Apathy, Empathy and Art: Reflections on Engaging Refugee Narratives III

By Alice Klein • BSc Anthropology

In June, the UCL Anthropology Department hosted the Engaging Refugee Narratives III Conference. Jointly organised by Dr Ruth Mandel and Dr Susan Pattie, it brought together academics, artists and advocates who work with and for people described as refugees. Over two days – June 16th and 17th – in conjunction with Refugee Week, the conference explored the ethical and practical concerns of refugee interactions. Through workshops, panel discussions, and general conversation attendees delved into the narrative aspect of refugee engagement.

Left: (L-R) Dr Patricia Spyer, Dr Ruth Mandel and Dr Susan Pattie; Right: Attendees at the conference

I volunteered for the conference again this summer, as I also volunteered last year for the inaugural conference; I was pleased to see some familiar as well as new faces! I had the opportunity to participate and observe, and came away inspired, despondent and hopeful in equal measure.

Some of these narratives shared at the conference cannot be described as anything but horrific. Humans are capable of a casual cruelty that seems almost fantastical but is all too viscerally real. And yet, interspersed with these horrors were moments of joy, seemingly clawed back from a spiral of doom and despair. It is easy to react with pity when thinking of, or interacting with refugees – and have pity be the only emotion associated with that label.

What I have taken from this conference it is that refugees’ narratives contain the breadth of human experience. Occasionally brilliant, all too frequently awful, much of their time is neither – it is simply normal. Their lives are those of people. Just people. And most often their lives, wants, needs, hopes, are as normal as my own. It seems too obvious to admit to, but there is a part of my most selfish self which fails to recognise this. I suspect I am not alone in this. Empathising with refugees needs to go deeper than mere pity. Pity directed at refugees is as productive as disdain. It achieves nothing. Acknowledging and celebrating their everyday lives, their essential normality is just as important as conveying the horrors they have fled, and may still experience. Their current mundane ordinariness is as important academically as their past – and just as academically and socially relevant.

Lunch, conversation and some sunshine!

People are made into refugees: politically, bureaucratically and socially. A label bestowed unto them which they can never quite lose, becoming the sum total of their identity. This process which is indifferent to the nuance of individuality and ultimately, a cruelty in and of itself. Refugee status is an abstraction from society, an invisible delineation separating them from ‘everyone else’. The Calais Jungle and the detention centres here in the UK exemplify the actual physical barriers that corral refugees; their actual physical isolation embodies and creates their social isolation. Refugees as a group are not present, are kept from being present, within our communal social lives.

I believe that the apathy towards refugees stems from this lack of presence. It may flare up (or down) into reactionary negativity, or, when confronted by the corpse of a dead child washed up on a European beach, a flurry of righteous soul-searching and donations. Perhaps the refugee crisis has gone so long unanswered that we have reached compassion fatigue. The refugees are the crisis, an amorphous, dehumanised whole which cannot be sublimated or assimilated. No longer people, but rather a single talking point, to be bandied about rhetorically.

image4-21It was apt then that a key theme of the conference was how artistic media can be used to convey narratives that connect with their audience on a more emotional level. Where the cold hard facts may shock and horrify, individual, personal stories may connect on a deeper level. Many of the questions raised by attendees were around artistic licence and representation: how true does an artist illustrating a story need to be to the facts? How much input should an individual have on their story? Is it still their story? Are they co-authors or source material?

Relative to last years’ conference, the discussions have moved beyond the ethics of representing and advocating for refugees, and into the ethics of the representations themselves. It cannot be denied that these representations are political, with an intended audience and an expected reaction. Staying faithful to these human stories while also inciting empathy in a fatigued, apathetic audience is a delicate balance, without a clear solution.

However, I am convinced that it is through photography, comics, and other artistic media that the connection between refugees and non-refugees can be forged. Art, in all its forms is a common human tendency, and can engage on a baser level than perhaps a – no doubt excellent – long form article about camp conditions in Turkey, for example. It has its place and is valuable, though comes with the caveat to be mindful of its pitfalls.

