Summer Research Update: Carolynn Hammen, the IOM, and the Challenges of Research in Cairo

Hi all,

I asked our department’s five student summer research award recipients to provide us with a brief update about how their projects are going. Here’s what Carolynn Hammen had to say about her research project with the IOM in Cairo!

Carolynn attempting to keep up with her Arabic homework in Cairo

Carolynn attempting to keep up with her Arabic homework

All I wanted was to buy a belt. I had forgotten to pack one in the hectic days leading up to my departure. As I approached the mall a man was blocking my way through the heavy, iron, gate. Essentially a doorman and bodyguard, he was tasked with deciding who was, and more importantly, who was not, granted entrance into the mall. He would simply hold up a hand to some, and let others pass by him.

I flinched with irrational anticipation that I would be barred from entering. But my white skin and curly blonde hair—the clear marks of a foreigner in Egypt—saved me. I was let in without question. The guard barely looked at me.

I faced a similar situation once I was able to pass through the doors of the shopping center. This time, the man was replaced by heavier security measures: a metal detector, and an X-ray machine for your bags. Security was clearly a priority, and this elaborate set-up at the entrance to a shopping center mirrors the current hyperawareness to threat across the entirety of Cairo, and Egypt as a whole. Once again, my foreigner status gave me a free pass. My jewelry was ignored despite the bleating of the metal detector. The metal objects in my bag were acceptable without question, because surely a white, American woman would not be interested in bringing a bomb or another threatening object into a shopping mall. I am not whom these precautions are intended to detect.

Cairo at night

Cairo at night

Most people around the world, or at least those I left behind in the United States, know about the recent bombings in Cairo and the issues in the Sinai region. But to be honest, these events do not affect me on a daily basis. This is a fact that I feel is really important to emphasize about my experience here. I have not felt any acute fear for my safety; I am actually quite comfortable and am enjoying the experience of living in Cairo. I love the vibrant energy of the city, its history, and the warmth of the Egyptian people. I am making friends, conducting interesting research, learning to put up with the smog, and taking Arabic classes so that I can actually (read: hopefully) negotiate with taxi drivers.

On the roof of the IOM building, with the Nile in the background

On the roof of the IOM building, with the Nile in the background

My status as a white, American woman who is in Egypt for academic purposes puts me in a unique position within the current phenomena of securitization in Egypt. As a recipient of an AHSS summer research grant through the University of Puget Sound, I am currently working at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Regional Office in Cairo, interning under the Mental Health, Psychosocial Response and Intercultural Communications Section. I was offered this internship specifically on the basis of conducting social research on the psychosocial and psychopathological effects of human trafficking on its victims, and helping the IOM to reform its policies concerning post-trafficking care. The ultimate goal of this research project is to create policy recommendations for the IOM and other organizations that provide services to trafficking victims, with the aim of improving post-trafficking care and reducing the risk of survivors developing long-term psychiatric disorders and other problems that inhibit their ability to live fruitful lives. As a Sociology and Anthropology major with interests in both migration and public health, this is essentially my dream job.

As can be incurred from my experience simply entering a shopping mall, my whiteness (and foreignness) allows me certain privileges that other residents are not afforded. I am granted access to all areas of the city, including the economic “free zones” that are not even open to all Egyptians, automatically. Others are barred from attending places I take for granted (like the shopping center) because of the shape of their eyes, the color of their skin, maybe the texture of their hair. They are foreigners as well; sometimes refugees and sometimes they have migrated to Egypt on their own accord. However, they are restricted for the very same reason I am given a free pass: their foreignness. The trivial difference being the color of our skin, or the nationalities listed on our passports.

As much as I am afforded extra privileges for my status as a white woman, my additional status as an academic is regarded as a threat by the government. In this society, I am uniquely privileged and unwelcome at the same time. Egypt’s current resistance to international organizations and academic research has proved to be an unexpected challenge. As a visitor with the intent of conducting research, the Egyptian government has done their part to make sure I realize I am not particularly welcome, starting with only granting me a visa for roughly half the days I am supposed to live here (I feel lucky I got one at all).

