Online seminar 21 November - 3 December Liria de la Cruz and Paloma Gay y Blasco on "Frendship, Anthropology"

Join us for the last few days of this unique event where we ask if anthropologists should be more accountable to the people we write about.

Some highlights:

The authors (an anthropologist and an informant) cross boundaries to speak together.

Ethnography could be open to change and reinterpretation, like wikipedia.

Could interpersonal exchanges such as this help others to understand their own condition better?

Or must anthropology remain closed, unequal and exclusive, leaving efforts like this to be just decorative?

This is the story of a friendship between two young women (now approaching middle age), born in Madrid in the same year, one a Gypsy and the other an anthropologist. It is told by them together and separately. This form of communication is part of the politics involved in the exercise. Liria admitted Paloma into her home as a way of her gaining entry into the Gitano world. Paloma took Liria secretly into her middle-class world. Each found their own situation stifling and together they sought mutual liberation by stepping outside what was familiar.

This was almost two decades ago and ever since their friendship has matured through phone calls, email and visits. Then in 2008, the same year as the economic crisis that we are all living through now, Liria broke with her family to live with a young North African immigrant. Paloma became her accomplice in this and their relationship has deepened dramatically as a result. Their aim in writing this Working Paper, which is available in html and pdf, later as an e-book and in Spanish, is to confront the divisions and inequality on which so much anthropology is based. They aspire to go beyond this, to harness anthropology's potential to make a better world.

This is nothing less than a romantic manifesto in the traditional sense of seeking freedom and equality through personal transformation, built on intimate relationships. This brief summary shows the range of powerful questions their story evokes. Much of it is highly controversial. The political, ethical and legal issues raised are extraordinary. Both authors are available for discussion, but Paloma will have to translate English comments for Liria's benefit, so please allow for possible delays in any replies. If you prefer to write in Spanish, we will do our best to mediate these contributions.

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Liria, Paloma, thank you for enriching our common life here at the OAC with your path-breaking narrative.

What would you each say now with hindsight about the experience of writing this together and what it taught you?

A key factor in your friendship and subsequent collaboration is that Paloma did her doctoral fieldwork in her home city, but chose to study Gitanos, stereotypical outsiders there. This allowed the two of you to share fieldwork excursions into each other's worlds. Do you, Paloma, know of any analogous social experiments in the anthropological literature?

Liria, you mention that about the time you joined Younes, you played a leading part in a political conflict over schooling which involved appearances in the media. You also come from a politically prominent Gitano family. Is it possible to reflect on how this public engagement related to your personal decision to make a break with your previous life? In the last few years, Spain has become a world centre for protest against the economic order. How is the struggle for a better world related to your personal struggle for greater freedom?

What I find inspiring is how each of you sees anthropology in some way as a means of liberation. You stress ethnographic fieldwork encounters as the bedrock of this potential. Has your experience led you to reflect on complementary forms of knowledge that might help you engage more effectively in the wider political sphere?

I note that Liria has not been deterred by lack of academic training from taking up anthropology as a personal vocation and that Paloma describes her academic career as possibly taking a backseat now to family responsibilities and political activism. In this sense your friendship has encouraged you both to break down the division between the academy and life in general. Do you feel that anthropology's future lies in extending this process?

Please forgive my clumsy questions and do not feel obliged to answer them all. We have a relaxed style here where the authors reply when and how they can and other participants have an opportunity to read and reflect, perhaps even to carry out a small fieldwork experiment and report back to us on it.

Hello Keith, thank you for your questions. We will each reply separately, and Paloma will translate Liria's words.


Liria says:

Writing together has opened up my mind further. I have also derived great satisfaction from showing people that a Gitano woman can do something as interesting as writing together with an anthropologist.

You also ask about my political/protest experience and how it influenced my decision to leave the Gitano world with Younes. My political experience was very important in this regard. Until I became president of the parents association I had lived very much within the Gitano world, without the means to spend time with people different from us. My family has influence among the Gitanos in the area where they live in Madrid, but in a very traditional, old-style Gitano way, within the community. Doing the protest was a big step in opening my mind, seeing new possibilities, realising that I could do something else with my life besides being a wife and putting up with an unhappy marriage, possibilities that I had never imagined before.

With our writing, I think we do want to change the world, make it better. We want to make our voices heard, a Gitana and a Paya together, which is unknown in Spain. I am a Gitana, and I have never studied, but I have learnt first hand about racism, and male chauvinism. And Paloma realised that anthropology could be used to help me. Together I think we can take a step to change the world. I hope that our work together will have a positive impact.


