Guilherme Fians takes the Page 99 test

On page 99 of my dissertation, the reader finds themself in the middle of an ethnographic description of a heated political debate held during the 101st Universal Congress of Esperanto, in Nitra (Slovakia) in 2016. In this debate, members of the World Non-National Esperanto Association were reflecting on the aims of their activism: should this association use Esperanto to create inclusive, internationalist conversation spaces where people from different national and linguistic backgrounds could gather and meet halfway by speaking a non-national, non-ethnic language? Or should they adopt a more combative stance and use Esperanto as an anti-nationalist tool to fight the exclusionary and xenophobic aspects of nationalism?

Entrance of the congress venue, the Slovak University of Agriculture, where the 101st Universal Congress of Esperanto took place. The Esperanto flag between the Slovakian and EU flags helps to convey the internationalist atmosphere at stake in the Esperanto gathering [Photo: Guilherme Fians].

While page 99 brings us to a brief diversion to Slovakia, my doctoral fieldwork – which placed my dissertation as the first extensive ethnographic study of Esperanto speakers and activists – was carried out mostly in France.

Constructed in the late nineteenth century as an attempt to promote mutual understanding between peoples through language comprehension, Esperanto has been historically associated with internationalism, gathering a community of speakers and activists that strategically connect this language with diverse global political platforms. If, in France, Esperanto used to be particularly prominent among anarchists, communists and pacifists, what is this language’s current political relevance? What impacts have new communication technologies such as social media had on the organization of this community and language movement? Through participant observation – in French and Esperanto – and archival research concentrated in Paris, I mapped out how Esperanto activists use this language in online and face-to-face debates to question the post-political consensus about the use of national languages (such as English and French) for international communication.

Approaching a moment of significant changes in the way people communicate and mobilize politically, I found that Esperanto frequently works as a gateway for people to engage with other political causes, such as movements for open-source software and against neoliberal globalization (like the Gilets jaunes in France). Within these frameworks, Esperanto activists depart from the fight against linguistic discrimination and a preference for participatory over mass communication to re-politicize acts of communication and contribute to radical politics.

Reaching back to Nitra, where both this blog post and my fieldwork began, the outcome of that debate was that any form of internationalist or anti-nationalist stance can prove productive, as long as it fosters more egalitarian and inclusive communicative exchanges through the international circulation and co-production of information, ideas and knowledge.


Fians, Guilherme. 2019. Of revolutionaries and geeks: Mediation, space and time among Esperanto speakers. University of Manchester, PhD dissertation.

William Leap on his book, Language Before Stonewall

Interview by Brian Adam-Thies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview by Claudia Matachana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenanne Ferguson on her book, Words Like Birds

Words Like Birds

Interview by Laura Siragusa

Laura Siragusa: In your rich ethnography about language practices in the Sakha Republic, Russia, you introduce the concept of  ‘ontologies of language.’ Could you expand on its significance and what does this add to current linguistic anthropological debates?

Jenanne Ferguson: Language in many speech communities is entwined with what we might call ‘spirituality’ but perhaps is more accurately ‘ontology’, in terms of how language is conceptualized as part of broader reality. Ideologies are very often rooted in deep-seated beliefs about human differences that go beyond language and extend—as other scholars have noted—to assessments and judgments about the speaker as a person, or speakers as groups of people sharing certain characteristics that their language usage is purported to index. Understanding ontologies of language means apprehending the ways that we have ‘ways of being’ in language. Ontologies of language include how ideas and beliefs regarding different aspects of human experience are linked together. It is a similar concept to what Kroskrity (2018) has recently called “language ideological assemblages”—the idea that we cannot look simply at one language ideology (like purism, or variationism) in isolation. Instead of only looking at how different language-related beliefs are interconnected, I want to try to use the “ontologies of language” to remind people that language beliefs are rhizomatic and inseparable from beliefs about other aspects of life and the nature of reality.

