Online seminar 21 November - 3 December Liria de la Cruz and Paloma Gay y Blasco on "Frendship, Anthropology"

Join us for the last few days of this unique event where we ask if anthropologists should be more accountable to the people we write about.

Some highlights:

The authors (an anthropologist and an informant) cross boundaries to speak together.

Ethnography could be open to change and reinterpretation, like wikipedia.

Could interpersonal exchanges such as this help others to understand their own condition better?

Or must anthropology remain closed, unequal and exclusive, leaving efforts like this to be just decorative?

This is the story of a friendship between two young women (now approaching middle age), born in Madrid in the same year, one a Gypsy and the other an anthropologist. It is told by them together and separately. This form of communication is part of the politics involved in the exercise. Liria admitted Paloma into her home as a way of her gaining entry into the Gitano world. Paloma took Liria secretly into her middle-class world. Each found their own situation stifling and together they sought mutual liberation by stepping outside what was familiar.

This was almost two decades ago and ever since their friendship has matured through phone calls, email and visits. Then in 2008, the same year as the economic crisis that we are all living through now, Liria broke with her family to live with a young North African immigrant. Paloma became her accomplice in this and their relationship has deepened dramatically as a result. Their aim in writing this Working Paper, which is available in html and pdf, later as an e-book and in Spanish, is to confront the divisions and inequality on which so much anthropology is based. They aspire to go beyond this, to harness anthropology's potential to make a better world.

This is nothing less than a romantic manifesto in the traditional sense of seeking freedom and equality through personal transformation, built on intimate relationships. This brief summary shows the range of powerful questions their story evokes. Much of it is highly controversial. The political, ethical and legal issues raised are extraordinary. Both authors are available for discussion, but Paloma will have to translate English comments for Liria's benefit, so please allow for possible delays in any replies. If you prefer to write in Spanish, we will do our best to mediate these contributions.

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Your reflections on the existential dilemmas of fieldwork, Micol, moved me to recall how I coped in a West African slum as a vulnerable 22 year old long ago. By all appearances I was a rich, white, overeducated, powerful kid in a sea of poor, black, illiterate, powerless adults, less than a decade after the end of colonial empire. I knew intuitively, since no-one had prepared me for it, that if I allowed these stereotypes to define the situation, my research would be dead. I now say that I had to establish a mutual framework of common humanity out of initial conditions of profound social inequality.

Fortunately, the locals' generosity gave me the human warmth and social connection I lacked in my loneliness. They allowed me to share their meals, play their games, speak their language badly. What could I give in return? That too was easy: I brokered their relations with the wider society. I lent them money, gave them rides on my scooter to hospital, helped them in their dealings with bureaucracy. We traded our respective social skills and assets. This mitigated my loneliness and the pervasive inequality to some extent. Even so, many days I couldn't face exposing myself to strangers and stayed inside reading in the stifling heat. I got through a lot of Victorian novels that way.

I always say that anthropologists are a solidary crowd. Wherever I go, wearing whatever hat, I can rely on the local anthropologists to look after me. Our bond is forged by the fieldwork tradition, in shared recognition of what is like to be truly alone in a strange place. My wife says that my model of friendship is like a Neapolitan street seller's who calls everyone his friend as a marketing ploy. Sometimes I refer to someone as a friend and she exclaims, "But you hardly know him!" and I reply that I believe he is well-disposed to me in any case. This kind of democratic or promiscuous friendship may or may not be an asset in fieldwork, but it in based on the premise of human equality. I did make a few close friendships too...

I am not a Christian now, but I was as a teenager and, in trying to make sense of this formative African encounter, I sometimes turn to the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.8-13. Please allow me to quote this well-known passage from the King James version:

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. (My italics)

The key Greek word Kharitas has a special Christian meaning: the theological virtue defined as love directed first toward God but also toward oneself and one's neighbours as objects of God's love; love of humanity.

