Clueless about homeless

Recent article on the Guardian (www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/apr/21/london-internal-refugee-camps-homeless) suggested that London should think about setting up refugee camps for its homeless. As it got me interested I ended up scrolling though some of the comments. Most people seemed to think that this is some kind of a joke, a provocation aimed at raising awareness of the issue. The problem is real enough, but the social awarness of it is far from sufficient.

There are different types of homeless people – there is rough sleeper, couch surfer, shelter occupier, and family visitor. None of them, apart rough sleepers perhaps, is visible or considered a real problem. Having a place to live makes all the difference for the poor. As long as you have your flat there are things to be done, help to be sought. There are people who’ll help you during your eviction hearing, and schemes to help you pay your rent arrears. If you fall behind with your rent and end up facing eviction the judge will probably look at you kindly and order your landlord to give you yet another chance. But once you’re out, you’re out and on your own. Whether you were evicted due to the fault of your own or not, councils have a duty to rehouse only those in priority need – mainly people with children or those disabled. Everyone else will be refused and informed that it would be best to make arrangements on their own.

So then you have to search. To find a home when you’re employed and capable is difficult, but no one really says how to search for one when you’re homeless, computer illiterate, or disadvantaged in a different way and plan to pay you’re rent with housing benefit. But that’s not all. Say you are eager to look and assume you even know how to. With the constant incline of house prices and introduction of benefit cap you may forget about the inner boroughs. The bigger house you need the further you look; three or four bedrooms will probably take you to a different county. If you need five – you can start familiarising yourself with the map of Wales.

I am fully aware how terrible idea the camps for homeless would be, but do they still sound so ridiculous now?

The meaning of Easter

ostaraWhat does Easter mean today? Undeniably the meaning of Easter changed over the centuries. Has the arrival of postmodernity turned it into a meaningless holiday, or is it still an important festival?

When Christianity spread in the first centuries of our era, it eradicated or assimilated pagan traditions. Although it brought a new meaning to old celebration, it did not necessarily alter their form. It was a very pragmatic and clever practice, as it was simply easier to convince people to celebrate the anniversary of the crucifixion of Christ if that happened to resemble the rituals of Ostara.

Now, we could argue, the post-modernity does the same to Christianity. Christian festivals are still there, but the meaning is different. Easter has become the time to meet with family, munch on some chocolate eggs, or hang out in a pub; it’s not necessarily spent by contemplating Christ’s death and his resurrection.

Is that wrong? Is that something we should regret? Some interpret this change of meaning as synonymous with the fact that traditions are dying out – that people forget about their values, and the valuable old is replaced by the meaningless new. It is more difficult to realise that meanings of rituals and practices are not fixed. They have always changed and will continue to change in order to stay relevant in an ever evolving society. Each change should be studied on its own terms and in its own context. To explain why I think Easter, even in its secularised form, is still meaningful and important, I have to go back to Benedict Anderson’s theory of imagined community. Anderson claimed that there are no tangible ties between all members of a nation. The nation consists of people of different financial status, educated to different levels, or with different political views – people who may have absolutely nothing in common. We are all bound together by different external factors such as official history, traditions, or even the national football team. Easter is certainly one of the factors that contribute to the maintenance of social solidarity within the nation. Knowing that millions of people all over the country do exactly what we do at exactly the same time (even if said activity is as trivial as munching on a chocolate egg) creates a sense of unity – an imagined community. And so Easter after Easter, however commercialised the celebrations, we continue to perpetuate the connections that bind us together.

The ship is sinking: immigration in the EU

The part of Europe which belongs to the European Union is often thought of, and described as a zone of great mobility. We, proud inhabitants of this geopolitical entity can freely travel, study, or work anywhere between Lisbon and Warsaw, Stockholm and Sofia (well, if you want to work, you should probably forget Lisbon, or Athens, or Madrid for that matter). One could almost think: never has there been such a freedom. Nothing further from the truth.

