Author Archives: Ciaran Daly

Anthropology Speaks: Dr Andrea Butcher

Could you tell us about your research in climate change, sustainability and conservation?

I’m interested in the different ways that development and climate are defined beyond the normative. Development is a bastion of contemporary global governance, and climate change is one of the biggest global challenges of our times. However, how people conceptualise development and climate differs cross-culturally, and this has implications for how projects and management strategies behave. It is therefore essential that we understand these diverse conceptualisations and behaviours, that we take into account the choices that ‘beneficiaries’ make, and are thus better able to develop workable solutions.

Take my own field research. Ladakh, North-West India, is a former Buddhist Kingdom. The majority of the population follow Tibetan Buddhism, although only marginally so (Ladakh has a sizeable Muslim population as well). A narrative has been constructed of the region as the quintessential sustainable society due to the Buddhist followers’ beliefs and practices, and for which it receives much financial aid and technical expertise. However, normative understandings of sustainability don’t take into account the wider cosmology, and ceremonial role of Tibetan Buddhist governance in mediating this cosmology. What intrigued me was how the successes of social life are managed with the participation of enlightened rulers, transcendental protector deities, sacred technology, and supernatural beings inhabiting the landscape. Development now forms part of this social life.

Whilst I was doing fieldwork, Ladakh experienced a series of cloudbursts and flash flooding that devastated much of the region, which is where climate change came in. Hearing how people accounted for the disaster, its causes, and the strategies to prevent future disasters helped me understand how there is more than one conceptualisation of weather and nature going on here. There are other things to consider beyond the scientific explanations, for example karmic explanations and the participation of supernatural local guardians. All three contribute to and direct responses and adaptation to a changing climate.

What sort of development programmes have been taking place in India? How have they changed social and religious practices for Tibetan Buddhists?

It’s probably best to think about how development and religion encounter and transform each other. Becoming part of the Indian Union and the world’s largest liberal democracy radically changed the local economy. For example, prior to economic liberalisation, the Buddhist households were legally required to offer patronage to the monasteries to which they were attached. In return, households would receive land to work, and ritual services from the monks. It was definitely not the idyllic system portrayed in popular positive representations of Tibetan Buddhism. However, to describe it as feudal in the European sense doesn’t do justice to the nuances. The legal requirement to support monasteries no longer exists; nevertheless a good deal of household wealth is diverted to the monasteries to sponsor religious rites aimed at protecting the wealth and wellbeing of their households, and to generate the merit required for peace and happiness in the domain. In some cases, the successes and failures of development are dependent on how far the development ‘beneficiaries’ can exploit its fruits for ceremonial purposes. Modern education, opportunities to travel, the influence of a more rationalised and modern Buddhist practice, and normative ideologies of development and sustainability have transformed the way people ‘do’ religion, but the need to generate the merit required for a peaceful, stable domain remains. It’s when development and ceremony meet each other that things get interesting.

To give you an indication of actual development initiatives, national development programmes implemented in Ladakh are delivered through Hill Development Councils. These include rural development programmes, health and education programmes, five-year micro-level planning and NREGA, or the National Rural Employment Generation Act. There is also a network of NGOs that assist the Hill Development Councils. They also have smaller-scale projects that they deliver independently. Due to the region’s proximity to the disputed borders with Pakistan and China, there is a sizable military presence, and both the Hill Development Council and the army deliver transport and communication programmes in the region.

What impact do you think climate change will have on traditional religious communities in the future?

This is a tricky — perhaps impossible — question to answer. There are so many variables that are transforming the way people do religion that you can’t really consider climate change on its own. If one considers how changing climates will impact upon societies with strong material and vital ties to the land, then I’d say these societies are likely to experience increased levels of anxiety and disturbance as the ecosystems services that they rely on to feel protected come under threat. If they can successfully transfer some of these systems elsewhere, then we will notice some interesting new social and cosmological assemblages!

What five books would you recommend to undergraduates interested in your area, and why?

