August 2008


When I started my field work a few months ago, a good friend of mine told me that during her year of field work she had read more novels than in any other point in her life. Hardly what they tell you in Ethnographic Methods 101, but several other veteran ethnographers I know agreed: when you do field work you have a lot of time on your hands. Unlike the rest of their graduate school experience, where most of them don’t do anything other than study for 10 years straight, the one or two years in the field stand out in the stories I was told as extravaganzas of fiction consumption and loafing about.

Well they all did it a few years ago without the joys of laptop computers and a thriving black market in DVDs. I’ve read a hell of a lot of novels in the last few months, but I’ve also watched an almost astonishing amount of DVDs. (And perhaps only people who know how many movies I watch back home in Chicago already can appreciate what that means.) Although I usually pride myself on keeping up with my movie and novel consumption back in the US, the last few months I have indeed found myself on several occasions with more time on my hands than I know what to do with. A few days ago I even starting doing some sketching again – something I used to do regularly and haven’t had time/energy to do even once in the last three years.

As lovely as it is to catch up on all these lost past times, I quiet like being as busy as I usually am. Reading a hundred novels because you have nothing else to do is fine if you never usually do, but not if you’re lying there thinking of all the other things you’d like to be doing instead. The problem is, that reading novels about the exciting lives of other people is all there is to do, because there really isn’t that much else to occupy you at the end of the day when you’ve already pestered your ‘informants’ as much as you can, and you’re living in a little town in the middle of the nowhere. When I go home to the US in a few weeks and reflect on my time in the field, one of the things I will take with me is a profound reassurance of my long held suspicion that living in the countryside sucks. Its hell!

While holding a good relativist position that my opinion is only that, my opinion, and not something that I would expect other people to share – I still think that I would rather like in a mental intuition than have to live in the country side longer than a few months. That great expanse of nothingness… What else is there to do of a night, other than curl up in bed with a novel/movie and be fast asleep by 9? (Well, those are the healthy options… The high rates of teenage pregnancy, alcoholism and drug taking in rural places only supports my argument here I would guess.)

In recent weeks I’ve found myself reduced to a state of paralysing ennui. I know there are things I could be doing with my time and work I should be getting on with, but something about the quiet and the dullness of a small town just takes all the life out of me. I end up counting the hours till I can go to bed, weighing up the time I can kill be walking to the plaza and buying something – even just a bag of bread – from one of the tiny shops there. At home when I feel restless of an evening I go for long walks through the city, not really caring what direction I’m going but just walking up and down endless streets trying to become lost. I watch the people hurrying past, look in brightly lit windows and imagine the lives inside, hunt out odd architecture or compare how two once identical houses have changed, discover new corners of the neighbourhood I never knew existed – hidden graffiti, gradual changes, strange buildings. I find I can sometimes just walk for hours as it soothes my mood – I always feel reluctant to return home no matter how exhausted I’ve made myself. Feeling all that life around me makes me feel better somehow.

In the small town I can walk as far as the plaza, or maybe down one of the country roads, and all I see are fields. Its so hideously depressing to me that I have begun to invent elaborate timetables and excuses in order to take the 2 hour bus journey back to the city at night. And I don’t think there is anything different between this small town in Bolivia and any other small town or village anywhere else in any part of the world. I’ve got the same chilly feeling of fear on road trips in the US, or during my childhood summers in rural France. My long held aversion to “market towns” in the UK springs from the same sense of doom and foreboding of being trapped in one of these places. I particularly think of a road trip I took with two good friends from Chicago to Virginia last summer, where we drove through an endless landscape where only a single house would stand out against the great expanse of fields. At one point we got utterly lost in a tiny suburban hole, going endlessly round and round the same narrow streets, past the same isolated houses, giggling uncontrollably in our fear of never being able to find the highway that would take us out of that dump again.

