A disciplinary earthquake

- GAURAB KC, MALLIKA SHAKYA
A disciplinary earthquake

Jun 2, 2015-

The calamitous earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25 touched the nerves of many. We would like to briefly comment on the public responses received from a community of scholars, most of whom reside abroad but have conducted extensive fieldwork in Nepal and have been closely following developments in the past few weeks. What led us to comment on their writings is our shared discipline of anthropology and our common premise on the complex issues of culture, inclusion and exclusion, optimism and fatalism, and belonging.

Claims and community

Goodwill poured in from all corners of the world within the first 24 hours since the earthquake hit the northern hills of Nepal’s Central and Western regions. It was commendable that Nepal scholars from abroad were able to swiftly pen a series of writings just as global media took intense interest on Nepal in the first few days after the crisis. Several anthropologists with decades-long ties with the earthquake-hit regions were especially active on social media, not only digesting every major and minor news from Nepal but also contributing to the discourse on disaster from the very outset. While we appreciate their dedication and interest, and look forward to engaging with them on scholarly platforms, we also consider it necessary to comment on certain aspects of anthropological writings on this devastating earthquake.

Every discipline has its own grounding of knowledge and scholarly claims. As policy commentators speak from a formalist corpus of knowledge, including statistical data and legal guidelines, journalists report what they see and hear in the field. Anthropologists, on the other hand, legitimise their claims based on their being ‘part of the community’ they report on. Such an anthropological sense of belonging may rest in claims about the longevity of their local affiliations or the immersion of their life and work into their field sites. For example, many anthropologists have their second homes in Nepal and some may even have spouses or adopted children from the field (or Nepal).

One senior anthropologist claimed, for example, that her heart was heavier than the Heart Sutra because “[her] village in Nepal” had been destroyed—a site where she had only recently taken her (mostly American) students on a tour where they apparently taught the locals how to dance the Macarena just as they learned from them how to bend hips to Nepali folk tunes. One tweet introduced the epicentre of the earthquake as the field site of another anthropologist and his wife’s PhD research—a statement further articulated in an opinion piece that reminded the world that Nepal’s relief must reach the poor.

Further still, another anthropologist cited a conversation between her Nepali husband and a relative of his to draw a narrative on how music cured the pains of death and devastation in their family. Clearly, family is enmeshed with field and friendship with reportage. These were not problematic in our view, compared to other write-ups, which brought in messy categories of culture, exclusion, and fatalism that seemed to suggest the authors’ own biases than the realities on the ground.

Real evidence

David Beine claimed in an anthropological magazine, for example, that the Nepali lack of preparedness for the earthquake had a lot to do with its ‘culture’, which he articulated as being poor but a donor-darling, thus resulting in an aid-fuelled luxury of “the lifestyle in the capital city”. We share Beine’s cynicism about the development industry and we certainly do not intend to defend the fatcats of foreign aid, but we still would have loved for such a sweeping statement to have been grounded on some specific evidence, however flimsy. Instead, the writer invoked Dor Bahadur Bista’s writings about ‘aphno manchhe’ to explain how “everyone [in Nepal] knows it and everyone expects it” that no help will come forth unless they have personal connections with political leaders. This claim is echoed in other anthropological op-eds suggesting how Nepalis are “a self-reliant bunch” because “they have to be”.

Beine then goes on to assert another ‘interesting’ feature of impunity in Nepali culture, that “it is only wrong if you get caught”—a problematic psyche he claims is based on “stories and folktales which further reinforce these concepts.” Well, we would have certainly loved to hear those stories because the only piece of contemporary evidence he offers falls short of any anthropological standard: “Scrawny little black 5kg village pigs (sungar) [sic] are abandoned in favor of 100kg pink bungars (a compound word created by combining the words bikas and sungar) [sic].” We are sorry, but what is this incoherent rambling about? And why do these writings find space in supposedly respectable anthropological magazines? Would the author care to get his Nepali correct before making damning claims about the Nepali psyche citing an author whose work needs to be understood and engaged with, and not recited like a dead mantra?

What we say is probably unfair if those particular write-ups were intended exclusively to cater to non-Nepali readers. But the problem of overlapping readership is precisely the point we try to make here, that the home and the world are enmeshed for us Nepali anthropologists too. Just as telephone calls, email communications, and social media interactions became the basis on which the ‘Nepal anthropologists’ grounded their claims on knowledge and evidence, ‘Nepali anthropologists’ too read online newspapers and academic portals from within the comforts of their homes. Perhaps this was what was anticipated by a second set of Nepal anthropologists whose writings simply echoed journalists’ claims on partisan politics, social exclusion, class, and urban-rural divides. They were probably right in their assessment that they would not know much about the disaster and its aftermath until they actually spent some time in the field with those hit by the crisis or working on relief and reconstruction.

Confronting crisis

The question we raise is about anthropology’s contribution to the concerns of its ‘field’, especially in times of crises like we have today here in Nepal. Anthropologists may have claims on seniority based on the longevity of their field experience but how to measure those yardsticks in times of crisis? They may write journalistic pieces but should they really be competing, especially if they had not been in the affected sites after the crisis struck?

Our key questions are the following: Does anthropology as a discipline have something to contribute to its ‘field’especially in times of crises? Is there a middle path that treads between journalistic spontaneity and cultural stereotyping? How are anthropologists to balance activism and engagement with the neutrality of ‘participant observation’? How has the anthropology on Nepal kept pace with emerging anthropological movements elsewhere, especially within South Asia and the Global South? We are hoping that this rupture will soon open up a constructive debate on alternative anthropologies.

KC is a freelance researcher affiliated with Martin Chautari and Shakya is Assistant Professor at South Asian University

Published: 03-06-2015 06:56

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