Attendees taking part in workshops

I am reminded of something which struck me at last year’s conference, which I felt again this year: everyone at the conference was effectively in agreement. I did wonder if the ‘echo chamber’ effect was at play, and everyone, myself included, broadly agreed with one another because we were all present. We had chosen to attend a conference which champions the rights and dignity of refugees – we were with our people – and so we accepted the views of our fellow attendees as our own. I am not criticising the conference, its aims, and its results. Engaging Refugee Narratives is an academic conference, yet it cannot be denied that its subject is intensely political, and I do wonder to what extent our personal politics affected our academic conclusions. I don’t know whether it did, and if so, whether that was necessarily wrong.

Regardless, the value and importance of the conference cannot be underestimated. Over the last two years the conferences have been the cause for some of my own personal reflection. If only one other human being has been helped by it, then I would consider it a success. I must believe the conference has stimulated and supported those who attended it, so that they may support refugees. And I fervently hope these methods of narrative outreach can and will stimulate public interest and engagement, instead of relying on more bodies washing up on foreign shores.

Engaging Refugee Narratives – information, access and contact:
For more information, and to get involved with Refugee Week:

Osteology in Transylvania: Putting Back a Missing Piece of the Puzzle

By Yiran He • BSc Anthropology

The Transylvanian area in central Romania is more than a famous site for tourists and history lovers. It is also an exciting spot for bioarchaeologists and forensic anthropologists. Between the 15th and the 17th century, South-Eastern Europe has been the site of constant battles for territory between several countries including the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary and the Habsburg Empire. For more than three centuries, Transylvanians were not only under severe physical pressure but also torn between varying political and religious authorities. In addition to human skeletons remaining from these agitated times, more remains from the medieval era can be found buried under local churches. Although excavation work of these medieval cemeteries has been conducted previously, relevant bioarchaeological analysis of those burials has been almost forgotten. These blank spots in research have intrigued Andre Gonciar, Director of ArchaeoTek Canada, and Dr. Jonathan Bethard, Assistant Professor in Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology at the University of South Florida. After realising the educational and research value of this large collection of skeletal materials held by local museums from ongoing excavations, they set up an osteology summer school in Odorheiu Secuiesc, Transylvania in collaboration with Nyárádi Zsolt from the local Haáz Rezsoo Múzeum.


The field of excavation (Credit: Ashley Curtis)

This summer field school has by now been successfully run for five years since 2013. It is intended to equip students who are interested in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology with adequate knowledge, skills and hands-on experience in the analysis of human remains using material uncovered at the sites. The school runs throughout the whole summer with several different workshops on both archaeological excavation techniques in the field, and skills of osteological analysis in the lab.

The excavation workshops in the field are led by Dr. Katie Zejdlik from Western Carolina University. Students registered for the Medieval Cemetery Funerary Excavation Workshop would conduct excavations at four local churches under the instructions of Dr. Zejdlik and her field assistant. While enjoying a breathtaking view from top of the hill, field students learnt how to plan an excavation, identify skeletal elements and take field notes by discussing with their group mates as well as from the instruction of field tutors. In addition, the burials that have been discovered by tutors and students in the field have helped the local museum’s researchers to gain a clearer understanding of the overall distribution of cemeteries at the sites.

image2-19Dr. Jonathan Bethard is the tutor for the lab group. Based in a neat villa just 200 metres away from the hotel we stayed in, the lab group received mixed types of trainings such as lectures, small-group tutorials, lab study, lab projects and data collection. I joined the lab group throughout June this summer. Every morning, Dr. Bethard would give a two-hour lecture on different topics, followed by study time downstairs in the lab in the afternoon with material previously uncovered by other field groups. The first two weeks’ lectures and study consisted of a detailed introduction to the important features on every single bone in the human body along with techniques on how to estimate age and sex. During he following two weeks, Dr. Bethard would cover a wide range of issues in the field of bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology, from paleopathology to the application of forensic techniques in mass disasters. After obtaining the basic skills of osteological analysis, students were divided into groups and assigned different burials from the field to help collect osteological data and construct biological profiles. Throughout the lab sessions, Dr. Bethard and his lab assistant Ashley Curtis were always approachable and willing to answer questions. Interesting pathological changes in the skeletons occurred often, which always caused a few minutes of excited discussions among students and tutors.

