The Egalitarian group led by professor Bruce Kapferer “celebrated” the first year of a full program with a 7 day (8th to the 15th of March) part seminar and conference in Ascona, Switzerland. The location was the beautiful setting of Centro Incontri Umani/ Centre for Studies of Society and Culture. http://www.ciu-ascona.org/index.html
The title of the event was “Egalitarianism: Forms, Processes, Comparisons”. The title reflected some of the issues relating to the complexity of the realities embraced by the concept of egalitarianism. It must here be underlined (as constantly stated by Bruce Kapferer) that the understanding of egalitarianism is dominated by how its European context, is inherently a cosmological issue of Christianity manifested in European ideals on the individual as a value and in utopian egalitarian social forms (ideologies). Our investigation must thereby go beyond the limitations inherent in reducing egalitarianism to a mere issue of equality versus inequality. Egalitarianism is not static and can not be reduced to an ideal. It finds form and can be analysed socially also outside of European influenced contexts, in a processual tug of war with hierarchy. Thus, in simple terms egalitarianism gives birth to hierarchy and hierarchy creates the conditions for egalitarianism.
From the left. Bjørn Bertelsen, Laura Simona, Bruce Kapferer, Jacob Hjortsberg, Alessandro Zagato, Theodoros Rakopoulos, Axel Rudi, and Knut Rio. Photo Rolf Scott
As such, the Centro Incontro Umani with its overall egalitarian intentions was a perfect place for the Egalitarianism event. This more so as the initiator and leader of the centre as well as our dedicated host, Professor Angela Hobart, ensured we were able to interact closely in welcoming settings. Both through organised discussions and in informal talks over collective lunches and dinners. In the first half of the week, we discussed different problems in regards to field-reports/papers, set into relief with different problems relevant to our discussions. The second half concentrated on paper presentations by staff, by eminent visiting scholars from near and far, as well as two film screenings.
The issues at hand were as always enlightened by the ever exploring and insightful rhetoric of Bruce Kapferer who has a methodology of challenging anything and everything. However, there was in addition, a well of critical questionings by members of the group and visitors. It must here be emphasised how our visitors from India, Sundar Sarukkai (Manipal Center for Philosophy and Humanities) and Ravi Raman (Nehru Memorial Museum and Library New Dehli), raised questions that emphasised the value of further opening issues by seeing them from the perspective of other cultural realities.
The Egalitarian group came together firstly as a collective in January of 2015, when the group engaged in a three months intensive “course” focusing on contextualising various aspects to the notion of egalitarianism. This included indulging in a lot of classical literature that at the very least revealed how the concept has in Europe, an extensive historical and cosmological background. The start off was followed by the PhD candidates writing, presenting and defending project descriptions of their intended fieldworks, and where the post-docs and general staff of the group also gave presentations relevant to their intended studies. From June to august 2015, the PhD’s and Post Docs left for fieldwork to different parts of the world, ideally for a minimum of a year and a half. This meant our meeting in Ascona during March 2016, was the first gathering of the entire group since June 2015 or after 8 months. As such it was also a ritual marking of the students halfway voyage through fieldwork.
Angela Hobart welcomes the group and gives a presentation on the history of the centre set in relationship with the intentions of the gathering.
The major advantage of Anthropology as a method of social investigations is its focus on fieldwork which grounds an analyses directly in the first hand experience of real life events. However, the practice of fieldwork has eroded in anthropology in many educational institutions while it has also been embraced in a light version by other social fields. The overall result has been a watering down of the essence of fieldwork, which includes it would seem conducting shorter and more superficial field investigations and interviews rather then immersing one self totally into the field over a long period of time.
Bruce Kapferer has from the beginning stated the importance of conducing a long-term, uninterrupted fieldwork. This has become even more pressing in the present day situation, where students (and like migrants) no longer need to leave their cultural and social world behind when traveling long distances to new places, but can engage with their departed contexts at all times, over for example the internet. This is of course an obstacle to the integration of the practitioner of fieldwork into a context of study, also because the internet yields such vast amounts of information about a context that does not necessarily emerge from an analyses of real life situations. Such information may thereby obscure the basic strength of Anthropology, which is to be grounded in a certain first hand experienced realities in the context in question. In the not to distant past, an important part of fieldwork was being separated and isolated from the social context from which the anthropologist originated from while trying to engage in the social world of the study at hand. This resulted in a process of social and individual disjuncture as well as liberation and transformation from “ones point of origin” which on a “return” becomes highly reflective and may yield additional comparative insight. Finally, even if one may conduct a successful fieldwork through separation and integration, there is still the problem which many find frightening, of being able to synthesise the vast amounts of everyday experience into meaningful arguments.
It was therefore a relief to listen to the various presentations and their problematics, which at the very least showed that the PhD students had become immersed in their fields and had already acquired a consciousness towards grasping analytically different aspects of their field experience and what they needed to further expand the understanding of their investigations. Thus, the discussions, showed an enthusiasm that did not seem hindered by the fact that several members of the group had the flue during the event. It was therefore also satisfactory that our ethics representative the former rector of the University of Bergen, professor Sigmund Grønnmo was present during all of the PhD presentations.
To use the words of our project researcher Mariana Gold in her letter to Centro Incontri Umani. http://www.ciu-ascona.org/a-eng/Activities/Actual.html#
“During the first four days PhD students and post-docs presented material from fieldwork and research papers. This revealed the variety of field sites within the project, ranging from the Lacandón jungle in Mexico to Lancashire, from Greece to Singapore, from South Africa to Iraq, from Switzerland to Bangladesh. Similarly, the topics that emerged from these field sites demonstrated the richness of materials within this comparative project: the Zapatista movement, the garment industry, fracking, Kurdish movements, conspiracy theories, class construction, human rights and race. Furthermore, papers by invited guests, who brought in their own experiences and field sites and challenged the participants to think more critically, were an invaluable contribution to the event. These guests included Ravi Raman, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library New Dehli; Sundar Sarukkai, Manipal Center for Philosophy and Humanities; Mark Goodale, University of Lausanne; Don Kalb, Central European University and Penny Harvey, University of Manchester. Other highlights of the event included two movie nights, one prepared by Rolf Scott, and the other by Bruce Kapferer, and a public event organised by Alessandro Zagato on the Virgin of Cancuc and Subcomandante Marcos.
From the left top; Knut Rio, Ravi Raman, Bruce Kapferer, Anna Szolucha, Marina Gold, Jacob Hjortsberg, Theodorus Rakopoulos, Alex Rudi, Bjørn Bertelsen, Ann-Elin Eriksen, Gro Aase, Marianne Soltveit, Alena Koslerova.
A visit to the mountains on our day off. From the left. Sundar, Ravi, Anna, and Bjørn throwing a snowball.
A view of Ascona.