Tine M. Gammeltoft, Haunting Images: A Cultural Account of Selective Reproduction in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 315 pp., illustrations, appendix, bibliography, index. ISBN 9780520278431
Images of fetuses on ultrasound screens are now presented as happy announcements on Facebook, placed in family photo albums, and treasured as ‘baby’s first portrait’ by many prospective parents. But sonography was designed to diagnose anomalies, and it remains “the only routine scan in all of medicine for which the only treatment is death” (11). In a Third World country like Vietnam, the new popularity of ultrasound scans has been tied to a national agenda of ‘population quality control’ and to many private agendas that favor male children over female ones. This meticulously researched and beautifully written ethnography examines the process of making decisions about abortion for 30 women whose fetuses were labeled ‘abnormal’, showing how that process involved not only doctors and government officials but also husbands, extended family, and cultural and moral values.
Building on years of earlier research on women’s health in Hanoi, Tine Gammeltoft presents a moving and nuanced portrait of the painful dilemmas that these women faced and stresses several characteristics of this process in this particular context. Agent Orange, a herbicide sprayed by US forces in southern and central Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, left residues of dioxin that have been linked to several forms of cancer and birth defects, which continue to manifest themselves in succeeding generations. The extensive media attention paid to the after-effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam has filled television screens with images of children without arms or legs, with enormous heads and no eyes, and with weirdly deformed limbs. Hence, prospective mothers are hyperaware of the risks of birth defects and have eagerly sought out ultrasound scans to reassure themselves that their fetuses are healthy.
At the same time, the Vietnamese state is committed to both birth control and ‘quality control’ of women’s pregnancies, pushing doctors to be very proactive in urging women to get rid of fetuses that seem likely to prove costly and hard to care for. Gammeltoft resists Foucauldian interpretations of the disciplinary state, preferring to see policy makers in Hanoi as acting out of “a sense of responsibility and solidarity” and “feelings of compassion” (57) to avert the suffering associated with severe disability. While she skillfully shows how these concerns are anchored in Confucian collectivist values and spiritual ideas of fate and inherited misfortune, she also documents cases in which doctors do not offer treatment to poorer families and the allocation of resources seems more expedient than compassionate. One of Gammeltoft’s key arguments is that “the state must be seen not as a closed system of administration and governance, but rather as an open and affective structure of mutual belonging” (102). In her conclusion, titled “Toward an Anthropology of Belonging,” she argues that these troubled families place their faith in the state, embodied by the doctor on duty, and expect that their obedience to the state will be reciprocated by fair treatment. While sometimes they do encounter kind and compassionate doctors, fairly often they do not. As a result, this faith seems naive and at times even delusional.
In framing reproductive decision making as a matter of belonging rather than of freedom, Gammeltoft develops a contrasting case to the more individualized Western clinic. Drawing on the work of the humanist philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, she examines how subjectivity is structured in a relation of responsibility to the other, so that choice itself “can be seen as an act of belonging” (21). “Belonging is enacted,” she contends, “in the presence of ghosts” (226)—fetal specters that continue to haunt or trouble people long after they suffer the loss of a child. Parents want to be good citizens and want to belong to collectivities from the family all the way up to the state. “But the enactment of belonging, such ghosts tell us, always relies on exclusions” (235)—defective fetuses who need to be pushed out and forgotten, sent away and not welcomed into the ancestral temple. Gammeltoft tenderly recounts the poignant losses of a number of couples who struggled with their feelings of attachment to a potential child, but all eventually followed their doctors’ recommendation to abort.
The great fear of the parents of a defective child is that their child can never “become a person (thành người)” (2), capable of reciprocating the parents for the care and sacrifices that they will have made to bring it up in the world. Thus, the decision to abort such a fetus is seen as a sacrifice—a way to spare both the parents and child additional suffering—as well as a duty that is owed to the state. Gammeltoft shows amazing empathy and understanding for these young couples, whose stories are rendered in vivid and compelling prose. But her formulation strikes me as strangely sympathetic to the authoritarian state, one well known for violations of human rights. She relates that mothers are often addressed as ‘younger sister’, a term that she describes as having a “caring tone” (103), but of course it can also convey a sense of paternalism and condescension. While Gammeltoft notes that the increasing inequities of the market economy have exposed these young families to great poverty, she still sees them as fully committed to the state that marginalizes them, in addition to ordering them to dispose of ‘undesirable’ children. It is a somewhat paradoxical argument in an otherwise admirable and moving book.
Carlota McAllister and Diane M. Nelson, eds., War by Other Means: Aftermath in Post-Genocide Guatemala (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 408 pp., photographs, maps, references, index. ISBN 9780822354932.