It seems to me we too often forget that the EU is a zone of persevering immobility as much as mobility. The new states accepted to the Union added more people to the pool of those whose movement cannot be restricted internally. Effectively, it means that wealthier states such as UK or Germany will have to accept yet another influx of people, and even trying to convince the potential migrants that in their Promised Land rains a lot, food is expensive, and it simply sucks may not help. As long as they’re paid three or more times more than back home, people will come. And here comes the part about immobility – these extra numbers of unrestrainable incomers from the new EU states have to be balanced out by further restrictions on migration from outside countries. For many of those who seek a better life (often for very serious reasons) it means choosing between all the risk involved in illegal human trafficking, including possible death, and life in poverty and misery in their own country. The results of such dilemmas are frequently reported in the media; as in the story about two immigrant ships sunk at the shores of the island of freedom – Italian Lampedusa. Now, if the restrictions imposed by European countries push those people towards risking all they have just to get here, I think we need to ask ourselves a question – who are those people? Are they a threat to a free and independent Europe? Are they the reason behind the economic downturn? A cause that will only worsen the dramatic situation of millions of Europeans?

It appears that, just as the ships at the shore of Lampedusa, Europe is sinking as well. Slowly and quietly, that’s true, and still with a good chances of being rescued. The engine is still on, and the stokers constantly throw buckets of water overboard. Nonetheless, sinking we are. The reasons for that are complex and many, and most probably far beyond my understanding. However, one of the often given reasons for such a state of things is the immigrant. Whether legally and not, they come to our land, take our jobs, our social benefits, and sooner or later they will ruin our country. The foreign, the unknown, the other is often blamed for all the evil, no matter how illogical and irrelevant that may be. That has happened for centuries – the Moor, the Jew, the barely legal immigrant from outside of EU, who, often speaking no English or having little or no qualification, takes jobs from decent and hardworking citizens.

The feeling I get while following recent migration debate is that western countries should protect their legacy, the prosperity achieved through centuries of hard work and steady development. Britain is presented as an entity whose wellbeing is independent of historical and geographical factors, and its status is solely an outcome of the labour of its citizens. One should not forget that current global political situation is (still) very much an outcome of the colonial relations which Europe had with pretty much all the rest of the world in the past. The gap between European and African, South American, or Asian countries is not a result of some sort of mismanagement of resources in case of the postcolonial countries. It is rather an outcome of centuries of exploitation, which depleted natural resources of many countries, at the same time often destructing their social and political structures (for a more detailed account of the links between the colonialism and present difficulties faced by South American countries I strongly recommend reading Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. Prosperity of many countries was, to a large extent, fuelled by said exploitation, and being sorry about it won’t change much in the matter.

Now, should the borders be open everywhere and for everyone then? Obviously, something like that cannot be done overnight, and I don’t think that opening borders just like that would be a great idea. However, I believe that the events on the shores of Lampedusa should trigger a more aware and open debate about the problem of migration and the distribution of wealth across the world. The debate which, hopefully, would lead to some sort of solution that would allow more people on board of our figuratively speaking sinking ship without the need to hitch rides on the ships that sink quite literally. How would that solution look like? That I do not know. I am an anthropologist, and unexperienced one at that, so I don’t have answers. I just have questions.

(In)Dependence Day – what if Scotland says yes.

‘Scotland’s Future’ – SNP’s blueprint for independence was only published few days ago and the media are already filled with different interpretations, summaries and comments on. Most of the experts’ opinions I read so far seem to agree that the document is very speculative – e.g there’s no certainty that the EU will instantly allow Scotland to join its rank, not to mention agreeing to let Scotland continue to benefit from UK’s rebate. Likewise, it’s possible that the EU will insist that the independent Scotland accepts the Euro or that UK (in the person of George Osborne) won’t agree to sustain monetary union. However, as analyses of these issues have already been made, I wanted to take a different view on Scottish plans. One of the most important and recurring arguments for the independence is that Scottish nation will finally be able to speak for itself, will be officially and directly represented internationally, and will benefit from policies tailored to its needs and problems.