Even with the influence of the IOM, a widely respected organization in the world of international affairs, conducting research in Egypt has proven to be a challenge. A major reason for this is because I am unable to interview the subjects I am studying — survivors of human trafficking. Because of the current political climate here, the IOM has barred me from actually interacting with them. I am limited to what is known as a “desk review”—finding data from other field work studies, and speaking with my colleagues who have actually worked with trafficking survivors in settings such as health clinics or refugee shelters. This was a huge disappointment to me, as I had originally planned on conducting an ethnographically-based project, composed primarily of my interactions with trafficking survivors. Unfortunately, however, this is just not possible in the current political climate (it is another issue entirely to debate whether or not my project would have received IRB approval in the first place if I had been able to construct a project that included ethnographic interviews with such a vulnerable population).

Exploring Coptic Cairo

Exploring Coptic Cairo

As a colleague of mine explained, the Egyptian government is very wary of the presence of most international organizations, NGO’s and foreign academics at the current moment, myself included. They see their presence as meddlesome in domestic affairs. They are also incredibly worried that these various actors are reporting back to the United States, the European Union, or even Iran or Israel on the current state of Egyptian society. With conflict comes securitization, and this can naturally lead to suspicion of us foreigners. I am not trying to fault the Egyptian government; they have their own interests to protect and a country in turmoil. They have bigger problems to address than our visas.

Even so, my inability to speak with the people I envision myself trying to help is frustrating. However, I recognize the impossibility of doing any other project than a desk review at this time. There are multiple, bureaucratic and security complications the IOM had to factor in to my internship: IRB approval, relations with the Egyptian government, the fact that I am an undergraduate, my personal security … the list goes on. With the current tensions between the government and academia, it would be incredibly risky to grant me the luxury of doing ethnography. And truth be told, I am enjoying the experience of desk-review research. My research project itself is incredibly fascinating. Additionally, I have loved the experience of working in the high-powered environment of an international organization. The amount of writing I have had to complete alone will be incredibly useful come spring when I commence writing my senior thesis. Even without the ethnographic component, this research project and my internship have been a wonderful and fruitful experience.

Distant sand dunes

Distant sand dunes

Nonetheless, I still miss the ethnographic connection of truly knowing and understanding the people I am researching. The IOM Cairo office runs a migrant help center in the ground floor of our building. Every day I see dozens of people enter the center, and I would bet some of them are trying to escape exploitative situations of trafficking. I could easily sit in a corner for a few hours; talk with them, get to know them, and ask what their concerns are—what do they believe they need from us the most? However, I recognize the restrictions that have been placed on my research, so instead I study their concerns behind the glow of my computer screen. But questions linger in the back of my mind: how can I claim to advocate for these people when I don’t even know them? How can I write about what their needs are, and what their desires are, when I’ve never even spoken to them?

I just don’t know. Furthermore, these are questions I am simply unable to answer right now. The only thing I can do is carry out this project to the best of my ability, with the resources available to me. I will continue to spend hours reading assessments, and speaking with my colleagues about their field work experiences. I will continue constructing what I hope are relevant and practical strategies for humanitarians that maybe one day can be used to improve someone’s life.

And, perhaps, next time I won’t irrationally flinch when passing the security guard at the mall. My whiteness and academic status are not a problem there—I’ll be let in every time. The government might be wary of my presence, but they know I pose no threat at a shopping center.

Wow, Carolynn! What an interesting and complex research scenario you’re embroiled in. Good luck with the rest of the summer, and all of us in the department wish you luck in navigating these complexities.

Andrew

 

Summer Research Update: Kathryn Stutz, Project Chariot, and the nascent environmental movement

Hi all,

I asked our department’s five student summer research award recipients to provide us with a brief update about how their projects are going. Here’s what Kathryn Stutz had to report about her research here and up north in Alaska..

Kathryn and family in Alaska, looking towards Mt. Denali

Kathryn and family in Alaska, looking towards Mt. Denali

I started my research project with a huge scope – I knew that I wanted to know more about Project Chariot, a US government proposal from 1958 which involved detonating several nuclear bombs near Point Hope, Alaska, in order to excavate a deep-water harbor, or, when the project had to be scaled back, in order to test the effects of nuclear explosions on both marine and tundra environments. I also knew that Chariot was an important – if often forgotten – part of the early environmental movement. When I began to think about how to approach my research at the end of the last spring semester, I was focused on the archival component – the cataloguing work I would be conducting with Katie Henningsen in our library archives, and then the other archival collections I would be visiting over the course of the summer. One aspect of the research which took me somewhat by surprise was the importance of contacting people directly connected with the historical events I was researching and building communication with them. This summer has been enormously rewarding in a large part because of the amazing opportunities I’ve had to speak with the people who actually fought to keep the environment of Alaska’s North Slope protected from nuclear explosives.