This excellent collection covers a wide array of themes from diverse disciplinary perspectives—but it is a bleak read for those who care about Guatemala. In the introduction, the book’s editors, McAllister and Nelson, start by hopping back and forth through historical moments of violence and the rays of hope that emerged from them. It then goes on to make the case not only that these hopes remain unfulfilled, but that new and continued forms of hardship deriving from structural inequalities are perpetuated and exacerbated by the very measures that were supposed to bring about their end in the aftermath of Guatemala’s civil war. As subsequent chapters jump back to explore the historical antecedents to contemporary tragedies, the book establishes how the events of the war remain embedded in the present but also how the neo-liberal reforms that emerged in peacetime plow the same furrows of structural and political violence seen in the conflict. This ‘war by other means’ so frequently sees hope, in the form of social and political aspirations, undermined and extinguished.
The book is broken up into four parts. The first, “Surveying the Landscape: Histories of the Present,” begins with Grandin’s outstanding overview of 500 years of Guatemalan history, which gives necessary background for the subsequent shift in the volume toward a critique of neo-liberalism, showing the cyclical nature of land reforms, rebellion, and violent repression that remain familiar today. Bastos and Camus explore the awkward complementarity of the Mayan movement and the revolutionary movement in Guatemala, seemingly compatible due to shared concerns with marginalization, but hampered by the practicalities of bringing together diverse objectives within and between these movements. McAllister argues for collaboration and nuanced interpretation in the gathering of Maya testimonies in human rights cases because how things are said, layered sub-textural meanings, evasions, and silences articulate as much as the words that are spoken.
The second part, “Market Freedoms and Market Forces: The New Biopolitical Economy,” starts with Solano’s exceptional detailing of the interpenetrating reach of oligarchical control in relation to the Franja Transversal region in northern Guatemala. This is a profoundly compelling ‘war by other means’ argument that charts how specific colonial plantation-owning families went on to manipulate the militarized political rule throughout the conflict and continue to dominate all aspects of extraction and distribution in today’s ‘sustainable development’ era of palm oil-based biofuel and hydro-electric dams. Oglesby further destabilizes the image of Guatemalan business ethics with a damning critique of moves toward corporate social responsibility on Pacific Coast sugar plantations, while Velásquez Nimatuj explores the recurrent violence experienced by those engaged in the land struggle in Nueva Cajolá.
The third part, “Means into Ends: Neoliberal Transparency and Its Shadows,” focuses on the key actors in violence past and present. It explores the changing social make-up and violence of gangs from the 1980s to the 2000s (Levenson); the interplay and effects of violence between guerrillas, the army, and civil patrols in Colotenango (Kobrak); the continued resonance of the war in the aftermath of a lynching in Todos Santos (Burrell); and how the war is ever present in post-war Guatemala through the shifting roles of military personnel and militarized civilians in ‘development’ projects (González-Izás). This section firmly establishes the fact that while the war may have ended, the violence, power structures, and inequalities that underpinned it still linger in contemporary violence.
The final part, “Whither the Future? Postwar Aspirations and Identification,” commences with Nelson’s exploration of two people entwined in a ‘dietary supplement’ pyramid scheme. Nelson makes the case that the product (Omnilife) perfectly encapsulates the profound problem of twenty-first-century Guatemala where ‘the market’ is seen as the only solution to redress social inequalities of health and wealth, but where the rich get richer—with obvious consequences for the majority of those at the bottom of the pyramid. González Ponciano uses race-related humor to establish the pitfalls in drawing parallels between Guatemalan racism and that seen in the United States. The book closes with Worby’s discussion of the widespread disillusionment of return migrants.
While this volume does engage with the two main (and unavoidable) tropes of twenty-first-century Guatemalanist academia—‘blame the war’ and ‘blame neo-liberalism’—it does so in a way that demonstrates the complex entanglement of these two catastrophic forces and how they have suffocated the hopes of the 1990s. The richness of historical, economic, and ethnographic insights feels fresh even as it engages in old debates. Each chapter is elucidating, but read as a whole the insights from this book push the reader toward a sense of hopelessness. While small glimmers of a positive future are alluded to throughout, they are overwhelmed by the litany of cases where hopes have been broken. The acknowledgments section alludes to one such hope. As the book went to press, the editors noted that “a critical milestone has been reached”— the former Guatemalan general and president, Rios Montt, had finally been found guilty of genocide. Yet at the time of writing this review, he awaits retrial after the Constitutional Court overturned his initial conviction. Hopes raised, hopes dashed. In their introduction, McAllister and Nelson ask: “How could the demons of 1982 remain so lively while the hopes of 1992 and 1999 seem so moribund?” The sad answer seems to be that those whose vested interests were served by violent repression in the 1980s are still being served today through ‘war by other means’.
