In July 2022, at the EASA meetings in Belfast, we passed the baton to a new editorial team comprising Chief Editors Dimitra Kofti (Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens) and Isabelle Rivoal (University of Paris, Nanterre) as well as Assistant Editor Ville Laakkonen (Tampere University) and Book Review Editor Arne Harms (Max Plank Institute for Social Anthropology). The new team has started to process new submissions and will introduce itself in one of the first editorials of 2023. We look forward to their contribution to this distinguished journal and wish them a felicitous term of office.
The outgoing editorial team looks back on an exciting tenure which was dedicated to questioning the very meaning of Europeanness and underlining the topicality of social anthropology. However, the team's agenda was more than once derailed by seismic historical events: first the pandemic, then the invasion of Ukraine. It was difficult to maintain a steady output of articles in these times, but we tried. Between January 2019 and July 2022, Chief Editors Laia Soto Bermant and Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov edited and curated a total of twelve issues, including four special issues and nine special sections. Assisted by Assistant Editor Lukas Ley, who took over as Chief Editor in January 2022, and Book Review Editor Jeanne Kormina, the team secured publication activities throughout the entire Covid-19 pandemic while also producing timely forums on contemporary topics, such as climate change activism, the international far right, and the pandemic itself. In early 2022, they successfully kicked off a most promising publishing partnership with Berghahn Books and secured transition to a new submission system. Since March 2022, readers of Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale have been able to read whole issues free of charge, if their institutions’ libraries already support Berghahn's subscribe-to-open mission. The journal also for the first time in its history displays changing covers that speak to the issues’ core topics.
This issue's cover is a photograph taken by guest editor, Zahira Aragüete-Toribio. It depicts a comb that forensic archaeologists recovered from a mass grave in the village of Puebla de Alcocer, Spain, in 2012. The comb belonged to a revolutionary who, along with many others, was executed by Francoist troops and paramilitary in May 1939, well after the end of the Civil War. The special section entitled ‘Evidencing Mass Crimes: Anthropologies of Forensic Expertise in Mass Grave Exhumations’ that opens this issue critically addresses forensic approaches to investigating mass graves. While forensic investigations have become the norm around the world, the ethnographic analyses of cases collected in this special section reveal that these tools do not simply produce universal and uncontested truth. Driven by the emotive labour of memory and care for the dead, searches for the truth by the bereaved clash with the agendas of authorities who try to monopolise the application of forensics to shape both narratives and forms of justice offered to the bereaved. Forensic practice emerges through local power dynamics and affective labour and competes with other knowledge systems. As Aragüete-Toribio points out, the essays collected in this special section aim at decentralising universalist assumptions about forensic approaches while examining their growing importance in the politics of disinterment.
In her contribution María Fernanda Olarte-Sierra addresses the production of forensic knowledge in Colombia. Recent efforts to reconstruct killings related to the Colombian armed conflict through confessions of demobilised members brought forensic experts working for the Attorney General's Office centre stage. Faced with the task of exhuming and identifying the bodies of people killed by the paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), forensic workers are expected to produce scientific accounts. These accounts tend to ‘flatten human experiences and produce simplified realities’, rendering important aspects of victims’ experiences of violence obscure and unknowable.
Sarah Wagner examines forensic output in the context of state efforts to honour military sacrifice. She analyses the exhumation and reburial of Private First Class (PFC) Gzik, killed in North Korea, whose body had been ‘hastily buried in the frozen earth alongside the road’ and subsequently dug up, examined and shipped to Hawaii for military reburial. Here, the unidentified body lay under a simple gravestone until an initiative by the US Department of Defense to recognise national sacrifice led to his forensic examination and solemn resettlement. According to Wagner, forensic practice is embedded in growing state bureaucracies whose scientific efforts are aimed at recovering former combatants. This ‘caring’ for the dead entails spectacles of reclamation that assign to and extract from the dead a political value. The case of PFC Gzik reveals ‘how the bodies and memories of combatants persevere as powerful conscripts to the nation long after arms are laid to rest’.
Similarly, the forensic management of mass graves in Rwanda and Burundi can underscore state power and authoritarianism, as Astrid Jamar and Laura Major show in their co-authored paper. Disentangled from activist campaigns to unsettle and rewrite prevalent stories of conflict and suffering, forensics can become a powerful tool to consolidate dominant views of history and past violence. Jamar and Major point out that the use of forensic technologies in Rwanda and Burundi leads to an authoritarian appropriation of rights-based discourses, which is a ‘self-legitimising’ process that prevents emancipatory results. Concerned individuals and communities, as well as the authors, therefore express unease about the political mobilisation of exhumations, questioning the relation of truth and forensic evidence. The various ‘material textures emerging out of the ground’ get appropriated by constituencies whose own interests drive conflicting forms of factual, social and political truths.
