Helene Risør: My research interests have come about with my social and academic engagement in Latin America. I am assistant professor at the Anthropology Program at Universidad Católica, Chile and post doc fellow at the Department of Anthropology at Copenhagen University, Denmark. That means that I currently spend most of my time in Santiago combined with regular stays in Copenhagen.
I came to Chile as an undergraduate student in 1999. By then, Chile had had a democratically elected government since 1990, yet Pinochet had only just left the command of the military and he was now “life time senator”, so the transition was very much underway. I started puzzling over the ways in which the past dictatorship and the democratic transition not only marked people’s political engagement (or lack of such), but also how these processes were entangled with everyday relationships marked by a more diffuse sensation of uncertainty and fear. These considerations gave way to my research on people’s experiences and practices of violence and civil in/security, focusing on how these everyday practices are entangled with the processes through which state and citizenship are practiced and take shape on local, national and global scales. Hence, in my master thesis I focused on the lower middle class in a neighborhood in central Santiago, and for my PhD I carried out fieldwork in the city of El Alto in Bolivia focusing on how the neighbors in areas with little police presence organize in order to seek safety and ensure security.
Ritu Khanduri: How do these neighbors organize, and what are the broader implications about your findings for thinking about fear and security, or perhaps something more?
Helene Risør: In the city of El Alto, Bolivian people first of all organize through their Junta de Vecinos, or neighborhood association. It is through this primary social and political unit that people engage with state authorities, and it is also through this unit that the state, or municipality, engages with the neighbors as citizens. People convene to discuss everything from how to obtain basic services to broader political subjects, and often the state becomes present in people’s lives through the activities of the neighbors themselves. Civil in/security is also an issue dealt with in the neighborhood associations: Sometimes the associations decide to do street patrolling or community alarms are distributed, and eventually they coordinate with the local police. Yet, it is also common that a group of neighbors organizes on a smaller and more informal level, for instance a group of neighbors from a street may decide to watch out for each other and produce warning signs against potential criminals, etc. These kinds of activities often take place as a reaction to crimes that have recently taken place, which compel people to organize. The number of people who participate and the intensity of the activities vary. Safety-seeking and security activities thus emerge out of people’s everyday concerns. During my fieldwork, I increasingly focused on these experiences of insecurity, and how people struggle to identify dangerousness in the flow of the city in order to avoid ending up as crime victims. In this regard, it is relevant that it is not necessarily known criminals and dangerous “spots” on the map that make people the most insecure. Rather it is the sense of being unprotected from “unknown” criminals that evoke their feelings of insecurity, and in my work I have focused a great deal on how much time and energy people spend on looking out for potential criminal subjects and reading signs of dangerousness in order to act upon their feelings of insecurity.
In Chile, we also find neighborhood associations but they don’t hold the social and political importance as the Bolivian ones. While I did my fieldwork in Santiago, the municipality organized so-called “security committees” among the neighbors of a street or block. The activities of the committees received economic support from the municipality, monthly meetings were held with the participation of neighbor representatives, municipal coordinators and police representatives, and it was expected that the neighbors would share their local knowledge with the authorities. Hence, in the Chilean case the municipality sought to re-organize the neighbors as citizens, who should turn each other in when observing anything “suspicious”. This practice isn’t that distant from being a “sapo” (literately meaning “frog” and Chilean slang for being a spy), which was a practice during the dictatorship as people were called upon turning in neighbors, colleagues and relatives. In this sense my ethnography on people’s experiences of insecurity in Santiago shed light on how notions of dangerousness transmuted from the political figure of the “communist” to a more diffuse figure of the “criminal” and how people’s understandings and practices concerning democratic citizenship were molded in this regard.
Ritu Khanduri: How do you delineate the local, national and global scales of the everyday processes through which state and citizenship are practiced?
Helene Risør: That’s a good question! I must admit that I don’t work with any clear delimitation. Rather, I’m stumbling upon these issues as I notice how global discourses on, say, “security” are appropriated and made sense of in local settings. For instance, when I did my fieldwork in Santiago, the then mayor Joaquín Lavín was inspired by Bratton’s zero tolerance policy, yet people’s notions of danger and disorder were vernacular. Considering the ethnography from the vantage point of today, I have come to think that the lower middle class people, among whom I was doing fieldwork, were struggling with imaging themselves in a new Chile opening towards the world and with how to make sense of another buzz word of the time: “democratic participation”! Somehow the notions of “security” and “participation” were combined and put into practice on a local scale in the form of “viejas sapas” (literally, “old lady frogs”) keeping each other and their children at bay according to standards of proper dressing, talking and action in a world gone mad by “too much freedom and democracy” as one informant put it. It was as if they were out of sync, living in a time-loop while the rest of the world was moving in another direction.
In Bolivia, the neighbourhood associations as a form of citizenship from below are a good illustration of how global notions of citizenship and participation are translated into development programs with a major local impact, even if the results might differ from those imagined in the offices of the international agencies. Nancy Postero has made an excellent analysis of how popular participation in Bolivia was accompanied by a withdrawal of the state and of how the poor indigenous population have both embraced this form of civil participation and questioned the neoliberal logic that lay ground to it. My own work on civil in/security and on lynch violence can also be understood within these broader processes, and Bolivia is a fascinating site for the study of new constructions of citizenship and political participation. So we turn our attention towards contemporary Bolivia and Evo Morales’ project of an indigenous form of socialism, because we find people and organizations that make use of these terms to thrive social change and to make sense of themselves as social actors in these processes. I think that most Bolivians as well as the anthropologists who work in Bolivia or who seek to think through ethnography carried out in this country feel that something is going on, and it seems like a profound transformation of what it implies to be Bolivian and of how to arrange state-citizens relations. Yet, if we were to consider these local and national processes within a global context, I’m still not certain whether we are witnessing a vanguard form of social organization, and if so whether this form is too much out of sync and hence unviable within the current (global) order, or whether these impulses of organization and subjectivity will stall and become absorbed by more hegemonic forms of organization.