Nicholas J. Long, Being Malay in Indonesia: Histories, Hopes and Citizenship in the Riau Archipelago (Singapore: NUS Press; Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2013), 288 pp., maps, tables, illustrations, index. ISBN 9789971697693.
This is a handsomely written study of the inhabitants of one of the richest and most contentious provinces in Indonesia today. Nicholas Long’s angle of vision is directed primarily toward a long-standing question that has preoccupied Southeast Asian scholars for decades: what does it mean to be Malay in a multi-ethnic society? The author’s answer to this deceptively simple query is more complex than it may appear at first glance. What it means to be Malay in Riau is contingent upon which aspect of social life one directs one’s attention toward and whom one talks to. Malayness, therefore, is a ‘situational ethnicity’, manifested and projected differently in accordance to the feelings, thoughts, and strategic claims of a given individual and/or group.
Long, however, goes much further than this. He takes issue with earlier studies on the subject of Malayness, arguing that too little attention has been devoted to the affective dimensions of identity formation. By this, Long refers to “anxious and unsettled states of being” (24) that have shaped how Malays position themselves vis-à-vis an ever-changing and cosmopolitan Riau landscape in the years following the collapse of the New Order in Indonesia. These were years that witnessed the advent of ethnic reassertion and social effervescence. According to Long, the Riau province was at the heart of such transformations, and at the core of these developments was the popularized and politicized notion that Riau is a long-held ‘heartland of Malay culture’.
The theoretical framework of this book bears striking parallel with that of Johan Lindquist’s (2009) study of Batam, one of the islands within the Riau province. But while Lindquist is concerned primarily with the ‘emotional economy’ of the Malays and ‘other Malays’ in Batam, Long lays much emphasis on how these emotions are played out in the realms of the politics of representation and communalism. He examines how poets and writers express their unique conceptions of Malayness and uncovers the ways in which emotive projections of being Malay are filled with paradoxes. These themes that consume much of Long’s book are explored in another recent volume on Malayness (Mohamad and Aljunied 2011).
Long’s main strength is his ability to interlace real-life empirical, ethnographic, or experiential findings with insights of thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and Rogers Brubaker in order to analyze Malayness through the concepts of ‘bad faith’ and ‘the uncanny’. His weakness, however, lies in his over-reliance on these concepts without attempting to devise his own, based on 30 months of research in Riau. Concepts such as marwah (44), Melayu murni (72), maju (110), ikatan (129), among others, all drawn from the field, could have been explored further and employed as conceptual lenses toward a more grounded theorization of the Riau Malay identity. Indeed, more than just an issue of ‘bad faith’ and ‘the uncanny’, the “pursuit for prestasi (prestige)” explained so vividly by Long in chapters 7 and 8 seems to me to be the cornerstone of the unending contestations surrounding Malayness in Riau and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia.
This missed opportunity to analyze Malayness in Riau from ‘inside out’ rather than ‘outside in’ does not lessen the book’s overall importance. The seven substantive chapters demonstrate Long’s deep grasp of the Riau landscape and its people. He explores the coming into being of Riau as an autonomous region (chap. 2), the politics of historical production (chap. 3), the myth of Malay economic underachievement (chap. 4), the contest over physical and moral spaces (chap. 5), the resilience of Malay folk beliefs (chap. 6), the crisis of manpower (chap. 7), and the ways in which cultural performances are used as levers to reinforce Malayness (chap. 8). In all these chapters, Long fleshes out the many uncertainties that Malays have about themselves and their future in the face of the success of other communities such as the Chinese, Indians, and migrants from other parts of Indonesia.
Methodologically, this study is closest to what Clifford Geertz has termed ‘deep hanging out’. Long ‘hung out’ with writers, poets, civil society activists, housewives, politicians, businessmen, rebels, clerics, and ordinary men and women on the street—querying them, while listening to and observing their understandings and, at times, complaints about being Malay and living with non-Malays. He even served as a guest judge in a beauty contest and took the opportunity to scrutinize how Malayness was performed through speech and bodily acts. What has come out of this nuanced ethnographic approach is a highly informed study of Malays in Riau, one that will inevitably find a notable place in many university courses on identity politics and on Southeast Asian anthropology.
