Tom Mould on his book, Overthrowing the Queen: Telling Stories of Welfare in America.

Interview by Fionnán Mac Gabhann

Fionnán Mac Gabhann: Overthrowing the Queen represents one of several objectives devised as part of a collaborative project you initiated for the purpose of addressing stereotypes and perceptions of public assistance in the United States. Could you describe the origins of this project and the collaborative efforts that lead to this book’s publication?

Tom Mould: As you know, the book is an attempt to look at all the different stories that are told about public assistance and people who receive public assistance. And so it includes the spurious legends about welfare queens but also spends equal time, if not more, on stories told by aid recipients. I do come at this topic as a folklorist, which means I pay attention to genre, narrative, performance, and context. But I’m also drawing links to a lot of other disciplines like psychology and sociology, anthropology, political science, communication, and so on. This is a question that spans more than one discipline, so I really felt that it required an interdisciplinary approach, and collaboration. There was no way this project was going to work if I wasn’t collaborating with people who spend their lives, day in and day out, working as aid providers or struggling to make ends meet as aid recipients. And then, of course, I collaborated with people who are telling these stories, doing the kind of good, strong ethnographic field work that folklorists and anthropologists are known for.

So I’ll give you the origin story. It was 2011, and I’m at a dinner party, a big organizational kind of thing with hundreds of people in attendance from across the spectrum in terms of class, race, position, and so on. I found myself talking with a woman—a fairly wealthy local community member—about the Affordable Care Act, which was being discussed and debated in the public domain at this time. The conversation was a little heated. We didn’t agree on almost anything in terms of the merit of the Affordable Care Act. I was more in favour of it, the person I was talking to was quite against it. Finally, we found one point of agreement which was that we both agreed that using the emergency room as your primary care provider was terrible for financial-economic reasons, for health reasons, for the pressure it places on institutions such as hospitals, and so on. So we could all agree on that. And I thought, “Great, I’m going to leave while we finally have something we can agree on.” And she said, “but,” and I’m thinking, “Oh no.” She continued, “You’ll never convince me that those people aren’t just going to take advantage of the system anyway.” I sceptically responded, “What people?” She proceeded to tell a story positioned in ways that I’ve heard this story told since I was a kid. The story was the classic welfare queen legend of the woman in the grocery store. And this woman told the story as something that she had seen herself and been present for in the not too distant past. She said, “I was in the grocery store the other day; I was checking out; there was a woman in front of me. She had nice clothes, jewellery, nice hair, and she had all of this food, steaks, and so on. She was buying dog food, and the woman behind the register said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, you can’t buy dog food with food stamps.” And she said, “Well, this is ridiculous.” And she kept pushing it and finally she said, “Fine,” and she marched back to the meat counter, grabbed a couple of steaks, brought them back and said, “All right, I’ll just feed my dog the steaks instead.” The narrator in this case did not say that the woman at the grocery store climbed into a Cadillac but that would be a common conclusion to the story.

I’ve heard this story so many times, but I thought it had risen to prominence during the Reagan presidency and declined in Reagan’s aftermath. I thought these stories were waning. They aren’t, they weren’t, and this project makes it quite clear that these stories are very much still being shared among friends, family, co-workers, colleagues, and so on.

So I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t get this story out of my head, I couldn’t believe it was still being told; and I was looking for a new project. I’m always interested in narrative. I had come off of a couple of other projects that were very focused on sacred narrative, but I’m also interested in how narrative is used in political spheres.

Long story short, I went and followed up with some colleagues on the Board of the Women’s Resource Center and folks I knew in the Department of Social Services. We convened a group of about nine of us who were working both in government and non-profit organizations, and said, “Hey, I heard this story. I want to do more about it. What do you think?” And people responded with, “Oh my gosh, we hear that story every time we present publicly.” So we sat around and for the next couple of months, threw out ideas for what we might do, what specific problems we wanted to address, how I could be helpful—because I’m not an economist, I’m not a policymaker, I’m a folklorist. So how can I bring my skill set to the table? After about a year of conversations and collaboration we had 10 goals or outcomes that we wanted to reach, we had an advisory board and group of people, and we had students who were signed up for a class to do some of this work.

