‘Movement, audience & anthropological imagination’ #post-presentation thoughts

You are a part of so many groups, where are you seeing the most movement?’ A familiar expression catches my attention in the next table, followed by an intense discussion on civil societies, international organizations and the works – a practical invitation to eavesdrop (which I try to resist).

During this spring I have presented my book project ‘Movement in the Right Direction: an ethnography of a human rights report’ in three different contexts: first in the internal seminar of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, then the anthropology seminar of Sussex, and now the Global Governance Centre of the Geneva Graduate Institute.

Out of these, beyond a doubt, Geneva has most embodied ‘my home ground’: even though my audience yesterday contained very few anthropologists, there was an ease about the conversation brought on by the vast knowledge that participants held on the structures & processes of international organization. 

A poster of my presentation greets visitors at the grand lobby of the Maison de la Paix, headquarters of the Geneva Graduate Institute

This awakens familiar questions about how to perceive one’s audience for one’s writings: is it, or should it be more determined by its disciplinary grounding, or rather by its target of inquiry?

The question has both profound stylistic and methodological consequences – for example, how deep into disciplinary debates on concepts and ‘turns’ should one get, how much should one focus on analyzing ‘the thing’ under investigation?

It is perhaps unexpected to find oneself reflecting on these issues yet again – after tredding on a path between anthropology and critical international law for a good decade and a half by now. Perhaps a part of me thought that one day they will become irrelevant. Talk of a perpetual inter-disciplinary dilemma! Simultaneously – as a word of encouragement to younger scholarly generations – things do get easier in a way: the further one progresses in one’s scholarly path, the more one can push existing disciplinary borders and limits to find fruitful new terrain in the beyond. 

It has been a delight to discover that many people, students in particular seem to have read my recent article ‘Methodologically blonde at the UN in a tactical quest for inclusion’ outside anthropology. Both PhD candidates of international relations and law have shared that they have found use in an anthropological description of something that they have engaged with intuitively in their research. Also UN insiders – both civil servants and expert members of UN treaty bodies – have shared that they have enjoyed the anthropological eye on the work at hand.

It is undoubted that a call for anthropological & ethnographic work exists!

Seeing the unexpected in the mundane! Window washers outside the Maison de la Paix.

The same has been confirmed by my presentations: with virtually no exceptions, the strongest feedback on my book project has been the call for ethnography. ‘Where does it all come from?’ , has been a question that has emerged in all three contexts. It has perhaps been an almost unexpected reaction, yet at the same time the best possible compliment toward anthropology as a disciplinary project:

Instead of yearning for ‘data’ such as statistics, the audience of my presentations has shared a desire to see the people, to feel the feelings, to share the tensions, frustrations, excitement – perhaps even the boredom. This is a beautiful tribute to the uniqueness of our field, a salute toward anthropological imagination and vivid ethnographic prose!  

Thus better do as I am told – and get writing. Today I can hardly wish for better surroundings either, being back within a stone’s throw of the Palais Wilson with the privilege to immerse myself in my writing for the next few days as the family is back at home.

Let the typing begin!

Thanks to Fuad Zarbiyev for acting as the discussant and Nico Krisch for chairing the session – and all the participants for taking the time to listen to my presentation and engage with it, much appreciated! The old saying is actually not true: time is not money – rather time is time, irreplaceable and irretreavable by anything else. And thus one of the most valuable things that we can give to a colleague.

Featured image: Cottage Cafe at the heart of Geneva is the perfect spot for focussed writing, petit déjeuner – and eavesdropping. Earlier blogs about my fieldwork at the UN are found here.


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