A planet afflicted by a high fever

The world is ‘overheated’. Too full and too fast; uneven and unequal. It is the age of the Anthropocene, of humanity’s indelible mark upon the planet. In short, it is globalisation – but not as we know it. This post, which introduces my new book Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change, was first published on the Pluto Press blog. The book is meant not just for academics, but for anyone interested in the state of the world.

‘What do the fateful Brexit referendum, the epidemic spread of Nintendo’s ‘Pokémon Go’ game, theOverheating escalating death of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the fivefold growth in tourism since 1980 have in common? The short answer is that they all express symptoms or outcomes of global accelerated change, or ‘overheating’, as I call it in my new book.

It is as if modernity has shifted to a higher gear since the early 1990s. Modernity has always been about acceleration and change, but in the last quarter-century, acceleration has accelerated. While you were out having a coffee, the number of refugees in the world seemed to have grown by ten per cent by the time you returned. While you were offline on a short holiday, Indonesia overtook Australia as the world’s largest coal exporter. And when you log onto your favourite newspaper, in the hope that you might encounter a few drops of optimism, the first headline you click on is a story about the dramatic decline of biodiversity in the contemporary world (The Guardian, 14 July 2016). Caused by agricultural expansion, climate change and pollution, the loss of biodiversity is an excellent, if frightening, example of ‘overheating’: It is an unintended consequence of the planet having been filled slowly to the brim by human activities and projects. It is not caused by one single factor possible to contain or control, but by the confluence of several mutually reinforcing processes – population growth, land clearing and monocultures, global neoliberalism and fossil fuel use, to mention a few major factors.

Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change is based on the assumption that the fast changes characterising the present age have important, sometimes dramatic unintended consequences. Each of the five empirical chapters focuses on one key area – energy, cities, mobility, waste, information – and shows how changes may take unexpected directions, which were neither foreseen nor desired at the outset.

Just as the insecticide called DDT, which was meant to save crops and improve agricultural output, killed insects, starved birds and led to ‘the silent spring’ of Rachel Carson’s eponymous 1962 book, a foundational text for the modern environmental movement, so does the car inevitably imply pollution and accidents, the information revolution entails the pollution of brains, and, perhaps, the spread of enlightenment ideas inspires counterreactions in the form of fundamentalism. I focus on such contradictions, but I also show that the crises of globalisation are not caused by malevolent intentions or any kind of evil, selfish or short-sighted conspiracy. Rather, what we are confronted with is a series of clashing scales which remain poorly understood. Let me give a brief illustration. If you are in a powerful position, you can change thousands of people’s lives far away with a stroke of a pen; but if you spent time with them first, that is likely to influence your decision. The tangibly lived life at the small scale, in other words, clashes with large-scale decisions, and you come to realise that what is good for Sweden is not necessarily good for the residents of the village of Dalby north of Ystad.

Scaling up can be an efficient way of diverting attention from the actuality of a conflict by turning it into an abstract issue. If your colleagues complain that you never make coffee for your co-workers, you may respond, scaling up a notch, that the neoliberal labour regime is so stressful and exhausting that the ordinary office worker simply has no time for such luxuries. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we may think about the workers who manned the gas chambers and effectively murdered incomprehensible numbers of Jews and Gypsies; there is no indication that they loved their family and household pets less than anyone else did. The world, or an activity, or an idea, shapeshifts when you move it up and down the scales. As one of my informants in an industrial Australian city said: ‘The environmental activists in Sydney are really good at saving the world, but they don’t have a clue as to what to do with real people with factory jobs.’

Being an anthropologist and, accordingly, trained to seeing the world from below, I have often had mixed feelings about the general literature about globalisation. Many widely read authors writing about the interconnected world seem to be hovering above the planet in a helicopter with a pair of binoculars. They may get the general picture right, but fail to see the nooks and crannies where people live. Reading these books, I am often reminded of Benoît Mandelbrot’s 1967 article ‘How long is the coast of Britain?’, which is fundamentally about scaling. He shows that the length of the jagged British coast depends on the scale of the map. Measuring with a yardstick would produce a different result from measurements taken with a one-foot ruler. Looking for averages, similarly, can be distinctly unhelpful: Your average body temperature may be just fine if your feet are in a freezer while your head is in a hot stove, but you’re dead nonetheless. And in order to get to the truth about people’s lives, the bird’s eye perspective is useful, but inadequate. You have to get ‘up close and personal’, to quote a book title from the anthropologists Cris Shore and Susana Trnka.

If you read general overviews about globalisation and identity with the mindset of an anthropologist, there is a chance that you finish with the somewhat unsatisfactory feeling that you had been offered a three-course dinner, and were duly served a sumptuous starter and a delicious dessert, but no main course. With anthropologists, the problem is generally the opposite: They describe local life-worlds in meticulous detail, crawling, as it were, on all fours with a magnifying glass; but rarely attempt a global analysis. In this book, by moving up and down the scales, I have tried to do both, and to relate them to each other.

And the solution? Anthropologists tend to be notoriously coy when it comes to proposing solutions to social problems, and yet I do have some suggestions. The most general piece of advice, if the goal is to avoid global disaster and cool down the humanly induced runaway processes currently threatening planetary health, consists in scaling down (and slowing down). For this to come about, large-scale extractivism, global neoliberalism and the complicity of politicians with corporate interests will doubtless have to be dealt with. But how? Through exit and voice, but scarcely with loyalty. I do not believe in one-size-fits-all solutions, and solutions differ from place to place. Overheating does not tell people what to do, but it provides a global diagnosis of a feverish condition, a crisis for which there are only two possible outcomes. Let me put it like this: In ancient Greece, crisis could be a medical term referring to a high fever. Just like the feverish world in which we now live, the Athenian patient’s crisis condition had only two possible outcomes, namely death or recovery.’