National University of Singapore
MohamadMaznah and Syed MuhdKhairudin Aljunied eds. 2011. Melayu: The Politics Poetics and Paradoxes of Malayness. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press.
Roger Sanjek, Ethnography in Today’s World: Color Full Before Color Blind (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 312 pp., notes, references, index. ISBN 9780812245455.
The title promises a book about ethnography in ‘today’s world’. To a certain extent, it delivers on that promise, if you allow that the ‘world’ is mostly New York City, with a nostalgic excursion to Sanjek’s research in Ghana in the mid-1970s being the exception, and that ‘today’ ends at the close of the 1990s, with his study of civic associations and political engagement in the Elmhurst-Corona neighborhood of New York. Nonetheless, even if one accepts these limitations, this is a curious book. It is about ethnography, but what it has to say about ‘ethnography in today’s world’ takes some working out.
The problem is perhaps exemplified in chapter 3, entitled “What Ethnographies Leave Out.” It starts with a brief reflection on Sanjek’s way of building published studies, in this case the study of civic engagement in a New York neighborhood, from the mass of data, weighed and measured as numerous pages of field notes assembled into two boxes. The architecture of the ethnography, he reminds his reader, emerges in part from these boxes in the form of “constantly evolving chapter and section outlines” (43). He notes that as the structure emerges, much of the “direct experience captured in an ethnographer’s fieldnotes” (44) is set aside and left out of the published monograph. The remainder of this chapter consists of two of these bits of writing that “got lost” (44) in the work of composing the finished monograph. There is an account of a revival meeting at a Baptist Church and then a description of an “International Festival” put on by local school children and that is all: two lightly edited excerpts from his field notes, saved from the cutting room floor and made into a chapter, which in fact began life as an article in the journal Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics.
In a way, the whole book is like this. Maybe it is not quite a collection of sweepings from the cutting room floor, but if it were an album, the subtitle would be “B-Sides and Rarities.” The substance of all the chapters has been presented and published elsewhere, sometimes, such as chapter 3, rather obscurely, other times, such as Sanjek’s entries on “Ethnography” and “Fieldwork” from the Encyclopaedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, which are combined and presented as chapter 4, more prominently. Taken as whole, there seems to be little that holds this volume together, other than the fact that the chapters have something to do with ethnography.
If there is a thread that connects the whole, it is a tendency toward intellectual autobiography, which takes the form of harking back to various influences that shaped Sanjek’s own development as an anthropologist. The curious effect of this autobiographical voice, often pleasingly chatty and anecdotal, is that although the title promises an engagement with ‘today’s world’, much of the book is about the author looking back and reminiscing about his own academic upbringing and a form of activism rooted in the campus politics of the 1960s. In this context it is noteworthy that there is virtually no engagement with more recent anthropologists who, like Sanjek, are inclined toward an activist anthropology that deploys the techniques of ethnographic research as a means to articulate critical understandings of contemporary ‘global’ connections.
Yet despite all these limitations, there is value to this volume. When read from start to finish, a distinctive and compelling vision of activist anthropology emerges. Perhaps I find it exciting because, to be honest, it is different from the vision I know. I hail from the generation that came of age academically in the 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, many of us were in thrall to the interpretive anthropology of Clifford Geertz and the postmodern turn inspired by readings of Derrida and Foucault. This gave rise to a type of (de)constructivist critique that took as its object forms of discourse and strategies of reification, including the writing of realist ethnography itself. Sanjek briefly acknowledges this tradition of critique that coalesced around the publication of Writing Culture in 1986, but his version of a politically engaged anthropology is quite other. Taking inspiration from the Malinowskian tradition of social anthropological research and, in particular, Harris’s The Nature of Cultural Things, Sanjek makes a robust argument for the continual salience of participant observation of everyday life within a local area. The proper focus of this ethnography, as he makes clear in chapters 4 and 10, is less on talk or ‘discourse’ and more on real people doing real things as they would normally do them. In contrast to the ‘writing culture’ critique, Sanjek’s ethnography of the ‘present’ is very much within a realist tradition, and, in keeping with this tradition, he is emphatic in his defense of anthropology as an empirical form of inquiry.
Another distinctive thing about Sanjek’s vision of a politically and publically engaged anthropology is that it is less about taking things apart and more about describing how people living in complex urban communities, divided by distinctions of ‘race’ and ethnicity, come together to recognize common interests and take political action. True to the ethos of 1960s activism, this is an anthropology of direct civic engagement, of little people getting organized, finding a voice, and, in so doing, gaining some degree of influence within broader political processes. There is a pragmatic idealism to Sanjek’s ethnographic project—a vision of sociability in which people cooperate while still maintaining and even celebrating their differences. By studying these processes of civic engagement, as well as participating in them, the anthropologist, Sanjek argues, can work within the “increasingly interconnected, color-full world” to fashion a politic that is both “diverse and inclusive” (22). Perhaps this book is in many ways nostalgic, but even so, there is something compelling in its hopeful and heartening vision of the anthropological project as a form of political engagement.