Teri Viereck, and her late husband Les, a botanist who resigned from the University of Alaska in protest of the misuse of his science by advocates of Project Chariot

Teri Viereck, and her late husband Les, a botanist who resigned from the University of Alaska in protest of the misuse of his science by advocates of Project Chariot

​At the end of June, I flew up to Fairbanks, Alaska, to look at the Don Charles Foote collection at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) special collections. During my last day at the university, Rosemarie Speranza at the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library kindly introduced me to Dr. Carl Benson, a professor emeritus of Geophysics and Geology at UAF who knew many of the UAF scientists who opposed Project Chariot. Thanks to Dr. Benson, I was able to personally speak with Teri Viereck, whose husband’s resignation from UAF in protest of the nuclear detonation scheme was one of the bravest acts against the Chariot proposal. Sitting with Teri at a coffee shop in Fairbanks, I realized how important it was to tell the individual stories of the scientists employed to evaluate the effect of Chariot – how did UAF biologists Les Viereck, Bill Pruitt, and human geographer Don Foote find the courage to stand up to the atomic arm of the US government in what Teri called a “terrifying” time? And why did other scientists like Bob Rausch at the Arctic Health Research Center and Puget Sound’s own Murray Johnson keep quiet?

 

Summer Research Update: Rodger Caudill, League of Legends, and altruism online

Hi all,

I asked our department’s five student summer research award recipients to provide us with a brief update about how their projects are going. Here’s what Rodger Caudill had to say about his research project concerning altruism and online gaming.

Photograph of Cognitive Gaming's Heroes of the Storm team, practice-playing in front of a live audience in San Jose, California.

Photograph of Cognitive Gaming’s Heroes of the Storm team, practice-playing in front of a live audience in San Jose, California.

With my ethnographic dive into altruism in League of Legends, I have been examining communication between professional E-sports players, and the role of minority identities in the community. I originally aimed to go down to Riot Games HQ in Santa Monica, but due to the presence of sensitive information, I was denied access to their headquarters. While this was a slight hang up, I managed to become involved with the competitive E-sports organization, Cognitive Gaming, in addition to having many interviews with both professional players, and active members of the League of Legends and E-sports communities. These past few weeks I have been an observer of a professional gaming team, Cognitive Gaming, as they had been preparing for Qualifiers to attend PAX, Penny Arcade Expo, in Seattle this year. Spending the past two weeks with Cognitive’s Heroes of the Storm team, a game very similar to League of Legends, and interviewing unique members of the League of Legends community from the player behavior team of League of Legends, to stand-up League of Legends comedians, my daily schedule has only just returned to a state of normalcy. Watching and interviewing a competitive E-sports team on a daily basis has given me incredible insights into what it takes to be a professional gamer.

Most interesting is the emotional state of the E-sports scene, which creates an environment where professionals typically do not last more than a year. The stress and intensity of a game like League of Legends can literally destroy careers after less than a year of “play”.  A competitive team must practice for at least eight hours a day to remain relevant, and when they are not practicing as a team, each member practices individual mechanics, or reflex skill, on their own time. Being allowed to sit in during Cognitive’s scrims has given me insight into what it takes to be one of the best teams in the region. The hours of coding and observations that I have done has led to patterns that, when asked to share my data with teammates of Cognitive, has even surprised them. My interviews and observations have led to long lasting relationships with some of these professional, and influential community members. With the opportunities Cognitive gaming has given to my research, interviews others have provided, and the Goffman texts I have waded through, I enter another long period of data harvesting to finalize my ethnographic research into the heart of League of Legends and its community.

I think it’s a truism of ethnographic fieldwork that things never quite go as expected, and there are always unforeseen hurdles and challenges. It sounds like you’ve done a great job navigating those challenges, Rodger, and good luck wrapping up your analysis in the remainder of the summer. Thanks for the update!

Andrew

Summer Research Update: Elena Becker, the Midway Point, and a Sea of Contradictions

Hi all,

Elena Becker traveled to Malaysia this past summer as part of our Southeast Asia field school initiative, supported by the Henry Luce Foundation. She made use of her summer research award to study representations of ethnicity for the tourist market. Here’s what she had to report about her research in Malaysian Borneo.

