Kaddish in Norway: On the Trail of Stolpersteine/Snublestein/Stumbling Blocks

By Ruth Mandel and Rachel Lehr • Professor in Anthropology, UCL; Researcher, University of Colorado


Stolpersteine in Norway (Source: Ruth Scor)

The German artist Gunter Demnig began his Stolperstein project in the mid-1990s as a guerrilla art installation in Berlin. It has grown enormously, and now it is arguably the world’s largest participatory counter-memorial. Stolpersteine -‘stumbling stones’ – are 10 cm x 10 cm brass plates affixed to cobblestones, bearing the names and dates of birth, deportation, and murder or survival of victims of Nazi Germany; they are installed in the pavement/sidewalk in front of the ‘last residence of choice’ of the person(s) being commemorated. There are now over 70,000 Stolpersteine located in 24 countries. The installations are organized through a combination of individual, state sponsored and grass roots efforts.

The scholars Ruth Mandel and Rachel Lehr are carrying out multi-sited ethnographic research about this and other site-specific artists’ responses to the Holocaust. They describe here what they are finding, starting in Norway where the traveled 5,000 km with Demnig, observing and even taking part in installation ceremonies.

Norway is a country as much at the geographic periphery of Nazi occupation as it was at the demographic fringe of Europe’s Jewish population, and it is here that we began our research. This is a country that never had more than 0.03% of its population Jewish, never more than 2000 members, most of whom lived in Oslo with others were scattered across the countryside. One-third of Norway’s Jews were systematically arrested and deported to Auschwitz in November 1942 where most were murdered upon arrival. Only 35 Norwegian Jews survived this ordeal and few returned to Norway. Those who escaped arrest, hid or fled to Sweden for the duration of the war.

While most Stolpersteine in Norway (snublesteiner in Norwegian) are in Oslo, there are also stones in seemingly random places, such as small towns, like Hønefoss where a single Jewish family, the Sharffs, once lived.

In Hønefoss, a town about one hour from Oslo, we met Anne-Gro Christiansen, a local journalist who was responsible for commissioning snublesteiner for the deported Scharff family. In 2017 we had heard about Anne-Gro from a friend of ours who lives in a nearby town. Our friend had told us a disturbing story about the stones:

I went to the café shortly after the stones had been installed and noticed there was a mat covering them. I told the owner it was a shame that they were covered and asked him why. He apologized and explained that he was protecting the stones because men were coming at night and urinating on them.

This story both horrified us and piqued our interest in the stones. We went the following year to meet Anne-Gro in Hønefoss.


The authors with Gunter Demnig

Having grown up in Hønefoss in the same house where her father had been raised, Anne-Gro had heard many stories from him of the pre-War Scharff family next door. She told us her father felt guilty that he had not been able to protect his friend and neighbour Yakob Scharff, a young composer. Anne-Gro took it upon herself to uncover the Scharff family story over the course of 20 years. She tracked down descendants in Australia, arranged for Yakob’s musical compositions to be performed; she commissioned 7 snublesteiner for all the members of the Scharff family deported and killed. Anne-Gro gives public talks about the family, speaks to schools, and she wrote a book about them.

She also told us the story of the doll. In 1942 after all Jewish property had been seized, much of it was auctioned off locally. After the war, in Hønefoss and throughout Norway, Norwegians were requested to return Jewish property to the authorities. In Hønefoss only a few linens from the Scharff family were returned. Anne-Gro told us there had been a piano, silver, many valuables, and that she personally knew who had what possessions from the Scharff household. ‘It is a small town,’ she said; ‘everyone knew.’ She related a story to us: once she had located the descendants of the Sharff family in Australia she travelled there to visit them. Prior to her trip, she went to the home of an elderly woman who had in her possession a doll that had belonged to one of the murdered Sharff children. She asked for it, in order to ‘return’ it to the family members. Her neighbour refused this request.   We heard similar accounts throughout the country. We were impressed by Anne-Gro’s devotion and commitment. She told us she did all this in order to rectify a wrong.

Shortly after meeting Anne-Gro Christiansen, we learned that Demnig would be coming to Norway in June 2018 to install 70 stolpersteine. With the assistance of the Oslo Jewish Museum, we made arrangements to travel with the artist, observing the installations.

We travelled 5000 kilometres from Oslo to Bergen to Trondheim, as well as to numerous small towns, by plane, car, mini-van, and ferries through fjords, observing ceremonies of commemoration with as many as 100 attendees and as few as none. We interviewed attendees at the stone installations, the organizers of the events, the officiating mayors, as well as the artist.


Schoolchildren on a class trip photograph stolpersteine in Venice

As ethnographers, we took our role of participant-observers to heart; we unwittingly found ourselves active participants in the process we had planned chiefly to observe. Initially we travelled from Oslo with Demnig and Dag Kopperud, the historian from the Jewish Museum. While driving north to the small town of Sør Fron for the stone installations commemorating the deported Karpol family, we asked Dag what we could expect at the event. Having noted that Kaddish—the Jewish prayer recited in memory of the dead—had been recited at each of the ceremonies in Oslo over the previous days, we asked him whether there would be anyone to do so that day, in Sør Fron.   It had not occurred to him, and he said that he doubted it would be included in the ceremony. He thought about it, and a moment later, asked us if we would be willing to recite it; we agreed.   He sent some text messages back and forth to the organisers, and we found ourselves on the program. Suddenly, the observers were participants. This role of kaddish-reciters continued for the next five installations.