Clashing scales of Brexit

Mainstream newspapers, politicians and commentators across Europe instantly expressed dejection and bitterness in the face of the Brexit outcome, and avid Brexiteers have typically been portrayed as xenophobes and bigots, Little Englanders or foolish opportunists incapable of understanding the dangerous ramifications and likely Domino effects of their choice. This view is overbearing and inaccurate: complaints about Brussels may be perfectly legitimate, and it is thought-provoking that only right-wing populists have been able to listen to them. As a matter of fact, Brexiteers come in different shades, including leftists and radical humanists who are disappointed with the total marketisation of Europe, alienating standardisation resulting from centralism and the failure to deal with the refugee crisis in a coordinated, dignified and humane way. (Jan Blommaert has written well about this.) Besides, a different perspective may be more enlightening and constructive, not only in shedding light on Brexit, but also in identifying common denominators to more encompassing crises of legitimacy experienced by political and economic elites in the North Atlantic world.

In evolutionary theory, a major transition takes place when smaller entities combine to form an entity at a higher level, relinquishing their autonomy for the greater good. The transition from single-cell to multicellular organisms is the clearest example, leading to increased diversification, total interdependency and a sharp division of labour. The European Union holds out a similar promise; by combining at a higher level, member states will profit from the expansion of their system boundaries, enabling them to do what they do best. The disgruntlement with Brussels witnessed in the British referendum (and elsewhere in Europe, mind you) results from weaknesses and failures in the practical implementation of this logic, expressed through an increased distance between power holders and their constituencies, what I propose to call a clash of scales.

Past EU architects have been aware of the dangers of centralisation and the risk of large-scale operations overruling small-scale concerns. In the early 1990s, following the Maastricht Treaty, which aimed at a deeper and stronger integration, a catchword from the Commission was subsidiarity. The subsidiarity principle, championed by federalists and Euro-enthusiasts at the time, held that political decisions should always be taken at the lowest possible level, enabling those who were affected by an issue to have a direct influence on its outcome.

Nobody speaks about subsidiarity any more. It disappeared from view around the same time as the Euro was introduced and the Schengen agreement reduced internal border control just before the turn of the millennium. The tendency has been towards increased centralisation rather than a nesting of scalar levels ensuring continent-wide coordination without obliterating local autonomy and democratic power at the intermediate levels of regions and states. The Danish electorate may indeed have been prescient when, in 1992, it voted against Maastricht under the slogan ‘I want a country to be European in’.

There is a scalar gap between the Commission and the community leading to a feeling of disenfranchisement. This is not merely, or even mainly, about immigration to the UK, but about the perceived right to have a real influence. Comparable clashes of scale are witnessed almost everywhere in the world of global neoliberalism. A few handfuls of indigenous groups may have to be sacrificed for the greater good if there is oil on their ancestral land; farming communities may have to be removed if the district needs to dam a river for the sake of industrialisation and electrification; and in the case of the UK, a common view among Brexiteers is that the freedom to live and work around the continent has siphoned jobs away from the British. The general formula is that what is good for Europe is not necessarily good for the UK; what is good for the UK is not necessarily good for Northumberland; and what is good for Northumberland is not necessarily good for the residents of Durham – indeed, what is good for Durham may well be the same as that which is good for Europe. The loss of subsidiarity, sacrificed on the altar of continent-wide neoliberalism and faith in economies of scale, is a major factor in accounting for the strong animosity towards the EU.

There is another clash of scales at work as well. How could the pundits be so wrong, many asked when the result of the referendum became known. It may simply be that the experts and commentators live in areas (mainly London) and belong to social groups where loyalty to the European project is unquestioned, and that they were unable to enter into the mindset of people living in different life-worlds.

The multiple clashing scales which are becoming evident now that the project of European integration is visibly ailing, may stir fragmentation elsewhere in the system. In a multicellular organism which loses a limb, the remaining organs also suffer. In the case of the UK, the current situation recalls the sociologist Tom Nairn’s 1977 book The Break-Up of Britain. His prophecy was that the long-term survival of the UK was highly doubtful, it being a country composed of four historical nations,. He may still be proven right, forty years on. The Scots may demand a second referendum over independence to stay in the EU. Communal tensions in Northern Ireland may flare up. And the desire to secede, whether from the EU and/or from a multinational state, may well be contagious. While such a fission may be advantageous for the individual cells, it is bad news for the multicellular organism, which presupposes that cells are occasionallycapable of sacrificing their individual needs, to make compromises and to create webs of mutual interdependence which reduce conflict and enhance cosmopolitan values.

In a neoliberal world, Europe is likely to survive as a market place, no matter who leaves. (I live in Norway, which is not formally an EU member, but which is fully integrated economically with the rest of the continent.) What is at stake is the political project enabling coordination at higher levels and multiple identities at lower levels. Perhaps a lesson from Brexit could be that Brussels should reintroduce the principle of subsidiarity in a forceful and convincing way. This would weaken its powers of standardisation and uniformisation. The resulting Europe would be bumpier and less smooth, but it would enable its citizens to regain a sense of control over their destinies. They would, to paraphrase the anthropologist Anthony Wallace’s famous view of culture, not take part in ‘the replication of uniformity, but the organisation of diversity’.

A shorter version of this commentary is being published by Social Anthropology.


From national icon to neoliberal monument

This text began as a radio essay on BBC Radio 4 in November 2015, later developed into a web essay at Versopolis. It chronicles the shift from the mid 20th to the early 21st century through a meditation on

The metamorphosis of the Holmenkollen ski jumping hill

An insightful and surprisingly readable sociology book from the turn of the century is George Ritzer’s The Globalization of Nothing (2002). By ‘nothing’, he helpfully adds, he refers to non-places, non-services, non-products and non-people. That is to say, phenomena with no discernable local identity, things that could really have been anywhere. A decade earlier, the anthropologist Marc Augé, one of Ritzer’s sources of inspiration, wrote about Non-Lieux (1991), referring to the highways, hotels, airports and shopping malls of the emerging globosphere. Had he been Norwegian, Augé might well have spoken about a ski jumping hill. Let me explain.

The Norwegian national identity, when it was carved out in the 19th century in deliberate contrast to the neighbouring waning empires of Denmark and Sweden, was built around the allegedly close relationship of Norwegians to nature. Even today, nature has a sacred quality in the Norwegian way of life. On a bright winter Sunday, suburban trains and metro lines in Paris are typically crammed with people on their way into the city centre, with the intention of strolling along the Seine, visiting a museum or a gallery, and enjoying a leisurely lunch in a restaurant. In Oslo, by contrast, on a typical Sunday in January, the metro is full of people, many of them carrying skis, on their way into Nordmarka, ‘the Northern Fields’, the largely unspoilt area of forests and lakes surrounding Oslo on three sides.

