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The anthropology of dog-walking

12 Jul

The anthropology of dog-walking

I am not an anthropologist, but I want to be one when I grow up. There has been a noticeable ‘turn’ towards anthropological methods in the study of peace and conflict, and international relations more generally, over the past decade or so. It coincides with a lending and borrowing of concepts and methods from sociology and feminism too as peace and conflict scholars have moved beyond looking at institutions and combatants to take a whole-of-society approach to their subject.

While anthropologists are rightfully suspicious of those who claim to use ‘ethnography’ without training and a deep grounding in the literature, many have been generous in encouraging peace and conflict scholars to use ‘ethnographically-influenced’ methods in their research. I would like to showcase the anthropology of the dog-walk, or how walking a dog (or dogs) allows you to see sides of a community that you ordinarily would not. I have been a dog owner for about 12 years – first for Paddy a loveable but scheming chocolate Labrador and now Ted and Bess, black and chocolate Labradors. In York, then St Andrews, and now in rural southern Scotland I have walked these dogs three or four times a day around villages, along lanes and across beaches.

Walking along familiar routes, often at reasonably set times of the day, allows you to engage in and with a community in different ways. I have never used my dog-walking for research purposes (most of my research is overseas) but it has encouraged me to think about research processes and the value of ‘slow research’ – or repeated and close-level engagement with the same site. Here are four advantages of research observation by walking a dog (or dogs):

Firstly, you get to meet people and speak with them. I lived – dog-less – in York for about five years. In that time I really only knew academic colleagues. They were completely unrepresentative of the city. None of us came from York, listened to the local radio station, or read the local paper. It was a very insular life. Very often I would give the dog his lunchtime walk in a large park near my house. Other dog walkers would gather and we would spend a few minutes chatting while the dogs played and sniffed each other. This was a very different York: van drivers, care-givers, single mums. It was working class and unvarnished with a good deal of xenophobia but also an honesty and lack of sophistry that I hugely appreciated. The dog-network allowed me to see a side to York that campus life excluded. I heard about the issues that affected people and how they saw their own city. That pattern of being able to meet so-called ordinary people – through the technique of walking a dog – has been replicated everywhere else I have lived.

Secondly, you notice the small things. I usually walk the dogs at set times: first thing in the morning, lunchtime, teatime and last thing at night. Three of these walks will be 30 minutes plus (usually longer) and the bedtime one is usually 10 minutes. There are a limited number of places that one can walk nearby so I will often walk the same routes several times a week. And it is here that you notice things. In particular, you notice the small things: a car parked in an unusual position, a new garden decoration, a freshly painted fence. All of this probably is of negligible social significance, but it does allow you to piece together a picture of a community: who is well networked, who never has visitors, who is more prosperous, who is house-proud, who doesn’t give a damn? Although it is simply walking around with your eyes open, I like to think that it is the amalgamation of multiple data points that gives you a comprehensive picture of a community.

Thirdly, it gives you an excuse to go places that ordinarily you would not go. Acquire a dog and a lead and immediately you are empowered to walk up lanes, around the margins of fields, and places that it would be odd to go if you did not have a dog in tow. You can see views of the locality that you otherwise would not. Particularly in rural areas, the topography explains much of the political economy and the built environment: who had access to the good land, who had the water, why does the road take that odd turn? A dog allows you to be noisy – to walk to that hilltop to get the view and to go behind those farm buildings and find the water-source that explains why the community was built there.

Fourthly, you move (reasonably) slowly. The pace of research (or at least the expectation that we publish often and have impact) seems to be increasing. Walking a dog allows you time-out. That’s good for thinking time and our mental health. But it allows us to make ‘slow observations’ – to see something, to study it, to hazard a guess why it is like that. I often pass things that puzzle me (why has the farmer dumped that there, why are there so many cars at that house, why is that place busier than usual today?). By slowly ambling past – because the dogs have found something interesting to sniff – you can usually get the answer.