The sounds of the Kaddish were unfamiliar to the attendees. We explained that it was meant to be said by descendants of the deceased in their memory. In the absence of descendants, we felt moved to recite it.

We attended many installations–not only in Norway, but Austria, Hungary, and Germany (we hope to attend many more). At all these, people treated the stones with great reverence. The improvised installation rituals we observed took many forms—religious, secular, simple, elaborate; but all seemed to share a sense of the sacred—even if momentary. Flowers, candles, stones, and photos of the deceased, were arranged around the Stolpersteine, and were well-documented. This was a striking contrast with the local landscape directly following an installation. Afterward, the stone simply became a small glint interrupting the grey stones surrounding it, offering passers-by a chance to stumble across it, bend down, read, and reflect—or to pass on by.


Stolpersteine in Budapest

Many questions remain.

For example, why are there so few stones in Poland—despite the artist’s offer to donate and install them gratis?  Why have some municipalities  banned their installation? Why do some Jewish leaders opposed them? Do they pose threats? How do different generations of descendants respond? How do local people interact with them?

These are some of the questions that will be guiding the next stages of our ongoing research.

(Gunter Demnig’s motto is ‘one victim-one stone.’ According to his web site, the project “commemorates all victims of National Socialism: Jews, Sinti, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, mentally and/or physically disabled people, those persecuted for their political views, their sexual orientation, forced laborers, people persecuted on the grounds that they were ‘asocial’ such as homeless people or prostitutes—anyone who was persecuted or murdered by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945.)

This article was first published on Jewish Heritage Europe


How We Use Instagram to Express Our Feelings about Climate Change

By Eleanor Flowers • MSc Digital Anthropology


Image by @melissakittyj

#climatechange has over 1,300,000 posts on Instagram. What can a material culture analysis of Instagram teach social scientists and policy makers about public narratives of climate change? On October 8th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC made headlines around the world. The majority of press coverage centred around doomed efforts towards climate change mitigation and on an overarching sense of catastrophe. We all agree it is looking pretty grim. Scientists are making a much better job of working with established journalists to communicate scientific studies than they used to. The fact remains, however, that climate change coverage from leading press establishments tells us only what trained journalists think about the whole thing. Instagram, on the other hand, tells another side of the story. Posts about climate change on Instagram suggest that people feel a range of emotions about climate catastrophe, from grief to fear and moral outrage. Instagram might be a useful log for scientists and communication specialists to research the public grief and moralisation surrounding climate change. Grief is an important word here: a scan of #climatechange on Instagram suggests that grief is the emotion which characterises the closing window of opportunity for climate change mitigation. Morality, on the other hand, is showing itself as a good mechanism for understanding social attitudes towards climate adaptation.


Images of grief

People who use Instagram in the UK and USA are likely to be young, educated and as such are a group of people who are alarmed about climate change. One way or another, Instagrammers are highly engaged with the topic. A 2013 study by Nicholas Smith and Helen Joffe titled How the public engages with global warming: A social representations approach showed that British people tend to use visual, rather than textual, content to depict climate change. Many people who use Instagram have grown up amongst press images of polar bears starving on melting ice caps. It is likely that we have remembered these images better than the accompanying textual warnings from journalists. Instagram’s capacity for visual media resonates with its members in an emotional manner and helps us to grapple with the often-abstract notion of climate change. In other words, Instagram is a country where people talk in pictures and it helps us to deal with environmental loss.

The top posts for #climatechange are of course comprised of scenes depicting floods and sad polar bears. However, people tend also to post beautiful pictures of abundant coral reefs, bright natural landscapes and healthy lion prides with the climate change hashtag. Are these just opportunistically pretty posts that look good on feeds in order to harvest likes and followers, or are they markers of grief? When we grieve our loved ones at funerals do we put up gruesome pictures of them in their final moments, or do we spend hours rifling through their most photographic moments? It seems that environmental loss is most easily stomached by way of a collective celebration of dying beauty. Many social science articles concerned with public attitudes to climate change begin with bafflement at mankind’s seeming incapacity for positive behavioural change in the face of such urgency. Framed as a moment of grief though, this feels a little odd. Grief takes times to process and people’s mourning should be acknowledged and encouraged. Perhaps social media is a good place for our shared grief.


Morality and the Instagram Marketplace

If people use Instagram to grieve our own helplessness, perhaps we are also using it to take action. Psychologists of public attitudes to climate change have previously wondered why moral obligation alone was not enough to move people to change their behaviour. Do we need, instead, to take a morality-in-the-marketplace approach? William Nordhaus won the 2018 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics Science for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis. If Nordhaus figured out a way to work with the current marketplace to tax carbon and reduce emissions perhaps anthropological research can do something similar. Let me explain: Instagram is a marketplace. It is a place for people to sell or trade all manner of things, from personal data to flogging a new book or design label. It is an immersive digital experience characterised by trade. When we express ourselves through Instagram, it is within the frame of the marketplace. Perhaps social pressure works so well on Instagram because ideas on the gram are engineered to go viral; to be spreadable and swappable. When this is coupled with moral compulsion, it might just move people to take action.

What is interesting about the #climatechange posts on Instagram is that many of them take the form of social instructions, such as saving water or giving up meat. Often these insta-thoughts on climate change are bound up in other social institutions such as politics or religion. The climate change hashtag, for example, is often used for posts that promote veganism, ditching plastic straws or buying from sustainable fashion brands. These bitesize moral compellers garner hundreds of likes and comments, suggesting that people are able to engage better with climate change when it is visually linked to more tangible ideas such as the marketplace and politics.