I’m sure there are people who love the countryside, and I’m glad they exist because it means I don’t have to. But I wonder how all the romantic glorification of the countryside may make it harder for people born there who like me can’t wait to leave. I remember reading back in school a piece about the industrial revolution that, while acknowledging all the evils it brought, pointed out that it allowed a lot of young people (and particularly young women) from rural backgrounds to leave their families and the rural towns they would otherwise have had no choice but to live in all their lives. While agreeing that conditions were usually very hard, it suggested that some people may have been drawn to urban life and the possibility of not only having a small disposable income of their own (rather than their families) but things other than the local Sunday market and the occasional visiting circus to spend it on. Now I realise there are a whole gamut of problems with this argument, but whenever I hear people lamenting the flight from traditional rural villages to cities – no matter how grim and slum-like they are – a little bit of me can understand the attraction that pulls young people away.

I’m prepared to be slaughtered for suggesting this – as I have in arguments with others before hand on the same topic. But why is it that the countryside is always presented as this idyllic paradise?

And in case you didn’t get the reference in the title: one of my favourite novels that I should really have brought with me this summer is, of course, Cold Comfort Farm.

From a discussion of sexism in Australia…

Then there was the men’s magazine Zoo Weekly, which ran a competition inviting men to send in pictures of their girlfriend’s cleavage, to win them a $10,000 (£4,500) boob job. Following an outcry, the magazine’s editor announced that they were running a new competition, this time to find “Australia’s sexiest feminist”, a contest that was also known as the search “for the hottest girl in sensible shoes”. “If you hate men, we want to see photos of you in sexy lingerie,” read the competition ad.

I’ve been told on a couple of occasions by anthropologist friends who work in Chile that I should avoid mentioning the fact that I’m at the University of Chicago when I’m doing field work there. So its with some interest that I’ve been catching up on the latest saga in my home turf. After the last year of protests, meetings and mud slinging over the under funding of graduate students in the Humanities and Social Sciences, we were all rather dismayed to discover that although the good ol’ powers that be can’t afford to give us health care, they can afford to build a whopping great big new centre for the economists. Because those guys are in such a precarious position they need a little extra cash.

Aside from being pissed off at the unfairness of it, though, there are some more fundamental objections to the new centre. There are other departments at the UoC that have great reputations, but all of us carry this collective milestone round our neck that threatens to disrupt and discredit us at any moment: the reputation of the Chicago School of Economics. That the new centre will be actively continuing the work, as well as baring the name, of Milton Friedman has been a bit of a kick in the teeth. Having seen the new president, Robert Zimmer, slip and slide his way through the “negotiations” with the graduate students, however, I suspect he will be equally dismissive and arrogant on this issue. Anyway, there is a lot of info about it here, and a petition doing the rounds which I am coping below.

Chances that this will all be sorted before I start my field work in Chile? Low.

Chances I will be pretending I’m a student at UIC? I’d say they’re pretty high.

For one or more of the following reasons, we, the undersigned, oppose establishment of the Milton Friedman Institute (MFI) in the form that has been proposed (To sign, please go to http://www.stat.uchicago.edu/~amit/MFI/).

1. The scale of the University’s investment in the MFI seems disproportionate to other endeavors in the Social Sciences and Humanities. This is not a center like any other, but threatens to be a flagship that will define the way our University is perceived by the public at large. It is not credible to claim that the MFI bears Mr. Friedman’s name only in recognition of his technical accomplishments as an economist.[1] Rather, it will be widely understood that his political positions are also being celebrated and contributors will expect the MFI to champion, advance, and refine them.

2. In May 2007, the President appointed an ad hoc committee with the broad charge of creating “a major new institute at the University on economics and society.”[2] However, the committee, five of whose seven members teach in the economics department, proposed instead an institute whose stated goal is to provide vast resources to the economics department to improve its competitive position relative to its rivals in the field.[3] The committee’s report ignores approaches to the interdisciplinary theme of “economics and society” that originate in disciplines other than economics or that diverge from the particular approaches of the Chicago School. We welcome the President’s initial interdisciplinary vision, but want it realized in its full breadth.

3. We know of no other unit of the University whose research findings are as predetermined as this one’s apparently are, given the MFI’s stated intention to follow Friedman’s lead in advocating market solutions to policy questions, while regarding the state, NGOs, and all non-market actors with distinct suspicion.[4] Presumably then, to take one example, the question of whether to privatize Social Security would be moot; the only reasonable question is how.