I’ll start with two that focus on the Himalaya:

Himalayan Dialogue by Stan Royal Mumford (1987, the University of Wisconsin Press) is a really good one for introducing people to the various social and ritual dynamics of Himalayan societies. He concentrates on a Nepali valley, and the dialogue between one village governed by the presence of a lama and Buddhist temples, and one governed by an older shamanic priesthood. The ethnography is extremely rich, and his use of three temporal cultural layers in which to situate various levels of discourse and experience is really useful.

Mapping Shangrila, edited by Emily Yey and Chris Coggins (2014, University of Washington Press) is an excellent reader. Its four sections examine how Zhongdian prefecture (renamed Shangrila in 2001) in Eastern Tibet’s Kham region (China’s Yunnan Province) is brought into contemporary being through state projects, tourism, and nature conservation. It is a useful anthology for thinking through some of the new social assemblages and religious transformation that I observed in my own research. Mountain deities are a ubiquitous presence throughout, and one begins to understand how they emerge as contemporary political actors.

Do Glaciers Listen by Julie Cruikshank (2005, University of British Columbia Press) is another really nice ethnography. Set in Alaska, Cruikshank is concerned with how colonial histories, scientific categories, travel accounts, and native concepts construct the contemporary ‘identity’ of Alaska’s glaciers. It is an excellent introduction into the idea of sentient ecology. She also demonstrates the dynamism of social narrative, and you can read about possible qualitative methodologies that a potential student of this kind of research may find useful.

Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (2005, Princeton University Press) is a great read for those interested the diverse impacts of modern institutions and governance systems in non-western settings. As with Mapping ShangrilaFriction examines the diverse situations and interactions that illustrate the capitalist encounter in the Indonesian rainforest. Tsing’s aim is to highlight the messy and unpredictable positives as well as the negatives that are produced within this encounter: imperfect and unstable but opportunities for creative engagement nonetheless. Tsing manages to convey complex ideas in a straight-forward manner that students will find accessible. She also provides ‘a portfolio of methods’ with which to study global connections that potential ethnographers will find useful.

And finally….

If you have the stamina, try Politics of Nature, by Bruno Latour (2004, Harvard University Press). I confess that I am currently making my way through this book. Here Latour elaborates on some of his older contemplations of the separate and purified realms of nature (what can be explained using scientific mechanisms) and politics (what is available for public discussion and debate). In this book, Latour assembles a new political order that allows for collectives: ‘a community incorporating humans and non-human’ that brings them into communication. Latour’s argument is complex, quite dense, and not without fault. What he does manage, however, is to create a space where it is possible to imagine bringing the supernatural into the political sphere as actors ── crucial for my work.

Finally, what advice would you give to anthropology undergraduate students looking to enter postgrad?

I don’t need to tell you that academia is going through a profound transformation right now, and that the potential postgrad is likely to be feeling pretty anxious about the uncertainties, higher costs and shrinking funds. The thing to do in this situation is to adopt Anna Tsing’s conceptualisation of ‘friction’ and the movements and actions it produces. Funding is increasingly coming from public engagement and impact ventures. Academics are expected to team with interdisciplinary or non-academic partners, and this is creating new ways of doing research that are highly rewarding. If you have an idea you want to research then think about potential collaborations. Think synergies. What type of organisation will benefit from your research? How can you sell it to them? Look at the research council websites to see what partnership schemes are on offer. The good news for potential anthropologists is that project managers are increasingly looking for researchers with qualitative skills to help them better interpret quantitative data or unexpected project outcomes. It does require a good deal of energy, hard work, and dedication (more than ever), but the experience that you get from collaborating will be well worth it.

Discovering Sociology and Anthropology at Exeter

Amory BuildingAlthough one of the smaller disciplines within the department, Anthropology nonetheless has a large number of students who are proud and excited about their programmes at Exeter. Often taken in conjunction with other related courses such as Sociology and Philosophy, Anthropology is also a fascinating discipline in its own right. We caught up with two students in the latter stages of their courses to see how they’ve found it so far.

