An Executive Committee at 1 month – a personal reflection (or a ‘picture of a house’) #EASA

In mid-January I learned that I had been elected into the TExecutive Committee of the EASA, aka the European Association of Social Anthropologists. This time around the race was not as tight as in some previous elections: there were only nine candidates for the five available slots. Yet these candidates included stellar scholars with broad experience and engaged visions for and from our field.

Thus it was a true honor to be elected alongside Sarah Green (president), Georgeta Stoica (vice-president), Mariya Ivancheva and Cristiana Bastos – the first-ever ‘all-female-panel’ in the EASA’s history, ably complemented with Monica Heintz as the Association’s secretary, and David Mills as the treasurer and the token male (some associational humour!) and joined by Prem Kumar Rajaram as co-opted member.

Initially the idea of my candidacy had been awakened in discussions with the board of Allegra Lab – an online publication and (co)laboratory with which I have been tightly involved over the past years. Eventually my candidacy was not framed as being an ‘Allegra representative’ – which made sense also as candidates run as individuals.

Simultaneously, there is no denying that my election was a recognition for this collective work done over the past five years: I interpret it as a clear message that there exists a collective desire to incorporate elements of what Allegra has ended up embodying via its ‘bizarre intellectual magic carpet ride’ into the mainstream of our scholarly field.

I framed my candidacy along similar lines as I outlined my aspiration to bring the EASA some ‘fresh air’ (all electoral statements by elected members are here at the EASA website). I complemented this mission statement with a few ideas on how to rejuvenate the EASA by revisiting its operational mission, as well as ideas on how we could collectively address the continually worsening employment conditions of anthropologists.

After having been elected, however, I found myself wondering how one goes on about realizing these goals in an association with 30 years of tradition to govern its operations. What did I even know of how the EASA’s Executive Committee operates? Which parts of its actions are steered by written by-laws and how much falls into the realm of implicit knowledge of ‘this is how it has always been done’?

I realized the importance of these questions slightly over a month ago when the new Executive Committee assumed its office in Lisbon, the site of the EASA’s 2020 biennial conference. Meeting over two days in the beautiful university buildings designed by Portuguese-Norwegian architect Hestnes Ferreira we exchanged ideas on what we could and should do over the next two years, combined with reflections on the present and future of our beloved discipline, including further debates on the role of scholarships in the world.

The new executive at their first meeting in Lisbon, February 2019. From left to right, Mariya Ivancheva, Cristiana Bastos, Monica Heintz, Georgeta Stoica, David Mills, Sarah Green, Miia Halme-Tuomisaari (published at https://www.easaonline.org/about/)

We were joined by the previous Executive Committee, which marked a surprisingly sharp shift in elected members: out of the previous six members, only Sarah Green and Georgeta Stoica went on to continue. In the previous board Sarah Green had been the Association’s co-opted 6th member in her capacity as editor-in-chief of Social Anthropology / Anthropologie Sociale. (The EASA’s by-laws enable the Executive Committee to co-opt an additional board member.)

We bid farewell to the previous president Valeria Siniscalchi, long-term member and past president Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Marcus Banks, Sabine Strasser, as well as Alberto Corsín Jiménez, the EASA’s secretary of six years. They were fantastically helpful in sharing their experiences and visions for how the association should continue to develop in the future.

However, beyond these general descriptions I find myself unable to say much more: as we received our information package prior to our meeting in Lisbon, we learned that confidentiality is a key element of how the Executive Committee operates. This operational mode has a formal element to it: as the EASA is established as a charity under UK law (as well as a “Private Limited Company by guarantee without share capital use of ‘Limited’ exemption”), members of the Executive Committee are bound by the accompanying Charity Governance Code.

Principle 5 of the Code clarifies what this means: “In an effective team, board members feel it is safe to suggest, question and challenge ideas and address, rather than avoid, difficult topics.” To reach such a working environment, “the board takes decisions collectively and confidently. Once decisions are made the board unites behind them and accepts them as binding.”

We received further guidelines from the previous board, and together these instructions formed the impression of a very diligent interpretation of what confidentiality meant in practice. Importantly, they also formed a stark contrast to both how my candidacy had been decided upon – as the result of collective discussion – and how my personal mission statement had been authored for the elections, which had likewise been authored as the result of collegial collaboration.

It almost felt that after being elected on the basis of the promises of greater openness and collaboration, I discovered how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to realize them in light of existing associational rules.

Although perhaps one should have been aware of these elements prior to signing up for the election, I honestly had no idea – and whether this reveals more about me than about EASA, asking for such guides of conduct did not even cross my mind upon volunteering for candidacy. Discussions of the EASA’s modus operandi were neither something that surfaced from any of the coverage accompanying the election.

Wondering along the corridors of the University of Lisbon.

Yet it was undisputed from our very first moments in Lisbon that confidentiality clauses had very practical impact for how the Executive Committee was to operate. Perhaps not surprisingly, social media interactions concretize this: the issue of what kind of social media updates – if any – individual members could post during Executive Committee meetings proved to be surprisingly intricate.

Can one post an update of the Executive Committee entering its sessions? What about the meeting venues – could individual members post photos of their architecture? A group photo with members of the Executive Committee visible? Why would individual members want to share such photos, what would be the point – and who has the final say on deciding the answers, the Executive Committee as a whole, or each individual member?

For many, perhaps most, scholars such questions will not appear as particularly relevant or compelling – many anthropologists still seem to regard a certain disdain, even contempt toward the social media as a sign of being a true anthropologist.