University of Edinburgh
David Zeitlyn and Roger Just, Excursions in Realist Anthropology: A Merological Approach (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 160 pp., references, index. ISBN 9781443864039.
The reader who is not discouraged by the inconspicuous main title and an esoteric subtitle will find in this relatively short book a taster of logical causes and illustrative cases for why a realist approach has always been, and indeed will remain, central to anthropological understanding. Zeitlyn and Just argue that even the expanding epistemological relativism of the past three decades, in the guises of postmodernism, posthumanism and ‘the ontological turn’, holds realist assumptions at its core—because behind the ‘anything goes and everything is equally valid’ front, even the most purist of relativists harbors points of scholarly reference that distinguish poorer contributions from the more accomplished ones. And such is the enticingly pragmatic baseline of the realist approach: even though we might not have access to the ontological essence of things or phenomena (das Ding an sich), we know that such exists independently of our perceptions (das Ding an mich) simply because some perceptions obviously are less flawed than others. To insist that we abandon our search for ‘the real’ due to the realization that our understanding of social systems necessarily is partial is, in the authors’ words, “a classic case of inferring, from an inability to run, the impossibility of walking” (8). The task is, in other words, to continue our search for the methods and the analytical tools that reap more of the less inaccurate in our approach to the events that constitute human worlds.
From the outset, the authors declare loyalty to Michael Herzfeld’s ‘militant middle ground’. This position facilitates an evenhanded treatment of key anthropological concerns throughout the nine chapters (six of which are based on previously published works). We learn of rationalism, cultural translation, relations between parts and wholes, the culture concept and the challenge of generalization, fieldwork positioning, exoticisms and the suspense of disbelief, and the status of anthropological versus informants’ knowledge systems. To illustrate these classic topics, the book provides numerous ethnographic snippets, as well as a handful of thicker descriptions, most of which are based on the authors’ varied experience as ethnographic fieldworkers. This allows for a vibrant take on actual in-the-field choices, dilemmas, and flukes, enlivened by Zeitlyn and Just’s inclusion of odd comic points that for peculiar reasons (possibly the widespread misperception that ‘serious’ equals ‘grave’) too frequently are siphoned off before publication. Consequently, the book’s appeal lies not only in its academic accomplishments but also in its readability—although the fastidious reader may be put off by rather careless copyediting and a few referencing errors. If it had not been for the limited format, which is a constraint mentioned by the authors as a reason for merely invoking rather than more satisfactorily engaging with some of the sub-topics and debates that surface en route, this reviewer would have considered the book appropriate not only for an academic collegium but also for students. In its current form, it might still be fruitfully applied to a pre-fieldwork graduate level, as a buffet to trigger further thinking rather than a set meal with a strictly cumulative argument.
The brief final chapter, titled “Concepts for Twenty-First Century Anthropology,” rounds off the case for realism and adds a few disciplinary cornerstones, none of which would have caused a stir among the anthropological community 50 years ago. This is no mere anachronism because, even though not unequivocally stated, the authors seem to find that the past three decades of disciplinary introspection soon turned into a cul-de-sac of navel gazing. The implicit, and frequently explicit, target for Zeitlyn and Just’s critique is the relativism currently featured in anthropology’s so-called ontological turn. Orientation-wise, this is a very broad church, which in this book is denoted mainly by Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism, Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT), and the neo-materialism of the contributors to the deliberately provocative anthology Thinking Through Things (Henare et al. 2007). Throughout, Zeitlyn and Just express disenchantment with the insistence on radical alterity and cross-cultural incommensurability, both of which stop asking questions at precisely the point when they become interesting and, more importantly to an engaged social science, when our answers are most sorely needed. As a consequence, the authors suggest, ethnography has lost favor in current theoretical debates since it logically necessitates a realist epistemology: interaction in the field provides as much affirmation as one could wish for due to the simple fact that some understandings, although inaccurate, are less flawed than others.