UCL’s Why We Post project, a series of ethnographic studies of the use of social media across the world, showed that social media tends to reinforce existing cultural norms. In Southeast Italy, for instance, Razvan Nicolescu’s anthropological research suggested that social media emphasises “the human capacity to conform to social expectations”. Here we have another good ingredient towards a recipe for mobilising useful moral attitudes towards climate action. Think of Instagram as the mixing bowl and of the marketplace as the foundational recipe or order of things. Then throw in the emotional currency of images as well as a pinch of social, moral reinforcement and you might actually start to encourage more people to grieve and then to address climate change. Just maybe, the key is to work with familiar marketplaces to understand both how people respond to climate change and how scientists and governments can speak the same language as the public. Social media will be an important part of the climate conversation.


Joffe, Helen & Smith, Nicholas (2013). How the public engages with global warming: A social representations approach. Public Understanding of Science 0(0), 1–17

Markowitz, Ezra M. & Shariff, Azim F. (2012). Climate change and moral judgement. Nature Climate Change 2, 243–247

Nicolescu, Ranzan (2016). Social Media in Southeast Italy. UCL Press: London

Watts, Jonathan (2018). We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN. the Guardian. Retrieved October 31, 2018, from <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report&gt;


A Turf Life: “Saving the Turf” in County Galway

By Susannah Cooke • MSc Anthropology, Environment, and Development

The peatlands of Ireland are iconic. It would be impossible to disassociate the two and for Ireland to shake off its reputation as “one of the boggiest lands on earth” (Feehan and O’Donovan 1996: 153). The longevity of the connection between the Irish people and the bogs, not only as a landscape, but also as a source of fuel, has caused the bogs to become an “intimate part of the personality of the island” (Evans 1973: 35). This is a short account of the hidden attraction beneath the toil and the quiet commotion which occurs on the bogs today in County Galway.


Freshly cut turf

People in Ireland have been cutting turf for generations as a domestic fuel on these ancient landscapes. Through this process they have built up a unique relationship with the bogs. The bogs have provided fuel and warmth for centuries, but they have also created a mixture of material and cultural values, and for some, a source of livelihood. Beneath this undulating blur of heather and brown is a hive of biodiversity and an internationally recognised and protected carbon reserve. Natural peatlands that are devoid of human interference are a vital ecosystem across the world due to their hydrological features, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration role (Mackin et al. 2017).

EU legislation in the 1990s regulated turf cutting and implemented restrictions on the traditional activity due to the widespread destruction of Irish peatlands and the release of carbon emissions (DAHG 2015). In the face of EU sanctions for non-compliance and legal restrictions on turf cutting, the following observations show the unbroken connection to “saving the turf” and how it is deeply intertwined with values of ownership, rural identity, and tradition. 


A donkey taking home the turf

Cutting a year’s supply of turf for a household is a laborious process. The method of “saving the turf,” as it is colloquially known, is hugely dependant on good weather. It isn’t until “after the March winds and the lengthening days of spring” when activity begins on the bogs (Evans 1988: 187). When turf was primarily cut by hand in the twentieth century, a commotion would begin on the bogs in the early summer months as families came out to “save the turf,” bringing with them tea and sandwiches (Lehane 2003). The annual harvesting of turf was more than just hard work in order to provide fuel: it was a social time, and importantly, ‘there was something more’ going on below the toil (Feehan and O’Donovan 1996: 477).


Roundstone blanket bog

The traditional meitheal was the crux of rural Irish life1, and while it only exists in areas in a diluted version, the connection to the bogs still generates a sense of local community. An observation in the car with several men after being on a blanket bog captured this rural community. As we passed various neighbours on the road, the window was quickly wound down to tell them we had “sausages and tea on the bog” and an exchange would follow about whether they “had the turf cut yet.” They would tease another neighbour about the quality of his hand cut turf and sleán techniques2. In raised bog areas, neighbours would ask each other whether they “saved the turf yet” or “did he come yet the fella who is cutting.”

These moments were described as a “social necessity” in rural parts of Ireland by one participant as we drove passed raised bogs near Moylough. Another raised bog owner believed “it is a big thing, social inclusion. Families go, people go that they mightn’t see. People go and turn their turf and have a chat with people.” As one participant described, “it is a way of life for a lot of people in spring time.” A contractor explained how in the case of a tragedy or difficulty he “wouldn’t even ask for the money” and will tell the family not to worry that year. He also recalled how he helps a local 80-year-old, despite the extra effort to move his machine to a new bog, because he “wouldn’t want to see him without turf. It is an honour. It isn’t purely business. Turf is part of his life.” The era of tea, boiled eggs, and “sangwiches” (sandwiches!) on the bog might have faded away with use of the sleán but there remains a strong and valuable social presence on raised and blanket bogs today.

To the untrained eye the bog looks like an exposed, commonage landscape as there are no discernible lines of ownership; only imprints and marks which remind you of the human activity. No fences, no wire, no walls, but rather ownership is handed down from those who previously worked on the bogs. When asking my participants how they know which part of the bog is theirs, I was often greeted with “oh you just know.” The boundaries have been passed down through the rules of previous generations and ownership can be marked by as little as a bush or a drain. It is important to follow the invisible lines because if you put “the bucket into the bit of another fella, you will fucking hear about it. It is fierce fierce. It is like a prize possession.” One man remarked that “you would be better stealing a man’s wife than cutting turf on his bog” and that the act of cutting on another’s bog was akin to a “sinful, dirty deed.”