Owen, 2nd year BA Sociology and Anthropology

My first two years of studying anthropology totally removed the blinkers forged throughout my life as I discovered an incredible variety of world-views. It made me question and put into perspective my own culture, which up until then seemed to be a universal truth. It only now seems to be one of the myriad ways of living and going on about one’s life. It is as if you had been taught all your life to put in milk before the tea and then someone showed you that you could also put it after. Not only can you put the milk after but at any moment and in any fashion! The way people bring up their children, the customs and habits, the symbols vary dramatically from one culture to another. All these ways of being are just as valid as one another although in some lectures I have been tempted to judge certain practices. Criticizing one culture for its practices is tempting as we touch upon ethical issues such as FGM. Obviously the picture is far more complex. If anything, anthropology has taught me to be far more critical of what I see in everyday life and how I’ve been socialised into a certain world-view.

Jess, 3rd year BA Sociology and Anthropology:

Anthropology at Exeter offers a diverse range of modules that have grounded my understanding of the discipline through the study of classical texts, but that have also opened up exciting new fields ranging from childhood to medicine and even terrorism studies. Taught alongside Sociology, the dual nature of the department (particularly following the BA stream) provides the opportunity for a more inter-disciplinary approach to studying which I believe is unique to Exeter and makes the course fresh and exciting with the wider range of module choices available each term. This alongside our own personal ethnography and artefact projects has allowed me to engage practically with the course and work not simply as a student but as an anthropologist out ‘in the field’. In particular I have enjoyed the small, close knit and supportive nature of the department with students collaborating across year groups on projects and seminar discussions.

During my time here the successful Sociology and Anthropology Society have organised a range of fantastic careers talks aimed specifically at the interests of students within the department. These areas have so far included the charity sector, the police force and journalism. They have proved particularly useful in third year as a source of networking. Termly socials and end of term balls have increased the sociable nature of the degree too. Student led subject mentoring, module choice guidance, friendly, approachable and down to earth lecturers and a brilliant administrator have really contributed to my overall enjoyment of the course alongside everything else the wider University has to offer.

Exeter Anthropology staff convene the 2015 ASA conference 

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This Easter, Exeter will play host to the Association of Social Anthropologists’ (ASA) annual conference.

Founded in 1946, the ASA is an international organisation formed to promote social anthropology both academically and professionally. The  association aimed to give social anthropology  a stronger foothold in British universities and academic discourse in general. Since then, it has expanded massively. It now holds annual meetings, conferences and lectures; it publishes monographs based on conference papers; it provides and reviews ethical guidelines for social anthropological research; and is also the main professional association involved in maintaining and negotiating the funding status of social anthropology.

Last year’s decennial conference in Edinburgh drew over 650 delegates, making it one of the biggest events in the national social sciences calendar. This year’s conference promises to be no different – over 300 social anthropologists and social scientists are said to be attending. It therefore represents a big challenge for those involved from the department, but also a huge potential benefit in raising the profile of the anthropology department and its research locally and internationally.

This year’s conference is convened by Andrea Butcher, Ann Kelly, Hannah Rumble, Katharine Tyler, Samantha Hurn and Tom Rice. Its theme is ‘Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms’. In short, what the conference seeks to explore is the shifting borders and boundaries of contemporary anthropological thought and research, and how anthropologists might move forward based on this discourse. From the conference page:

What does it mean to do anthropology today? What can – or should – anthropologists do and with whom?

[…]We are interested in exploring, discussing and debating: what constitutes contemporary anthropological knowledge, theories and practices? What are the methodological muddles and potentials of working with those defined as disciplinary or institutional ‘others’? Given that the methods and ideas of anthropology have been both borrowed from and appropriated by ‘other’ disciplines who and what constitute anthropology’s outside? 

[…] What does it mean for an anthropologist to be an anti-racist, postcolonial, feminist, Marxist, environmentalist, post-humanist, human and more-than-human rights campaigner in the contemporary world[?]