It therefore stands to reason that the single most important work of art in Norwegian culture should not be a painting, a sculpture or a video installation, but an outdoor structure straddling the thin boundary between culture and nature. I am thinking of the Holmenkollen Ski Jumping Hill, a landmark visible from most parts of the city and a symbol of Oslo for decades.

To be precise, I’m referring to the hill as it appeared in the latter half of the 20th century, before its demolition in 2008 and subsequent replacement with a technologically more sophisticated, but less aesthetically appealing structure. The metamorphosis of Holmenkollen is no less than a tangible expression of the transformation of Norway from sensible social democracy to globalised neoliberalism. Let me explain.

White, elegant and majestic, the ski jumping hill hovered above the city like a large bird about to take flight. It was a work of art enjoyed by tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people every day, mostly unaware that they were beholding a membrane between nature and culture, between the civilised and the savage.

Oslo is a bowl surrounded by hills on three sides, facing the sea on the fourth. On the western side, which is where most skiing competitions take place, ski jumping has been a spectator sport since the late 19th century. The Holmenkollen hill was initially all natural, the runoff built of snow and ice. By the early 20th century, shifting structures of stone, steel and wood led to its gradual evolution. So the Holmenkollen that would eventually etch itself into the consciousness of Oslo’s population and its visitors was completed ahead of the Winter Olympics in 1952.

Stretching skywards in a sweeping, optimistic gesture, the hill was perhaps most striking off season when its whiteness was offset by the surrounding greenery, but it was imposing and uplifting in winter too. People returning from weekend trips down the coast knew that they would soon be home when they could glimpse the Holmenkollen ski tower in the distance.

The hill has been expanded and rebuilt many times since ski jumping in Holmenkollen began. The first race was held on 30 January 1892, and won by Arne Ustvedt, who jumped 21.5 meters. The current record is held by Anders Jacobsen, who jumped 142.5 meters in 2011. So evidently, the sport has evolved significantly over the last century or so, and this involves every aspect of it, from the fabric of the gloves worn by jumpers to the style of jumping. Interestingly, ski jumpers are judged not only on the length of their flight, but also on aesthetic criteria, which have also changed over the years.

And so the hill had to change too. It would not have happened independently of developments elsewhere. Norwegians are famous for their conservatism in winter sport. They hung on to wooden skis for years after the rest of the skiing world had shifted to fibreglass, and were reluctant to accept the new style of ski jumping introduced by the Swede Jan Boklöv in the 1980s, who discovered that he could improve both stability and length by jumping in a V-shape rather than with parallel skis. Yet, in a field of transnational competition, you have to keep up with the Joneses. So, as central European countries improved their ski jumping facilities, Norway had to follow suit. The classic Holmenkollen ski hill was eventually demolished in 2008, the new structure completed two years later, in time for the World Championship in skiing in 2011. The new hill is technologically far superior to the white, gliding bird of yesteryear. It is a meshwork of wood and metal, functional and hypermodern. But the new hill, dark brown in colour, does not light up the surroundings, and it ends not with an optimistic flourish towards the sky; it merely ends.

A large, new ski stadium has been built around the ski jumping hill for cross-country events, and well-equipped recreational venues now accommodate domestic and foreign visitors who, until recently, had to make do with more basic facilities. Few will deny that the new hill and surroundings are less charming than the previous incarnation. It is flashy, hi-tech and efficient, funded by generous flows of Norwegian petrokroner. Yet it will never become a condensed symbol which gives Oslo its identity while simultaneously giving expression to human yearnings and transcending the nature–culture divide.

At the same time, the result of this multimillion kroner investment into newness serves as a reminder of an aspect of the ski jumping hill which is so obvious that it is easily overlooked, but no less important for that, namely competitive sport as an emblematic activity in modernity. The need to improve, and to keep up with your competitors, embody the essence of the modern ideology. In this kind of society, you have to keep moving in order to stay in the same place. Just a few years after Arne Ustvedt’s 21.5 meter jump, the first modern Olympic Games were organised in Athens under the slogan Citius, Altius, Fortius  – faster, higher, stronger. So if rituals in traditional societies are typically about communication with timeless, spiritual entities, the most popular ritual events in our societies, that is competitive sports, are about change and improvement, progress and development. You should do better than you did last year. Records have to be beaten, and techniques need to be improved. And so it was perhaps inevitable that this slender, white sculpture from the mid-20th century, a landmark, an icon and a condensed symbol which was also, incidentally, occasionally used for sport events, had to go. But although its replacement is obviously ‘faster, higher, stronger’, it fails to address our aesthetic sensibilities and spiritual longings; rather, it speaks to the global admiration for the power of money, of scale and competitiveness on a level playing field. It is all efficiency with no soul. The magic of the genius loci has been replaced by the magic of global capitalism. Sic transit gloria mundi, one might well say.


It’s the culture, stupid! Or is it?

The events in Cologne have sparked controversies across Europe. This time, the topic is not the economic and social costs of the refugee crisis, but questions concerning culture and gender. We need a proper language in which to address these issues.

A shorter version of this article was published in Norwegian in Morgenbladet on 15 January 2016.


There is no simple answer as to what exactly happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. There was a large number of people partying in the city centre, in varying states of intoxication, and no version of the events is the only valid or possible one. You and I may easily perceive and interpret identical situations in quite different ways, even if we were both present. But a few facts seem indisputable. A rather large number of young men (a few hundred? a thousand?), most of them with a background in Arab-speaking countries, surrounded, groped and stole from young women who were by the train station to watch fireworks and celebrate the new year. The unpleasant event seemed to be a planned, coordinated mass assault. The police were taken by surprise, they acted inefficiently, and subsequently tried to brush the events aside, unwilling or unable to provide the bare facts.