At the end of the day, lab students would usually gather in front of the villa and practice a little “meditation” for bioarchaeologists – washing the bones of the skeletons uncovered. Every bone lover in the lab considered this moment as a time for escaping from a long day of research, a time for chatting, sun-bathing and relaxing. Nevertheless, not even then did the study and discussion of skeletal structures stop.


Dr. Jonathan Bethard

Without doubt, the most stressful but also most exciting part of the lab work would be the bone quizzes. Every Thursday and Friday morning, the first thing we would do was stand around the tables, staring at a piece of bone fragment (normally less than 25% of a whole bone) in front of us. We had one minute to identify a bone fragment and its important features, something that would take an expert like Dr. Bethard less than 15 seconds. Sometimes a strange piece of non-human elements — bone fragments of a pig, a hen or a roasted rock — would be mixed among the questions to confuse us. Although our results were somehow frustrating at first, the four weeks of training saw an amazing improvement in everyone in the lab, which has been a great encouragement.

We were also very lucky to meet some other great forensic anthropologists during the workshop. Dr. Alexandra Klales, who developed a widely-used sex estimation method using nonmetric pelvis traits, and Dr. Nicholas Passalacqua, a Board-Certified forensic anthropologist, visited our workshop during the first week. They also helped us with our lab study and gave us lectures on graduate study and careers in forensic anthropology. Towards the end of the workshop, we also had a chance to meet Dr. Michelle Miranda, Forensic Scientist and Criminalist specialising in forensic tattoos. Many of us were among the 35.8 thousand followers of her Instagram page. It was a fantastic chance to talk to these great minds about cutting-edge research ideas and careers in this field.

Life after a long day of lab work and lessons was a lot of fun, too. Situated in a quiet town image4-23in the heart of Transylvania, our hotel was surrounded by peony flowers, vines and wooden swings. The beautifully-decorated garden was always a wonderful place for revising for bone quizzes, sharing pizzas and playing with cats. ArchaeoTek also organised several tours around Transylvania during the weekends, so we had a chance o visit several fascinating local churches and the renowned city of Brasov which was famous for vampire legends and Brad Pitt.

Even without any air-conditioners, every student seemed to be really enjoying this experience. Tanya Ramos, an undergraduate student of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said ‘I’m really glad that I decided to attend this field session.’ She hopes to work as a forensic anthropologist in the future, helping with forensic identification at the southeast border in Florida, ‘Although this field school is definitely more fast-paced than normal university lessons, Dr. Bethard organised the lectures and labs really well. He is also very passionate about what he does, which is quite inspiring. Besides, this workshop helps me to network with peers and professors, which is very important for the field. I can also relate more with other lab pals because we are interested in the same things.’


Lab mates and lab assistant Ashley Curtis

Of course, Dr. Bethard and his colleagues have greater aspirations for studies done in the workshops. For a long time, the bioarchaeology of the Transylvanian region has been a missing piece to the complete picture of Europe’s demography. By collecting and analysing a sufficient amount of bioarchaeological data of skeletons from this region, they are looking to add the bioarchaeology of this region to the broader conversation on life of various European populations. They also wanted to help local people to understand what their ancestors had been by studying site-specific demography, religious practices of burials and stresses their ancestors experienced. Identifying bone fragments is like a process of putting back the pieces of a puzzle with the correct reasoning, and the work in this osteology research workshop will contribute to putting the missing piece – Transylvania – back into the bioarchaeological puzzle of Europe.

*For ethical reasons, pictures of the real bones are not allowed to be taken or posted.

*For more information, please see: www.archaeotek-archaeology.org

Filmmakers Addressing the Roots of Human Rights Violations in Liberia

By Shosha Adie • BSc Anthropology

image1-17The Land Beneath our Feet was one of the main screenings at this year’s Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) film festival, an annual event that celebrates ethnographic filmography. Despite not being a prize winner, it was highlighted by the judges for taking the subject of land tenure and ‘putting it together in a very propelling format.’ Set in Monrovia, the vibrant capital of Liberia, a country still healing from over a decade of civil war, it paints a picture of a nation trying to recover their identity despite their colonial roots and embeddedness within the global economy today. With its missing history, destroyed during the war, the landscape is the holder of these memories, and conflict is quick to ignite in disputes where land ownership is involved.