Laura Siragusa: In your work, you often mention the need to incorporate more the notion of ‘belief’ when discussing ‘language ideologies’. This was fascinating, as you seem to focus on a concept, which had long been put into shade. Given the complexities of the present global socio-political and economic situation, I wondered to what extent talking about ‘belief’ facilitates communication, mutual understanding, and an acceptance of difference. Could you expand on that?

Jenanne Ferguson: The study of language ideologies is absolutely essential to better understanding communication more broadly—they are, I feel, often more than ‘opinions, ideas and attitudes,’ and acknowledging the element of ‘belief’ allows us to go a little deeper in understanding why so many people unconsciously take them as fact. As mentioned above, often beliefs about language connect in constellations to so many other beliefs about the world and how it works, and who lives in that world; they are not easily separated. Remembering “belief” gives us a place to start when we want to highlight how a language ideology may be harmful, but also how much work it might take to change or shift that belief. In the U.S. right now, work is being done on raciolinguistics by scholars like Jonathan Rosa, Samy Alim, and Nelson Flores, among others, that reveals the ways that beliefs about language are inseparable from constructions of race and also how deeply-held, hierarchical beliefs about race influence the reception and judgment of language. In the Sakha context, I see how ontologies of language make strong connections between Sakha ancestry, the ije tyl (mother language)/törööbüt tyl (birth language), and speaking Sakha, which do good in that they validate the Sakha language and encourage people to learn Sakha or maintain it. However, these beliefs can also be detrimental to people who are ethnically Sakha but are Russian-dominant or Russian-only speakers. These beliefs that link language, ethnolinguistic identity and personhood go deeper than attitudes or preference, but speak to ‘being in the world,’ and often alienate Sakha who don’t speak the language—I have heard individuals state that there is ‘no such thing as a russkoiazychnyi (Russian-speaking) Sakha,’ invalidating and erasing the identities of the many who do, indeed, speak only/predominantly Russian but identify ethnically as Sakha. Understanding how these beliefs about language connect and influence aspects of people’s social and public lives is essential—as well as the fact that they are beliefs—is essential, as they can often lead to significant inequality and speaker marginalization, and also harm the broader projects of language maintenance and revitalization. Identifying these beliefs and acknowledging their entanglements as well as their reach and power is the first step in alleviating the marginalization of groups of speakers.

Laura Siragusa: I was intrigued by noticing that in your work you talk about ‘the power of language’, which is not uncommon in other contexts. In the Finnish and Karelian folkloric traditions, for example, väki is seen as a ‘power charge’ that belongs to all beings, categories of entities, and phenomena (Stark-Arola 1998). Could you tell us more about what language can do, according to Sakha speakers, and if speakers use specific strategies to avoid negative consequences?

Jenanne Ferguson: As in many speech communities, some ‘kinds’ or genres of language are more highly charged, such as the blessing poems, algys, or kes tyl ‘magic words.’ However, no word should be used lightly (tyl tyalga byraghyllybat – ‘do not throw words to the wind’), because words are seen as direct vehicles for the intent of the speaker. There’s also the general communicative norm of not wasting words—not ‘throwing them to the wind’ unless you really must say them. “Sakha do not boltat’” (chatter, in Russian), I am often told, as an explanation for communicative differences between Sakha-Russian bilinguals and solely Russian speakers. Brevity in communication is positively valued—it’s safer. By voicing something, you have let your intent out into the world—you have already made something happen, and there is now the possibility that the meaning of your words will be realized. Because many Sakha ontologies of language hold that words possess a spirit (tyl ichchite) unto themselves as well as possessing something of the speaker’s spirit, letting them out into the world is seen as something to be especially cautious about, especially when discussing negative hypotheticals. I want to stress that this is not something people treat as ‘just’ a superstition; even if people do not also profess their sincere belief in tyl ichchite, this ontology of language has been normalized in the daily lives of many urban Sakha speakers, shaping their reactions to others’ words. Once I was discussing issues of environmental damage with a friend in light of a proposed chemical plant on the Lena River. Being from a Canadian region where pollution from the oil industry was affecting fish, I was telling her about the lesions on their gills and faces. “Big growths, like this, as if their jaws extended outward an extra length,” gesturing to my own neck and face, making the shape of a large lump. My friend stopped me suddenly, eyes wide. “Don’t say that, don’t do that! Kihi tyl – okh. Ymnuom suogha!” A person’s word is an arrow—don’t forget. Don’t make those gestures, directing the words to your body like tiny arrows. Interestingly, though, if you say something negative and you do not want it to come to pass, you can use the Russian-language expression of ‘t’fu-t’fu-t’fu’ to ‘cancel’ the words, or if you have positive hopes you do not want to jinx.

