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On doing anthropology on activism and social media

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 4 November 2014

Image by Jolynna Sinanan

Image by Jolynna Sinanan

Although I left my field site in Trinidad on August 29, I have only just returned to Melbourne in the last week after nearly a year of being away. Last year, a large portion of field work was following the national issue of the large scale development project of the construction of a highway in the south of the country and the disputed section which will connect the areas of Debe to Mon Desir. My involvement started with covering the hunger strike of University of the West Indies lecturer Dr Kublalsingh, which lasted for 21 days. I watched this unfold by going to where Dr Kublalsingh was protesting, in front of the Prime Minister’s office, by following it on social media and by discussing it with informants in my field site, some 100kms away from where the highway is being constructed. Dr Kublalsingh ended his hunger strike when the Prime Minister agreed to reassess the decision to build that part of the highway and the Joint Constitutive Council (JCC) was funded by the government to review all the documents and agendas for and against constructing the section of the highway that would culminate in the Armstrong Report.

My involvement then deepened to the level of contributing to this state-sponsored review. I conducted a preliminary social impact assessment in the area and reviewed the reports from when the decision was made to go ahead with construction (in 2006) which I submitted to the Council. I concluded that no adequate social impact assessment had been conducted at the time and one should be, not just for that area, but for any area in which a large scale development project such as the construction of a highway is to take place. The JCC included at least five of my quotes in their final report.

Back in my field site, a town I have given the fictional name of El Mirador to protect the identities of the people who participated in my research, I was looking at how people were engaging with the issue on social media. Through my work with Dr Gabrielle Hosein, also from the University of the West Indies, we concluded that for those who aren’t in more ‘typical’ activist circles, of university students, musicians, artists and other urbanites, and more so, for those in country towns, being visibly, politically active and seriously engaging in national issues has social consequences of ridicule and alienation. It is very unusual for your average person in El Mirador to be politically active on Facebook.

Today, at the time of writing this blog entry, in Trinidad, Dr Kublalsingh is bedridden on day 47 of his second hunger strike, which he began on September 17. His reasons for this hunger strike is that the Prime Minister has not upheld her promise to adhere to the findings of the JCC report, undermining the council she assisted in founding and thereby undermining the efforts to build good governance in Trinidad. I have seen nothing on social media about Dr Kublalsingh or his second hunger strike on social media, apart from posts by the activist group he represents, the Highway Reroute Movement.

This situation is consistent with mine and Dr Hosein’s second insight that came out of the events of last year. A hunger strike is spectacular action, which makes the body a spectacle as an extreme form of resistance. But the power of the spectacle is in its transience, it holds power for only a short amount of time, a finite amount of time in which it disrupts the normal order. Similarly, Facebook is a spectacular space, a place to make things hyper visible. How many social media spectacles of causes gone viral can we name? Kony 2012? That video about sexual harassment? But the life of posts on social media are also finite. Sure, they exist in digital space forever, but people only care about them for a short amount of time. This obviously has bleak implications for Dr Kublalsingh’s actions.

A few members of the activist group have contacted me and implored my continued support. A few informants in El Mirador are wondering why I have kept silent this last month, when they know I have worked with and am friends with Dr Kublalsingh. My silence has been a mixture of having commitments to our project, which requires me to distance myself in order to adhere to the task of writing about the field and of having my immediate reality ruptured from being in Trinidad to being in Melbourne again.

The position of any anthropological researcher is not without contradiction (Sanford, 2006: 8). If we choose to take up Bourgois’ challenge ‘to venture into the ‘real world’ not just to ‘interview’ people but to actually participate in their daily life and to partake of their social and cultural reality’ (1990:45, quoted by Sanford, 2006: 6), we return with a mess of realities and experiences to come to terms with; our own and those of others. I will probably not see Dr Kublalsingh again. I feel an ethical obligation to uphold my integrity to the research in El Mirador but also to uphold my contribution to the Armstrong Report. This blog post has been a messy and inadequate attempt to do both.

 

References:

Bourgois, Philippe. 1990. ‘Confronting Anthropological Ethics: Ethnographic Lessons from Central America’, Journal of Peace Research, 27.1: 43-54.

Sanford, Victoria and Angel-Ajani, Asale (eds). 2006. Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy and Activism, New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press

The Riots in Brazil seen from a different planet

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 18 June 2013

Protesters at the National Congress

Protesters at the National Congress. Photo by: Midia Ninja.

By Daniel Miller and Juliano Andrade Spyer

After Egypt, Turkey, and other parts of the world, it is now time for Brazilians to appear on the front page of international newspapers – here and here. Yesterday, a quarter of a million people participated in political demonstrations across the country. But while I am also in Brazil, my experience is as though I was living on a different planet. Protests are happening 70 kilometres from here, at the state capital, but it might as well be across the ocean somewhere else. The Brazilians at my field site are simply not showing much interest in these events, especially not on Facebook.

It is an interesting inversion, noteworthy because Facebook and Twitter are, again, at the core of these “emergent” political rallies. What made the initial demonstrations (against the raise of bus fares in São Paulo) spread online was that the established news outlets such as radio stations and newspapers tried to ignore them. The feeling of impotence against the powerful – including the ones controlling the news – fueled people to self-organize and share information through social networking sites about the next rallies.

