Arbeidsgruppe 6: Lørdag 4. mai

Fractured certainties and contested representations


Martin Thomassen, NTNU, epost:

Håvard Benum Lindanger, NTNU, epost:

Acts of representation and discourses of legitimacy are, we argue, at the center of power with palpable effects on the real world. This panel will explore ‘global social inequality’ from this perspective, taking fractured certainties as our point of departure.

Well into the twenty-first century, one thing seems sure: the attempt to abolish uncertainty has failed. We may view the rise of bureaucratic organizations, including non-governmental organizations, organized communities and transnational media, as devices for the reduction of risk and danger. While it is true that they have proliferated; that very proliferation has introduced new and larger areas of opacity in human affairs (cf. Herzfeld 2001). Representations become contested terrain.

What happens in the aftermath of ‘crises’ when people are forced to reassess the individual and collective basis of their personal security? For instance, in situations involving famine, drought, civil war, tsunamis, or for that matter, a sudden influx of young and impoverished immigrants trying to break into the local water trade.

Who defines the terrain, to what ends and with what effects? How does the politics of representation affect suffering and local hierarchies?

Collision of formally discrete groups and disparate economic, social and moral systems of rational action (Larsen 2009) due to ‘globalization’, (post)colonialism, (post)modernity and neo-liberalism has also introduced new and larger areas of opacity in human affairs. Again, representations become contested terrain, as attested by the many self-representation oriented discourses of local resistance to hegemonic representations we see today, cast in terms of cultural identity.

But if the assertion of cultural difference in an effort to secure access to rights and resources more often than not makes use of alien representations in order to classify local forms of cultural expression, then the question becomes whether or not ‘local’ resistance to hegemonic powers actually redresses social inequalities or merely creates new ideological hierarchies?

To this workshop we invite researchers and students that have an interest in broadening their theoretical perceptions and understandings of ‘global social inequality’, taking uncertainty and representation as their points of entry. We accept papers in Norwegian and English.

 Deltakere gruppe 6

Håvard Benum Lindanger, Sosialantropologisk institutt, NTNU. Telefon: 93 28 43 37.

Representing the Indian Ocean Tsunami Victim

The paper argues that the framing of the tsunami victim of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 (IOT) by government officials, local and transnational media and non-governmental organizations (NGO) set off a positive feed-back loop that had  a profound and lasting impact on the affected communities. The post-disaster discourses are analyzed as a facet of the disaster process where a framing of the affected regions enforce an ordering of the world where a set of responses become (near-)inevitable. The amount of aid given to the tsunami affected countries/communities by the international community was prior to the IOT unprecedented. The resulting aid war and disaster boom economy was proportionally intense as the lack of acceptable recipients became scarce.

Based on ethnographic material procured between January and July 2006 in Nagapattinam District, Tamil Nadu, India, and supplemented by newspaper articles, speeches by government officials, and NGO minutes and reports, I argue that the framing of the true disaster account caused a standardization of the tsunami victim as composed almost exclusively of deep sea fishermen, to the exclusion of other groups. There is no one-to-one relation between the framing and the framed, nor is the construction of the event and the victims unidirectional or dual-directional, but rather multidirectional with what we can term ‘strange attractors’ causing disjunctive transmissions, and a landscape forming the flows. The landscape of the flow of information, and also of personnel, policies and resources, is not delimited to the spatial and temporal borders of the disaster situation, but stretches out in time and space, and created new uncertainties and social inequalities as the reconstruction efforts progressed.

I argue that the post-disaster process follow a pattern with strong similarities to what other scholars have described following other catastrophes, in particular the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The patterns are affected by, among other factors, institutionalized management procedures, disaster capitalism, parachuting reporters, disaster myths and a colonial gaze – what I describe as the landscape of expectation, past disaster experience and myths.


Harald Aspen, NTNU

Representations of the Amhara peasant woman

“Representation” is of particular relevance for the Ethiopian peasant women - a group which is often portrayed as muted and voiceless, and lacking political power and control over resources. They are commonly portrayed (and represented) in the scholarly literature, popular media, and political rhetoric as victims of a vicious combination of patriarchal structures and a backward culture, where men’s work is light compared to the burdens of the women. Men do prestigious work and the worth of what women do is neglected. Men are sexually free and promiscuous while women’s sexuality is constrained and controlled by men.