Laura Siragusa To what extent are ‘language trajectories’ among Sakha speakers driven by the broader ecology or the individual’s own agency and intentionality?

Jenanne Ferguson: I think they are too deeply intertwined to really separate them out; however, I want to focus on that broader ecology for a moment. If we take agency simply as the socially mediated capacity to act (Ahearn 1999) we can only exert so much influence within a socially structured language ecology. As I discuss, many times those trajectories are shaped by the specific language ecology that a speaker finds themselves in—specific friendship groups and the dominant norms surrounding code choice within them led to certain new patterns of language acquisition or use in a speaker. Of course, their own agency to either adhere or not to those language ecological patterns makes a difference, but the specific milieu and the practices of those other speakers in those micro-ecologies also played a central role in shaping the decisions. And of course, much broader ecologies are also present—as I discuss in the book, the massive shift in the linguistic ecology of Yakutsk in the years following the end of the Soviet Union set in place new structures that shaped the urban revitalization of the language, which continue to have an effect today. Moving to Yakutsk from a Sakha-speaking village may mean you will speak Russian more often than you did within rural linguistic ecologies, but you will now have more spaces, more domains, and more people with whom to continue speaking Sakha. And you may be more likely to choose to do so now than thirty years ago, due to the way the urban linguistic ecology has developed. However, I feel it’s essential to remember that ecologies also develop the way they do as a result of speakers shaping them through ideological (or ontological) and discursive practices. Therefore, both elements—ecology and speaker agency—are deeply entwined, making it difficult to even separate which influences the other more.

Laura Siragusa: Given the strong connections between language and land that you mention, I wonder how the recent fires in the Sakha Republic are narrated by online Sakha users and if there is any specific reference to the language as endangered.

Jenanne Ferguson: I haven’t noticed a specific patterns in news coverage or social media discourse yet, though now I will analyze more closely going forward! To my knowledge, there are no linked discourses that expressly see the fate of land as affecting language; conversely, where I now live and work in Northern Nevada, there is a direct connection expressed between the fate of Numu, the Northern Paiute language, and the cui-ui (Chasmistes cujus) fish endemic to Pyramid Lake. In the late 1990s a Numu elder reflected on the diminishing fish populations and number of speakers of the language and stated that when the cui-ui disappeared so would the language (both are now seeing a resurgence)! With Sakha the ‘endangerment’ connection is not that direct. I have heard, though, that losing connection to land definitely affect specific language domains, and vice versa. This was expressed to me by several herbal healers in the Amga region, who mentioned that when young people aren’t out on the land, they don’t learn the (Sakha) names for plants. At the same time, not speaking Sakha may make it more difficult, in their opinion, to engage with the land; Sakha plant names, they said, are often much more specific than those in Russian, or Latin, as they are highly descriptive (so that a plant’s appearance becomes more distinctive and thus easy to locate). For instance, a name like kyhyl sobo tyla (‘red carp’s tongue’) for Pyrola incarnata (grushanka in Russian) is said to make the plant easier to find and remember, as it so vividly evokes the deep pink of the flower’s style sticking out like a tongue below the petals!

