Overheating: The TEDx version

In October, 2017, I spoke about Overheating at the annual TEDx event in Trondheim, central Norway. The TED format is ideally short, pithy, eye-catching and jaw-dropping. In other words everything that your average academic is not. The text below is not identical to the performance, which was without a manuscript, but it forms the basis. You can access the online version here:

Eriksen TEDx Overheating

OK, here goes:

 

Cooling down in an overheated world

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Good afternoon. I’m going to give you my take on globalisation and the challenges facing humanity. Our planet is an overheated place, and it is not just about climate change, and we need to find ways of cooling it down.

The world we currently share is … too full? Too intense? Too fast? Too hot? Too polluted? Too unequal? Too neoliberal? Too strongly dominated by humans?

All of the above, and more. Never before has humanity been so visible everywhere on the planet in ways even remotely comparable to the situation today. You and I live in the Anthropocene, the first era when humanity has placed its stamp on the planet in such a way that it can be felt everywhere. True, the world has changed fast since the onset of the industrial revolution in Europe a couple of hundred years ago. But today, things are changing faster and faster. With no direction, it may seem. It is as if the contemporary world has shifted to a higher gear and is now driving on a highway with no speed limit and, mind you, no roadworks.

Let me quickly run through some examples.

We have long been used to watching the steep curves depicting world population growth, but the fastest growth does not take place in the realm of population. It goes without saying that the number of people with access to the Internet has grown at lightning speed since 1990, since hardly anyone was online at that time. But the growth in Internet use continues to accelerate. As late as 2006, it was estimated that less than two per cent had access to the Internet in Subsaharan Africa (bar South Africa, which has a different history). By 2017, the percentage is estimated to be between 25 and 30 per cent, owing to affordable smartphones. Or we could look at migration. Around 1990, there were about 200,000 immigrants (including first-generation descendants) in my native Norway. By 2017, the figure is somewhere above 800,000. Or we could look at urban growth in the Global South. A city like Nouakchott in Mauretania has grown, since the early 1980s, from a couple of hundred thousand to a couple of million. The growth has been a thousand per cent in one generation. And people do not move into the city for the fun of it, but because they are driven off their land, or it has become too crowded to feed the people living there. Ninety per cent of the population growth in Kenya now takes place in the slums of Nairobi and Mombasa.

Or we could look at tourism. As early as the 1970s, there were those North Europeans who spoke condescendingly of some parts of the Spanish coast which they deemed to have been ‘spoiled’ by mass tourism. In 1979, Spain received about 15 million tourists a year. In 2015, the number was about 60 million. We aretalking about a fourfold growth in less than forty years.

The growth in international trade has also been immense. The container ship with its cranes, railways, standardised metal containers and rebuilt ports, perhaps the symbol par excellence of an integrated, standardised, connected world, has slowly but surely gained importance from its invention in the 1950s until it had become the industry standard a few decades later. The ports of Shanghai and Singapore more than doubled their turnover only between 2003 and 2014. While world GDP is estimated to have grown by 250 per cent since 1980, world trade grew with 600 per cent in the same period, a development made possible through the reduced transport costs enabled by the shipping container.

Websites, international organisations, conferences and workshops, mobile phones and TV sets, private cars and text messages, air traffic and container ships: The growth curves point steeply upwards in all these – and many other – areas. In 2005, Facebook did not yet exist; a decade later, the platform had more than a billion users.

Even more mindboggling, perhaps, is the growth in the number of photos taken in the world. In a recent past, cameras were heavy, film was expensive, and getting photos developed and onto photo paper was cumbersome and slow. Although each exposure was carefully prepared and planned, many of the photos turned out useless. Today, the situation is completely different; photos are free, instantly viewable and can be disposed of as you go along. As a matter of fact, only in five years’ time, from 2010 to 2015, the number trebled, from 0.35 trillion to a trillion photos. The explanation is simple; 80% of all photos are now taken with mobile phones – but we still haven’t properly understood what this development does to our perception of images, when they are free, everywhere and ephemeral.

And slowly but surely, the forces of progress have turned out to be a double-edged sword. What seemed to have been the salvation of humanity for two hundred years, cheap energy based on fossil fuels, is now about to become our damnation through environmental destruction and climate change. This is the kind of change that I speak of as overheating. In physics, speed and heat are two sides of the same coin. As a metaphor, overheating thus refers to the kind of speed that will eventually lead a car engine to grind to a halt, spewing out black smoke in copious quantities, unless the style of driving changes, or you get the cooling mechanisms to kick in at the right time.

Overheating can also be illustrated in a different way. I mean, what do you typically do when you’re standing outside in the winter months in Norway and have left your gloves inside? You almost instinctively start rubbing your hands together like this,. Your hands warm up. Now, if you could rub your hands together really, really fast, they would eventually burn up. But you can’t do that. We have an inbuilt thermostat which tells us when to stop. The problem with overheating is that there is no thermostat. There is nobody who has the authority to say that enough is enough and let’s slow down a bit now.