Fionnán Mac Gabhann: In the book you describe your struggle with the question of how to write about stories of public assistance in the United States without reinforcing the very stereotypes that have caused so much damage and which you are attempting to undermine. One solution you offer is to take a performance-centered approach to analysis of stories of public assistance. How did this study benefit from folkloristic and linguistic anthropological insights on performance?

Tom Mould: Firstly, I’ll say that folklorists in general, because we pay attention to genre and process, are particularly well positioned to consider rhetorical strategies. I don’t want to critique the whole field of anthropology, but I think that sometimes the discipline has spent less time thinking about epistemology and the construction of knowledge, focusing more so on what it is rather than how it is produced. Of course, this situation has changed over time. But I think that folklorists do a really good job of thinking about how knowledge is produced, and that’s what a performance-centered approach does. It asks: who’s in the room, what are their rhetorical goals, what are their histories, what do the participants bring to the table? And with this kind of information we can understand why a particular story is being told and how we should be understanding it. A performer-centered approach also encourages us go beyond the immediate situational context, to work even further back, and to look at how a person is positioned, whether in terms of a particular role—a recipient or provider of public assistance for instance— or in terms of their own personal biographies and lived experience. Both of these moves help to bring context to the table so that we can unpack these kinds of stories.

As you know, one of the incredibly grim things that I discovered early in my fieldwork was that aid recipients replicated welfare queen legends very frequently. In fact almost every aid recipient had at least one kind of a welfare queen legend that they told. Rhetorically this makes all the sense in the world when you consider the larger social context. Aid recipients are aware that if they don’t acknowledge the welfare queen narrative and disassociate themselves from it they won’t be taken seriously because their interlocutors are already bringing that prejudicial narrative to the table.

And I’ll just add, finally, that a performance-centred approach encourages us to pay more attention to the audience and how people are responding to stories. For example, there was a wonderful moment captured by one of the students I worked with, Jessica Elizondo, who spoke with a group of conservative, white, upper middle class, older businessmen over coffee. These men were very bold in their views and stories, but you could see them sussing each other out in terms of what their positions were on welfare. Once agreement started getting shaped and formed more and more stereotypical stories were shared with that comfort that was being built. This kind of context is crucial for understanding why even self-professed liberals will sometimes share these welfare queen stories.

Fionnán Mac Gabhann: One of your major contributions to narrative scholarship in this book is your proposed reorientation of approaches to the study of legend. As you illustrate, most previous definitions of legend foreground the negotiation of truth as the essential characteristic of the genre. Contrastingly, you argue that legend is distinguished by the doubt it engenders and you advocate for a “doubt-centred approach” to the study of legend. Why have you adopted this approach, and what do you suggest are the benefits of such a reorientation?

Tom Mould: When I started this project I did an exhaustive literature review of legend and ended up with something like 84 different definitions that scholars have articulated over the years. So we haven’t settled the debate, and that’s okay. I mean, we all need an operational definition to move forward with, otherwise we’re sort of crippled intellectually. But that work really helped me realize that what makes a legend distinctive is not effort to convince someone of their truth but rather people’s expression of doubt.

I need to be really clear here because I’ve published some articles on this subject before this book came out and it’s really easy for folks to misinterpret what I’m arguing. Many people have said, “I can’t believe you are suggesting that we should be doubting all the people we talk to,” and I said, “No, no, no, the doubt is not our own.” The goal with a doubt-centered approach to legend is to look to see where audiences and participants are doubting, not to bring our own doubt to the table—my gosh, I can’t think of anything worse, and yet we do it all the time. I mean, when you actually think about what folklorists study as legend, it’s things we doubt, it’s things we think aren’t true. So, actually, maybe paradoxically, ironically, a doubt-centered approach actually helps us get away from that bias. And so, if somebody is making an argument for something that’s true and nobody doubts it, then it is just news or then it is just fact. We don’t call that legend, it’s not part of the legend process of debate, discussion, and belief. But the minute somebody starts to doubt it, then it becomes legend.