This immediately sparked a heated debate in Europe – in the newspapers, in the social media, on blogs, websites, radio and TV. Some claimed that the problem boiled down to the fact that the transgressors were Muslims, and that it was an established fact that in the world of Islam, women who are not protected by male relatives can blame themselves if they are sexually harassed or even raped. Others spoke about uprooted people lacking a foothold in secular, individualist and relatively gender-equal Germany. Yet others contextualised the events by pointing out that men have always assaulted women sexually, regardless of culture and type of society, refusing to speak about culture.

It would probably not be feasible to try to develop an intermediate position between the grim pessimism of ‘I told you so’ and the defensive ‘this has nothing to do with culture’ However, a third position is possible, and it may contribute to a better and more accurate understanding of the Cologne drama, as well as providing tools for dealing with many other debates and issues concerning cultural diversity and social integration.

Before moving on, I should like to shed light on the fraught discourse about culture and minority by taking a detour via a comparable controversy which took place in Sweden just after the turn of the century, and which suggests that we’ve been here before.


Fadime revisited

In 2002, the Kurdish–Swedish woman Fadime Sahindal was murdered by her father, who thought that she had become ‘too Swedish’, shaming her family through her liberated life. In Sweden, where criticism of minority cultures is less common and less accepted than in neighbouring Denmark and Norway, the murder was generally described as an individual tragedy, or as an expression of a generic male desire to control female sexuality. The anthropologist Mikael Kurkiala wrote a couple of articles in Dagens Nyheter (and later reflections in Anthropology Today), where he argued that it was necessary to take the cultural dimension into account: In Kurdish culture, he said, there are in fact other ideas of honour and gender than in Swedish mainstream culture, and an account of Fadime’s death which did not include this dimension was, accordingly, seriously flawed. He did not allege that Kurdish culture turned Fadime’s father into a murderer, but took great pains to emphasise that the father had several possible scripts at his disposal, and that other Kurdish fathers would have chosen another script in the same situation. His point was, however, that there existed a script in Kurdish culture which justified the killing of close female relatives under particular circumstances, and that a similar script did not exist in Swedish majority culture.

Kurkiala was met with harsh criticism from different quarters. For example, the leading Social Democrat Mona Sahlin rejected the cultural approach, preferring instead to speak of male violence towards women. Mikael had anticipated objections, but was surprised at the strength of the reactions from the Swedish establishment, particularly the tone of moral condemnation. For once, an anthropologist was accused of spreading cultural prejudices about ‘the other’.

Yet it is easy to see that Kurkiala was right. What we should keep in mind here is that he was not being misunderstood (as is often the case with anthropologists who venture into the public sphere), but that mainstream Swedish society seemed to have decided that he couldn’t be right, since his perspective might contribute to racism and ethnic prejudices. This attitude, of course, is tantamount to placing a lid on contentious issues.

Culture and personhood

Some of the most important issues in culturally complex societies are class, exclusion and racism. For now, I bracket them, since the European debate currently mainly concerns culture and religion. So let’s talk about culture, then, with the Kölnische Drama as a backdrop.

As any anthropologist might point out, there are very sound reasons to avoid cultural determinism, that is explaining particular patterns of action by referring to a person’s cultural background (religion, here, is considered part of culture). Culture varies within every named group; persons are unique and make different choices in their lives; and culture is continuously evolving, changing and diversifying. For this reason, scholars of culture are – perhaps paradoxically – reluctant to attribute explanatory value to cultural differences. This reluctance is sometimes taken too far. Experience tells us that cultural differences do exist and have a bearing on everyday life. Family and kinship, gender and age, rank and hierarchy; all these basic aspects of human existence mean different things to people with systematically different experiences and knowledges. Frictions and clashes occur when such worlds meet through encounters and interactions, if the parties are not well prepared beforehand.

How can we speak of these differences without coercing people into artificially delimited groups, oversimplifying, fanning prejudices and establishing boundaries which are both politically unproductive and intellectually indefensible – in a word, contributing to a polarising discourse from which only extreme groups (notably Islamists and ethnonationalists) benefit? My present concern is simultaneously intellectual and political; it is an attempt to find a suitable language for describing a culturally diverse world, but it is also a task of some importance to enable a conversation beyond entrenched positions and cheap polemicism.

Most of the dilemmas and tangled issues concerning cultural differences in today’s culturally diverse Europe are related to different concepts of personhood, a much discussed term in anthropology, which can be used to unpack and analyse a wide range of more or less dramatic intercultural encounters in complex societies, from the mass assault in Cologne to courses offered to young mothers in Oslo’s culturally complex East Side.

What is a person, and not least, what does it entail to be a person? Is a person first and foremost defined through their duties or through their rights? Is a person entitled to take their own decisions and give their self-interest the pride of place, or are obligations towards others more important? And if the latter is the case, who are these ‘others’ – family members, neighbours, colleagues, members of one’s own ethnic group, or rather an anonymous, imagined community such as a nation or even humanity (or the planet)? Are persons endowed with equal rights, or is there a natural hierarchy according to which some have greater value than others? Are children persons on a par with adults, or should they accept their subordination? And what to make of the relationship between men and women – should it be symmetrical or complementary? Should men and women be as similar as possible, or would it be preferable that they have a gendered division of labour, since they were created differently by God or evolution?

Obviously, these questions can be answered in different ways, and here we approach the heart of the matter, namely how these young men in Cologne could conceivably treat young women as objects, in public view, with no regard for their dignity and humanity. (I have not carried out psychoanalysis on neither the men nor the women in Cologne, and so there is inevitably an element of speculation here.) But before we move ahead, it remains necessary, unfortunately, to state the obvious, namely that the vast majority of male refugees in Germany did not take part in these activities, although they share the same background as the suspected transgressors.

I-cultures and we-cultures

A contrast between two concepts of personhood,  arguably crude but nevertheless recognisable to many, can be drawn between ‘I-cultures’ and ‘we-cultures’. If a young woman belonging, say, to the German majority becomes pregnant outside of a stable relationship, people might exclaim: ‘The poor girl!’ Among non-European minorities, the reaction might instead be: ‘Her poor parents!’. This contrast can be connected to an established, if contested, distinction between a sociocentric and an egocentric concept of the person. This dualism and is associated with the anthropologist Louis Dumont and his comparative work on Europe and India. In India, he says, family and community is in the foreground; in Europe, the individual is ‘the supreme value’, sacred and with inalienable rights.

