In conducting fieldwork among perpetrators of state violence, it is a major methodological problem to gain access to competing factions within the research population. Ethnographers often succeed in finding access to at least one faction but this successful rapport might then immediately close off other factions that mistrust the ethnographer’s politics, intentions, or alleged sympathies. The ethnographic challenge is to find intermediaries or switchboard operators, as they are called in this article, who have established informal channels of communication between hostile factions. Switchboard operators have the following characteristics: discretion, neutrality, lack of formal power, disinterestedness, trustworthiness, and they act as a conduit of communication. This article describes how switchboard operators were located in Argentina, and how they played a crucial role in my fieldwork among a broad spectrum of military perpetrators who had terrorized the Argentine people between 1976 and 1983 with enforced disappearances and state repression.
Finding Perpetrators and Switchboard Operators in Post-Authoritarian Argentina
Antonius C.G.M. Robben
The rationale for this special section of Conflict and Society lies in anthropology’s relatively recent and steadily growing application to the study of political violence in its various manifestations, from everyday instances of subtle structural violence to more overt cases of war and mass atrocities. In the late 1990s, Carolyn Nordstrom’s (1997) work among soldiers and ordinary civilians whose lives had been intimately affected by Mozambique’s civil war and Antonius Robben’s (1996) work among survivors and perpetrators of Argentina’s Dirty War enabled an important shift among ethnographers. Whereas in the past ethnographers typically focused on violence and warfare in substate and prestate societies, Nordstrom and Robben emphasized the foundations of political violence in complex state societies. Their work led to the emergence of a small cohort of ethnographers—among them Philippe Bourgois (2003), Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1997, 2002), and Neil Whitehead (2002, 2004)—specialized in what was soon termed “the ethnography of political violence”
Sovereignty and Social Contestation—Between Violence and Alternative Sociocultural Orders
Martijn Oosterbaan and Wil G. Pansters
In the past decade, the concept of sovereignty has swiftly risen in popularity within anthropological circles, especially in relation to violence in postcolonial and post-authoritarian societies (Das and Poole 2004). The rationale of this section is rooted in the aspiration to build on and further develop anthropological understandings of conflict and violence centered on the notion of sovereignty. Whereas the contributors to the section are indebted to theoretical approaches influenced by the writings of Agamben (1998, 2005), they also present analytic advantages and shortcomings. For instance, a recent critique of Agamben’s notion of sovereignty—and of many of his followers—is that it reproduces totalitarian notions of modern politics that cannot account for the historical existence of “ordered” communities “free from subjection, and … free from subjecting others” (Jennings 2011: 43).
The Metaphysics of Police Vigilantism in India
This article describes and explains “police vigilantism” as a mode of authoritative extralegal coercion performed by public police officials conceived as doing their duty to realize justice in the world. Based on ethnographic observations, interviews, and content analysis of news and entertainment media as well as official government reports, this essay examines a specific form of police vigilantism in contemporary India known as “encounter killings”. Demonstrating that encounter killings are widely constituted as a form of ritual purification and social defense by self-sacrificing police, it theorizes a metaphysics of police vigilantism in India that combines generalized experiences of insecurity with shared cosmologies of just war. Comparing this metaphysics with justifications of state violence in other Global South contexts, this study sheds light on how such violence may be legitimated through the conceptual inextricability of law and war as embodied in a uniquely constituted human figure: the police vigilante.
Jeffrey A. Sluka
The ethnography of state terror is “high risk” research and there are real personal dangers for anyone who conducts fieldwork on this issue. Managing such dangers has particularly become an issue for those conducting primary research with perpetrators of state terror—the “rank and file” who apply the electric cattle prods and pull the triggers—and all of the researchers I know who have taken this path have been threatened in one form or another. Th is article reviews the core literature and latest developments in managing the physical dangers inherent in the ethnography of political violence and state terror, particularly fieldwork or primary research with the actual perpetrators themselves, makes practical recommendations for managing such dangers, and presents some ideas for developing risk management plans or protocols for researcher survival in perilous field sites.
