In hindsight, 2005 looked like a harvesting year for the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology in terms of education and of research. Our first batch of Bachelors graduated successfully, and in the first year that we ran our Masters Program in Social and Cultural Anthropology, an unlikely 90% of the students completed the one-year program within 12 months – a year that includes coursework, field research and thesis writing. We are proud of that feat, the more so because an external evaluation committee (‘Visitatiecommissie’) lauded the quality of our program and of the theses that students produced in its verbal feedback. With that tentative assessment, the Department is fully confident that the future accreditation of its teaching programs will not be in doubt.
In terms of research output, 2005 seemed like a harvesting year as well. We had an unusually number of more than 60 international refereed publications – the usual benchmark of academic achievement these days. This is more than ever before, and will be hard to match in the future, for ‘successes in the past are no guarantee for the future’. Not only the quantity and quality of scientific publications increased, they also became increasingly guided by and contributive of the Department’s research program ‘Constructing Human Security in a Globalizing World’. We organized a conference on the anthropology of human security, we are working on publications, and our staff members are invited to participate in human security projects around the world. This is expected to lead to a growing number of publications around Human Security.
Hopefully 2006 will be an even better harvesting year.
Head of Department
2. The CONSEC research programme
3.1 Staff members
3.2 Individual research projects undertaken by staff in 2005
6.7 Membership of advisory boards and of professional organizations
6.9 Other activities and press contacts
Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Annual Report 2005
Every known form of energy is the expression of difference and not the result of levelling
Globalization means that people now share their dissimilarities. The year 2005 continued to bring to light the many contradictions that accompany the intensified insertion of the world into the globalized arena. The world as a whole is affected by such events as the G8 meeting at Gleneagles, the tsunami disaster, the dramas taking place in the Republic of Congo, the severe hurricanes in the Caribbean, increasing worldwide migration, and the laborious processes of democracy construction in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other regions throughout the world. For anthropologists, these are reasons for concern, intensified research efforts or (preferably interdisciplinary) reflection on backgrounds, vicissitudes and possible contributions to mitigating the humanitarian tragedy that often accompanies such events.
Social and cultural anthropology might be one of the best equipped of the social sciences to help us to understand people’s different, often contradictory perceptions and evaluations of these events, their causes and ‘perpetrators’, the values and strategies needed to find solutions and, of course, the cultural embeddedness of all these viewpoints. These perceptions and evaluations often are the decisive triggers for human actions and responses. In this light, understanding these perceptions might be just as important as understanding the ‘facts’. As the band Talking Heads put it: ’[F]acts are lazy and facts are late…(…).. facts are useless in emergencies’.1 There is no doubt that we need to know the facts. What is more important, however, is to know what people make of the facts.
Research at the Social and Cultural Anthropology (SCA) Department of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam focuses on people’s attempts to cope with the chances, risks, opportunities, dangers, options and uncertainties that accompany globalization. But human security – the core concept of our scholarly work – is not conceived of as a steadfast and perennial standard or unswerving inclination of human endeavour, but as a dynamic, situationally embedded and culturally saturated aspect of people’s agency. Understanding its logic might help us to understand the key differences and similarities between people, and the subsequent clashes and potential meeting grounds.
The year 2005 was a busy year. We had more PhD students in our midst than ever before. The department welcomed three new ones. Regien Smit joined us on 1 July and is now working on the comparison between two migrant Pentecostal churches in the Netherlands. She was followed two months later by Hanneke Minkjan, who is working on the theme of neo-paganism and its position in the Dutch religious field. Our third new PhD candidate – João Rickli – came all the way from Brazil to join our ranks on 1 November. His theme is the link between the Dutch and the Brazilian players in the activities of ‘Kerk in Actie’ (‘Church in Action’). His project is financed by Brazil, but the SCA will be his working location for the coming four years. Professor André Droogers is supervising all three projects.
Demands regarding research output remained high in 2005. Fortunately, the department once again substantially increased the number of peer-refereed publications.
The department had to say goodbye to one of its most senior and most respected staff members, Bernhard Venema, who retired after over 30 years at the department. During the ceremony, his praises were sounded in various speeches that highlighted both his scientific contributions and robustness, and his pleasant collegiality.
In September, André Droogers stepped down from his position as Head of Department. This senior, experienced and highly appreciated colleague will remain with the department for another year. The position of Head of Department was assumed by Oscar Salemink, who was appointed full professor on 1 September. Since that date, the department’s Management Team (MT) has consisted of Oscar Salemink (Head of Department), Ina Keuper (Education Coordinator) and Ton Salman (Research Coordinator, since 1 September).
Regrettably, we were not able to welcome back Donna Winslow. We hope that she will fully recover from her illness and return to the department in 2006.
An important event was the departmental conference on Human Security (29-30 August 2005), at which various Dutch and international scholars commented on the papers presented by members of our staff. The aim of the conference was to reflect on and deepen our insights into the reach, limitations and polyphony of the notion of human security, and to explore its potential as a ‘meeting ground concept’ for the multifarious research projects our department hosts. A more detailed report is provided in section 2.