Paloma says:

In terms of similar experiments, to my knowledge they are mostly life-histories, where the anthropologist is in control of the final product - I am thinking of Translated Woman, or Mama Lola for example. So in the end it is the ethnographer's voice that comes through most strongly. In terms of collaboration along the lines we have done here, there is Birds of my Kalam Country, by Majnep and Bulmer, where anthropologist and informant work together and deploy fonts in a similar way to ours. But it isn't so much a reflection on anthropology and on the informant-ethnographer relationship. To me, it is the issue of control over the final product, of ensuring that the two voices have equal weight and that the two people have equal power of decision making, that is most important, and that is harder. Readers will have to say to what extent we have been successful here.

I haven't given a lot of thought to the issue of what other things, besides writing together, could be done in order to make anthropology more egalitarian and accessible, which is I suppose one of our aims. I am sure that people who do anthropology in practice, so to speak, who are not academics or who combine academia with activism, for example, have done good work along those lines. For me the issue here is how to make academic anthropology open to the people we write about, how to let others into the ivory tower perhaps.

Breaking the boundaries between anthropology and our personal lives I think is really important, but in my case is something that has happened slowly, as I have grown older, and also in a non-planned way, just because of events in my life and in Liria's life. I think it has made me a better anthropologist. I am not sure to what extent the future of the discipline lies this way. I am aware that there is a drive to make anthropology more 'scientific'... 







Dear Liria and Paloma,


Thanks for posting your paper on OAC, I found it really refreshing and I enjoyed the style and for me you really achieved mutivocality, both in terms of you both writing, but also with hindsight and from past notes.


I also research in a location familiar to me in UK (although I cannot say home city/ town as for me that is complex as I am from an immigrant family) and at times I have wondered whether I have to present some sort of "otherness", whether acknowledging similarity, or sameness negates my endeavours.  For me though, part of collaborative research ought to be disseminating ideas in locations outside of academia, to take the process of producing knowledge further than it's own end wherever possible.


For my part, I have researched sustainable dwelling and eco-communities in rural Wales. I am hoping to get an exhibition of low-impact building technologies together in a format that allows a dialogue between bureaucratic departments new to this type of thing, and experienced practitioners- something that rarely happens in practice. This interplay was one of the key areas which defined practice in my research context, but I feel that the academic text wouldn't serve either group in trying to apply my research findings, whereas the text is of course what is expected from the academic side.


In your cases, Liria and Paloma, how would you share your work and perspectives among Madrid's gitano and payo communities- non-academic? I think your story has relevance for all these groups, especially in the rather poignant treatment of Younes who seems not to be able to win with either group! Is this sort of a narrative style only the first, but crucial, step in representing your collaboration to the context it emerged from?


best wishes, Elaine


Dear Elaine, thank you for your positive comments.

Paloma says:

I am really glad you think we achieved to convey a sense of multivocality! The work that you describe with eco-communities, and the exhibition sounds great, in particular achieving a dialogue between different audiences through you work. Today there was an interesting program on radio 4, The Life Scientific, where Nicky Clayton, who works on bird intelligence, talked about using dance in order to express scientific ideas. Perhaps we anthropologists need to open up our horizons further, and an exhibition of the kind you describe definitely seems to me like a step in that direction. The problem with academic texts, standard ethnographies, journal articles etc, is that they have become so refined, like species that have gone down a particular evolutionary path and got 'stuck'. Even more experimental texts often can only really be understood by academic audiences, they target academic audiences.

We hope that different groups of people (say anthropologists, average people interested in Gypsies and their position in Spain and so on) will find that our work speaks to them, perhaps not necessarily in the same way. This article is only the first step towards a book, that we hope will be published in Spanish and in English, not necessarily by an academic press. But we have not really thought beyond a book... We will have to think about this some more... Thank you!!


Liria says: I think our story is relevant to anthropologists but is also very relevant to 'norma'l people in Spain. In Spain a Gitano woman and a Paya have never talked together in this way, let alone written together. Also, a Gitano woman has never collaborated with an anthropologist in this way. The fact that we cross the boundaries in order to speak together is important, I think, and people in Spain will see this. We will talk about things that many people do not want to think about, like racism, and we will talk together which is powerful.



Dear Liria and Paloma,

You have achieved something extraordinary, both as friends and as scholars. I would like to explore a bit more the circumstances of your success and ask to what extent your extraordinary achievement can serve as a model for other anthropologists.

I note that you are both women. Is this something that two men or a man and woman could do?
I note that you are similar in age and met while you were in your twenties. Is this something that people of different generations, especially those not so young and already encumbered with habits and obligations could do?
I note that you both grew up in the same city and, I assume, both speak Spanish as your mother tongue. Is this something that people who grew up in different places, radically separated by physical and social distance and speaking different languages could do?