Jonathan Rosa on his new book, Looking Like a Language and Sounding Like a Race

Interview by Jessica López-Espino

Jessica López-Espino: Let’s start with your title, what does it mean to Look Like a Language and Sound like a Race?

Jonathan Rosa: The title reflects my long-standing obsession with processes of overdetermination—how categories of identity and expressive practices become ideologically co-constituted, and how perceived boundaries between such categories are enacted interactionally, institutionally, and historically. Looking like a language and sounding like a race is about historical and contemporary forms of governance through which one is expected to fit into categories that don’t correspond to lived experience in straightforward ways. What this means is that, in everyday interactions and encounters with the state, whether in education, housing, employment, or criminal justice, one’s legibility as a subject is anchored in this dynamic of looking like a language and sounding like a race. I’m suggesting that a seemingly casual kind of interplay between people’s recognitions of race and language can also be understood an existential dilemma that is historically inherited and reproduced—and profoundly institutionally consequential.

Jessica López-Espino: You made significant efforts to examine the “contortions” that students at New Northwest High School, a key ethnographic focus of the book, believe in and enact as “emblems” of Mexicanness and Puerto Ricanness, but also show how students’ own ancestry, families, friends, relationships, and desires are often intertwined more than they may initially admit. Can you say more about what analytic tools you developed to avoid reifying or exaggerating intra- and inter-Latinx difference?  

Jonathan Rosa: I developed the notion of ethnoracial contortions because on the one hand I wanted to figure out how people were strategically enacting and constructing identities, and on the other I was interested in the ways that their strategic constructions and enactments were overdetermined. You can strategically use language in a particular way or wear particular clothing or have a particular hairstyle and that does not necessarily mean that your project of the self is going to be rendered legible within a given interactional or institutional context.

I analyze the relationship between denotational texts and interaction texts—transcripts and that which is enacted through discourse—to show how kids say all the time that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans are separate races while also regularly engaging in practices that defy that assertion. This was important for me in terms of schematizing stereotypical models of Puerto Ricanness and Mexicanness, but not reducing the analysis to particular stereotypes or presentations of self. By attending both to immediate contexts of interaction and broader historical and institutional conditions of possibility for those interactions, I attempt to avoid ethnographic essentialism, empiricism, and exceptionalism. The tendency toward privileging the pragmatic realm is particularly concerning in ethnographic analyses of race, gender, and class­ because these phenomena do not reduce to embodiment or interaction in straightforward ways.

Jessica López-Espino: In your discussion of outlaw(ed) literacies, you argue that perceptions of Latinx students as not reading are based on raciolinguistic ideologies positioning students as gangbangers and hoes who are unable to produce standardized linguistic forms. What do you think administrators, teachers, and the general public loses by maintaining these raciolinguistic ideologies about Latinx youth?

Jonathan Rosa: A major problem with discussions of language and literacy in educational contexts is the assumption that the nature of the challenge that we are facing is one of deficiency or mismatch. The deficiency narrative is that these kids lack skills all together, they have not learned academic language, they have not been exposed to particular forms of communication early enough in life to then be able to succeed later on in school and other institutional contexts. The alternative is a narrative of mismatch, where it’s not that the kids are deficient altogether, but that they are using different practices. From this perspective, the goal is to build a bridge between home and school practices, which will facilitate mainstream educational success.

In contrast, I wanted to demonstrate that the very practices these kids allegedly lack—that is, standardized language and literacy—can be recognized in their existing repertoires. If these students already demonstrate skills that we are saying they need to learn, then perhaps the problem is that various aspects of their communicative practices are illegible, distorted, or erased from mainstream institutional perspectives. I’m trying to expand the nature of the antagonism to say that this is not simply about building a bridge or scaffolding, it is about the modes of legibility and illegibility that are cultivated within and fundamental to mainstream institutions. Where’s the burden in terms of change? Is it modifying the practices of marginalized youth and communities, or is it transforming institutions that are tied to endemic histories of inequity? I want to argue that it’s about transforming institutions.

