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…

(Re-)constructing Lifeworlds: The Counsellor and the Social Scientist

Today I completed my counselling course. And tomorrow I’m already flying back home, three months passed quite quickly. The past couple of weeks I have been busy mostly with interviews and I have met interesting people from very different professional areas for example a counsellor specialized in anger and stress counselling.

But as today was all about finishing my basic counselling course, I want to take the opportunity to reflect a bit on the commonalities of two different professions: the counsellor and the social scientist. Although the goals are very different, both parties share the common interest of (re-)constructing lifeworlds, meaning to deepen the understanding of another human being, his every day life, his dreams, his fears, in short: his reality. Read More…

What’s the Verdict?

You might ask yourself what took me so long to write about the grand finale of the Oscar Pistorius case: Firstly, I was pretty much knocked out by food poisoning last week that I ironically contracted eating at a hospital during a gender based violence training. Secondly, I did not really have any idea what I could possible write about. I felt everything had already been repeated a thousand times over in media: the majority of people apparently are thinking that Pistorius is getting away with murder and that the sentencing had been too moderate. Also, it has been discussed plenty of times whether Judge Masipa’s interpretation of dolus eventualis was accurate. Nothing of this has really sparked my interest, I have to admit. It was only until I recently interviewed the social worker Letlhogonolo* – who is working for an organisation that deals with offenders of domestic violence –  that I found something stimulating to write about. 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…

Thank you for Sharing

Before I walked into my first session of a nine weeks course in basic counselling I would not have thought that I was going to encounter a sentence that is probably the mantra of any self help group on the planet:
Thank you for sharing

But first things first. I have decided to participate in a counselling course in order to get a better understanding of the profession of counsellors, of how they are trained and which pedagogic frameworks they use. In other words: I want to ‘go native’. By this expression anthropologists refer to the phenomenon of immersing oneself in other people’s every day lives and as a consequence gradually losing one’s outside perspective. This process allows for developing a profound understanding of the topic in question. After having gained considerable insight into the everyday practices of domestic violence counselling in women shelters, I decided it was time to include a different perspective on the matter: How do you become a counsellor in the first place? And what is currently the state of the art in the profession of counselling?
Read More…

The Potential We See

After the last happy-go-lucky post about celebrating Heritage Day at the shelter, today I want to turn to a less cheerful subject. A question that I have often been asked since I have taken up my research on domestic violence and counselling is simple and yet most complicated to answer: Why do women stay with or go back to their abusive partners? Or more general: Why do people stick to relationships that are harmful to them?

I’m afraid, I won’t be able to give a straightforward answer to this question. But I can offer you a story that I am still processing. Read More…

Celebrating Heritage Day at a Women’s Shelter

Every year on September 24th, South Africans celebrate Heritage Day. The public holiday that has its roots in Zulu culture (for more info visit the South African History website) was introduced in 1996 by Nelson Mandela to honour the multifaceted cultures that together form the Rainbow Nation. In order to celebrate and highlight the commonalities that can be found among the cultures despite all their differences, on Heritage Day, it is common for people to have a Braai, the South African Barbecue, that usually stretches over several hours and basically consists of preparing and eating tons of meat.

However, at the shelter, we had a different programme. 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:



September 11th 2014: Watching the Verdict in the Oscar Pistorius Trial

Two days ago, I arrived back in Pretoria for my second phase of fieldwork and as I am writing I am sitting in my apartment in Pretoria watching the proceedings of what will probably be the last day of the murder trial against Oscar Pistorius. The case of Oscar Pistorius has accompanied me during my research on domestic violence and counselling services in South Africa from its very beginning and the subject has come up in various interviews and conversations. Often times, people had strong opinions about the accused, mostly judging Pistorius guilty. Yet, some could not understand the fuzz that is made about the case as you can find similar cases happening in South Africa almost on a daily basis.

Today, the verdict will be handed out in the Oscar Pistorius trial. Again, the proceedings are broadcasted live – both on Channel 199 on DsTV and online, for the world to watch. The media coverage of the trial is enormous and what has become clear is that as previously, Oscar’s behaviour and bodily reactions will be under close inspection. It seems like everybody is hoping to see a hidden truth, to be able to read from Oscar’s body what really happened, to find out if he is a victim or a perpetrator. Read More…