I’ll give you an example. When various folks on the right were claiming that Barack Obama couldn’t be President because he wasn’t a US citizen you had the birther movement—people who question the validity of Obama’s birth certificate—claiming that the story that Obama was born in Hawaii was a story to be doubted. The story that he is secretly a Muslim born in Kenya was the story to be believed, from this group’s perspective. So for them, the first was legend, the second fact. Then you had others—the mainstream media and investigative journalists, for example—for whom the reverse was true, where the story of not being a citizen or a Christian was the legend. So paying attention to where people are doubting is a crucial move here.

And doubt is not just the other side of truth. One of the things I found in this work was that people would often accept as true, let’s say, that an event had happened at a particular point in time but they doubted the degree to which these kinds of instances were common or generalizable. If you took a truth-centered approach to the same exact stories you wouldn’t necessarily recognize that people were actively trying to convince you the story was generalizable. The same goes for an interpretation. Many people think “Oh, the story speaks for itself.” Well, a lot of our research shows that it doesn’t. There is great open-endedness to narrative; stories require interpretation.

The doubt-centered approach I took highlighted a whole series of rhetorical strategies that would not have been identified with other varieties of analysis focused on how people are establishing credibility. So, that’s part of the argument. There are other benefits to a doubt-centered approach, however. One of the biggest ones being that it is emic; it encourages us to consider how people within the community are interpreting the narrative. It also brings more focus on audience interpretation and audience reception, which I think folklorist have not done as great of a job at as we could, in terms of analysis.

Fionnán Mac Gabhann: You published three monographs prior to Overthrowing the Queen, all of which revolve around oral narrative: Choctaw Prophecy: A Legacy for the Future (2003), Choctaw Tales (2004), and Still, the Small Voice: Revelation, Personal Narrative, and the Mormon Folk Tradition (2011). How does Overthrowing the Queen compare and contrast with these previous works?

Tom Mould: With Choctaw Tales I was following very much in traditional folklore footsteps by setting out to record the local traditions and stories. This was a book that community members wanted. In fact they sort of said, “You can write your Choctaw prophecy book but you have got to give us Choctaw Tales.” Part of the reason why they wanted Choctaw Tales was that they are still incredibly stigmatized and discriminated against in their home state of Mississippi. People still don’t understand who they are, what their traditions are, what their stories are, the depth, and richness, and beauty of their culture. So this is kind of a classic Boasian moment: go in, identify that, write about it, and let the work speak for itself. I think that was an implicit move behind both Choctaw Tales and Choctaw Prophecy.

When I first started working with Latter-day Saints people kept saying, “Are you coming to expose us? Are you coming to pile on?” When the book was published people were pleasantly surprised. Having a non-member write emically was ground-breaking for so many of them because they were not used to that. That wasn’t an explicit mission of mine, but in all of my work I certainly aim to present an honest, accurate, fair, and also empathetic view. If we really take cultural relativism at its face value then there is something to value here and the question becomes, what is it?

To get to your question. I had been focused on sacred narratives. I had been focused on stories that were grounded within a particular community and which bound folks together. I can’t say that welfare legends bind people together, certainly not the non-recipients. Even among aid recipients, there’s some recognition of shared plight in this narrative tradition, but it’s not the kind of community building or cohesive kind of tradition that folklorists often study.

So when I came to the welfare project I was interested in exploring more explicitly the possibility of putting my social conscience into my work. Every folklorist is going to be different and no folklorist should be obligated to do anything of this sort. But I felt compelled to do this, especially after studying the narrative traditions of a church whose leaders took political stances against things like same-sex marriage that ran counter to my own views. So when the story of “the welfare queen” was told to me at this dinner party, it landed in my lap at a time when I was thinking, as a folklorist, what if I brought my study of narrative and applied it to what I was doing in my off time, in terms of social justice and in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion work? Could that be a happy marriage? I would argue that it has been, and I also appreciate that there are going to be folklorists who don’t see it fitting within the parameters that they’ve often operated under. I just think it’s a missed opportunity if we don’t explore this also. I think our tent is big enough for both.


