Learning from Stuart Hall

The anthropology of living with difference.

This year has for me been a year of reading and re-reading the work of the late cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall (1932-2014). This year the publishing of Hall’s work has become a minor publishing cottage industry. Though Hall was not an anthropologist, his books and essays have certainly been influential to our discipline.

For in a time characterized by a seemingly endless and omnipresent reconstitution of boundaries and a renewed search for fantasies of purity, Hall’s and commitment to boundary crossing and hybrid cultural and social practices can provide a useful antidote to social and political imaginaries premised on essentialism and exclusivity. Hall’s work is particularly pertinent for those of us currently pre-occupied with the anthropological questions raised by the rise of the far- and populist-right and its attendant return of ideas of white supremacy and superiority in Europe and the United States. Hall in his analysis of the Thatcherite and Reaganite “great moving right show as a form of “authoritarian populism” saw that the cultural and economic changes ushered in by the long march of the “neoliberal revolution” in the 1980s would have long-term historical reverberations and lead to a proliferation of social and political antagonisms.

From the anthropological student exhibition Black/White at Moesgaard Ethnographic Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, August 2017. The exhibit shows the cover of the book ‘Emma Gad For Whites: A Therapeutic Guidebook by Anne Neye’ (Gyldendal, 2017). Sindre Bangstad

My first introduction to Hall’s work came during my first and professionally constitutive ethnographic fieldwork among Muslims in Cape Town, South Africa. This was no co-incidence: Hall’s appeal to my Muslim academic friends in Cape Town was directly tied to both Hall’s Caribbean background and his ideas about multiple belongings. These spoke directly to the lived and everyday experience of being “coloured” (a term the same people directly and vehemently opposed only a decade previously, due to its instrumentalization by the racist regime of apartheid from 1948 to 1990, but had now by and large cautiously accepted, if not actually embraced) in profoundly multicultural, multi-religious, and multi-layered society. Though neither they nor I had ever been to the Caribbean, the Caribbean “problem space” and its multiple stratification relating to color and class—about which Hall speaks so eloquently—resonated with my interlocutors.

That hybridity is a central topoi in the ethnography of the Caribbean should not be a surprise. One can approach the question of hybridity from any number of analytical angles—not the least as a way to un-think the social and political imaginaries underpinning modern nationalisms.

In post-apartheid Cape Town at the turn of the millennium, such a radical move stood uneasily with the requirements of nation-building in a post-colonial and recently democratized state in which the very idea of creating and sustaining a shared vision of nationhood was utopian at best. The post-apartheid era also—and often paradoxically—opened the floodgates to various forms of hitherto discredited ethnic and religious identity politics.

This translated into a search for “belonging” and “authenticity” through the search for Cape Muslim “roots” in royal lineages in Malaysia and Indonesia, something these countries’ supported with funding from their diplomatic corps. It provided another means of distancing Cape Muslims from their actual historical roots in Cape Town’s legacy of slavery. A politics of disillusionment, the precursors of which were already apparent to me in the conversations I had about the corrupt nature of post-apartheid politics in the early 2000s, has long since set in among my informants.

But my informants seemed to find keys to the vexing question of what Hall referred to as “the problem of living with difference” that he identified as the problem of the twenty-first century.” 

The small township community built by working-class black Christians and Muslims in which I was living in 2000 had been forcibly removed from the nearby idyllic naval and fishing town under apartheid’s Group Areas Act in 1967.   As informants were confronted with apartheid’s racist fantasies of white purity and supremacy, I found a profound commitment to everyday conviviality. Gilroy uses conviviality to refer to “the processes of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life in Britain’s urban areas and in postcolonial cities elsewhere.”
For Cape Town Muslims, this conviviality was born out of hundreds of years of everyday practices and small acts of resistance and opposition to the state logics of colonialism, segregation, and apartheid. It was a vernacular cosmopolitanism. As a result, in a township of an estimated 35 thousand with 80 recorded murders the year I lived there and in which mass unemployment, a lack of aspirations and possibilities, and drug abuse were persistent problems, one hardly ever fought over matters relating to faith. There was nothing particularly romantic about this cosmopolitanism. It had clear and discernable limits concerning talking about and interacting with black South Africans. Black South Africans would often cited Cape Townas the metropolist where South African where the South African legacy of racism was most readily discernable, precisely due to the apartheid regime’s instrumentalization of differences between black South Africans.

But, Christians and Muslims lived side by side here, as neighbors and friends, and marriages across the lines of faith were everyday occurrences for both women and men. Admittedly more so in lower social strata, where concerns over exclusivity and purity were less prevalent. Many of my Norwegian anthropological colleagues, trained in the anthropology of Islam, expressed surprise about my findings about inter-religious marriages in the township in which Muslim women married non-Muslim men at practically the same rate as Muslim men married non-Muslim women.

For many of my informants, the hybridity inherent to their lived practice was embraced and asserted with pride. I still retain a strong recollection of a middle-aged Muslim man laughingly tell me anecdotes in the local mosque about a visiting Saudi ‘ulama who had been so appalled by what he learned about the everyday lives of local Muslims that he had left the country long before scheduled.

Anthropologists these days could do much worse than to return to the seminal work of the late Hall. His acute awareness of the fact that the concept of race, though an unscientific social construct, provides a recurrent and powerful common-sensical template for thinking about difference and is therefore altogether too “real” in terms of its effects, speaks to the present. His work is also a reminder that thinking, acting, and organizing effectively “against race” require us to think much harder about everyday practices of living with difference, hybridity, in-between-ness and the potential for critique and resistance inherent in them.

Sindre Bangstad is a Norwegian social anthropologist based at KIFO (Institute for Church, Religion and Worldview Research) in Oslo, Norway. His latest monograph is Anthropology Of Our Times: An Edited Anthology in Public Anthropology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Cite as: Bangstad, Sindre. 2017. “Learning from Stuart Hall.” Anthropology News website, October 2, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.639


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