Jessica López-Espino: Not “seeing race” in this book is not an option, as racial ideologies center how these students are understood as achieving a presumably upwardly mobile pan-ethnic category as Young Latino Professionals, or negatively as “at risk youth.” Have you faced push back from scholars interested in maintaining a “race-blind” analysis? What advice do you have for anthropologists seeking to challenge the normalization of Whiteness within their work?

Jonathan Rosa: I’ve seen different kinds of pushback. In some moments I was grappling with people who didn’t want to talk about race and figuring out how to communicate with them; in other situations, I’ve encountered people who want to talk about race but in ahistorical, essentializing ways I find troublesome. With people who didn’t want to talk about race, I had to ask what kinds of analyses and insights are made (im)possible by engaging or not engaging with race. Not attending to race allows us to imagine that contemporary societal challenges are merely pragmatic in nature such that diversifying demographics within existing institutions would somehow fundamentally transform them; if you do not attend to race then you will misunderstand the nature of inequality and exclusion. Race is central to the creation of the nation-state, mainstream institutions, and academic disciplines. If one understands the modern world as profoundly anchored in colonialism, then race must be central to one’s analysis of historical and contemporary societies. After all, race and racism emerged as justifications for the globalization of European colonialism.

With those who are interested in studying race but define it in terms of essentialized categories that are understood to be embodied in self-evident ways, it’s important to remember that central to the project of understanding race and rejecting biological racism is a conceptualization of the body as one among many sites for the articulation of race, and a very deceptive one at that. Embodied experiences must be analyzed in relation to colonial histories, so that when we take for granted the recognizability of Whiteness, Indigeneity, and Blackness, for example, that’s often based on a body-oriented mode of analysis. If these contemporary demographics as articulated within a particular societal setting are the primary focus, then I worry that the histories out of which they emerged will escape careful consideration.

Jessica López-Espino: Is there anything else you hope other anthropologists take away from your book?

Jonathan Rosa: I hope that what people take away from this book is a set of questions about governance, about how boundaries are inherited, experienced, and transgressed; I’m interested in contributing to conversations about the broader worlds these boundaries constitute, as well as the existence of alternative worlds that are not often recognized as such. To the extent that the book invites readers to entertain and recognize the possibility and ubiquity of such otherwise worlds, that’s exciting to me.



Elise Berman on her new book, Talking Like Children

Interview by Shannon Ward

Shannon Ward: Most chapters of your book illustrated the enactment of “aged agency” through narratives that follow key events in the lives of your interlocutors, written in an accessible style and in English translation. What challenges did you face in translating your fieldnotes and transcriptions into this format?

Elise Berman: This is a great question. It was both hard and easy. I wanted to write a book that people would want to read, that would make the people I had met come alive, even while being theoretically rich. And so I did some research. As I was writing Talking Like Children, I happened upon a book called Storycraft by Jack Hart that discusses how to write narrative non-fiction. It occurred to me, then, that anthropological data is full of stories, and that ethnographies can be, and the best are, narrative non-fiction. Similarly, while teaching at UNCC the books that work best in my classes are the ones that have a strong narrative arch, characters that the students can latch on to and follow.

But the structure of narrative non-fiction that Hart describes is quite different than the way I was writing in graduate school (and I ended up wishing that I had taken a narrative non-fiction class). So, I completely rewrote my dissertation, not only to change the theory but also to change my style. One of the main points that struck me from Hart’s book was that when telling a narrative, you don’t want to give away the end in the beginning. So, for instance, in Chapter 1 when I talk about the birth of Pinla’s child, I do not initially tell the reader who got the child in the end. That is the climax, and the desire to know the result of these negotiations is what pulls readers through the text. But in the type of expository writing that I have learned, you are supposed to put the thesis in the beginning! So what I tried to do was put the theoretical thesis of each chapter in the beginning, but create narrative tension by starting with a hook and letting the story develop through the chapter without giving the ending away. I also tried to follow the other elements of Hart’s structure—beginning with action, intertwining narrative with expository information, and ending with a climax. This organization of each chapter took quite a bit of rethinking, reworking, and learning about narrative non-fiction.