As part of a reporter internship with the RAI, I was given the opportunity to both interview the film’s father, Gregg Mitman, who holds a distinguished Chair at the Wisconsin-Madison university in the US, and meet London-based cinematographer Sarita Siegel who acted as director. What they illuminated to me, and what I would like to share with you, is the intrinsic importance of land for national identity and how films can inspire real change.

We learn from the film that for Liberians, land ‘belongs to the living… to those who are already dead, and those who are yet to be born. It does not belong to one person.’ At present, Liberia is trying to push a Land Rights Bill that will legitimise community rights to land, and protect customary land owners from falling prey to commercial businesses who already exploit over a million hectares of Liberian soil for profit. Learning about this ongoing struggle is important for Professor Gregg Mitman, who sees this movement in Liberia as a ‘microcosm’ for the global scale of land grabs and land dispossession.


The film follows student, Emmanuel Urey’s, journey to discover more about his homeland, which he had left for the US during the Liberian civil wars. This time he is coming back with footage, taken years before war even broke out, captured by Harvard students contemporaneously as one of the first commercial land grabs was being conducted in 1926, by major rubber company, Firestone. When shown in America this footage was criticised for ‘reinscribing racism’ but to Urey and his family, Mitman was surprised to find, ‘This was like home movies. It was about kinship.’ After witnessing people’s reactions to the archive, he realised that ‘there was a film to be made in this’, not just a book, and called up director Sarita Siegel.

‘We kind of constructed it as we went along.’ I was told by Siegel, ‘You know, as a filmmaker you’re always thinking forwards and backwards and sideways… There is a lot of stories in this film and a lot of layers of history… with the loss of elders, came the loss of respect for the oral tradition. Where you get the past being swept away, and the present sweeping in with all its rigidity and laws and written statutes… memories are being swept away.’

When releasing the film, they were worried that people in Liberia might be hesitant about making the entire archive available for the public since it shows forced labour, and for its potential to reignite ethnic conflict, but Mitman tells me that, ‘in fact that wasn’t the case. I was very hesitant about the medical photographs, but again they said it should be made public… a real difference in what my expectations and political assumptions were versus how that material was perceived in Liberia.’


Their ethical conscience was also challenged during the Ebola outbreak of Summer 2014. The film crew were in Monrovia when the first Ebola deaths occurred and, completely dismayed with the international news coverage surrounding the outbreak, realised they had to shed light on what was actually happening on the ground. Sarita left after a few weeks, followed by Urey and Mitman. Filmmaker, Alex Waipah, stayed and captured the events that unfurled. Sarita remembers she had to drop everything to help make the Ebola film: ‘You cut it down and cut it down and you eventually get to a point where you think it’s ethically right.’ I’ve included the finished project here, but note that it contains very distressing and emotional content. Neither filmmaker describes what happened as a drawback, but instead as a tragedy that struck very close to home. Despite common preconceptions about governmental regulation in African countries, they had no problems with visas, and held a strong support network throughout the process of filmmaking, from both the US and Liberia.

Though the land rights act has faced numerous challenges within the Liberian legislature, which is why we still haven’t seen a result. This year there has been a massive push to get it legitimised since it needs to be passed before the next election or it may never happen. The European Union has backed their pledge, realising the importance of customary land ownership for both women’s rights and national heritage, as Liberian locals reclaim their land from the commercial corporations that currently exploit it.

Both filmmakers stressed that the meaning behind a film comes from what people make of it. The main Liberian land authority in Monrovia has been very supportive with their work on The Land Beneath Our Feet, and will potentially use the footage help educate people about land rights issues. Parts have even been taken up by rising Liberian political artists in their work. What we can do to help indigenous awareness movements is support charities such as Survival International who recognise that indigenous land rights are one of the most basic and integral human rights. We also have the power to prevent big brands from exploiting the global south by simply spending our money elsewhere, and raising awareness so that others do the same.





