At the start of trimester two we were excited to welcome Dr Eli Elinoff to the team at VUW. He comes to us from the National University of Singapore and brings exciting research in environmental anthropology and regional expertise in Southeast Asia (particularly Thailand). Dr Catherine Trundle asked Eli four key questions to introduce him to us all.
1. What originally drew you to anthropology as a field and profession? Is this still what engages you in the discipline?
The short answer is proximity. I was drawn to the way the anthropology insists on a kind of nearness to the world in order to extract unexpected insights from it.
The longer answer has to do with the sorts of questions I am interested in and how, from my perspective, they seemed to require a nearness to be addressed. When I was an undergraduate, I had the good fortune to study abroad in Thailand with a program that brought me into a range of activist worlds in Northeastern Thailand (where I continue to do fieldwork).
At the time I was interested in alternative development but through that experience began to see, more directly, how struggles against the Thai state’s development initiatives, specifically large infrastructure projects, had inspired a tremendous political transformation in places that seemed to be so far from that nation’s seat of power in Bangkok.
So, I followed that semester by spending part of a summer conducting a brief ethnographic project with anti-dam activists near the Thai-Lao border. I learned about the history of their movement and considered the different layers of the activist project that had taken root in a protest village organized at the dam site. That experience showed me of the importance of these sorts of movements for understanding global political and environmental futures. It also convinced me that anthropology was the best way to make sense of them. The discipline’s ability to get me closer to these issues and to the people experiencing them that makes it fundamental way to re-theorizing critical questions related to politics, development and the environment. Doing that work from the ground up seems so crucial, especially now. This is what inspired me to continue with this sort of work.
2. Your work deals with and develops ideas of citizenship. Within your own scholarships and search, why do you find this concept so useful?
The concept of citizenship has been useful for helping me hone in on the shifting relationship between people and the state. A focus on citizenship pushes us to think about how past structures of inequality—class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality—get encoded into law and policy and continue to shape the present.
One of the big questions that drives much of my work is, to what degree do we have the ability to engage, disrupt, or transform the modes of domination that shape our lives? The question of citizenship sort of thrusts you in the midst of both ends of this question, into the space of domination and, increasingly over the last two decades, the modality through which people have sought to transform the state.
More recently, I’ve found myself moving beyond citizenship per se to focus more closely on the question of politics because it seems to get me closer to the contested processes that give rise to shifts in the world. In spite of this shift in my own thinking, citizenship remains a powerful starting point for understanding histories of domination and social transformation.
3. You conducted your doctoral research within squatter settlements in Thailand. Could you share with us one unexpected challenge and one unexpected joy that you faced during fieldwork?
The biggest practical challenge for me has been finding ways to write and think that do the complexity of my friends and informants work on the ground justice. This has been made doubly complex by the way my research traverses across both physical and institutional boundaries, bringing together divergent political and ethical projects. I work with rival activist networks, state institutions, NGO activists, and in communities that are often opposed to one another. Occasionally this opposition has been ideological, sometimes it has been personal. Many times it results in wildly different interpretations of events, policies, and political shifts. Trying to hold these different interpretations in tension with one another, while also producing a critical analysis of the political effects of the projects I’ve been following has been really difficult.
These difficulties have been compounded by the ethical implications of writing about the lives of poor citizens and precarious settlements in a time of political volatility and military government. So, what and how to write in this moment takes on much bigger stakes and asks political and ethical questions of me that I continue to wrestle with.
The biggest joy has been the relationships I’ve developed with people through this work. Each time I return to my field sites I appreciate, more and more the relationships I’ve built. Many people are long term friends, who have seen me through changes in my own life. I’ve seen friends get married and have children. I’ve been there while others have become grandparents. It is a joy and a privilege to be able to participate in those changes and to think and learn alongside them over a long duration.
4. You haven’t been in New Zealand long, but you’ve no doubt already been struck by the cultural particularities of Aotearoa, Wellington or Victoria University. Could you recount one of the most perplexing, confusing or pleasantly surprising differences you’ve encountered?
As a total beginner here, I am surprised and amused by many of the seemingly everyday things. Small distinctions in words, subtle differences in communication styles, and specific local treats seem to pop up all the time reminding me of the specificity of place.
After being in Singapore over the last few years, I imagined, totally erroneously, that living in New Zealand would be easier and more familiar. It seems like every day I make a mistake or misjudge something or encounter something surprising that makes me laugh and think. Most of the time this has to do with subtleties of communication that I am just not attuned to. Fortunately, my colleagues and students have been patient, warm, and generous in welcoming me and so they’ve indulged my curiosities and entertained all of my questions with good humor!
Eli Elinoff is a lecturer in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington. He is a political and environmental anthropologist, currently working on a book manuscript that examines the intersection between new participatory urban housing projects and long-term struggles over land and citizenship in the Thai city of Khon Kaen. His second ethnographic project explores political ecologies of concrete after Thailand’s catastrophic 2011 floods.
Catherine Trundle is Senior Lecturer and Programme Director of Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research interests include medical anthropology; charity and humanitarianism; militarism; the ethics of responsibility, compassion, care and detachment; contested illness and environmental health; and political anthropology.