Living a life so connected to the bogs results in memories segmenting different chapters of life. One turf cutter, who has been on the bogs for as long as he can remember, said that “everyone would come out to the bog, even if you were of no use. The old would look after the young. You wouldn’t be getting up to mischief because there were so many jobs to be done.” Another man, who used to go to school a short walk away from his bog, reminisced that during cold weather they would have to bring a sod of turf in to contribute to the classroom heating but he “never felt the warmth because the teachers would stand in the front warming their arses.” It is no secret that “there is nothing like sitting round a fire.” 

The smell of a turf fire is extraordinarily distinctive. It is sweet, smoky, and peaty at the same time. Even in midsummer in County Galway there was always a turf fire lit and the instantly recognisable smell was never far away when travelling between field sites. In a conversation about emigration from rural areas, one man remarked that for those who “did ever return the smell of turf reminds them of home. It is a lasting thing that will never leave them until the day they close their eyes.” The future still consists of a burning turf fire for a few of my participants but the majority felt that it “will stop on its own as those who want to cut will die away.” The larger sheds belong to an older generation who have a stronger penchant for a turf fire. When we passed a large but empty turf shed, a contractor fondly reminisced that “if the uncle was alive he would have the shed full. He did nothing all day except draw the turf.”


Footed turf

As Ireland moves towards a greener future and closes the doors of peat-burning power stations in 2030 (Murtagh 2015), a seismic shift will begin to reverberate as peatlands slowly metamorphose from a productive landscape back to one of amenity. For turf cutters living in the shadow of a hummock, turf will never be fully replaced but put to one side to make way for an alternative, accessible, and sustainable fuel. As turf fires begin to fade, they will leave behind a sod-shaped imprint on the rural Irish landscape and identity. The legacy and memories of the bog will continue to fill the air alongside the smell of a rogue turf fire.

1A rural Irish tradition where neighbours would gather together to help with farming work.

2A spade-like tool with a perpendicular metal wing to pick up wet turf (Lehane 2003).


Department of Arts, Heritage, and Gaeltacht (DAHG). 2015. National Peatlands Strategy: A National Peatlands Strategy 2015. Online.

Evans, E. E. 1973. The Personality of Ireland: Habitat, heritage, and history. Cambridge: University Press. 

Evans, E. E. 1988. Irish Folk Ways. London: Routledge. 

Feehan, J. and O’Donovan, G. 1996. The Bogs of Ireland: An introduction to the natural, cultural, and industrial heritage of Irish Peatlands. Dublin: Environmental Institute, University College Dublin. 

Lehane, S. 2003. Sleán Turf in North Cork. Folk Life 42(1):73–90. 

Murtagh, P. 2015. Bord na Móna signals end of peat harvesting by 2030. The Irish Times, 5th of October 2015. Online, accessed 4th of April 2018. 

Anthropology as Story

By Cian Dalglish • MSc Anthropology, Environment, and Development

Bronisław Malinowski, Trobriand Islands, c.1918

Bronislaw Malinowski, Trobriand Islands, c.1918

Myth. Origin. Just So. Once upon a time.

Identity. History. Knowledge.

Homo sapiens. Spaceship Earth. The Big Bang.

Since the first apes started differentiating between self and other, past, present and future, we have told stories. Life, the universe and everything are forever and always wrapped up in the narratives we create – frameworks we impose on this present moment to draw patterns from chaos, to make some sense of this existence.

Although the forms of story-telling change from person to person, place to place, culture to culture, the tradition persists through the ages. In this technologically advanced age, we purport to universal knowledge, however, its transfer is no different from the story-telling of old, only the tradition. Where scientific stories sit at the extreme end of the narrative spectrum, Anthropology treads a fine balance between poetry and analysis. For what were Anthropologists to begin with but travellers, armed with funding and intellectual tools, visiting far away lands and returning to tell exotic tales scarcely to be believed?! Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.

Anyone coming to this story-telling tradition has first to learn its rules, of which there are a great many. One learns early on how to tell one’s story – the Elders punish transgressions with severity, and believe me, they are listening oh so intently. Themselves masters of their art, they guard the gates against frivolity, hearsay, unsubstantiated claims and the dreaded theft of another’s story. For this is above all a tradition, and honouring one’s lineage is paramount. Thus, one wades through

tales told by Them That Came Before – the past stories that one draws from the throng, either to bolster one’s own protagonist arc or to dash it against the rocks of rational analysis.

All stories need a framing – One Upon A Time, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. For Anthropology, we choose from a vast succession of ‘-isms’. Structuralism, Positivism, Perspectivism. Pick your poison – will that be a single malt or a cocktail? A new twist on a classic or your own concoction?

Claude Lévi-Strauss - Brazil, c.1935

Clause Lévi-Strauss, Brazil, c.1935

As with the mythic and the origin, our stories begin always with an invitation; a question, a simple statement. Thus, the hero is drawn out of what he knows and into the dark forests of new exploration, whence he battles with previous stories, thorny issues, structural monsters – hoping against hope to emerge at the far end with something approaching clarity. Well-versed in such matters, the Elders are quick to seek out a beginning, a middle, an end. Approval is garnered for the soft flow of underlying form, the swift curve and punch of a point well-made, the build, the fall, the triumph! A kaleidoscope of meaning, a picture painted in Times New Roman.

In this story form tradition, adhering so strictly to the law, riding a wave of past stories, the trickiest part can be finding your own voice and narrative style amidst the cacophony. To push gently at the edge of academic rigour and formulaic paragraphs to introduce a dash of colour here and there, a pinch of spice, a flash of mischief beneath the solemnity.