Mould, Tom. 2018. “A Doubt-Centred Approach to Contemporary Legend and Fake News.” Journal of American Folklore 131(522): 413-420.

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.

Sujatha Fernandes talks about her new book, Curated Stories

Interview by Ben Ale-Ebrahim

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: What led you to first start thinking about storytelling and its relationship to political economy?

Sujatha Fernandes: I was doing research about migrant domestic workers in New York and their labor struggles. What was striking to me was that the workers were being asked to tell their stories over and over in legislative campaigns, but they didn’t feel that it made any difference to their situation. I began to look at other sites too, undocumented students, an Afghan women’s project, and I noticed how storytelling had become a key mode of operation in all of these sites. In fact, in some cases the same storytelling manuals and trainings were being used, many of them originating with the election campaign of Barack Obama. There was something about the neoliberal self-making central to the Obama presidency that was driving these storytelling campaigns. So that was how I connected the storytelling to the neoliberal moment.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Throughout Curated Stories, you provide evidence for how the personal narrative has emerged as an important genre for the construction of hegemony in the contemporary neoliberal era. You discuss how the stories of the marginalized, more than those of political elites or dominant classes, are critical to this process (p. 13). Why are the stories of the marginalized so important to “curate”?

Sujatha Fernandes There is much scholarship that focuses on how the dominant narratives of elite intellectual and artistic production have been key in the construction of hegemony – Hollywood films, literature, monuments, museums, political speeches, and so on. I think those are important to study, but the corollary has often been a valorization of the stories of the marginalized as conversely being authentic and getting at the truth of their experience.

That valorization was burst apart by Gayatri Spivak’s essay, “Can The Subaltern Speak?” where she talks about how the voice of the subaltern is itself composed of dominant myths and tropes. Voice is a construction. In the book, I follow her and others to argue that we have to look to the ways in which the stories of the marginalized are shaped and harnessed, through trainings, workshops, and protocols, in order to understand their import. It is precisely the notion that marginalized stories are uniquely authentic that gives them their hegemonic power.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In chapters 3, 4, and 5, you describe how neoliberal storytelling projects work to decontextualize and individualize the stories of Afghan women, domestic workers, and undocumented youth, thereby avoiding critiques of broader oppressive political and economic systems that these stories might otherwise imply. Yet, you also describe moments of resistance in each of these cases. What does resistance to neoliberal modes of storytelling look like? As scholars, do we need to look beyond the text to see resistance?

Sujatha Fernandes: In the book, I am looking at the period of the Obama administration, and during this time the resistance to neoliberal storytelling is quite small and momentary. It may involve an Afghan writer going off script to talk about the role of powerful warlords in a post-invasion Afghanistan. It might mean a storytelling trainer who deviates from asking people to tell their stories to re-elect Obama, by contemplating how Obama betrayed the immigrant rights movement by not passing immigration reform. These moments signal a breach in the system but they usually yield to the ordering of the protocol or the training.

We need to learn to read the silences and contradictions in the texts. It is also important to look beyond the text, to employ ethnography to understand how people might be subverting or deviating from the narrative they are being given. The training manuals, protocols, and stories only give us one side of the picture. They don’t show how sometimes those narratives are fiercely contested. For instance, one domestic worker in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights campaign refused to conform to the limited protocols that required her to only talk about working conditions, hours, and pay. She argued with the advocates leading the campaign, and then in her submitted testimony she went off script to talk about labor exploitation and the global conditions of domestic work. She was not allowed to read out her testimony at the hearing. By looking beyond the text, we can see these moments of resistance.