I suspect that a few ontologists and ANT practitioners will frown upon Zeitlyn and Just co-opting their positions of unacknowledged realism. But the majority of practicing anthropologists occupy the same middle ground, militancy notwithstanding, and will find this book as persuasively commonsensical as anthropology is itself when it is at its best—that is, when acknowledging that any understanding between human beings is necessarily incomplete, but taking this challenge as a point of intellectual departure rather than a moment to surrender. ‘The view from nowhere’ is definitely a fiction. But this does not license the view from anywhere. Anything just does not go. Zeitlyn and Just show us why this must be so.
Thorgeir Storesund Kolshus
University of Oslo
Manduhai Buyandelger, Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 336 pp., illustrations, glossary, references, index. ISBN 9780226086569.
Manduhai Buyandelger’s monograph, Tragic Spirits, explores the strong resurgence of shamanism among the Buryats in northeastern Mongolia in the troubled aftermath of the collapse of state socialism. The Buryats have faced a long history of forced migration and marginalization in Mongolia and surrounding areas (particularly Russia), and the Mongolian socialist period was no exception to this pattern. Here, the Buryats were under-represented in official histories, faced accusations of counter-revolutionary activity, and were deemed enemies of the people. As a result, they were severely suppressed, particularly during the purges in the 1930s. When the socialist system crumbled around 1990, the Buryats, like most other Mongolians, entered a period of democracy, market economy, rapid transition, and great insecurity. In trying to find a remedy for their hardship and suffering in the contemporary capitalist era, Buyandelger argues, the Buryats seek out shamans and thereby, almost inadvertently, are led to (re)discover and engage with pasts and past spirits that had been suppressed by, among others, the socialist regime. These spirits are now returning to take revenge, and they need to be appeased—and to be known and controlled—in order for people’s misfortunes to end. Contemporary calamities are thus explained with reference to neglected shamanic ancestor spirits. Accordingly, the Buryats’ search for explanation and cure also becomes a proliferation of often vague, indeterminate, and ambiguous knowledge about their tragic past. The exploration of past and present tragedies often remains incomplete, provoking further search (and hence renewed shamanic activity) that ends in “unspoken, absent, and erased memories” (264). The uheer, the forgotten and malevolent spirits of the dead that mostly haunt poor and marginalized people, are the embodiment of this tragic threshold.
While this issue of the proliferation of ancestors’ spirits and past histories, mainly explored in the first three chapters and the last one, may be said to frame the book, Buyandelger’s general interest in the resurgence of shamanism in the post-socialist era also leads her to explore the importance of power relations, particularly those pertaining to state and gender. The book, then, deals not only with remembering through shamanic spirit possession and with the role of state technologies in producing forgetting (and hence potential memories to be rediscovered). It also raises a number of questions about the marginalization of women and female shamans in the post-socialist era and, as part of this, the influence of Buryat tradition, the (post-)socialist state, and neo-liberal economies in creating such gendered patterns of exclusion. As a matter of fact, the book takes shamanism-in-itself seriously by not treating and hypostasizing shamanism as only a cosmology/practice/ontology on its own; rather, shamanism is presented as a lived aspect of a world of past ancestors and contemporary troubles. In this sense, Buryat shamanism is always about much more than just shamanism: it is a technology that integrates—and is integrated into—history.
While the book is convincing, ethnographically rich, and a very strong contribution to the anthropology of Mongolia, it also gives rise to a couple of questions or concerns on my part. First, at times there seems to be a distinction at play between taken-for-granted neo-liberalism and suffering versus cultural responses such as shamanism. To put matters (too) crudely, there is a sense in which uncertainty feeds shamanism, as in “capitalism serves, but shamanism thrives” (11). It is mentioned briefly that shamanism can also aggravate (i.e., serve) existing anxieties (8), and this point is ethnographically explored at times. Yet the fact that shamanism, rather than just being a response, may also in itself be productive of anxieties and absences (Højer 2009) could have been stressed further and discussed in more detail. To what extent are anxiety, absence, and uncertainty inherent aspects of shamanism and not just qualities of the surroundings, produced by, for example, socialism or capitalism? Does shamanism look differently when times are less troubled, as a passage in chapter 2 would seem to imply? Do the ancestors also return to the Buryats when life is less troublesome? May one also say that shamanism ‘serves’ a particular kind of capitalism and makes it thrive?
Second, a main strength of the book is that it is written unpretentiously, giving voice to informants’ narratives and downplaying theoretical discussions in favor of rich ethnography. This may be a conscious choice (few references are to be found in the main text), but one may nevertheless argue that there is a flip side to this approach. In recent academic (monograph) literature, Mongolia has been known for its revival of shamanism, and the Buryats and northeastern Mongolia present a very early and remarkably strong case for this revival. In the book, however, there are almost no references to these recent works on the Buryats and Buryat shamanism in eastern Mongolia. While this is probably due to its publication in 2013, one could hope that the future would see some explicit comparisons between these works on the Buryats and shamanism (e.g., Empson 2011; Shimamura 2014; Swancutt 2012). Also, one could have hoped for more engagement with recent anthropological scholarship on Mongolia in general and on Mongolian shamanism in particular (e.g., Hangartner 2011; Humphrey 1996; Pedersen 2011).