Unfortunately, the department was not able to welcome substantially more new BSc students at the start of the academic year. Once again, the total enrolment was less than 30 students. To improve our enrolment figures, the department has established the LEF committee, which comprises Ellen Bal, Lenie Brouwer and Freek Colombijn. A whole series of measures have been suggested, ranging from offering a more differentiated Bachelor’s programme with various minors, to making the departmental websites clearer and improving their ‘findability’. Many of these measures are now being implemented.
The MSc programme is thriving. In the academic year 2004/2005, almost 90% of our students graduated. Virtually all of the students in the current batch are now halfway through the programme. They are expected to do as well as, or even better than, their predecessors.
All our staff members continued to set high standards for their courses and supervision, resulting once again in student evaluation scores that are above the faculty’s average.
Towards the end of the year, the department’s education programme received its five-yearly audit. Both the Bachelor’s and especially the Master’s programme were positively evaluated in the audit’s committee’s ‘first impression’ statement; the final report will be issued in the course of 2006. However, the committee questioned the present structure under which both the SCA and the COM department at our faculty offer their Bachelor’s programme under the heading of ‘anthropology’. The future of this collaboration will be thoroughly re-evaluated in the course of 2006.
The SCA research programme:
Constructing Human Security in a Globalizing World (CONSEC)
Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing
Werner von Braun
The ‘Constructing Human Security in a Globalizing World’ (CONSEC) programme is based on the observation that in today’s globalizing world and kaleidoscoping societies, the circulation of people, goods, capital and information across borders and boundaries is occurring at increasing speed. This process of globalization is seen to undermine ‘traditional’ forms of physical and existential security, as experienced by many groups and communities around the world, but it simultaneously multiplies the pools of resources and meaning from which people can draw in their quest for such security. Although the scope of anthropological research is often localized in nature, both the challenges to human security and the repertoires of resources and meaning on which people draw are increasingly transnational in nature. The aim of the research carried out within the framework of this programme is to capture the paradoxes inherent in this quest for human security in the context of and on the basis of fast-changing, increasingly transnational repertoires of resources and meanings, by looking at the localized quest for physical and existential security at the same time. The central question of the research programme is: how do people construct and use varying social and cultural repertoires in a globalizing world to create human security, both physical and existential?
The programme emphasizes the multiple dimensions of physicaland existential security in their mutual entanglement. Physical security is associated with the UN definition of human security as ‘freedom from want and freedom from fear’, which entails aspects of economic, ecological, social and physical well-being. These aspects are generally associated with the fields of development and governance, which traditionally are the domain of social anthropology. However, this research programme stretches the meaning of human security to cover cultural, cognitive, emotional, religious and symbolic dimensions, which here are subsumed under the concept of ‘existential’ and are connected to processes of signification. Existential security is the human attempt to make sense of this world and of the human being’s place in it, in relation to family, community, society and the wider cosmos, through processes of signification in connection with belief, trust, belonging, and mental and spiritual fulfilment.
In our exploration of the potential of the concept, our attempt to test its possible usefulness in the various research projects taking place in the department, and our effort to ‘anthropologize’ the debate on human security (HS), we continuously come across its contradictory manifestations. For instance, it is a truism that in specific circumstances, some people are willing to risk their own or others’ physical or economic security for religious or ethnic reasons. These and similar paradoxical articulations of the quest for human security confirm the fact that when cultural and religious dimensions are left out of the equation, an HS analysis is bound to be incomplete, theoretically barren and politically irrelevant.
However, while the material and existential dimensions of HS can tentatively be distinguished, they also seem intertwined in complex and sometimes unexpected ways. For instance, in cases where people’s security is threatened because of their gender, people in the affected category are sometimes willing to challenge traditional societal arrangements that condone these threats. The male’s ‘right’ to violence towards his family, for instance, is often challenged by women. These arrangements, however, often also give predictability to gendered roles, entitlements and obligations. Ironically, gender certainty is then given up in order to obtain gendered security.
Likewise, where globalization and transnationalization seem to contribute to widespread feelings of insecurity and uncertainty, opponents of these developments sometimes paradoxically draw on precisely some of the new resources provided by globalization processes to defend and revitalize traditions. Here, some external (‘modern’) influences are rejected and others are put to use.
Another example is that millions of migrants are prepared to leave behind the steady but frugal security of a precarious livelihood and migrate to another area or country, setting out on a highly risky quest to obtain a higher, albeit more insecure income. The subsequent attempts among both migrants and host communities to create cultural and group certainty along ethnic and/or religious lines often, wryly enough, contribute to a sense of loss of people’s security.
This is not to say that all human endeavour can be interpreted in terms of a quest for security. The antonym of security is not necessarily and exclusively insecurity: it can be freedom or risk. As suggested by the classic social science dispute between moral economists and rational choice theorists, people may also want to avoid or escape forms of community and security that they experience as stifling or oppressive. Much individual and group action can be interpreted as conscious risk-taking rather than as a quest for security, as evidenced by many contemporary forms of migration. It is this creative tension between security and risk (or ‘freedom’) that the CONSEC programme attempts to explore productively.