In my own case, I traveled with my newly married wife to Taiwan from the USA. I came with some basic Mandarin and, after six months of intensive study, was only moderately fluent (kitchen and living room perhaps, not bedroom or study) in Taiwanese (Amoy Hokkien). I stumbled into my thesis topic when a Daoist healer told me one day that the Jade Emperor, the supreme deity in the lower Daoist pantheon, had appeared to him in a vision and told him that I should become his disciple. He was old enough to be my father. I regret that when I left Taiwan we didn't keep in touch. When I returned to the island some years later, he had died. I went with his son to burn incense at his grave. Would he have written a book with me had I asked him to? I don't know. I never asked. Your account of your relationship makes me wish I had.

Paloma writes: Liria and I just had a brief chat about your question over the phone, John. Liria and I clicked when we met, and all the factors you mention (being the same age, speaking the same language, etc) were very important. But we were also very different. Liria was a mother, for example, she had to work to sustain her family, and she was very much part of the Gitano community. I was a student, free in the way you describe, from a very conservative middle-class family. In Spain these differences really put people in different worlds... And we were both itching to escape the constraints of our upbringings. Liria and I would like to think that it is possible to create deep relationships across even more divisive boundaries that the ones that separated us...  Off the top of my head I am thinking here for example about Behar's Translated Woman, or about Paul Stoller's writings about his Songhai mentor... These relationships are different from ours, and they are extremely meaningful and deep...


Liria says: I am thinking about writing together, collaborating, not just being friends. This it all depends, I think, on whether the anthropologist is open to help the informant to do the kind of thing that we are doing. The informant has to open her life to the anthropologist, but the anthropologist has to enable the informant to enter the academic world. There has to be a mutual committment.

Liria says: I cannot talk about models or theoretical frames. I hope that people in Spain who read our work will realise that Gitano women have things to say, that we have a lot to offer even if we have not studied and have no money. I hope people will understand better the lives of Gitano women. But also, it is really important that people see that we work together, that we cross the boundaries. I think in Spain people will find it very striking that we collaborate in this way, it will make them think.


Anthropology , except of great theoretical aproaches to whatever can be human, must also propose practical and applicable solutions to collective or individual human problems. The one to one, long term connection of a professional anthropologist with his/her informer , has some considerable tradition in ethnography( the children of Sanchez, the talkings of Don Juan to Castaneda, the last Indian to Kroeber, etc). The point is how and for what aim all these wonderful intrapersonal communications  could help other people to understand their own condition. Cultural differences are enormous from one geographical locus to another , even in the same country. Language barriers also are most of the times forbitting. Here , we need again a general theoretical frame or a model of how to make possible all case studies such as one to one long term communications/friendships based on cultural affinities, to become something more useful than a pleasurable lecture approaching a fiction book. How to evaluate these efforts -that  move between observatory participation ethnography and intra-personal biographies- in order to apply their whatever conclusions to other cases. I dont use in purpose the term 'results' being a quantitative term connected with statistical methods. Anthropology as a  REAL qualitative human study in the borders of reality and fiction, does not need any results in it's studies but only correct and really true and original ( even if ..partly subjective) conclusions.

Hi all, I am following the discussion and wanted to jump in here as a response to Nikos, although I hope Liria and Paloma will respond too, beause I think the use of the word "fiction" is a little cavalier. Perhaps biography would be better?


I am not fully converse with the literature on Spain and especially payo/ gitano interrelations, but anecdotally among friends and acquaintances- as it seems quite common that brits have a presence/ knowledge of Spain- I have come to understand that there are in some ways deep divisions in the country, regionally and politically. Also, having revisited Okely recently on UK traveller- gypsies I find it remarkable that women from both groups would attempt such a project, the case is not simply a collaboration of equals, it entails transgression on several counts.


In a recent seminar a colleague of mine who works with brazilian calon (gypsies) objected to my claim that where possible it is good practice to show and share the work one is preparing about another- it would simply not work in his case since language and literacy were not equal, and besides, his informants were unlikely to be interested. I was speaking as someone who works among- mostly- literate and interested informants, where not to share my thoughts and receive feedback would be odd, given the opportunity for lively debate, if not a glaring omission (and among non-literate participants we discuss rather than show writing/ text, although there is not much I can do with the disinterested ones!). Because gypsies/ gitanos/ calon do not have a liereary tradition and I guess avoid this or certainly do not generally aspire to it makes collaborations of this sort very exciting. I wonder what the potential is? I personally would like to see a space, perhaps here or elsewhere for research participants to give feedback and express their views- a forum for the anthropologised. I think the proliferation of the internet has brought us nearer to this and perhaps it is now the time to confront the ethics of what, to date has been largely a one-way extraction of knowledge. This is the significant direction that truly integrated and collaborative work like Liria and Paloma's piece will, I hope, drag us.


