric


Dejan Duric: Your book sheds light on the many ways in which Bosnian women make and remake their lives in Chicago, based on more than a decade of fieldwork, both on- and offline.  What do you see as the main focus and argument in your book?

Ana Croegaert: Thanks so much for this question — my book centers the economic, political, and affective lives of women refugees who were displaced by the 1990s political violence in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) and then relocated to Chicago. I argue that women’s varied experiences with displacement shed light on the aftermath of intensive neoliberal reform and rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe and the United States. Initially I was interested in learning about women’s experiences with the material and social aspects of refugee resettlement in the United States in the midst of major reconfigurations in the social organization of work and of racial inequality. At the time I was in Chicago, then home to the largest number of Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) contracting agencies (after New York City and Los Angeles), and living in a part of the city with the highest concentration of refugees from former Yugoslavia. 

The vast majority of this refugee diaspora are Bosnian Muslim or from mixed Muslim-Christian families. There are two reasons for this. First, the political violence became ethno-racialized,  and Bosnian Muslim civilians and those in mixed families comprised the majority of people subjected to the atrocities. Second, unlike the other two majority ethnic groups–Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs–Bosnian Muslims did not have another state within former Yugoslavia that would recognize their citizenship, and so they had to seek international refugee status. Something that really stood out to me from the start of my research was the extent to which depictions of the wartime violence and victimization figured prominently in Bosnians’ encounters with Americans in ways that often crowded out women’s varied work experiences and their reflections on the ruptures not only of political violence, but also of radical neoliberal reforms in both the SFRY and the United States. A focus on performance, broadly conceived, helped me to capture and unpack these tensions for the book’s readers.

Dejan Duric: What stood out to me in your book is the detailed portrayal of how Bosnian women’s experiences of displacement were affected by a myriad of factors: their experience of growing up in a socialist country, anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States, shifting gender, race, and class dynamics in a new context, and so on. How did Bosnian women in Chicago make sense of the tensions and paradoxes that such experiences produced?

Ana Croegaert: Perhaps the best way to answer this question is through the lens of generational differences. One of the unique features of this refugee cohort was that it was multi-generational; children arrived in the U.S. not only with their parents’ generation – they were also sometimes accompanied by their grandparents’ generation. These two adult generations had experienced the benefits of Yugoslavia’s development programs of the 1950s-60s which greatly expanded education and jobs with strong workers’ rights and status throughout the country. They arrived in the United States with the expectation of a more robust working life than what they found. A Bosnian senior women’s group I volunteered with made me aware of this dissonance during their weekly meetings. The women used these occasions to drink Bosnian coffee and talk together, and a main topic of conversation were their adult children’s decline in circumstances in comparison to what they had experienced in Yugoslavia – that in the United States adults had to work two, sometimes three jobs just to afford the basic cost of housing and food; that they often had no time off or vacations; that some of them had no health insurance. The senior women’s critiques of these differences linked senses of time and space – that “there” in Bosnia / Yugo one “had time” for a quality of life; “here” in the U.S. there was no time for this.

Sometimes these differences created tensions for families. Adult children, for example, often felt pressure to help support their parents and their extended family who remained in Bosnia, where efforts to rebuild after the war were met with a multitude of obstacles. In order to cope with their diminished livelihoods, loss of social benefits, and to meet family obligations, a number of refugees relied – as did many Americans at that time – on newly deregulated credit and finance and were then severely hit by the ensuing financial crisis of 2007-8. As anthropologists know well, people’s feelings and sentiments around various debts are complex and often involve more than the contracted parties—these debts took a toll on social relations, and even on people’s health.

Dejan Duric: I found your focus on stories helpful to think with in terms of how refugees become legible (by sharing their stories) as certain types of persons. You identify two different language ideologies—one summarized by “everyone has their own story” and a more familiar one of “giving voice”—related to sharing stories. Can you explain how these two ways of looking at stories differ?

You also note that since “everyone has their own story” you were asked about your own story by your interlocutors. This is an interesting observation that you don’t expand on much; could you say a bit more about this?

Ana Croegaert: Yes, I was really struck by the ways that refugees were expected to share certain kinds of memory-stories depending on the setting. The “giving voice” sort of stories centered on victimhood and was most apparent when sharing experiences of political violence with westerners. One type of victimhood story was elicited in relation to NGOs aligned with western feminisms – the subtext in these stories most often was the widespread gendered sexual violence that women—and some men—were subjected to. Another arena in which the victimhood narrative was elicited were in the context of public memorial events organized by the diaspora—usually men—to uphold the autonomy and unity of the Bosnian state in the face of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) “inter-entity” boundary. These memorials overlapped with concurrent testimony given at the ICTY trials, and significant genocide rulings there and at the ICJ (especially in 2004-06). Further, this was in the early years of the “war on terror” and concomitant heightened anti-Muslim sentiment and rising white nationalist movements. This created a complex environment for Bosnians: how to communicate this seeming paradox of victimization of Muslim men to a public in which Muslim men were increasingly dehumanized? 

Here, young women again were the primary narrators of victimhood, and in relation to particular genocidal acts that targeted men such as those that took place in Prijedor and in Srebrenica. The systematic rape campaigns suffered by women were rarely mentioned in these stories. Both of these “giving voice” stories tended to portray women as symbols of the nation of women, or the nation of Bosniaks, and obscured refugee women’s efforts to be seen as workers, as creative beings, as more than victims, as more than valorized survivors.

I was actually quite surprised when I encountered these wartime victimhood stories because when I first began introducing myself to people through my neighborhood contacts and through a local non-profit staffed by Bosnian women, people agreed to talk with me, but specified “not about the war”. I took their lead and did not ask about the war. And then, after I got to know folks they would start telling me about their experiences during the war, usually in the context of conversations and activities that were not centered on the war. I interpret this initial refusal to talk about the war in part as a result of repeatedly being asked to share experiences of victimization. 

One phrase I heard over and again was “Everyone has their own story” – this language ideology emphasizes that the individual may speak for themselves and not for anyone else. In contrast to a supposedly authentic voice that has to be activated or given, there is an emphasis on self-awareness and self-construction within a communicative encounter. This was also a way of recognizing that although people – and Bosnian Muslims / Bosniaks in particular – were targeted according to group belonging: ethnicity / religion, gender, age, they had varied wartime and refugee experiences: it was different to have been in Sarajevo during the more than four years siege than to have been in a small town outside of Mostar, or displaced in the east, trying to seek refuge in the UN-designated “safe-area” of Srebrenica. It was different to be a woman or a man, of a certain age, of a certain class background. It was different to have arrived in the United States directly from former Yugoslavia in 1994, or to have arrived in 1999 after spending several years as a refugee in Germany.

People also wanted to know, what was my story? Where were my parents from? Why did I want to know about their story? What was my motive? What was my life like? I am not a refugee, nor were my parents immigrants. I also have had a lot of struggle in my life, and I shared these experiences with some of the women I came to know. I understood this expectation that I also share my story to be a way for people to recalibrate the researcher / subject, U.S. citizen / refugee dynamic. 

Dejan Duric: I particularly enjoyed the transnational and multisited approach in your book. In chapter three, “Ajla in Stolac,” you reflect on your time with Ajla in Stolac, a small town close to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Ajla has helped you understand the complex dynamics of inter-ethnic relations in the region, people’s aspirations for going abroad, and just what it is like to be a young adult in BiH. How and when did you decide to visit BiH and make that a part of your research project? Did you learn anything new about the diaspora after visiting BiH?

Ana Croegaert: Yes, I realized early on that, given how embedded women’s affective and material lives were in Bosnia’s postwar society and its diaspora, this project demanded a transnational and multi-sited methodology.  As I alluded to earlier, people felt profound attachments and responsibilities to family and friends who remained in BiH: sending gifts, remitting wages, maintaining property, and arranging return visits occupied a great deal of folks’ thoughts and plans. Previous scholarship of transnational ties to the region had focused primarily on men’s diaspora nationalist political organizing, but this work didn’t clarify much about the new diaspora’s engagements and the context of reconstruction in a post-war society. A number of people in Chicago had originally lived in the Mostar region.  When I shared that I wanted to better understand what life was like in Bosnia, and the relationships between people there and in Chicago, one family offered to let me stay in their apartment in Stolac, a small town up in the mountains above Mostar. They also put me in touch with family members there.

In fact, I was originally to travel to BiH in 2006, but unanticipated complications made it necessary to delay the trip. I was finally able to make the trip in 2009. Those three years made a difference because the political and economic situation in Mostar region had actually deteriorated during that time. I arrived during a political stalemate. The city council had been unable to pass a budget or elect a mayor and had stopped paying municipal workers and staff at publicly owned companies several months before I arrived. Further, the global economic crisis was in full swing and it had become more challenging for people in the diaspora to help buffer the effects of stalled reconstruction and high rates of unemployment in BiH by sending money and gifts. 

As you mentioned, I share the story of my visit to the region through the life of Ajla, in her early twenties at the time, and the niece / cousin of my Chicago family friends. I learned so much from Ajla. She was near to completing her studies in civil engineering and aspired to become an urban planner and help direct municipal reconstruction projects in Mostar. She was an only child and while she had been admitted to the engineering program in Sarajevo, from which both of her parents had graduated, she had declined and instead enrolled in university in Mostar because after the war her mom had contracted a significantly debilitating nerve disease. Ajla needed to remain nearby to help with her mother’s care. She had extensive knowledge of the United States as well as an extensive social network in the area. I learned so much from Ajla and her network.

One thing I learned was that everyone I met had family abroad, and some young people I met had even lived and worked in the United States and were back in Bosnia for a short or extended stay. I recall in particular one of Ajla’s acquaintances who told us that her mother and father had divorced. The nineteen year old woman lived with her grandmother and was in charge of her younger brother because her mother often spent much of the week in Sarajevo where she worked in a shop and was only able to return to Mostar on the weekends. This young woman’s father was now living in Michigan where he had a “new family”; it had been several years since she had seen her father in person. At times these transnational family forms produced tensions and resentments, and revealed significant gendered inequality in the distribution of affective and material responsibilities. Situations in BiH profoundly affected the everyday lives of people in the United States, and vice-versa.

Dejan Duric: Bosnian Refugees in Chicago came out in 2020; how has your research for the book and the reception of the book shaped your current projects? What are you working on right now?

Ana Croegaert: Well, the book was published in fall 2020, in the midst of pre-vaccine pandemic times. It’s a weird time to have a book release! That said, it’s been really fun to have people engage with the work. The world of academic publishing has such a drawn-out and unpredictable timeline; we’re often well into another project by the time a book finally materializes and it’s been really great to get to discuss the research for this book which was such a long time in the making.