Notice that here, at the place I am conducting field work, Facebook IS the internet. Take Facebook away and there is very little left for people to be online, but it is also very important since a teenager without a Facebook profile is almost an outcast. And yet, the news about the rallies have only just arrived on Facebook in this area after they finally appeared on television. Because television channels could not for long ignore a self-organized demonstration that invades the National Congress. It was only after this happened that a few secondary school and university level students living here wrote something generic on their walls about democracy and the “waking up of the giant”.

I do not think this lack of interest for politics has anything to do with political alienation. On the contrary: it seems that political silence is very political here. Institutionalized politics is seen at its best as a necessary evil one has to accept in order to receive some government advantages, but it is not something that exists beyond the official time for electoral campaigning. This broad and rather abstract thing called “the government” is not something that people discuss. I have not seen, among the people I am friends with on Facebook, any posts mentioning a local politician, not even the mayor.

But, yes, there are social organization happening online and also ideological disputes. A few weeks ago, for instance, the police-made a sketch of a rapist operating in the region which was shared on Facebook and some people took the effort of going to internet cafes to have the image printed out so they could circulate it and show it at their neighborhoods. And I believe there is a serious dispute happening regarding the symbolic ownership of God by Evangelical Christians. I noticed that those commonly attacked by these more radical Christians – such as the gay community or the disciples of African Brazilian religions – make very public comments mentioning God, either thanking God for a blessing, or asking God for help to resolve a certain problem.

There are differences between large urbanized areas where the rallies are happening and small places such as here regarding the use of Facebook. There, Facebook is a channel used for keeping in touch with the people one does not necessarily see every day. Facebook tends to become a gathering place where we are close to everyone, independently of their location in different neighborhoods or other places. The purpose here of using Facebook is not “keeping in touch” because that is really not necessary as friends and everyone else are already physically near to each other every day. What is important, then, is not talking about public things that everyone can know, but to share private information that not everyone knows about. Demonstrations are not interesting for those living here because they relate to institutional politics and also because they are already public, everyone knows about it, and something everyone knows about is not worth talking about.

We, the researchers of this project, still have a long way to go in our ethnographies, so what I am writing now is still an initial impression about how different Facebook is even considering the people living in the same country. But this is a major part of the justification of our project. By comparison the big debates about politics and the internet such as the work of Morosov and those opposed to him, look quite crude. In the same country and at the same time, social media are both central to today’s politics in Brazil and almost irrelevant. It depends on who exactly you are talking about. We need ethnography to undertand how they relate to the different types of politics and the different types of social media. It is not that we are trying to make things more complex, it is rather that we are trying to acknowledge the complexity that we confront.

The face in Facebook

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 18 December 2012

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan, effects by Charlotte Mohammid

After my first month of fieldwork in El Mirador, I had gotten into a comfortable pattern of hanging out in hubs around the town, chatting with people and keeping up to date with what’s going on in the news and what people were talking about.

The big issue in Trinidad a couple weeks ago surrounded Dr Kublalsingh, a prominent academic at the University of the West Indies (UWI), well known environmental activist and the face of the Highway Re-Route Movement. Dr Kublalsingh and his supporters are opposed to the construction of a section of the highway that is proposed to link the southern towns of Debe and Mon Desir. The protest culminated when Dr Kublalsingh went on hunger strike for 21 days, he set himself up in front of the prime minister’s office in Port of Spain during business hours and continued until the government agreed to review the plans for that section of the highway and release the information informing their decision so far to the public.

Back in El Mirador, I was hearing different opinions on whether Dr Kublalsingh was right or wrong, that the highway is good or bad, that what he and his supporters were doing was meaningful or pointless. I decided that if I was going to understand this better, my camera and I needed to spend some time in Port of Spain.

My first day was Day 15 of Dr Kublalsingh’s hunger strike and the protest had taken a dramatic turning point. His health was deteriorating rapidly with grave implications for permanent organ damage and his family had become far more vocal with concerns that he should stop. On the other hand, Dr Kublalsingh had become very much a celebrity figure and charismatic leader as the face of the movement and for democratic expression in Trinidad. And most of this played out on Facebook. I uploaded my photos from the day and within hours, particular photos had been shared, liked and tagged amongst people I didn’t even know. I followed the movement until it ended, mostly photographing and following the effect of posting photos, which has now opened up a key question for me while I do this research: What does the face in Facebook mean in Trinidad?

Trinidadian anthropologist Dylan Kerrigan reminds us that ‘in political anthropology, the hunger strike is seen as a front-of-stage social drama. It is a cultural performance for a broad audience. It is not just the hunger striker who is on stage. The authorities, politicians, media and general public all become performers in the drama too.’

Here, a lot of the drama was portrayed, polarising and mobilising people online and in the media. More so, I would argue it was the images of Dr Kublalsingh, the toll the strike was taking on his body, the determination in his eyes, the effort that was captured in his media comments at the end of the working day that people responded to and cemented their views on what he was doing. The body was both viewed as “Look at how passionate this man is about his cause” as well as “Look at how crazy this man is and what he is doing to himself” and the same image could be used to reinforce both views.

Dr Gabrielle Hosein at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI argues that Dr Kublalsingh’s hunger strike shows hunger for information, reflective of a country’s hunger for a responsible government, transparency and accountability.

The circulation of images and in particular, an iconic image of a hungry body for a social and environmental movement is indeed a focal point on this very large political stage.

References:

Kerrigan, Dylan, ‘Political jiu-jitsu?’, The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper, 09.12.’12

Hosein, Gabrielle, ‘A hunger strike in a hungry nation’, The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper, 28.11.’12