With so much riding on each tale-telling, one can lose sight of the bigger picture. It is easily forgotten that in the end, this is only a story. The word, ‘essay,’ comes from the French verb essayer – to try, to attempt, to test. Even our greatest academic masterpieces, those novels we call dissertations and PhDs, are only the extended narrative of an issue, a question, drawn from the stories of previous travellers combined with the tale of one’s own time in the field. One hopes to

add a few strands to the grander tapestry, to add a new detail or shed new light on old ones, perhaps even start a new chapter altogether! Ultimately, to be honoured as one of Them That Came Before, who has mastered the art enough to listen anew to fresh waves of story-tellers.

From the very beginning one does their best to tell their story, always honing skills and ability to recount convincingly, to enthral and inform the listener as so many other tellers have since time immemorial. Any raconteur can speak to the tensions in the telling; what to include, what, more importantly, to omit…? What is the story that one wishes to tell?

Ruth Benedict, C.1937

Ruth Benedict, c.1937


More so than other disciplines, Anthropology has grappled with this reality, or at least has done so in its own way. The scientific story form often resorts to one of the oldest known narrative tropes – that of the invisible but omniscient narrator, all-seeing and all-knowing. Anthropology began as a series of self-contained stories of far-off people, races and cultures, living so strangely to our eyes! How fascinating. How… quaint. Time and new tellers started to add their own take on previous stories, realising that stories exist only in the telling. How one tells one’s story affects the outcome and one inevitably situates oneself in the story, telling it from a particular perspective, whether personal or cultural. With this realisation, the line between story and storyteller can become blurred, indistinct, or disappear altogether. The story of an issue becomes a story of oneself and vice versa.

To conclude: relax! Write, play. ENJOY. There is no correct answer, no single all-encompassing story that is not, ultimately, just a story (although declare that to a room full of scientists and see what happens). If it helps one wade through the chaos of life, then it has done some good, and particularly in the story tradition known as Anthropology, it does well not to take oneself too seriously. It is only an attempt, an ‘essay,’ after all.

Book Review: The Divide by Jason Hickel

By George Smith • MSc Anthropology, Environment, and Development


Jason Hickel is an anthropologist and de-growth activist. His recent book, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, offers an eye-opening account of how our globalised economy is perpetuating inequality and destroying the environment.

Hickel argues that global poverty is a direct consequence of our own current neoliberal economic system, not, as some like to see it – a natural and unavoidable evil. In other words, poverty is a constructed phenomenon. However, we are shielded from this inconvenient truth by an elaborate PR campaign – what Hickel calls, the ‘good-news narrative’.

Statistics about global poverty, Hickel argues, are warped to make it seem like we are on the right track to eliminating poverty. Although on occasions one feels Hickel is over simplifying the statistics, the overall argument is compelling.

For example, it becomes easier to demonstrate the reduction of global poverty when the International Poverty Line (IPL) is shifted. In 2000, the International Poverty Line went from $1.02 per day to $1.08 a day. This seems like a higher threshold from which to measure poverty. But as purchasing power parity has decreased steadily (basically meaning the relative cost of things has gone up) a mere increase from $1.02 to $1.08 is actually a relative decrease in purchasing power. So, as more people become poorer, a shift in the goal posts means this uncomfortable truth can be swept under the carpet.

More alarmingly, the development sector, now worth billions of dollars a year, is also helping to shape this ‘good-news narrative’ – wittingly or not. International nongovernmental organisations, despite often acting with good intentions, are actually contributing to the idea that poverty can be eliminated with the charity.

What’s wrong with this narrative, Hickel argues, is that it leads us to believe that the wealth of the Global North is independent from the poverty of the Global South. That is, the world’s resources and opportunities are equal to all – all that poor countries need is a helping hand and point in the right direction in order to ‘develop’.

The Global North likes to think it’s ‘doing its bit’ to reduce global poverty. After all, rich countries give an estimated $128 billion to developing countries per year. However, this figure looks miniscule in comparison to the money flowing in the other direction. Since 1980, net outflows from the Global South to the Global North have amounted to about $26.5 trillion. This is, Hickel reminds us, ‘roughly the GDP of the United States and Western Europe combined’.

But how is this gross exploitation persisting? Hickel outlines three key factors that have contributed to the inequality between the Global North and the Global South over the last 30 years.

  1. Debt. In the 1970s Western banks, began handing out loans to poor countries on an unprecedented scale. Encouraged by ‘participation-fees’ which gave them instant kickbacks on their loans, loan pushers got rich quickly while some of the poorest countries in the world stacked up huge debts. Because of the compound interest on these debts, countries are still paying vast sums of money into Western banks. Since 1980, ‘developing countries have forked over $4.2 trillion in interest payments’. That’s about $113 billion each year.
  2. Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). In order to help developing countries manage their debts, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have essentially enforced neoliberal economic policies onto sovereign countries. This means money is diverted away from their public services and used to pay back interest on their loans. In other words, money and resources are taken away form those who need it most and given to some of the richest banks on Wall Street. Furthermore, enforced neoliberalism means developing countries are prevented from adopting protectionist policies that will protect their own industries and allow them to genuinely develop. As it stands, vulnerable, under-developed industries are pitted against the most competitive industries in the West that have had much more time to develop. SAPs also allow massive multinational corporations to extract resources from developing countries for their own profit. Because they are tied into debt repayment schemes, developing countries are not allowed to nationalise their own assets.
  3. The liberalisation of trade and the movement of capital. In order to make the global economy more efficient, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ensures that capital can move freely over borders. This is a good idea in principal but in reality it means the poorest countries in the world lose staggering sums of money through ‘capital flight’, or, in other words, tax evasion. The ease at which corporations (international and domestic) can move large sums of money across borders and put it in off-shore tax havens (mainly British and American ones) means the world’s poorest countries lose trillions ($23.6 trillion since 1980) of dollars a year. If, as Hickel argues, tax havens were made to be more transparent and the flow capital monitored more closely, developing countries could make huge steps towards eliminating poverty.

