Interview by Ilana Gershon
Ilana Gershon: While this book ostensibly focuses on one radio presenter, because Gogo Breeze interacts with such a broad range of the public, one has to know a tremendous amount about Zambian agriculture, legal and informal inheritance, and so on, to understand how he functions as a radio personality. This presents a significant organizational dilemma for a monograph that will be read by non-Africanists. How did you decide to focus on Gogo Breeze and what choices were you struggling with as you organized the book?
Harri Englund: Although he is not the owner of the radio station Breeze FM, Gogo Breeze is by far the station’s most popular personality – a household name in Zambia’s Eastern Province. Even a blind would have seen in him a fascinating subject for anthropological research. However, one of the challenges I faced was to think of ways of making my study more than a biographical account. Here I found some help in the extended-case method that I had used in my previous work. A basic point in that method is that although the anthropologist may focus on a person or an event, that focus is merely a starting point for exploring relationships and networks of variable scales.
It always surprises me how unaware anthropologists working in other world regions seem to be of this method that was developed by people such as A. L. Epstein, J. Clyde Mitchell, and Victor Turner on the basis of their work in Zambia and Malawi in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the processual and reflective issues that became prominent in anthropology more recently were, to some extent, prefigured by the extended-case method. It may be a measure of the dominance of American authors and “schools” in the post -1980s Anglophone anthropology that these methodological innovations in the discipline’s past have been forgotten.
In any case, while Gogo Breeze is based on other methods than the extended-case method alone, it made me wove issues such as agricultural policies or inheritance rules into the narratives themselves rather than devoting separate chapters to a “context.” Such a separation between contextual and analytical chapters could result in the false impression that what happens on the ground is merely an illustration of structural principles at the macro level. It was in response to Malinowski’s use of the case method as an “apt illustration” that the extended-case method got developed. The aim was to capture in the unfolding of actual relationships, conflicts, crises, and events potential for transformation and thereby to show that not everything in social life flows from some first principles. The added challenge for me was to pursue this methodology where it had never been attempted before – in the study of mass mediation and its apparent detachment from personal relationships. Although I did not develop the point in the book, the study of ritual, such as in Turner’s work, could of course offer some parallels in this regard.
Ilana Gershon: How does Gogo Breeze, the radio announcer at the heart of this book, create webs of obligations despite or because of how ethereal the utterances through radio as a medium can seem to Zambians?
Harri Englund: The topic of obligations is a prime example of how the book seeks to integrate the study of personal relationships with the interest in mass mediation. I also have other reasons for being interested in obligations as an issue in anthropological theory. One formative interest I have had ever since my graduate research in the early 1990s is the forms that liberal theory and practice have taken in Africa and in the study and critique of human rights. In so far as the so-called rights discourse has often become rather thin on the complex ways in which people are subject to cross-cutting relationships and networks, anthropology would have something to contribute from its past insights into obligations. But just as obligations (or duties) are too simplistically imagined as the flipside of rights in the rights discourse, so too have anthropologists, especially those who don’t work in Africa, tended to forget how much work there is in the discipline on the topic of obligations – or they have tended to see obligations as some Durkheimian or structural-functionalist counterpoint to “freedom” or “ethics.” The more sophisticated recent work on morality by anthropologists is much less committed to pitting freedom and obligation against each other, but reading Meyer Fortes or Max Gluckman could have led to similar recognition much earlier in that literature.