However, no one has presented a real and practical outline of HOW exactly it is supposed to happen .The document presents Scotland’s future in dichotomous and simplified (if not openly naïve) terms – as if the UK was only possible reason for dependence. It seems that being part of the UK generates a number of costs and problems for Scotland and brings no profits. It is somehow forgotten that no country exists in a vacuum. To make every single political decision Scotland, as every other state, will have to take into account such forces as global economy, EU policies, and pressures from big international companies. By becoming independent, Scotland will give up its place (as part of the UK) amongst the key players and decision makers in international affairs. It will no longer have access to the G8 or UN Security Council, and while its GPD per capita will be in world’s top 8, the economy as a whole will be around 40th place. I am afraid Scotland will soon find out what is the difference between being the 3rd (current position of the UK) and 16th economy of the EU. While the voice of the UK cannot be ignored and even special demands, e.g. rebates, are fulfilled, Scotland will have to accept its spot as one amongst many others. I think the words of Spanish PM Mr Rajoy portray best how difficult it will be for Scotland to establish a beneficial relationship with the rest of the EU: “The only thing that I would like is that Scots are realistic about the consequences of secession. It is clear to me that a region which asks for independence from a state within the European Union, will be left outside the EU. It is good thing that the citizens, the Scottish people know this, along with other Europeans”. (The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10479461/Spanish-PM-Independent-Scotland-would-be-out-of-the-EU.html)”.

The strangest of all is the decision to sustain monetary union with the rest of the UK. The results of economies of different strengths and sizes having the same currency can be very well observed in Greece or Spain. By retaining sterling Scotland will deprive itself of the natural defence mechanism against economic downturn. Since UK economy will be around 5 times bigger than Scottish, the price of its currency will mostly be dependent on the decisions made in London. Unlike most other countries, in times of economic downturn Scotland will not be able to count on prices of its currency to go down what would boost export and lower the entry costs for international investors.

Finally, the authors of ‘Scotland’s Future’ often repeat that Scottish finances will be as strong as UK’s even without offshore tax receipts. However, as you can see in the Estimates of Scotland financial position for 2016/17, the entire revenue generated by the oil industry will be spent the same year. Moreover, offshore tax receipts will constitute between 10.5 and 12% of Scotland’s budget, resulting in a huge dependency on oil prices.

My aim here is not to depreciate Scotland’s efforts. But the country’s best interest will depend on the ability of its citizens to make a fully informed and conscious decision regarding the independence. I am afraid the SNP chose to present solely the advantages of being a separate country, leaving any downsides or doubts out of the ‘Scotland’s Future’ manifest. The part of the blueprint regarding international policy is devoted to Britain’s and Scotland’s relationship to the EU – Scotland, just as the rest of the UK, is said to recognise the flaws of the EU but believes it is in its best interest to work on changing the union instead of leaving it altogether. I really wish the same approach could be applied to its relationship with the UK.

I don’t dig out bones

I guess the first post on this blog should explain what Anthropology is actually about. I must admit that if you’d asked me that question about four and a half years ago I would have had no idea. None whatsoever. So now I don’t blame others for not knowing. If there is anyone responsible for that situation it’s most probably anthropologists themselves.

The whole idea of creating this blog is strictly connected with me having to explain, time and again, what I actually study. Anthropology? Do you dig out bones? Do you learn about ancient history? Every time I heard these questions I struggled to answer. How to convey the nature of arguably the broadest of academic disciplines in one or two sentences during a small talk? After a year or two, I realised that virtually no one knew what anthropology did. Even if people had some sort of faint idea what it could be, they were usually wrong. I got used to seeing empty gazes when I introduced myself as an anthropology student and got into a habit of instantly providing a few word of explanation, regardless of whether or not I was asked for it. It’s about time to make up for the crime of negligence I repeatedly committed over the years and once and for all inform anyone who cares to read it about what Anthropology is all about. Let’s start with the obvious – in contrary to common assumptions, no bones are involved. In Britain, Social Anthropology is most often, a part of the school of social sciences. In the USA on the other hand, biological Anthropology, which studies physical evolution of humans, is also popular. Hence, I presume, the common misunderstanding.