Given these insights, it is disheartening to hear policy makers evangelise about the virtues of global free trade.

In an article written in the Guardian, Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox has said: ‘I want us [Britain] to lead the way in helping poorer communities through trade’. This is because he ‘recognises the progress that trade has delivered for the world’s poorest’ communities.

This kind of argument asserts that developing countries can be pulled out of poverty if we just maintain our current economic system. In other words, we can all grow our way out of poverty – redistribution of wealth and resources is not necessary.

However, there are problems with this reasoning. Firstly, it relies on our obsession with GDP and GDP growth. ‘Indeed’, Hickel points out, ‘almost the entire economics profession and nearly all of our politicians’ are focused on GDP growth. Based on this mind-set, however, in order to lift all people out of poverty, it would take over 200 years.

Furthermore, the idea of ‘growing anything in perpetuity – even good things – is philosophically absurd’. We live in a finite world, and our level of consumption – which is currently built in to the very fabric of our economy – is destroying the planet. We are told, Hickel reminds us, that if we don’t have a GDP growth rate of about 2 or 3 per cent a year, we’re in crisis. This means, based on global GDP of $73 trillion in 2015, we will need to add more than $2 trillion to global GDP per year: that’s roughly the size of the UK economy.

We have come to believe, Hickel concludes, that GDP equals human development. But if you ‘cut down a forest and sell the timber, GDP goes up. If you strip a mountain range to mine for coal, GDP goes up.’

What’s happening, Hickel argues, is that our current fixation on continual growth has begun to cause significantly more problems than benefits: ‘more “illth” than “wealth”’. The reason is that ‘there are no longer any frontiers where accumulation doesn’t directly harm someone else.’ And unfortunately, that ‘someone else’ is almost invariably the poorest countries. Thus, the effects of Western consumerism is not only destroying the planet, but also entrenching the world’s poorest countries in a vicious cycle of poverty.

The solution, of course, is multifaceted – tax havens must be made to be transparent, the IMF and World Bank need to be democratised so as to give fairer voice to developing countries, and debt written off along with the ensuing SAPs.

Overall however, the goal must to be on changing the narrative that aligns GDP growth with human development. Our fixation with growth justifies global inequity because our focus remains on everyone accumulating more, instead of sharing the wealth that already exists.

What we need, therefore, is a narrative that takes into consideration much more sustainable and constructive ideals. GPI, the Global Progress Indicator, for example, ‘starts with GDP but then adds positive factors such as household and volunteer work, subtracts negatives such as pollution, resource depletion and crime, and adjusts for inequality’, Hickel points out. There are other similar approaches – The Happy Planet Index, for example, will measure the life expectancy in a country, happiness and its ecological footprint.

If we are to start reducing global inequality, and ensuring a secure future for the planet, these are the yardsticks with which need to measure human development. This is no easy solution; it requires a new narrative and a new way of thinking. In challenging the hegemony of neoliberal economics Jason Hickel’s The Divide is an important book, accessible to any reader, in opening up a space for this new narrative.

Should We Continue to ‘Bring the World’ to London Through Museum Objects?

By Dalia Iskander • Teaching Fellow in Medical Anthropology

On the 29thJune 2018, the Horniman Museum and Gardens opened its World Gallery to the public. Its aim is to explore what it means to be human in different times and places through a display of over 3,000 objects including those curated with the help of UCL anthropologists Jerome Lewis and Dalia Iskander. The new exhibition continues to speak to founder Frederick Horniman’s aim of ‘bringing the world’ to the district of Forest Hill where the museum is located. However, it also provokes questions regarding the place that museums do and should have in this endeavour, the way in which objects are acquired and displayed, and the role museums have in shaping the political encounters that underlie such exhibitions.


Horniman Museum, World Gallery. © Horniman Museum and Gardens

As you enter the upper walkway of the World Gallery, you would be hard pressed to miss the huge display of colourful kites and banners suspended from the museum ceiling (see image below). These pieces have been made for or donated to the exhibition by contributors such as Ahmadzia Bakhtyari, a London-based Afghan kite-maker, Alafuro Sikoki-Coleman, a Nigerian fashion designer, and Ed Hall, an artist from South London who made his Trade Union-inspired banner with assistance from Horniman volunteers. Intended to explore how people all over the world come together in different ways to celebrate, play or protest, they hang above a display that explains how the museum’s founder, Frederick Horniman, opened up his home – Surrey House – between 1890 and 1898 with the explicit aim of ‘bringing the world’ to London. The well-travelled tea trader and philanthropistwanted to narrow the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ by displaying his private collection of artefacts and natural specimens from all over the world to the public. Interestingly, the Horniman – which opened in 1901 to replace Surrey House – is the only museum in London that continues to keep ‘nature’ (through its aquarium, butterfly house and natural history collection) and ‘culture’ (through its vast array of anthropological artefacts and musical instruments) together under one roof in pursuit of this endeavour.