I see this passage as in some sense an ethnographer's charter. Paul says put aside sectarian beliefs, linguistic differences, education in a specific culture. It's all so limiting, like a child's view of the world. We normally see others through the distorting mirror of racism that justifies treating them in inhuman ways (we see though a glass darkly), when all it takes is to deal with them as real persons (face to face). We start from very imperfect knowledge of others, but by opening up to them as they open up to us (I know even as I am known), we may discover human understanding and love. This is very far from the social model of an academic anthropology defined impersonally by the entrenched inequality of colonial and postcolonial bureaucracy, but it is, I believe, what Liria and Paloma are talking about (transcending the division between anthropologists and informants) and I think many or even most fieldworkers experience it in their own way, as you did, Micol. Paul also seems to be dismissing a cultural approach to knowledge as being partial, preliminary to a fuller openness to humanity.

 

 

Liria says: Huon asked how Madrid has changed since I was small. It has changed completely. When I was little we lived in small houses, Gitanos and some Payos near each other. That is all there was: Payos and Gitanos. Now there are all kinds of people, Moroccans, Chinese, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Romanians... Even when Paloma came to do fieldwork it was just Spanish people, Payos and Gitanos. So when we had the campaign for the school, it was really Gitanos and immigrants on one side, and the other Payos, the ones who had been here always, on the other side. It is true that the context of our friendship has changed in that sense.

Paloma says: Thank yo Micol, you make a very important point. Like you say, when I did my fieldwork Liria was not the only person I established a relationship with. I made connections with her sisters, with other women, and indeed with men too. Indeed I became very good friends with Liria's eldest sister, Carmen. But what happened is that Liria and I somehow managed to stick together, as friends, year after year. And then when Liria left her family recently, she very much turned to me for support. She had left everything behind, and I was the one friend who stood by her through this transition. So our relationship deepened enormously. Since then too I have had struggles with my children (unhappiness at school for example, issues to do with my daughter's adoption) and she has been very supportive of me.

So when writing about Liria I have my fieldwork and also years of relationship with her broader family by way of 'context'. The same is true of Liria, who has lived all her life in Madrid as a Gitana amongst Payos, and who through the years has come to know my family and my 'world' very well.

And what you say about making our writings relevant to others besides the people we write about is also important.

For me in a way the problem is the opposite: how to make what I write relevant to the people I write about. Doing this seminar has shown to me in a very striking way how difficult this task is. I spent a couple of hours on Sunday evening with Liria, going through all the emails people had written, and trying to explain to her the various comments, and I only half-way managed. This seminar has really highlighted out to me how difficult the task we have undertaken is: Liria, as a co-author of the article, is in fact still cut off from the conversation of anthropology. I don't know if this means that academic anthropology can never be open, egalitarian, inclusive, that attempts such as ours are just for decorative purposes only? What do people think?

 

You are right, Nikos. Comes from relying on a memory of 50 years ago. The Greek word in the language used when Paul wrote this passage is agape: νυνὶ δὲ μένει πίστις, ἐλπίς, ἀγάπη, τὰ τρία ταῦτα· μείζων δὲ τούτων ἡ ἀγάπη. The English translators decided that 'love' might be misleading. But this is a diversion from the present conversation.

NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS said:

Keith

Caritas is latin ,( as the title of an old song of Cat Stevens sung in latin) the greek root is Charis from where comes charismatic or charisma meaning somebody or something talented, A second interpretation of charis is favour. Also divine charis is in orthodox christian tradition the blessing of God . When speaking finally about a charming child -mostly a girl- the term chari-tomenos in greek defines the esthetical and attitudonal charms of the young person as a gift given by God, reflecting older pagan beliefs about ferries giving gifts to a newborn baby.

I'd like to thank Paloma and Liria for sharing this paper and seminar with the OAC. I found it extremely thought provoking and moving.

I'm from the UK but lived in Spain for 18 months and struck up a good friendship with a Gitano of around the same age as me whilst I was there. I believe that this had something to do with us both being outsiders as we were quick to offer our loyalty to one another when I first moved into the same apartment as him, but also quick to take it away. Our friendship waned with changes in friendship groups but our bond and mutual respect remained throughout my time in Spain.

I had finished my undergraduate degree in anthropology but I was working as a journalist. I wasn't thinking about anthropology a great deal at the time but looking back I find it interesting that the only time I did think about it was in relation to the Gitano people that I came across. I thought about doing an ethnography in the Gitano village (a walled area out towards the airport) and wondered whether I would be accepted. After reading Paloma and Liria's paper I don't think that I will conceptualise a piece of research like that in quite the same way again. 