In a Trump era, this resistance looks quite different. Migrant workers and undocumented students in groups like Movimiento Cosecha have bypassed the path of storytelling advocacy in favor of more direct action and confrontational movements that put forward radical demands. We are also seeing a return to modes of storytelling that link personal experiences to forms of structural oppression. So while the Obama campaign stories linked people’s personal lives to vague values such as hope and family, now we are seeing stories that connect the hardships in people lives directly to problems such as poverty, student debt, and medical debt.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In chapter 6, you discuss the Misión Cultura program in Venezuela as an example of a storytelling project that challenges neoliberal ideologies by making connections between the personal narratives of individuals and “political and collective registers” (p. 161). To what extent can this project serve as a model for alternative modes of storytelling, ones that challenge neoliberalism?

Sujatha Fernandes: There are aspects of the Misión Cultura program, as well as others such as the Andean Oral History workshop in Bolivia, that could provide some fruitful ideas. These include non-linear modes for writing personal stories, where one’s life is represented in terms of spheres instead of a chronological or temporal order. In this alternative narrative model, the individual is not centered on a unitary subject as in western-style biographies, but is rather located among spheres of people and communities. These stories re-link the personal, political, and collective registers; they are shaped by participants themselves rather than being edited by others or limited by protocols; and they are located in spaces of the barrio and community-based struggles. I think that these projects might provide some generative lines for rethinking how we tell stories and for developing alternative modes of storytelling.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: What do you hope scholars and activists interested in storytelling can take away from your book? What is entailed in moving from “curated stories” to “mobilizing stories” (p. 171)?

Sujatha Fernandes: I hope that they might cast a more critical gaze on many of the storytelling platforms that have come to dominate our lives, from Facebook to Ted talks, and the plethora of story coaching agencies, social movement and legislative storytelling models out there. But while many activists themselves have come to reject the dominant storytelling advocacy, I’m hopeful that we might be able to renew a storytelling approach, one that uses art and literary-cultural spaces and methods to convey issues of social injustice. There are strong traditions of this: farm worker movements, Latin American testimonios, and feminist consciousness-raising all used storytelling to great effect as they brought attention to class inequalities, patriarchy, and imperialism. In moving from curated stories to mobilizing stories, it is precisely this attention to the structural conditions of oppression that we must include. And this probably means rethinking the venues where stories are told – away from courtrooms, and the media, and the advocacy organizations where stories can get distorted and compressed for another agenda, toward the small activist circles and the streets where they can change minds and hearts.