Display of kites and banners made by artists and volunteers at the World Gallery. © Dalia Iskander

In this sense, the World Gallery continues to fulfil the aim of the museum’s founder as visitors are able to interact with objects from the five inhabited continents of the world. They serve to illustrate how people form connections to objects, past and present ways of life, social encounters (from trade and travel to war and pillage), and contemporary relationships of curation and anthropology that have led to objects being displayed here. Visitors are encouraged to engage all their senses as they interact with exhibits. For example, they can touch intricate metalwork made by the Tuareg living in the Sahara, smell aromatic herbs used by Bhutanese ritual healers and listen to First Nations’ oral narratives from the Pacific Northwest Coast. As such, the permanent gallery is both an informative and engaging space that certainly encourages reflection and dialogue regarding our cultural difference but more importantly, our collective heritage.


More kites and banners made by artists and volunteers. © Dalia Iskander

Significantly, this gallery tries to move in line with calls for a museology that takes a more inclusive, participatory and politically-engaged approach to the ways in which objects are both acquired and contextualised. This is in an attempt to unveil and potentially even start to overturn many of the underlying contentious political realities and power differentials that underscore museum collections. Much criticism was and continues to be levelled at European museums in particular whose collections are largely built of huge swathes of looted and pillaged artefacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas during periods of Empire building, colonialism and war. Their display, often lacking any contextual information regarding the relationships around objects and the circumstances surrounding their acquisition, is said to legitimise injustices in the past and continue the legacy of domination of numerous indigenous peoples in the present. This is only exacerbated by the failure of European museums to repatriate the majority of artefacts from their collections back to their countries of origin. This is despite numerous appeals for restitution and scores of scantily filled museums in many parts of the world, which leave communities little opportunity to ‘bring the world’ to their own people. In an attempt to address this to some extent in the World Gallery, labelling of existing artefacts from the collection sometimes explicitly acknowledge instances where objects have been acquired through looting or war and point out ways in which the museum is working with communities to (at the very least) loan items back to the people that produced them (for example those from Benin in the Encounters section). For some, this will be welcome but rather insufficient to undo the injustices of the past.

However, in the way new objects were collected for the collection, the Horniman has made a concerted effort to engage more directly with communities, both in terms of the selection or creation of objects for display as well as in the construction of the narratives that accompany them. For example, a Collecting Initiative was launched with the UK Royal Anthropological Institute, awarding Anthropology PhD students and Postdoctoral Fellows small grants to collect and research objects for the gallery collaboratively with the communities that they engaged with in their fieldwork.

As a recipient of one of their awards in 2012-3, I worked in partnership with members of the indigenous Pälawan community in the Philippines, with whom I conducted my doctoral fieldwork, to provide artefacts for the Perspectives section. Owing to my focus on health, I worked with a number of Pälawan balayan (healers) for whom material culture plays a central role. Balayan were very keen to donate objects to the museum because they saw this as a way of raising international awareness regarding their indigenous practices and ways of life which they feel are under threat from numerous pressures ranging from mining and economic development to climate change and environmental degradation. As one balayan put it, “this allows us to also use you. The more people in your country know about us, the more they will understand why we want to preserve our ways of life.” I provided two balayan who were keen to donate objects to the museum – Bernas Licos and Sario Langi – digital cameras so that they could visually document their practices and the objects that they used in real-time. The pictures they took formed the basis for discussion regarding which objects the two men felt best reflected and conveyed their work and decisions about what that they would like to donate to the museum. In total, seven artefacts were admitted into the collection (see image below) as well as a set of accompanying photographs taken by Bernas and Sario illustrating how these objects are used in their everyday practice.

Display of artefacts used in Pälawan healing practices donated to the World Gallery by Bernas Licos and Sario Langi. These include a tinkop (basket) that Bernas used to carry his medicines, handed down to him from his father. A diagnostic stick (tari-tari) doll (kundu), pom poms (silad) and amulets (pananga) are also displayed which Sario uses in his healing practices.
Images © Dalia Iskander.

For Bernas and Sario, the World Gallery offered a space in which they could actively play a more inclusive part in the way they are represented to outsiders. In this way, they switched the ethnographic gaze to some extent by using the opportunity of our encounter in ways that also helped them with their own agendas. Similarly, through his long-term engagement with the Mbendjele people of the western Congo Basin, Jerome Lewis provided some of the everyday objects he collected in the field in the Encounters section of the gallery (see image below). Here, the focus is on the minimalism of material culture and how this relates to egalitarianism. In contrast to the many parents and small children that are the regular visitors to the museum, an entire Mbendjele household can be quickly packed into a single basket (bottom left of the case) carried by women as they move between forest camps. Men carry the children and their hunting weapons. A short film display shows people moving to a new part of the forest and building a camp. Another describes some of their efforts to secure recognition for their land rights.

Mbendjele case showing women’s basket, skirts, sleeping mat and cooking utensils. A men’s handbag for keeping his fire-making kit, smoking paraphernalia and magical charms, as well as an axe, knife, cross-bow and spears are also exhibited. The barbed pig-hunting spear is on direct path to strike the rather sweet young red-river hog – one of the Mbendjele’s favourite foods.
Images © Jerome Lewis

In bringing us face-to-face with the worlds of ourselves and others, the World Gallery does more than simply put forward objects for us to admire in a way that uncritically legitimises and perpetuates British colonisation, power and control, past and present. Rather, the gallery also highlights the role that museums are increasingly playing in bringing to light some of the problematic relationships that underscore encounters between people – even those that are deeply uncomfortable, destructive and exploitative. There is certainly much more that museums including the Horniman can and should do to overturn political injustices. However, by involving communities in the way artefacts are curated and displayed, museums can, and should, in my opinion, continue to play an important role in post-colonial contexts. Museums (much like anthropologists) are vehicles which can be (and are) appropriated by indigenous people who use them to tell their own stories, govern their own representation and further their own causes.