Ritu Khanduri: How do you take these questions further in your current research project?
Helene Risør: With my post doc project, I focus more broadly on political activism and on youth as a political actor in urban centres in Bolivia and Chile. I am interested in generational politics and the becoming of political subjectivity with regards to notions of ethnicity and class, and how these notions take form through legal claims, in the work of NGOs and in direct actions such as manifestations and protests transversally of regional and national contexts.
Ritu Khanduri: You’ve researched in Chile and Bolivia with earlier projects, how does your current (comparative?) focus inform your observations about “generational politics”?
Helene Risør: I am not sure yet as I have only just started conducting fieldwork. But one possible angle is exactly how youngsters perceive themselves and their countries according to imaginaries of youth, proper life and national politics. That is, how to imagine, project and transform yourself according to ideas of how your society and country ought to be. One of the most fascinating aspects of the current student movement in Chile is exactly how they demand a restructuring of the Chilean educational and economic policies of redistribution because they feel that their (projected) form of life and dreams are not viable within the current state of affairs.
Ritu Khanduri: What new type of political actors do you point to when you propose youth as an “emergent political actor”?
Helene Risør: When I refer to youth as an emergent political actor, I’m thinking about Bolivia where there seems to be an increasing number of political and social initiatives in the name of youth. It is not new that youngsters participate in politics, but there seems to be a tendency to situate youth as a form of subjectivity with specific social demands and for now my analytical venture is that this is novel in a country where politics has hitherto been dominated by notions of ethnicity and class.
Ritu Khanduri: Congratulations on your recent Sapere Aude Young Researcher’s award. What does this award recognize and support?
Helene Risør: Thank you! Besides the honor of being recognized as a talented young researcher, the award allows me to expand my post doctoral research with an extra 10 months. I will also promote a research network tentatively entitled Political Subjectivities and Indigeneity before and after the Revolution. Focusing on ethnographically grounded research in different regional and cultural contexts, the network meetings will focus on emergent forms of political subjectivity and their expressions. The network will culminate with a conference in Copenhagen in 2014.
Ritu Khanduri: You write and publish in languages other than English. Any thoughts to share on the politics of language and publishing anthropological research?
Helene Risør: Besides English I publish in Danish (my mother tongue) and Spanish (my everyday language). So, as most non-native English speakers I manage a mish-mash of languages both in my research process and writings. Whether you are in Denmark or Chile, pursuing an academic career implies publishing in English. This is due to research funding politics aiming at the internationalization of young scholars and short-term kinds of evaluation based on the impact of your work so far, quotation of articles, etc. In my case, this means that I have had to improve my English skills and that this process is very much ongoing! We are many who interview transcripts in one language (i.e. Spanish) and field notes in another (i.e. Danish) while trying to write up a paper in English, struggling to figure out the right phrasing. Yet, optimistic as I am, I would like to think of that process as an extra layer in the analytical process rather than simply an obstacle. And I must also admit that I aim at reaching and engaging with the broadest audience possible, and that that implies publishing languages other than Danish!
That said I very much enjoy thinking and writing in Danish and I guess I also feel a commitment to produce anthropological knowledge to a broader Danish public. Publishing in Spanish is different because it is such a widely spoken language across the globe though the anthropological literature in Spanish is still limited. One of the things I most enjoy about working at Universidad Católica in Chile is exactly the possibility of partaking in the formation of new generations of anthropologists and in the construction of the anthropological discipline from Latin America. We hope we are offering our students an opening, theory-wise and language-wise, towards anthropological thinking beyond the national and regional borders. Yet, such opening is a double bind because we do not just aim at accessing knowledge circuits that are many times far from Latin American students and universities (not least due to the high cost of accessing data bases with the most recent articles). More importantly, we also have the humble intention to practice, write and partake internationally in anthropology from the zones that are at the geographical and linguistic margins of academia.
William David Nutt assisted with the preparation of this transcript. William is a graduate student jointly pursuing a masters in Anthropology and a MBA at the University of Texas-Arlington. His research interests include science, technology, culture change, and collapse, focusing on both archaeology and cultural anthropology. A Graduate Research Fellow with the National Science Foundation, he is completing a project on sociopolitical upheaval and culture change in the Near East at the end of the Bronze Age.
Ritu Gairola Khanduri is an assistant professor of cultural anthropology in the University of Texas-Arlington. She read history in the Jawaharlal Nehru University and anthropology in the University of Texas- Austin. Her research foci include media, globalization, history, and science in colonial and contemporary India. She also writes and researches on Gandhi and Hindu images in the diaspora. Her research has received support from the Wenner – Gren Foundation’s Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship, Social Science Research Council , Fulbright-Hays, and the Institute for Historical Research- University of London/Mellon Foundation. Ritu’s recently completed book manuscript is an ethnography of newspaper cartooning in India. Supported by a Fulbright Senior Scholar Grant, she is currently researching on women and science.
In Bolivia, the neighbourhood associations as a form of citizenship from below are a good illustration of how global notions of citizenship and participation are translated into development programs with a major local impact, even if the results might differ from those imagined in the offices of the international agencies.