I am not suggesting that we all find and dog and bring it on ‘fieldwork’. I can think of multiple reasons why that would be inappropriate and impractical. I am, instead, celebrating the value of walking and keeping you eyes open. None of this uses Nvivo, draws on the corpus of dead French philosophers, or involves the construction of a dataset. It does involve the genius of dogs though.

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Where are the peace missiles for Syria?

12 Apr

The toxic-macho exchange of statements and tweets over the dead body of Syria is a dreadful indictment of the failure of global governance. What is particularly disappointing is that the threats of violence (on top of the violence already inflicted by Russia, the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and particularly the Syrian regime) are not accompanied by a political or humanitarian campaign. Sometimes violence can be legitimised (if certain ‘just war’ criteria are met). But violence to simply punish or censure without the hope of betterment for the Syrian peoples (plural – there is no homogenous ‘Syrian people’) seems particularly pointless.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Trump and Putin exchanged competitive tweets and statements ahead of a peace campaign? Trump could boast of ‘smart’ peace. Putin could reply about ‘Russian peace’. Instead, they – and their many proxies – seem to offer nothing except violence. There is no point in blaming the United Nations – it is merely a vassal of state sovereignty and state vetoes.

Should the US, UK and France engage in attacks on Syria it will be worth reading the accompanying statements to see if they say anything about humanitarianism and political initiatives. We seem to be moving towards an era of post-legitimacy in which intervening states invest little energy into the public narration of their reasons for intervention beyond stability and security. Complain all we want about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but Blair, Bush and their administrations did actually invest heavily in the public justification of their actions. These used the language of human rights and emancipation. Those days seem gone.

The other point worth making is that so successful have been the misinformation and propaganda campaigns by all sides that we – the far away public – have no idea what to believe. Waters have been well and truly muddied. The White Helmets seem either to be heroes or CIA stooges. Qatar seems to be a clever regional actor punching above its weight or the funder of jihadists. There seems to be little space for well-informed journalism that isn’t accused of being in the pocket of an interested party.

In all of this, it is striking that we hear very little from Syrian voices in Syria. My suspicion (and it has to be a suspicion given my comments on the news media) is that most Syrians still in Syria are utterly fatigued by the civil wars. Sustaining such a long series of linked civil wars is surely taking a massive toll and I suspect that most people want it to end. A relatively unexplored factor in the ending of many conflicts and civil wars (think of those in southern Africa and – to some extent – Northern Ireland) is the exhaustion of the participants. One generation feels so exhausted by the conflict that it thinks twice about the continuation of the war. The Russian intervention certainly re-energised the conflict, just at a time when a Mutually Hurting Stalemate (MHS) seemed to be in prospect. The threatened violent intervention by the US and its allies might similarly re-energise the conflict (in a best case scenario it might ‘re-balance’ the conflict, lead to a MHS and an mutual interest in peace but that seems unlikely).

There might – of course – be subterranean negotiations underway. Possibly away from the glare of the tweeting and bombast, calm international and national intermediaries are hashing out a plan that will bring some form of peace to Syria. If there are such initiatives I wish them luck. But I have seen nothing to encourage such optimism.

The Good Friday Agreement – 20 years on

11 Apr

It is easy to be cynical twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement was reached. There has been very limited reconciliation between the two main communities. The power-sharing government collapsed over a year ago and there is little sign of it being restored. The reason for its collapse is that the two main political parties – Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists – loathe each other with an intensity few outsiders could imagine. Important parts of the Good Friday Agreement – like those on dealing with the past and a consultative role for civil society – have been ignored.

A list of disappointments could go on but the Good Friday Agreement is to be celebrated for one fundamental fact: there are hundreds of people walking around today who otherwise would have lost their lives in violence. Add to this the thousands who would have been incarcerated had things continued, and the thousands who would have been injured, and the human advantage of the Agreement is very clear.