Fancy a fika?☕️

By Elaine Wong • BSc Anthropology

I was in the middle of a 12-hour flight, without wifi, and counting down the minutes until landing. Scrolling through the British Airways Highlife Entertainment programme, a documentary episode with the words ‘coffee’ and ‘ritual’ caught my attention. As a coffee enthusiast and an anthropologist, I could not allow myself to leave the plane without watching it.

“Knowing that word, it’s not just a fun thing, it’s actually a way of getting into society.” – (Female interviewee from Episode 1: The Ritual)

Fika: To Have Coffeeis a documentary on fika, or what Swedish locals typically refer to as having a coffee break. Now this may seem familiar to many of you (especially uni students and freelancers), but as an interviewee explained, “I guess you have the same concept in a lot of countries but you don’t have a name for it.” Fika is a slang word that originated from swapping the syllables of kaffi (an ‘outdated’ word for coffee) and omitting one ‘f’. With a dual status of being a noun and a verb, the term is used quite flexibly – you can have a fika to relax or to do work, with or without other people, in a coffee house or at home. The ways in which people and objects interact with each other in social events – from seasonal rituals to everyday life – are one of the hottest topics in the realm of anthropology. Here, I would like to briefly explore how fika in social and working contexts can contribute to the discussion.

Socialising subjects and objects

“I think it has to do with our way of being social. So we meet over something, and that’s where the fika part comes in. It’s the meeting between people more than the things you eat… or drink.” – (Male interviewee from Episode 2: The Social Bit)

The interviewee here suggests how people (e.g. sociable coffee-lovers) and things (e.g.coffee and coffee shops) are respectively seen as subjects and objects. What is particularly interesting is that he also places a distinction between them, despite how the coexistence of people and things constitutes an assemblage. Now this might seem like common sense, but conceptually dividing subjects from objects has been debated at great lengths in anthropology – including alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between the two factions.

“You have a reason to be intimate with someone. You could just talk to someone but it’s a little bit more strained on the conversation. If you have a cup of coffee then you can take natural breaks and, you know, there’s a reason for why you’re sitting there.” – (Male interviewee from Episode 2: The Social Bit)

Anthropologists such as Bruno Latour (1991) stress that we often undermine the status of even the most mundane objects of daily social life. In fact, they have a very important role in mediating human relationships, politics, and even morality. Building on this, architectural theorist Albena Yaneva (2009) discusses an approach addressing the issue, Actor-Network Theory (ANT), encouraging us to describe objects by focusing on more than just their practicality: 

“Drawing on the ways technical objects take part in the making of culture, that is, the anthropology of technology, ANT shows how every single technical feature of an object accounts for a social, psychological and economical world” (2009: 276).

If we apply this to fika, we can say that the architectural style or interior design of a coffee shop (objects) can create different social dynamics between customers and baristas (subjects), and how their conversations flow and change.

A state between work and rest

“An important aspect of fikais work-relation, where you can also move seamlessly between work and other topics in your conversation… It’s… a kind of state in between work and rest. You can continue some kind of work discussion with your colleagues, but in a less formal mode so to speak.” – (Male interviewee from Episode 6: The Work) 

Although primarily considered as breaktime, some locals also prefer to have a fikain order to do work. In particular, one mentioned that having an informal meeting over fikameans “no pressureto achieve something… things may be done, things may not be done.” Another fikaenthusiast explicitly made a comparison, whereby the material environment plays a crucial part in shaping certain social expectations. For him, “it’s often more creative and more productive to go with two or three colleagues to a cafe and have a fikatogether than sit in a formal meeting room discussing [certain topic]”.

Fika for thought…

“…design is not merely a beautiful aesthetic envelope that covers objects and makes [everyday life] pleasurable. Instead, design has a social goal and mobilises social means to achieve it, thus striving to enrich not to diminish, to fortify not to weaken the public bonds” – (Yaneva 2009: 276)

Generally, this documentary teaches us how having a coffee break allows us to enjoy the little things in life – not only in catching up with friends, but in being creative and productive with work as well. Still, if we look at fikafrom an anthropological perspective, it makes us question how we have taken our relationships with objects for granted.


Brones, A. (2015) What Is Fika? An Introduction to the Swedish Coffee Break. Kitchn. Available at: https://www.thekitchn.com/what-in-the-world-is-fika-an-intro-to-the-swedish-coffee-break-the-art-of-fika-219297 [accessed 20 August 2018].

Brones, A., Kindvall, J. (2015) Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. United States: Ten Speed Press.

Latour, B. (1991) Nous n’avons jamais été modernes: essai d’anthropologie symétrique. Paris: La Découverte.

Sweden (2016) Fika: To Have Coffee – Episode 1: The Ritual. YouTube. Available at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vUIPwiCipo [accessed 20 August 2018].

Sweden (2016) Fika: To Have Coffee – Episode 2: The Social Bit. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-qZsBAwk1I [accessed 22 August 2018].

Sweden (2016) Fika: To Have Coffee – Episode 6: The Work. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19t667yf_aM [accessed 22 August 2018].

Yaneva, A. (2009) Making the Social Hold: Towards an Actor-Network Theory of Design. Design and Culture 1(3): 273-288.