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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Paloma says: I agree completely with you John, it would be very useful to reflect on the range of relationships that anthropologists engage in with 'informants'. And I think our paper is, in part, an attempt at making anthropologists reflect on their own relationships. But also we have another aim, which is to attempt an egalitarian ethnography, to bring to the fore the role that informants play in making, creating ethnographic knowledge. When I think of the life-histories I have read, even the most recent ones, the voice that in the end comes through most strongly is the anthropologist's. They are the authors, they choose what to write about and what not, what bits of the life of the informant make good anthropology. Yes, in the field the informant may have a huge amount of power, may direct the anthropologist, push the anthropologist's attention in a particular direction, demand particular kinds of responses from the anthropologist. But once the anthropologist sits in front of the computer to write, then things change radically. The ethnographer then becomes an author. So, what I would like to see in this exploration of the range of relationships that you suggest is also an attempt at asking, how can we make academic anthropology accountable to those we write about? How can we recognise their contribution to academic knowledge, beyond the cursory acknowledgements at the start of our books? How can we open up the conversation, to use Gudeman and Rivera's insight, so that we include rather than exclude our informants? Those are the key questions for me. We have taken an easy way about it here, reflecting on our lives...

Paloma, I liked your early reference to academic anthropologists as being a species stuck in evolution. One expression that came to mind is "involution", the idea of an art form (Geertz turned it into a social form) that stops growing and can only elaborate the forms of its classical period in ever more intricate ways. You make it clear that you would like to break out of its confinement, so that your collaboration with Liria, from its first stirrings two decades ago, is a means to that end, just as it is a means to her of escaping from the restrictions of Gitano life and a bad marriage. At one level this is an old liberal idea of the seach for subjective self-expression, but you make it clear that this search must be social in at least two senses, through the vehicle of your partnership and in your desire to have an impact on the wider society. Paloma is convinced that changing relations between authors and informants is a key to any prospects anthropology has of a more democratic future. Liria is especially clear about this last point, wanting to change Spanish attitudes to Gitanos among other things.

John has referred to the scope at the OAC for offering personal reflections, even memoirs, that don't fit so easily with normal academia. I have deliberately revealed more about my personal history here than I would in a more conventional setting, making of these commentaries a sort of decentred and conversational autobiography. I made this move in order to build on the oral/written hybrid style of email -- part phone call, part letter -- because person-to-person conversation is more direct and accessible than writing for an impersonal audience of specialists. I have also dabbled in writing fiction where an author can divide himself up into several characters, incorporating elements of others -- real and imagined -- into each. The magical part of this device is when the characters take on a life of their own and seem to be showing the author how the story should develop. So there are many ways, just sticking with texts, that individual anthropologists could extend the genre and of course a few of them have.

But then we come to the potential of the medium we are having this conversation in at a particular moment of the digital revolution in communications and at a particular place, the Open Anthropology Cooperative, a network founded two and a half years ago, now with 5,600 members, most of them dormant (or let us say lurking). I don't know if you have noticed, but this seminar coincides with a lively attempt to inject new momentum into the OAC's development, Action Group 4 OAC. We are considering there (for example in What is the OAC 4?) what direction our network should take, what its relationship should be to anthropology and anthropology's to the world. I find striking parallels between your enterprise and our attempt to make a virtual society where what you are doing could flourish. Your story from the beginning had to struggle against very real social constraints and these are not absent from what goes on here. But the OAC is to some extent emancipated from terrestrial institutions and freer to develop in new directions, if we have the courage and imagination to take the opportunity.

That is one powerful reason why I am so glad to host you here now. Meanwhile the second stage of the Egyptian reovlution takes to Tahrir Square. The world is moving in 2011. Surely the struggle for personal emancipation derives strength from a feeling that our moment in history is opening up. You have suggested several ways for anthropology to develop following your example. What I believe you have shown us is that this is a process of extension, of pushing out the boundaries of the normal one step at a time. Another aspect of your story that I find compelling is the way you extended the limits of what is possible, not always sure of why you were doing it or where you were going, but taking the chance now to look back and reflect on the meaning of what you have achieved. Writing is good for that. Thank you both again.