In relation to the subject of Bosnian diaspora I have a forthcoming book chapter centered on coffee as a critical symbolic place-maker in diasporic and culturally dynamic contexts that features some of the work I describe next. My passion-project, dream-project that I’d like to grow, is an inter-generational collaborative interview project that is an outgrowth of the research for the book. This piece, “Gathering Grounds” uses interviews about Bosnian coffee practices to connect people within the post-SFRY diaspora, often across generations. We have a small collection of interviews, along with the interview guides, available on a website but we’d love to have the time and material support to grow it! https://dzezvacoffee.com

A key concept that arose out of my research for Bosnian Refugees in Chicago is that of “injured life,” that refers to folks’ insistence on the inseparability of the material and social injuries they had endured. I’ve been thinking a lot about this conceptualization of harm as I consider my more recent work. Since 2014 I’ve been exploring social tensions and social relationships through urban site-specific research, primarily in New Orleans and in Chicago. This research has looked at street food vending regulations, struggles to remove segregation-era monuments to white supremacy, gentrification and house music, and plant-based approaches to the abolition of Closed Cell Restriction (CCR, solitary confinement) in prisons…I think there’s a book in there somewhere! I’ve also been working since 2020 with a fantastic team out of the Field Museum in Chicago to establish a collection that documents material and expressive cultural responses to the covid-19 pandemic and coincident economic and political struggles – this project is ongoing.

Ori Schwarz on his book, Sociological Theory for Digital Society


Interview by: Dan M. Kotliar

Dan Kotliar: There is something very convenient, even comforting, in thinking about our theories as timeless, as endlessly generalizable analytical frameworks that easily cross chronological boundaries. What first prompted you to think that some of the most classical sociological theories may need revising?

Ori Schwarz:Sociological theories strive to be timeless, we always want our theoretical insights about social life to be generalizable beyond their immediate context, but theories are always developed while looking at specific societies, so they take for granted things that can’t be generally taken for granted. I wrote this book since I’ve noticed that the introduction of digital technologies has transformed in significant ways what sociological theory has taken for granted. For example, that social life takes place in situations, or that interactions and objects are completely different things, or that social capital is a symbolic capital. These transformations pose theoretical challenges that I tried to identify and solve through theoretical revisions. How did I stumble across these gaps between our theories and shifting reality? Partly, while trying to use old concepts during writing, which is very much like trying on your old trousers after the summer to find out they no longer fit. But it also has much to do with the constant movement between research and teaching. To teach theory you must be very explicit about the implicit assumptions of different theories, and then the gaps between these assumptions and the realities we study become much more apparent and disturbing. This constant movement sensitized me to the wider theoretical meaning of the transformations I study.

Dan Kotliar: Rather than calling for the rise of Digital Sociology as yet another sociological subfield, your book offers something broader – a revision of sociology’s classical theories in light of digitalization. Could you say a few words about the difference between the two, and about the need for a digitally-informed sociology rather than a Digital Sociology?

Ori Schwarz: Establishing new subfields is generally a clever strategy: it makes the pie bigger by creating journals, jobs and graduate programs, and more importantly, it creates a shared intellectual space where sociologists interested in a certain social sphere like law, family, or education may develop their unique questions, methods and theories that can later inspire scholars beyond their subfield. The problem is: digitalization is not yet another sphere of social life. Digitalization is a set of processes that fundamentally transform nearly all spheres of social life. Today, when digital platforms and algorithms mediate and remold the ways we find love, work, trade, communicate with our families or fight for social change; the decision-making processes of governments and corporations, and the management of workers, citizens and risks, the digital is no longer a slice of social life to be studied separately as in the days digital life was a parallel reality in IRC-chats. More importantly, digitalization changes the answers to questions that are not specific to any particular subdiscipline, to the most fundamental questions of sociology: What are the basic units of social life and social analysis? What is power and how does it work? How space and time are organized and how does the past keep living in the present? Which mechanisms bind together different individuals, their actions and their mental states into something bigger? Which forms of capital inform social stratification and what characterizes them? These are the kind of questions that very much define us as a discipline. I read much digital sociology and I love it, it’s important to empirically study digitalization, but it’s simply not enough. What our discipline needs in order to remain relevant is to explore how digitalization changes the answers to some of our core questions. This would also demonstrate the relevance of our theoretical legacy to other disciplines that are interested in digitally-mediated social life, because our theoretical toolkit offers the best point of departure to study digital societies if only we adapt these tools to the changing realities.

Dan Kotliar: Many social scientists see the rapid digitalization and datafication of social life as a reason to move into computational methods and study what they understand to be the social through big data analyses. How do you see this move? Does the digitalization of the social call for a revision of our methods, alongside our theories?

Ori Schwarz: The digital objectification of social life, their automatic self-documentation, opens great opportunities. Social interactions now are constantly translated into data objects that are available to the social actors themselves, such as Whatsapp chats, and into hidden data available to algorithmic analysis. In the book I focus on the fascinating theoretical implications of this transformation, but it also has methodological significance. First of all, the fact the interactions turn into objects may revolutionize ethnography. Personally I find it much more exciting, even if it doesn’t have the same high-techish aura as computational methods. Objectified social life can also be analyzed quantitatively, although data is too often proprietary or ethically dubious (because, unlike digital corporations, academics are still trained to feel uncomfortable about making experiments or collecting data without informed consent). I have more reservations about the paradigm shift heralded by AI and big data scientists and its promise for the so-called end of theory, for purely empiricist knowledge that can predict the future without having to engage in tiresome hypothesizing. This view gradually creeps from applied sciences into academe across disciplines, so I’ll make it clear: I don’t believe in the end of theory, not only because it will put me out of work, but mainly since I believe the aim of academic knowledge is explaining, not predicting. I’m also bothered by the dangerous political implications of the promise of perfect prediction and its detereminist ideology; for example, Israel has pre-emptively arrested hundreds of Palestinian teenagers based on algorithmic risk calculation. There are attempts to domesticate these new methods into a forensic social science, and use them without giving up the scientific project altogether, which is a risky endeavor which is too early to evaluate. But overall, objectification introduces increased knowability of the social, which not only transforms social power but can also transform the production of sociological knowledge.

Dan Kotliar: In the book you argue that the sociological theory of power should move away from the problem of free will, and that contemporary power operates independently of people’s consciousness. What does it mean for our ability to resist such powers?

Ori Schwarz: First, to avoid misunderstanding, human consciousness doesn’t go anywhere. Yet, I think it can no longer be the single focus of the sociology of power. Throughout the 20th century, the main question that haunted the sociology of power was, “Why are we still bounded when we are freer than ever”? And very different schools agreed that to answer this question we must look at the consciousness, how we are dominated through our consciousness, how it becomes an instrument of power and domination – think of Weber, Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault, Bourdieu, Lukes, Scott and many others. But today, power and governance in multiple contexts operate through algorithms, that are generative rules, as Lash and Beer call them. Unlike regulative rules like laws, generative rules are realized or enforced automatically in multiple concrete cases without having to convince the dominated to obey them or the agents of power, bureaucrats, to enforce them. Indeed, they are usually hidden, they do not need actors to be aware of them to be effective; they may change often without us knowing; and they govern our life. The more algorithmic power and governance become common and consequential, the more the question you asked about how to resist it becomes crucial. Generally, people resist it by trying to produce lay knowledge of these rules and manipulate them, just as we do with the hidden rules of nature governing our life, even though unfortunately, unlike our notion of rules of nature, algorithmic rules tend to change rather quickly, evading our knowledge. To theorize resistance to algorithmic power I offer the notion of resistance through detours. Unlike laws, these rules just cannot be violated, so the trick is to find detours or loopholes, technical ways to violate their spirit but not their letter: to make the algorithm classify you in a certain way to avoid sanctions or to allow you to act in ways that would have been otherwise blocked. For example, it’s very easy to prevent people from sending one another banned words or photos over instant messaging, but they may still modify their message without changing its meaning. Even when rules are inviolable, their power is not unlimited and governance projects can be effectively thwarted.

Dan Kotliar: If you happened to share a driverless Uber ride with one of the classical sociological theorists you mention in your book, what would be the first thing you’d point out to them about today’s digitally-infused society?

Ori Schwarz: Thank you so much for not making me choose whom! I would point out at the objectification of social life (the constant translation of actions, interactions and social relationships into digital data objects) and I’d stress the performativity of these representations of social life. For example, the fact that social network maps like those studied by social network analysts are no longer models or representations of social life but turn into data that shapes social life by helping algorithms decide how to treat us: which options will be opened up or foreclosed to us, what information will be presented to us, whether we qualify for a security risk, with huge influences on our life chances. Actually it doesn’t really matter who’ll join the Uber ride, since this transformation is relevant to any sociologist, alive or dead, as it remolds power, temporality, collectivity… almost any dimension of sociological theory.

Dan Kotliar: In your book you deal with symbolic interactionism, Marxist theory, Bourdieusian theory, and more. Are there any theories that, in your view, still need revising but were left out of the current book? In other words, what should we expect to find in the second edition of The Codes that Bind Us Together?

Ori Schwarz: I didn’t have enough pages for solidarity. I know, it sounds awful, but it’s true. In the book I discuss at length new forms of social life that I call “connective” and that share with collectivity some features but not others, and throughout the book I repeatedly warn the readers that the emergence of these new forms, these new mechanisms that bind actions, emotions and consciousnesseses of different individuals into something bigger, doesn’t mean we can simply forget about collectivity. In fact, collectivity and group solidarity (including their utterly unpleasant manifestations, like group hatred and violence) interact with connectivity in fascinating ways. I had some thoughts about Durkheim, and what happens to totemism and collective emotions in digital society, but before I had time to fully develop my argument, it became clear that I ran out of space; so in the second edition you may well expect more solidarity.

Tamar Katriel on her book, Defiant Discourse

Interview by Irit Dekel

Irit Dekel: Your recent book Defiant Discourse helps readers understand the relations between speech and action, revisiting important questions concerning the performativity of language.  It does so in its critique of speech act theory by analyzing the vernacular content of activism in the case of soldierly dissent in Israel-Palestine and in reconsidering what counts as verbal action in a culture in which there is skepticism about language.

How do you problematize the notion of activism in the book?      