*All images courtesy of http://thelandbeneathourfeet.com

Sustainability in Supermarkets: A Sweet Controversy

By Francesca Dakin • BA Archaeology and Anthropology

Since the vote for Brexit and the triggering of Article 50, we as consumers have experienced an increase in the price of our weekly shop. This is prompting more and more individuals to opt for supermarket own-brand products that are more economically friendly. However, less friendly is the store’s approach to their own-brand product’s supply chain. This is particularly clear in the case of many leading supermarket’s own-brand chocolate, much of which is sourced from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Cameroon. These are among many countries in the Global South where social and environmental issues associated with the production, processing and transport of cacao are rife. The majority of these problems stem from rampant inequality in the shares of value held by the cacao farmers as opposed to the manufacturers and retailers.

image2-19Such an economic imbalance – whereby millions of cocoa farmers in the Global South account for only a 6.6% share of the value chain of chocolate – means that farmers are living well below the extreme poverty line1. This has a knock-on effect in regard to the exploitation of farm workers that toil for long hours with little pay. Similarly there are gross exploitations of child labour laws across the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where there are over two million children involved in hazardous work on cocoa farms. These conditions, endured by both workers and children, are in direct violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Labour Organization.

In an attempt to reduce the cost of production and to feed the desires of industrialized nations, cacao farmers will expand growth into more productive soils through the clearing of rainforest areas. Though this provides farmers with a cheap, fertile soil that supports a high yield, deforestation disrupts the delicate nutrient cycle, promoting faster degradation of the area’s delicate latosol. This unsustainable manner of growth also creates a boom-and-bust cycle of development which, when coupled with the low and fluctuating cacao prices, does not leave the farmers any more financially stable.

image1-17Aside from these negative social impacts, this mass scale deforestation has a devastating impact on the environment. During the processing and transport stages of the chocolate’s supply chain more forest is felled and burnt to fuel the drying process. Thereafter combustion of fuel used in inter-continental transport to manufacturers and retailers emits carbon dioxide, contributing to the enhancement of the greenhouse effect, global warming and ultimately climate change. Not to mention the additional environmental issues inherent in the production and supply of the milk that is added to various strengths of chocolate.

The example of cacao is but one in a sea of issues relating to unsustainable practice in food production for the global market. Abuses occur on local and national scales in relation to local and indigenous cultures, social injustice and the environment. Although these issues are being tackled by organisations such as Fairtrade Foundation, Traidcraft and Survival International, the greatest power of the consuming community lies in the voices of its people – and their purchasing power. Choosing to buy Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance Certified products yourself increases demand and thus increases the likelihood of a wider choice in fair trade products in the future. Similarly asking supermarkets to make a #supplychainge in favor of farmers that are members of protective initiatives like the Cocoa Organic Farmers Association, consumers can affect real change in the lives of children, farmers and workers in production areas like Ghana, Ivory Coast and Cameroon. Choose to make a difference, and think big. Think Global.

1Bittersweet Chocolate: The truth behind the international chocolate industry (2016).

More information is available below:
Twitter: @ThinkGlobalUK
Websites: http://www.think-global.org.uk

ICT and Health in the Global Shipping Industry

By Annamaria Dall’Anese • PhD Anthropology

The world’s 1.2 million merchant marines are responsible for transporting around 90% of global cargo. In spite of their importance for the international economy, they have not been featured prominently in the anthropological literature. The reason why even those ethnographers who have conducted fieldwork on this topic have spent very short periods at sea (e.g. Bloor 2005: 768) can be related to the challenges to board a merchant vessel. These are numerous, and include vaccinations, insurance, training and visas. These difficulties also explain why I decided to present a library-based dissertation (entitled ‘The Effects of the Adoption 
of Information and Communication Technology on Merchant Marines’ Health-Seeking Practices’). Drawing upon sources of various types (e.g. anthropological, corporate and medical), my guiding question was: what impact can the implementation of ICT have on the health-seeking practices of cargo-ship communities?