My intention with the paper is not so much to challenge these allegations but rather to ask how they affect our understanding of the Ethiopian peasant society. Is the evidence that supports these representations so compelling that we fail to see, or even look for, alternatives? Is the discrimination of Ethiopian women so obviously true that it has become a “pre-theoretical commitment” (Moore 2004)?

The paper discusses some common representations of Ethiopian rural women and contrasts them with ethnographic material from the Amhara region. Rather than seeing women as victims of men and culture it may be more fruitful to see the male and female roles as complimentary. If culture and traditions are traps, not only women but also men are victims.

The suffering of Ethiopian women is related to poverty, lack of education, and political weakness. With modernization, and in particular opportunities of education, young women struggle to break with tradition and male dominance. For many, both men and women, it may lead to new forms of inequality (prostitution, single motherhood, ostracism).


Moore, Henrietta L., 2004, “Global anxieties. Concept-metaphors and pre-theoretical commitments in anthropology”, Anthropological Theory 4(1):71-88.


Alberto Aprile, SAI, UiO. Mobil: 40 46 56 13. E-post:

"UN-REDD environmental governance and uncertain sovereignities as contested representations in Paraguay"

Research on free prior and informed consent (FPIC) towards indigenous peoples within UN-REDD in Paraguay led me to focus on issues of indigenous representation, and sovereignty or lack of it. Not only for the question about who is the legitimate recipient/representative of indigenous peoples, but also for the fact that special attention must be paid to the political, economic, and social context of a consultation process in order to ensure that FPIC is truly free from coercion. Also, there is an abysmal difference between the contexts in which FPIC is regulated and those in which it actually occurs. Infact, indigenous peoples in Paraguay lament the repeated threats to their food, economic and political sovereignty since the advance of GM-soy monocultures and extensive cattle fields fuels deforestation of their traditional territories, becoming themselves literally disputed terrains. Thus, sovereignity is a contested representation where frictional interests meet. This applies also to Paraguayan population at large protesting their lack of sovereignty for similar reasons, following the coup d'etat: while discourses about sovereignty were invoked by protesters against the new government, the latter later tried to monopolize such discourses in order to silence internal dissent and delegitimize external political isolation and pression by labelling those as threats to the country's national sovereignty. Uncertainty, thus, is expressed by how ultimately state sovereignty is increasingly fragmented and by how the locus of legal and political responsibility – where the fight stops – remains unclear. Last but not least, UN-REDD can also obey state-strategies of control and governance directed to securitization and risk-minimization through new responsibilities related to the management of forest carbon as a way to allay uncertain risks of climate change and ensure the circulation of capital, and with it national economic development.


Martin Thomassen, NTNU

This paper is an exposition into the politics of representation in neo-liberalism from a Global Social Inequality perspective.

The last twenty years have seen a very rapid concentration of control over seed by a very small number of giant corporations. A major conflict is emerging between corporate control and community control over seed resources, including the knowledge about them and the technologies upon which they are built. The majority of local farmers (informal innovators) in the north of India feel that their knowledge is being “pirated” by formal innovators who make only minor modifications or advances, and then seek intellectual property rights (IPRs) to protect their ‘discoveries’ through patents.This erodes the farmer’s seed supply, the result often being that farmers become dependent on patented seed which in turn creates indebtedness, pushing many farmers to suicide.

Farmers awakening of ethnic, national and other cultural identities can be interpreted as a response to this perceived loss of security. Much of the resistance of today’s grassroots rural movements appeal to a politics of cultural identification centering on the notion of “indigeneity” (IK).  The claim is that IK is critical to sustainability and biodiversity, which in turn is a representation that is related to the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) assigning ownership of biodiversity to indigenous communities and asserts their rights to protect this knowledge. CBD takes the view that if a product or process has existed in ‘a culture’ for a long period of time, it is owned and hence protected under intellectual property law.

Navdanya groups are communities of organic seed producers which have come to frame their needs, demands and aspirations ‘culturally’ in an effort to resist the alienation of farmers rights to seed and biodiversity. In addition to setting up seed banks to protect indigenous seed diversity, Nadvanya groups are working to protect the intellectual commons through a global movement claiming collective intellectual rights based on the representation of themselves as “indigenous”. The argument for doing this is about equity and fair compensation. But since identity politics is a true born child of globalization processes, it is only expected that new types of difference and inequalities will evolve (Gupta and Ferguson, 1997). The purpose of the paper is to explore this further.

Gupta and Ferguson, 1997 Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, Duke University Press