Tamar Katriel: I problematize activism by viewing it as a historically-situated discursive formation associated with grassroots struggles for political and social change. The term activist designates individuals or groups whose non-violent interventions in the public sphere draw on a globally recognized and ever-expanding activist repertoire. The soldierly dissent I discuss in the book is a form of discourse-centered activism that involves speaking out about morally objectionable military policies.

Irit Dekel: What are the unarticulated tensions within discourse-centered activism, which become a feature of activists’ engagement?    

Tamar Katriel: A major tension I address is between a trust in language and skepticism towards language as a social tool that is related to two contending language ideologies – a speech-as-action ideology is grounded in a performative view of speech as powerful and efficacious; and a speech vs action dualism (encapsulated in the suffragist slogan “deeds, not words”) that is language-skeptic.

Another tension has to do with competing conceptions of the notion of action that ground activist projects – between the pragmatic search for effective action in terms of tangible results, and a view of action that underscores its creative potential in challenging well-entrenched power arrangements and opening new possibilities for collective engagements. 

Participants in grassroots activism also navigate between the incremental nature of activist action and the sense that it is part of a long and sometimes globally dispersed chain of struggles, and the sense of urgency that attends their local activist engagements and the desire to see tangible results.

Finally, I also discuss the enormous tension attached to the position of the critic-from-within, which involves taking a critical stance towards hegemonic positions in the society of one’s belonging. Such activist struggles are fueled by a socially self-distancing sense of moral outrage coupled with a deep sense of commitment and caring for public life. This tension gives rise to the extremely difficult persuasive task of swaying audiences by giving voice to challenging positions they are reluctant to address.

Irit Dekel: How does the understanding of dissent, parrhesia and witnessing – developed from your works on dugri speech and Breaking the Silence – reflect the centrality of speech and action as two mutually implicated cultural categories?           

Tamar Katriel: My early work on dugri speech, Israeli straight talk, was dominated by an attempt to characterize its distinctive quality as an historically-situated cultural style. I described it as grounded in a language ideology that warrants the use of directness, even bluntness, which is taken to be the mark of courage and sincerity. This kind of directness has indeed become a major feature of Israeli identity (or mythology, as some would have it). Truth-telling in its dugri version is grounded in mutual trust. Truth-telling in dugri speech, as in the ancient Greek discursive idiom of parrhesia, as explored by Michel Foucault (2001), relates both to the dimension of factuality and to the cultural imperative to be true to oneself.

In terms of the speech-action nexus, dugri speech can be seen as maximizing language’s action-potential through a gesture of defiance. In my 1986 book, I used the lens of dugri speech to analyze Colonel Eli Geva’s public refusal to lead his troops into Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War. In accounting for his dissent, he said that he could see children playing in the city streets when looking through his binoculars, thus linking his act of soldierly defiance to his position as a direct witness as well as to his inner sense of morality. Eli Geva’s defiant discourse threw a momentary light on the human reality of modern battlefields and made a powerful point about commanders’ personal responsibility. The act of witnessing in his case, as in the case of the contemporary Breaking the Silence veterans’ organization, involves insisting on the reality before one eyes and its moral implications, even when others cannot – or will not – see it. While Eli Geva’s was a spontaneous, individual act of defiance, Breaking the Silence is a full-fledged witnessing organization, whose founders have identified the social denial surrounding the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as a central impediment to the their morally-driven politics of change. Collecting and disseminating soldiers’ personal narratives as a source of counter-knowledge, they speak truth to power by giving voice to authentic, personal witnessing accounts of their military experiences as occupiers.

Irit Dekel: By focusing on defiant discourse as solidarity-oriented dissent, the book makes an important contribution to understanding political and social implications. Michael Rothberg’s The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (2019) sheds light on implication-based activism and intervention in art. Your analysis deepens our understanding of implication and complicity on (at least) two important aspects: you discuss perpetrators’ witnessing, and the moral implications of being a bystander. Second, you show how knowledge, addressivity-structure, and multiple audiences inform our understanding of the mediated space of appearance and the roles of different subjects in it. How do you perceive the category of implication? Where would you recommend further elaboration and research?

Tamar Katriel: I find the ‘etic’ category of implication useful for thinking about issues of moral responsibility in contexts of violence. The term implication seems to me broader and less judgmental than the that of ‘complicity’ and invites a consideration of degrees and types of involvement (in both spatial and temporal terms). As Rothberg points out, the notion of implication opens up new avenues for thinking about political responsibility by allowing us to go beyond the victim/perpetrator binary and the rather vague category of bystander and consider additional categories of social actors such as beneficiaries and perpetuators of     violent action.  What I think we now need are more ethnography-based thick descriptions of various ’emic’ constructions that can fall into the overarching category of implication as they play themselves out in various empirical cases (particularly as they relate to non-artistic practices, so as to complement Rothberg’s focus on artistic expression). More studies of the various ways in which people see, refuse to see or fail to see themselves linked to the perpetuation of violent practices or injurious institutional arrangements can further flesh out the notion of implication, and my book is one step in this direction. The case of Breaking the Silence witnesses is clearly one of complex implication, in Rothberg’s terms. They see themselves as victimized-victimizers, as both perpetrators of human right abuses and, simultaneously, as victims of the military system in which they operate (and the society that sustains it). In fact, implication is a central theme of their witnessing project – they acknowledge their own implication as perpetrators and point to that of their target audiences as past or potential perpetrators, as direct or indirect beneficiaries of the occupation regime, and as its immediate or long-distance perpetuators. Rather than discarding the category of bystander, as Rothberg would have us do by suggesting the more specific categories of beneficiary or perpetuator, as a linguistic anthropologist, I would ask how the term bystander is used in both vernacular and academic discourses, not how it is to be defined. Indeed, a good deal of vernacular political talk touches in one way or another on the issue of implication both directly through the use of the notion of standing by, and indirectly through the assignment (or dodging) of responsibility for violent actions. Such talk would be a good place to start asking questions about the shifting forms of implications and their discursive articulations.

Irit Dekel: I’d like to ask about the comparative promise for future research that we can draw from you writing on Communication Culture on the one hand and dugri discourse on the other hand, for studying Defiant Discourse and protest culture more generally.      

Tamar Katriel: Before studying Israeli dugri speech, I co-authored a study on the term communication as used in American speech (with Gerry Philipsen), which was titled “What We Need is Communication.” In this study, we identified a prominent American way of speaking, popularly known as “communicating” (contrasted with “just talking”). We found that the term “communication” was invoked as a solution to personal and interpersonal problems, and that people often evaluated themselves and others in terms of the quality of their communication skills. Over the years, the prevalence of this Anglo-American cultural idiom, for which Deborah Cameron (2000) proposed the term “communication culture”, has been extensively explored by scholars in Communication, Cultural Sociology and Sociolinguistics. ‘Communication culture’, which is at least partly rooted in the Western therapeutic ethos, has filtered into middle-class Israeli society in the 1980s and is currently discussed in Israeli social science research in a variety of settings, most prominently in conjunction with personal and national experience of trauma. I believe it has by now come to challenge the primacy of dugri speech as an Israeli vernacular idiom in which the speech-action nexus is foregrounded. Notably, both dugri speech and communication culture are underwritten by a language ideology in which speech is viewed as powerful action. But speaking takes very different shape and matters in very different ways in each of them. I began to address the Israeli version of ‘communication culture’ in the early 2000s by studying night-time call-in therapeutic radio programs (Katriel 2004). In that book, I juxtaposed therapeutic talk radio and dugri speech as two distinctive and alternative cultural idioms. In Defiant Discourse I updated my study of the dugri ethos as articulated in the context of discourse-centered activism. I now see dugri speech and ‘communication culture’ as two distinctive cultural codes that are central to Israeli speech culture (and perhaps beyond). As Tamar Kaneh-Shalit (2017) has argued in her study of the therapeutic setting of Israeli life-coaching, they may intertwine to create a hybrid style that combines elements of both the dugri and the communication codes. In future work, I plan to further explore how these codes may rub against each other so as to get a better handle on both local and global questions of cultural change and the role of language in it.


Cameron, D. (2000). Good to talk? Living and working in a communication culture. London: Sage Publications.

Foucault, M. (2001). Fearless Speech. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).

Kaneh-Shalit, T. (2017). The goal is not to cheer you up: Empathetic care in Israeli life  

coaching. Ethos 45(1), 98–115.

Katriel, T. (2004). Dialogic moments: From soul talks to talk radio in Israeli culture.

Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Katriel, T. & G. Philipsen (1981) ‘What we need is communication’: ‘Communication’ as a cultural category in some American speech. Communication Monographs 48, 301-317.

Rothberg, M. (2019). The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators. Redwood City,

CA: Stanford University Press.

Adam Hodges on his book, When Words Trump Politics

Cover of When Words Trump Politics by Adam Hodges


Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

Yeon-Ju Bae: Now that the Trump presidency ended, what can we still learn from the past years, during which responsibilities were denied and realities were distorted? As we discuss the ways in which responsibilities are distributed and performed in political discourse, what would be our responsibility as members of the broader society? What did it mean for you to examine Trumpian discourse and performance? Did you encounter any difficulties in doing so? What role do you hope your book would play in the post-Trump era and beyond?

Adam Hodges: I had been teaching overseas during the 2016 campaign and when the November election was called for Trump in the United States. A majority of my students were Muslims studying at our branch campus of an American university. They planned to visit the United States for part of their studies and now those plans were put into doubt – not only due to Trump’s promise of a “Muslim ban” and subsequent executive order that limited visas for passport holders of certain Muslim-majority countries, but they also had genuine doubts about how they would be received against the backdrop of the hateful rhetoric spread by a US president.

I felt that my responsibility, as someone who studies political discourse, was to shed light on Trump’s spurious language use. I think the impetus for much of my scholarly work is a desire to better understand what seems so antithetical to my own worldview. What is the appeal of someone like Trump who strikes me and others as a transparent grifter? What gives the invidious claims of a reality TV personality enough power to put him into the White House? In writing the essays that eventually went into the book, I was trying to make sense of this new regime of language while hoping my analyses might provide others with some tools to do the same.

On one level, I was writing for anthropologists and scholars interested in political discourse; but on another level, I wanted to speak to an educated non-academic audience – the type of reader that subscribes to The Atlantic or reads The New York Times. Linguistic anthropology and related disciplines have amassed a broad array of scholarship that is directly relevant to unpacking language use in our society at this moment in time. I believe sharing that knowledge and bringing it to bear on our wider public dialogue is important. I think all scholars hold a certain responsibility to not only seek greater understandings, but to share those understandings with others outside the discipline – classroom teaching and sharing our disciplinary insights with non-specialists pursuing a liberal arts education is one way to do that.