4. The proposal ignores the many critiques of Friedman’s views that have been offered and the problems, including state terror, crony capitalism, declining life expectancy, food shortages, etc., that have arisen where he and his disciples implemented those views (Chile, Argentina, the post-Soviet republics, e.g.). We acknowledge that Friedman’s ideas have been influential, but are uneasy at the prospect of their constituting a new orthodoxy that will define the Institute for years to come. Ongoing critical interrogation of all theories ought be an essential part of this, like any other part of the University.

5. The level of donor/corporate control over this Institute seems unprecedented in University history or policy. It has been announced that donors of $1 million or more will become lifetime members of the Milton Friedman Society, “a highly selective group of contributors who will have special access to the people and work of the Institute.”[5] Establishment of a club where the wealthy gain privileged academic participation does not strike us as consistent with the principles of this, or of any self-respecting University.

6. Such arrangements also suggest increased privatization of the University and the cultivation of a symbiosis between scholars whose theories produce profits for a set of donors who then reinvest in those theories. This seems to us less a “free market of ideas,” than a cartel designed to promote certain academic products at the expense of others that might be intellectually — or morally — superior, but promise less return on investment. The analogy of research sponsored by drug and tobacco companies is not exact, but is too close for comfort.

7. The proposal makes clear that the MFI will engage issues of policy and not limit itself to matters of academic theory.[6] We are troubled by the prospect that it could come to play a role similar to that of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, or think tanks that lack the legitimating imprimatur of great universities.

8. Among the more worrisome details embedded in the proposal is the idea that beyond providing funds for visiting faculty, post-doctoral researchers, and graduate fellows, the MFI will also use its assets to recruit and mentor undergraduates.[7] Given other aspects of the MFI’s mission and profile, we are alarmed at the possibility of selection on ideological grounds and the cultivation of activist cadres, trained at Chicago and networked via the Milton Friedman Society.

Given the serious nature of these concerns, we welcome President Zimmer’s decision to convene the University Senate this fall as a venue for open debate on plans for the MFI. We intend to raise these issues in principled fashion and to propose substantial changes, as we passionately hope — for the University’s sake — that the MFI does not come into being as it is currently envisioned.

[1] Consider the following thought experiment. Would the Economics Department or the University imagine it could raise $200 million by founding a George Stigler Institute? George Stigler was a long-time colleague of Friedman’s in the Economics Department, was also an unambiguous supporter of pure laissez-faire economics and, like Friedman, was a truly distinguished scholar who won a Nobel Prize. But because he limited his publications to scholarly venues, rather than supplementing his scholarship with a free-market ideological crusade, his name would have considerably less value. The additional value of the Friedman name derives from his role as public champion of the free-market doctrines whose adoption in the United States and elsewhere has vastly increased the earnings of the very wealthy. Presumably, it is the latter who will be the prime contributors to (and investors in) the MFI.
[2] A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” submitted by the ad hoc Committee chaired by Lars Peter Hansen, p. 1, available at http://mfi.uchicago.edu/pdf/mfi.final.pdf.
[3] Ibid., see esp. pp. 3-4.
[4] Ibid., p. 2: “Following Friedman’s lead, the design and evaluation of economic policy requires analyses that respect the incentives of individuals and the essential role of markets in allocating goods and services. As Friedman and others continually demonstrated, design of public policy without regard to market alternatives has adverse social consequences. The intellectual focus of the institute would reflect the traditions of the Chicago School and typify some of Milton Friedman’s most interesting academic work, including… his advocacy for market alternatives to ill conceived policy initiatives.”
[5] “Milton Friedman Society,” available at http://mfi.uchicago.edu/society.shtml. What kinds of access and influence members will have is not made explicit, but those schooled on Friedman’s dictum “There is no free lunch” may be expected to anticipate some commensurate return on their money.
[6] The concern for “policy” appears on every page of the proposal, as in the programmatic recommendation “to create one of the world’s most vital and visible institutes for economic research and policy analysis and evaluation” (“A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” p. 1, emphasis added).
[7] “A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” p. 7.

the subsistence-based economy of the Tarapaca valley in the North of Chile

Farming in the desert: the subsistence-based economy of the Tarapaca valley in the North of Chile

I have to catch a bus, so don’t have time to rant about this piece of ‘research’ as much as I want to. So here’s the short sarcastic version.