Certainly the backslapping by celebrity politicians is grating. But is worth recognising that a number of politicians took risks to make the Belfast Agreement happen. Tony Blair – a man whose stock is low because of the Iraq debacle – invested enormous political capital into the Northern Ireland peace process. He did not have to do this. Bill Clinton made things happen. He cajoled, persuaded, enticed and quite possibly bullied. It worked. Bertie Ahern used the gift of the gab. George Mitchell had the patience of an army of saints. And lots of other politicians, civil servants and civil society played their part too. It worked.

Commentary on the failings of the Good Friday Agreement could go on forever. But many lives have been saved. Many more have been improved. For that we should be grateful.

Shared space and civility in Belfast

4 Apr

A plug for a great article in the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development by HCRI Manchester PhD student Eric Lepp. Based on really innovative field work, the article looks at how space is, and might be, shared in a deeply divided society.

The abstract is below and I am sure Eric would send you a pdf copy if you emailed him: eric.lepp@manchester.ac.uk

In Northern Ireland the Good Friday Agreement brought with it top-down political and social approaches to construct and increase intergroup contact and shared spaces in an effort to reconcile divided Nationalist and Unionist communities. In the period following the peace agreement, the Belfast Giants ice hockey team was established, and its games have become one of the most attended spectator activities in Belfast, trending away from the tribalism, single-space, single-class, and single-gender dynamics of modern sport in Northern Ireland. This article utilises the setting of the Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) Arena, home of the Giants, to demonstrate normalisation of interactions occurring between supporters who are willing to purchase a ticket beside someone to whom they are politically opposed. This sport and its supporters choose to enjoy the experience of the hockey game, rather than be caught in the politicised attachment of meaning expected of shared space, offering a challenge to the reconciliation-centric assumptions in post-peace agreement Belfast.

Things I learned from reading the newspaper today (and thus a reason to celebrate good newspapers and good journalism while we still have them):

1 Apr

– Remmington – the gunmaker – has filed for bankruptcy in the US.
– The technology company Huawei spent $13.8bn on research and development last year.
– North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has had seven defence ministers in the past six years.
– Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan was a semi-professional footballer.
– There are now 50 Lebanese wine producers – at the beginning of the century there were 14.
– The summer population of Antarctica is about 10,000 and falls to 1,000 in winter.
– The wife of a former minister in Putin’s government spent £160,000 to play a tennis match with Boris Johnson.
– The Conservative Party has received £3m from Russian sources since 2010.
– For every 10 tonnes of fuel on a Jumbo jet, three tonnes are burned just to carry it.

Skripal poisoning: Time for an information arbiter?

15 Mar

One of the most notable aspects of the Sergei and Yulia Skripal poisoning case is that hard information is restricted to a very small group of professionals and elites. The list of people who know what actually happened is small. Most of these people probably only know part of the story. The exact identity of the chemical involved, for example, will be privy only to a small group of scientists with the skills and equipment to conduct an analysis. They will know that part of the story but probably not much else. Similarly the police and intelligence services, and some in the media, will know part of the story. A small circle of political figures might try to piece together the available evidence but their information is imperfect.

A near constant thread through many conflict, and the decision-making processes that lead to and maintain conflicts, is imperfect knowledge. Much conflict is based on miscommunication and poor signalling. The ‘security dilemma’ (or the vicious circle of security precautions that spark security precautions by the other side) is based on a misreading of signals. There are strong pre-existing biases between Russia and the UK (and Russian has ‘form’ on this issue through the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko) so the misreading of signals is likely to expect the worst from the other side. Moreover, as we know many actors work hard to engage in disinformation (‘fake news’ is by no means a new phenomena).

What seems to be missing from all of this is an information arbiter – a neutral body that can look at evidence and adjudicate on what happened and who might be responsible. At the moment information is held, withheld and sought by interested parties who are necessarily political. Moreover, this issue has turned into one of national bravado – with the UK under pressure to look tough and Russia compelled to deny responsibility but – at the same time – remind the world that it is a sovereign nation that won’t be pushed around. The domestic ‘predicaments’ of both governments are important here too. Russia has an election and the UK … well … anything that helps Theresa May look tough (or even competent) in the Brexit morass is a bonus.