Consistent with a sociocentric conceptualisation, Gandhi once spoke of the individual as ‘a drop in the ocean’. It exists, but has no meaning without the surrounding masses of water. Now, this contrast is by far too simple and rough, but it may serve as an entry-point for a more nuanced and complex exploration.

The sociocentric person is not defined as an individual, but as a dividual. He or she is divisible into their relationships to others, whereas the West European individual is, as the word suggests, whole and indivisible. The boundary of the individual may be drawn at the skin, while the dividual ends where the relationships to others end. While the individual has rights, the dividuals has duties.

The dividual does not relate to differently positioned people in the same ways. You don’t behave in the same way towards your mother than towards your daughter, differently with your family than with strangers, and these are differences that make a difference. You are a node in a network, but it is the network that nourishes the node, not the other way around. Accordingly, many who live in arranged marriages see this institution as reasonable and natural. They owe a debt to their parents, whom they respect for being wiser and older, and they trust their better sense of judgement. Besides, a marriage is not a relationship between two persons, but between two families.

In the messy cultural environments characterising our time, where the old and the new, the nearby and the distant meet and mix, tensions continuously emerge between different conceptualisations of the person, often in one and the same person. You are torn between different ideals describing what you should be like, conflicting dreams, duties and rights. It is scarcely a coincidence that most Bollywood films deal with the tension between arranged marriages and love marriages. Here, different conceptualisations of personhood clash, and mind you, neither migration nor Islam has anything to do with it.

Values and social life

The variation in personhood is linked with social life. It does not come from nowhere, but is related to property rights, political systems, family and kinship organisation, rules of inheritance and economic practices. In societies where women cannot own means of production (land, businesses etc.), and where men inherit land, women have their primary activities in the domestic sphere. It may therefore be a common view that giving education to girls is a waste of time and money, since they’re just getting married anyway. In societies where religion is important, women are also generally more subordinated to men than in more secular societies. This is because high religious positions are usually reserved for men, regardless of religion. In these societies, there is not much informal social interaction between unrelated persons of opposite genders. To young, unmarried men, this implies, among other things, that they have nobody to sleep with. This is not an irrelevant detail if we are trying to make sense of what happened in Cologne.

Kinship, moreover, is important in societies where your social standing, your economic status and your possibilities for political influence depend on your place in a kin group. In such societies, the phenomenon typically called nepotism in Western Europe is widespread; that is, you give advantages to your relatives because you owe them as much. You are a bad uncle if you fail to help your nephew when he needs it. In this kind of society, severing ties with your family comes at a significant cost, which encourages conformism. We see here how differences in personhood are not merely existential or academic, but have tangible, practical consequences.

The ideological superstructure justifying these societal arrangements can be saturated with religion, but honour and shame are often more important. You shame your family if you behave indecently – or in a shameless way – and you are honourable if, as a woman, you ensure keeping unrelated men at bay. It is not your integrity as an individual that is sacred, but the quality of your relationships to significant others.

The implications are obvious. If you have a background in a society where kinship is important and men dominate in the public sphere, where voluntary, chosen love relationships are tabooed and undesired, and where honour and shame define essential qualities in a person, you may well get confused by the sight of large numbers of happy, partying, unchaperoned women in the public sphere.

Mixed persons

Some will ask, and rightly so: How can these general insights be useful in practical policy? In order to answer the question, I will briefly mention three PhDs in social anthropology from the last year. I am proud to have supervised all three, they all touch upon the question of personhood, and they are all based on fieldwork in culturally complex environments in Oslo.

Monica Five Aarset has written a study of middle-class life among Oslo residents with an Indian or Pakistani background. In one of her examples, she shows how a couple has come to rely on strict (‘Protestant’) time budgets which clash with that of their parents. They have fixed bedtime hours for the children and an everyday life regulated by the clock, while the parents’ time is unstructured, unbounded and perceived, by the young, as irresponsibly fluid.

Monika Rosten’s dissertation concerns young adults in Furuset, a satellite town in Eastern Oslo, showing how they strive to create a meaningful existential space for themselves. Maneuvring between racism and exclusion, the pressures from Islamicisation and religion, the expectations of their parents and their own career choices, they develop identities which are mainly Norwegian in form (individualist), while kinship and in some cases religion continue to be important factors in their lives.

Ida Erstad’s research, finally, concerns motherhood among young Pakistani-Norwegian women in Alna borough, eastern Oslo. In majority society, the dominant view is now (but this is fairly recent) that children should be raised to become independent individuals, responsible for their own lives and capable of making their own choices. The traditional Punjabi view, by contrast, emphasises diligence and loyalty, responsibility for others and respect for the elders. Norwegian children are subjected to many strict rules when they are small, and are gradually given more personal freedom as they grow up. With the Punjabi–Norwegian children, the situation is almost the opposite; they are allowed to run freely, have no fixed bedtime hours etc. when young, but are placed under greater constraints as they grow up, understand more and are capable of performing more chores. The mothers in Erstad’s material may experience their lives as being wedged between two cultural worlds, but in practice, they mix the Norwegian and the Pakistani elements. Their main goal is for their children to succeed in Norwegian society when they grow up.

These three vignettes, scratching the surface of much larger research projects, show how people who ‘live between two cultures’ in practice create mixtures. They are neither–nor and both–and. This corpus of empirical research, collected through several years of fieldwork, also demonstrates a will and a desire among minorities to fit in, achieve full membership in society and respect from the majority, and to make their contribution to the abstract community beyond the inner circles of kinship, ethnicity and religion. There are, naturally, other stories, and whoever seeks will easily find immigrants and children of immigrants who are embittered and disillusioned of majority society; but those I have mentioned are probably more representative of Oslo’s minority population.

Seen as a whole, this research shows that concepts of personhood change when people acquire new experiences. Courses on European values and gender equality can be held quickly and cheaply, and creates an impression of determined and active politicians, but they are of little help unless the target group is also able to acquire experiences which tell them that men and women are equal and should treat each other not only with respect, but with roughly the same kind of respect. You get these experiences by living in a society where you yourself are respected and are allowed to contribute. Your concept of personhood is linked to your everyday life, and when your experiences change, so do your relationships to other people. But this takes time, it can be laborious and expensive for all involved, and for such changes to be possible, minorities must be included at all levels of society.