But the other part of your question, about translating the fieldnotes and transcripts themselves into the dialogue, that was easy. A quote from a transcript can be written as dialogue, especially since I would have to translate it from Marshallese anyway for a transcript. What I did, instead of including symbols to indicate things like pauses or pitch, was provide that information as a narrative description. I actually found it much easier to explain this way than through symbols in a transcript. Moreover, writing this way pushed me to look closer at my videos. For narrative reasons, I wanted to be able to talk about where Rōka was looking or what Jackie did with her hand. To do that, I had to dig deeper into the recordings, and I frequently discovered relevant elements of the videos that I had left out in my previous version of the transcript.

Shannon Ward: Throughout the book, you compared age to gender, in order to theorize age as constructed and shifting. You also assert that “age is power.” Could you say more about how age intersects with gender to produce power in this ethnographic context? Relatedly, how are gender differences acquired alongside age differences, especially in childhood but also across the lifecycle?

Elise Berman: Gender differences are definitely acquired alongside age differences. The best example of this is in Chapter 6, where I talk about how Jackie has lost her former ability to run errands to men, since as she gets older she becomes subject to the “shyness” that often leads young women and men to talk in gender segregated groups. In contrast, however, Sisina, the child, is relatively bold. Her boldness is a part of learning to be not only a child who is different from an adult, but also a girl who is different from women. There are also various other aspects of gender that change across the life course that I do not discuss in the book. For example, in old age women seem to get bold once again and start playing a larger clowning role in festivals, whereas the younger women tend to be a little shyer.

This is one of the advantages, in fact, of focusing on age as a social construction. When one does, it highlights how all other categories—race, gender, class—dynamically change across the life course. So, focusing on age, in a way that I suggest has been largely (although not entirely) neglected in the social sciences, helps arguments that gender or race are not static or set in stone. It also changes the questions one might ask about the socialization of gender or race. Rather than being socialized into gender roles, people are socialized into age specific gendered modes of interaction and feeling that are constantly changing as people move across the life course.

Shannon Ward: Your book includes several stories of children who circulate between adopted families and birth families, amidst extensive controversy and discussions of adults’ morality. In these stories, you show how people, including children, use their age to affect the outcome of these exchanges. How do these Marshallese practices of adoption provide new perspectives on agency in the exchange of persons?

Elise Berman: This is another great question, and it really relates to the different forms of aged agency that exist in the RMI as a whole. Ultimately it is very hard to say no to an elder who requests something, including a child. But children and young adults have several different forms of agency, and specifically the agency of movement. Many children in the RMI have some amount of choice about where, and with whom, they live. In theory they are allowed to decide and can live with almost any relative. In practice, of course, it is much more complicated—they may not have transportation to a different relative (if that relative is on a different island), the different relative may not actually want them to stay, the parent they are leaving may be particularly powerful. Nonetheless, children’s freedom of movement changes the pattern of adoption as a whole, since adoptive children can and do move back and forth between multiple houses, including between what we would call their birth and adoptive parents. So, one part of childcare in the RMI is keeping your children happy, because if they aren’t they could (in theory) live elsewhere. People talked to me explicitly about this idea, that keeping your children with you requires keeping them happy—and that while this is particularly true of adoptive children it applies to others as well. Children’s movement is possible partly because of their age. They are not yet tied to a particular household that they care for.