These minor misgivings aside, Buyandelger’s book stands as a great contribution to the anthropology of Mongolia. It contains fine and convincing ethnographic descriptions that lead her to see history and power relations as integral to shamanic practice. Importantly, this take does not seem to develop from preconceived theoretical ideas about the importance of power and gender questions, nor does it reduce shamanism to an “invention of tradition” or simply “identity business” (9) where everything, ultimately, is reduced to politics or capitalism/commodification. Instead, Buyandelger does a fine job of integrating shamanism and history, cosmology and power, without reducing one to the other and without treating them separately. Most importantly, she does so because it is ethnographically pertinent.
University of Copenhagen
Donald M. Nonini, “Getting By”: Class and State Formation among Chinese in Malaysia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 360 pp., illustrations, notes, references, index. ISBN 9780801452475.
In this historical ethnography of the cultural politics of class conflict and state formation among Malaysian citizens of Chinese descent, Nonini challenges all those who study ‘overseas Chinese’ to reconsider some of their most closely held assumptions. In contradistinction to these presumptions that the Chinese in Southeast Asia are more often than not successful, pragmatic, bourgeois, and male capitalists, Nonini’s book brings into focus the diversity of Chinese life experiences. By choosing to locate his study among the Hokkien-and Mandarin-speaking truck owners, truck drivers, and clerks in the city of Bukit Mertajam in the Penang state in northern West Malaysia, his work provides a riveting illumination of the kinds of Chinese who are often forgotten in Chinese diaspora studies. “Getting By” is a remarkably insightful account of the lived experiences of everyday life among working-class ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. It reveals what it means for ordinary Chinese to belong to a subjugated ethnic group in contemporary Malaysia where ethno-racial groups are differentially recognized by the state. It also sheds light on the deep class divisions that structure social relations among the Chinese themselves.
Based on three decades of research from 1978 to 2007, plus a portfolio of methods that were used to collect field data, Nonini’s reportage is rich in thick ethnographic description. Informal conversations in open-air roadside coffee shops, conversations while riding in trucks, interviews with local residents, participant observation of events and meetings, a commercial census, and studying local Chinese language sources in addition to reading government archives and local English-language and Chinese-language newspapers were but some of the data collection methods that were employed. Crucial to Nonini’s ability to interact with the truck drivers was his ability to converse in Mandarin and Penang Hokkien. Coffee shop talks would otherwise not have been possible.
In challenging triumphalism accounts of the capitalist Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia and the long-standing ‘China-oriented’, ‘ideological manipulation’, and ‘subjective pluralist’ theoretical approaches that scholars have for so long applied to the study of overseas Chinese, Nonini proposes to reformulate these conceptual frameworks. None of these prevailing theories, he cogently argues, has been able to offer an adequate explanation of the interconnections of class and the dialectics of state formation in post-colonial Southeast Asia. He suggests instead an alternative perspective to attain a better understanding of the complexities that exist in the relationship between ethnicity and class among the Chinese. This perspective would involve combining at least two different optics on social inequalities—namely, the historical view and the ethnographic view— in order to take into account the temporalities and spatialities that are involved in class issues and ethnic identities. The call is thus to adopt a historical ethnographic view to pave new ways in understanding how position and societal structures have emerged relationally through historically concrete and specific struggles. Throughout the book, assumed premises and conventional knowledge of class issues and identities among the Chinese are rigorously studied and questioned. Underscoring these matters are also larger and pertinent questions pertaining to the topics of hegemony, struggle, and domination.
“Getting By” is a stimulating work. It is highly readable, engaging, and clearly argued. Above all, it is a path-breaking book that will make a serious difference in changing the way we think in Chinese diaspora studies, in particular about the links between class and ethnicity. Indeed, the case of the Chinese truck owners and drivers in Bukit Mertajam is indicative of a larger story about the fundamental tensions in the lived experiences of many ordinary ethnic Chinese throughout Southeast Asia.
University of Iowa
Mayanthi L. Fernando, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 328 pp., notes, references, index. ISBN 9780822357346.