* * *

Returning to the young men in Cologne and their dysfunctional view of women, it is obvious that there is an urgency to the situation at the moment. Pegida are marching, and the extreme right is gloating across the continent now. For starters, the police has to sort itself out and get on with its work. It will then be necessary to enlighten the young men about the German way of life, legislation and values. But at the end of the day, they must be incorporated into social contexts which convince them that they have arrived in an individualist society where independent women are a natural component in all parts of society. Integration is based on experiences, not on courses. This also means that the currently fast flow of refugees into Europe is problematic. For this transition not to fail, they must get something useful and meaningful to do, get to know some natives and pick up the language quickly. It is the responsibility of government at all levels to make these adaptations possible. Should vast numbers of refugees end, unintegrated, on welfare, the only beneficiaries are the extreme movements on either side. They are only capable of creating distrust, divisiveness and mutual suspicion.

Thanks to Pål Norheim for inspiration.


Dumont, Louis (1971) Homo Hierarchicus: Essai sur le système des castes, Gallimard, Paris.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (2015) Person, time and conduct in Alna. Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 15(1): 11–18.

Erstad, Ida (2015) Here, now and into the future: Child rearing among Norwegian-Pakistani mothers in Oslo, Norway. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo: Ph D dissertation.

Kurkiala, Mikael (2003) Interpreting honour killings: The story of Fadime Sahindal (1975–2002) in the Swedish press. Anthropology Today, 19(1): 6–7.

Rosten, Monika (2015) «Nest siste stasjon, linje 2» – sted, tilhørighet og unge voksne i Groruddalen. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo: Ph D dissertation.

Aarset, Monica Five (2015) Hearts and roofs. Family, belonging, and (un-) settledness among descendants of immigrants in Norway. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo: Ph D dissertation.


The Paris massacre and the Syrian refugee crisis

Two dramatic events, one unfolding over the last several years, the other a sudden shock, currently eclipse all other issues. Syrians desperate to escape their broken country enter neighbouring and European countries in huge numbers, and a handful of bloodthirsty fanatics have killed over a hundred random, innocent people in Paris. These events both form part of a larger, unsettling picture. They are interconnected, and reveal important features of the world in which we all currently live.

First of all, regional asymmetries have to be taken into account as underlying causal factors. The northern coast of the Mediterranean consists of stable, prosperous and mainly peaceful states, while the southern and eastern coasts are dominated by unstable, autocratic or collapsing states, inequality, insecurity and stagnation. While the European population has grown slowly (from 350m to 450m in sixty years), the population of Europe’s neighbours has exploded from 163m to 587m in the same period. North Africa and the Middle East have young populations, poorly functioning labour markets and uneven opportunities for higher education. In many cases, gender segregation adds further to the inefficiency of labour markets and public institutions. The pressure on the Mediterranean as a membrane separating opportunity from stagnation is gaining strength.

Secondly, the value of human lives varies depending on where you live and who you are. This may be stating the obvious, but there is rarely if ever a major outrage in the rich countries when a drone attack or a missile targeting a terrorist leader instead ends up killing dozens of innocents, including children. Yet this happens routinely and frequently. Not everybody agrees that it is acceptable that the rich countries murder civilians in poor countries, and the Paris terrorist attack can thus be understood as an act of retribution.

Thirdly, the growing impact of identity politics creates a double polarisation in Western Europe. The first is the symbolic competition between Islamists and nativists, the second the conflict between identity politics and secular politics. In Sweden, which has been among the most accommodating countries in the ongoing refugee crisis, asylum centres have been burnt down, and the latest opinion poll indicates that an unprecedented 25 per cent of the Swedish population presently supports the right-wing Swedish Democrats. France, which has a secularist political identity (all citizens are in principle equal, regardless of their culture or religion), has seen the upsurge of identity politics both among nativists (Front National) and Muslim extremists. More than a third of the European IS fighters in Syria come from France. Instead of accepting the polarisation of opposing identity politics, many insist on basing political projects on other principles than religion or group membership. To them, Islamism and nativism are two sides of the same coin.

Fourthly, ideological conflicts, events and acts of violence can now rarely be contained geographically. The Danish cartoon crisis of 2005-06 was a telling reminder of the increasingly deterritorialised nature of conflicts: A Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, leading eventually to riots in Nigeria and demonstrations in Lebanon. Today, the Syrian conflict, the rise of IS/Daesh, the flows of people out of the country and the mixed, ambivalent reactions with which they are being met in Europe, the feeling of disenfranchisement and marginalisation prevalent among youths of North African origin in France, and the Western countries’ active destabilisation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya cannot be seen independently of each other. Whether or not they are de facto causally connected, they form part of a cognitive package shared by many Muslims, most of them committed to living in peace with their neighbours; many of them are not even religious believers. The view shared by many Muslims on both sides of the Mediterranean is that they are consistently being treated as second-rate people. In France, the colonial experience adds insult to injury among its Muslims, most of whom have a background in the Mahgreb.

The most obvious connection between the Syrian refugee crisis and the terrorist attack on Friday 13 is its common denominator, namely IS or Daesh. Its primitive brutality chases people out of Syria, strengthens the polarisation in Europe by giving Islamophobes a field day, and destroys even the faintest trace of civilisation wherever it goes. Nevertheless, there are two analytic concepts that may be even more helpful in understanding the current situation and the kind of vulnerability which has been palpable at least since the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The first is deterritorialisation. In the present age, nothing can be contained geographically. Protecting the borders of a country is less feasible than it has been, and securitisation will only give a false sense of security. Responding to violence with more violence is unlikely to solve anything and more likely to fan the flames than to quell them. Suicidal religious fanatics arguably have to be countered with violence, but getting rid of these individuals does not address the underlying, structural contradictions. The solution to both threats of terrorism and ungovernable flows of refugees is a more equitable global distribution of dignity and opportunity, not barbed-wire fences and surveillance. On the other hand, nobody knows how to get there, but addressing symptoms without taking causes into account is rarely recommended as a cure.