With the book, one pitfall I hoped to avoid was to analyze Trumpian politics without inadvertently feeding them, without simply stoking the outrage. I wanted to leave readers with understanding rather than outrage. I think framing the points in each essay around scholarly concepts helps with that, at least to an extent – so as to avoid being strictly polemical pieces about Trump. At the same time, the essays are also a form of political writing. My stance isn’t hidden behind a veil of supposed neutrality. I’m a scholar writing about my own society where I seek to critique the workings of power and abuses that I see.

Whether scholarly interventions into our collective understanding of the Trump phenomenon impart lasting lessons remains to be seen. I would like to believe, as your question presupposes, that we’ve moved into a “post-Trump era.” But I think in many ways, we’re not there yet. Trump’s power is necessarily reduced by virtue of no longer being president, but he still holds sway over the Republican party. I hope my book will play a role in providing a toolkit to disarm the spurious appeal of future right-wing populists, while its focus on Trump remains but a historical case study. But the political discourse in 2024 may feel more familiar than we’d like if he runs again; and, if he doesn’t, the discourse around the election will still be shaped and framed around the legacy we inherited from his time in office.

Yeon-Ju Bae: The referentialist language ideology comes into play at different points in the book, such as the way it underpins Jane Hill’s critique of the individualist understanding of racism that you discuss in chapter 8. On the other hand, on page 28, the referentialist language ideology and truth-telling subjects appear to be the basis for democracy, which Trump doesn’t fulfill by lacking factual integrity. I was wondering if you could elaborate on how Trump performs or deforms the referentialist language ideology in creating and staging his own reality.

Adam Hodges: As Sue Gal (2005) points out, “language ideologies are never only about language;” they also “provide insights into the working of ideologies more generally.” Similarly, Hill (2008) notes that “linguistic ideologies shape and constrain discourse, and thus shape and constrain the reproduction of other kinds of ideologies.” Language ideologies enter into discourse in a way that not only serves local interactional purposes, but they also mediate between those local interactional contexts and social structures writ large – a point elaborated on by Paul Kroskrity (2004) in his discussion of language ideologies. This is a crucial point: the idea that language ideologies can serve interested political positions and bolster other types of ideologies. In addition to applying this idea to the discussion of racism, I also touch on this in chapter 10 where I discuss how judges selectively choose and ignore different language ideologies to justify judicial philosophies.

In US public discourse about racism, as Hill details, a few different language ideologies work together to reproduce the dominant racial ideology. The referentialist ideology (Silverstein 1976), which holds that the function of language is primarily to convey information, contributes to the idea that meaning resides in words themselves, so that words are viewed as “containers” of information that are “sent” from one speaker to another, as discussed by Michael Reddy (1979) in his critique of the conduit metaphor. Referentialism can bolster the dominant racial ideology in instances where racist words are uttered; the words are seen as a vehicle of racist intensions, which becomes the focus of controversies that allow discussants to isolate racism in individuals who use the words. So referentialism is often accompanied by the language ideology of personalism (Rosaldo 1981), which locates meaning in the beliefs and intentions of the speaker. Personalism can bolster the dominant racial ideology by emphasizing that speakers who utter racist words hold the beliefs and intentions of a racist. Together, these language ideologies fold nicely into the dominant racial ideology by emphasizing that racism is a matter of, to quote Hill (2008), “individual beliefs, intentions, and actions.” In other words, these language ideologies are often harnessed in public discourse about racism to reproduce the dominant racial ideology that individualizes racism while erasing its system-wide patterns of operation within society.

As you note, the language ideology of referentialism also underpins the discourse about truth telling and how factual integrity, as you say, represents a normative ideal for democratic governance. We expect our political leaders to adhere to this ideal, at least in principle even if they stray in practice; and when they do stray in practice, we expect them to engage in subsequent acts of contrition or make excuses that nevertheless reinforce a referentialist foundation for their words. Most US presidents have more or less operated by these unwritten rules of democratic discourse, but then Trump came along to seemingly create and stage his own reality by somehow operating outside what Jane Hill (2000) has termed the “discourse of truth.”

At the end of chapter 2, which you cite in your question, I focus on how Trump’s disregard for factual integrity works to “typify” a worldview. By that, I mean he paints a compelling depiction of the world that resonates with the worldview of Trumpian conservativism. In this way, his statements come to be judged by his core supporters in terms of their ideological fidelity rather than their factual fidelity, by how well they reinforce what they already believe to be true about the world – by what conforms to that preconceived worldview – regardless of the empirical veracity of the claims.

So on one level, we could say that Trump’s factually challenged statements about everything from immigration to election results perform political work by drawing from referentialism to shift or affirm what his core supporters accept as true. But on another level, the showmanship, or as Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram (2016) discuss, the “entertainment value” of his performances allow his discourse to operate on a different, even if sometimes overlapping, level that revolves around performative acts designed to impress rather than deceive per se. Marco Jacquemet (2000) makes this point in his analysis of Trumpian discourse, discerning between “lying” (which, for the purpose of our discussion here, relies on the foundation of referentialism) and “bullshitting,” which, following Harry Frankfurt’s (2005) dissection of the concept, is done without any concern for truth. From this perspective, Trump as a “bullshit artist” (the phrase Jacquemet uses in the title of his article) deforms the referentialist language ideology, to use your phrasing in the question. I think your use of the word “deforms” is an apt description here, because it really disfigures or alters the referentialist foundation of democratic discourse that drives many Trump critics mad. As I discuss in chapter 6, much of the mainstream political press’s obsession with fact-checking rests on this referentialist foundation and went into overdrive after Trump’s election in an attempt to correct the factual record and uphold the normative democratic ideals that Trump violates.

In chapter 3, I take a different approach than Jacquemet and draw from Hill’s (2000) distinction between the “discourse of truth” and the “discourse of theater” to explore how Trump’s statements during the 2016 campaign were filtered through diverging interpretive frames. The “discourse of truth,” as mentioned earlier relies on referentialism and the correspondence theory of truth whereby a politician’s statements are evaluated in terms of how they correspond to an actual state of affairs in the world. If they correspond, they are seen as true. If not, they can be deemed “lies” if, drawing from the language ideology of personalism, the speaker intends to deceive. This is the interpretive lens through which the political press and many of Trump’s critics view his statements.

But the “discourse of theater,” as Hill elaborates, draws from the poetic function of language as opposed to the referential function, dramatically enacting a “message” in the sense of a familiar theme that resonates with voters – not so much because of its informative dimensions, but because of its emotional “penetration.” My point in that chapter is that these different interpretive lenses helped create an interesting mismatch between the way Trump’s statements were often given a pass (when viewed through the discourse of theater) while Clinton’s statements led to evaluations of her as somehow more dishonest and untrustworthy than Trump (when viewed through the discourse of truth).

Yeon-Ju Bae: I was intrigued by your usage of “alternative” as it was employed to refer to the Trumpian conspiracy narratives, because the word “alternative” seems to have been commonly raised by non-hegemonic less powerful groups against the normative. While Trump occupied the White House and had the administrative power, how could his viewpoint be yet regarded as illegitimate and alternative?

Adam Hodges: That’s a fascinating question. I admittedly didn’t think through all the connotations of the word “alternative,” as you’ve laid out here. My use of that word probably says more about my own standpoint and positionality in the society I’m writing about. The resistance to Trump’s election and subsequent actions as president mobilized a large swath of the electorate, including not just the usual liberal critics but also never-Trump conservatives. This created the widely held perspective that Trump’s presidency was anything but part of the normative powers that typically run the government. So, from that perspective, many of Trump’s actions, including his embrace of fringe figures, like Alex Jones, and harmful conspiracy theories, could be said to fall outside the normative constellation of presidential behaviors and comportment.  

It’s true, as you suggest, that Trump’s occupation of the White House elevated his symbolic power, providing momentum to the propagation of what would otherwise be considered peripheral or “alternative” narratives. To the extent that Trump’s position in the White House helped to legitimize the unconventional and shift it into the realm of the conventional; then I could see how the term “alternative” would be out of place. But I think any movement of norms during his presidency remained partial and incomplete. If anything, his role and response to the events of January 6th has even elevated his status – for those other than his core base of supporters – as someone seen as an illegitimate steward of the public trust. So I think we can recognize how the office of the presidency imbued Trump with a certain amount of power while also continuing to view his actions in propagating fringe ideas as standing outside the mainstream.

Now, I realize there are many ways his ideas represent the continuation of mainstream ways of thinking and governing. The prime example is his embrace of White supremacy. As discussed earlier, Trump’s views on race and racism are a continuation of the dominant racial ideology, which perpetuates a racialized social system that shapes how privileges are awarded or denied. The only difference is that Trump’s embrace of this ideology has been more overt and explicit than what came to be expected of politicians after the civil rights era. As Ian Haney-López (2014) discusses, contemporary political discourse about race is often implicitly conveyed through “dog whistles.” Although Trump does plenty of dog whistling, he has also helped elevate the popularity of White supremacist groups and a resurgence in overt acts of racial violence. Jonathan Rosa (2020) makes a powerful argument for the way we shouldn’t necessarily see Trump as a deviation from the normal.

Another way of approaching your question is to consider the way the word “alternative” fits into the myth that Trump and his team have cultivated for him as a supposed outsider. This theme is nothing new in US politics. Nearly every politician running for national office wants to claim the status of outsider, someone representative of the metaphorical heartland and common American, who goes to Washington to serve but remains outside the entrenched power interests of the elite establishment. Trump plays this part well with his brand of populism. Perhaps the use of the word “alternative” plays into this message, as well. I’ll let you decide.

Works Cited

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism without Racists. Rowman & Littlefield.

Coates, Ta-Nahisi. 2015. Between the World and Me. Random House.

Frankfurt, Harry. 2005. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.

Gal, Susan. 2005. “Language Ideologies Compared: Metaphors of Public/Private.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1): 23-37.

Hall, Kira; Donna Meryl Goldstein; and Matthew Bruce Ingram. 2016. “The Hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, Gesture, Spectacle.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(2): 71-100.

Haney López, Ian. 2014. Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford University Press.

Hill, Jane. 2000. “‘Read My Article’: Ideological Complexity and the Overdetermination of Promising in American Presidential Politics.”  In Regimes of Language, Paul Kroskrity (ed.), 259-292. Santa Fe: School of American Research.