Just as children can move between households, young adults can as well. One way to get away from a request for a child that you don’t want to fulfill is to move away until the child is older (one mother told me she did this: she didn’t want to give her kid away to an elder relative so when she was pregnant she moved to a different atoll). In turn, young adults also have a variety of choices available to them that are not as readily available to people in the US. Adoption is not a last resort in the RMI: it is a reasonable and expected option for single women as well as partnered ones. So I know of several women who told me that they adopted a child before they were partnered and before they had children of their own because they wanted a child. Now, this might happen in the US as well, but it is still something of an anomaly for a single woman to adopt a child. In turn, particularly given the common pattern of grandparents adopting the firstborn grandchildren, youth who have children before they are ready have a number of options open to them, options that might be offered rather than having to be sought out. Moreover, people change partners quite frequently early in relationships (when people are koba, together, but haven’t taken the step of becoming married), and this isn’t really seen as something that will negatively affect the children. Thus, women can adopt when single, and if they have a child without a partner it is not a big deal.

At the same time, however, these large families and these forms of sharing children have their own tensions, which I tried to illuminate in Chapter 1. In addition, and this is something that I didn’t write about in the book, when combined with high poverty rates this system is ripe for exploitation. There is a huge crisis of American adoptions of Marshallese children, where the ability of powerful people (including foreigners) to ask for things and get them, as well as these malleable households that shift and adapt, has led to an exorbitant number of American adoptions of Marshallese children.


Shannon Ward: Chapter 5, in particular, addresses issues of morality and age. Marshallese ideologies assert that children refrain from lying despite risks to their own or others’ reputations, unlike adults who lie to avoid shame and protect their reputations. In other words, this ideology holds that children are able to tell the truth, especially about others’ negative actions, due to their position as nonmoral persons. Throughout the book, you also mention the importance of Christianity. Other ethnographic literature about the Pacific region has shown how Christianity is shaping notions of truth, responsibility, and evidence related to morality. Could you say more about how these ideologies of children’s truthfulness and nonmorality relate to Christianity in this ethnographic context?

Elise Berman: It is not that the children refrain from lying despite risks to their own reputation, but rather that there are no risks to children’s reputations (or so adults think; children have a different view). Since, according to adults, children are too young to have reputations, any words that they tell are not real lies. Thus the ideology is not so much that children do not tell untruths (everyone agrees that they do), but rather they do not and have no motive to tell real lies that negatively affect adults. If they do, those words are not their own and they are not responsible for them.

This view of children’s words as not their own and, therefore, not lies even when they are false does seem to be quite different from the ideology of language explicitly expressed in church settings, in which a much greater concern is placed on words themselves as opposed to the effect of words. In line with the literature you reference, Christianity does seem to promote a different view of words and responsibility. But this ideology, as elsewhere in the Pacific, also seems to vary with denomination. My host family was Būrotijen, which is the United Church of Christ, the original denomination of the missionaries who came in the 1800s. So, I spent most of my time at the Būrotijen church. But there are many other newer denominations. When I visited two evangelical churches—Assembly of God and Looking for Jesus—the sermon’s rhetoric was much more focused on how God tells the truth and one must always tell the truth. Since almost everyone I interacted with outside of church was Būrotijen, I can’t say for sure how this perhaps greater emphasis on words’ referential accuracy within these other churches affects behavior outside of the church.


Rusty Barrett on his new book, From Drag Queens to Leathermen

Cover for  From Drag Queens to Leathermen

Interview by Sandhya Narayanan

Your ethnography and analysis of language use centers on 6 subgroups in gay culture: drag quens, radical faeries, bears, circuit boys, barebackers, and leathermen. How did you decide to focus your ethnography on these six subgroups?

I had already done research on drag queens and circuit boys, so I set out to do research that would allow for comparisons across different subcultures. I tried to choose groups with minimal overlap with straight subcultures that were also positioned in opposition to “homonormative” gay culture. I avoided groups where marginalization within gay culture stems from displaying more (hetero)normative identities (like Gaymers, gay gang members, or gay evangelical Christians). Those groups are certainly interesting, but the questions they raise were different from the research path I had already taken. Continue reading