The lack of an information arbiter – perhaps some truly independent international and transnational body that has full cooperation from governments – means that what we see is a speculation bonanza. I have lost count of the number of radio interviews I have heard from people who don’t know what happened. Instead most of them recycle bias and assumptions.

There might be good reason why some authorities don’t want to share information (it may prejudice a trial or jeopardise informants) but that would not prevent an information arbiter that works on the basis of confidentiality. At the moment we have one government’s word against that or another. And we are left to fill in the blanks with our biases rather than evidence.

Fox News and the permanent election

28 Dec

It is not enough to rail against Trump’s America. It is better to understand it, or to try to understand it. As an analytical tool, I cannot recommend highly enough a daily look at Fox News. Three tropes shine through from my daily browsing and they tell us a lot about what brought Trump to power – and his prospects for re-election.

The first trope is that there is a sense of a permanent campaign by Trump, Republicans and the American Right. Rather than portraying Trump as a governing incumbent, he is depicted as an outsider, with his back to the wall. Central to this permanent electioneering (a campaign mightily endorsed by Fox) is a strategy to keep former President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton in the news. On many days, Obama and Clinton are the top news story on Fox, and they are rarely out of the top three news stories. They are never portrayed in a flattering way and the photo editors must work hard to find such poor pictures of their subjects. The strategy, one presumes, is to give the impression that Obama and Clinton are still in power and Trump is an outsider fighting the good fight from beyond Washington. The sense of a permanent campaign is aided by the US political system in which there are multiple elections (primaries and multi-party elections). Yet even local elections receive national prominence.

A second trope that is a permanent fixture on the Fox News website can be described as ‘culture war’. In particular this takes the form of “outrage” at a perceived chipping away at mainstream American values (for mainstream American values read: “white nominally Christian values”). Much of the outrage is, presumably, manufactured by editors and sub-editors as it would seem difficult to maintain such a level of outrage over the longer term. One of the bogeymen (and women) of the culture war are academics – usually those in the humanities who are portrayed as being disrespectful and un-American. In UK terms, US academics are guilty of “political correctness gone mad”. Thus, we have stories like ‘Professor claims “jingle bells” is rooted in racism’ or opinion pieces (by a “Conservative Patriot” columnist ) decrying a college course on “Queering God”.

The third trope in the Fox news cycle is unwavering support for the US military and ‘law enforcement’. Indeed, a number of tricky news issues (most notably structural racism in the US as manifested police killings and victimisation of African Americans) are often reported through a national security/law and order lens. So, for example, rather than reporting an issue in terms of race and racism, it might be reported in terms of endangering police officers.

The effect of this management (indeed manufacture) of the news is that it does much to set the tone for political debates. Opponents are classified and categorised. This terms such as ‘liberals’, ‘the left’, and ‘Dems’ are used in relation to a very wide range of individuals and groups – many of which would not necessarily identify with those labels.

Having regularly read the Fox News website for a number of years, it would seem as though the news is funneled into ready-made silos that keep alive particular narratives. It is not a case of events making the news. Rather, essentially nationalist, conservative and neo-liberal narratives use events as a cladding. A particularly worrying effect of the Fox News approach (and doubtless the approaches of other news outlets that are stridently ideological) is that there is very little room for dissent and debate. A real world of equivocation and ambivalence is morphed into a world of black and white and straight lines. A perusal of the comments on Fox News stories is often a frightening experience given the level of invective used against perceived opponents. Many of the comments are overtly racist and sectarian and apparently un-moderated by the news site.

These comments on Fox News hardly amount to a scientific analysis. It is worth noting that all media contains bias and that fox News is not alone on the right. But it is by far the most popular US news channel. It is also very profitable.

So Trump for 2020? Yep.