Because the only reason women exist is to have babies.

By now you have no doubt heard that Evo won, and won spectacularly. If you haven’t, then take a quick trip over to the Blog from Bolivia for the news. I keep looking at the figures, but its still hasn’t quiet sunk in for me… I mean, this election has shown that he really does have an unprecedented level of support. 65% is… incredible.

To put that in perspective, Labour won at the last election in the UK with 35.3% of the popular vote. Even in the department where Evo has the least support, Santa Cruz, he got more than Labour won with: 38%.

I’m usually a cynical bastard when it comes to elections, verging on support of the eat-your-ballot campaign. As far as I’m concerned anyone who makes it far enough to get their name on a ballot paper has to have abandoned everything that would have made them a decent human, just to get (or to want to get) that far, long ago. But I don’t think I’m just being romantic when I say that this situation feels different, and that Evo is a different type of politician. Sure, he’s obviously still a politician, but for the first time it seems like there really is a choice between two substantially different entities.

Its slightly eerie in La Paz today. I noticed it immediately I woke up. Usually I get woken by the sound on traffic outside, even though I live on the 16th floor. But this morning I was woken at 7:30 by a military style band blasting out a rousing little number, then promptly stopping and leaving behind a deathly silence. Lying in bed listening to the rather disconcerting sound of nothing whatsoever, I eventually got curious enough to drag myself to the window. Outside the streets were deserted – barely a single car and hardly a person on the streets as far as I could see (and from the 16th floor I can generally see pretty far).

Its been like that all day. The only vehicles out are taxis with official looking notices on their windscreens, and they mostly seem to be ferrying officials and journalists between the municipal buildings and the newspaper offices.

I took a walk down town in the afternoon to see what was going on, if anything. Its oddly quiet in the city without any traffic. Nearly all the shops and cafés are closed – the single fast food joint open, Dumbo’s, was packed, while the Starbucks-esque Alexander’s Cafe was still only serving its loyal crowd of American ex-pats sucking on over-priced lattes. The usual Sunday cultural events on the Prado were cancelled, but there was something of the holiday feel in the air as families and couples strolled up and down the street. The parks and plazas were packed with children playing and lovers cooing. Even in Plaza Murillo, where the governmental palace is, there were still the usual crowds of tourists snapping pictures and small children feeding/stomping on pigeons under the doting eyes of their parents.

The peaceful holiday mood clashed somewhat with the high police presence in the city, particularly around places where people are voting. That strange and exotic feeling of being able to meander through the middle of what ought to be a hectic thoroughfare was broken every now and then by a convoy of police on bright red motorbikes racing their way through. Given that (once they have voted of course) no-one has anything better to do today than wander the streets, I guess its not surprising that I came across at least one big fight in the street. Outside a church on the Prado a middle-aged woman in a pink sun hat and holding an ice cream in her hand was berating a group of embarrassed looking young men. As they traded insults a crowd began to form, occasionally heckling or joining in. Two giggling women who looked like mother and grown-up daughter got into the mood by sitting down on the church steps and shouting slogans for either side, much to the amusement of the onlookers. But others were far more serious, not least the women who seemed to have started it. A young man in a MAS jacket seemed to be the prime target of the women’s rage. He got eventually dragged away by his friends to the hooting jeers of the crowd, but by this point enough people had joined in for the argument to continue a good while longer. There was something a little surreal about seeing the peaceful Sunday strollers meandering up the Prado get to the church and suddenly launch themselves into a political street brawl. A few police eventually came by and pulled aside a man still holding the hand of his young son while shouting red faced at the old woman with her ice cream.

By the time I got home an hour or so ago the crowds of reporters outside the municipal building where they are counting the votes had thinned a bit. This morning they had been camped out on mass on the pavement (or, to be more accurate, queuing round the block for the hot-dog stand opposite the municipal building with one eye on the food and one eye on the big gates in case anything happened). What’s going on inside that building will determine whether things remain this quiet over the next few days, weeks and months.

