Publicness and Confrontation

Guest Author: Thijl Sunier

In the early 1990s I was involved in the formulation of a research project on the Kurdish issue in Turkey and in Europe. In the 1960s and 1970s along with many other migrant laborers many people from Turkey of Kurdish origin came to Europe to find work. Many of these migrants were not very conscious about their Kurdish background. At least it was something that did not play a very prominent role in their lives. They were officially registered as people of Turkish nationality. In the course of the 1980s, however, as a consequence of the war that broke out in the south-eastern part of Turkey, many politically active Kurds took refuge in Europe. Many of them had families in Europe, migrant families that often did not want to be involved in the war. Within those families and among the politically active and the others tensions grew. The aim of the research was to analyze these family and community relations and to describe this very complicated and sensitive development. It was the time when the PKK, the Kurdish movement for the independence of Kurdistan, was very active, also among Kurds in Europe. The PKK was considered a violent organization and they were one of the targets of intelligence services in Europe and it soon turned out that the sort of research we were planning to do might bring people in trouble. After a short pilot study we decided to cancel the whole project. We considered this very complex issue so sensitive and politically loaded that it would probably be impossible put these complexities across. In the press it would probably have been simplified in a way that would precisely undo and distort what we would like to show with the research.

Presently I am in a somewhat comparable situation. Together with some colleagues we just finished a report on the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs in Turkey and in the Netherlands. The aim of the research was to see how this organization works and how it operates in the Turkish and European landscape. We are about to present the results of this research and the biggest challenge is not to ‘sell’ the findings to the public. There is already quite some media attention. Our biggest endeavor is to find strategies of publicity that indeed do justice to the case without ‘translating’ the results into the simplicities of the present anti-Islam discourse that dominates the public debate in Europe.

These examples illustrate the argument I want to put forward here, namely that the typical way in which anthropologists relate to their fields of inquiry, the ways in which research questions are formulated, and the ways in which the production of anthropological knowledge comes about, are so closely related to issues of ‘publicness’ that the translation and dissemination of findings is in fact a superfluous issue. The essence of the anthropological approach is to show the complexities of human existence. The increasing pressure to translate these complexities into simplistic ready-made chunks of digestible ‘facts’ for policymakers runs counter to the very core of anthropological practice and methodology. A distinction between anthropological findings and their ‘translation’ into public discourse and the emerging debate about the public duties of anthropology, is based on a typical scientist inclination that we can currently witness in all academic fields but especially in the social sciences. It goes much further than obvious requirements that our findings should be made accessible to a general audience. It is no coincidence that precisely anthropology, the branch in social sciences that probably most explicitly makes the relation between researcher, research methodology and the object of research into its core problematic, is currently most explicitly ‘under siege’. Anthropologists are required to turn their data into quantifiable ‘facts’ that policymakers can apply. Anthropologists are required to submit to scientist methodologies and replace them with standardized quantitative data collection. The requirement to anthropologists to submit to the international ethical code for social scientific research downright denies anthropological methodology as a crucial and necessary approach.

The very essence of anthropological method lies in its continuous ‘communicative interaction’ with the field. In his seminal study on the ‘anthropological object of research’ Time and the Other, Johannes Fabian noted that the fundamental tension between the intimacies and communicative specificities of the ‘field’ and the requirements of academic reasoning constitutes a fundamental issue of methodological concern. This tension is in my view at the heart of the debate on the public role of anthropology. It touches on the very question what the production of anthropological knowledge entails. Since the Second World War anthropologist have almost continuously debated about these issues and apart from the study by Fabian, numerous anthropologist have addressed the question of how to ‘write culture’.

Rather than submit to these scientists pressures, anthropologists should make clear that their public role is precisely to confront scientist and quantitative methodology. In my own field of research, Islam in Europe, there is a constant ‘policy pressure’ to quantify Muslim religious practices and community building. I consider it my public task as an anthropologist to make clear that the ways in which Islam takes shape in Europe is becoming ever more complex and ever more multi-stranded, rather than present these complexities into figures about more or less integration into host societies, more or less religiosity, more or less radicalism, more or less loyalty to the country of residence. The public task of anthropologists working in this field is precisely to unmask this reductionist quantifiability and to do justice to the life worlds of Muslims in changing circumstances.

Thijl Sunier is  VISOR chair Islam in European societies at VU University Amsterdam,  Dept. Of Social and Cultural Anthropology. He conducted research on inter-ethnic relations, Turkish youth and Turkish Islamic organisations in the Netherlands, comparative research among Turkish youth in France, Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands, and international comparative research on nation building and multiculturalism in France and The Netherlands. Presently he is preparing research on styles of popular religiosity among young Muslims in Europe, religious leadership, and nation-building and Islam in Europe.

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  1. […] this sense, although I like his post very much, I disagree with Thijl Sunier when he writes about Publicness and Confrontation: Anthropologists are required to turn their data into quantifiable ‘facts’ that policymakers […]

  2. […] Publicness And Confrontation November 5th, 2010 — “Guest Author: Thijl Sunier In the early 1990s I was involved in the formulation of a research project on the Kurdish issue in Turkey and in Europe. In the 1960s and 1970s along with many other migrant laborers many people from Turkey of Kurdish origin came to Europe to find work. Many of these migrants… Readmore” 1 Comment […]

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