            Wikipedia defines anthropology as a study of the past and present of the humankind. It is about as precise as one can be without omitting anything. This is also a reason why it is so difficult to explain to anyone what I studied. One could add that Anthropology is concerned with culture or society, but I don’t believe that really brings us any closer to a clear definition. I think that closer to the truth is the statement that Anthropology, through ethnographic research, gathers information about cultural practices, unequal power relations, and social problems of peoples around the world. Traditionally, an ethnographer would spend a year, or even a few years, living with a particular group of people, whom typically could be described as indigenous and living in a remote part of the world, detached from western influences. He or she would learn the local language, study social and cultural practices, and get as close as possible to see the world through the eyes of the studied people. One may ask what the use of that kind of knowledge is and why anyone would do that. Initially, the task was to gather knowledge about societies which, as it was thought at the time, were about to disappear from the face of the earth. The other goal was to prove or disprove the evolutionary theory, which claimed that some races were further ahead on the evolutionary scale than others. This theory claimed that, for example, by studying Australian Aborigines one could see how the ancestors of civilised men looked like (it was later proved that not only evolutionary theory was wrong, but also that genetically distinctive races do not exist). In its early stages, Anthropology eagerly collaborated with colonial agents, and that left a mark on the discipline until today. Later on, in order to make up for contributing to colonial practices, Anthropology began to pay more attention to empowering the people it studied. It started to be more preoccupied with giving a voice to indigenous people and unveiling the impact of colonialism on current situation of the Aborigines around the world. With time, also the need to travel to remote locations disappeared. Anthropology can just as well be done round the corner as in a hamlet in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

            Frank Furadi wrote about how an intellectual should be dedicated to the search for the truth and knowledge, without paying much attention to whether or not said knowledge would provide any financial or consumable benefits. I think that sentence can be seen as a second description of Anthropology. Furadi provides a critique of modern times, claiming that the knowledge in and of itself is not valued, and that we only care for its applications and use values. It seems to me that Anthropology, or at least its part, values the knowledge more than ways of applying or using it, just as Furadi would like to have it. Thus, I believe it is as much a blessing as a burden to the graduate (myself included). Anthropology provides students with an insight into social problems in different places around the world. It also teaches them, theoretically, how to gather data and analyse said problems. There is, however, very little with regards to providing practical solutions, reaching definite conclusions, or engaging general public and raising media attention, not to mention giving students a hands-on experience of any of that. Some of the best monographs do not provide any sort of conclusion or closure; they describe a group of people or a community, sometimes in a great detail, but without even a slightest attempt to provide a solution for the issues they face. I remember quite well one of the departmental seminars I attended back at the university, when an Anthropologist from Australia presented her paper on the difficulties the Aborigines faced when they became wage labourers. Her portrayal of the situation was impressive and the analysis insightful; however, when asked by one of the post-grad students if she saw any way of improving the current situation, she stated that it had never been her intention. The reason for that is, I believe, one of Anthropology’s preoccupation with being objective and completely neutral. Ethnographic research often provides insights into perspectives of various people of different social, economic, and political positions. An ethnographic story often does not give two but four or five sides, and how to take a stand about anything if one wants to be fair to all the points of view of the situation. Anthropology too often falls prey to its own obsession with truth and objectivity. Its avoidance of having to face a problem heads on and its tendency to give extremely ambiguous answers greatly diminish the potential the discipline has in tackling many social issues; from homelessness and social exclusion in Western countries to the unfair treatment of the communities in remote locations of Borneo or Southern Mexico.

 Anthropologist deserves to be known and present, and anthropologists deserve to be heard, but for that the discipline must change; there needs to be more engagement in the current social, political and even economic issues and definitely more unequivocality.