Liria says: in our case the changes in our lives and the changes we would like to make in the world, and in anthropology, are not separated. The two things go together. Our friendship and our work are an example that people can see. And our friendship has already changed things, it has changed our lives.


Paloma says: Keith I think the points you have made are really relevant, and the question of how to have an effect in the world is the fundamental one. I agree with you completely and, as a new OAC member, I'm scratching my head about how to inject momentum as you say... It's all new and fascinating to me! I am already addicted... 

I also wanted to say that I have been struggling translating the discussion to Liria - I can translate the words, but it is hard to translate all the meanings, the implications (eg. the old liberal idea of the search for subjective self-expression) and to do it over the phone (she is in Spain, I'm in Scotland). This brings home to me the issue that our article is trying to deal with - how to open up the conversation, and is it really possible? Also, the internet as you say Keith has huge potential - but what about the ways it also excludes? Do we want to think about that?

Paloma, thank you for that very gracious response to my remarks. Let me be clear that I find your desire to attempt an egalitarian ethnography entirely admirable. I would add that its value is in no way diminished by the special circumstances in which you and Lira are pursuing this project. I recall, from a different context, something Pierre Bourdieu said of science, that it is possible to recognize that the origins of science were located in particular times and places but that science is, nonetheless, worth fighting for. 

If I may continue the tale of the book mentioned in my previous message. My relationships with the researchers whose work I discuss in the book were friendly but not as intimate or long-standing as your and Lira's relationship. They were multiple rather than singular, confined to a particular professional setting where we met as peers. I did, however, want to give full credit to those whose work I was cannibalizing in what I came to think of as "piggy-back" ethnography. 

One result is that the book is made of chapters, each of which consists of three parts. First is the introduction, in which I provide background information and academic citations for non-Japanese readers. Second is a set of verbatim translations of three or four of the newsletters I mentioned, selected because they represented studies related to the same topic conducted at intervals of several years: typically one in the early 80s, one in the late 80s or early 90s, one in the mid-90s, the latest on the topic as of the time the book was being written.Third is an interview with one of the researchers responsible for the studies translated, in which we discuss how their approach to the topic had changed over the years and what they thought, as of the time of the interview, of the conclusions drawn in the studies. These interviews were amazingly candid and remain, to me, the best parts of the book. The book as a whole repeats this pattern on a larger scale. It begins with an introduction and a brief history, focused on demographics and political economy, of the period the book covers. Then come the substantive chapters. These are followed by my attempt to synthesize what I had learned while writing the book. The book ends with an interview with the agency's CEO, who earlier in his career had championed the creation of the research institute, in which we discuss how, after fifteen years, he feels about the institute and what it has accomplished as well as his thoughts on some of the trends I thought I'd detected running through the research. The CEO gets the last word. 

I should note, too, that throughout the process of writing the book I made draft chapters available to everyone involved and solicited their comments. That said, I remain the author and personally responsible for errors and omissions.

Is this a model for other anthropologists to emulate? Possibly, in some respects. In designing the book I was highly conscious of Daniel Sperber's suggestion that anthropologists need to separate what informants say from the anthropologist's interpretations, a separation of evidence and interpretation that allows readers to draw their own conclusions. In the way I approached working with the researchers, I was influenced by Victor Turner's "seminars" with Ndembu healers. I was dealing throughout with peers whose expertise I respected. My modus operandi was also influenced by something Frank Cancian said in a methods seminar at Cornell, where I was a graduate student in the 60s. He told us that everyone has secrets, zones of privacy into which we should not intrude without permission. He noted, however, that in his experience most people are delighted to talk with someone who takes a genuine interest in them and in what they are doing. If informants can feel your respect and genuine interest, they will usually talk quite freely, so long as no taboos are being violated and the conversation has not strayed onto what they see as dangerous ground. I have found these principles hold in both Taiwan and Japan. 