This volume is a profoundly scholarly work. It shows how anthropology can help to correct assertions and stereotypes that, by their very circulation, create a generalized, normalizing discourse. Fernando’s work unsettles pessimistic views on anthropology and its usefulness—particularly those that regard the discipline as an appendage to colonial and imperial power. The book is exemplary in that it shows how anthropology can be a powerful means to demonstrate the plights of those who are in a marginal position. As anthropology is just a tool in the author’s workbox, not her main interest, this praise is just the beginning of a series of homages that this excellent book deserves.
What Fernando is specifically concerned with is the French state and its Muslim population. This is a hot topic by any standard as France in the recent past has been besieged by a series of events concerning the problème musulman. From conflicts over the use of the headscarf or veil to debates regarding the right of praying on the streets of Paris to the recent attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, France’s five million strong Muslim population has been put in the limelight. What this book does is help us understand how this national drama with sometimes violent outcomes came about in the otherwise beautiful France. However, unlike other works that focus on the ‘Muslim problem’, Fernando’s book offers us a unique perspective: its central topic is not the Muslim population in France but the state itself. The author dissects and analyzes the state’s secular project and shows how the problem is located in the Republic’s courtyard rather than in its Muslim population. She shows how France, avowing a secular policy, which operates with a double standard, actually makes it impossible for Muslims who have lived in France for generations to actually become French.
By showing this, Fernando gives the reader a new and wholly different angle than the one that can only see Muslims as the source of the problem due to their failure to integrate themselves. Her work demonstrates how the state’s secular policy—in and of itself—has led to the production of a category of French Muslims who are conceived through and through as ‘the other’. In order to document this, the author focuses on the Republic’s school system, the ultimate site where one can analyze the Republican project of fashioning secular citizens. On this Republican altar, Fernando unravels the problems that the Republic generates. She does so by analyzing the interaction of its agents (from school teacher to director, from lawmaker and politician to public intellectual) with Muslim school pupils, who are considered, in the author’s words, as ‘little monsters’ who are said to be threatening the very existence of the state itself. For anyone interested in Muslims’ relations with the state in a context such as France, this is a book that deserves to be read. Readers who encounter the stories of the ‘little monsters’ will discover what no one has been suspecting—that the phantom of the state is actually dominating the playing field, turning little school children into ‘monsters’ and ultimately the Muslim population of France into non-French citizens.
Samson A. Bezabeh
Makarere Institute of Social Research
Nicholas J. Long and Henrietta L. Moore, eds., The Social Life of Achievement (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), 248 pp., illustrations, tables, notes, references, index. ISBN 9781782382201.
The Social Life of Achievement is a very interesting and engaging collection, made up of 10 essays covering a very wide range of social achievement. The purpose of the book is to explore some forms of achievement rather than define what achievement is, and in this it succeeds by being thought-provoking and inspiring.
The different essays vary enormously in their style. Some are rich, classic anthropological texts with lifelike ethnography and shrewd analysis, while others seem not quite finished, their line of argument unclear or the ethnography rather flat and statistical. Then there are some that break with form and seem touchingly poetic, such as Kathleen Stewart’s essay about her mother.
At first I felt irritated by the unevenness of the collection, but upon reflection I think it works very well this way. The Social Life of Achievement is a great tool for thinking about, and for expanding upon and reflecting on, different aspects of achievement. It challenges the reader’s understanding of achievement, both in the topics it discusses and in the way in which it does so.
Achievement is closely linked with values and ethics; thus, the essay by Cassidy about professional gamblers and the essay by Green about stockbrokers make for interesting reading that challenges stereotypes and lines of thinking. Mentore’s essay provides a fascinating glimpse not only into Guyanese bird-sport, but also into how practices move with people into new areas. Long’s and Bayly’s essays deal with political and family aspects of achievement, presenting key insights into pressures and expectations. Cook writes about how internal processes of Buddhist enlightenment can be seen and understood by others. Solomon shows how achievement is narrated by parents of children with autism, and finally Demerath and Fordham offer two different perspectives on achievement, expectations, and boundaries among some American high school students.
One weakness with the collection is perhaps that although published as social anthropology, not all the essays seem to be within this field—in particular Solomon’s piece on autism stands out as methodologically and analytically different. On the other hand, social anthropology is an open and fluid discipline, always exploring boundaries and other perspectives, so I think it works. Another weakness may be that that not all the essays seem to have originally been about the theme of achievement, but rather have been rewritten in order to fit in with the topic. I was drawn to the book because of Henrietta Moore’s name on the cover as co-editor and wish that she had written an essay as well. Nevertheless, it is a very compelling collection, with much to recommend it.
Ingvild Skodvin Prestegård