John Postill on his new book, The Rise of Nerd Politics

The Rise of Nerd Politics
Interview by Angela VandenBroek
Angela VandenBroek: The Rise of Nerd Politics is a captivating description and analysis of “techpol nerds” and their “clamping” (computing, law, art, media, and politics) skills. You have described the techpol nerds as related to but not the same as other kinds of nerd categories studied by anthropologists (such as Kelty and Coleman). What led you to this analytic decision and why do you think it is important for anthropology now?
John Postill: That’s right. While Chris Kelty and Gabriella Coleman – whose pioneering work has had a major influence on mine – and other scholars have focused on computer geeks and hackers, I include other specialists under my category of “nerd politics” – a term I borrowed from the Canadian sci-fi author Cory Doctorow.
The people I’m calling “techno-political nerds”, or simply “techpol nerds”, are a highly diverse lot. To be sure, among their ranks we find geeks and hackers, but we also find tech journalists, digital artists, copyright lawyers, Pirate politicians, and even anthropologists. What all these specialists have in common is a passionate devotion to working at the intersection of technology and politics, a pro-democracy stance, a profound dislike of authoritarianism, and the belief that the fate of the internet and of democracy are inextricably entwined. They translate this passion into a huge variety of initiatives in areas such as open data activism, digital rights, popular mobilisation, and electoral politics. It follows that I regard hacker politics to be a subclass of nerd, or “clamper”, politics.
As I argue in Chapter 2, not all forms of knowledge or skillsets are born equal in the world of nerd politics. Five forms in particular (computing, law, art, media and politics, or “clamp” for short) take pride of place within this world. Even accomplished computer nerds like the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden must rely on the expertise of others to pursue their political goals. Snowden gathered around him a team of Guardian journalists, lawyers and tech people as well as a documentary filmmaker. Yet we tend to overlook this interdisciplinary teamwork in our fascination with this supposedly lone wolf and his technological wizardry.
I arrived at this analytic decision in a roundabout way, as tends to be the case in anthropology. I started fieldwork in Barcelona, Spain, in the summer of 2010 with the intention of studying whether social media were making any substantial difference to the work of activists in that part of the world. After surveying the terrain, I became interested in the small but rambunctious digital rights scene and soon realised that it wasn’t just geeks and hackers who were active within it. In 2014 and 2015 I did comparative research on similar scenes in Indonesia, as well as secondary research on other countries. Everywhere I looked I found heterogeneous teams of nerds – not just techies – “clamping up” on corruption, fraud, online censorship, and other perceived malaises of the digital era.
Angela VandenBroek: For this book you drew on a wide range of techpol nerds, including those in Spain, Indonesia, Iceland, Brazil, Tunisia, Taiwan, and the United States. But the 15M movement in Spain figured prominently throughout the text. What about this particular example made it such a fruitful resource for you analytically, especially in contrast to more popularly covered subjects, such as the Arab Spring uprisings or the Occupy movement?
John Postill: There was an element of sheer luck in my decision to work in Spain. In 2009, when I was still based in the UK, a friend in London sent me a link to an advert in The Economist. The Open University of Catalonia were offering a one-year fellowship to study social media and activism in Barcelona. I applied and got it. It helped that I was brought up in Spain and that my previous research was on internet activism (albeit in a very different setting: suburban Malaysia). Another stroke of luck was that in early 2011 the digital rights nerds I was working with decided to switch from internet politics to politics writ large when they helped to launch the 15M (indignados) movement, which called for “real democracy now” and led directly to the Occupy movement.
But the story doesn’t end here, as the very same Barcelona nerds, an activist group called Xnet, later launched a data activism campaign to put on trial those behind the collapse of one of Spain’s major banks, Bankia. They later wrote and performed a widely acclaimed “data theatre” play on the Bankia case, launched a nerdy political party named Partido X, and even got embroiled in the fraught data politics of the Catalan independence referendum of 2017. By retracing Xnet’s nomadic trajectory I was able to map the world of nerd politics in Spain and discern four main spaces, or “subworlds”, within it: digital rights, data activism, social protest and formal politics.
I then tested this four-cornered map in those other countries that you mention and, to my delight, it worked there, too. This enabled me to make comparisons across political cultures. For instance, while Spain’s nerds migrated en masse in 2011 from the space of digital rights to that of social protest to launch the 15M movement, their Brazilian counterparts remained fixated on a single digital-rights issue even at the height of the 2013 popular mobilisations. This paid off eventually as far as digital rights in Brazil are concerned, but arguably there was a missed opportunity for Brazilian nerds to help create something like Spain’s 15M movement and its formal political offshoots.
Spain has turned out to be an unlikely global leader in nerd politics, a massive laboratory of techno-politics and democracy. Today scores of town halls across Spain, including in major cities like Madrid and Barcelona, are in the hands of indignados, many of them steeped in nerd culture. Moreover, a party that borrowed heavily from Xnet’s techno-political tools, namely Podemos, is now Spain’s third political force and the main ally of the ruling Socialists.
Angela VandenBroek:  You have artfully debunked many perceptions of nerds in The Rise of Nerd Politics that are common both in popular media and within anthropology and related fields, including their politics, their demographics and geographic locations, their collaborations and organization, and their utopian and techno-solutionist inclinations. How do you think these prior perceptions may have hindered our understanding of techpol nerds and their movements? And, what do you think are the most important misconceptions you have identified for us to pay attention to going forward?
John Postill: The prior perceptions you refer to – about nerds being typically white, male, anglophone, geeky, techno-solutionist, and so on – originate largely in US popular culture and news media but are influential worldwide. The two paradigmatic examples are Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. These perceptions have clouded our understanding of the world of nerd politics in a number of ways, including a lack of attention to techpol nerds’ pragmatism; to their ethno-national, religious and gendered diversity; to their penchant for combining teamwork and crowdwork; to the fact that many of them work across civil society, government and the private sector divides, and so on.
Out of these misconceptions I would single out the popular fixation with hackers and their tech wizardry to the detriment of nerds from non-tech backgrounds (for example, journalism, art, humanities, politics) who are equally important to the rise of nerd politics and its increasing centrality to our political and cultural lives.
Don’t get me wrong: Assange, Snowden and other leading computer nerds have played hugely important roles, but so have lesser known individuals and groups around the globe (who may or may not possess advanced IT skills).
Angela VandenBroek: You end your book by saying, “For social scientists like me, and many readers of this book, there is also the issue of the current dominance of five kinds of knowledge (computing, law, art, media and politics) in this social world, which suggests that there is room for greater anthropological and sociological expertise in the nerd politics repertoire” (p. 254). How do you think anthropological knowledge could sit practically within the existing clamping suite? What are the tensions anthropologists may face in this space and how do you think we might overcome them through our work?
John Postill: Yes, that’s the book’s cliffhanger, a key unanswered question!
One significant contribution that anthropologists studying this topic could make to nerd politics is to continue to ask questions about who these techpol nerds (think they) are, what they have done so far, and with what actual and potential consequences. Whatever else we’re interested in, we anthropologists are always deeply interested in people, especially in our research participants. We are also interested, of course, in processes, systems, technologies, networks (whatever these are), actions and practices, but more than anything else we study people and their social relations, which these days are often digitally mediated.
Another potential contribution could be to interrogate the ontological status of some of the nerds’ favourite sociological notions. Do these notions have an empirical basis or are they simply cherished ideals and/or useful fictions? For example, when my research participants – some of them fellow researchers from other academic fields – get excited about the power of  connected multitudes or horizontal networks to bring about political change, I am among those whose job it is to sound a note of caution. What exactly is a horizontal network? Has anyone ever seen one? If so, where and when? By the same token, a team is a more tangible social entity than a so-called network, and yet the notion of team is conspicuously absent from many of the nerd narratives. These are the kinds of questions and blind spots that anthropologists are well placed to identify as the research and writing progresses. It follows that we should go about this task diplomatically (after all, we don’t necessarily want to antagonise people!).
Beyond these epistemological concerns, there is also the question of health and safety. As the world becomes more unruly, polarised, and unpredictable, anthropologists and their research participants working on nerd politics – and related topics – face greater legal and physical risks. One urgent task for anthropologists is to go beyond our liberal comfort zones and help bridge the current ideological rift between pro-democracy progressives and conservatives so that, together, we can take on the extremists and autocrats. We also need many more part-nerdships, that is, political initiatives that bring together nerds and non-nerds fighting for the social and economic rights of all citizens, including their digital rights – regardless of class, creed, or skin colour.