They plan to explore these questions through a variety of lectures, plenaries, debates, panels and laboratories, the findings of which will later be published in a dedicated monograph. The conference will be held from the 13th – 16th April. If you’re currently an undergraduate student interested in pursuing postgraduate research, or if you’d just like to attend on a casual basis, you can register to attend hereRates for students are £100 for the three days. The conference promises to be lively, engaging and a huge boost to the already stellar reputation of Exeter’s anthropological research.

Anthropology students return to Skanda Vale

Although only founded in 1973, Skanda Vale is already firmly established as a site of pilgrimage for over 90,000 people per year. This will be the third year that Dr. Tom Rice and Dr. Sam Hurn (both Lecturers in Anthropology) have organised an anthropological pilgrimage to the site for staff and students, and the trip has quickly become one of the major annual events in the Anthropology department calendar.

From scandavale.org

Skanda Vale is an ashram (or monastery) located deep in rural Wales, surrounded by over 300 acres of valley woodland. Made up of three temples, a hospice, and various residential caravans and chalets, the ashram is not a tourist destination, but an intentional community united by common practice. It is for this reason that visitors are asked to follow a list of rules, including not consuming animal products or illegal drugs at least 3 days before their visit. It’s also why all visitors must follow the same schedule as the ashram’s residents. Hannah Mortimer, a second year anthropology and archaeology student, tells us:

“My time spent at Skanda Vale was physically and emotionally demanding, but rewarding. We attended many pujas, the first of them starting at 5am and the last finishing around 10pm. We also helped around the farm by cleaning and feeding animals. It was definitely hard work, but I really enjoyed helping out, feeling a sense of achievement. I also found the ashram to be incredibly tranquil and calming… This is not surprising considering the warm and generous nature of the people and the beautiful surrounding landscape.”

As Skanda Vale’s webpage describes, “Nobody at Skanda Vale is paid. […] We do not charge anyone for food, accommodation or services; everything is offered completely free of charge. The community is very self-sufficient, and completely independent from any religious or commercial organisations.” Furthermore, Issy Hoole, the President of SocAntSoc, says that whilst she found the week “emotionally and physically challenging, [she] particularly found the way women are treated at Skanda Vale interesting to explore and question. There is plenty of opportunity to carry out field work in the Yoga session, where we give time towards the improvement on the sights/helping out with various tasks, which allowed us to question the way of life of the individuals.” As a moneyless intentional religious community, then, isolated physically and socially from the rest of society, Skanda Vale is therefore of great interest to anthropologists as a social microcosm and alternative community model.

However, Skanda Vale is rarely just an academic trip for those who visit – it is often a spiritual one. Issy goes on to describe the ashram as a “life changing experience.” “Previously, I was quite sceptical about religion, but after living alongside the Monks and Nuns for a week, I began to see how it is a real way of life for some people. Similarly, Owen L. Fagundes, an FCH student, says the ashram was “the most coherent take on religion I’ve witnessed.” Similar reviews are common online, with many saying it has fundamentally changed the way they view belief and religion.

The ashram not only holds religious services, but also has several strong care and conservation initiatives. One of these areas involves non-human animal care. “We have a large number of different animals,” their website says, “including [an elephant], a herd of cows, buffalo, deer, goats, plus many birds, rabbits and dogs – many of whom have been rescued from slaughter or neglect.” Non-human animals play a large social role in the nominally Hindu community, and these sanctuary efforts relate strongly to the ashram’s general ecological lookout. Although rooted in culturally and religiously specific traditions, the community is also echoed by the alternative secular ‘green’ communities emerging out of the climate change crisis, which seek to be self-sustaining and live in a way opposed to human exceptionalism.

The trip is not only a hallmark of the Anthropology calendar, but a genuinely engaging and exciting journey, both academically and spiritually. Open to all years studying Philosophy, Sociology or Anthropology free of charge, held at the end of term two every year, keep an eye out for email updates and more information about this great opportunity. Issy finishes: “I loved my time at Skanda Vale, go and experience it for yourself. I promise you won’t regret it!” 

Ciarán Daly