Annamaria - Photo 1

Just as ships in the past used to be an incubator for epidemics, absorbed at one port and spread at the next (Echenberg 2007), they are now a hub of medical information transmitted to and from land, formally and informally. In fact, because of this information transmission, the implementation of ICT on-board merchant vessels turns out to be a double-edged sword.

Whilst the upside is perhaps obvious, the downside is that it can exacerbate the inverse relation between illness and employability. An ICT-empowered telemedicine can lead to sensitive information about seafarers’ health being passed on to their employers, thus threatening their occupational chances. Therefore, merchant marines may be tempted to hide their clinical conditions in order to keep a job that allows them to gain economic resources, which in turn contributes to their wellbeing. Clearly, the medical problems that are concealed can deteriorate if left untreated.

Annamaria - Photo 2I propose a shift from ‘right to health’ to ‘right to illness’ to counter this phenomenon. At present, the underlying principle of telemedicine is an idealistic ‘right to health’ rather than a realistic ‘right to be ill’. I suggest that a shift from the expectation that crewmembers should be healthy to the acknowledgement that health does sometimes fail them would entail a more pragmatic approach to the management of sickness on-board. As employers could not, by any good reason, deny their employees the right to be ill, they would be pushed to dissect the notion of illness into less vague and more manageable components.

There is room to be optimistic, though. In the past, if a crewmember was ‘under the weather’, a ship could contact a doctor on land via radio or satellite telephony. Nowadays, the options offered by telemedicine are manifold, and include email and faster data transmission. This is why modern telemedicine can offer seafarers a level of healthcare comparable to that enjoyed by land-based communities.

Additionally, the informal use of personal communication devices can contribute to seafarers’ wellbeing by allowing them to consult medical websites and join online health support groups. Independent internet access can also allow merchant marines to receive the emotional support of their families. This is crucial on board, as I had the opportunity to discover during a brief passage on a cargo ship. In 2009, I sailed from Newcastle, Australia, to Singapore as a passenger/English teacher, which triggered my interest in merchant-marine communities. This remains a rather unchartered territory in the otherwise densely populated waters of anthropology, and therefore one well-worth exploring.


Bloor M. (2005) Observations of Shipboard Illness Behavior: Work Discipline and the Sick Role in a Residential Work Setting. Qualitative Health Research 15(6):766 – 777.

Echenberg M. (2007) Plague Ports: The global urban impact of bubonic plague, 1894 – 1901. New York: New York University Press.

An Anthropology of Revolutions

By Nalan Azak  BSc Anthropology

This year, anthropology students in their penultimate and final year got a one-off opportunity of choosing the ‘Social Forms of Revolution’ module. As the course convenor and professor of Social Anthropology Martin Holbraad puts it, the course is ‘the most research led teaching you can get’, which is part of the larger Comparative Anthropologies of Revolutionary Politics (CARP) project funded by the EU. I think the fact that Martin Holbraad decided to run this course while on research leave suffices to explain the enthusiasm involved in the teaching. A moment in time of UCL Anthropology that is worth writing about!

Left to right: Martin Holbraad, Nico Tassi and Igor Cherstich

The course tutors are bringing in their own ethnographic research from Latin America to the Middle East – Martin Holbraad from Cuba, Igor Cherstich from Libya and Nico Tassi from Bolivia – along with other ethnographies from the inside of revolutions. The course is in itself a critique to the so called ‘canonical’, top-down approaches of political scientists. The proposed anthropological approach refuses to define what ‘revolution’ is, but rather engages in the process of defining what ‘revolution’ might be. It is thus turning the ‘canonical’ model upside down and listening to what the locals have to say.

With topics varying from revolutionary ‘personhood’, ‘asceticism’, ‘charisma’, ‘political mediation’ and more, the course questions how revolution is lived. What marks the start and end of a revolution, or can a revolution be eternal? What about the people? For instance, how does the lady in Egypt watching the uprisings from her balcony while also preparing food for the evening experience the revolution? (Winegar, 2012). How can we understand the relationship between the Cuban women and Fidel Castro, or define the ‘charismatic’ leader who upon his death is remembered as the ‘man who makes himself smaller than he is, even as he is so immense as to seem eternal’? (Holbraad, 2017).