Paloma, I realised that part of what I wrote was verbose and jargonised. Mark Twain once said "I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time". My published writing often goes though between 5 and 20 revisions which allow me sometimes to be short and clear in the end. Not long ago I was asked to write an editorial for The Big Issue (a newspaper sold by the homeless in Britain). It was in a series called "King for a day" where you had 300 words to say what one thing you would bring to pass if you were king for a day. I did it. It was very hard, but I think it didn't come across as academic jargon. The problem with writing online is that we do it spontaneously and fast which often gives full scope for our worst writing habits. A group like the OAC attracts a lot of apprentice anthropologists, graduate students in the main, and it shows in the style of the conversation. Non-academic outsiders notice it especially and are put off as a result. It's a problem, but all we can do is our best to move things in the direction of greater inclusiveness bit by bit.

You hit a nerve with your comment about how the internet excludes. I hear this a lot from academics who are just as likely to disparage TV for being too inclusive. I wrote a book in the late 90s about how the internet was changing money and every colleague I spoke to immediately jumped on the digital divide, to how access to the internet was restricted to a few and they were dominated by powerful corporations. I chose to focus on the internet's potential for more economic democracy and argued that the technology was diffusing through the world's population faster than any other before. Social networking sites have transformed access to the internet in five years and now mobile devices are changing everything. Who would have imagined even five years ago that Kenya would be the world leader in mobile phone banking? It took a hundred years from the discovery of electricity to its universal use in most parts of the world. The telephone was once considered to be inevitably a tool of a narrow elite. Today, with over 90% coverage in richer countries, it is the most democratic medium for polling opinions. So this is very much a glass half full, half empty phenomenon. You can choose as I do to explore and exploit the potential of the medium or to emphasise the people who get left out. I want to make life for those who use it more democratic. You can't do everything at once.

But you raise a very substantial point. Anything which claims to be open (like the OAC) is closed is some respects. This is inevitable. No-one can be free in every respect. You have to expect some things to remain the same, to be necessary if you like, while you push out the boundaries in some limited respects. When you and Liria went out on the town together wearing pants that freedom was predicated on careful observation of necessary rules in other respects. We have the lazy habit of saying A is free/open while B is necessary/closed, whereas in reality everything is both and we choose which aspect to highlight from time to time. Your story is poignant because it shows the sacrifices Liria made in order to free herself from being "just" a Gitana married woman. Nothing comes without a cost. The same with the OAC,and virtual vs. real society, but that takes us away from the main focus of this conversation.

One last thing on writing. Around 2000 I was paid a large sum for the American rights to my money book and a New York literary agent signed me up to write another that was intended to be a popular blockbuster. I was seduced by the idea of becoming a freelance writer (not to mention rich). But I turned away from this project since it meant writing in an even more popular and accessible way and I decided that I wanted to get my arguments right, to improve on what I had already written for academic audiences. So I spent the next decade cranking out academic articles and books. I don't know if it was worth it, but that was my preference then. I learned how to write accessibly about the economy in the early 70s as a writer for The Economist. That lost its charm after a while too. So I guess my broad conclusion is that, while academics ought to learn how to engage with wider publics, there are advantages to addressing a narrow audience of fellow specialists. What is clear is that the best thinkers do both and a lot of varieties in between.

I like the idea of involution, it seems to link in to the ideas of process and form which I have been grappling with. I have explored the concept in relation to my work on sustainable dwelling but applied to things, dwellings, technologies etc.  in an attempt to show that the process of dwelling negates the importance of any eventual form, certainly a fair assessment of the DIY/ autonomously built dwelling spaces which I have been "lurking" in recently.

For my work I had wanted to expand on the dwelling stuff I had read of Heidegger's, via Ingold and had only really got so far as a snippet from Graeber's theory of value where he explains the ancient philosophical debate between Heraclitus and Pamenides regarding the fixity of the form of objects (Parmenides' view and the one underpinning most scientific fact), whereas Heraclitus imagined that things were in a continual process of change and transformation. Now, I can't help thinking about Philip K Dick's novel Valis, which is the sort of thing I love and briefly, the main protagonist - for some reason which would not be fair to say- keeps finding the trappings of his modern life keep reverting to previous models, such as his fridge, car, money, everything around him is in a state of decay to prior forms- as Keith says, these forms stopped growing once they had been articulated, the newer forms were simply elaborations of the former. "Involution" may now help me make the leap between philosophy and sci-fi!


