Portable Practices of Critical Social Inquiry

By Jonathan Larson, Grinnell College

The annual theme of the 2016 ASEEES annual convention in Washington, DC, “Global Conversations,” “invite[d] discussion rooted in deep local or regional knowledge while investigating what our region brings to global study, and what we can learn from those who study other places and other cultures.” The present historical moment is generating greater urgency for scholars of global regions to continue grappling with long-running questions about contextually defined and comparative knowledge. In the spirit of continuing the 2016 annual convention’s exploration of the relationships between regional and global knowledge I would like to reintroduce some ideas from a roundtable at the 2015 annual convention. “Portable Practices of Critical Social Inquiry: Taking East Central Europe Global” assembled a mix of mostly junior and two senior anthropologists and sociologists who have studied a sub-region within the larger association’s membership. In contrast to the broader scope of some 2016 convention events on a “global” theme, this roundtable was more narrow in constitution and charge. Participants were asked to consider what might be consequential, helpful, or important about ethnographic and critical approaches of anthropologists and sociologists of East Central Europe applied to various forms of administrative work in support of not “regional,” but “global” expertise. Put somewhat differently, if factual knowledge of East Central Europe is currently of limited appeal to the academy, policy-makers,and other institutions, what forms of critical social acumen acquired in the study of this region prove useful in contexts and fields of activity other than teaching and research?

The goal of the roundtable was to reflect on applying more “intellectually” informed regional training and scholarship to endeavors in other parts of the world. The roundtable aimed to explore theory, experience, and practice in a discussion that might tack between the specific and the general, or even the phenomenological and praxiological (Boyer 2008: 39). I myself was inspired by administrative work for Grinnell College that had taken me to Latin America and China, and my resulting delight at feeling relatively competent to join conversations about bureaucratic constraints to universal health care in rural Costa Rica, property regimes in Rio de Janeiro, social movements in Buenos Aires, and urban planning in Beijing. I had started to wonder if we might not find traction for progressing with discussions about area and global studies (e.g. Glover and Kollman 2012) in a closer consideration of the situated, field-informed critical social inquiry that sociology and anthropology have shared in the study of East Central Europe. For the readership of NewsNet I now see other extensions. How might initial insights from this more narrowly structured, yet still interdisciplinary conversation about the global and the local provide a model for and inspire other interdisciplinary discussions about our region that help us articulate the portability of our expertise?

Hana Červinková of the University of Lower Silesia opened by offering how her work with study abroad programs in Poland has sought to avoid pitfalls of Holocaust tourism by encouraging students’ “critical deconstruction” of their experiences. In addition to prodding students to consider the positioned nature of historical expertise, Červinková’s enthusiasm for an anthropological tradition of “action research” has connected students with practitioners of civil society and taken lessons from the past into the present. To the extent that present activism in Poland might inspire the US undergraduates on Červinková’s Syracuse University program, engaging with Poland’s difficult past can inspire transformation elsewhere (see Červinková and Golden 2014).

Krista Hegburg reported drawing on her fieldwork on Romani Holocaust survivors for her outreach on behalf of The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. Having been compelled to negotiate difficult discussions of comparative atrocity, suffering, and victimhood within East Central Europe and its diaspora, Hegburg’s educational programming for The Mandel Center first “took Eastern Europe domestic” before more recently taking it “global.” The sensitivity with which she has had to understand and then help people interrogate their stereotypes of Roma as debased and needing assistance, yet refusing the state, has applied to discussions at minority institutions in the US, such as tribal colleges, on Holocaust and ethnic studies. Hegburg’s responsibilities for The Mandel Center also hold a comparative dimension. Working within a diachronicallyorganized institution, Hegburg’s expertise has extended

The Mandel Center’s work to the frameworks of other global audiences in the present. Tomasz Zarycki described applying his training in Bourdievian sociology to his service as director of the Institute for Social Studies at the University of Warsaw. Zarycki’s work has crossed regularly between Polish, Western European, and North American regimes of area knowledge while the flow of his Polish peers and students has led to academic centers that are largely located elsewhere. Yet one merit of work as a sociologist in Poland, he observed, might be more opportunities than in Western Europe for interaction with communities outside of the academy.

Jan Kubik built on Zarycki’s comments, drawing on his experience as both an academic administrator and anthropologically-trained scholar of comparative politics at Rutgers University and more recently University College London. Anthropologists, Kubik noted, may have been particularly prone to citing ethical reasons as grounds for isolating themselves from the practical engagement in business or politics that Zarycki invoked. If more dialogue outside of the academy is pursued, it might persuade other professionals that regional ethnographers’ critical perspectives, and not just “neutral” insights into behavior, are valuable for foreign relations, marketing, and other occupations. Among the “portable critical analytics” that Kubik offered were the politics of memory, problems of democratization, the importance of context for implementing economic policy, and hybridity of the formal and informal.

