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Vulnerabilities at work

The bafflement is apparent in the headline already:

An international charity had put Hannah Beech, author of the referenced NY Times article, in contact with minors who had arrived at a refugee camp in Bangladesh without family members. There, she had spoken to many young girls and boys and if possible, to their relatives. After a couple of days, she realized that she had not always been presented with the truth. The uncle of three orphaned kids turned out to be their very much alive father, the girls’ mother still being in Myanmar.

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Caught in the middle

There’s no use in beating around the bush: today’s post falls under the category of ‘shameless advertising’ – a clever term coined by one of my colleagues. The sole purpose is to announce that I’ll be discussing my research as part of the Department of Anthropology & Archaeology’s seminar series at the University of Pretoria on March 15th. Needless to say I’m quite excited (and busy finishing the power point slides…)!

Ironically, the title ‘caught in the middle’ is a rather accurate description of my own situation at the moment: preparing tonight’s presentation at PAM – the students’ anthropology association at UP – and finishing the upcoming department lecture, organizing meetings with people I have worked with during research, spending time with friends and trying not to fall behind on all other obligations. So many people I still want to meet, so many places I still want to go. My one-month stay in Pretoria for teaching at UP and doing some follow-up fieldwork passed way too quickly. With only one week left, there are some tough decisions to make. Time seems even more precious than usual. That’s why I’ll leave it at that. Shameless advertising ensues:

Loving the Process – Thinking about Writing with the Help of John Irving

Being in what is called the “writing-up-phase” of my project, I spend most of my days writing about what I or other people think or once thought. I feel, it’s time to pause for a moment and – instead – to spend some time with thinking about writing.

Towards the beginning of my project, I participated in a seminar on academic writing in English because after all, that’s what I do, trying to produce insightful and enjoyable texts using the English language. The seminar started with a mantra. “I am a writer. I am a writer.” the group of slightly embarrassed PhD students repeatedly mumbled into the void that was part of the hollow square seating arrangement and forcing us to awkwardly observe each other murmuring our newly found identities to ourselves. Read More…

The Other Side of the Table, or: Teaching Research Ethics

This year’s summer term, for the first time, I gave an undergraduate seminar – just after having come back from my last phase of fieldwork in South Africa. Hence, on top of the challenges of finding my way back into what I like to think of as ‘my German life’, I also had to come to terms with my new professional role and all the strings and joys attached to it.

In this post, I discuss my experiences of switching to the other side of the table, of becoming a lecturer. And that’s already where the uncertainty began that came with my new role: I definitely don’t think of myself as lecturing people and I truly hope I didn’t do it to the small group of students who joined my seminar on research ethics in the last term. Inspired by the legendary character of Mr. John Keating (“I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way”) and admittedly overtly romanticized and probably naively idealized, I’d like to picture myself as a facilitator or moderator on a mission to organize joint excursions of the mind. Read More…

Shelter from the Storm

2:00 a.m., one Thursday night, somewhere in a bar in South Africa. Despite the early morning hours and the remote location of the place, the bar is well frequented by both men and women of different ages and ethnic backgrounds (this is noteworthy as in South Africa places of leisure and gastronomy are usually not as socially diverse). The atmosphere at the bar is lively as people are chatting to each other, engaged in pool billiard or relaxing in the lounge area next to the spacious bar.

A smart-looking guy in his early fifties, casual clothes, round spectacles resting in his curly hair, sits on his bar stool sipping from his double scotch, puffing a cigarette, chatting to the bar lady and to the young woman sitting next to him, looking at ease. Amidst the casual, lively and animated atmosphere, the young woman in her late twenties wearing a light greyish dress and a pink cardigan – giving her overall appearance a rather conservative touch – looks somewhat out-of-place. As she carefully observes her surroundings she meets the one or other curious and quizzical gaze directed at her. After some time, a woman in probably her late thirties wearing a tight black dress approaches the two. With a big smile and raising her hand to greet, she faces the young woman and introduces herself: “Hi, my name is Laury*. Sorry, I’m new here and I don’t know you. Are you working here too?” Obviously uncomfortable and caught by surprise, the young woman laughs and denies the question that presumably was posed to make sense of her out-of-place presence. She was just visiting and having a drink with a friend, she replies awkwardly.

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The Postcards that I’ll never Write

So here it is – boom – the last day of my research stay in South Africa. And I haven’t found the time yet to properly reflect upon and write about my workshop, but I will soon.

However, this was not only a research stay, I spent one year of my life in South Africa, in total. Right now I am sitting on the veranda of the commune that for the past three months formed my basis, my home, looking at a bunch of postcards that I bought a week ago. I know now that I will never send them. What could I possibly write?
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What’s culture, anyway?

Today I found asking myself precisely this question while visiting the ‘National Cultural History Museum’ in Pretoria with two of my roommates – a question that has been keeping social scientists busy for quite some time.

The Oxford Sociology Dictionary (2014: 152) defines ‘culture’ (as understood within the social sciences) as “all that in human society which is socially rather than biologically transmitted, whereas the commonsense usage tends to point only to the arts. Culture is thus a general term for the symbolic and learned aspects of human society (…).” Following this definition, almost anything falls under the term ‘cultural’. ‘What is not culture?’ seems to be the question quicker and easier to answer. Criticizing the excessive usage of the term, Adam Kuper suggests in ‘Culture. The Anthropologists’ Account’ (1999: x, preface) to “avoid the hyper-referential word altogether, and to talk more precisely of knowledge, or belief, or art, or technology, or tradition, or even of ideology-” ‘Culture’ seems to be almost as problematic as ‘identity’ (see Brubaker & Cooper 2000, Beyond Identity). But that’s a different story. Read More…

The Art of Walking

Have you ever noticed that your surroundings influence or change the way you walk?
And I’m not talking about something too obvious like from one second to the next performing a moonwalk but rather the more subtle changes in movement like straightening your posture or altering your pace. These slight adjustments may even occur unconsciously and can easily be overlooked by passers-by. They are, however, very significant as they can tell you a lot about how people assess situations, literally, in passing. Why have I decided to take up this topic now? Because one night while walking home on my own, I noticed the huge differences in the way I walk at home in Konstanz as compared to walking in South Africa. Read More…

A different Reality

Things you usually don’t expect to happen: Having your air-condition explode three meters away from your head while you are asleep. (Saying that, I’m okay, it was more of an implosion, nothing happened to me.)

And here’s the story. After the internet connection broke down in my apartment on Saturday evening I decided to go to bed earlier than usual as I had to be up and about early the following day due to my counselling seminar in Johannesburg. It was at around 11 p.m. when I woke up with a start because of a loud noise inside my apartment. Slowly coming to my senses I noticed a strange smell. When I tried to switch on the light on my nightstand nothing happened. The whole place was without electricity. I grabbed my phone which was the only source of light, put on a jumper and went quickly outside into the corridor where I found a couple of my neighbors chatting, their faces illuminated by the screens of their laptops, tablets or mobile phones. Some reported light bulbs had exploded in their apartments. Others have had sparks coming out of the fuse or the TV. Apparently, the motor of my air-condition had exploded because of too high voltage and it took me around half an hour with windows wide open to get rid of the nasty smell and be able to go back to bed. Read More…

On Air

As it happens, I got the chance to participate in a group discussion about the Oscar Pistorius case today that was aired live from Pause café, right next to the High Court in Pretoria. And oh boy, how was I excited…

The discussion was part of BBC’ series “World have your say” and took place in the evening of September 11th 2014 – the day Judge Masipa started reading the verdict which has been taken quite controversially so far. The podcast will be available during the next seven days: