What we’ve been writing: public anthropology from vic

It’s been a while since we’ve posted on vicanthropology, but everyone’s been busy elsewhere.  So I thought I’d give a round-up of some of the public writing and other projects we’ve been doing over the last few months (listed chronologically by date of publication):

Violent politics and the disintegration of democracy in CambodiaCaroline Bennett in The Conversation

‘Cambodian politics has always been a sphere of violence, but that since the 1993 UN-backed elections, it has happened under a veneer of liberal democracy….  Violence in politics is not new. The control of the people in Cambodia is not new. What is new is the increasing confidence of leaders, such as Hun Sen, to flex their political muscles openly and violently with complete confidence in their political impunity.’

Enough with the shame.  Let’s start celebrating fat bodies – Catherine Trundle in The Spinoff

‘Must we always see fat bodies as broken, as in need of cure? As lacking an intervention. Why are they always the result of a social ill? Can we ever see them, celebrate them, as whole?… Fat might look like it is a type of ruinous excess, but much of the time it results in scarcity. Like receiving too little respect in public. Or having a diminished sense of entitlement to demand what one needs. It often means settling for less.’

Why I’m not buying the new ‘learn self-control’ mantraCatherine Trundle in The Spinoff

‘Our current discussions of will power, self-discipline and self-control lack a very necessary social, historical and political perspective…. The problem with the types of self-control that we do celebrate is that they reflect such middle-class concerns and realities. Self-control means getting slim, running marathons, climbing mountains, getting rich, or moving up in the company. These resonate less with the realities and needs of everyday worlds, or of economically and socially marginalised communities. Class intersects with race and gender in determining what modes of self-control we value and notice.’

Synthetic Biology and the Problem of Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Knowledge IntegrationJared Commerer in The Sociological Review

‘the justification for integrative interdisciplinary research requires not only the recognition that reality is complex… but an elaboration on the nature of that complexity…. [E]ven if researchers maintain a coherent justification for scientific integration, their social system of knowledge production may constrain their capacities to produce genuinely integrative research.’

Anthropology under my skinLorena Gibson in Savage Minds

‘Anthropology made me look at this skin.

White skin.

Recognise its privilege

and think about what it means to live in a settler society

benefitting from ongoing processes of colonisation.’

Despotic urbanism in ThailandEli Elinoff in The New Mandala

‘Urbanisation itself has become a critical mechanism to silence political debate…This is a strategy of political suppression by eviction, demolition, and construction.  Urbanisation – both concentrated in infrastructure projects like the double track projects and diffuse in the forms of private luxury development—becomes a raw force evicting problematic voices, demolishing spaces of politics, and constructing a city, not for citizens but for the sake of the productive forces of urbanisation itself: real estate, finance capital, and construction. ‘

Anthropos beyond the humanGrant Otsuki on Platypus: The Castac Blog

(ok, strictly speaking this was written before Grant joined Vic, but he’s here now, so we’re claiming it)

‘A humanoid robot like the Geminoid-F was ningenrashī because it looked like a person, all the way down to the texture of her silicone skin. But other devices that looked nothing like a human were also ningenrashī: a set of LCD display goggles, or a pair of joysticks on a table, for instance. They were ningenrashī not because they looked human, but because they felt human.’

Treat her right: why its time for us to start caring about care work Catherine Trundle in The Spinoff

‘How we classify and value “women’s work” comes down to a deep-seated social division we just haven’t been able to shake, even in contemporary times…. We still live in a society split between Adam Smith’s world of work, enterprise, competition and self-interest, and the private domain of care, love, selflessness, and family. The former is still a man’s world, and the latter is still without doubt a feminine sphere.’

No siree Bob, you don’t see the real problemJonathan Foster in The Wireless

‘When Sir Bob identifies that beggars are generally “fat and Māori”, he is seeking to separate them from the majority of middle-class Pakeha…. this doesn’t account for things like the ongoing impact of colonialism on Māori, of deindustrialisation on large swathes of rural communities, the well-documented health impacts of living in poverty, or increasingly precarious work and living environments. Nor does it address discrimination in the housing and job market, or racism in the criminal justice system.’

Streeties: the realities of living rough – comics by Jonathan Foster and Toby Morris in The Wireless


Top of the Heap – Hannah Gibson for Somatosphere

In Top of the Heap Hannah Gibson talks to scholars around the world to discuss important books or pieces of work/media that influence their thinking and work – ‘effectively, the books they either have on the top of the pile, or ones that they go back to again and again. It’s a space to articulate and explore their work and engage with the ideas of others’.

The Story of Hyderabad, Sindh – Zahida Rehman Jatt in The Express Tribune blog

(another cheeky one – written before Zahida joined Vic)

‘The city was once famous for its wind catchers locally called ‘mangh’; a simple architectural device that captures wind and helps keep the interior of a building cool. There was a time when you could find a wind catcher on every rooftop in Hyderabad. Now, almost all of them are gone, changing the cityscape for good.’

Moving Forward, Glancing Backwards: Graduate Symposium in Cultural Anthropology

On Friday, May 12th 2017 the graduate students of the cultural anthropology program organized a half-day symposium as part of the celebrations marking 50 years of anthropology at Victoria University. The symposium, titled, “Moving Forward, Glancing Backward: Past, Present, and the Possible in/of Anthropology” was aimed as an engagement with the academic and non-academic community – both within and beyond anthropology. Attended by over 50 people it comprised of two panels and one interactive session followed by lunch. The graduate symposium was a chance for the graduate student community of anthropology in Victoria engage with graduate students, faculty, and former anthropology students from across Aotearoa New Zealand.

Hosted over 3-days (May 10th-12th) the 50th anniversary programme highlighted the history of anthropology at Victoria, examined the changing conditions currently shaping the discipline, and allowed for speculation on the potential future trajectories of anthropological knowledge at Victoria, in Aotearoa New Zealand, and beyond.  The celebrations opened on the morning of Wednesday 10th with a Pōwhiri and Marae Kōrero at Te Tumu Herenga Waka where Dame Dr. Joan Metge and Bernie Kernot, two of the founding members of the programme back in the 1970s talked about the people, personalities and tensions of bringing anthropology to the university (which included some much needed interference from Raymond Firth, ongoing pressure from Maori students, and the inevitable push and pull of starting anything new).

Following this, the graduate students were invited to a masterclass with Distinguished Professor Michael Jackson (programme alumni and Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard University), who also delivered a keynote address on the Thursday morning, Existential Scarcity and Ethical Feeling. The keynote was followed by two panels – Commoning Ethnography and Reclaiming Anthropology – comprised of anthropologists from throughout New Zealand who each elaborated on the present and future of anthropological knowledge and engagement (future posts to come on this). Thursday evening concluded with a second keynote – Alternative Facts and Uncommon Truths: Rivers and Other Realities – delivered by Professor Dame Anne Salmond from the University of Auckland.

The graduate symposium on Friday drew together former and current anthropology students with the intention of generating useful approaches to anthropological thought and action in the everyday. The symposium opened with a roundtable discussion focussing on the trajectories and experiences of former Victoria anthropology students working in private and public sector. The roundtable included Dr. Tanja Schubert-McArthur (Waitangi Tribunal-Ministry of Justice), Mr. Aidan MacLeaod (MBIE), Ms. Tarapuhi Bryers-Brown (Thinkplace) and Mr. Ben Steele (MFAT).  The discussion provided insight in to how the future of anthropology might present itself as instrumental to decision making and engagement beyond the bounds of academia.

Following the roundtable was a panel featuring graduate students’ work from around Aotearoa New Zealand. Aimed at addressing the potential of anthropological knowledge in relation to local and global issues the presentations covered a variety of topics including lifestyle migration and the search for the ‘good life,’ breakfast and brunch practices, modern-day slavery in the Philippines and Hong Kong, research ethics in Papua New Guinea, the urban homeless in Wellington, and health, culture, and lifestyle in contemporary Tonga.  The final portion of the symposium was an interactive session between audience members, panellists, and staff and graduate students from the Cultural Anthropology Programme at Victoria. This intentionally less-formal conclusion to both the graduate symposium and wider 50th anniversary celebrations allowed undergraduate students – the future of anthropology – to ask questions and put forward their ideas surrounding the potentials and limits to anthropological discourse in a complex and changing world.  We, a trio of newly-minted anthropology PhD candidates, saw the graduate symposium as a chance to envision the new directions of our discipline.

We as organisers also realised the value and potential, not only of engaging with anthropological knowledge, but also the productive nature of learning enabled by and in a graduate symposium. The comradery, the ideas engaged with, and discussion around what we plan to do with our scholarship in different spheres of life made evident the importance of planning and being part of graduate student led events as a way to do anthropology and graduate life. On that day, the Hunter Council Chambers became a lived example of collective effervescence, and we were glad to be help organise this!



— Callan Sait, Jared Commerer, and Zoe Poppelwell

Zoe Picture

Zoe Poppelwell is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington.  Her research explores the ways in which nurses and parents interact with premature babies on a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Aotearoa New Zealand. Her general research interests include medical anthropology, and the anthropology of reproduction and childhood.

Profile Pic

Jared Commerer is a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington. His research interests include: anthropology of conflict, violence, and war; anthropology of consciousness; critical realism; ethics and morality; human enhancement; human rights; militarism; philosophy of science and social science; political anthropology; resistance; and, social theory.

mugshot2snipCallan Sait is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington. His thesis explores the role of robotic technologies in reconceptualising “good care” and caregiving practices in Japan. His general research interests include science and technology studies, multispecies ethnography, ontological politics, personhood, and care.

50 years of Anthropology at VUW (celebrating May 10-12 2017)

This year the anthropology programme at Victoria University of Wellington is celebrating its 50th Anniversary. In honour of this important milestone, we have organized a programme of events that will highlight the history of anthropology at Victoria, explore the changing conditions shaping the discipline, and speculate about the future trajectories of anthropological knowledge at Victoria, in New Zealand, and beyond.

Events are open to the public for all who wish to come and join our celebration.  Some require pre-registration, so check below for the full and final schedule of events and details of events, and click 50th Anniversary Programme 2017.  We look forward to seeing you there!

Wednesday 10 May, Te Herenga Waka Marae

10:30am – 12:30pm: Pōwhiri and Marae Kōrero, at Te Tumu Herenga Waka
Discussion by Dame Dr. Joan Metge and Bernie Kernot
2:00pm – 3:30pm: Masterclass with Professor Michael D. Jackson, Kelburn Campus (graduate class, limited spaces, pre-registration required – email 50anth@vuw.ac.nz)
3pm: ASAA/NZ Special General Meeting (location tbc)

Thursday 11 May, Hunter Council Chamber

9.00am – 5.30pm: Anthropology in Aotearoa New Zealand Symposium (register here)

  • 9:00am–9:05am: Introductory Remarks by Professor Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich
    ‘Anthropology in a Bicultural Country’
  • 9:05am-10:15am: Keynote Address – Distinguished Professor Michael D. Jackson
    ‘Existential Scarcity and Ethical Feeling’
  • 10:15am–10:45am: Tea Break and Exhibition: ‘Then, Now, and Tomorrow’
  • 10:45am–11:00am: 50 years of Anthropology at Victoria: An Archival Reflection
    Dr. Graeme Whimp
  • 11:00am–1:00pm: Commoning Ethnography Panel (chaired by Dr. Eli Elinoff)
  • 1:00pm–2:00pm: Lunch Break and Exhibition: ‘Then, Now, and Tomorrow’
  • 2:00pm–4:00pm: Reclaiming Anthropology Panel (chaired by Dr. Lorena Gibson)

6:00pm – 7:30pm: Public Lecture by Distinguished Professor Dame Anne Salmond
Alternative Facts and Uncommon Truths: Rivers and other Realities

Reception to follow

Friday 12 May, Hunter Council Chamber

9:00am – 12:00pm: Moving Forward, Glancing Backwards: Past, Present, and the Possibilities in/of Anthropology Graduate Symposium (chaired by Dr. Nayantara Sheoran Appleton)

  • 9:00am–9:50am: The Past
  • 10.00am-11.00am: The Present
  • 11.10am-12.00noon: The Potential Future(s)

Tea breaks included, and casual lunch to follow

Thursday 11 – Friday 19 May: Exhibition ‘Then, Now, and Tomorrow’ (arranged by Dr. Caroline Bennett and Dr. Graeme Whimp)

  • 11 – 12 May, Hunter Common Room
  • 15 – 19 May, the Hub, Kelburn Campus

Tales of becoming a public anthropologist

Academics are increasingly called upon to apply their skills and knowledge to public problems and issues. In New Zealand as elsewhere we’ve witnessed a growing public and political appetite for universities to make knowledge accessible. We’re increasingly expected to work in more temporally immediate ways to address contemporary social challenges. The status quo model of knowledge dissemination, of publishing an article two years or more after conducting research in a journal hidden beyond a pay-wall that only a few scholars will read, is under fire within and outside of the Academy.

In Cultural Anthropology at Victoria both academic staff and students are increasingly focusing on how to enact this commitment to public scholarship. Blogs such as this one are now commonplace online, and speaking to the media is increasingly part of our everyday work. Yet the public anthropology we do is not always this publicly visible. To our students we might appear to be spending too much of our days hauled up in the (Murphy) Ivory Tower, but the anthropology staff are often quietly participating in small, everyday forms of public engagement. To illustrate, let me describe some of the projects I’ve had the privilege to be part of in the last year.

Last year I was invited to give a keynote at a symposium on veterans’ health. High-ranked members of the New Zealand Defence force were present, as well as senior figures from the Ministry of Veterans Affairs. Using ethnographic stories I described the frustrating bureaucratic labyrinths that veterans found themselves navigating in applying for pensions, and the sense of injustice and powerlessness that ensued. I learned a couple of lessons here. First, ethnography is an effective tool for breaking through policy speak, medical language, and governmental priorities, forcing those in power to imagine the experiential consequences of their policies. Secondly, critique is not enough; you have to suggest solutions, or at least point in the direction of possible actions. A senior figure from the Ministry of Veterans Affairs felt I had underplayed the things they get right, and how they might capitalise on the positives of the current system. It was a fair point. I had not mentioned the praise veterans heaped on particular practices and people in the veteran pension system. Anthropologists often complain that public anthropology work requires simplifying things down too much, but we already have our own disciplinary ways of bracketing out the messy nature of issues. This is particularly true when we want to spotlight suffering or support our participants.

As a medical anthropologist, I get invited to be part of projects outside of my direct area of research. Recently, I became a member of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Increasing Organ Donation. Along with bioethicists, clinicians, health advocates, and ministerial figures, we sought to identify effective ways to increase organ donation rates in New Zealand. I grappled with and learned much about how to raise questions about cultural differences and social inequalities in ways that were pithy, solution-oriented, yet not reliant on cheap stereotypes.

Sometimes public anthropology takes me into the heart of unfamiliar communities and subcultures. I recently spent the day on an Army base acting as a cultural advisor. I was asked to observe the officer recruitment process and to comment on how the process benefited or disadvantaged different cultural groups. I was impressed by the openness of the NZ Army to questions of inclusivity and to critiques from outsiders, and was fascinated by the complex enculturation process that I witnessed officers undergoing to become ‘service ready’.

Not too long ago, a lawyer acting on behalf of Māori nuclear test veterans and their children asked me to act as expert witness before the Waitangi Tribunal. I’ll need to prepare a detailed report and be questioned at a Tribunal hearing. I’m both excited and nervous: nervous that I can translate my research effectively within an unfamiliar legal landscape, nervous that I do justice to my participants’ trust in me to act skilfully on their behalf. Luckily, my colleague Jeff Sissons has experience in this role, and has much useful advice to offer. This is a crucial and often hidden ‘backstory’ to public anthropology work. As faculty members we’re always discussing these projects with each other, talking through the anxieties of possibly getting stuff wrong, trouble shooting likely problems, encouraging each other on, and joking about the imposter syndrome we might feel as ‘public experts’.

Public anthropology stretches you. It forces you to learn to be at ease with feeling uncomfortable. It requires you to think laterally about your work, and to distill anthropological ideas down into legible nuggets of wisdom that can immediately apply to a range of different scenarios. It also exposes you to other forms of expert knowledge outside of academia that are just as complex and nuanced. This has both tempered my own anthropology-centric vision of the world and made me want to work more collaboratively outside of my field. Ultimately, public anthropology changes you as much as it allows you to be involved in enacting social change.


Catherine Trundle 7_1 (002)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.  She is a co-founder and secretary of SOMAA – the Society of Medical Anthropology in Aotearoa.


Cover photo: ‘Together’ by Daniel Zimmel

Generative Generosity at an Academic Writing Retreat

Over a weekend last December, I was invited to join some of the faculty in the School of Social and Cultural Studies (SACS) for a writing retreat, one hour north of Wellington. We were scheduled to stay in a big house (i.e. we would all have our own rooms) and it was on the waterfront (i.e. loads of potential for fresh air and long walks). I, of course, said yes. Having just returned from the American Anthropological Association conference in Minneapolis and fieldwork in India, it was just the sort of expansive space I needed to get back into the mode of writing.

While I was excited, I was also a bit anxious, as I knew I had to make some serious progress on a writing deadline and also wondered how I would cope with  48+ hours of non-stop proximity to my colleagues. As an ethnographer, researcher, and teacher, I interact with people constantly. But, once I don my writing hat, I instinctually revert in some sense to a solitary being. Consigning this bit of anxiety to the back burner, I excitedly embraced this opportunity to travel, talk, learn, read, and write with my colleagues.

Hard at work – Catherine Trundle, Lorena Gibson, Eli Elinoff and Nayantara Sheoran Appleton

When I was asked to write this blog, I wondered if I should write about the fantastic work that was done: the igniting of ideas, the negotiations of polite and then friendly banter, the clash and development of intellectual thoughts, the organizational issues for the coming year and term, or just my personal experience of the writing retreat. However, long ingrained habits as an anthropologist have trained me to look for patterns of behavior amongst the people I choose to spend time with (i.e. participant observation) and examine what these generate. What emerged clearly, in spending time with this bunch of scholars, was their generosity: in cooking and eating of food, towards their colleagues, and above all, in sharing their ideas.

The study of food (its preparation, presentation, and consumption) has afforded anthropologists ample study opportunities and also within this group of scholars, a chance to really share of themselves. The meals, while simple (i.e. quick to prepare so we had ample time to write) were warm and comforting for a rainy evening and refreshing on the warm afternoon. If somebody prepared the food, the dishes were cleared away and cleaned by another. The egalitarian distribution of labour was always rewarded by a walk to the local deli for a bag of lollies for some and/or ice cream for the other. The trek to the local store was undertaken barefoot, in order to claim belonging and assimilation simultaneously.

These short walks opened up smaller conversations that led to longer, warmer, more vivid discussions as the evenings wound down and writing was put away for the day. While some of us were relatively new to getting to know each other, it didn’t take long for the initial polite banter to give way to robust, jovial, and lively conversations; yoga achievements on the floor; or stories of kids and kittens. As the evenings wound down, the day of sun, sand, writing, and perhaps some of the wine, allowed us to share generously our pasts, our histories, and our journeys as individuals and scholars. To share of ourselves this generously, while just a conversation on one hand, was symbolic of a larger bonding ritual. This felt like a ritual of friendship where sharing forms the basis of a trust.

Nayantara Sheoran Appleton, Liam Martin and Eli Elinoff share ideas on a working walk

This trust was also visible in the ways everybody shared their ideas with each other. A scholar is to a large degree her or his ideas, and sometimes the territorial claiming of ideas leads to a particular level of distrust and animosity. However, within this group the ethos of generosity through their sharing of selves and food was visible even in the way ideas were developed. Between writing sessions, people floated their ideas and the way they were conceptualizing particular projects, and others would chime in helpfully with ways to develop the argument or readings to assist with a particular framing.

The group dynamics, established in these rituals, spilled over and influenced our ideas and writing. This overall generosity leaked into our work, as some finished off pending projects and others started ones that had been sitting on the shelf waiting to be lovingly dusted off and re-examined. As anthropologists, we always thank our respondents for sharing their everyday lives with us. I think it is also fair to thank and acknowledge our colleagues who offer so generously in slower moments like these, when we/they aren’t running from administrative meetings to lectures, from tutorials to student meetings, from almost never-ending emails to pending service tasks. This is what writing retreats ought to do: allow us to share of ourselves and write scholarship that is hopefully generously generative for future works and scholars.


nayantaraNayantara Sheoran Appleton is a Lecturer who has recently joined the cultural anthropology program at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research interests include: feminist medical anthropology; Science and Technology Studies (STS); reproductive and contraceptive justice; medical health policy and politics; media and medicine; everyday ethics in medical spaces, critical theories, and anthropological research methodologies. She is co-chair of the Science and Medicine in South Asia (SMSA) – a Society of Medical Anthropology (SMA) special interest group (SIG).

Join us for Ethnography Shelf – an ethnography reading club online and in person

In our previous blog post, Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich noted that her resolution for 2017 is to read six ethnographies.  Inspired by this and all the different ethnographies we in the Cultural Anthropology Programme at Victoria University of Wellington are reading, we have started an ethnography book club on GoodReads.  The goal is to read and discuss an ethnography every two months.  If any of you are interested in ethnography (students, anthropologists, writers), we invite you to join us!

The plan is for Cultural Anthropology staff to select an ethnography, and the group to read it over the two-month period, meeting to discuss it during the last week of the second month at VUW.  We’ll post some questions to get started in thinking about the book, and where possible we’ll also invite the authors to join us in our online conversations.

Lorena Gibson chose our first ethnography, Tupuna Awa: People and Politics of the Waikato River by Marama Muru-Lanning.  “I chose this as our first ethnography because it is something all of the Cultural Anthropology staff have been looking forward to,” she says.  “It is Māori anthropologist Marama Muru-Lanning’s first ethnography and in it she discusses a topical issue: the debates over water in one New Zealand river.  The book provides a lens through which to view modern iwi politics, questions about water ownership, and contests for power between Māori and the state.”

The reading group will meet in person at Victoria University of Wellington for our discussion during the last week of the second month.  The first meeting will be at the end of March, 2017.  If this sounds like something you are interested in, you are welcome to join us in person and/or participate in our online conversation.  All welcome!

“He’s the least racist person I know”: Racism, the Mad Butcher and Empathy

We’ve all been reading about the celebrity New Zealand businessman the Mad Butcher (Peter Leitch) and his so-called ‘friendly banter’. While drinking wine at a vineyard on Waiheke Island he told local Māori woman Lara Wharepapa-Bridger that she was on ‘a white man’s island’. She later uploaded a Facebook post complaining about the racist remarks. Many people came to the Mad Butcher’s defence. As one fairly typical comment on Facebook put it, “to(sic) many snowflakes around!! They take anything and make it about racism!! Silly fools”. Many of the other responses Lara Wharepapa-Bridger received were much scarier and more threatening.

The use of the world ‘snowflake’ here – a favourite insult of the so-called American alt-right – speaks of a wider global trend. It reflects an increasingly vocal push back against anti racist movements globally. In the US, Trump’s victory revealed that many of those who voted for him resented deeply being classified as bigoted, ignorant and racist; as lacking in empathy. The vast majority did not see themselves that way.  As one Trump voter explained, democrats “have taken the word ‘racist’ and made it meaningless. They’ve turned something important into a political hammer they can hurt people with.” And so with the Mad Butcher row, his supporters, including our Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy who labelled him ‘the least racist person I know’, argued that he was just engaging in some ‘light-hearted banter’ and was ‘misinterpreted’.

These public outcries make me reflect upon how anthropologists talk about racism. In my classes I focus upon the often-subtle effects of everyday, casual racism, how subconscious race-based perceptions affect all domains of our society. Racism is evident in how job, tenancy or bank loan applicants are assessed, in how public spaces alienate or exclude particular groups, in how the criminal justice system, the police, the medical sphere, and public housing treat Māori and Pacific peoples in discriminatory ways. One of our students, Tarapuhi Bryers Brown, wrote a powerful thesis about this. Racism percolates beneath the surface of our seemingly polite society.

This reality is challenging for many New Zealanders to think about. For even if we are committed to the ideals of social inclusion and equality, we are part of these systems, and they are part of us. The point here is that these types of racism aren’t confined to one end of the political spectrum or to Neo-Nazi ‘deplorables’ who brazenly commit hate crimes. They are built into our most liberal, progressive and compassionate institutions. It is hard to live outside of them, and to not be implicated in them as we go about our daily lives. This is what it means to live in the long shadow of colonisation.

This type of analysis suggests that in understanding and naming racism, individual conscious intentions are less relevant. What are important are structures and effects. This turns the volume down on the voices of those who are implicated in performing discriminatory acts, and what they say and think about their actions, and challenges our ideas of personal autonomy. Racism is not simply an internal cognitive ‘thing’ that shapes personal action and emerges from human will, but is built into our social and cultural worlds, our daily rituals, even our language. Most of the time, it is done unthinkingly.

I can see how such an analysis makes many white people feel uncomfortable. Calling out everyday forms of racism doesn’t always pay attention to their sense of their own motivations. It prioritises and legitimises the voices, perceptions and experiences of the people we interact with, even fleetingly, over our own. It doesn’t let any of us off the hook, or allow any of us to claim a safe moral ground. The world can’t be divided up neatly into racist and not-racist populations. Such an analysis also suggests, radically perhaps, that the everyday acts of subtle racism that we engage in are, cumulatively, potentially just as corrosive to the lives of minorities as are violent racists attacks.

The rejection of this structural racism viewpoint is evident in the Mad Butcher’s proclamation of innocent intentions, and in references to his good deeds towards Māori and Pacific communities in Auckland. Equally, it’s evident in Trump supporters’ calls to be judged for their self-identified moral compass, their actions towards neighbours and their daily acts of kindness, not on their vote and what it will mean for people of colour.

How should anthropologists respond? Our methods do after all require us to cultivate empathy for many different groups, to stand in their shoes, seeking out their points of view. Have our racism discourses foreclosed deeper understanding of racism by conflating diverse types and disregarding people’s own explanations and motivations? Is this making our critique less effective by alienating whole swaths of the population? Should we shift how we define racism to accommodate other viewpoints?

I suggest this is not the time to back away from our explanatory frameworks, even if they make people uncomfortable. A critical stance towards addressing racism is needed here more than ever. This is because empathy is not simply a mode of human nature, but a political project.  Morality and empathy are complex and contradictory, and this is precisely what makes structural racism so hard to address. And this is the key: casual racism is not incompatible with generous kind-heartedness towards others. Yes, the Mad Butcher has done much for Māori and Pacific communities in Auckland.  But as my own research on charity and empathy reveals, charitable compassion and benevolence toward minorities commonly relies upon not destabilising, or even building up, the giver’s own advantageous position in society, and it often involves the recipients having to act as the right type of good, quiet, grateful bearer of that benevolence (the blogger Leilani Tamu recounts this dynamic in her own interactions with the Mad Butcher).

When I say empathy is political I mean that it has always been unequally distributed. Minority communities’ oppression has always historically been premised upon being dehumanised, as being undeserving of compassion, empathy and understanding. And this is still the case in New Zealand. In the Mad Butcher row we see this same story playing out once again. The Mad Butcher must be given the benefit of the doubt, must have people come to his aid, must have many voices speak for him, but a young Māori woman who dares to complain on social media should, we are told, learn to shut up and keep quiet. But listening to her is not giving in to the ‘snowflake’ PC brigade. It’s a reflective, humble stance we all need to cultivate in thinking about our involvement in casual racism, and it offers us an opportunity to collectively think harder about everyday racism in Aotearoa New Zealand.