Kathleen M. Blee
Interpretive and ethical frameworks circumscribe how we study the perpetrators of politically motivated violence against civilian populations. This article revisits the author’s studies of two eras of white supremacism in the United States, the 1920s and 1980s–1990s, to examine how these were affected by four frameworks of inquiry: the assumption of agency, the allure of the extraordinary, the tendency to categorical analysis, and the presumption of net benefit. It concludes with suggestions on how scholars can avoid the limitations of these frameworks.
Female Génocidaires in the Aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide
Since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the current government has arrested approximately 130,000 civilians who were suspected of criminal responsibility. An estimated 2,000 were women, a cohort that remains rarely researched through an ethnographic lens. This article begins to address this oversight by analyzing ethnographic encounters with 8 confessed or convicted female génocidaires from around Rwanda. These encounters reveal that female génocidaires believe they endure gender-based discrimination for having violated taboos that determine appropriate conduct for Rwandan women. However, only female génocidaires with minimal education, wealth, and social capital referenced this gender-based discrimination to minimize their crimes and assert claims of victimization. Conversely, female elites who helped incite the genocide framed their victimization in terms of political betrayal and victor’s justice. This difference is likely informed by the female elites’ participation in the political processes that made the genocide possible, as well as historical precedence for leniency where female elites are concerned.
Excess and Domestication
This article explores the enmeshment of sovereignty, riots, and social contestation. Riots have continually marked out the thresholds allowed for exceptions to be declared. As such, they have been the sovereign entity par excellence that produces the moments of politics that need to be domesticated. Interestingly, expressions of sovereignty have always presented themselves in contexts of riots and social contestation. These issues will be explored ethnographically in relation to riots in Mozambique. The relationship between excess and domestication is explored through an analysis of two indices of sovereignty: riots and their close associates “mobs” as excess; and processes of domestication. The first index grapples with t he excesses of riots and mobs, and encompasses, I suggest, all the elements of sovereignty: exception, in- and exclusion, and excess. The second index explores the enmeshment of sovereignty and social contestation from the perspective of domestication, particularly the diff erent forms for control and violence that come into play when the quest for making life and creating order is at stake.
History, Politics, and Exile Identity among Rwandan Rebels in the Eastern Congo Conflict
This article analyzes how the 1994 genocide in Rwanda is recalled and described by members of a Hutu rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) whose leadership can be linked to the 1994 atrocities in Rwanda. The article explores how individuals belonging to this rebel group, currently operating in the eastern territories of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), articulate, contest, and oppose the dominant narrative of the Rwandan genocide. Based on ethnographic fieldwork with members of the FDLR in a rebel camp, this article shows how a community of exiled fighters and second-generation Hutu refugees contest the official version of genocide by constructing a counterhistory of it. Through organized practices such as political demonstrations and military performances, it further shows how political ideologies and violence are being manufactured and reproduced within a setting of military control.
Competing Sovereignties in Violent Mexico
Wil G. Pansters
This article examines the emergence of self-defense forces (autodefensas) in Michoacán (Mexico) in the context of relationships between drug trafficking and the state, concentrating on the recent history of fragmentation, disorder, and violence. It traces how these processes generated comprehensive criminal sovereignty projects, which then triggered the emergence of armed defense forces in both indigenous and mestizo communities. Recent developments in Michoacán are described in light of anthropological theorizing about the relations between sovereignty, state-making, and (dis)ordering. The analysis elucidates the triangular dynamics of sovereignty-making among organized crime, the state, and armed citizens. Special attention is given to state interventions to dismantle de facto self-defense sovereignties because these have created an unstable and violent situation. It is argued that sovereignty-making is territorial and historical, and that it is embedded in political, economic, and cultural identities.