I’m interested in the debate going on about Katy Perry, the new trying-to-be-Lily-Allen popsicle. Her first two singles are both accused of being anti-gay. The first was called “UR so Gay” and is all about an ex who was too metrosexual for his own good, while the second is called “I Kissed a Girl” and, well, its about her kissing a girl. The musical value of the songs aside, she’s pissed a lot of people off. But the daughter of two Christian Pastors and the latest product of Capitol Records seems herself to be blithely ignorant of the offence she has caused.

This fantastic interview with her and its subsequent discussion in The New Gay magazine is wonderful. As one of the commentators points out

“The interviewer just keeps asking, over and over, “Why are you such a homophobic cunt?”

The subject keeps responding, “The songs are personal, the themes are open to interpretation, I don’t have a government-mandated obligation to be politically correct.”

The songs each play on tropes of homophobia that are common in daily life but considered to be ‘harmless’. The first being the use of ‘gay’ as an insult akin to ‘stupid’ or ‘sucky’, the second being the idea that (pretty) straight girls kissing is hot as long as its aimed at turning on men. The first is one of my own personal rant buttons, and I have on several occasions got into huge blazing rows over it (most recently with my little sister – the one who also thinks that Muslims are evil). “But I don’t really mean gay as an insult, its just a word. It doesn’t mean gay like that“: the excuse of the fucking ignorant. The second idea that lesbians are hot seems to have a whole lot to do with porn. I always wondered why it was that lesbians were so popular in porn for men, given that you’d assume there would be nothing there for them. But I figured eventually that its probably because most straight men are so homophobic that they aren’t even comfortable seeing another guy naked in porn, so if you just eliminate the guy and put in two women it solves the problem. Which is of course reinforced by the fact that you would never see a butch lesbian, or in fact a lesbian, in ‘lesbian’ porn aimed at straight men. So Katy Perry’s funny little jokes reinforce the idea that lesbians only exist as male sex objects, and that men (gay or straight) who don’t fit in with established sex/gender roles should be punished for it. Catchy!

I was thinking about writing this post last night while in a gay bar in La Paz, and talking to my friend who took me there. My friend, Diana, was pretty uncomfortable but trying really hard not to show it. She had been nervous about whether she ought to mention the fact she was going to the bar, and had kind of ‘sounded me out’ on how I would react before inviting me. She is straight but was going because an old friend of hers who is gay was organising the event. Diana’s reaction was really interesting – although she was obviously very uncomfortable and probably quiet unhappy about her friend being, as she called it, ‘abnormal’, she was really trying hard to understand and to open her mind to the idea. She wanted to go to the bar to support her friend in an event she was organising, and I think in general to show her friend that she still supported her altogether. We had a good night out (till the curfew interrupted us) and made plans to see the Miss Gay Bolivia candidate through to the competition next weekend. Diana talked about how dangerous it is to be openly gay in Bolivia – at the gay pride event earlier in the year people attacked and sprayed gas on the people marching. We talked in the taxi home about the Katy Perry song “UR So Gay” and she was far more shocked than I had been.

In a way its a bit like the racist comments I was talking about before. Ed, for example, considers himself to be progressive and would probably describe Diana as homophobic because she is uncomfortable with the idea of her friend being gay. But Ed regularly makes the kind of locker room jokes with his male friends about being ‘so gay’, and I can only imagine the look of fear that would cross his face if we had offered to bring him along last night to the drag show in a gay bar. Diana lives in a country where being gay really is considered to be ‘abnormal’ so her opinion is understandable – I think its a bit much to assume that individual people can throw off their habitus overnight after one contact with the ‘liberal west’. In fact it’s this idea that we are more liberal in the west that makes us able to become comfortable with our own prejudice. What makes Diana more tolerant that Ed is that she is actively trying to change her opinion and broaden her mind, and that she understands that such ‘causal jokes’ are part of the day-to-day reinforcement of oppression that keep her friends underground and, at times, in fear of their lives.

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