In the absence of state initiatives to account for and identify the many victims of Mexico's war on drugs, citizen groups have mobilised. In their contribution to this special issue, Carolina Robledo Silvestre and Paola Alejandra Ramírez González describe the affective and forensic work of Las Buscadoras de El Fuerte, a citizen group composed of mestizo women, Yoreme people, farmers, labourers and housewives, founded in 2014. These self-trained forensic experts teamed up due to a shared quest for missing relatives and state accountability. In northern Sinaloa, as the authors show, forensic knowledge is therefore, ‘above all, the domain of families’. Careful to avoid conflict with authorities, these citizen-scientists actively claim membership in the ‘epistemic community’ of forensic practice. Taking seriously the emotions of dread and grief that drive forensic practice, the authors suggest developing an ethnographic analysis of exhumation that is sufficiently attuned to both the universal aspirations of science and deeply local search for justice.
Rounding off this multi-sited account of the evidential practices surrounding exhumations, the afterword by Élisabeth Anstett takes stock of the anthropology of mass graves. Drawing on cellular biology, she wonders if mass graves could be considered as ‘silent stock’, that is, matter or genetic information stored by organisms for future use. Anstett sees sites of mass graves as containing ‘clandestine remains’ that live a quiet life during periods of social and political denial. But these stocks don't remain silent forever. Nationalist politics, advocacy work and grief work cluster around mass graves and produce these sites as matter and knowledge that can be passed on, organised and (re)composed in specific ways. As mass graves are being investigated in Colombia or Rwanda, increasingly frequent discoveries of mass graves in Ukraine not only foreshadow the death toll of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also contain the material and political possibility of accounting for ongoing atrocities and options for coming to terms with loss.
The special section on mass graves is followed by three original articles that form the second part of this issue. Kelly Alexander's paper on food waste focuses on a Brussels restaurant that over the last thirty years grew from being a soup kitchen to a ‘zero food waste’ hipster-looking eatery. It manifests a new form of Brussels’ ‘social restaurants’, a city with a long history of food provisioning to the destitute in one of Europe's oldest social welfare states. This new craft of social justice centres both on disenfranchised labour, which includes immigrants, and waste. The restaurant uses surplus supermarket food that is no longer sellable but still edible both in its cooking and in the context of its training programme for cooks (as well as waiters). Alexander charts moral economies of care that match cast-off food with cast-off people in a complex and ambiguous relationship to the morality of the market and the ethics of making good out of what was waste.
Kate McClellan's article critically asks why animal welfare NGOs don't discriminate between caring for animals and caring for humans. In the Jordanian capital Amman, where employees of transnational NGOs plan to raise ‘a new generation of socially responsible and empathic Jordanians through the doctrine of animal welfare’, McClellan observes that instead of advocating animal welfare solely for the sake of animals, advocacy groups approach their work through what she calls a ‘politics of equivalence – making equivalent the needs and desires of humans and animals so as to address both at the same time through similar ideologies of care’. Care, she argues, functions as a political device that enables new forms of relationality that strategically elide difference and serve humanitarian agendas. Drawing on work that considers human–animal relations as ordering principle, she points out that animal welfare can reproduce colonial imaginaries in which the animalisation of humans justified atrocities. Today, making equivalence can further play into economist discourses that assess the productivity of a population through the efficiency of its human–animal interactions.
Lastly, Tomoko Sakai analyses the role of humour in making sense of plurality in contemporary post-conflict, yet still much-divided, Belfast. This ethnography's focus is on women's comical accounts that deal with experiences of a violent and difficult past. Sakai charts what could and what could not be joked about in a complex and shifting political and sectarian context, and how this joking works as a way to construct interactions in unfamiliar and uncertain relationships. The article draws attention to the post-conflict forms of ‘self-defence spirit’. In doing so, it casts new perspective on the anthropology of humour. Sakai argues that the Janus-faced nature of laughter, which can be both socially and politically subversive and turn against the weak, provides a unique window into everyday post-conflict interactions that Sakai calls ‘self-comicalisation’. Crucially, this enables Belfastians to produce and negotiate social and political distance from their communities as well as from the long-term conflict past with its absurdities of ‘normal’ daily life under intense violence and suffering.
As this issue comes out at the time of formal handover between the incumbent and the new team, the outgoing editorial team would like to thank Franz Krause and Patrick LaViolette as well as the members of our international editorial board for their unwavering support over the last four years. Heartfelt thanks also go out to EASA's David Mills, Sharon Macdonald and Cris Shore for helping assure a smooth transition to our new publisher, Berghahn Books. We are indebted to Lisa Pentaleri and Janine Latham for their dedicated work towards publishing SA/AS – together, we have produced and published three issues of SA/AS that are fully open access. The journal is in much better shape than we could have hoped. We wish the new editorial team all the best for taking SA/AS into the future.
Finally, warm thanks to all our readers and subscribers!
Erratum Notice for SAAS 29.2:
Funder Information added for below article: Democracy after “the End of History”: Vietnamese Diasporic Liberalism in Poland, published in Volume 29.2, May 2021 of Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale (p. 404–420).
Author: Grazyna Szymanska-Matusiewicz
Funder: The research has been funded by National Science Centre, Poland (project 2017/25/B/HS6/01201).