The second concept is schismogenesis. Taken from Gregory Bateson’s mid-century writings about intercultural encounters, it refers to self-reinforcing, spiralling conflicts. The more you threaten me, the more I shall threaten you. As extreme, intolerant religious preachers spread their poison, nativists and Islamophobes respond in kind by denouncing any form of Islam as anti-democratic and inimical to European societies. Unless a third, mediating instance enters into this dance of destruction and offers an alternative approach, the result can be catastrophic.

Civilisation or barbarism. Civilisation ou barbarie. Attacking innocent people is barbaric, regardless of whether they are brown or white, poor or rich. Finding ways of living together in this overheated, interconnected world is a civilised and civilising act. The real danger today is that divisive identity politics, from ethnonationalists and jihadists, succeeds in taking the majorities hostage to their destructive ideologies. Their world of preference would be one of suspicion rather than trust, withdrawal rather than openness, retrograde nostalgia rather than acceptance of the impurities and frictions that inevitably characterise a world which is on the move, literally and metaphorically. As my friend Khalid Salimi once said – he was the founder of the Anti-Racist Centre in Oslo and currently runs the Mela music festival – we should stop talking about building bridges. Instead, we must come to realise that we all live on the same island.

A prize for Edward Snowden

But will he be able to travel to Norway?

A few months ago, it was as if everybody wanted to be Charlie (Hebdo). This gesture was laudable enough (if not always credible), but who wants to be Edward Snowden? After two years, the world’s most important whistleblower is still in Moscow. His chances of returning to a normal life remain slim, in spite of the recent ruling, in the US court of appeals, that the NSA’s storage of telephone metadata is indeed illegal.

Western politicians confronted with the Snowden affair typically respond in a vague and equivocal way. If pressed, they might say that their country does not condone mass surveillance, perhaps adding that it is not in their mandate to engage directly with Snowden’s situation. However, they are wrong on both counts. Just as they criticise rights violations in other countries, they can and should support Snowden, especially now that even a high legal authority in the US has indirectly confirmed that he was right to blow the whistle. Moreover, objectionable forms of surveillance do take place, if not on the same scale as in the US, in European countries as well.

The arguments in favour of mass surveillance are surprisingly weak. As Jesselyn Radack, one of Snowden’s lawyers, recently pointed out, both the Boston bombing and the Charlie Hebdo massacre provide excellent arguments against surveillance. The authorities were unable to prevent either of these events, although they had repeatedly been warned about the perpetrators – not because of advanced surveillance methods, but through human intelligence. ‘When you keep all and sundry under surveillance, you become lazy,’ she says. ‘You stop doing the detective work and trust the algorithms to do the job.’

Recently, a Norwegian cultural academy decided to award its annual prize to Edward Snowden. The Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson Academy is named after a significant Norwegian writer, playwright and public intellectual. Bjørnson (1832–1910) was not only in favour of Norwegian independence (achieved in 1905) and democratic values, but he also emphasised the importance of the freedom of thought and speech, the value of disagreement and the need for civil society to be independent of state powers. He was, among many other things, a strong supporter of Alfred Dreyfus.

The Bjørnson Academy, of which I am a board member, awards its annual prize to a person whom we see as a strong representative of the values for which Bjørnson became famous and controversial in his time. This year, the board was unanimous in deciding that surveillance should be the topic of its annual seminar, and that Edward Snowden should be offered the prize.

In the press release sent to the Norwegian media, we explained that Snowden’s interventions did not just concern personal integrity and illegitimate state power, but were also directly relevant for the freedom of expression. If everything that is written or spoken can potentially be traced and stored by the political authorities, the free exchange of ideas will suffer owing to possible sanctions from the state. Threats to the freedom of expression may have been more visible in Bjørnson’s day, but they were less insidious and ubiquitous than today.

There is only one minor problem with the Bjørnson prize. Snowden was happy to receive it, and we duly invited him to come to Molde, Norway on 5 September for the award ceremony. However, since he is still considered a criminal by the US, his security would have to be guaranteed by the Norwegian government. We therefore wrote a letter to Prime Minister Erna Solberg (Conservative Party) and Minister of Justice Anders Anundsen (Progress Party) asking them to ensure free passage for Snowden to Norway. Several lawyers have considered the case and concluded that it would be legally possible for Norway to allow Snowden to enter the country without being extradited to the USA.

Both government parties have for years (not least in recent debates concerning Muslims and Islam) been staunch defenders of the freedom of expression. The populist Progress Party has also always been critical of the state’s tendency to interfere unduly with the lives of citizens. Unfortunately, only politicians from the Socialist Left (SV) have so far supported our demand. The government has not yet responded to our letter, but it was sent only on 1 June. We are optimistic for now, hoping that the Norwegian government will confirm loud and clear that it is uncompromising in its support of the freedom of expression and citizens’ personal integrity, and that it will not let its relationship with other countries stand in the way of the fundamental principles of democracy.

First published, with a slightly different title, on Open Democracy:

Sex and temperament: Mead, Bateson and Fortune, New Guinea, 1933.

It was the most complicated of things, a love triangle involving young professionals who were meant to collaborate, and who did, but whose contrasting personalities and diverging agendas immediately led to tensions which would tear them apart. Two of them came as a couple; after the events had unfolded, they had decoupled and recoupled in a new configuration. The abandoned husband would never properly find his feet again, the two others staying together in a stormy, intellectually rewarding marriage lasting a little over a decade.

I am talking about the most famous and mythologised of all anthropological love affairs of the last century. It began with what George Stocking, a leading historian of anthropology, once spoke of as ‘one of the great moments in the history of anthropology’. Enter the dramatis personae.

Gregory Bateson, today recognised as a major thinker across disciplines, was a young man with wavering confidence. His oldest brother had died in the war, the second brother committing suicide soon after. His father, the famous biologist William Bateson (who in his day coined the term ‘genetics’), wanted Gregory to follow in his own footsteps, but on a train to Cambridge, the youngest Bateson, grief and responsibility weighing heavily on his shoulders, was nonetheless persuaded by the Melanesianist A.C. Haddon to take on anthropology. His efforts to do anthropological fieldwork in New Guinea were initially unsuccessful – the Baining, whom he tried to study, but failed, were later described as ‘the most boring people in the world’ – but by autumn 1932, things were looking up, as he had discovered a fascinating ritual of gender inversion among the Iatmul up the Sepik River.