These examples serve to illustrate that diverse dimensions of human security and insecurity are entangled in sometimes contradictory ways. They also reveal that people’s attempts to achieve material, physical and existential security – either collectively or individually – may clash, creating new arenas of contestation in those sectors that combine material interests with cultural content, such as in the new (often transnational) media. Therefore, in our department we tentatively define HS not as a field of inquiry, but as a multidimensional and dynamic conceptual lens that allows us to link these various dimensions – superficially classified as physical and existential security – with one another in order to achieve a richer, more complex and more compelling analysis.
In the research programme, then, we both explore the usefulness of HS for opening new vistas in the respective participant’s research fields, and continuously question and revise the concept. Such ongoing revisions and contextualizations are indispensable if we want to move beyond detecting factual degrees of risks and dangers, to include, as a crucial dimension, different agents’ perceptions thereof. These perceptions, more than the quantifiable risk calculations, are the stuff people’s agency is made of.
The 2005 conference
To deepen our insights into the potentials and limitations of the concept of HS, the department organized an internal conference (29-30 August 2005). All staff members were asked to present a paper at the conference relating their current research project to HS. Dutch and international discussants were invited to comment on our presentations.
One of the things we did during the conference was explore the strategies of religions in the Netherlands, in the context of searches for certainties to overcome ‘disembedded identities’ and dislocated authority. We also found out that although ‘community’ is in many cases oneof the vehicles of people’s search for security in an increasingly porous world, these communities (of ethnic, religious, regional or other character) trigger just as many insecurities. They may arouse hostility in the surrounding society, they may be settings in which security plays a zero sum game with the different individual’s lot, and communities’ quests to assure their futures may well suffer from sudden ‘plot twists’ when unintended consequences emerge. Additionally, an individual’s willingness to try his or her luck outside the community may either foster or jeopardize (or both) that person’s prospects of achieving security.
Finally, to reiterate, we found out that anthropologists try to do two things at the same time: to explore the usefulness of HS for opening new vistas in their own research field, and to contribute to the revision of the concept. Focusing on and registering quantifiable degrees of risks and dangers is only half the job. We first and foremost need to focus on different agents’ perceptions of security and insecurity. HS always needs to be radically contextualized if it is to be of any value to anthropological searches for its contents.
With such and similar insights, the department will continue to delve into the concept of HS. In the meantime, the contributions to the conference are in the process of being reworked to meet the prerequisites for publication in peer-refereed forums.
Winslow, Prof. Donna (absent on sick leave throughout 2005)
Since September 2005, the Management Team (MT) has comprised:
Prof. Dr Oscar Salemink, Head of Department
drs. Ina Keuper, Education Coordinator
Dr Ton Salman, Research Coordinator.
3.2 Individual research projects undertaken by staff in 2005
(does not include PhD projects or the research projects carried out by the department’s fellows Thomas Eriksen, Maurice Bloch and Saskia Sassen).
Project title: ‘Political Culture in the Horn of Africa: Local and National Narratives of Ethnicity and Conflict’.
Keywords: politics and power formation, ethnicity and conflict, religion and identity formation/reformation, violence.
Politics and power formation in the Horn of Africa are marked by conflicting narratives of historical, religious and ethnic identity. Governance and the exercise of power are redefined, reinterpreted and enacted in specific local forms in settings where different legal traditions and cultural commitments are at play. These local forms, as entry points for national policy and foreign donor-supported development interventions, need continuous study to assess their agency in the context of wider socio-political processes. This research project looks both at developments on the national level and at changing patterns of conflict and sociocultural transformation in societies on the margins of the state, notably in Ethiopia. On the national level, the research addresses the enduring problems of the ‘democratization’ of the Ethiopian political system and its generation of conflict; on the local level it looks at the formation/reformation of ethnic group relations and their mobilization in new, more politicized forms under the impact of growing political and economic problems. The project also intends to report on why these processes have not led to improvements in the existential or physical security of people outside the centres of power.
Project titles: ‘Searching roots and constructing homeland(s): the importance of India for Hindustanis in Suriname and the Netherlands’ and (in preparation)‘Of dreams and nightmares: youth and human security in Bangladesh and India’.
The first project investigates notions of ‘roots’, ‘homeland’ and/or ‘belonging’ held by people of Indian origin in Suriname and the Netherlands, and explores their emotional and practical attachments to India. The study is closely linked with a larger research project entitled ‘A Diaspora Coming Home? Overseas Indians re-establishing links with India’, which is being carried out by Dr Kathinka Sinha-Kerkhoff (Sept 2001- Sept 2005) and concentrates on PIOs (People of Indian Origin) in Mauritius, the Netherlands and Suriname.
The second project (which is in preparation) focuses on the views and experiences of young people in poor and conflict-ridden regions in South Asia (Bangladesh and India), on what it means to be young, and on their dreams and nightmares, their hopes, desires and ambitions, as well as their fears, uncertainties and insecurities. The project will attempt to broaden the social scientific understanding of young people’s perceptions of and role in constructing (and/or risking) human securities and insecurities, in their present lives and anticipated futures.