The paper made me think about collaborations between Gitano and Payo, and in particular flamenco music, my initial exposure to which was from my Gitano friend playing his guitar and singing in our apartment. When his friends came around they would take up different parts of the song, clapping and singing at different times and we would be encouraged to join in. I have to admit that I found the rhythms particularly difficult and I don't think I contributed a great deal but I enjoyed being able to collaborate and share meaning at this level. I want to ask Paloma and Liria about the relationship between this sort of collaboration and the sort that they have achieved in their paper. Flamenco has been a successful medium through which Gitano and Payo have collaborated for a long time and I want to know if Paloma and Liria think that anthropology perhaps loses something when it is considered a science as opposed to an art form... or at least something along those lines.

Liria says: it sounds like you made a good connection with your friend. Friendships between Gitanos and Payos are not very easy to make. For us in the beginning it was about exploring the city, and sharing our thoughts and our hopes. Perhaps men and women become friends in different ways. The important thing is to have a sense that you click with somebody, that you connect. There are different paths to friendship for different people.

Paloma says: I think Liria is right that we became friends in a very 'girly' way - we talked a lot about men, and love, and things like that... Then as we have grown older we find ourselves supporting each other in a different way: we still talk about men :-) but also about our children. We have just decided we are going to write about motherhood together, hopefully that can make another chapter for our book. 

As to anthropology as an art form... for me anthropology is like life, full of stuff, some of it predictable, some of it totally weird and unexpected, some enjoyable, some unbearable... Human experience is so complex that it can be made sense of in many different ways, none of them in my opinion has the complete answer, and paradigms, schools, dogmas etc sooner or later get out of fashion, then are revived... So, if considering anthropology a science makes sense for some, fits the way they view life, that is good with me so long as a humanistic approach (which happens to fit me better, at least these days) is also valued and respected. Perhaps I just sit on the fence... I keep thinking about the scientist I mentioned earlier on in the seminar, who talked about expressing scientific ideas through dance... My view is that we have to be aware that what we consider obvious today may seem downright silly in a couple of years... and that keeping an open mind, attempting to see the world like others see it (even scientifically-oriented anthropologists :-)  ) is what anthropology is all about... 

Paloma, bravo! Your last paragraph is a beautiful articulation of thoughts about humanity and anthropology that resonate strongly with me. One of the things that attracted me to anthropology was finding a space in which both scientific and humanistic approaches were respected. It has saddened me to see the field fractured by those who insist on one approach or the other. 

Liria and Paloma, thank you so much for gracing our pages with your brave and energizing presence. I believe that partnership and teamwork deserve to challenge sole authorship as vehicles for doing and writing about anthropology, for reasons that you have shown us so vividly.

Paloma, at one level it is hard to disagree with your last paragraph, but I imagine that one strand of anthropology will have to go beyond keeping an open mind and appreciating others' points of view. The twin pillars of modern civilization are democracy and science, the idea that people should exercise more influence over what affects them directly and another based on realising that this requires us to understand how the world works in order to change it. Humanism has its limits in this latter regard (I find it hard to refute a perspective such as Albert Camus' in The Plague). Science in the broadest sense (not the narrow Anglo-positivist version, but something more like French science or German Wissenschaft, you will be able to tell me how the Spanish term plays) requires us to go beyond what most people already know, whoever or wherever they are.

Having said that, I agree entirely that we should be eclectic and relativist in our choice of theories and methods. I also would place human understanding top of my list for anthropology's priorities. It is just a question of where we expect to find it. Great literature shows us that digging into specific personalities, places and events can point to universal truths and the ethnographic tradition is consistent with this. But as humanity gets drawn into closer association at the planetary level, who if not anthropologists will address what that means and how it may be made to work for us all? What you have shown is that some of us at least need to break out of the academic straitjacket that so restricts an ethnographic approach at present. I am sure you are right that these barriers to self-expression are social more than technical. Overcoming them isn't easy either, as you have also shown us here.

This seminar will be closed tomorrow afternoon GMT, so everyone please get in your last comments.

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