My case, however, is different: ever since the inception of Allegra in 2013, the social media has been a regular accompaniment in my scholarly path, also via my personal public accounts in Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The social media has become an integral tool for joining ongoing debates, a medium for sharing instant ideas, a tool for offering references to ‘traditional’ academic publications – it is a space for being upset, whimsical, funny even. It is a way to write a narrative on what it means to be a scholar in the ‘now’ as well as to join my colleagues in defining what is the role of scholarship in our current world.

Not surprisingly, during our two days in Lisbon the social media was discussed in numerous instances. Again I find myself uncertain of how much more I can share, but this much feels safe to summarize: eventually we found fruitful shared terrain which is reflected in this very post.

Concretely we concluded that when speaking as an individual, members can say what they want – while respecting the confidentiality of their fellow exec committee members. When speaking in the name of the EASA, whether via the social media or other means, each individual speaks for the entire association, meaning much more careful phrasing and collective reflection, and of course, a much more prolonged pace.

I will not deny that these guidelines have caused occasional frustration: as I write this post, the new Executive Committee is yet to offer any sign of itself, other than the photo published of us in Lisbon – and of course the EASA statement in support of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Simultaneously a lot of action has been occurring behind the scenes. Would we not want to give the EASA members some glimpses of this hard work – the opportunity for them to get to know the people who were elected to represent them for the next two-year period? After all, two years goes by awfully fast. Is our communication pace in line with the brevity of our official terms?

Might it be time for the EASA to revisit the modus operandi of its Executive Committee? To make a conscious shift away from the idea of confidential ‘trusteeship’ toward a notion of ‘open representativeness’, accompanied by a greater degree of transparency, active communication and consultation of membership?

The University of Lisbon is filled with artwork that play with the light.

I have no answers but feel the importance of posing these questions. Particularly as associations advance in age, institutions may become entrapped and stagnated by the very organizational logics that were initially intended to ensure vitality and efficiency. The EASA will turn 30 next year – what kind of questions should it be asking of itself to ensure that it stays equally vital for the next 30 years?

The need to ask these questions was also embodied – so I interpret – by the EASA’s biennial meeting in Stockholm last August, particularly by the Members’ forum which reflected occasional doubt, even dissatisfaction toward the Executive Committee’s operational mode.

The seating arrangement of the session underlined the subtle air of adversity: the Executive Committee was seated on stage, facing the audience and thus physically disconnected from the other members dispersed around the auditorium. Instead of a sentiment of collegial unity one could trace a certain disconnect between the two groups – or was this solely my imagination?

To conclude, all this depicts a rather sombre image of both the working environment of the EASA as well as the dynamic of the new Executive Committee. Is this really the full story? Not at all – quite to the contrary!

Although great challenges await us over the next two years, the EASA has a lot to celebrate – in fact, a lot more reasons for being both optimistic and determined for the future than I had realized. One can also interpret coming out of an intense two-day session with committed colleagues with such poignant reflections to speak rather of a fruitful working-relationship being in the making than things being somehow awful. The debates that have accompanied the writing of this post suggest the same: that the new executive committee is one thoroughly committed to its tasks, including also reflections on how we should interpret confidentiality clauses in our work.

However, this post is a personal reflection of one individual member of the new Executive Committee and thus it is not my place to share more as these issues touch both the entire Executive Committee and the EASA’s full membership. Thus I will continue to bite my tongue and tiptoe around ‘the issues’ with ‘personal reflections’ while I wait for the EASA’s new Executive Committee as a whole to release more news.

(to be continued until 2020)

Postscript:

Over the past weeks this text has been read and commented on by a greater number of people prior to publication than perhaps anything else that I have written– certainly in the blogosphere. These exchanges have brought up both issues that I predicted and things that I did not foresee.

Interestingly the comments have gone in totally opposite directions: whereas some have questioned the general point of this post, suggesting that it says too little, others have suggested that it still says too much, questioning whether an individual committee member should say anything at all at this stage but rather commit toward building relations of trust within the committee. Numerous challenges have also been raised by the pointedly personal tenor: do we have room for such ‘I-witnessing’ in our scholarly debates?

The site of next EASA Keynote? Beautiful mid-century auditorium of the main building

I have considered many of these comments, ignored some – and in general thought that for better or for worse, this text does useful things by its sheer existence online, with all of its flaws and lack of profound analysis. It appears sort of as a ‘picture of a house’ – this being the first piece of advice that my anthropology professor gave long ago on how to conduct fieldwork.

According to this advice, drawing a picture of a house should always be the very first thing that one does upon entering a new field site as at that moment of first encounter everything will appear strange and exotic, also things that very soon will appear commonplace and inconspicuous. Whereas it is impossible to know just exactly which parts of that drawing, or a sketch, will hold relevance, quite often when one goes back, one may discover something that in fact proved significant for later analysis – but which one would not later have captured.

Whether as a member of an Executive Committee, a visiting scholar or an actual fieldworker, I find it impossible to turn the ethnographic gaze off – a sentiment to which many fellow anthropologists can likely relate. Thus it seems inevitable that also my participation at the EASA Executive Committee will partially appear via an anthropological lens.

Writing is my way of drawing – again, this is what us anthropologists do. Instead of being hidden in a drawer somewhere this ‘picture’ is now shared online – accompanied with sincere hopes that its existence will prove more productive than harmful in the long run. As so often, only time will tell.

*Warm thanks to numerous Allies & fellow Executive Committee members for comments, both critical, provocative and supportive – I look forward to continuing the debate!

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