Sociologist Michael Kennedy of Brown University reflected on an earlier discussion at the University of Michigan that had identified three elements central to that institution’s claims to “international” authority: grounding, expertise, and  translation (see his essay in Glover and Kollman 2012). Those three concepts could serve as axes for a discussion of translating social scientific knowledge from the study of East Central Europe to other global milieu. Kennedy has come to appreciate how East Central Europe’s “extreme volatility” has given rise to alternative futures contested through symbolic power. Perhaps the trick to extending the particular kind of contextual expertise that is area knowledge, Kennedy suggested, lies in pairing it with topics and fields often seen as “generalizing”— acontextual and applicable outside the academy, such as energy studies—or expanding the discussion to consider context-based knowledge from fields such as architecture or urban studies. After Kennedy’s remarks the discussion then delved into problems of resilience, adaptability, and vernacular knowledge. If the qualitatively inclined forms of anthropology and sociology of East Central Europe have been particularly eager to unpack how people have navigated tremendous and repeated political and economic upheaval, what lessons does this offer the study of other globally-formed, yet regionally specific transformations? Panelists on our roundtable showed themselves to be comfortable thinking about “the critical” not just in terms of reflexivity on how the region is understood by different publics, but also of analytical acumen approximating “skill.” Here I would approach “skill” deliberately yet cautiously in order to refashion current discourses that otherwise constrain the influence of area studies. Decision-makers in higher education commonly view languages, research methods, or topics researched as part of the area (or even “global”) studies training that may make a graduate (or undergraduate) student more widely employable outside of academic teaching (see Handler 2013 for a recent critical discussion). Many of us in the US are also wary of pressures to steer higher education toward vocational training and away from the broader deliberations and synergies that an interdisciplinary training in the liberal arts might afford. From discussion on the roundtable we could see how the analytical acumen formed in anthropology and sociology through ethnographically-informed critical social analysis of East Central Europe appears in our attempts to understand everyday forms of politicizing the past and navigating survival in a present built on competing empires and ideologies. It takes shape in our analysis of futures being made and unmade through global regimes of expertise and the ways that they do or do not articulate with other fields of discourse and social activity. It also becomes tangible in our appreciation for the resourcefulness with which people of the region navigate boundaries between formal and informal economic and political structures.

These examples of distinctive analytical acumen share something in common with what anthropologist Douglas Rogers, in a 2010 essay, called “postsocialisms unbound:” “a wider role for comparison that works through ethnography [emphasis his] and other kinds of contextualizing research, yet does not slip into a priori universalisms or metrics.” Rogers also noted a particular role that could be played by ethnographically informed scholars who “plumbed the uncertainties, ironies, incongruities, and unexpected outcomes” of various global postsocialist periods (2010). One important example of such a foray into irony and comparative communicative practices is the study of “American stiob" (a form of parody) by anthropologists Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak. Boyer and Yurchak pointed to “alternative aesthetics and practice of political critique” across “modern political ideologies and public cultures that cut across the analytics of socialism-liberalism and pre post” (2010: 211-13). Indeed, Boyer and Yurchak’s analysis presented the concept of “portable analytics” that I wish to highlight here. The 2015 roundtable suggested that deliberate interdisciplinary conversations among area scholars focused on questions of shared expertise and not per se the study of socialism and its aftermath can yield similar value for our field.

While the 2015 roundtable on which I have reported here was a conversation among anthropologists and sociologists of East Central Europe, it might prompt similarly structured interdisciplinary explorations of the contours to common ground. In particular, I would encourage us to put aside the typical lexicon of area expertise consisting of methods, languages, and topics to consider how theory informs various practices of our work. Enormously helpful to such discussions, and missing from the 2015 roundtable, would be detailed reflections from scholars, including recent graduate students, who have taken up non-academic work in other parts of the globe. How does the analytical acumen acquired in the study of Eastern Europe, of whatever disciplinary grounding, help these practitioners navigate new terrain? I would further propose that future discussions about “taking Eastern Europe global” linger on questions of context: how is the recontextualization of analytical insights from one global region to another facilitated by conscious and not-so-conscious perception of shared features that might suggest shared degrees of context? Any “portable analytic” involving modernity, neoliberalism, or the state depends absolutely on a sense of what is common to different contexts. Finally, this larger comparative conversation should retain the self-critical restraint acquired from mistaken prognoses of the region’s departures from Communist rule and the hubris of comparative analytics that informed them. Our regionally informed analytical acumen has much to offer the world, yet our insights can only emerge from carefully structured dialogue.

Jonathan Larson is Interim Director of Off-Campus Study at Grinnell College and Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iowa. His book Critical Thinking in Slovakia after Socialism (University of Rochester Press, 2013) was published in Slovak translation this year by Kalligram in Bratislava.