Hill, Jane H. 2008. The Everyday Language of White Racism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Jacquemet, Marco. 2000. “45 as a Bullshit Artist: Straining for Charisma.” In Janet McIntosh and Norma Mendoza-Denton (eds.) Language in the Trump Era: Scandals and Emergencies, 124-136. Cambridge University Press.

Kroskrity, Paul. 2004. “Language Ideologies.”  In A. Duranti (ed.) A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, 496-517. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Reddy, Michael. 1979. “The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in Our Language About Language.”  In Metaphor and Thought, Anthony Ortony (ed.), 164-201. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosa, Jonathan. 2020. “Communicating Crisis: Getting Back to Whose Normal?” Talking Politics: Anthropologists and Linguists Analyze the 2020 Election. Public forum hosted by the University of Chicago, University of Colorado, and Society for Linguistic Anthropology.

Rosaldo, Michelle. 1981. “The Things We Do With Words: Ilongot Speech Acts and Speech Act Theory in Philosophy.”  Language in Society 11: 203-237.

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. “Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description.”  In Meaning in Anthropology, Keith Basso and Henry Selby (eds.), 11-55. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Smedley, Audrey. 2007, March 14-17. “The History of the Idea of Race…And Why It Matters.” Paper presented at the conference, “Race, Human Variation and Disease: Consensus and Frontiers,” sponsored by the American Anthropological Association. Warrenton, VA. https://understandingrace.org/resources/pdf/disease/smedley.pdf

Justin Richland on his book, Cooperation without Submission

Cooperation without Submission


Interview by Hannah McElGunn

Hannah McElGunn: Cooperation Without Submission brings together cases drawn from a wide range of contexts including the US tax code, Hopi Tribal consultation engagements with the US Forest Service, and a hearing between an anonymized Tribal nation and the US Office of Federal Acknowledgement. What was the process like of piecing together the different elements of this book?

Justin Richland: Is happenstance a process? I am only half serious…but I am half. I agree with Marilyn Strathern when she argues that ethnography involves the purposeful effort to generate more data than one is cognizant of at the time one is in the field. This seems to me consistent with most anthropologists’ commitment to a kind of humanistic empiricism; to not decide in advance what data are relevant to our hypotheses, but rather to have one’s own claims be open to the observable acts and interpretations of the people with whom we engage, wherever they may lead. And so, happenstance always plays a role.

 In this case, it was a combination of happenstance but also a terrible creative block that led me to the final formation of this book. I struggled with settling on a second project, even as I was taking on projects that involved different elements of Tribal governance and often involved different Tribal nations and national organizations. I was involved in a lot of important efforts by Native Nation advocates to influence US law and policy, but none to which I felt I could give the singular attention they deserved.

Then, in 2016, the #NoDAPL/Mni Wiconi protest the Dakota Access pipeline construction across Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s territory exploded in the news. I followed the confrontations between protesters, police and private security forces. But I also learned that the confrontations erupted when an ongoing legal battle had boiled over after a US court denied the Standing Rock Nation’s injunction to stop a federal agency from issuing a permit to complete construction. The Nation had sought the injunction because, they contended, the agency had failed to follow laws requiring meaningful Tribal consultation before issuing its permit. The U.S. countered that Tribal Nations had been consulted over a hundred times. It was this conflict that resonated with something I had experienced in my own work, and a sentiment that I had heard over and over from my Indigenous colleagues. They complained that while agency officials were often ready to hold so-called listening sessions with them, it was almost always the case that Native advocates left those meetings feeling like their concerns weren’t heard or otherwise meaningfully engaged. At the same time, despite this repeated refrain of frustration, I also learned, that many Native Nation representatives entered these meetings expecting to have their aims frustrated. And yet they undertook them anyway. This is what interested me most, and it led me to think about how Native Nation-US engagements might reflect an enduring Indigenous stance in which insisting on taking these meetings were acts of self-determination in the face of settler colonization that defied easy explanation along binaries of resistance/complicity.

It was while working through this that I recalled the words of my Hopi mentor Emory Sekaquaptewa, who once said, “In Hopi, culture teaches us cooperation without submission.” I wondered if the Native leaders’ engagements with non-native agencies and institutions are, refusals to capitulate to US settler colonialism, but enacted in a mode of provisional cooperation, rather than overt resistance. It is this possibility I explore in the book.

Hannah McElGunn: At several points in Cooperation Without Submission, you detail the way in which the United States and its agents approach Tribal norms, knowledge, and practices as objects to be evaluated or judged rather than logics of a sovereign governance system. But you also bring up a parallel distinction early on when discussing your own positionality, noting that you “deploy an Indigenous theory of sociopolitical action not as an object of analysis but as the analytic framework itself” (23). How did you seek to do this? Were there moments when the distinction felt slippery or difficult to enact?

Justin Richland: The conceit of this book is that to begin to grasp how Native Nations navigate the inherent contradictions of insisting on their sovereignty while also doing the everyday work of self-governance under conditions of settler colonialism, it necessitates taking Native actors literally at their word. That is, we ought to not only begin our analyses with the normative insights and perspectives that Native Nation officials take to their meetings with their US counterparts, but also how those norms are shaped by and shaping the unfolding interactions and institutions through which these meetings are accomplished. Only by asking after what parties to these engagements are up to when they undertake them, and the consequences (both interactionally and sociostructurally) they seem to anticipate emanating from them, can we start to get at an analysis of the Native Nation – US relations that start from the norms, knowledge and relations that Indigenous actors bring to them. In the book (and elsewhere) I have called these effects of political and legal speech activity, Indigenous juris-dictions, because I want to foreground how authority is announced and announced as enduring, in the details of rather mundane institutional discourses that seem to be about other things entirely.

We can then layer on to Indigenous juris-dictions the fact that this regulatory regime of meaningful Tribal consultation is claimed to be at the heart of official government-to-government relationships between Native Nations and the US, and the question of the meaning of “meaningful” for Native Nations party to these engagements is not just a matter of academic interest, but foundational legal consequence. Heeding the words of my Indigenous colleagues, I argue that meaningful Tribal consultation thus requires something beyond dialogue; it is a mode of engagement that is more than a “listening session.” Namely it requires engagement that takes Indigenous norms, knowledge and relations not as the data for regulatory actors to weigh, but as the measuring sticks against which regulatory decisions impacting Native interests are to be judged. This seems to be the meaning that Native actors are bringing to these consultations. Alas, too often this is not what their non-native counterparts understand these meetings to consist in, and the results are the frustrations I describe above.

You ask if this was a slippery or difficult distinction sometimes. Yes, of course, largely because writing in the usual genres of anthropological and sociolegal scholarship tracks with the same evaluative logics used by the US officials who see consultations as information gathering events, rather than as acts of governmental co-management. And so the descriptions made in this book involved normative judgments on my part, ones that treat Indigenous normativity, epistemology and relationality as objects of my inquiry. I try to foreground this inherent problem by insisting that my descriptions are necessarily imperfect, and thus open for reinterpretation by the Native people whose actions I was representing. Hopefully then the claims in this book are seen as provisional and thus always pointing beyond themselves to the ways in which Native Nations and their actors are themselves bringing their words to bear on the world.

Hannah McElGunn: Your thinking about limits, refusal, and recognition draws on work by Glen Coulthard and Audra Simpson, but also departs from it, especially from a methodological point of view. What do you think a linguistic anthropological approach can add to the wider discussion of these issues?

Justin Richland: Limits, refusal and the problems of recognition are central to the ways in which I am understanding how Native actors engage their non-native counterparts in US agencies and institutions funded by them. And I am indebted to the tremendously influential work of Simpson, Coulthard, and many others (including Jodi Byrd, Vine and Phil Deloria, Scott Lyons, Gerald Vizenor among others) for helping me think through how cooperation without submission could be understood in terms of refusal and problems of recognition. Standing on their shoulders has allowed me to see how refusal and recognition emerge in the details of the interactions and texts that constitute them, but in surprising and often seemingly contradictory ways. It is precisely there, methodologically, I think that linguistic anthropology gives me some purchase for understanding how engagements that might on their face seem capitulatory, are also, simultaneously, meaningful acts of push back, refusal, or limit. Linguistic anthropological methods and theories, and in particular our commitments to understanding the situated meaning of speech activity and textual forms in the details of their actual accomplishment, gives us a way of understanding how, despite (or maybe because of) the constraints imposed by certain structures of interaction and social action, social actors are nonetheless able to produce meanings and make claims that have powerful, multivalent effects, some that even have a relation of irony to each other. Thus a Hopi leader engaging US officials can in one moment refuse to share with them a sacred item of considerable esoteric significance to him and the other Hopi in the room, but then moments later reverse course, and freely pass the item around. Only by reflecting on their discursive and semiotic accomplishment can we begin to appreciate how this sequence of actions – rather than signs of hesitation or a caving to settler colonial expectations – are significant performances of Hopi political authority, and, at the same time, enactments of cultural knowledge, normative responsibilities and the inauguration of relations now interpolating the US officials with whom the object was shared. Without understanding the semiotics of these kind of actions, and the pragmatic details by which they emerge in real time, the way these acts are simultaneously signs of accommodation and coordination, can also be acts of refusal, and limit. It is this I am calling Indigenous juris-dictions of “cooperation without submission.”

Hannah McElGunn: I found some of the most interesting nuggets in this book to be the historical discursive contexts you provided for terms that have become familiar to anthropologists working with Indigenous communities who engage with the US government. I’m thinking in particular of the discursive gymnastics around Chief Justice John Marshall’s term “domestic dependent nations” that you detail in chapter two. Did you come across any surprising, unexpected, or overlooked historical details in your research for this book that have stuck with you?