Francis Cody on his book, The Light of Knowledge

Interview by Rachel Howard

What was your main goal in writing about literacy activists in Tamil Nadu? And how did your goals change as you learned more about the site?

I had gone to do research on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu with a deep interest in language and political economy.  My graduate education was fueled by the theoretical energy that had gathered around both questions of language ideology and postcolonial studies.  It struck me that studying a movement that promised to deliver enlightenment to the marginalized through written language would enable me to address some of the big questions about power, the materiality of language, and temporality that we were wrestling with at the time.  More specifically, knowing that Tamil is a language shaped deeply by diglossia, I went to study how learning the written variety was meant to empower people.  I sensed a paradox of sorts in a practice that required people to learn a new register of their own language in order to free themselves.  But my goals quickly changed when I realized that the difference between written and rural spoken varieties was perhaps not so important in a context where simply teaching people how to write their own name was such a major effort, and where the literacy movement had also reflected upon its own practice so much in its transition from being a revolutionary movement of sorts to becoming a partnership with government. The literacy had also become a women’s movement, somewhat unexpectedly.  So, following the lead of my interlocutors, I became much more interested in the practice of activism itself.  New and more interesting questions about writing and embodiment, as well as questions about the very practice of mobilizing rural, lower caste women, who are often thought of as the most subaltern, arose from the ethnography as a result.

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