Elena (center) with a group of performers at the Mari Mari Cultural Village in Sabah. This photograph was the official, encouraged post-performance photograph.

Elena (center) with a group of performers at the Mari Mari Cultural Village in Sabah. This photograph was the official, encouraged post-performance photograph.

The man across the desk is nodding earnestly at me, and that’s a problem. It’s my fifth-to-last day in Kuching and he had just finished signing me up for a tour to visit the Sarawak Cultural Village when, while waiting for the receipt to print, he asked me what I was doing in Borneo. When I gave him the shorthand version (“I’m studying cultural authenticity at tourist sites”) he weighed in on it. “I think [the cultural village] is quite authentic” he said politely, intensifying the aforementioned head-nodding. “It represents the culture of Sarawak, and you can see the dances. Of course, it’s not as authentic as a longhouse, but it’s a good substitute if you don’t have time to visit one.” I was fully prepared for him to denounce this sort of cultural tourism in the same way that many others had – “it’s a façade,” or “it’s about the money” — and this gentle, albeit abrupt sidetracking of my expectations was a surprise. That said, the fact that it happened was nothing less than par for the course.

Entrance to the Sarawak Cultural village. The text above the gate translates as

Entrance to the Sarawak Cultural village. The text above the gate translates as “Welcome to the Sarawak Cultural Village”

In my nearly six weeks in Malaysian Borneo (I returned right around the fourth of July) I had my mind changed again and again about what I was seeing, what I thought about it and what all these observations meant for my research. One guide told me that his wife (ethnically Bidayuh ) had been retaught her traditional dances so that she could perform them for tourists. As a result, she felt more connected to her history, and the tourism that had sparked it seemed to be a good thing. A week later I would learn in a nod-nod, wink-wink, off the record conversation that dancers at a particular cultural village were not hired with regard to their ethnicity, so that often Ibans would learn and perform dances that were traditionally Melanau, or a Bidayuh would play the part of a member of an Orang Ulu tribe. I would immediately recalculate, worrying about the ways in which tourism encouraged the commodification of indigeneity and identity loss. The findings that I thought would fall at my feet like a gift from anthropology gods remained hidden, peeking out from behind these sorts of contradictions, double negatives and non-answers.

Once I returned home, ending the fieldwork portion of this research and starting the sift through my data, the answers became a little clearer. I’m still working on a finding – that’s what the rest of the summer is reserved for – but with a little more perspective I’m realizing that the contradictions I encountered in the field are critical to the way I understand the answer to my research question. Rather than being limited to a particular pattern, staging in the tourism industry seems to be a complex web of factors that includes development, colonial stereotypes, expectations, money, politics and, yes, culture. Back in Tacoma now, I’m excited to keep trying to tie those threads together – after all, it will probably only take a week more before I stumble across another contradiction, and recalculate once again.

Great to hear your update, Elena. Good luck analytically navigating those contradictions!

Andrew

SBOH: The Salmon Beach Oral History project

Hi all,

Those of you who’ve taken SOAN 299: Ethnographic Methods recently are already aware of this project, but over the first few weeks of summer I had the time to pull some initial interviews together and post them on their own blog. Here’s a brief description, and you can have a look at the initial iteration of the page here: http://salmonbeachoralhistory.com

SBOH headerThe purpose of any oral history project is, at least, to build a compendium of stories, perspectives, and experiences told by those who lived it. That is this project’s core purpose. We build this compendium semester by semester, with small groups of students from an Ethnographic Methods course at the University of Puget Sound. These students loosely guide interview/conversations to thematic waypoints that the class determines to explore. From that angle, the Salmon Beach Oral History project provides multiple pathways by which the history of this truly unique community can be explored.

The community of Salmon Beach traces its roots back over a hundred years. What started as fishing shacks congregated around a boathouse became weekend and summer camps and cabins. Those cabins became cottages, electricity arrived, and decades of growth and change ensued. Through those decades, cottages grew upward and outward, summer cabins became homes, and the history of the present became more clear. Equally of note, automobiles are a ten minute walk up more than 200 stairs. Those stairs ascend a bluff that constantly threatens property owners. Property comprises a small strip of beach and houses on posts over the tidal zone of Puget Sound. Collective organization of the community is a structural necessity: utilities, the legal framework of ownership, and the management of communal spaces require it.