Justin Richland: I’m not sure if this answers your question, but perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the work I do is recognizing how ignorant most non-natives (including me) still are about everyday Indigenous life in the US and elsewhere. The challenges posed by misrepresentations of Native peoples in our public culture are not just that they are inherently racist, or otherwise hurtful, which they certainly are. To me, what is also bad is just how much they make actual Native Nations and their lives utterly unrecognizable. So, when I was thinking about how to answer your question, my first reaction was to say how pleasantly surprising it was to me to find so many examples of Indigenous leaders responding to US settler colonial policies and laws with an enormous degree of political savvy. But then, almost immediately, I felt ashamed because one would think that after nearly three decades of working with Native Nations and their advocates, I would have gained an appreciation for the ways in which Indigenous political agency is so often overlooked in studies of Native-US relations, past and present. And yet, here I am, surprised to find out that Quanah Parker and Lone Wolf had already gone to Washington D.C. and spoke with federal officials there who warned them of what the Jerome Commission was after. Likewise, why was I surprised to find out that Cherokee leaders had hired some of the best legal minds of the day in their effort to stop Georgia from unilaterally imposing its laws on them, and even solicited the assistance of non-native allies to subject themselves to Georgia incarceration so that Chief Justice Marshall would have two different kinds of legal controversies with which to articulate the government-to-government relations between the Cherokee, Georgia and the federal government. This is all incredibly skilled legal and political maneuvering, stuff that I have seen often in my current work with Native Nations, but which is still surprising to me when I uncover it historically. And this is what makes me ashamed. I am still surprised, I think, because I continue to labor under misconceptions of Indigenous political naivete and susceptibility to US double dealing that emanate from the prejudicial and racialized views of Indigenous history that are so deeply engrained in how we learn about Native – US relations. And if someone like me, who has had the honor of working so closely with Native Nation leaders and advocates for so long, still can’t seem to throw off these misconceptions, what must it be like for others who have not had my good fortune? I fear there is still a lot of work to do to correct these enduring misunderstandings. I only hope that Cooperation Without Submission is one more small step in rectifying the norms, knowledge, and relations with which we non-natives engage Native Nations and their citizens.   

Shireen Walton discusses her book, Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy

Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy

Interview by Rachel Howard

Rachel Howard: As you note, active aging agendas “aim to encourage people to exercise control over the aging process and stave off the experience of decline and frailty through a range of ‘active’ practices, such as physical and mental activity, engagement with others, a good diet, and even cosmetic surgery and medication.” (22) Your text is a critique of the institutionalization of this concept, which is borne out by your interlocutors who seemed to shun efforts by the Italian state to recruit them in explicit projects of active aging. At the same time, many of your interlocutors found that the maintenance of a sense of utility or usefulness to their family or to the community at large was key to their maintenance of selfhood beyond their identity as an older person. How might we account for the way that state-supported efforts to promote active aging might be simultaneously shunned and taken up (perhaps in a different context), as reactive aging (25)? Is this a contradiction when it comes to an individual’s experience of aging?

Shireen Walton: Yes, and thank you for raising the question; I would say there is a certain contradiction surrounding ideas about, and practices of, what is understood to be activity. In chapter two of the book I consider some of the frameworks in which ageing has been positioned in Italy, in the EU context, as well as in the US under the rubrics of ‘active’ and ‘successful’ ageing respectively, thinking about these frameworks alongside how notions of activity are thought of and lived in practice among the people I came to know during my research in Milan. I found that a number of research participants may not necessarily ascribe to certain prescriptions of activity, but at the same time, and for a multitude of reasons, expressed their desires to be active, or rather, useful – something that the smartphone became directly implicated in. A number of older adults in their seventies I came to know were active in many socially-facing ways across the neighborhood that was the locus of my research; volunteering in local schools, running allotment clubs, co-facilitating a women’s multicultural centre, and helping out with childcare as grandparents. Through these activities, people expressed feeling useful, and derived a certain satisfaction from their ability to be engaged in such ways, on- and offline. This utility was linked to their sense of invecchiamento sano (healthy ageing), which in turn formed part of a higher or moral purpose that was seen as a core part of the meaning of one’s life. In cases where social lives were reasonably active then, calls for activity from the state, or other groups or practices linked to age were not necessarily engaged with, and could even create a sense of people being seen as, or feeling, old in ways they may not identify with. As you highlight, older age could be seen as an identity marker that a number of research participants were to some degree reacting against (though not always, and not necessarily intentionally) through their everyday lives and practices. Where age-related initiatives were notably being taken up is in the field of adult education, and specifically, digital literacy classes for older adults – something that has continued to develop online during the Covid-19 pandemic in Italy, and which we discuss in more detail in chapter seven of our collective book stemming from the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) project, The Global Smartphone.

Rachel Howard: The function of the smartphone, and its applications for communication, as a constant companion that is both personal and intensely ubiquitous, troubles the concepts of homeland and of home itself. How might the use of—and the need for—this object, suggest a shift in the concept of aging in place or active aging?

Shireen Walton: The constant companion, as I refer to the smartphone in the book, entails a number of shifts in the concept/experience of aging in place because it affects many inter-connected aspects of life, including the reworking of place, and notably, the place of home – in The Global Smartphone, we conceptualise the smartphone itself as a transportal home; a place within which we live. In my book I discuss how the smartphone accompanies people as they pass through stages of life; this may entail a loss of a sense of home through migration or displacement, or, people may experience a largely physically home-based life in older age that without digital technologies may potentially feel isolating. Or, some people may be living with both of these experiences. Being digitally connected in the home is something that has come very much to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic, and in the varied experiences of lockdown across Italy, and across the world.

Coming back to your question, what we can say is shifting with the presence of smartphones in everyday lives is both the experience of the home, and the concept of home itself. Some research participants in Milan would engage with medical care from home through WhatsApp, sharing images of symptoms with their doctors, or they would share and receive comfort and emotional support through forms of affective communication, photo and meme-sharing. In other cases, research participants from regions such as Sicily, or countries such as Egypt, Peru, and Afghanistan, who for varied reasons are unable to regularly visit the regions and countries they were born and grew up in, and where members of their families live, have a particularly heightened experience of the smartphone as a transportal home, which facilitates their virtual presence in multiple places/spaces, and affective economies, to employ Sara Ahmed’s term. However, seeing the smartphone as a kind of mobile dwelling is not to diminish the importance of either homeland, which for some research participants remained symbolically, practically, and politically very important, or the physical home space, as a site of care, physical presence, assistance, and company. These phenomenological shifts, nevertheless, prove very significant in understanding contemporary experiences and geographies of ageing, and of living with (and without) smartphones.

Rachel Howard: The text makes ample use of the case study and visual media, like embedded video, photos, and websites. How do you see these methods amplifying each other? How do these methods enrich or challenge our understanding of digital fluency? 

Shireen Walton: It’s been one of the exciting aspects of the ASSA project, and our open-access book series with UCL Press, that we have been able to incorporate photographs, embedded videos, and hyperlinks as part of our ethnographic storytelling. Via these multimodal means, readers can come to learn about the lives and experiences of number of people we carried out research with through a series of short videos linked to our blog and website, which can be viewed alongside other visual materials, such as our recently published comics on the ASSA blog, which tell a selection of fieldwork stories. This interest in interactive storytelling reflects our research participants’ own interests in engaging with smartphones, tablets, and audiovisual media for education, storytelling, and learning, and these aspects have been a keen interest and commitment of the project from the start.

Rachel Howard: It seems that being youthful may be performed in many different ways, across a range of practices as well as externally defined and internally experienced qualia, including the use of cellphones as a way of “awareness” (143) to different life-worlds not accessible to your interlocutors in their youth. The discussion of narratives in Italy regarding different age groups’ use of digital technologies at times seemed to mirror narratives in the U.S., particularly when you note, “Older people are often depicted in the media and in political debates as a vulnerable group that is susceptible to ‘fake news’, while young people, regarded as ‘digital natives’, can be presented as at risk of addiction or becoming enslaved by the device, and suffering long-term health risks.” (82) This seemed like a double bind. Is it ever possible for your older interlocutors to achieve what many seem to desire—to felicitously perform youthfulness? If so, what does that look like?

Shireen Walton: It’s a good question, and it raises a key point about inter-generational relationships that I aimed to explore in the book: how is age represented alongside other identity categories, and how do people see themselves – and each other – at various ages and stage of their life? A range of popular discourses, media narratives, and advertising continues to contribute to the production of certain assumptions and stigmas concerning older and younger people and technology around the world. In Italy, while younger generations may be depicted in the media as almost tech-obsessed, older people have been viewed somewhat traditionally as outside of the tech bubble. Examples throughout the book seek to nuance these representations by illustrating the various uses of smartphones and multiple social and political purposes they serve that I came to learn about from research participants of varying ages and backgrounds. Amongst research participants in Milan in their fifties through to their seventies a number of people expressed not feeling young but, as mentioned in the first question, not necessarily identifying as old either. Their smartphone formed a kind of bridge between ages, people, places, and aspects of themselves; enabling a way of being connected in a fast-moving world of apps, chats, images, information and documents, that, alongside wider forms of social and political engagement, made some people feel in a sense younger than what their actual age was. However, as I aready mentioned, this youthfulness was not just about feeling and performing youth for the sake of it, but was notably about feeling useful – to others, to family, to the community where utility was associated with activity and mobility, including in virtual forms. What might then be enveloped into a framework of youthfulness may involve any number of activities, such as running an allotment club, volunteering to teach Italian language classes at a local NGO, administrating a women’s choir and its lively WhatsApp group, or playing an active role in grandparenting. It may also be about carving out time for one’s self through apps for meditation and poetry, step-counting, or music. Overall in the book I try to describe a certain circle of activity, utility, privacy and sociability, that the smartphone – or rather, what people do with it – is involved in squaring, as the smartphone, and how people live and narrate their lives, calls established categories and assumptions about age(ing) into question.

Rachel Howard: To return to the ubiquity of the smartphone, I want to invite you to reflect on the way that it both mediates and changes the terms of communication practices amongst your interlocutors. Is the smartphone, in some ways, like a walker or a cane for digital communication? What new kind of communication skills does the smartphone require its user to learn? Do your interlocutors use the smartphone in ways other than originally intended, thereby shifting its function?

Shireen Walton: The smartphone entails multiple forms of communication, and these will vary depending on who is using a particular device, in a specific context, via certain kinds of digital infrastructure. Using a smartphone involves firstly learning to use it, as well as the subsequent social etiquettes, languages, apps, and communication forms that the social aspect of it entails. Chapter five of the book details a number of examples of how in some cases the smartphone amplifies existing forms of communication; where for example, audio messaging may be preferable to those who may otherwise routinely converse on the phone. In other cases, visual forms of communication such as stickers, emojis, and memes might play upon people’s creativity or reflect, say, the sense of humour between siblings or friends. On the other hand, the multiple options for communication afforded by the smartphone also draws people into experimenting with how they communicate and express care; such as the research participants who had entered into a new and unfamiliar habit of returning a meme-a-day to a friend or relative as a form of talking without talking, or communicating expressively online via stickers and memes. This circles back to your earlier question about the significance of the smartphone for ageing in place. I would say that the range of creative uses I encountered amongst older adults in Milan extends the smartphone beyond a kind of walker or a cane for digital communication. Rather, the object forms an intimate link with the person, their language(s), politics, and their social universe. For potentially bringing about confusion and anxiety as it affords connection, companionship, and mobility, the smartphone can be both a rock of support and the hard place of people’s lives, homes, and relationships.