Perhaps humanity has simply been too successful for its own good? On 28 November 2008, the famous French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss celebrated his hundredth birthday. He had been one of the most important anthropological theorists of the twentieth century, and although he had stopped publishing years before, his mind was still clear. But his time was nearly over, and he knew it. His perhaps most important book had been published almost sixty years earlier.

On his birthday, Lévi-Strauss received a visit from President Nicolas Sarkozy, since France is a country where it still makes sense for politicians to socialise with intellectuals. During the brief visit by the president, the ageing anthropologist remarked that he scarcely considered himself among the living any more. By saying so, he did not merely refer to his advanced age and weakened capacities, but also to the fact that the world to which he had devoted his life’s work was by now all but gone. The small, stateless peoples he had studied all his life had now become drawn into the frantic world of wage work, the state and global communication. They had become part of the modern world..

Lévi-Strauss also remarked that the world was too full: Le monde est trop plein. By this, he clearly referred to the fact that the world was filled by people, their projects and the material products of their activities. The world was overheated, as I would put it, with growth and change out of control and too many things happening at the same time. There were by then seven billion of us, compared to two billion at the time of the French anthropologist’s birth, and quite a few of them seemed to be busy shopping, posting updates on Facebook, migrating, working in mines and factories, learning the ropes of political organising or the basics of English , or all of this at the same time.

So overheating is about the kind of runaway globalisation that we have witnessed since the early 1990s. Change, growth, development have been with us since the 19th century, as positive ideals and as projects of progress. But there is something new and sinister about the contemporary speed, scope and scale of change today. The change is out of control, and the long-term consequences can be devastating.

There are more and less important kinds of change. The most important ones are population growth and the growth in energy use.

The human population of seven billion and a half travels, produces, consumes, innovates, communicates, fights and reproduces in a multitude of ways, and we are increasingly aware of each other as we do so. The steady acceleration of communication and transportation of the last two centuries has facilitated contact and made isolation difficult, and is weaving the growing global population ever closer together, influencing but not erasing cultural differences, local identities and power disparities. Since we are now seven times as many as we were about two hundred years ago, when Napoleon was finally sent off to the remote South Atlantic island St Helena, it should come as no surprise that we use more energy today; but the fact is that energy use in the world has grown much faster than the world population. In 1820, each human used on an average 20 Gigajoules a year. Two centuries later, we have reached 80, thanks to the technology of large-scale use of fossil fuels.

The quadrupling in energy use is in reality a growth by a factor of 30, since there are more than seven times as many of us today as in 1814. The side-effects are well known. The most visible ones are pollution and environmental degradation. Those effects which are more difficult to observe but no less important, are the long-term climate changes and the depletion of (nonrenewable) resources.

We now live in a world where modernity has shifted to a higher gear, where it is full speed ahead in most areas. It has produced growth and prosperity, but it is also an ultimately self-destructive situation. Eternal growth is impossible. At the same time, people living in communities around the world feel overrun by the large-scale changes, and have a strong feeling of not being heard and not being taken seriously.

The question is, what could be an alternative in a world society which seems to have locked itself to a path which is bound to end with collapse? How can we cool down? There is no simple answer to this, the most important question of our time. Healthy doses of imagination will be necessary to move ahead, and one size does not fit all. Solutions have to be local; there is no reason to assume that what works in Costa Rica will work in Nepal. Each place is interwoven with every other place, but they also remain distinctive and unique.

Everything seems to be out of control now, from climate change to corporate greed, and widespread responses among people who feel excluded are various forms of withdrawal into ethnic nationalism, right-wing populism and religious fanaticism. In fact, it often feels as if the political competition is between neoliberalism with no heart and identity politics with no brain, be it religious or nationalist. Interestingly, the senior resident of the White House represents both. Neither brain nor heart. Neither of the two does anything to address the pressing issues if survival and sustainability. When we start to look for solutions, we first have to realise that the loss of control is a result of overheating; ungoverned, accelerated, large-scale change. In the search for alternatives, the first priority is to look for ways to slow down and cool down. A cooler world, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense, would by default be slower, less materially affluent and less prolific than the one we currently inhabit. But it would also be more decentralised and diverse than the consumerist world we live in today. This would require scaling down in a number of areas, to help regain local control and autonomy; happiness over consumption, responsibility over wanton destruction – but we need to be realistic. Small may be beautiful, but in an interconnected world of more than seven billion humans it is not always possible. Yet, as a rule of thumb, I would say: In political decision-making and the economy, cool down, scale down and slow down whenever you can, but without losing one of our greatest collective achievements, namely an inclusive humanism where all lives matter. That would be one way of cooling down the overheated world without withdrawing into nationalism and ideologies building on suspicion and contempt. So we must scale down, slow down, cool down, but at the same time, we must keep the global conversation going in a spirit of cosmopolitan humanism. In this way, we can do something about both climate change and popular resentment against the elites. We can regain some control of our own lives and help improve the health of the planet. So: cool down, slow down, scale down, but look up, for we are seven and a half billion who share the planet, and we all deserve a chance.

 

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.

 

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.

References

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.