Another thing that makes the course unique is that the topics, which are taught through weekly lectures and discussed in smaller tutorial groups, essentially form the draft chapters of the book Martin, Igor and Nico will be writing together – a module that serves to draft a book by ‘testing ideas’ with the students!

A special treat was the The ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932’ exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts that formed one of our sessions – a heaven-sent gift for the ‘Social Forms of Revolution’ students this year! Could there be a better coincidence? Well, to be fair, it’s actually another benefit of studying in London – and of course the kindness of our tutors to buy each student a ticket! Observing the revolution through art was like looking through binoculars into history and listening to vivid tales of how the revolution was lived, both socially and personally. The exhibition nicely captured many of the themes we discussed in class, and summarised the hopes for revolution versus the realities of revolution in paintings, sculptures, short-films and everyday objects.

Revolutions - Iran

‘The U.S. can not do anything.’ Iran, c. 1980

‘Social Forms of Revolution’ is probably one of the best classes I’ve taken that will stay with me for a long time. Also, a great way to make a professional project accessible to students, and I suppose helpful to write a book!


Holbraad, M. (2017). Hasta Siempre Comandante! Anthropology of This Century 18. http://aotcpress.com/articles/hasta-siempre-comandante/

Winegar, J. (2012). The Privilege of Revolution: Gender, class, space, and affect in Egypt. American Ethnologist 39(1): 67-70.

Inside the K-Pop World

Pre-Fieldwork Research by Elaine Wong • BSc Anthropology

As a music lover from Southeast Asia, I have been listening to South Korean pop music (K-pop) on-and-off for 10 years. However, it was only after my trip to Seoul last summer that I became interested in the impacts K-pop had on society – both locally and globally. image1-17So, I decided to write my 3rd year dissertation on this topic, linking it to anthropological theories I have learnt over my course (e.g. affect theory and digital infrastructures). My provisional title asks: How does Korean pop music as a local and global infrastructure affect social and political relationships? In order for me to explore relevant key ideas such as affective infrastructures, political censorship, and celebrity status, I plan to do fieldwork this July using a mixed methods of interviews and internet research. As such, I did some preliminary research and organized my pre-existing knowledge and sources into rough notes in preparation for my fieldwork.


K-pop group VROMANCE promotional busking before debut in Hongdae

Following a month of learning Korean language and culture last summer, I gained most of my insight about the K-pop world through a program where I was trained as a K-pop idol at an entertainment company for 2 weeks. This led me into spending another week in Seoul last month to get a better sense of what types sources I can collect data from during my actual fieldwork in the summer. During the week, I met up with some of the friends and company staff I kept in touch with from last year’s events. Some of the points that came up in casual conversation appealed to me:


My training schedule in the first week of my K-pop training experience at RBW

  • Social and cultural urban life:
    • Everyday social life and most working environments (including the entertainment industry) are dominated by hierarchies that put more emphasis on age rather than experience.
    • image3-21Local and foreign obsession with South Korean beauty and fashion is closely linked with fans looking up to K-pop idols as role models (e.g. many stores play K-pop music for customers’ shopping experience; shopping malls in Dongdaemun open 10am-4am).
    • Culturally distinct districts in Seoul reveal how different agents and activities related to K-pop are distributed. For instance, some of the ‘big-shot’ entertainment companies have their headquarters situated around Apgujeong and Gangnam. Hongdae and Edae are university hubs, where there are a lot of young buskers and dance groups performing covers of K-pop songs.
  • Political situation:
    • On the South Korean side of the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ), K-pop music (with liberal messages embedded in the lyrics) is blasted through life-sized speakers towards North Korea.
    • Current political relationship with China has negative effects on K-pop marketing and the overall economy.


Lyrics to K-pop song ‘Voice Mail’ by IU with detailed annotations for singing technique and emotion

The current state of my research shows that K-pop has a large influence on interactions of demographic and material factors with social and political infrastructures. Keeping this in mind, I feel that my next focus should be on constructing a structured but flexible plan for asking the right questions to the right people via the most appropriate format during my fieldwork. Looking forward to my next trip to Korea!