First bi-annual PACSA meeting, Germany 2007

First bi-annual PACSA meeting in Halle, Germany, 5 October 2007

On 5 October 2007, some thirty anthropologists came together at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. While there was variation in academic affiliation, fieldwork experiences and research foci among the participants, it was apparent that all shared a common interest in questions of organized violence, armed conflict, conflict resolution, reconciliation and positive peace.

The meeting was opened by PACSA chair, Ronald Stade , with a few welcoming remarks, upon which followed the keynote address by Professor Antonius Robben from Utrecht University College. The topic of Professor Robben’s address was, “Ethnographic imagination during the global war on terror.” The address started with a provocation: Professor Robben asked whether conventional ethnographic fieldwork was still possible in an age of terror. More precisely, does fieldwork prevent anthropologists from conducting research on urgent and important matters such as organized violence and insecurity? Considering that certain areas are just too dangerous for anyone, including the anthropologist, to enter, entire regions may not at all be investigated ethnographically.

Professor Robben suggested that a solution to this problem is to be pragmatic in one’s choice of research methods rather than continuing to rely exclusively on conventional fieldwork. On this view, it would be better to conduct fieldwork at a distance than no anthropological research at all. Instead of “being there,” the anthropologist can use all available sources of information, which, however, requires the anthropologist to have some ethnographic experience, because already the selection of one’s sources presupposes the kind of ethnographic imagination without which an anthropological interpretation of information is not possible.

Professor Robben illustrated his argument for using one’s ethnographic imagination by describing and analyzing the “swarming strategy” that is currently being employed by the U.S. military in Iraq. This strategy is commonly explained with biological metaphors. Swarming is what ants, wasps, and wolves do when they look for prey or food. It is the strategy that was used by German submarines during the Second World War as they roamed the Atlantic in pursuit of enemy vessels. In Iraq, swarming involves small mobile combat units that operate independently and that are always in contact with one another through advanced technical operation centers (TOCs). Among other things, swarming units conduct raids and set up flying checkpoints. Because of the unpredictability of such maneuvers, and because the mobile combat units most often are commanded by junior lieutenants, split-second decisions in the field regularly result in civilian casualties.

As it would be difficult for an anthropologist to work alongside swarming combat units, Professor Robben argues that we can use our ethnographic imagination to make sense of swarming and its consequences. In the case of swarming, Professor Robben could use his fieldwork from Argentina and his investigations into the country’s dirty war (“guerra sucia”), that is, the government-sponsored violence against Argentina’s population in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Swarming techniques were used already during the dirty war as security forces and death squads cruised the streets of Argentina’s cities on the hunt for “subversive elements.” These earlier swarming operations resulted in large numbers of haphazard apprehensions and (more or less) accidental killings.

Using his fieldwork experience and ethnographic imagination, Professor Robben drew the conclusion that American swarming tactics in Iraq are likely to have similar results as those in Argentina, meaning that swarming will result – and already has resulted – in innocent victims and random killings. The keynote address was followed by a spirited discussion on ethnographic methodology and the war in Iraq. A consensus of sorts emerged that, while conventional ethnographic fieldwork was not obsolete, the use of all available sources of information was crucial in studying peace and conflict from an anthropological perspective.

Four workshops took place consecutively after the morning’s keynote address. The first workshop had been organized by Professor Eyal Ben-Ari (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Maren Tomforde (Bundeswehr Institute of Social Sciences) and was entitled, “Anthropology of the military – anthropology and the military.” Professor Ben-Ari presented a paper on the social psychology that goes into being a sniper of the Israel Defence Forces in the al-Aqsa intifada. Erella Grassiani (VU University Amsterdam) discussed the moral strategies of Israeli soldiers in the occupied Palestinian territories, which mainly consisted of denying one’s responsibility (“it’s not nice but there’s nothing we can do”), espousing professionalism (task orientation) or a sense of mission (“we’re the last line of defense”). In her presentation, Sabine Mannitz (Peace Research Institute Frankfurt) presented a comparative project that had studied images of democratic soldiers in Europe. Given that the democratic ideal is to solve conflicts by peaceful means, what does it mean in this social and cultural context to be ready to use violence and, if need be, sacrifice one’s life. Resolving this normative conflict could entail either separating or integrating with one another military and civilian values. Maren Tomforde addressed a similar issue when she talked on identity constructions of German soldiers in Afghanistan, most of whom consider themselves “guardian soldiers” rather than “warriors.”

The next workshop was a brief dialogue between Bertram Turner (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle) and Ronald Stade (Malmö University) on teaching peace and conflict studies from an anthropological perspective. Bertram Turner reported on what legal scholars can learn from small-scale societies, how, for example, social norms of justice can be appropriated by legal studies, whereas Ronald Stade described the syllabus that integrates peace and conflict studies with anthropology at Malmö University.

Later in the afternoon, followed the third workshop entitled, “Cultural solutions to violent conflict?,” which had been organized by Birgit Bräuchler (National University of Singapore) and Alexander Horstmann(University of Münster). Birgit Bräuchler discussed the use of culture as a resource for conflict resolution and conflict prevention. She illustrated this by looking at the strategic use of “adat” (“tradition,” “culture”) in the reconciliation process on one of the Molucca islands. Next, Alexander Horstmann talked about the parallel islamicization of Thailand’s southern provinces and of the independence movement in that part of Thailand. These islamicization processes were substantially different and now exist in tension with one another. Katerina Seraïdari continued the workshop by talking about “Hands across the divide” (a voluntary organization registered in Great Britain), which in Cyprus is a “bi-communal” (Greek and Turkish) organization with a single administrative structure, whose members oppose nationalism, patriarchism, militarism, and capitalism. Shifting the focus from ethnicity to gender and other related issues allows a transformation of the conflict, which could be a first step toward its resolution. In her presentation, Mechthild Exo deconstructed the fiction of sovereignty by looking at how indigenous Naga women constructed their own political agency through peace activism. Veronika Fuest ‘s (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle) talk concerned the unintended consequences of international interventions in Liberia. International organizations and agencies seek to invigorate “traditional” institutions like secret societies (“bush schools”) for the purpose of peace building and reconciliation. Thereby, international actors strengthen the very institutions which enforce social injustice, which, in turn, sets the stage for the return of armed conflict.

The final workshop was entitled, “Contesting violence.” It had been organized by Nerina Weiss (University of Oslo), who also presented the first paper on what stories people tell about past violences in a bordertown in eastern Turkey. The stories by the Kurdish inhabitants of the town varied greatly even they were about the same events. Weiss discussed what this, as well as different parties’ attempts to recruit her for their political and military projects, entails for the anthropological study of violence. Susanne Buckley-Zistel(Peace Research Institute Frankfurt) was next. She analyzed “chosen amnesia,” which may be understood as the inversion of “chosen traumas.” The ethnographic context is that of post-genocide Rwanda, where people tend to smooth over the conflicts of the pre-genocide past. “Everything was fine before the genocide” and “everything is to be blamed on bad leaders” are common comments among neighbors who need to co-exist, even if some of the neighbors had killed the families of other neighbors. The workshop part of the PACSA meeting was concluded with Christian Warta ‘s presentation of his future fieldwork in Papua (Iriyan Jaya). Warta is going to study religion as an increasingly important factor in the Papuan conflict. With a steady influx of Muslim migrants from Indonesia, as well as Christian transmigrants from the Moluccas, and the Christianization of the indigenous Papuan population, the competition between Islam and Christianity intensifies and becomes charged with “ethnic” and political substance.