For the time being, the oral history interviews and other materials are housed here. The process of migrating these materials to the institutional safety of the Collins Library at the University of Puget Sound is under discussion. In both manifestations, this compendium will be publicly available. Anyone interested in exploring the particular experiences of this unique community is welcome.

Andrew Gardner, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Puget Sound, April 2015

The Salmon Beach Oral History project commenced in September of 2014. The curriculum at the University of Puget Sound’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology (SOAN) requires all students to explore the craft and techniques of the interview. By orienting this perennial assignment to the collection of oral history interviews about life — past and present — in the Salmon Beach community, SOAN students are steadily building a substantial archive of knowledge about this fascinating community.

 

Andrew at the University of Cologne

IMG_6298Hi all,

So I just returned from an academic trip to Cologne, Germany, and I thought I’d describe a bit of what I was up to over there.

So late last year I was contacted by a group of scholars associated with the Global South Studies Center at the University of Cologne. This group of scholars is concerned with both the history and current manifestations of coerced, bonded, indentured, and forced labor in our world. They asked me to join them at a small conference at the University of Cologne last week. As part of the conference Transformations in the Global South, I contributed to a panel called Bonds and Contracts. That panel, chaired by Ulrike Lindner, included the following papers:

This was truly a fantastic panel of scholars, researchers, and presenters. Although mine was the only paper that dealt with peoples and migrations in the contemporary world, the parallels between the Gulf migrants’ experiences I track and the historical labor relations described in the other

Andrew Newman (Wayne State), Innocent Mwaka, and me at the farewell dinner. Innocent, a graduate student at the GSSC, hopes to be Uganda's first anthropologist in Ugandan academia!

Andrew Newman (Wayne State), Innocent Mwaka (Cologne), and me at the farewell dinner. Innocent, a graduate student at the GSSC, hopes to be the first anthropologist in Ugandan academia. He has my vote. Do I get a vote?

papers was extraordinary. Indeed, I emerged from this panel less secure than ever about the purportedly unique characteristics of the modern labor migrants I study.

The conference as a whole included six other excellent panels. A portion of the conversation at the conference concerned how applicable and appropriate the concept of a “global south” remains. The fact that the conference included numerous scholars who count themselves of the “global south” only enhanced the conversation.

Andrew

Women without Men: New Book by Jennifer Utrata

Hi all,

Utrata CoverAs families change rapidly throughout the industrialized world, more women are finding themselves raising children on their own, as single mothers (most single-parent households are single-mother households). Yet what it means to be a single mother varies widely. In the United States, single mothers are often stigmatized, with politicians and pundits blaming poverty, crime, “family breakdown,” and even gun violence on single mothers. In Russia, however, even though two-parent families are preferred, single motherhood is normalized.

A new book by Jennifer Utrata, Associate Professor of Sociology, Women without Men: Single Mothers and Family Change in the New Russia (Cornell University Press), uses original fieldwork data and intensive interviews to explain why single motherhood has become taken for granted in Russia. Telling stories of hardships and triumphs through the eyes of single mothers, married mothers, grandmothers, and nonresident fathers, the book offers an in-depth portrait of family life and draws comparisons with parallel experiences in the United States.

Here’s a synopsis of the book from Cornell University Press:

Women without Men illuminates Russia’s “quiet revolution” in family life through the lens of single motherhood. Drawing on extensive ethnographic and interview data, Jennifer Utrata focuses on the puzzle of how single motherhood—frequently seen as a social problem in other contexts—became taken for granted in the New Russia. While most Russians, including single mothers, believe that two-parent families are preferable, many also contend that single motherhood is an inevitable by-product of two intractable problems: “weak men” (reflected, they argue, in the country’s widespread, chronic male alcoholism) and a “weak state” (considered so because of Russia’s unequal economy and poor social services). Among the daily struggles to get by and get ahead, single motherhood, Utrata finds, is seldom considered a tragedy.

Utrata begins by tracing the history of the cultural category of “single mother,” from the state policies that created this category after World War II, through the demographic trends that contributed to rising rates of single motherhood, to the contemporary tension between the cultural ideal of the two-parent family and the de facto predominance of the matrifocal family. Providing a vivid narrative of the experiences not only of single mothers themselves but also of the grandmothers, other family members, and nonresident fathers who play roles in their lives, Women without Men maps the Russian family against the country’s profound postwar social disruptions and dislocations.

Congratulations, Jennifer!