Catherine Trundle 7_1 (002)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. 

When politics and conferences converge – AAA after the elections

For the last few days Nayantara Sheoran Appleton and I have been at the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association in Minneapolis. Walking around the venue with several thousand anthropologists from across the world is an interesting experience in general, but with the timing this year, right after the presidential elections, it took on a whole new aura. With Donald Trump now president-elect, the conference was unsurprisingly dominated by conversations about the future of the country, the global implications of this election, and above all, discussions on anthropology’s role in this changing world.

As we rushed from panel to panel, ducked in and out of business meetings, participated in art installations, bought as many books as we could fit in our luggage, and met each evening in our hotel room to discuss the day, we spent a lot of time talking about what it is that conferences do beyond present new research. As an important part of any academic career we travel through the conference circuit, the anthropology’s calendar dominated by the AAA. We go to tell people about our research, to make connections with colleagues and collaborators, to catch up with old friends, to re-energise our studies. We also go to explore emerging theoretical and practical trends, and consider how they reflect the wider socio-political concerns in the world.

This year’s conference was dominated by conversations around race, politics and civil liberties. Intersectionality featured heavily, as did bio-ethics in transnational locales. Surveillance, resistance, governmentality and precarity all stole the stage as theoretical frames. Every panel demanded not only debate, but also concern, compassion, and more than ever, action.

The keynote by Melissa Harris-Perry, ‘What just happened?’ was explosive and exhilarating in her calling out of academic complacency and institutional inequality (‘state violence against women has been reaffirmed every minute, we just didn’t notice. Sometimes it was us’). A new annual debate on anthropological theory discussed the term ‘fake,’ a fascinating discussion that seemed incredibly pertinent given Brexit and the US elections (what is the difference between deep fake and mere fake? How fake is too fake, or when is it just right? What is the relationship between performance, spectacle, honesty and fake?). Elaine Scarry made a call to resist the normalization of nuclear defense (‘all it requires is one not to feel silly’), and to address the wider issues in the geopolitical sphere – Donald Trump, she reminded us, is not the issue. The system is the problem, but Trump makes visible the flaws.

Anthropology does not sit outside the spheres that have produced contemporary politics. Indeed we are deeply implicated in it. Recognition of the socio-political hierarchies and elitism that the discipline reproduces and replicates is, of course, not new (Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus is just one of the many texts that examines the power relations inherent in the academy). But this conference reminded us that we need to do more than just recognize our position in the precarious lives of many in the world. As Neil Cantemaza McCay (who gave the indigenous welcome) reminded us, the devil did not exist before we brought it, so we must disrupt the schema. Every panel we went to began with speakers talking about these hard times, and how their work addresses this. The AAA twitter feed (#amanth2016) was full of calls for action and support and recognition of these issues.


Connecting with old colleagues, meeting new friends, increasing our knowledge (while savouring the enormous mid-Western dishes to be found around the city), AAA2016 was an experience that will stick in my mind. While wishing away the conservative tilt in world politics right now might not be possible, surrounding ourselves for a little under a week with engaged, critical, energetic, and energized, anthropologists was just the salve our souls needed.

Conferences exist to spread our research. But they also encourage us to work beyond our bounds. This year’s conference was about solidarity: solidarity with each other; solidarity with those feeling threatened by the new political order; solidarity with those already harmed by the forerunners that led us here. As AAA president, Alisse Waterston said in her opening address, in this time of insecurity and fear, we, as anthropologists, must stand together to ‘move forward stubbornly with a vision for a just future.’ And as Scarry pointed out, anthropology, more than most other disciplines, makes it possible to imagine the lives of other people. This, more than ever, is needed right now.


img_8686 Caroline Bennett is a lecturer in cultural anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington.  Her research explores the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime, exploring mass graves and the dead that lie within them.  She is also interested in how visual methods can offer modes for engaging beyond  the academy.