At the AES/APLA joint conference in Chicago in April, AES awarded Ellen Sharp (UC Los Angeles) the 2013 Elsie Clews Parsons Prize (for best graduate student paper) for her paper “The Gun that Backfires: Violence and the Paradox of Neoliberal Multiculturalism.” Honorable mention went to Nicolas Lainez (EHESS) for “Commodified Sexuality and Mother-Daughter Power Dynamics in the Mekong Delta.” The prize committee members were Don Brenneis (UC Santa Cruz), Don Donham (UC Davis), Virginia Dominguez (U Illinois), Carol Greenhouse (Princeton U; committee chair), Michael Herzfeld (Harvard U), and Mindie Lazarus-Black (Temple U).
By Carol Greenhouse (Committee Chair)
Ellen Sharp (UCLA), “The Gun that Backfires: Violence and the Paradox of Neoliberal Multiculturalism”
Based on her ethnographic fieldwork in the predominantly Mam Maya town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Guatemala, Ellen Sharp explores the turbulent cross-currents at the confluence of multiculturalism and neoliberalism. The essay opens with a story. A man is missing, and the owner of an illegal cantina, Paco Perez, launches a search party for him. The party finds him drowned—an accident during a hurricane. But the dead man’s family blames Perez, and the search party becomes a lynch mob. Perez flees, but his wife is attacked and his business is ruined. Perez sues his attackers on constitutional grounds, and loses—not because selling alcohol is illegal (which it is), but because, in the judge’s opinion, the constitution protects indigenous people’s rights to community law. In these circumstances, Sharp finds the traces of a fundamental contradiction between the rights regimes of neoliberal individualism and multiculturalism—a space of paradox that is prone to violence as it steepens differences of class, community, generation, and ideology. The essay “teaches” well. Its presentation is layered, moving outward from the dramatic events of one day in May 2010, to local reverberations, and still further to relate Todos Santos to more global developments. The more closely Sharp reads the scene in Todos Santos, the more readers are pressed into recognition of circumstances that are not limited to Todos Santos alone. At each stage, Sharp engages relevant literature to develop original theoretical formulations that, together, integrate the essay and clarify its range of relevance to wider conversations about neoliberal governance, the experiential dimensions of rights, and the politicization of states’ judicial functions. Sharp writes with a compelling combination of sensitivity and authority, effectively conveying her insights with respect to the intolerable dilemmas produced by multicultural neoliberalism in the form of intergenerational and ideological conflicts. The conditions that intensify violence within liberalism are also ethnographic conditions in Todos Santos; Sharp’s reflexive perspective on her field experience is both poignant and trenchant. All in all, this is a significant contribution to sociocultural anthropology, and we are pleased to award the 2013 Elsie Clews Parsons prize to Ellen Sharp.
Nicolas Lainez (EHESS) “Commodified Sexuality and Mother-Daughter Power Dynamics in the Mekong Delta”
Nicolas Lainez’s ethnographic research took him to An Giang Province, in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. There, his goal was (in his own words) “to explore the daily life of households facing economic difficulties, especially aspects related to poverty and indebtedness, and to investigate underage women’s involvement in commercial street sex with the purpose of alleviating their parents’ economic burden.” The essay, which focuses on one of four families at the center of his study, conveys a strong sense of ethnographic proximity. Lainez’s central thesis is that the commodification of women’s sexuality in Vietnam cannot be understood without close attention to the family relations—particularly relations between mothers and daughters—that sustain it. His thesis calls on him to be a nuanced observer and interlocutor, and in this he succeeds. Through his close attention to women’s narratives of their purposes and experiences, Lainez effectively crosses generations and takes his readers into ambiguous theoretical spaces where sex work is inseparable from kinship, maternal care, and marriage. He addresses a difficult subject with sensitivity, empathy, respect, and ethnographic finesse. The result is a highly original and theoretically generative ethnographic essay.
2014 Prize Competition
The deadline for the 2014 Elsie Clews Parsons prize is December 1, 2013. The AES Board invites individuals who are students in a graduate degree-granting program (including MA and PhD) to submit stand-alone papers demonstrating outstanding ethnography for consideration for the Elsie Clews Parsons Prize. Papers should engage with AES core commitments to combining innovative fieldwork with rich theoretical critique. AES awards a cash prize of $300; the winner will also be recognized at the AES annual spring conference and will receive $200 to offset the cost of travel to the conference. The winner will be announced in the Anthropology News. Papers should not exceed 8,000 words (including notes and references) and should follow AAA style guidelines. Submissions should be unpublished manuscripts not currently under review elsewhere. Submission is open to current students and those who received their degree in the calendar year of submission. See www.aes.org for submission instructions.
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