The link I am taking a while to make, although I am enjoying the process, is that ethnography has come to represent the Parmenidian view, the MONOgraph being the ultimate product. However ethnography also refers to the process by which ethnographies rae made, a process which John has quite righly exemplified is extremely diverse. Even while we operate in myriad ways, researching diverse subjects, adopting a range of positioning, oftentimes looking to do something in a new way, we find ourselves consistently slipping back to the monograph as our form of product. This is frustrating because once articulated, the monograph is a fixed form, a non-negotiable output once it is made in spite of how collaborative the process which led to its making was. Now, I enjoy ethnographic monographs of all eras, but can only use them with the qualification that they represent the time and conditions which produced them; to say an ethnography IS is a dangerous assumption. Can we get away from the fixed form?


I think we were halfway there with the conceptual opening up of ethnography as process, which has seen our craft proliferate. Now, with collaborative efforts, forums such as these, autobiography etc. we are more than halfway towards shaking off the constrictions of academic convention. I would personally like to see the unfinished ethnography emerge, open to change and reinterpretation, like an ethnographic wikipedia.  Some anthropologists who maintain the link with "their village" approximate this through a lifetime's work- Such as Paloma's and now Liria's too, and I am also thinking of Frances Pine's work in the Polish Tatra Higlands but there are others- even so the production of knowledge is still not democratised to its full potential.


I wonder if the anthroplogist/ ethnographer's role ought to change, in order to facilitate others to tell their own stories, and to own the stories they tell. What would this mean for our discipline and ethics, and where will it lead us in terms of clarity and honesty? Should we reeavaluate the roles ethnographer and anthropologist (which I tend to use interchangeably but shouldn't) and debate the idea of faciltator and analyst and their potential interplay?


Paloma, you have made a pertinent point about the internet as an exclusive space, but the lines along which people are excluded do not necessarily follow the usual pattern. I know this first hand since I have struggled to get an internet connection where I live in rural Wales. I remember being in dispute about this with someone at a call centre in India who was incredulous that I couldn't even get a mobile phone signal, I was in the UK after all, he reminded me. I acknowledge that the web is exclusive and access is usually predicated by payment somewhere along the line but the politics of access to the web and other communication technologies are complicated and it is certainly not clear to me who the haves and have nots really are. Even so,  I still view it as a more democratic space than the universe-ity.


Also, I second Keith's apologies to you and Liria if you are having a task translating some of the more nuanced terms that get flung about on here, as an anthropologist among fellow anthropologists that is usually a luxury we afford ourselves but since this thread is exlploring the ways we can escape exclusivity and the benefits of doing so, maybe we should also start relinquishing our jargon!

All the best, Elaine

Paloma says: Thank you all for your insightful comments! I am at the airport right now, waiting for a late flight with a bored ten year old in tow, so please forgive me if I am not very coherent...
I do not think we see ourselves as a model that people should follow, rather we wanted to raise the possibility of an anthropological collaboration that extended to writing, from the start to the end of the process... The kind of relationship that John has described I think also points the way to a more egalitarian anthropology...
Also, please do not think Keith or Elaine that I was ticking anybody off by saying that I was having problems translating the conversation to Liria. I was just trying to highlight the difficulties involved in writing with an informant who has no anthropological training, who speaks a different language, and who is only just about functionally literate... This discussion is making me revisit lots of my ideas about this project. Perhaps anthropology can never really open itself up to informants, because of its layers upon layers... and in the end, in this project, Liria talks to us, to our discipline, but we can only talk to her in a limited way, or in a particular, human way, through relationships... This silly computer is extremely slow and costs a bomb, so I must sign off... with much regret! T

