South Africa's walls between rich and poor have become global
- We need new strategies to understand what is happening and why people are responding in similar ways all over the world, says anthropologist Vito Laterza.
#FeesMustFall protest in Pretoria. In October 2015, tens of thousands of marchers brought universities to a halt. Photo: Paul Saad, flickr
In times of globally increasing inequality we need to turn anthropology into a science of possibilities, into a science that is looking for new directions societies can take. This is one way in which we can make a strong contribution to society, says anthropologist Vito Laterza.
– You have been studying labor unrest in Swaziland and the South African student movement that is protesting against rising costs of higher education, the precarious situation of university workers, and racism. Looking at recent protests in France, Italy, Greece and other places it is not difficult to find commonalities. Is it because people are increasingly fed up with austerity policies and growing inequality?
– Yes, this is what’s happening. The global economic system, after decades of neoliberalism, has lost all mitigating power to redistribute wealth and ensure the welfare of all citizens. All over the world people engage in different struggles to change some of this.
– Of course, marginalized people in southern Italy are not as poor and oppressed as marginalized people in South Africa. Italians are losing their privileged position as comfortable Europeans, while most South Africans have never had one, they have had to deal with oppression and exploitation by white capital for centuries. But the basic structural principles are at work all over the world. The interesting thing with being in Norway right now is to see some of the same undercurrents here as well, although the welfare system is still going strong. The Nordic countries, which continue to represent hope that wealth redistribution is possible and desirable, might also change direction in the future.
Separating the rich and poor
– You talk about the “globalisation of apartheid”, saying that South African structures of inequality are spreading around the world?
– We used that expression in an article in Anthropology Today I wrote with Keith Hart and John Sharp a couple of years ago. It was Keith who came up with the expression to capture the paradoxical situation we find ourselves in. Some years ago, at least in northern universities, we were convinced that apartheid was a thing of the past, something for history books. Now we wake up to a world that increasingly looks like the society we all swore we never wanted to see again.
Some years ago, at least in northern universities, we were convinced that apartheid was a thing of the past, something for history books.
– Separating rich and poor has become a universal feature of our world. In Europe and the U.S. physical and legal walls are built to prevent people from poorer parts of the world to make a life in richer countries. Those who are allowed to stay often have to struggle with discrimination, and are made to feel precarious and dispensable by the dominant political narratives.
– What is the role of anthropology in this situation?
– Anthropologists can give a more grounded approach to what is really happening in times of crisis from the point of view of people’s actions and aspirations.
– We should look at what people are doing to change their situation, how protest movements are organizing, what cultures of participation they are building on, how they include other people, how they make decisions and so on. By looking at this we are looking at how people are imagining their future, how they are sowing the seeds for what might become the norm tomorrow.
Laterza points out that there is plenty of good academic literature focusing on how states and markets work from a macro-institutional perspective. But mainstream political and economic sciences have neglected what is happening in the middle, where people draw on largely informal ways of organization to make things work in practice.
– What kind of economies are at work in Swaziland when you are living on the margins in a rural area with very little infrastructure? Or in southern Italy, where young people cannot marry anymore because they cannot afford moving into a house of their own?
– With my colleagues in the Human Economy Programme at the University of Pretoria I have been exploring this kind of questions. Mainstream economic theories claim that every individual is driven by a narrow definition of self-interest. Our anthropological research shows that in practice the world doesn’t work like that. The profit motive and narrow economic interests are only a small part of what most people do in their everyday economic interactions, there are so many other values people attach to material exchanges and monetary engagements. We need to understand these different ways to conceive and create economic activities to understand the alternatives people are building outside the dictates of the “free market”, what we can do differently and what options are there to move beyond neoliberal austerity.
Potential for change
– But you're not only describing how things are working?
– That's right. We're not just cataloguing how things work, but we’re looking for possibilities of change, for future directions societies can take.
The role of the anthropologist is to offer knowledge that can be used by people to understand their role in the world and to improve their situation.
Laterza argues that the anthropological imagination is about bridging the gap between what we see and what can be in a world in flux. Through in-depth ethnography, and comparative work across the world we can see potentials for change and improvement.
– In this situation we are moving from the science of what we see to a science of the possible. This is one way in which we can make a strong contribution to society.
– This is not about some form of advocacy or activism where we need to take sides, although there is space for that too when the situation demands it. It's about creating an alternative space for dialogue. In my opinion, the role of the anthropologist is to offer knowledge that can be used by people to understand their role in the world and to improve their situation. Of course this all starts from the realization that the current world order is untenable, and that we should do something about it.
– Did you have to experiment with your research design because of your approach?
– Yes. Collaboration is no longer a romantic ideal. It has become a must. Thanks to social media, many marginalized people have gained a voice outside their physical communities of belonging. This is also the case in South Africa where I am doing research. Several students have made it clear that they do not want to be represented by outsiders using conventional tools of anthropology and sociology. They are critiquing some of the research methods and techniques of writing that have been at the heart of anthropology since its inception, and we need to take their criticisms seriously.
Social media affects our research
The social media revolution has fundamentally changed the way we do anthropology. That is not a bad thing in Laterza’s opinion.
– Our readings are actively scrutinized by a wider community that goes beyond the academy. It doesn't matter if you're writing behind paywalls, somebody is going to get that academic article and share it. We are by default accountable, and it’s not a bad thing. It pushes us to do better and remain relevant to the social contexts we study.
We are by default accountable, and it’s not a bad thing. It pushes us to do better and remain relevant to the social contexts we study.
– We anthropologists have not been given the right - without a very close consultation - to talk about people, to claim that we know what people think and want. So if we want to have legitimacy as researchers, we have to adjust the way we do research. This is a major methodological challenge. For my own research in southern Africa, I am trying to move away from an anthropological gaze that focuses on individuals, to an anthropology that looks much more at bigger societal trends and spontaneous organizational dynamics that cannot be easily reduced to a study of individual actions. We should also do more to engage with activists and public intellectuals as knowledge producers, rather than just talking above them, or restricting them to the role of ethnographic characters. This is just how I am trying to deal with these issues, there are no fixed answers, each research topic poses specific challenges and dilemmas, and requires specific approaches. What’s certain is that as the world goes through deep transformations that we struggle to make sense of, anthropology constantly reinvents itself to adapt to these changing circumstances.