Juan Luis Rodríguez on his book, Language and Revolutionary Magic in the Orinoco Delta


Interview by Rusty Barrett

Rusty Barrett: First, for those unfamiliar with Venezuela, could you explain the term “revolutionary magic”?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: I first encountered the term revolutionary magic in one of Fernando Coronil’s interviews where he wondered whether the Bolivarian revolution would be a new iteration of what he called the magical state. Coronil argued back in the 1990s that Venezuela’s dependency on oil put the state in a mediating position between the social body of the nation and both its nature and international capital. This position made the Venezuelan state appear magical to Venezuelans because it had the possibility of carrying out grandiose projects of infrastructure and welfare policies with money that seemed to come from nowhere. The state, without taxing either its citizens or its industries, was in the position to undertake the process of making Venezuela a modern country. This magic, of course, has the downside of depending on the ups and downs of oil prices in the international market. When Chavez was elected to office in 1999, he took office at the end of a long period of economic crisis that extended from 1983 to the end of the1990s. After a few years in office, he found himself as the leader of a revolution (later he will call this turn socialism of the 21st century), and as the Venezuelan president that has managed the largest budget in the history of the country. Since roughly 2004 to the end of 2012 Venezuela received more money from oil exports than at any other time in its history. In this historical period Venezuela combined all the structural features of the magical state with all the utopian desires of a 21st century socialist. The term, revolutionary magic, then refers to the assemblages of performances, political ways of speaking, and infrastructural projects that emerge out of that combination of those factors. If the magic of the Venezuelan state in the 20th century produced a kind of modernity, in the 21st century this capacity was turned to construct a revolution. In both cases, modernity and revolution suffer from the same reliance on the state to scaffold rhetorical and performative apparatuses with an unreliable source of economic success.          

Rusty Barrett: Your work is clearly situated within the discourse-based approach to culture, why did you choose that particular framework? How does this approach address concerns beyond linguistic anthropology?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: I came to learn about discourse-centered approaches to culture during my grad school years studying under Jonathan Hill and Anthony K. Webster. I still remember how reading Jonathan’s work and going to seminar with Tony grounded my work on the idea that I should go after naturally occurring instances of language use emphasizing the centrality of performance and showcasing the complexity of what people say while we do fieldwork. This was very important to me because this is what methodologically separated my work from Coronil’s who rather had the methodological gaze of a historian. I wanted to understand Venezuelan political discourse and gift-giving in the context of the magic of the state (or magical state), but I wanted to do it by paying attention to how people get folded into actual contexts of linguistic interaction where they must engage in actual political speech. The distribution of state resources and the magic of the Bolivarian revolution produced actual instances of language use. I wanted to go after that. Discourse-centered approaches, especially the branch coming down from Joel Sherzer, have always been associated with verbal play, poetics, and performance, and rightly so. I hope that my book shows how discourse-centered approaches to culture can also shed light on questions of political economy, revolution, and modernity that are often not addressed from this perspective.

Rusty Barrett: Your book emphasizes issues of translation and transduction. How are those concepts important for understanding the place of the Warao in Venezuelan politics?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: Part of the transition from what Chavez called the fourth republic into the Bolivarian revolution was a change in the kind of relationships that state institutions, and the Catholic church, had with Indigenous communities. After 1958, when dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was deposed, Venezuelan political parties signed what was known as the Puntofijo pact and embraced representative democracy as a core ideological value. During this period, Indigenous peoples were regarded as potential constituents to be represented by appointed officials from the central government in Caracas. They were supposed to be integrated into Venezuela’s political and economic system, but that future was always imagined as a process of acculturation in which they become undifferentiated citizens who speak Spanish primarily. Their languages were supposed to disappear and, from the point of view of the State, it made sense to translate their oral traditions into Spanish making them cultural patrimony of the nation. In this way the ideals of representative democracy gave a specific directionality to the work of translation from Indigenous language to Spanish because the product of these texts was supposed to represent Indigenous peoples as future integrated citizens of a modern State. The work of the Magical State is to produce modernity, and during this period that meant pulling Indigenous peoples into the orbit of the state. The work of translation followed that logic.

This all changed with the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power. He opposed a new ideal of participatory democracy, and later socialism, to the previous ideology of political representation. This new ideology centered around the notion that people must have a degree of direct participation in the decision-making process and implementation of policies. This new ideological position was central to the writing of the new constitution in 1999. At the same time the circulation of texts and practices of translation was completely reversed. Indigenous peoples were now not supposed to be integrated as culturally and linguistically undifferentiated constituents who needed representation but as subjects who would keep these differences and participate in the democratic process themselves. The constitution, laws that affected Indigenous peoples’ lives, and the symbols of the nation, such as the national anthem, had to be translated into Indigenous languages. That reverted the flow of translation in the hope that it would give Indigenous peoples the knowledge and capacity to participate in the political life of the nation representing themselves in the process.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Bolivarian revolution is how this process of political participation that seemed so good in paper never really took off. Instead, the nominal legal rights to participation have been contradicted with strategies of cooptation that allowed Chavez, and now Nicolas Maduro, to pose as if Indigenous peoples have achieved a degree of integration into the political decision-making process while in practices they marginalize and manipulate this participation. Indigenous peoples in Venezuela have recently faced a deterioration on the conditions of their voting rights as well as a brutal encroachment on their ancestral territories. The Bolivarian revolution has produced some of the most brutal ecological degradations in Indigenous territories through the so-called Arco Minero that only reproduces the logic of capitalist extraction that was supposed to be rejected with the arrival of the revolution.

This brings me to the place of transduction in my book. I understand transduction as the transformations, and assemblage, of signs across semiotic modalities. As I explain at the beginning of the book, the main process of transduction that I am interested in is the transformation of oil revenue into forms of political performances and political influence. Oil revenue support forms of political speech linked with ideologies of modernity and state control in Venezuela. My argument in the book is that despite the reversal on the flow of translations that correlated with a transition from representative to participatory democracy, the basic transduction of oil revenue into modernity and political control remained the same in both periods. In other words, despite rhetorical differences in ideological principles, Chavez’ revolution never really produced a systemic transformation in the structural conditions that marginalized Indigenous subjects in Venezuela. They might have more nominal rights now, but oil dependency still means those rights are principally rhetorical devices. The transduction of oil revenue into political performance and celebrated forms of modernity is an unstable structural condition subject to ups and downs of commodity markets and this means that the revolutionary gains in political participation can disappear at any moment.                      

Rusty Barrett: What aspects of your analysis do you feel are most useful for looking at the relationship between Indigenous communities and the state in places beyond Venezuela?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: I think my analysis is useful for understanding how the integration of Indigenous peoples into public political spheres–and the performative and communicative strategies used for that purpose–depend on kinds of ideological political project made possible by entire political-economic systems. The main goal of my book is to show how discourse-centered approaches to culture can help us accomplish that goal.

Another aspect of my analysis that I think can be useful is to bring attention to the ways in which State actors’ agendas and intentions do not determine the consequences of their actions. I tried to illustrate this point by bringing examples of political gift-giving which is in Venezuela stereotypically regarded as a form of political bribery, corruption, and coercion. I show how the gift per se does not accomplish any of this without further discursive engagement in the communities where is received. Likewise, promises of political gifts do not amount to simple deception since gift-giving and discourse form complex chains of interpretation in the Orinoco Delta. I hope these insights can served to inspire more ethnographic research into how these complex semiotic systems are developed under different political and economic conditions.   

Rusty Barrett: The book provides a language-based approach to understanding political gifts and campaign promises. In what ways do you see this approach as providing insights that might be overlooked by other approaches? What would you hope scholars in other fields take away from your analysis?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: What I would hope other researchers take away from my book is the necessity to see political gift-giving and speech as interrelated. The naturalness of the correlation between gift-giving and political influence that some researchers see in patron-client relationships do not occur without the mediation of a great deal of speech. Paying attention to these patterns allow us to understand how political influence through gift-giving and political promises is an interactional achievement that we cannot take for granted. I would hope that researchers interested in these kinds of questions will take a little more seriously the fact that naturally occurring instances of language use (discourse) provide not only frames for cultural interpretation but are, more importantly, embodied practices that make political gifts feel right or not in a particular social context. Paying attention to that relationship is central to how I study politics through the lens of a discourse-centered approach to culture.

Kate Vieira on her book, Writing for Love and Money

Interview by Amy Garey


Amy Garey: How does migration influence literacy practices?

Kate Vieira: Unfortunately, lots of the discourse in the U.S. and elsewhere around migration and literacy frames migrants as having literacy problems, whether in their home language and/or in English. What I hoped to do with this book was to take what we know about the history of writing–that writing is a technology that at its core is about communicating across distance–to reframe this deficit-based discussion to show how, in fact, migration drives sophisticated literacy learning. Essentially, when people who love one another are distanced, as this past year has so painfully emphasized, they find new ways to communicate. The migrant families with whom I was privileged to work revealed how they innovated, learned, and taught each other new practices of writing. Such practices were family based, rhetorically informed, economically savvy, emotionally astute, and technologically aware and deserve recognition as such. I’m so grateful to the participants who shared their stories with me.

Amy Garey: This may well be the only ethnographic project comparing Brazil and Latvia. What advantages did this project’s comparative approach bring to your research questions?

Kate Vieira: Hahaha. Well, in the book I speak about two reasons for working in Brazil and Latvia–one autobiographical (I had community ties in both places and speak the languages spoken there) and the other methodological (the community in Brazil had very little out migration, whereas in Latvia the community that hosted me was experiencing mass outmigration).

One of the cornerstones of ethnographic studies of literacy is that context matters. Seen this way, literacy is not a skill, but is a practice shaped by people and power relationships. So I was curious about what migration-driven literacy practices looked like in these very different communities. In Latvia, migration-driven literacy learning had a longer history in which the state played a big role: The Soviet Union had driven internal migration for some time, so people came to current migration-driven literacy practices through the lens of previous letter writing, for example. In Brazil, I really focused on economic issues shaping literacy–like the price and accessibility of certain communication technologies like laptops. For me, the comparison helped me to see the way a fundamental part of writing–its use by people to communicate across distance–is shaped by historical events, global inequities, as well as family and personal histories. 

And one final note: I chose to research in these communities because I love the people who live there. And we should always research from love.

Amy Garey: You wrote of the ways that writing, in imagining a conversation with a loved one, can make an absent relative in some sense present. Do you think that the way the lockdown has influenced everyday use of videoconferencing applications will change this text-based process of imagining? Will Zoom alter incentives for family members to become literate?