Linking back to thread I read on another part of this site only yesterday, and I am paraphrasing, there is the contention that ethnography will always have relevance- even as a relic of it's day (I still find argonauts a useful referential for my research almost a decade on), whereas theory becomes dated and almost unintelligible on a regular basis, that is it's nature. So I take (gentle) issue with Nikos' angle that ethnography is only one means to an end (i.e. theory) and argue for the value of such work as we are discussing here which, considered, exemplifies what is means to collaborate insightfully, giving all parties a voice- perhaps for the first time in the academic context-  which the reader cannot mistake.


PS just realised that Paloma and Liria replied while I was preparing my comment so hop it is not out of synch

Paloma says: Thank you Elaine for your explanation about the divisions between Payos and Gitanos, which I think is completely to the point. The divisions are really deep: my family really are thoroughly appalled at the idea of being friends with a Gitano or with an immigrant. The only relationships they can conceptualise is having immigrant women as their servants, or giving alms to a Gitano beggar at the entrance of church. And I think they are representative of a big chunk of the Madrid middle class. By the same token, Liria's family were horrified that she had a relationship with an immigrant. So, yes, we have transgressed in that sense.

What I have found writing with Liria is how deeply I rely on anthropological concepts, analytical frameworks, jargon etc in order to think. Which is fine but creates problems when you are trying to do this kind of egalitarian, collaborative anthropology. Then you have to control your mind quite a bit, re-learn to write and to think, in a way. And for Liria I think too it has involved learning, because she doesn't write very often, and this project involves a lot of writing. It has been quite laborious for her.

I have written about Liria in the standard anthropological way. It was satisfying but not nearly as challenging and exciting as this. I am stretching myself, learning much more, writing with Liria, than writing about Liria. 


Liria writes, "This it all depends, I think, on whether the anthropologist is open to help the informant to do the kind of thing that we are doing."

Doesn't this put both power and burden in the hands of the anthropologist? How does this work if the anthropologist is not in the classic position of someone who is socially or economically superior to the informant? And, another possibility, the informant is not someone wanting to escape the constraints of their current situation?




Liria says: Yes, of course there are different possibilities. But my experience is that the anthropologist is the one who knows about anthropology. People have to want to be open to each other.

"My experience." There's the rub. Lira and Paloma's experience is truly extraordinary, statistically speaking an extreme outlier.

I could say the same of my own peculiar relationship with anthropology. I have mentioned the Daoist healer with whom I worked. My next major research project began nearly two decades after the first. I had been working for over a decade as an English-languge copywriter for one of Japan's largest advertising agencies. Shortly before I joined the agency, it had founded a research institute whose members enjoyed the extraordinary freedom to choose their own topics and explore whatever they liked in Japanese consumer behavior. Their only obligation was to report back frequently on what they were discovering. The medium in which they did so was an in-house newsletter that was, in form and content, the antithesis of an academic journal. If journal's embodied an industrial view of the production of accumulated knowledge in standardized units, this newsletter was exactly the opposite. Its aims were more stimulation than confirmation, being "in the know" as opposed to scholarship. Each issue was, moreover, individually designed, and its format varied widely.

One day I was talking to the director of the institute. I told him that I found it very useful in making pitches to foreign clients. The stuff the R&D Division produced was like white rice, solid, nutritious, in need of some topping to add a bit of flavor. The institute's research had often provided just the topping I needed. I found it so interesting, I said, that I thought someone should make a book of it. The director grinned and said, "You will make a book of it?" I did.

Like your story, this one has many features that distinguish it from the Malinowskian prototype of the anthropologist as a stranger in an alien community, participating in its  life but also observing what's going on for his or her own ulterior motives. I had access to the director and he and the other researchers were willing to lend a hand with this project because I was already a trusted employee of the agency. They were also delighted at the publicity the book might generate. Like many people who play largely anonymous backstage roles in the culture industries they were hungry for recognition and also aware of possible utility in drumming up new business. At the end of the day, when the book appeared, the agency bought the first 250 copies and distributed them to clients. 

I suppose what I'm saying here is that if I look at these three cases, Liria and Paloma, Malinowski in the Trobriands, McCreery at the Japanese ad agency, to which we might add what Keith Hart has told us about his career and Ryan Anderson has revealed about his plans to study tourism in Baja California, we already have a remarkable range of cases that illustrate different ways in which anthropologist/informant relationships may develop. It would be both fun and productive, I think, to explore those differences.



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