One day, a canoe carrying two other anthropologists of Bateson’s generation arrived in his village. Reo Fortune, a Newzealander, had made his name with The Sorcerers of Dobu (1932), an account focusing on ‘the black art’ among the men of an island off New Guinea, praised by his mentor Malinowski at the LSE. His wife, Margaret Mead, had acquired fame for her first book, the bestselling Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), an analysis of adolescence and gender in a society which valued freedom and responsibility more than guilt and shame.

Fortune and Mead, who had already collected data on a couple of New Guinea groups, were now looking for a fieldsite upstream from Bateson’s, and he suggested the Arapesh, a people renowned for their crafts and aesthetic sensibility. They remained in contact with Bateson through mutual visits, and by the end of the fieldwork, Fortune and Mead could no longer salvage their marriage.

This dramatic affair is fairly well known through professional lore, correspondence, biographies and Mead’s memoir Blackberry Winter, but we cannot know every minute detail of the drama up the Sepik River in 1932–33 as it unfolded. This is why Lily King’s recent novel Euphoria is such a riveting read and also a frustrating one for an anthropologist who is not only a lifelong Bateson aficionado, but who is also above average interested in the history of the discipline (cf. Eriksen and Nielsen, A History of Anthropology). King has endeavoured to do nothing less than to reconstruct, in a fictional form, the triangular relationship, with all its energies, passions, sparks of intellectual excitement, deceptions and emotional turmoil and, not to forget, the physical privations (less in the case of Mead and Fortune than of Bateson, as they had brought with them many a creature comfort from Port Moresby) and sheer alienation experienced in a society which would be difficult to make sense of on a good day.

King paints the personalities of the protagonists with a clear, sharp brush. Bateson (‘Bankson’) is the gifted, but shy public schoolboy who feels that asking probing questions of the informants would be unacceptably intrusive, thereby missing out on a wide range of ethnographic details. He enjoys mind games, is good with metaphors and comes across as a caring and compassionate man. Mead (‘Nell Stone’), who would later conquer the American public sphere with her wit and quick tongue, is efficient, systematic and direct in her manner as a fieldworker and a companion, brave and ambitious in her forays into some of the more demanding fieldwork sites in the world. She believes in humanity and takes pains to find goodness in the society she studies. Fortune (‘Fen’) is quite the opposite. He is a tough cookie from down under, sees no reason to trust anyone, rarely backs off from a potential fight, threatens and cajoles to get the material he wants, regards his famous wife with a heady mixture of envy and admiration, and harbours genuinely mixed feelings for the tall, mild-mannered and obviously learned and intelligent Englishman.

Gregory Bateson is by common consent a profound and complex thinker, and King’s lightly fictionalised Bateson (Bankson) does little to add or subtract from posterity’s image of the man. With Margaret Mead (Nell Stone), the novel brings her to life in a way rarely seen in retrospective accounts of the woman; she was young then, and vulnerable, not yet the ‘formidable woman’ she is usually typecast as: Nell Stone once remarks to Bankson that there ‘seems to be a stench of failure about us’. She is earnest and confident, but aware of her own limitations, and extremely hard-working. Many, including a few anthropologists, have attempted to demolish Mead – her work in Samoa was allegedly flawed and marked by wishful thinking; she was too much of a fast thinker, not enough of a plodding scholar to be taken seriously in the professional guild; she did so well in so many arenas that she had to be superficial, and so on – and in its fictionalised way, Euphoria gives a portrait of Mead which is both credible, endearing and commanding of the reader’s respect; a young woman in the interior of New Guinea, struggling with a violent husband and recurrent physical ailments, yet persevering in her doggedly systematic study of kinship, gender, ritual and art in a remote people lacking books, coins and metals.

With Reo Fortune (‘Fen’), the situation is again different, and I must admit that having completed the novel, I scanned the Internet for traces of indignation among his defenders. There were none to be found. He doesn’t seem to have any. Fen, Nell Stone writes in her (fictional) diary, didn’t really want to study the natives. He wanted to be one of them. He worked with them, got high on local drugs, went shirtless and sweaty for days, and was uninterested in keeping his part of the husband-and-wife agreement that she should study the women while he should do the men. His notes were sketchy and less tidy than those of his wife. Years later (in 1939), Fortune would write a very bad-tempered article about the Arapesh where he openly argued against his ex-wife’s view of gender equality and tranquility in this group (in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies), claiming that conflict and warfare were institutionalised aspects of their political world. In the novel, Fen is portrayed bluntly as an uncaring and selfish macho man who dreams up secret plots that will enable him to outshine his famous wife upon their return. Characteristically, Fen repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, tries to impregnate his wife.

Although he was still young at the time of his divorce from Mead, Fortune would never subsequently publish anything of significance, apart from an acclaimed grammar of the Arapesh language. After a few years of temporary appointments, he settled as a lecturer in social anthropology at Cambridge, where he stayed until his retirement in 1971. He was known as ‘a difficult colleague at the best of times’. Perhaps it was the divorce that broke him as a man; perhaps it was his personality that broke the marriage. Lily King provides answers, but Euphoria being a novel, they are difficult to evaluate, and I cannot help thinking that she might have done without the passages about the unsuccessful attempts at impregnation. Fortune may well have been a cruel man, but delving into these details seems just as cruel.

I recently asked one of Bateson’s close relatives what she thought about the novel. She sort of shrugged and said that well, it’s a novel. Touché. On the other hand, it is more than a novel insofar as it builds on meticulously collected facts; but it is also less than a novel by the same token. As a work of documentary fiction, Lily King’s evocative and powerful novel inevitably influences our views of the protagonists, her depictions of the tall, feverish, bored, brilliant Bankson, the small, vivacious, structured Nell (her hair in a sensible bun most of the time), and the dark, brooding, volatile Fen, reverberating at the back of our minds whenever we contemplate their respective contributions to knowledge. Such is the power of fiction; such is the hybrid nature of knowledge.

Lily King: Euphoria. Picador 2014.