I have been lurking as Keith puts it, partly because I am not quite sure how to place myself in this conversation with paloma (I am married to paloma) and with liria (we are now old friends)and the bored 10 yearold is my son off to see real madrid play en carne viva. But I couldn't help noticing the strange synchronicity of elaine's remarks about ethnography - not very long ago I wrote an article with Paloma's help called 'ethnography and an ethnography in the human conversation' (it came out in Anthropologica). Paloma's contribution Had to do with the idea that 'an' ethnography - the entity as opposed to the process (what Elaine calls a MONOgraph)- can only be achieved by blurring the ongoing relationship between ethnographer and informant in such way that the informant belongs to a fieldwork now completed by the ethnography itself and the ethnographer her or himself

so, we have relationships that continue and a discussion of ways to get beyond the business as usual of anthropology. But I wanted to ask liria, since this affects how we understand her life and Paloma's; how do you think life has changed in Madrid since your first experiences as a child there? I am thinking of the dictatorship and the beginnings of democracy cemented by the coup attempt in 81. The new waves of migration that have affected you personally and so on.


To both Liria and Paloma,


I don't have a question as yet - I'm still coming up with one. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your writing. (It is so brimming with vitality and intimacy that I can't bring myself to call it by that deadly dry academic term, a 'paper'!) Casting about for other examples of collaborative anthropology, I thought of Shamans and Elders, by Caroline Humphrey and Urgunge Onon - there must be others. But the wonderful project both of you have initiated is that your friendship - normally treated as a resource for the anthropologist - has been turned into a topic in itself, to extraordinary effect.



I'm glad to read a paper that operationalizes the kind of  Anthropology that is truly holistic and democratic.  I remember writing and posting on OAC my views about "natives" or informants as ethnographers/authors that,unfortunately, had no takers.  That was three years ago, I think.  I deleted it together with my bunch of writings on ethnography.  I wish I did not do so. They could have added something to this conversation.


For  anthropology to be holistic, the creation of knowledge has to be  whole.  The voices in focus should not be separated from the voices lurking in the margins. Also, the creators of knowledge must represent the  whole.   What  an anthropologist observes and participates  in are incomplete.  His informants still have feelings they do not act out or  thoughts they do not share.  Giving them chances to share and become authors of their culture will complete the holistic equation.


I hope this paper will be published in an anthropological journal to start off a debate on a new kind of ethnography and a democratized anthropology.   Muchas gracias, Liria and Paloma! 



Hello to everyone. thanks Paloma and Lira for your insights and thanks all for this good discussion.

 I'm thinking of my fieldwork, like everyone else. I did my research within a portuguese gypsy family in a small Portuguese village in south of Portugal and that work allowed me to engage in a tender friendship with Helena, wife and mother of three children.I no longer live there, and they moved to another city. Since then (almost one year) we talked by phone only, and we're still waiting I'll plan to go visit them in their new house. I speak of friendship, because we used  this word several times to describe our relashionship. One day asked me if this particular friendship had not had chance to be born thanks to a particular condition: on one hand, my loneliness in fieldwork, my being a "single" woman, although I had a partner (but far away), childless, living alone, and on the other, her "limited" space in her familiar life. When I say "limited", I am not referring to the hypothetical "restriction" of the familiar "cigano" (Gypsy) organization but the family situation of this particular family, that is, it winds off of some important family ties of her extended family, a situation that was evident also by the structure of the restricted camp. So friendship and loneliness came together in our relationship, at same point that I wanted to write a not "democratic" article about it.  

So, one family, one ethnographer, a specific time-space...

Perhaps my question is prosaic but it always accompanied me during the fieldwork: how to make a live and working  experience, highly subjective and "restrict" in an "valid" ethnography and theoretical perspective? how to turn the 'danger', evidenced by some anthropologists, of being trapped in the "cliques" of our "informants" and "friends" in a "object" valid not only to people who are living in? I still have not taken a position in anthropology of subjectivity....

And finally, I imagine that Paloma constructed her ethnography not just with Lira's contributions and relationship during her, I would really understand how all these elements can intersect.


All the best

Micol Brazzabeni



OAC Press



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