Kate Vieira: Well, I’d say that logging on to Zoom is a literacy practice, even though the audio and visual forms of meaning making are emphasized more than the textual forms. I mean, we still access Zoom via a keyboard or touchpad on a phone, make use of the chat function to send snarky comments to classmates / colleagues, and have to navigate an array of profoundly textual sign-ins, often sent to us via email (the “mail” of course referencing the older transnational literacy institution of the postal system). So on the one hand, you can’t really extract the textual from the audio/visual on Zoom. And on the other hand, lots of literacy scholars would say that audio-visual meaning making is also a literacy, even when it doesn’t include the textual.

So I think what we’ve seen in the pandemic is a version of what migrant families have been doing for ages: teaching and helping our loved ones access new forms of literacy so we can feel close even though we are physically not in the same space.

I’d say the salient differences in processes of imagining loved ones primarily via the textual or via the audio-visual are particular to people, their place, their time, their family or community practices, their access or lack thereof to certain kinds of literacies, and so on: For example, in the book, some people said that they appreciated letters more than video chats, because letters felt more meaningful. But that doesn’t mean that letters are fundamentally more meaningful to everyone: One woman described writing the exact same letter to three potential boyfriends and just changing the name! So how particular communication technologies mean to particular people, how we feel about writing a letter versus a text versus sending a Marco Polo–that has to do with larger personal and social valences of that particular literacy technology. 

Amy Garey: The book described the advantages migrants gained by acquiring literacy in foreign languages like English and German. Could you speak a little more about the social effects of gaining literacy skills for those who remained in their home countries?

Kate Vieira: Oh, interesting. This is a great question and something my study didn’t address. My sense was there was social capital attached to knowing multiple languages–but I focused more on what these languages meant for peoples’ sense of where they might go, so I don’t want to speculate too much here.

Amy Garey: Noting that many American students practice literacy skills when communicating with relatives abroad,  you advocated “love-based critical literacy” pedagogies that incorporate students’ existing digital writing habits. Does SMS-based reading and writing, though, help individuals attain functional literacy (for example, comparing viewpoints in an editorial)?

Kate Vieira: This is a great question because it brings up a really foundational issue of what literacy is and why we teach it. In my home field of composition and rhetoric, we have often focused on teaching literacy for the purposes you outline in your question–to intervene in democratic institutions via, for example, comparing viewpoints in an editorial and other kinds of really important public uses of literacy.

Does an SMS help people do this? Not necessarily. But then again, neither necessarily does a traditional essay. There is no one genre or type of writing that has the corner on critical thinking or, for that matter, political engagement. I think they provide different kinds of opportunities for doing different kinds of work. And certainly there are plenty of essays that exhibit minimal critical thinking and simply rehash harmful ideologies–so the question for me is always not about the genre per se, but what we hope to do with it, whose interests we are serving.

I also want to point out that there is good research in social studies and literacy education, for example, about moving beyond debate to help students develop civic agency. And there is also important work on love as critical in socially just and specifically anti-racist educational projects.

What I’d say from the perspective of this book, though, is that if we as educators overlook two fundamental motivations for practicing literacy–for love and money–then we will miss so much of how literacy means in students’ lives, and we will therefore likely miss out on authentic opportunities to think and learn with students as fellow human beings. Which for me is what the larger literacy educational project is all about: How do we make meaning together? And what can this meaning do for us, our communities, the wider world?

Maybe the answer to these questions is in comparing and contrasting views in an editorial and maybe it’s in sending an SMS or maybe it’s writing a poem–it really depends on the moment, the people, our historical context, and what we want to accomplish together with the act of writing.

Congratulation to Kate Vieira — her book won The Edward B. Fry Book Award from the Literacy Research Association (2020), and the Advancement of Knowledge Award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (2021).

Ronald Niezen on his book, #HumanRights: The Technologies and Politics of Justice Claims in Practice

Cover of #HumanRights by Ronald Niezen

Interview by Kevin Laddapong


Kevin Laddapong: You have been researching indigenous and postcolonial politics throughout your career, and it is very interesting that your new book shifts towards the positionality of vernacular politics in the digital ecosystem. How did the internet come to engage with your attention? What inspired you to embark on this project? And were there any trajectory changes during the research and writing process?

Ronald Niezen: My first major research project after the PhD was on the international movement of Indigenous Peoples in the 1990s for The Origins of Indigenism (2003). That’s when I encountered the paradox that the people and organizations defending the rights of those with lives based on the simplest technologies were sophisticated users of the most advanced. It became clear to me that the global indigenous movement as we know it would never have existed without the connectivity and communities of the internet. This wasn’t just an outcome of the activist will to use new tools to organize and campaign, and so on; it also came from the organizational demands of the UN. Participants in annual NGO meetings, for example, had to register online, a requirement in stark contradiction with the ideals of participation.

 This basic contradiction must’ve been in the back of my mind when I broadened out and began to think about online activism more broadly. It was impossible for me to think about a cutting-edge tool without at the same time considering the gaps it left, the people left behind, the impact it had on power relations, and so on.

The main trajectory change in #HumanRights came by adding state-sanctioned surveillance, disinformation, and censorship to the mix. Some aspects of online activism do look the same as they did during web 1.0 in the 1990s; but a revolution pretty clearly happened somewhere in the five years from 2005 to 2010, which is when we saw the emergence of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and the simultaneous invention of smartphones that found their way into the hands of billions of users. Not to mention new machine learning tools and AI being applied to global governance. To understand this (still unfolding) revolution required a pretty sharp change in trajectory toward the digital arms race between activists and oppressive regimes. I think we all feel the whiplash to some extent.

#HumanRights takes us on a survey on the connections between digital technologies and the politics of human rights around the world, crowdsourcing and justice investigation on Bellingcat.com; Whatsapp and resistances in Taureg communities; and digital archives and contesting politics of memories in postcolonial Namibia. How did you choose your case studies to reveal these connections?

Working with the Tuareg communities was the most straightforward. I’d maintained some contact with the peoples of the Central Sahara since my PhD research in northern Mali—they were present at the UN and I participated in a few of the annual meetings of the Tuareg Diaspora in Europe. It was there that I saw their really active, creative use of media and communication technologies. But I couldn’t go back to northern Mali. It was simply too dangerous, and still is, nearly a decade after the 2012-13 insurgency by Ansar Al-Dine and Al-Qaida (now joined by ISIS). My work in Namibia was a way to return to the field, to see how justice claims in Africa played out in the communities from which they originated. I had the luxury of research funds that allowed me to explore southern Africa inductively, go to the field and see what was happening. Once I encountered the Herero and Nama justice causes, I then did the same thing in Germany, see how the genocide claims were being leveraged there.

 Bellingcat drew my interest a little differently. There was something about this organization that was edgy. Cool. Using new digital investigation methods to take on perpetrator states that were otherwise able to shelter behind the structures of the UN Security Council—that struck me as a compelling development in digital activism worthy of exploring. If I were ever to offer a panoramic view of the uses of digital technologies in activism, I’d be remiss to leave that out.

Kevin Laddapong: Throughout your book, you jump back and forth between old and new, analog and digital practices of justice claims, graffiti to digital writing, investigative journalism to forensic crowdsourcing, museum curation to Facebook page administration. Why are these linkages between traditional and digital important to your analysis?

Ronald Niezen: If we don’t consider the way older technologies are updated and combined with the new—what Marshall McLuhan called the ‘rearview mirror effect’—we get a distorted idea of the way technologies are actually being used and what their consequences are. We get drawn into the ‘shiny new thing’ way of thinking. There’s a tendency to look at the world like crows or magpies, drawn to little trinkets and baubles one can fly away with.  But that isn’t how things work with human actors. People use any means at their disposal to share and leverage opinion. So, in the most extreme example, we see the ancient technology of graffiti used in conjunction with the internet, reaching both passers-by in real life and social media users online. Other aspects of activism and outreach, it seems to me, have this same quality of old and new, even in the midst of a full-blown digital revolution.

Kevin Laddapong: Concerns around fact and truth seem to be the main theme of this book. For example, you analyze how the distinction between the media use between the Malian government, global human rights claimants, and Taureg people themselves ends up creating different sets of facts and methods of truth-seeking; or you discuss how the ideological contest between the memories of Herero and Nama genocide between colonizer and colonized result in echo chambers and disputes.  What would you like readers to pay attention to when they encounter similar phenomena in this post-truth era?

Ronald Niezen: Ah, yes. The question of truth. I had a feeling that was coming. One way or another, we’re all in a situation in which we don’t—can’t possibly—have the specialized expertise to know whether something is true or false or somewhere confusingly in between.  The political anthropologist in me looks for motive: what do people stand to gain when they make a particular truth claim? I do this cynically, knowing that humans everywhere seek power.  Maybe not every individual but humans as a rule. If you can get a handle on the hegemonic motives behind truth claims, you’ll get closer to what those claims actually mean, and what we stand to gain or lose by investing in them.

Kevin Laddapong: At the very end of the book, you discuss the ways that the politics of identities are intimately tied to digital human rights claims, resulting in public sympathy and victimization or naturalization of nationalism. Why is that so, and what are the great challenges regarding this moving forward?

Ronald Niezen: The dynamics of activism, public outreach, and identity follow from the near-total absence of compliance mechanisms in human rights law. Yes, there are sanctions wealthy states can impose on those who egregiously violate human rights and international law. The IMF can leverage its financial clout. In extreme cases, as in Sudan, the International Criminal Court can issue indictments. But on the whole, activist groups and organizations have very little recourse when it comes to human rights violations. The UN will receive information, complaints, and so on; it will review a state’s record of compliance; but when it comes down to it, much depends on public will, the influence on the powerful of the popular politics of shame. This means that activists are in competition with one another for public attention and sympathy. As soon as one enters into that situation, a hierarchy of victimization comes into play.  Narrative plays a central part in justice claims and causes. There’s a tendency to oversimplify perpetrators and victims alike. At the same time, there’s a retreat into the group, the source of affirmation and justice. All of this is accentuated by digital technologies, especially social media platforms, that call for constant streams of collective representation.

The great challenge moving forward is liberating oneself and one’s justice cause from this trap. That involves recognizing the complexities and grey areas of perpetration. It involves being clear-eyed about public constructions of ‘ideal victims’ and who gets left out by them. And it means reaching outside the comforts and consolations of the bubbles in which we willingly enclose ourselves, partly as a buffer against the discomforts of a very quickly changing world.